Wednesday, December 24, 2008

"The Turandot Project": Production of the last Puccini masterpiece in Beijing in 2000

In November 1980, shortly after Ronald Reagan won the election against Jimmy Carter, I say Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot as performed by the Dallas Opera. I believe that at the time the opera performance were held in Fair Park.

The music with Aflano’s completion of the conclusion is exotic and postromantic (dating to 1926) and the final passages give thrills like those of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand. It’s actually one of relatively few grand operas with such a massed choral ending (and Alfano’s orchestration seems to come from Mahler). The libretto is by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni.. The original play was by Carlo Gozzi and there is also an adaptation by Friedrich Schiller, and the original story comes from a Persian collection called “The Book of One Thousand and One Days”. The plot, with the “three riddles” is well known.

Zeitgeist distributes an 84 minute film, directed by Allan Miller, called “The Turandot Project.” Zubin Mehta, as conductor and Zhang Yimou as director have put on the opera in Florence in 1997. The movie is about putting on the opera in Beijing in 2000. There would be nine performances, so three women would have to play Turandot, in order that each has two days rest. The three sopranos are Giovanna Casolla, Audrey Stottler, and Sharon Sweet. The opening of the film, and then at the very end, the thrilling conclusion is shown. The production is set in China (as if often is) rather than Persia, and the sets show it, anticipating the work during the Olympics.

The film shows Beijing up close as it looked eight years before the Olympics, when Chinese “capitalism” was less far along. Some of the unison choral performances stress the idea of national unity, and that the performers were doing this for China, and not just for themselves.

The film can be played directly on Netflix.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

First Baptist Church of Washington DC holds 52nd Annual Candelight Carols Service

Today, December 14, 2008, the historic First Baptist Church of the City of Washington D.C. at 16th and O Sts NW (about ½ mile directly north of the White House) held its 52nd Annual Candlelight Carols Service at 4 PM EST.

The concert started with brass ensemble carols adapted by Jim Lucas, and handbell choir carols adapted by Charles Maggs, Robert Hieber, Robert Ivey, and Gary R. Smoke.

The Runnymede Singers performed music by William Byrd (“The Earl of Salisbury Carol”) and Modes Hogan (“Hear My Prayer”).

The Collegium Musicum of the Friday Morning Music Club performed music by Morten J. Luvran, Tomas Luis de Victoria, and Lodovico di Grossi. The Friday Morning Music Club was active when I took piano lessons in the 1950s.

One congregational carol hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is by a well known romantic composer, Felix Mendelssohn. The music actually comes from the 1840 cantata “Festival Song.”

The climax of the concert was the ten-minute cantata “Gloria in Excelsis” by Florence Jolley (adapted by Lara Haggard) with brass, timpani, organ and combined choirs. The music was loud and virile, somewhat modal and British in sound, and resembled some of the more stirring choral works of Ralph Vaughn Williams (especially the music from "Hodie" (the Christmas Cantata) or even from “Toward the Unknown Region”). I find very little about the composer online.

The Church will soon make a DVD available of the service.

Second picture: The current sanctuary building opened on Christmas Day, 1955. The older building was present during the time I was born (1943) and started attending; I still remember the sanctuary from the Truman years.

The first picture (above) incorporates the baptistry (behind the red curtain), in which I (at age 12) was baptized with my mother on January 29, 1956. Tonight, the nativity scene was placed in the baptistry during the closing "Silent Night" benediction and epilogue.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Puccini's "Tosca" on DVD, with a "provincial" performance

Giacomo Puccini, to my ear at least, brought grand opera closer to the idea of symphony (that is opera-symphony or choral symphony) than Verdi, at least in latest operas with calculated climaxes that are totally symphonic.

has a number of DVD’s, and Netflix offers the 2000 recording at the provincial Arena della Vittoria, with Francesca Patane as Tosca, and Jose Cura (as Cavaradossi ) and Renato Bruson as Scarpia. The original play is by Victorian Sardou and the libretto is by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. The director is Enrico Castiglione. Peirgoioro Morandi conducts the Province of Bari Symphony Orchestra.

The story, while rooted in European religious history around the time of Napoleon, seems a bit like soap opera, with the characters going in their own directions. Cavaradossi tries to shelter a political dissident in the church Sant’Andrea della Valle (to today’s moviegoers, that brings to mind Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna), when all the complications will follow. Tosca is actually jealous of the portrait of Mary Magdalene that Cavaradossi paints, which again to today’s viewers brings to mind Dan Brown and Da Vinci. (It also raises the "schizoid" problem of falling in love with a "perfect fantasy" rather than a real person -- a theme common in Oscar Wilde.) While the painter even keeps the dissident away from the comic sacristan, the real problem is Scarpia, from the church police, who is called a religious bigot in the libretto. Eventually, Tosca will resist Scarpia’s advances and stab him, and then watch a fake execution of her lover (again embroiled with the politics of European history), which turns out not to be fake, to her great grief and sudden horror. So she jumps off the cliff. There was a “similar” scene recently in the soap “Days of our Lives” where a character Melanie, running from a cornered boyfriend jumps, but she actually survives.

But it’s the music that fascinates us, with Puccini’s mature style. He starts with scale-like motives of progressive chords, and these morph into the soaring arias and choruses of the opera. The “chills and fever” climax occurs in the Church at the end of Act I, with an execution that you expect in a formal postromantic-to-modern symphony. The music (composed largely just before 1900) often revolves around the tonalities of E-flat Major and Minor (like in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony), with lots of chromatic and whole tone scales, and a curious mixture of French impressionistic and Viennese “schmaltz” harmonies and string passages. The style is truly international. See the Indiana University copy of the piano score here.

Speaking of “romanticism” I wanted to mention Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sebastien (1911) based on a play by Gabriele D’Annunzio – the full five movement “incidental music” which is really like an Oratorio-symphony, with, for all the impressionism, some stirring climaxes, particularly as Leonard Bernstein recorded it in the 60s.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Washington DC area meteorologist gives presentation at area high school

I typically emphasis “artistic” content on the drama or stage works blog, but I think science is OK too. Tonight, on the spur of the moment, after hearing WJLA-7 TV’s meteorologist Doug Hill invite everybody to Wakefield High School in Arlington for his presentation and Q&A on the weather. Yes, the DC area is likely to have a lot more snow this winter than last.

The 110 minute program featured some video of previous Washington DC area snowstorms, a video of how the meteorology department of a big city television station works (24x7), and a brief presentation by Dominion Power on energy efficiency. The station gave handed out gift bags that included emergency tips, including duct tape and storing enough food for 1600 calories per person a day. But that goes beyond concerns over even big Noreaster type snows, to eventualities that could be far worse.

The best question came from a history teacher, and it was about global warming and the melting of the ice caps. Hill surprised everyone with his answer. He referred to a Time article back in the spring of 1978 when everybody was concerned about global cooling, and there were ideas like dropping lampblack on the Arctic ice to melt some of it. I do remember that we had a very cool spring, after a cold snowy winter, in 1978 when I was living in New York City. He said, “there can be no consensus in science.” Hill acknowledged that the past two decades had been warmer, but would not say that the warming resulted from man’s activity. He also added that he felt that global warming had become as much a political as scientific problem. His answer sounded more like something one would see in a column in The Washington Times than The Washington Post! I do think, however, that Al Gore’s movie and book presenting compelling mathematical evidence (in terms of calculus and the behavior of temperature curves) that global warming is man-made.

Someone asked about the “The Perfect Storm” in the movie and Sebastian Junger’s book. That storm really did happen, he said, but the hypercane superstorm and instant freeze of “The Day After Tomorrow” cannot happen.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

National Museum of American History reopens

The National Museum of American History (the Kenneth E. Behring Center), of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, re-opened after considerable renovation with new exhibits on Friday Nov. 21, 2008.

There is so much in the new museum as to defy brief description. The main website is this. The crowds were extreme. Some parts of the exhibit were inaccessible due to lines.

