Everybody and The New Yorker

A smart, instructive history of the world’s most mythologized magazine.

By Peter Conn

ABOUT TOWN: The New Yorker and the World It Made
By Ben Yagoda G’91.
New York: Scribner, 2000.
480 pp., $30.00.
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Once upon a time—the time in question was 1975, on the occasion of The New Yorker’s 50th anniversary—critic John Leonard called it “the weekly magazine most educated Americans grew up on.” Whether or not that was an overstatement a quarter-century ago, it is not a claim anybody would make today. The New Yorker remains a widely read and prestigious publication, but its editors and writers can no longer take its audience, or its authority, for granted. Revenues keep going down, and the average age of the readers keeps going up. Surrounded by the noise of MTV on the one side, and the high-class musings of the New York Review of Books on the other, The New Yorker has spent a good deal of time, energy and money over the past decade trying to re-define or even re-invent itself.
   More than any American magazine, The New Yorker is haunted by its own storied past, shadowed by the gloomy conviction that its best days are gone. The magazine flourished at a time when reading mattered, and reading The New Yorker conferred membership in a savvy, select and even slightly glamorous society.
    Like all myths of a golden age, this one is no more than part true, but even that part is impressive. What began in the 1920s as a humor magazine, at first indistinguishable from a dozen competitors, was fairly rapidly transformed into an icon of literary culture. Under the guidance of founding editor Harold Ross, then for over four decades under the legendary William Shawn, The New Yorker published an outsized share of the best short fiction and reporting produced in the United States.
   In the magazine’s early years, John O’Hara published his best work here, as did Irwin Shaw and James Thurber. Later, The New Yorker’s regular contributors included Raymond Carver, Vladimir Nabokov, Peter Taylor, Donald Barthelme, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Jamaica Kincaid and Ann Beattie. Individual stories have become classics, among them John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and J. D. Salinger’s “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor.”
    If the fiction was memorable, the non-fiction was often indispensable. E.B. White, one of the finest prose writers of the mid-century, joined the magazine shortly after its first issue. For decades, White’s “Notes and Comment” section opened each week’s issue, and its wonderfully controlled rhythms, its uncanny reproduction of the spoken word, and above all its unflappably ironic tone, became The New Yorker’s signature style. As personalities, White and Harold Ross were utterly unlike, but they shared a passion for precision and a commitment to getting the facts right.
    A combination of good writing and disciplined curiosity led, in the years after World War II, to a series of long essays that attracted instant and universal attention; all of them have remained required reading to this day.
   The first was John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” which took up the entire August 31, 1946 issue—an unprecedented allocation of space. Based on interviews and first-hand observations, Hersey presented a scrupulously detailed, anguished reconstruction of the atomic bombing from the point of view of a half-dozen survivors. The issue sold out within hours; the New York Times and Herald-Tribune wrote admiring editorials; both ABC and the BBC presented complete, uninterrupted readings in national radio broadcasts in the U.S. and U.K., respectively. When the essay was reprinted as a book a few months later, it was offered free to every member of the Book-of-the-Month Club, accompanied by a letter which declared: “We find it hard to conceive of anything being written that could be of more importance at the moment to the human race.”
    Nothing else The New Yorker published—nor anything published in any other magazine, for that matter—would achieve the same notoriety. Nonetheless, over the next two decades, a succession of writers produced long essays on widely disparate subjects, each of which ignited intense and often sustained public discussion. Edmund Wilson introduced American readers to the most important Biblical discoveries of the century in his 1956 essay, “The Dead Sea Scrolls.” In 1962, Rachel Carson helped to launch the post-war environmental movement with “Silent Spring,” a quietly apocalyptic account of the damage inflicted on nature by pesticides.
    Just a few months after Carson’s article appeared, and two months before the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin published his “Letter from a Region of My Mind.” In its integrity, its coruscating anger and its eloquence, the essay helped to transform the terms in which America’s racial dilemma was understood. Baldwin’s “Letter” was followed, just three months later, by philosopher Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” a thorny and controversial meditation on the Holocaust; Arendt’s much-disputed but influential talk about the “banality of evil” quickly entered the language.
   In these and other pieces, including the first version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Shawn’s New Yorkercaptured and held the center of intellectual attention. It was an astonishing record of accomplishment, which altered American ideas and expanded the forms of non-fiction.
    The magazine’s 75th birthday, though it seems more elegiac than triumphal, has elicited a half-dozen testimonials, memorials and inquests, including Renata Adler’s bitchy memoir, a couple of anthologies of New Yorker prose, and Ben Yagoda’s smart, instructive history.
    About Town incorporates Yagoda’s interviews with dozens of the magazine’s staffers and his prodigious research in the 2,500 boxes in which The New Yorker archives are stored. Yagoda marches methodically through the history, pausing along the way to offer useful comments on the major figures, and brief but typically shrewd analyses of the stories and essays. He is especially good on the cartoons (the “art,” in New Yorker parlance), which have consistently made a significant contribution to the magazine’s sophisticated appeal.
    About Town has an odd but defensible shape. Yagoda spends over 400 pages moving the story through 1987, the year in which Shawn was fired by the magazine’s new owner, billionaire S. I. Newhouse. At that point, he doesn’t so much conclude his book as simply quit: the subsequent decade-plus is compressed into a 12-page epilogue. Perhaps Yagoda was under pressure to meet a deadline; perhaps he simply lost interest. Fair enough. From the eccentric, compulsively fussy, secretive but brilliant William Shawn, to the publicity-driven, disruptive and ultimately egregious Tina Brown: as the “Talk of the Town” used to put it, in the New Yorker’s first-person plural, we turn our eyes away. It’s not a sight for the squeamish.

