April 17, 2014

L. Jay Oliva, RIP

It is with great sadness that I report the passing today of L. Jay Oliva, who served as the 14th President of New York University, from 1991 through 2002, and whose tenure overlapped my years as a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Politics. But I knew Oliva for many years as author and editor of numerous works on Russian and European History. I had received my B.A. in economics, politics, and history with honors, and had many occasions to interact with him as I completed my undergraduate honors thesis in the Department of History. As a perennial student of the University, a recipient of an NYU BA (in the triple major), MA (in politics) and Ph.D. in political theory, philosophy, and methodology, I like Oliva simply bled violet, and he knew this. He was especially enthusiastic about the work I had planned and commenced in my post-doctoral years on Ayn Rand's early education during one of the most tumultuous times in Russian history, and expressed serious interest in the book that eventually became Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, whose first edition I inscribed to him as a gift. He had already given me gifts of support and encouragement that were incalculable. I knew him as a man with a remarkable sense of humor and a humane, hugely benvolent sense of life. I deeply mourn his passing.

Here's more on Oliva from Martin Lipton, Chair of the NYU Board of Trustees and John Sexton, current President of the University, in a memorandum sent to the friends and fellow members of the NYU community this evening:

We share with you this evening the sad news that L. Jay Oliva -- who served NYU for 42 years as faculty member, dean, vice president, chancellor, and president -- has died.
The NYU we know today -- the NYU that attracts the finest students from all over the world, that can go head-to-head to recruit scholars at the top of their fields, that sends more students to study abroad than any other, that is a member of the University Athletic Association -- would not have been possible without Jay Oliva. He was a key engineer of the transformation of NYU.
Jay sometimes referred to himself as the person who lowered the NYU flag for the last time at the University Heights campus in the Bronx. But where others would have seen only reason for discouragement, he saw opportunity. From that difficult and humbling moment, he emerged as one of the leaders of the generation of faculty, trustees, and administrators who charted a steady upward trajectory for NYU.
He knew our future lay in joining the top ranks of national research universities. Under his leadership, NYU began recruiting top scholars and building areas of academic strength. He oversaw the expansion of student housing that allowed us to welcome students from across the country and throughout the world. He parlayed the seemingly unlikely gift of an estate in Florence into the foundation of a new approach to global learning. He knew that NYU’s vision must be matched by resources, and during his presidency, NYU completed the first $1 billion fundraising campaign in higher education. He believed that athletics had an important role in a university setting, but that the ideal of the true student-athlete was too often not embraced; so he, along with a group of like-minded presidents intent on keeping academic life front and center, formed the University Athletic Association conference.
In short, he sensed when NYU's moment had arrived, and did everything possible to achieve and sustain that success. All the while, he made everyone -- students, faculty members, administrators, and staff -- feel a part of it.
With the reflexes and instincts of the long-time classroom teacher he was, he had a strong focus on students: he believed in high academic standards, and emphasized adhering to those standards in the students we admitted and graduated. Recognizing the diversity of ways in which NYU students succeed, he also cheered on our athletes -- he was a frequent presence at sporting events -- our performing artists -- in whose company he was an occasional presence on stage -- and our student community service volunteers -- with whom he worked on service projects.
Since retiring from the presidency, he has helped keep downtown a vibrant hub for culture through his leadership of the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, which has hosted not only NYU productions but performing artists from throughout the world.
He was a wise man, a good friend to both of us, a wonderful colleague, and, in many ways, our community’s first citizen. He spent his entire professional life at NYU, part of a generation that saw the University through some of its most profound challenges and went on to take it to unprecedented heights. NYU owes Jay Oliva a debt of gratitude that cannot be repaid.
His death came too soon and too suddenly. We grieve with his family today, and on behalf of the NYU community, offer them our deepest sympathies. He helped build a great institution, and he did so with love, devotion, and energy. It is hard to think of a way a life could be better spent. The greatest way to honor him is to carry on his work -- to strive each and every day to sustain the academic momentum he did so much to help initiate.

Amen.

March 02, 2014

Song of the Day #1181

Song of the Day: Despicable Me 2 ("Happy"), words and music by Pharrell Williams, is one of 2013's Oscar-nominated songs in the "Best Original Song" category. It's a #1 Billboard Hot 100 song that channels some wonderful R&B influences, from Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway to Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Check out the official music video and one that uses "Despicable Me" characters to showcase the lyrics. Watch the Oscar telecast tonight to see if it wins its category. Dare I say it: This song really makes me feel happy. And that's the way I'd like to conclude this year's tribute to film music.