One the third level, the exhibit “The Price of Freedom”, however, moved quickly. It takes the visitor through United States military history from the Revolutionary War all the way to 9/11. The Revolutionary War section has a “Puppet Theater” that features a satirical drama about colonial politics and taxation without representation. The placard about the theater says “Give Me Liberty” to refer to Patrick Henry’s famous speech at St. John’s Church in Richmond.

There is a major musical instrument collection on the other side of the third floor. Music from a Haydn quartet was piped into the collection room. There was a small electric piano jazz performance, and another percussion performance at ground level.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Arlington VA church performs brass music by Russian composer Victor Ewald

Sunday, Nov. 9, the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA presented the last two of the three movements of what appear to be Brass Quintet #1 in B-flat minor by relatively uncommonly heard Russian composer Victor Ewald (1860-1935) (in Russian: "Виктор Владимирович Эвальд"), who wrote mainly for "conical brass instruments". The church program called it “Symphony for Brass Choir” and the youth group played the last two movements (Moderato and Allegro Moderato). But a quick search finds performances on YouTube of the first and third movements. The thematic material in the first movement is very similar to that in the finale, with minor music changed to major, with alternations of triadic and chromatic scale-like tunes, and simplified “sonatina” form. The material may sound familiar, if a bit perfunctory. Ewald composed four brass quintets.

The modern brass quintet seemed to comprise two trumpets, trombone, French horn and tuba. The Wikipedia article on the composer suggests that in the composer’s times older analogues of these instruments were used.

This composer’s music also interesting because it may have influenced some of the music of Gustav Mahler, particularly the “Nachtmusik” movements from the Seventh Symphony, which seemed to find their way into film years before Leonard Bernstein made the work standard concert fare.

Trinity Presbyterian sometimes offers an interesting variety of late romantic or modern instrumental or organ music in the service.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Music education and practice improves academic performance (study)

MSNBC has reported on a LiveScience story about the benefits of musical training. By Jeanna Bryner, the item is titled “Young musicians get smarter: Children who study music for at least 3 years score higher on cognitive tests,” link here.

Music education improves both vocabulary, non-verbal reasoning and probably mathematics skills, sometimes quite sizably.

The study is to be published in Plos One, and was conducted by Gottfried Schlaug and Ellen Winner at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School and Harvard Graduate School of Education. The two collaborators have another study “Research shows that time invested in practicing pays off for young musicians” here.

Anecdotally, when substitute teaching I noticed that high school students who perform publicly either in music or drama tend to do better in all subjects. A few major young actors or performers in Hollywood (including Zac Efron and Jared Padalecki) were known to be very good students in high school.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

"Doctor Atomic", by John Adams, is sizzling modern opera; is it too preachy?

Today Penny Woolcock directed a performance (about 3 hours and 20 minutes total elapsed time, about 2 hours and 40 minutes performance) at the Metropolitan Opera of the contemporary opera “Doctor Atomic” by John Adams, with libretto by Peter Sellars, in two long acts, each with several scenes. The Met website link is this.
The opera was broadcast in high definition to a large number of modern motion picture theaters around the country.

The opera covers the events that lead up to the “Trinity” test of the atomic bomb in New Mexico in the summer of 1945.

The style of the libretto is a bit verbose, slowing the story down to explore the political ramifications of the test. There are many interesting political points raised, such as whether individual Germans should be held morally responsible for what the Nazi government had done – but the opera takes place after the surrender of Germany in May 1945. Later, in the second Act, Dr. Edward Teller questions whether the test could set the entire atmosphere of the Earth on fire. There is a lot of exchange over the philosophical importance of getting at the “truth” as opposed to getting the Trinity test done and winning the war. There is also discussion over whether the Japanese should be warned, and of the selection of Japanese cities to be targeted. There is mention of Potsdam, and apprehension of the future role of the Soviet Union.

The music is linear and dissonance. The fast passages tend to have many repeated notes, complex rhythms and percussion effects, and resemble Shostakovich (as we know that composer from the Fourth Symphony). The louder and faster passages are tonal, and tend to use e minor and d minor a lot (I think I can tell by ear). The slower passages tend to be lush but dodecaphonic, a bit in the style of Alban Berg. The tempos in the arias are quite slow (lengthening the opera) but tend to make it technically manageable to sing.

The ending of Act I is violent and shattering, rather like the end of a symphonic first movement. The opera ends quietly after the atomic blast, which is quite stunning, the stage effects reduced to black and white, overlaid with quotations in Japanese from what survivors in Hiroshima would have said.

During the intermission, John Adams (born in 1947) gave an interview, and talked about how he grew up with the Cold War as setting up the social and moral ideology everyone believed in. (So did I, born in 1943.) He also mentioned that the development of the hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s was seen as a bigger threat to the United States than to the Soviet Union, because the United States had more large cities. This would suggest that the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 could make a good subject for opera. But so would the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the title character, is sung by Baritone Gerald Finley. Films that have dealt with the atomic bomb tests include “Infinity” “Fat Man and Little Boy” and “Enola Gay and the Atomic Bombing of Japan.”

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Cirque du Soleil performs "Kooza" show at National Harbor near Washington DC

Cirque De Soleil has come to the Washington DC (effective Oct. 30) area with a show called “Kooza”, to be performed at the National Harbor on the Potomac River in Prince Georges County, MD. The website and CD will lead to ticket order information.

The company characterizes Kooza as a story of “The Innocent,” the story of an outsider looking for a place in the world. It says that the show combines “acrobatic performance and the art of clowing.” The company has given out free promotional CD’s at theaters and a the Reel Affirmations Film Festival. The CD shows some of the acts. It tries to connect to the Internet by my Firewall (Microsoft and McAfee) would not let it.

Some of the components of the performance will include Charivari, the highwire, juggling, the teeterboard, and the “Wheel of Death.”

The characters sound like a list from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” They include the Trickster, the Pickpocket, and the Heimloss (underneath the stage, and it looks like a character from the game “Fallout 3”).

One of the most amazing acts on the CD is the “Balancing on Chairs” which is an amazing exercise in pure Newtonian physics, like a balancing sculpture outside the Air and Space Museum in Washington.

I feel justified in doing a mini-review because I went to a Cirque du Soleil performance on a Sunday in late August, 2000 in Minneapolis (just before the State Fair), set up on a lot near the Milwaukee Road railroad station and ice rink (relatively close the ING/ReliaStar and to the Churchill Apartments). That area in Minneapolis has since seen a lot of conversion of Mississippi River warehouse space to loft condos.

Then, the two-act show consisted of many similar “abstract art” items (especially high-altitude acrobats), with an emphasis on PG13-rated comedy, including some fake hair-pulling and body teasing. The main show was set up in the typical colorful blue tent.

I also saw an ‘Nsync concert in Minneapolis in June 2001, at the Metrodome. Times have changed.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

PBS broadcasts Carnegie Hall Gala of Leonard Bernstein's music, with San Francisco Symphony

Tonight some PBS stations rebroadcast the opening night concert for the 2008 season at Carnegie Hall in New York City, given by the visiting San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The program was called “A Celebration of Leonard Bernstein” and consisted entirely of his music. Appearing are opera singers Dawn Upshaw and Thomas Hampson, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Broadway's Christine Ebersole. Also performing is an Ensemble selected from the Vocal Arts Department and the Drama Division of The Juilliard School

The main link for the program is here.

The opening Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" have always struck me as more advanced than their popularity indicates, with its sweet rotating themes, interspersed among the dances, that almost suggest atonality. Thomas says that Bernstein likes to end many of his works quietly and ambiguously with questions (although not with the big “symphonies.” Later the “Officer Krupke” song is performed, with its lyrics referring to the “vices” of the 60s, including some reefer madness.

The most interesting work was probably the suite from the 1983 opera “A Quiet Place,” giving work to both vocalists (“You’re Late”, “Morning, Good Morning”), and a Postlude from Act I than reminds one of late Mahler and a touch of Britten, with some linear iconoclasm. The opera is a sequel to “Trouble in Tahiti”, of which I once had an old budget record and which sounded rather trivial.