Dr. Peter Conn is the Andrea Mitchell Professor of English and chairman of the board of Pearl S. Buck International.

Modern-Day Morality Tales

A story collection tackles big themes and small moments. 

By Beth Kephart 

By Alice Elliott Dark C’76.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
288 pages, $23.00. 
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For reasons that have as much to do with the way we live now as with the very possibilities inherent in the form, the short story has, in recent years, made a quiet and compelling comeback. Few novels deliver the chaotic complexity of the ambivalent human heart like Alice Munro’s masterpiece, “Jakarta” or Ann Beattie’s “Second Question” or Ken Kalfus’ apocalyptic thriller, “Pu-239.” Few poems force our emotional surrender as utterly and relentlessly as does Lorrie Moore’s tale, “People Like That Are the Only People Here.” Whether it’s Rosina Lippi or William Trevor or the ever-brilliant John Updike, the true masters of this extraordinarily difficult genre hold us in their thrall. We want to go where they are pointing because they unveil what we haven’t seen before. 
    Short stories can surprise us. They can reconfigure the commonplace or suggest the preposterous, reinvent language or life itself. They can take us away from who we are and then send us home again: new souls inside old skin. 
    The 10 stories in Alice Elliott Dark’s newest collection, In the Gloaming, transport readers to Italy and the Amazon, to Central Park and, most frequently, a suburban outpost near Philadelphia. Adapted twice for film (most famously in the HBO production starring Glenn Close and directed by Christopher Reeve), the collection’s title story takes place before a swimming pool and sunsets, before a crackling fireplace, in a grown man’s childhood home. “In the Gloaming” is the story of what happens when Laird, now in the final stages of AIDS, comes home to die. “He wanted to talk again, suddenly,” the story begins, and little by little, Laird and his mother reveal themselves to one another through quiet bursts of increasingly sacred conversation. As Laird’s health deteriorates, as the talk carries forth and carries on, Laird’s mother allows herself to come to terms with what has always been true: “Suddenly she realized—Laird was the love of her life.”
    Laird’s death is, of course, inevitable, and when it comes, the mother allows herself the anger she has every right to feel. “It’s so wrong,” she says, about Laird’s death. “A child shouldn’t die before his parents. A young man shouldn’t spend his early thirties wasting away talking to his mother. He should be out in the world. He shouldn’t be thinking of me, or what I care about, or my opinions. He shouldn’t have to return my love to me—it was his to squander.” 
    In Dark’s stories, good confronts evil, daughters grow up to be like their mothers, youthful indiscretions come back to haunt late-blooming romance. All the wrong things happen to all the wrong people, and sometimes in quick succession. Dark is in pursuit of big themes—lost opportunity, infidelity, betrayal, rape, familial envy, compromised love, middle age, senility—and if at times these themes carry her stories along, at other times, Dark’s tales assume the tone of modern-day morality tales, as if the writing of them began with an idea and only later acquired the unwieldy paraphernalia of character and plot. 