March 01, 2014

Song of the Day #1180

Song of the Day: The Third Man (Theme) [YouTube link] is a famous theme composed by Anton Karas through extensive use of the zither, a 40-string Middle European cousin to the guitar. This 1949 film noir classic, directed by Carol Reed, stars Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten (of "Love Letters" fame, a 1945 film whose screenplay was written by Ayn Rand), and Alida Valli (of "We the Living" fame, the Italian 1942 film version of the Rand novel, later restored by Duncan Scott and re-released with English subtitles in 1986).

February 28, 2014

Song of the Day #1179

Song of the Day: With a Song in My Heart (title track), music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, is sung in the 1952 film by Jane Froman, who is played by Golden Globe winner and Oscar-nominated Best Actress Susan Hayward. This biopic tells the story of Froman, who was crippled in an airplane crash on 22 February 1943, and who went on to entertain the troops in World War II, despite her serious injuries, which required nearly 40 surgical procedures in the years thereafter. The legendary Alfred Newman won the Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, and the film also received nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Thelma Ritter), Best Costume Design, Best Color, and Best Sound Recording (Thomas T. Moulton). The title track [heard in this great overture, with Froman's vocals], of course, originated in the 1929 Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical, "Spring is Here", which, itself, is a great song. The title track in this film has also been featured in other films, including: the 1948 film, "Words and Music," where it gets a classic Perry Como treatment [YouTube link] and the terrific "Young Man with a Horn" (1950), featuring a loving performance by Doris Day and trumpeter Harry James [YouTube link]. Other definitive recordings by Ella Fitzgerald and The Supremes [YouTube links] illustrate just how deeply this standard has become a part of the Great American Songbook.

February 27, 2014

Song of the Day #1178

Song of the Day: BUtterfield 8 ("Main Title") [YouTube link], composed by Bronislau Kaper, has that lush quality that Kaper brings to anything he touches with his musical sensibility and jazz inflections (take a listen to Bill Evans and Eddie Gomez on "Invitation" or
Kaper himself [YouTube link]). This theme opens the 1960 film that brought Elizabeth Taylor her first Oscar for Best Actress. On this date, in 1932, Taylor was born.

February 26, 2014

Song of the Day #1177

Song of the Day: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 ("Showdown") [YouTube link], composed by Alexandre Desplat, encompasses all the passion of the ultimate film of the great series of feature films dramatizing the ultimate showdown between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. A truly terrific piece from a truly terrific scene, illustrating the art, and the power, of a great score. (If you ask me, the people who give out Oscars truly missed the boat, so-to-speak, in virtually ignoring all the films of this series.)

February 25, 2014

Song of the Day #1176

Song of the Day: Flight ("Opening") [theost excerpt], composed by Alan Silvestri, is the pensive opening theme for the 2012 film, directed by Robert Zemeckis, and starring Denzel Washington, who gives a superb Oscar-nominated performance. The film provides hair-raising moments of suspense and poignant moments of raw honesty.

February 24, 2014

Song of the Day #1175

Song of the Day: Never Say Never Again ("Main Title") is the title track to the one "unofficial" James Bond film not produced by Albert Broccoli and company; it's a 1983 remake of "Thunderball" with a theme song that featured the lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the music of Michel Legrand (who celebrates his 82nd birthday today! Joyeux Anniversaire, Michel!!!), and the vocals of Lani Hall, who performed with Brasil 66. With a cluster of talent like that, the song still doesn't hold a candle to the original "Thunderball," but I still think it's a mini-miracle that, with lawsuits hanging over the film, Legrand was still able to draw from his jazz roots and come up with a score fully consistent with the 007 musical canon. Listen to the title track on YouTube.

February 23, 2014

Song of the Day #1174

Song of the Day: Samson and Delilah ("Main Title")[YouTube link], music by the legendary Golden Age film score composer, Victor Young, is the perfect main theme for this DeMille directed 1949 film; it captures the grandeur, the flaws, the love, and the devastation to come. Starring Victor Mature as Samson and Hedy Lamar as Delilah, it is one of those memorable Hollywood Biblical epics. And here's a point of trivia: it is the film's title that is on the marquis of the movie theater where the townspeople have gathered in the George Pal-produced 1953 sci-fi classic "War of the Worlds," as they witness the first of many "meteors" falling in the Los Angeles area, as part of an invasion from Mars.