The cellist played a Meditation from the "Mass", which I remember taking a girl friend to on a date in the fall of 1971 at the Kennedy Center, in my brief attempt at heterosexual dating. (That’s a strange reason to remember a work. But what I remember more of it is the political rebellion of those great days following the Civil Rights movement and Stonewall, as Vietnam cratered and then so did Nixon.)

The cello soloist also performed “To What You Said” with baritone Hampsonm from the "Songfest: A Cycle of American Poems for Six Singers and Orchestra" (1977), which is an orchestral “symphonic song cycle” in 12 sections, in a lean yet enriching style again akin to late Mahler and Britten (or even Zemlinsky’s “Lyric Symphony”).

Carnegie Hall has apparently continued it’s “Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds” events, with other performances, such as the film “On the Waterfront” at the Walter Reade Theater, link here.

I remember seeing Michael Tilson Thomas conduct a youth concert in 1973, when I was living in New Jersey and visiting the City a lot. At the time, Thomas was one of the youngest of conductors (like Gustavo Dudamel today). Thomas has is own article on Bernstein in the Sept. 19, 2008 New York Times, “Performance of his Life: He Composed Himself,” link here. I would also see Mahler’s Second Symphony performed in Carnegie Hall in 1975, when I was living in the City.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Verdi's "La Traviata": a lesson for today's concerns about "online reputation"?

In September, the Washington National Opera put on Giuseppe Verdi’s "La Traviata" (“One who goes astray”), and made a free broadcast Saturday 13 in the (slightly oversized) Nationals Park outfield. I missed that because of storms, but found a lot on Netflix to make up for it. The WNO link is here.

The most compact performance on DVD seems to be the 1968 Rome Opera performance with Giuseppe Patane conducting. Anna Moffo plays the tragic courtesan heroine Violetta Valery; Franco Bonisolli the overly conscientious lover Alfred, and Gino Bechi is Alfredo’s patriarchal father. The distributor is Video Artists International (VAI) and the production is photographed in rather muted, sepia colors for the lavish internal sets. The director is Mario Lanfranchi.

The opera is based on the novel La Dame aux Camelais, by Alexander Dumas son (his father wrote “The Count of Monte Cristo”). The DVD puts the opera as four acts, with Act II divided into two acts here. It’s more common to present the opera in three acts, with two intermissions (as the Washington opera does).

The story is a moral parable. Violetta sacrifices all she has (in material possessions) out of love for Alfredo but Alfredo’s father manipulates her out of the relationship, claiming that Alfredo’s family reputation will be injured by Violetta’s as a coutersan. There is a libertarianesque gambling episode in a 19th century Parisian Las Vegas (when Alfredo tries to win back her sacrifice), the possibility of a duel to settle honor. But she is dying of tuberculosis, the incurable white plague of her era. The whole story seems oddly relevant to the twists about today’s concerns about online reputation.

The music has its famous choruses and an abundance of triple time and compound (like 6/8) meters. The most thrilling chorus closes Act III on the DVD (or II in most perfomances). When she dies at the end, the music comes to a violent (“Sturm und Drang”) close, apparently in D minor, with the style that is normally appropriate for ending the first movement of a romantic symphony in a minor key. The prelude to the last act, a quiet passage for strings in a minor key, is one of Verdi’s most original, in an opera that abounds in more conventional harmonic progressions.

Netflix offers a one-hour documentary from Kultur and AudioVisual Concept (Germany), “La Traviata: Love & Sacrifice: The Story of the Opera” (dor. Marie Blanc-Hemerline) that traces the plot with excerpts from singers including Kathleen Cassello, Angela Gheorghiu, Marie McLaughlin and Carla Bastro as Violetta. Here is a link for the DVD: The DVD says that the original premier was a failure and that the audience had a hard time with the subject matter. The opera is poignant but not dramatic in the usual sense.

Friday, October 17, 2008

My experience "teaching" music: it's a varied world

Teaching music, at least in ensemble playing and in lower grades, involves very different personal skills from composing, performing, or even building up the ear for the mass of classical music literature.

In my main blog on the July 25, 2007 entry (archive link) I talked about the problems that I ran into with classroom discipline as a substitute teacher back in 2005. But the music assignment raises some particular issues.

It had been called in to me the day before it started, a nine-day assignment in a middle school. It turned out there were five 50-minute classes, with a long break between the first and fourth periods, in the band room. The first period went super, a small class with a student conductor and self-sufficient. The sixth period was a four-person jazz ensemble, again self-sufficient. The seventh period was eighth grade, again with a student conductor and quite motivated. I was supposed to ask every student play a scale exercise individually and mark it, which went fine; it then play Offenbach’s Orpheus overture, with great vigor.

The fourth and fifth period classes, however, presented a challenge, perhaps to my integrity. They were, like period 1, sixth grade. The cryptic lesson plans for all the sixth grade classes had called for rehearsal of the “Prehistoric Suite” by Paul Jennings, a piece that did not inspire a lot of musical interest, but maybe that was because of the circumstances. I asked for the “student conductor” and one precocious girl said something like, “I think you should be the conductor.”

Now, I have an ear for music to where I know the literature cold, and can explain all of its significance. But I have no idea how to conduct, and I did not want to pretend that I did. And furthermore, here the issue is getting children to play their musical instruments together. The knowledge is in a totally different area psychologically.

I felt like the girl probably understood (quite incredibly) that some short-term subs were not really qualified teachers, were looking for easy money (although not much). The whole sense of integrity from my presence was fractured, and order in the class broke down. Because of these two classes, I had to leave after two days of the nine-day assignment. That started the downward spiral in my subbing experience that I describe in the archived reference above. They had to find a “real band teacher” after all. And band or orchestra, not voice, not piano, not composition, etc. But they did. As far as the kids were concerned, I should have been a clerk at the 7-11 across the street.

I could ask this, though: Why does this little band need a conductor to micromanage it at all? What about the libertarian idea of spontaneous order? After all, small orchestras sometimes play without conductors. Eventually, with a lot of grumbling, each of these two classes did stumble through "The Prehistoric Suite" without my wand.

A couple months earlier, at a high school, I had experienced a great two-day assignment with chorus classes. They were all self-sufficient, and included a madrigals class. I went to their Christmas concert in December and met the teacher. During one of the classes, in some free time, there was one eager student who wanted to learn to sight-read piano. I was quite able to help him with that for twenty minutes or so. So, my effectiveness depended on what the required skill would be.

As with the telemarketing job in the previous post, I though that my music background would lead somewhere in this situation. But I was no father-like authority figure, and I was not a band player. I have no idea how large musical ensembles learn to work together. That’s still a different world. So I fell between my own cracks.

For almost anyone who makes music a life's work, however, teaching certainly has to be an important skill. In the WB series "Everwood", the piano prodigy character Ephram (Gregory Smith), after he blows the chance to go to Juilliard because of his conflict with his father (Treat Williams), still sets up private piano lessons and even a class at home back in Colorado at age 18 or so.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Salesmanship in the symphony orchestra and performing arts "business"

In April 2002, having been forced to “retire” by an anticipated, 9/11-related corporate downsizing, and collecting severance in a very poor main job market, I was welcoming the idea of interim jobs. Once night, when I went to the disco, I noticed, in the local Minneapolis-St. Paul magazine “Lavender,” that the Minnesota Orchestra was hiring people to its phone bank to call for donations.

I went ahead and bit. A few days later, I started an evening shift job from 5 PM-9 PM calling for donations for the Minnesota Orchestra Guaranty Fund. (The “development” fund still exists; website now is this: I would actually work there, perhaps 4 evenings (and/or Saturday mornings) a week for 14 months. It actually gave me a sense of stability, a softened landing. Since I had my nine years of piano as a boy, it made sense. And since I wanted to get myself into the media (ultimately, the movies for my book), it made sense. Maybe this could open doors. We had office space and cubicles on the second floor of a luxury highrise apartment building two blocks from the Minnesota Symphony Hall.