    “The Secret Spot” embodies both the many merits and the challenges inherent in Dark’s style. Centering on an encounter on “a steep brushy hill” in Central Park, the story tells what happens when a misguided grudge careens directly out of control. For five years Helen—a mercilessly smug, self-righteous creature—has believed that “ski-jump nosed” Julia “tried to snake Nick away from her while Helen was busy being pregnant and her guard was down.” Now at last, in one of the grand coincidences that Dark deploys to move her plots along, Helen espies Julia in the unprotected open, and ensnares her in a conversation designed to bring the supposed enemy down. 
    “She’d been waiting five years for this encounter, scripting and planning for it, but it was crucial that none of that show. She needed to be the picture of serenity and innocence for her scheme to work; she must behave as though her stomach was the calmest surface of a summer pond, and Julia the most casual of acquaintances. She set to work nudging her features into a mask of composure as she assessed Julia’s battle readiness.” As the conversation between the two progresses, Helen makes mental notes of the war she feels certain she is winning. “I have an urge to say ‘fancy meeting you here,’ but this is Central Park—although Nick and I have always thought of this particular spot as our secret,” Dark has Helen light in. “‘It’s where we got engaged.’ There. The first volley had gone off easily, and by the look of Julia’s widening eyes, a point was easily scored.”
    Unremitting, Helen plows deep in, taking cheap, school-girl shots at Julia’s mothering, memory and very soul. At one point, to prove Nick’s tireless love for her own true self, Helen even pulls out a bit of paper she has—another convenient fictional construct—stowed in her pocket, a birthday love note that her own faithful Nick penned on her behalf. After reading it aloud, “she gave a wistful sigh that suggested—she hoped—all the romance of a wonderful marriage and, in the spirit of sharing her wealth—ha!—she proffered the card to Julia with the handwriting on it.” On like this the cat fight goes until it wields its all-too inevitable lesson. 
    Alice Elliott Dark’s short stories are essentially and finally about how people get along—about secrets, about heartaches, about darkness, about dealing with the ugly stuff that life throws in our path. Though it is the title story that has garnered all the headlines (and earned Dark a most prestigious place in Best American Short Stories of the Century), “Dreadful Language,” a story of one young woman’s awakening into middle age, is, for me, the stand-out of the collection, a story of subtlety and gradual self-discovery, a story whose first-person voice is honest and groping and pained. The aches feel truest here, the characters more complex, the story does not rush toward a punch line. Losses are both transparent and oblique, and something carries over; something lingers. It’s “Dreadful Language” that resonates most strongly in the end, a tale that took me out of me, then brought me home again, a tale that will certainly help fortify Dark’s growing reputation.u

Beth Kephart C’82 is the author of A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1998. Her next book, Into the Tangle of Friendship, will appear in the fall.


A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.