February 22, 2014

Song of the Day #1173

Song of the Day: Demetrius and the Gladiators ("Prelude") [YouTube link] features a score composed by Franz Waxman, who had two tough acts to follow: the stupendously successful film for which this one stood as a sequel, and its equally stupendous soundtrack, written by one of the Golden Era's Greats. This 1954 film was a "sword and sandal" sequel to the 1953 epic, "The Robe," which was actually filmed twice: once in the typical "flat screen" process of the day, and a second time in the revolutionary widescreen format of "CinemaScope," for which 20th Century Fox got an honorary Oscar (though, as a sidenote, for me, the performances in the "flat screen" version of "The Robe" are far better than its widescreen sibling). The sequel picks up where "The Robe" leaves off.  Waxman wisely kept reverential musical references to certain heartfelt themes composed by Alfred Newman for this film's predecessor. Listen up to 2:30 in the first YouTube link above to see how well Waxman incorporates the Newman motifs, while providing us with a strong score that stands on its own merits.

February 21, 2014

Song of the Day #1173

Song of the Day: Sleuth ("Theme") [YouTube link], composed by John Addison, opens up the 1972 mystery, the last film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a dangerous game of daring wits played to perfection by strong Oscar-nominated performances for Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine (both of whom lost to Marlon Brando, who played Don Vito Corleone in "The Godfather"). The theme almost sounds circus-like, but it is precisely a circus we watch, albeit the kind that includes the thrilling task of walking a tightrope without a net.

February 20, 2014

Song of the Day #1172

Song of the Day: North By Northwest ("Crash of the Cropduster") [YouTube link], composed by Bernard Herrmann for this 1959 cinematic Hitchcock gem, is as much about what music is not heard as much as it is about what is heard. This scene is the ultimate in Hitchcock iconography; Cary Grant is alone, with vast empty plains stretching for miles in every direction, as he awaits the arrival of the nonexistent George Kaplan. Suddenly, he is being chased by a cropdusting plane with a trigger-happy pilot. The whole scene is without accompanying music at first, as Cary runs from the plane, finding cover in crops until the cropduster flushes him out to re-target him. But as Cary flags down a huge fuel truck, the plane unavoidably crashes into the truck and disintegrates into flames. The suspenseful music begins with the crash. When Hitchcock and Herrmann were in sync, they knew when to let the action speak for itself, and when to let the music enhance the scene. Herrmann's non-score to this truly iconic scene is as effective as Rozsa's non-score during the chariot race in "Ben-Hur," also a 1959 film: we have a "Parade of the Charioteers" before the race and music announcing victory in its aftermath. But during the scene, we are assaulted by the deafening noise of the crowd, the horses and chariots, the tramplings, the sound and fury of a race to the death. (A similar pattern is used in the film "Independence Day," where at the Zero Hour, all of America's key monuments and cities are destroyed, the music not engaging us until the very end of that apocalyptic series of events.) In any event, the cropduster scene is one of my favorite scenes in one of my all-time favorite Hitchcock films. In honor of my mother, who was born on this date in 1919, I post it; she passed away in 1995, but seeing her Cary was among the few things that could perk her up even in illness. The film is often thought of as the first "Bond" film, before 007 made his cinematic 1962 debut, and it is not difficult to see why.

February 19, 2014

Song of the Day #1171

Song of the Day: Valley of the Dolls ("Theme") was composed by Andre Previn and Dory Previn for the 1967 film version of the Jacqueline Susann novel (Mr. Spock in "Star Trek: The Voyage Home" clearly understood "The Greats" of the twentieth century). The original recording of the song was to be sung by Judy Garland, who had been fired from the film. It was sung by Dionne Warwick. There is a John Williams arrangement of the song in the film; his arrangements were noted by the Academy, and became the first of his 49-to-date Oscar nominations, this one for "Best Score Adaptation." And then there is the single version from Warwick's album [YouTube link]). Listen to the Dory Previn version as well [YouTube link]. For all its kitsch and camp, the film depicts tragedy, and there are so many tragedies that go beyond the film; one need only remember that Sharon Tate was one of its stars.

February 18, 2014

Song of the Day #1170

Song of the Day: Pressure Point ("Main Title") [excerpt therein], composed by Ernest Gold, is a jazz-infused theme from the 1962 film. It has elements of its time, even its "West Side Story"-like moments.

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