We were paid $6.50 an hour plus a commission, which was more for new money than renewals. But renewals were easier to get. Everything was manual. We would get our lead sheets at the start of the shift. The renewals were color coded into different groups (call it “rainbow coded”). We wrote our contributions on a white board. The best money was “blue money on credit” (new money). The job was manual; we did everything with paper and pencil and phone. Only the manager had a computer. I was told by others that donations had gotten harder since 9/11 (the activity closed for a month after 9/11 in 2001). I was actually reasonably successful at this. My best night was in June 2002.

In the same are, a couple doors down, the Orchestra sold subscriptions, and in March 2003 turned over that activity to a Canadian company called Arts Marketing. Their sales activity was automated, with all reps having PC’s.

As a perk, we did get great comp tickets. I heard Mahler’s Third and Eighth Symphonies performed, as well as Rachmaninoff’s Second during that period with complimentary tickets.

Then (after two months at a debt collection company in the summer of 2003), I came back to the DC area for family reasons. I found that Arts Marketing also sold subscriptions for the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center in Washington. I tried working there for six weeks. It was a bit of a sweat shop, and had no automation. We called from 3x5 lead cards. It is much more difficult to sell a subscription for a season that to get donations for an associated charitable activity as in Minnesota. The only way people made money was to work there every season and build up a group of leads that one called every year (a bit the way an agent works).

For a week we had sales coaching from a young man from Toronto who himself had a music degree. I though it was bizarre to get a degree in the arts and then work managing sales in a phone bank.

I sold only five subscriptions in six weeks, but one person I called said that I was a "good salesman." I've never heard that from anyone before.

Telemarketing activities, as we know, have become unwelcome in our culture in the past few years, and have been restricted by federal law, as was changed in 2003 with the “Telemarketing Sales Rule” which is here in the Federal Register. The company was breaking the law by calling people after 9 PM (we worked until 9:30).

The National Symphony's website (which is slow!!) is here, as a subdomain of the Kennedy Center site.

Picture: Kennedy Center view from a nearby construction site on Constitution Ave in Washington; the only "original" picture that I have of it at the moment.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Could I have become a composer or pianist? More retrospect

On January 21 2008 (this year) I recapitulated my own efforts in music composition and my nine years of piano lessons, from the third grade to my senior year in high school. Today, I add to the retrospect. (Remember, there is a minor-key intermezzo in Johannes Brahms's last piano Sonata, just before the Finale, called "Retrospect".)

I still wonder, in view of some rather personal philosophical postings I’ve made recently, about willingness to accept “uncertainty” to have a free and expressive life (see Sept. 29 on my main “Bill” blog), about the historical fact that I did not make music my life’s work.

I remember my first piano teacher, who died in 1958 of colon cancer at 57 when I was in ninth grade, had said that the most important thing besides music was “that I be a normal boy, like other boys.” She also left a dangling phrase, “If you don’t make music your life’s work….”

Why didn’t I? On the surface, I had other interests. I was a member of the Science Honor Society as a senior at Washington-Lee high school, and a Memorial Day, 1961 weekend trip to Mt. Washington, New Hampshire became the psychological equivalent to a senior prom. In April 1961, in fact, I had won a chemistry scholarship at William and Mary. We know from my other postings what happened with that (go to my main blog, Nov. 28, 2006, for the account of 11/21/61 which is my personal 9/11).

I already had a sense that the “brains v. brawn” debate (stirred by the 1920’s story Richard Connell “The Most Dangerous Game”) could give someone like me the opportunity to live a “different” life. Because of the Cold War concerns and unique dangers it posed (almost unprecedented in nature), someone like me was “needed” despite my competitive failures in the normal sense of what was expected of males in that era. During that time, the military draft was a given, but not considered an immediate peril to life (as it had been during Korea) because the Berlin Crisis had not fully evolved yet, let alone Vietnam. Nevertheless, Kennedy was already making a spectacle of it, with suggestions as to what people owed their country and who might be deferred from the draft. For a while there were deferments for fathers or married men, and these expired, but student deferments, for those who stayed in the sciences, would continue well into the Vietnam war, until the lottery of 1969.

As a result, I did go down a different path. I sometimes regret it. I do think I was capable of working hard enough to become competitive in the music field. (I once had a tryout piano lesson in Washington with Dr. Hughes – I think at Catholic University – at about the age of 14). But there was too much social pressure against it. I caved in to the pressures of the times, even my own father.

Relevant to all this is that I finally did "get drafted" in 1968, after graduate school in mathematics, was sheltered somewhat, but lost some hearing my right ear because of its exposure on the rifle range in Basic Training while I was coming down with a barracks influenza. That was a required "sacrifice", for nothing other that "paying my dues."

There is a certain dichotomy or paradox in an artistic temperament. Your art is broadcast (perhaps in a blog today) to everyone. Some people respond, and you select the people you want in your life. Is that moral? Is it fair? That seems to come from the foundations of modern classical liberal thought about individual rights, the capability of choosing one’s significant others, even attracting them in a manner of one’s choosing. But, of course, that whole mechanism assumes a global technological and economic infrastructure to make delivery of your work possible. To some extend, that was true even several centuries ago. Classical music, starting late in the 18th century perhaps, was one of the first art forms that depended on the idea that eventual worldwide performance and audience would transform how people perceived things – even more than literature itself. Romanticism, as it came in with Beethoven and Schubert (a bit with Mozart, actually) was actually a global technological innovation.

I come back to the music teacher’s reinforcement of the idea of being “normal”. (Hello, in Smallville, young Clark Kent yearns to be normal – and then he relishes his powers and becoming “special” (he just says “different”) again. In “Supernatural” the character Sam goes through the same personality evolution.) Perhaps one can’t count on a world technological or economic infrastructure to broadcast oneself. (Isn’t that what the “Bailout” and economic credit crisis today is about? Isn’t that what 9/11 was about?)

Yeah, I was the last picked for the team when I was in grade school. I thought a technological, interconnected world would redeem me, and give me a place. It did, perhaps in urban exile for three decades, but now the world calls me back and expecte me to get real. That’s partly because things are so very public in this broadband, Internet age. So things get fragile.

Your left with the idea that, whatever your faith, your life needs to start on a sound basis. There’s nothing better than, when still a teen or a young adult, being the guy that others came count on to lead them out of any adaptive challenge. If you’re good at everything, there’s nothing to worry about. But the problem is, most of us aren’t.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

NY Philharmonic opens; what about musician hearing loss?

Today PBS broadcast opening night for the New York Philharmonic, with Lorin Maazel conducting the Berlioz “Roman Carnival Overture,” the funny Flute Concerto by Jacques Ibert (with Sir James Galway as the soloist), and Tchkovsky’s Fourth Symphony. The “coiled spring” coda of the first movement seemed a little rushed compared to other performances. Apparently the Philharmonic held a free dress rehearsal this morning. The performance link is here.

There have been disturbing reports that classical orchestra musicians and conductors face hearing loss over a lifetime if they are exposed to the brass and loud instruments of large romantic compositions. An article by Bernard D. Sherman, reprinted from “Early Music America” in 2000, “Losing Your Ears to Music: The hearing loss epidemic and musicians,” link here. The article talks about an incident where Wilhelm Furtwangler had trouble conducting one of his own works (the Second Symphony is quite heroic indeed) because of a lifetime of deafening from brass sections from Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler. Conductors emphasizing smaller works or works played by smaller ensembles may not have such an issue. I wonder about the orchestra players, whose exposure depends on their seating position relative to other sections of the orchestra.

Of course, the problem is well known among rock musicians (and disco dancers) but not so much in classical. There could be karma problems here.