GREAT DADS: A Celebration of Fatherhood
By Jonathan P. Decker C’88 G’91.
Holbrook, Mass.: Adams Media , 2000. 256 pp., $10.95.
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Just in time for Father’s Day, 100 celebrities remember their dads in first-person vignettes. Among those reflecting on their fathers are Al Gore, Cokie Roberts, Jesse Ventura, Martin Luther King III, Bob Vila and Jeff Bezos. Decker is a correspondent on ABC’s Business Now, the anchor for Reuters Financial Television and the Washington correspondent for the USA Radio Network.

An Historical and Architectural Guide to The University of Pennsylvania

By George E. Thomas Gr’75, Faculty and David B. Brownlee, Faculty.
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The first comprehensive architectural history of the University of Pennsylvania since the early 20th century, Building America’s First University traces the University from its earliest site, chosen by Benjamin Franklin, to the present day. Architectural historians Thomas and Brownlee follow Penn’s history from its early beginnings through its near failure in the early 19th century, its rebirth as a center of innovation in education after the Civil War, and its transformation into a global institution after World War II. They show how changes in the University’s academic scope and direction are visible in its buildings and in the character of the three campuses that have been its home. Thomas is a lecturer in historical preservation and urban studies; Brownlee is professor of the history of art.

CENTENARIANS: One Hundred 100-Year-Olds Who Made a Difference
By Dale Richard Perelman WG’65.
Santa Ana, Calif.: Seven Locks Press, 1999.192 pp., $19.95 (cloth); $15.95 (paper).
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Having lived a full century is, by itself, both rare and noteworthy. Even more remarkable are those who used their extensive time to create a positive impact on the world. Centenarians chronicles the long lives of men and women who made an enormous impact on our world. From entertainment personalities to corporate captains to political dignitaries, this book features 23 prominent men and women, including Irving Berlin, Rose Kennedy, Grandma Moses and George Burns. Another 77 centenarians are listed with a brief description of their lives and accomplishments. Perelman is the author of three other books, and is president of the King’s Jewelry chain of stores.

THE FOLDS OF PARNASSOS: Land and Ethnicity in Ancient Phokis
By Jeremy McInerney, Faculty.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. 407 pp., $50.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).
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Independent city-states, or poleis, such as Athens have been viewed traditionally as the most advanced stage of state formation in ancient Greece. By contrast, this book argues that for some Greeks, the ethnos, a regionally based ethnic group, and the koinon, or regional confederation, were equally valid units of social and political life, and that these ethnic identities were astonishingly durable. McInerney, an associate professor of classical studies, sets his study in Phokis, a region in central Greece dominated by Mount Parnassos that shared a border with the panhellenic sanctuary at Delphi. Tracing the history of the region, he shows how shared myths, hero cults and military alliances created an ethnic identity that held it together over centuries, despite repeated invasions. He concludes that the Phokian koinon survived because it was founded ultimately on the tenacity of the smaller communities of Greece. 

American Literature & the Nineteenth-Century Stage

By Alan L. Ackerman Jr. C’88.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 271 pp., $45.00.
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This book investigates the crucial role that theater played in the works of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Louisa May Alcott, William Dean Howells and Henry James. Whether as drama critics, playwrights, amateur actors, or simply avid theatergoers, these authors thought deeply about the theater and represented it in their literature. Ackerman, an assistant professor of English and in the college drama program at the University of Toronto, argues that this influence can be seen in the prolific and innovative use of theatrical metaphor, the widespread use of historically contingent theatrical idioms and in aspects of literary form which represent dramaturgical methods.

DEATH FORETOLD: Prophecy and Prognosis in Medical Care
By Nicholas A. Christakis G’92 Gr’95.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 307 pp., $30.00.
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No one wants to talk about it, yet nearly everyone will face it: a doctor’s prognosis. Whether it’s as minor as how long it will take antibiotics to get rid of bronchitis or as crucial as how long it will be before the cancer spreads, prognosis is one of the most difficult arts in medical practice. Doctors daily answer questions about the future: how many years you have to live, how long your pain will last, how effective your treatment will be. And patients daily struggle to decipher the answers. This complicated act of prognosis—wrapped up with expectation, hope, despair—is the heart of this book. Through interviews, surveys and his own experience, Christakis, associate professor of medicine and sociology at the University of Chicago, examines how prognoses are made, how often doctors err in making them, and the uncertainty with which they are pronounced and interpreted, with the hopes of making the subject comprehensible and humane for those who ask the questions and those who have to answer them. 

By David Gilman Romano Gr’81 CGS’99, Faculty, and Irene Bald Romano Gr’80.
Bryn Athyn, Pa.: Glen Cairn Museum, 1999. 254 pp., $45.00 (cloth); $30.00 (paper).

This catalogue presents for the first time a comprehensive view of more than 500 artifacts of Greek, Roman, Cypriot and Etruscan origins from a small museum in Bryn Athyn, just northeast of Philadelphia. The Glencairn Museum, owned by the Academy of the New Church and housed in the former home of church patron and business leader Raymond Pitcairn (1885-1966), is renowned for its medieval collection; the other collections of the museum, however, are little known. The artifacts pictured and written about in this book are the amalgamation of Pitcairn’s own collection and the teaching collection used by the Academy of the New Church (a Swedenborgian religious and educational institution) to serve the educational mission of its schools. David Romano is keeper of the Mediterranean section of the University Museum and adjunct associate professor of classical studies. Irene Romano is curatorial consultant for the classical collections of the Glencairn Museum.

COMMUNITY PLANNING: An Introduction to the Comprehensive Plan
By Eric Damian Kelly GCP’75 L’75 and Barbara Becker.
Washington: Island Press, 1999. 400 pp., $35.00.
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This introductory textbook provides a thorough examination of the comprehensive planning process as practiced today in the United States. Kelly, a professor of urban planning at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., as well as a past president of the American Planning Association, and Becker, associate director of the Drachman Institute for Land and Regional Development Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson, use the framework of the comprehensive plan to demonstrate what planners do and how citizens can become involved in shaping the future of their community.

THE JEWISH MOTHER GOOSE: Modified Rhymes for Meshugennah Times
By David Borgenicht C’90.
Philadelphia: Running Press, 2000. 96 pp., $12.95.
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Best read with a Yiddish accent, The Jewish Mother Goose spoofs more than 50 classic Mother Goose nursery rhymes, including “Pat-a-cake” (“Applecake”), “Jack Be Nimble” (“Jack Be Careful”), “Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum” (“Tweedle-Dork and Tweedle-Putz”) and “Hey Diddle Diddle” (“Oy Diddle Diddle”). For those readers unfamiliar with rolling their tongues and contracting the back of their throats while speaking, the book provides a glossary of Yiddish definitions and pronunciation guidelines. Borgenicht is the author of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook (See “Profiles”), The Little Book of Stupid Questions and Sesame Street: Unpaved.

By Susan Perloff CW’65.
Guilford, Conn.: The Globe Pequot Press, 2000. 162 pp., $12.95.
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If you’ve always thought of Pennsylvania in terms of the Liberty Bell and the Declaration of Independence, then it’s time to check out some lesser-known spots. Discover the hidden places in the Commonwealth that most tourists miss, such as Ricketts Glen, a state park with 22 named waterfalls and a virgin hemlock forest; museums dedicated to Jimmy Stewart, mushrooms and mourning; and the steepest vehicular inclined plane in the world. The book, part of the Off the Beaten Path series covering all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Canada, features user-friendly maps; listings of restaurants, hotels and popular attractions; and sidebars showcasing historical facts and geographical tidbits. Perloff is a writer, writing coach and writing-workshop leader, as well as a former Philadelphia tour guide.

By Gregory Djanikian C’71, Faculty.
Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000. 80 pp., $12.05.
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The poems in this book center around relationships between husbands and wives, and lovers as well, exploring the misconnections and distances between them which exist even after years of intimacy. The collection as a whole gives shape to this interior landscape of separation and solitariness, making it, perhaps, as significant and palpable as that other great landscape of togetherness and joy. Though the poems arrive from different places—the poet’s own life, or the lives of friends and of strangers as well—the collection reads almost like a single narrative, a history of many lives coming together to form, recognizably, our own.