I lost some hearing in my right ear at around 4000 cps on the rifle range in Basic Training in 1969. Coaching created a lot more exposure than firing. Afterward, I could hear your ears rings when I bit down. Yet, the television set in the barracks sent out a 15000 cps scanning tone, and I could hear that in both ears when in my 20s. We also hear that teenagers have cell phone ringtones pitched so high that their teachers can’t hear them.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Cat Show: getting there and parking was the challenge; biggest virtue is "an alert animal"

Well, today I visited the National Capital Cat Show at the Dulles Expo and Convention Center

The ads (at least in the Washington Times) included no driving directions, and I found it surprisingly hard to find from Route 28. It didn’t help that when I got to Route 28 on I-66 I had forgotten in which direction Route 50 was. Once I found it in the maze of industrial parks, I found all the parking lots full. And plenty of the surrounding businesses had “no expo parking, cars towed” signs. Finally, somebody pulled out. The show was packed today because everybody stayed home yesterday as Tropical Storm Hannah passed.

The cat is about the only animal that invites itself into a stranger’s home life. Mountain lions have been known to enter homes. Bears probably would if allowed to. Think about it: any animal that hunts game for a living has to have some smarts and problem-solving ability, which explains why most carnivores learn to accept man, as an “equal” (usually not as food, but there are exceptions). In Dallas, I was “adopted” by a male cat who could recognize the sound of my car, run to my apartment door, and would try to turn the door knob. Once inside, he would run for the refrigerator. He would sit on newspapers that I tried to read, and carry housekeys around the apartment in his mouth.

In an neighborhood, cats who are allowed to wander will memorize their entire territory, and remember every fence nearby mouse holes, and every water spicket that drips. If I make eye contact with a cat in a neighboring yard while walking past, she will come up to the sidewalk and watch.

At the show, while the exhibits of several hundred cats were separated by breeds, the main events seemed to the prize-winning show-and-tells. Cats would claw on their cages saying “I want go next.” The main virtue in the cat world, according to the judges, seems to be “an alert and lively animal.:

Friday, September 05, 2008

Colonial Willamsburg offers DVD about Fife & Drum Corps

On Memorial Day, 1961, when I went on a Science Honor Society senior field trip (Washington-Lee High School) to Mt. Washington, NH, we stopped on the way back and watched a patriotic parade in Tilton, NH. I remember the little marching bands and drums, with a relentlessness that recalls the mood of the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony (which I would hear performed once in Minneapolis in 2000).

But the background of all this march music from Europe has a lot to do with the fife and drum corps of earlier centuries, according to a DVD from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, “Drummers Call: America’s Fife & Drum Tradition” (purchase link here. The 56 minute film is directed by Michael C. Durlind, with Abigail Schuman as executive producer.

Bill White, educational Program Director for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, speaks. Stewart Pittman is the music director and talks about how young people are taught to play the instruments in bands for demonstration and celebration today.

Let’s wrap up the issue of classical music first. The DVD maintains that a lot of music of Haydn and Mozart (especially Haydn, as with the Drumroll Symphonhy, #103) may have been inspired by marching bands in Viennese Europe, but the more obvious Romantic example is Mahler.

But file and drum music played an important military purpose during the Revolutionary War. Music was used to communicate to “our” soldiers (keeping them performing their tasks in unit cohesion) but was also used to signal military advantage to the opposition. That contradicts military communications practice today where secrecy is so important.

New England, especially the Connecticut River Valley (and, as I know, New Hampshire) has maintained the tradition of fife & drum, but the best known reenactments probably occur at Colonial Williamsburg. The film shows how teenagers (from corps all over the country) are trained in summer camps to perform in unison, where there is an emphasis on unity as well as conventional musicianship. Fife & drum units develop special skills of a social nature that go beyond what probably is normally experienced in high school orchestras and bands.

The manufacture of the drums, with rolling and treating of wood (rather than conventional lamination) is shown.

The Continental Congress actually regulated the composition of fife & drum companies, and indirectly that regulated other military music and how it was paid for. Some of the organization of military music units in the Armed Forces today is still determined by these old laws.

The DVD contains three additional short films:

"Corps Stories: Memories of the Fifes and Drums of Colonial Williamsburg": (28 min) personal accounts of the difficulties of individual performers as they train. People could be demoted and forced to start over. Also, grade school kids, often not previously on their own from home, are brought in and taught by high school kids. There was an expectation of military bearing during the lessons and drill, and there is a bit of emulation of the military through a musical and artistic experience.

"Fifty Years Afoot": 12 minutes, stills, including some black-and-white from 1961 or so. It’s interesting (to me, at least) to see what Williamsburg looks like in BW. i wonder what that "bonfire of the vanities" picture is. It runs about 12 minutes.

"Alumni 5.1":

A fife & drum concert performance, running 5 minutes.

The DVD includes a bonus CD “Half Century of Quarter Notes: Celebrating the 50th Anniversay: The Fifes & Drums of Colonial Williamsburg,” 72 minutes.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

BrickFair Lego exhibit held in northern Virginia

I visited the BrickFair (also try BrickStructures Lego bricks exhibit at the Sheraton Hotel in Tysons Corner, Virginia (at 8661 Leesburg Pike, between 123 and 267, on the south side of Route 7).

First, the crowds early this afternoon (Aug. 30) were much larger than expected. Hotel employees were chasing cars out of the hotel property onto adjacent office parks for parking, apparently having to negotiate with neighboring properties at the last minute to get more parking spaces; there own garage was full. There was a line outside the hotel, but it moved quickly. There was a little bit of confusion, but in about fifteen minutes I got the wrist band ($10 adult) to see the “model” exhibit.

I didn’t see the skyscrapers, as the Washington Post photo showed. Yes, I was hoping for a $10 trip to Dubai, to see a model of the Burj Skyscraper and also this in Flash. I was told that the skyscraper exhibit was in Chicago. A good YouTube video of the construction is here. A British newspaper has some really spectacular stills of the Burj and surrounding area under construction here.

Instead, there were three rooms. The first had feudal castles and a nice, accurate replica of Jamestown, as it would have been about a year after the 1607 settlement (about 8 miles from Williamsburg in the real world). A second room was packed with kids building their own models. The third room had the “model railroad” exhibit, with mechanical, crane contraptions setting off various “Matrix-like” gizmos. There was not as much “landscape” or “cityscape” as in other model exhibits, even with Lego trains.

In the hotel lobby there was also a replica of an airport terminal, complete with airliners.

The Washington Post "Weekend" (Aug. 29) article with pictures from other BrickFair exhibits is here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Colonial Willamsburg has video on musical instrument making -- all by hand

In my survey of Colonial Willamsburg culture, I found that it was out-of-stock on one video about the music of the era, but it does have a video (but not a DVD) “The Musical Instrument Maker of Williamsburg: A Tribute to Eighteenth Century Workmanship,” produced and directed (in 1997) by Gene Bjerk, with craftsmen and apprentices “Mr. Wilson”, Marcus Hansen, Larry Bowers, and Colin Collingsworth. I had to order this directly from Colonial Williamsburg, as I did not find it on Amazon. (The link is here.

From a personal perspective, the video is interesting in that it forms a contrast to what we often depict today as the technology associated with music: computers, midis, various composition manuscript software packages, and web and P2P tools associated with music. Here, for 53 minutes, you see tedious craftsmanship with wood, strings, ivory, wire, and various hand tools. The instrument makers focus on a spinet (it appeared to have only 49 keys) and a violin. The background music seemed to consist of Bach, Telemann, and maybe a little early Haydn.

The spinet should be compared to the harpsichord and clavichord, but the pianoforte was already in existence then. The video, in fact, shows us how spinet strings are plucked (and how with only one register pad unwanted overtones can sound). Plucking does not allow for the wide dynamic range expected of the piano. But the piano was already coming into use during the time of Williamsburg. But the first composer to really use its expressive potential was probably Beethoven. Bach concertos are often played on harpsichords, although they “work” (as Glenn Gould proved) on pianos. Yet, harpsichord-like instruments had their heydays, and reached a climax in passages like the famous cadenza in the first movement of Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto.

The early part of the video talks a lot about the wood selection, and spinet-making was as much furniture-making as instrument-making. Mechanical joints, often hidden in the back, are shown. For violins, wood selection (curly wood from maple trees) is particularly critical. As the video progresses, music-related issues are presented.

Friday, August 15, 2008

"Our Common Passage", a one-actor play from Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg has a shorted play, a one-actor play written and performed by Abigail Schumann, called “Our Common Passage.” The title does not refer to the passage across the Atlantic (like the colonists that settled Jamestown), but rather to the individual hardships of diverse women during and after the American Revolution.

Schumann plays four different roles, and acts in simple indoor colonial settings appropriate for each role. Jane Harmon performs some period songs between each act (apparently dubbing the voice as Schumann is on stage). In fact, she starts by singing “O Absalon, My Son.” (Absalom was a controversial son of David in the Old Testaement.) Then she plays a gentrified woman who has lost a child as Revolution approaches Williamsburg. She talks about Governor Dunmore and the possibility that he would free slaves who would fight for the Revolution, and that would cause hardships. (Colonial Williamsburg explains the challenging historical details about Dunmore’s activities, including placing Williamsburg under martial law, here.) She also talks about her eagerness to raise her husband’s (he is away) pervious children. Next, she sings a song with a mandolin-like instrument (“Nothing Can Mourn Her”) and then she plays a midwife, in a world where childbearing was a risky responsibility for women, and many women died. The third act has a slave (the word “negro” is used and it was accepted then and was in this country until after the 1960s) who mentions nursing her master’s children. There is talk of a husband “gone but not sold, he left by choice.” In the last segment, she is a woman in the mountainous frontier, having been “exiled” because of a debt, and giving birth to a child alone. The stage goes dark as the baby utters his first cries.

The play shows us that their world was one of forced intimacy and commitments that most of us would find unbelievable in our culture. Yet, there were many of the concepts of today’s system of liberty, such as contracts and private property.

The DVD is accompanied by a 17-minute short film called “Colonial Clothing: The Dress of Eighteenth Century America,” directed by Gene Bjerk. Men actually had businesses in “staymaking” related to women’s corsets and petticoats. Both boys and girls wore dresses as young children. Men went through elaborate preparations in the morning, being shaved by a slave and then putting on what look like elaborate costumes with stocking garters, wigs, and elaborate pullover shirts. I guess they met John T. Molloy's pretentious vision of how to "dress for success."

The link for the DVD is this.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

"Jefferson & Adams: A "Stage Play" from Colonial Willamsburg

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation offers a 92 minute play “Jefferson & Adams: A Stage Play,” authored by Howard Ginsberg, here also on Amazon. The director is Douglas Anderson. The cast comprises Bill Barker as Thomas Jefferson, Sam Goodyear as John Adams, and Abigail Schumann as Mrs. Abigail Adams.

The play was performed in February 2004 at the Kimball Theater in Williamsburg VA and later at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, VT. There are two acts, with nine scenes in each act.

The stagecraft is simple. There are usually a few furniture items of the period, and usually the players appear and have descriptive confrontations. The camera in the DVD does a lot of close-ups as the men talk, and often focuses on desktop items, emphasizingh colonial colors (a lot of green and brown) and dress. Men are shown writing with quilt pens. A scene with Abigail shows an interesting sculpture of a bluebird, probably more common in colonial times. One scene simulates being in Paris during the French Revolution.

The play starts on July 4, 1826, when both men died in their respective homes after a fifty-plus year friendship. John Adams is awaiting a letter from Jefferson. (“No letter from Jefferson?” Adams feels chilled even in July. Jefferson does intend to write an apology.) The play then tells the history as a back story. Soon rationalizes his use of slaves, but he wants to see them “educated.” Abigail starts out by talking about remembering “ladies” in the law, and by curbing the unlimited power of husbands; women were to be treated as “precious beings.” Abigail relates the hardships of disease, like diphtheria and smallpox.

Jefferson comes across as the strong proponent of individual liberty and limited government, and even mentions the freedom to lead private lives. This first comes across when they work together as part of a committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. Adams comes across as seeing the need for strong republican government and rule of law. Adams, remember, supported the idea of a senate of “better born” men as a way of dealing with a transition from a system of government that had been based on aristocracy. Later they talk about sedition and newspapers. Jefferson says that, given an absurd choice, he would take newspapers without government. Jefferson seems to be coming across strongly for freedom of speech, Adams for consideration of the harm that reckless speech could cause. Jefferson seemed to think that the individual freedoms were essential to a nation whose citizens were “worthy of independence.” (Doesn’t this remind one of the debate over China and the Internet today?) It’s odd that Adams comes across as more conservative to us when he had become Unitarian; the letters between the two men often debated religion and philosophy. Later, Jefferson is in Paris and wants to side with the revolutionaries of the French Revolution. At one point, Jefferson says he cannot countenance “life without books.”

The two men would reconcile some differences in 1812, about the time of the War of 1812, in fact, which had started in part over the issue of the impressment (involuntary servitude) of American seaman when captured by British ships. The war would be seen as a desire by Britain to take back the colonies, but the British struggle with Napoleon probably overshadowed the war. John Adams takes great pride in the career of his son, John Quincy Adams, who serves as negotiator ending the War of 1812 and then becomes president in 1825.

The play overlaps some of the material covered in the outdoor “Revolutionary City” in Williamsburg, probably particularly the Monday show.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

PBS plays historic Bernstein concert of Beethoven's Ninth

Tonight, Maryland Public Television (MPT) of PBS aired a DVD of Leonard Bernstein’s performance of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Symphony #9 in D Minor, the Choral, on Christmas Day 1989 from East Berlin. This was the concert that celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall that year on November 9. The concert took place in the Schauspielhaus, which looked immaculate for the concert, whatever condition it might have been in under Communism. PBS points out that Bernstein substituted “Freiheit” (“freedom”) for “Freude” (“Joy”) in Schiller’s text in the Finale. Conductor Herbert von Karajan arranged the famous hymn theme (often used in churches) into the official anthem for the European Union. It's curious that a 1993 film "Trois Coleurs: Bleu" directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski build a plot around a deceased composer who was writing a work called "The Unity of Europe" and whose ex-wife tries to destroy the manuscript out of grief.

The performance has long been available on a CD from Deutsch Grammophone. The New York Times has a query copy of the original 1989 AP story here.

Bernstein tends to like slow tempos, and the performance is a bit like the Klemperer recording made in 1957 for Angel, which I received as one of my first stereo records for Christmas in 1962. In those days, the Ninth usually took three LP sides, particularly with early stereo records.

The opening descending fourths in the first movement inspired the opening of Mahler’s own symphonic voyage. The slow movement (as well of the slow movement of the Eroica) seems to have inspired the great Adagios of Bruckner, Mahler and even Shostakovich. Bernstein draws out this movement more than Klemperer did, and varies the tempos more during the exploratory “variations”.

Like Haydn and Mozart with “classicism”, Beethoven and Schubert were complementary, in transitioning to romanticism. I think of Beethoven as generating Brahms and Schumann, and Schubert as generating Bruckner and Mahler and even Viennese expressionism. I was thinking, though, about what makes all these works tick. The Ninth is only Beethoven’s second symphony in a minor key, and D minor sounds so very different from C Minor. I thought about how Schubert’s comparable work (the “pre-Bruckner” Great C Major) has an “allegretto”-like “slow movement” in A minor that recalls Beethoven’s Seventh, but no Adagio.. (What makes the “Great” really work would be a whole discussion on its own; there’s nothing else like it other than Schubert’s own Quintet.) Schubert liked to use song material for his slow movements; it seems as if Beethoven really did invent the concept of the modern “Adagio” in romantic symphonic music.