Djanikian is director of creative writing and associate undergraduate chair of English. His three previously published collections of poetry are The Man in the MiddleFalling Deeply into America and About Distance.

DOING ENGINEERING: The Career Attainment and Mobility of Caucasian, Black and Asian-American Engineers
By Joyce Tang Gr’91.
Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. 264 pp., $65.00 (cloth); $26.95 (paper).
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The first to systematically compare Caucasians, African Americans and Asian Americans in engineering, this study tells how these three groups fare in the American engineering labor market and what they can look forward to in the future. The numbers of black and Asian engineers recently have grown at a much faster rate than the number of Caucasian engineers. With a projected steady increase in engineering jobs and demographic shifts, this trend should continue. Yet, recent writings on the engineering profession have said little about career mobility beyond graduation. This book identifies and explores key issues determining whether minorities in the United States will attain occupational equity with their Caucasian counterparts. Tang is associate professor of sociology at Queens College, CUNY.

By Richard Schaffer, Beverley Earle CW’72, Filiberto Agusti.
Cincinnati: West Educational Publishing, 1999. 806 pp., $94.00.
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Currently in use in over 140 colleges and universities, International Business Law and its Environment provides a thorough overview of the knowledge needed to understand today’s international business law. Its contents include the legal environment of international business; international sales, credits and the commercial transaction; international and U.S. trade law; and regulation of the international marketplace. Earle is an associate professor of law at Bentley College.

A Celebration of Ivy League Women’s Athletics

By Paula D. Welch, Lynn Page Whittaker and Daniel H. Rosenthal.
Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1999. 187 pp., $41.95.
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This book is a history of Ivy League women’s athletics, as well as a cultural record, narrating the integration of women into all eight Ivy schools and into higher education nationally, and the growth of women’s athletics following enactment of Title IX in 1972. In 25 years of formal competition, Ivy women’s athletics has grown exponentially in resources and accomplishments. Through numerous photographs, first-person memories and personal anecdotes, Silver Era, Golden Moments pays homage to Ivy athletes, coaches and administrators, from pioneers to current students, showing how they shaped Ivy League athletics and how their commitment and dedication shaped their own lives. Penn athletes and coaches are well represented in the book.

University of Pennsylvania Wind Ensemble
Directed by Ricardo Averbach, Faculty.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1999. $10.00.

Four years in the making, this musically diverse compact-disc recording of the Penn Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Ricardo Averbach, reveals plenty of Penn connections in the liner notes. The selections include Aaron Copland’s The Lincoln Portrait, featuring guest narration by Penn President Judith Rodin CW’66; Jay Reise’s Tinicum Rhythms; Gerald Levinson’s Bronze Music; and Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Fantasy in Three Movements in the Form of a Choros, with special participation by the Yale Concert Band.
  Reise G’75, a professor of music composition at the University, based the title of his new piece on the Tinicum National Environmental Center, located near the Philadelphia International Airport. The bouncy rhythms, brash chatter and layers of musical events in the piece are meant to suggest the teeming wildlife of the preserve as well as the exuberant and zany “human-life” of the airport across the road. Levinson C’72, who serves on the music faculty at Swarthmore College, found the inspiration for his 1980 composition, Bronze Music, in the musical style of percussion orchestras called gamelans of Java and Bali. Both selections were recorded at Swarthmore’s Lang Hall.
  Lincoln Portrait , recorded at the Annenberg Center, derives from The Gettysburg Address and Choros, recorded at Yale’s Woolsey Hall, provides a panoramic view of Brazilian geography, music and spirituality.
  Averbach is also music director of the University of Pennsylvania Symphony Orchestra.
  The CD is available through the music department by calling (215) 898-6244.

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