Wikipedia explains the Finale as a “symphony within a symphony” gives detailed analysis of the “sub-movements.” In the slow introduction, Beethoven reviews thematic material from the first three movements, introducing for the first time the idea of “connected” movements. In both reviewing earlier themes and then segmenting his form for the Finale, Beethoven sets an example leading to the segmented one-movement works by composers like Franz Liszt. Actually, two of Schubert’s big piano fantasies are segmented into quasi-movements this way. Eventually, the idea of a sonata structure within an opera act would be tried by Alban Berg in “Wozzeck.”

To me, however, the Finale has always sounded more like a rondo. The big hymn theme repeatedly seems to be trying to transition to a sonata-like “second subject” when the transition will turn into an episode, and then the theme returns with some variation, at least once as a fugato. Beethoven continuously treats us to strettos and elliptical dissonances, with all their harmonic tension, necessary to great music. At the end, the music is swept into its own vortex.

Personally, I remember that Christmas well. I was in the Cleveland area with relatives for Christmas (bitterly cold that year). I don’t recall that the broadcast was shown live in the U,S. Christmas Night that year, one major network carried the film Rogers & Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” with Julie Andrews, the Trapp Family escaping to freedom, yes, at the end with “climb every mountain” after a stunning climax where Trapp deals with the soldier that tries to capture him back into fascism. It’s still fitting.

The fall of the Berlin Wall would indeed lead to the “dominoes in reverse.” In Romania, protests against Nicolae Ceauşescu would lead to his eviction from power and execution Christmas day that year. The Wikipedia article is interesting.

During that time, I was moving to a new job in mid January 1990, a development that would eventually set up some of my circumstances today. But at the old job (a health care consulting company Lewin), at a Christmas luncheon, we took a poll on the “person of the year” and the employees chose “the People of Eastern Europe,” right as Ceausescu fell.

Two years later, Christmas 1991, the entire Soviet Union would fall. We know the history since then. It’s interesting how so many events, public and less public, link up.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Signature Theater in Arlington VA has open house today to introduce new season

The Signature Theater in the Shirlington Village in Arlington VA is having an open house today Saturday Aug. 2 (until 9 PM) to launch its 2008-2009 season. There is a new parking garage to the south of the theater on the main street, but I was lucky to find a space in the older one.

The main website for the theater is this.

The large printed schedule for the new season, with a décor based on the New York City subway system, offers “Ace” (music by Richard Oberacher, book and lyrics by Robert Taylor and Oberacher), “Giant”, a musical based on Edna Ferber’s novel with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, and a single performance in October of Stephen Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle.” That title reminds me of the old urban legend from the 1950s that gay men can’t whistle.

The Signature has two stages, called the Max and the Ark. The art gallery on the mezzanine includes a picture of the small brick building near Four Mile Run that used to house the theater.

Some of the events for today include a Stage Combat Workshop, a Plaza Concert, a Sondheim Sing-along, and a Peter Lerman lobby performance.

I saw "Kiss of the Spider Woman" at the Signature in March of this year.

The new Shirlington Branch of the Arlington County Public Library is on the same plaza.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Venezuela's National Youth Orchestra and music programs featured on CBS "60 Minutes"

Tonight, Bob Simon of CBS "60 Minutes" did a report on Venezuela’s music education program. The segment was called (“The System”) “El Sistema: Changing Lives Through Music”, link here. The original broadcast had occurred in April 2008 and was updated in July.

The Venezuelan government has reportedly educated 800,000 youth in music over thirty years. Lessons start as early as age 2, and by age 4 many children can play an instrument. The broadcast showed segments of performances from the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra, picked from young musicians around the country, performing the climactic passage from the finale of Bela Bartok’s "Concerto for Orchestra", a passage from a Berlioz overture, a passage from Richard Strauss’s tone poem "Don Juan", and the opening passages of Beethoven’s Ninth. The broadcast went into the barrios built in ravines outside the Caracas city center, and showed one girl playing Bach on a violin as she walked down a capillary alley. The experience shows that music education provides vulnerable children with something constructive to anchor their lives to.

Young maestro Gustavo Dudamel often conducts the national orchestra. He was reported on Feb 17 on “60 Minutes”, and discussed in a report on this blog dated Jan. 13, 2008 (toward the end of the posting).

Venezuela has become controversial because of the socialist government of Hugo Chavez, and the dispute over nationalization of oil resources.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

A Russian Fourth on a (rainy) Mall?

I had to double up to see the Fourth Concert on the Mall this year and “cheat”, using the WETA rebroadcast at 9:30. (I got invited to supper by school alumni, and saw some illegal fireworks in apartment complex parking lots driving home.) The program appears halfway down this webpage: Early, Taylor Hicks from American Idol sung (sorry, no Ryan Seacrest). It looks like the DC area was sandwiched between masses of rain along a stationary front. It was clear out around Fairfax City, and raining closer to the City.

But something struck me about the climax, the cannons and fireworks display. Erich Kunzel conducted the recapitulation and coda from Tchaikovky’s 1812 Overture, with the National Symphony chorus singing a Czarist Russian anthem. (for example, look here. ) It struck me as odd in a US patriotic celebration.

Furthermore, the music should have justice done, even an old warhorse like this. The Overture Solonnelle 1812 in E-flat, Op. 49 really works much better when played in completion, with the tremendous climaxes and cannon shots coming together during recapitulation. But that leaves less time for the “pops.”

I think one year the Symphony played the Danish Anthem Overture. One year I think the Shostakovich Festival overture was played, also.

My favorite orchestral climaxes is Tchaikovsky usually come in minor keys, with some "violence". The end of Francesca da Rimini, the end of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, and the end of the first movement of the Manfred. The scherzo (third movement) of the Pathetique ends "triumphantly", the last moment of joy before what follows in the ashen finale. And I wonder how many people notice that the broad movement plans of Mahler's Ninth Symphony and Tchaikovsky's Pathetique run in parallel.

As for Russian choral music, I remember the big chorus from Boris Goudonov playing on an old Melodiya recording in my New York apartment one time in the 1970s, during an event of some personal importance. Somehow, the use of the chorus in the 1812 last night brought that memory to mind.

Picture: Clay Aiken ("Learning to Sing") performed at the 2004 concert.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Berstein's Candide and other works: eclectic mixture of styles

Back in March 1996, I “journeyed” to the old Washington waterfront and saw Leonard Bernstein’s “operetta” Candide, in the old, somewhat smallish Arena Stage, as it had been as far back as the 50s, in the days of what the Washington Post used to call “City Life.” This performance, I believe, was the older, “lighter” version that comes across as a bit of light satire, opera buffet and bel canto. The opera / operetta is based on the well known Voltaire satire, with libretto and book from Lillian Hellman, Richard Wilbur and others. (I found the Arena Stage's history of performances for that year here.)

In fact, that version was the only one available in the early days of CD. While still in Dallas, I got the New World Records performance from 1982 from the New York City Opera. (Yahoo! offers a re-release here.) But in 1989, Bernstein expanded the work into “grand opera,” adding songs and making the orchestration more expansive and “symphonic.” What results is an odd mixture of styles. It starts with the same comic overture, but the music gets progressively more serious and now the closing “Garden Grow” chorus (even with the a cappella passage) turns into majestic coda, almost evoking the ending of Mahler’s 2nd or 8th symphonies. He plays some tricks in the composition, suddenly modulating to the open key of C Major, and punctuating his progress with the phrase “any questions?” before the final massed orchestra chords. The definitive CD now has Bernstein conducting the London Symphony and Chorus (forces usually appropriate for large romantic works) on DG, dated 1991. Wikipedia has a list of the contents of the latest version in a detailed article.

Bernstein takes the climax of the opera slowly, and later in his career, he showed a preference for Klemperer-like tempos in many works. Try, for example, his recordings of the Brahms Second or Third symphonies. Of course, we properly credit Bernstein for awakening public interest in many of the previously little performed works of Mahler in the 1960s, and in other post-romantics like Carl Nielsen.

Bernstein loved to mix styles in his three symphonies. In #1 (Jeremiah) and #3 (Kaddish) he echoed the use of song and chorus into the symphonic form in a manner of Mahler. The Third is more effective in the earlier 1962 version, which Columbia records issued as a memorial to John F. Kennedy in 1963 on a special edition. Bernstein, reversing his artistry from Candide, compressed the work some for his subsequent recording on DG with the Israel Philharmonic. The work includes some “Sprechstimme” where the speaker questions a God (“your bargain is tin”) who seems to demand so much self-effacement and loss of personal sovereignty as a requirement for any kind of salvation, which is not exactly the same thing as atonement. The slow movement includes a song that recalls the Mahler of “Das Lied von der Erde.” The finale has an exciting choral fugue (maybe reminding one of Verdi’s “Falstaff”).

The Second Symphony, “Age of Anxiety” is for piano and orchestra, but rather echoes the idea of Brahms – a composition that is more a symphony with piano obbligato that a concerto. The music is lush, even in the second movement where Bernstein makes some rather obvious references to the operatic world of Alban Berg. The finale goes for majesty and grandeur rather than virtuosity, with the closing chordal passage recalling Copland’s Third Symphony.

I thought I would mention another late romantic work somewhere: Max Reger’s “Sinfonietta” in A Major, which is a full-blown late romantic symphony of over 50 minutes with a crunching scherzo that plays in the head and that I think has appeared in the movies a couple of times. The scherzo will sound familiar, even if the work is obscure. The main recording now is conducted by Bongartz with the Dresden Philharmonic on Berlin Classics. This amazon UK link allows the visitor to sample some excerpts.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Smithsonian Folklife festival features live folk music from Bhutan

The Smithsonian Folklife festival on the Washington Mall features a couple of curious musical performances. One of these comes from Bhutan, with performers, in a monastic enclosure with artwork, playing a loud passage on a long horn (a dhung), in a melody consisting of held repeated notes with an occasional drop of a perfect fourth. There was a line that moved quickly to see the musicians and the exhibit. There was also a folk dance performance in a nearby tent. The Smithsonian writeup is here.

I have short five second videos (mpeg) of these at this link (folkm1 through folkm5).

There was also a performance of country and western from the “Texas Opry” (file follm4).

Even on a weekday (today), crowds were heavy, visiting free performances available from the Metro without the need to drive in these days of high fuel prices.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Burma Benefit Concert in Washington DC

The First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC offered a free Burma Benefit Concert today at 4 PM EDT. Donations were collected for the victims of the Myanmar May 2 cyclone. Burmese Baptist Church Rev. Ler Htoo spoke about government outrages.

The performers were Deborah Miller, soprano; Jennefer Matthews, mezzo-soprano; Issachah Savage, tenor; Aurelio Dominguez, tenor; Gregory Lowery, bass; Kevin Thompson, bass; Matthew T. Bachman, piano, and Lawrence P. Schreiber, piano. The concert featured the Steinway piano which the church acquired in December 2007. Despite the concert’s vocal content, the piano was left open toward the audience for the high overtones to ring out.

The concert comprised eighteen items.

(1) Gioacchino Rossinin, “Domine Dues” from “Petite Messe” sung by Savage, whose voice is very powerful.
(2) Wendell Whalum, “God is a God” sung by Thompson. It referred to Nicodemus, and then to the story of Samson (the subject of opera by Saint-Seans -- I've always thought this particular Old Testament story has a hidden meaning, related to that of Jacob and Esau).
(3) Richard Strauss, “Allerseelen” Op. 10, #8, composed at age 21, sung by Mathews.
(4) Wolfgang A. Mozart, “O Isis und Osiris” from “The Magic Flute” (“Die Zauberflote”), K620, sung by Lowery
(5) Gaetano Donizetti, “A Mes Amis” from “La Fille du Regiment” sung by Dominguez
(6) A Spiritual adapted by Hall Johnson, “Witness” sung by Savage
(7) Gioacchino Rossini, “La Calumnia” from “The Barber of Seville” sung by Thompson
(8) Gian Carlo Menotti, “To This We’ve Come” from “The Consul” sung by Miller. The opera, dated to 1950, deals with a dictatorship (comparable to Myanmar) and the seeking of political asylum or relief from the United States by family members. Here is a typical explanatory link.
There was an intermission in which Rev. Htoo spoke.
(9) Leo Delibes, “Dome Espais" from "Lakme", sung by Miller and Mathews as a famous duet, harmonized in thirds.
(10) Folk song adapted by John Jacob Niles, “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”, sung by Lowery
(11) Andre Previn, “I’m not a Boy” from “A Streetcar Named Desire” sung by Savage
(12) George Gershwin, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” sung by Mathews
(13) Pablo Sorozabal Mariezcurrena, “La Tabernera Del Puerto” The composer is Basque and Spanish.
(14) James Kern, “Ol’ Man River” from "Showboat", sung by Thompson
(15) Spiritual adapted by Lawrence Schreiber, “Deep River” sung by Mathews
(16) Richard Rogers, “You’ve Never Walk Alone”, the climactic closing song of "Carousel", sung by Lowery. On the piano, the “accompaniment” sounds strangely dissonant; with a symphony orchestra as in the 1955 movie, it works, as does the brilliant waltz that opens the musical. I remember the song “My Boy Bill,” very much about “family values.”
(17) Giacomo Puccini, “Bimba Dagli Pieni di Malia” from “Madame Butterfly", sung by Miller and Dominguez as a duet.
(18) Spirtual, adapted by Margaret Bonds, “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” sung by the entire ensemble.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Mahler's Fourth, along with Puccini and Gerber, performed in Alexandria

Yesterday, Sunday June 8, some neighbors a few houses down held a volleyball and pool party with an odd sight: a violist performing underneath a veranda. He said he did not know the solo part of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, or Bartok’s famous viola concerto. But it was a fitting sight on the way to a concert.

Late yesterday The Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Orchestra held its last concert of the season, with a most interesting selection. Soprano Tia Wortham was featured, with Ulysses S. James conducting. The concert took place at the Bishop Ireton High School (Catholic) in Alexandria VA, near Duke Street approaching downtown.

The concert opened with Ms. Wortham singing Donetta’s Aria “Chi il bel sogno” (“Donetta’s lovely dream”) from Giacomo Puccini’s La Rondine. The opera, completed during World War I, was Puccini’s next to last. The aria is sparing but exhibits some of the harmonic opulence of Puccini’s Turandot (which I saw performed in Dallas in 1980) that would follow.

The next piece was Steven R. Geber’s Symphony #2. His First Symphony had been performed by the same group earlier this season. The Second runs about twenty minutes and bears the subtitle “Elegies and Fanfares.” The outer two movements sound to me like a mixture of Copland and William Schuman. The last movement uses a theme from the composer’s Fanfare for the Voice of America, written after 9/11 for a memorial concert. Curiously, the symphony ends quietly and inconclusively, where I was expecting a peroration like the close of Copland’s massive Third Symphony (the finale of which incorporates Copland’s own Fanfare for the Common Man). The Intermezzo is not a slow movement, but more like an Allegretto (in the spirit of Beethoven’s Seventh, perhaps, as so featured in the recent hit film “The Fall”), with scale-like woodwind figures that stop and start, rather giving the effect of a featherweight scherzo.

The featured work for the concert was Mahler’s Symphony #4 in G Major. This work is the last of the Wunderhorn symphonies and seems like the lightest. The first movement is said to evocate the memories of Haydn, but its 18 minutes show considerable complexity. The music opens with the humorous B minor sleighbells before settling into the winter sunshine of G Major. The exposition is full and partially repeated, before a complex development with lots of wind snippets and counterpoint ensues. The climaxes, though frequent, seem jolly. The Coda is long and, in the manner of Beethoven, almost like a second development. The movement seems like a commentary on the way Beethoven developed his compositional style more from Haydn than Mozart, and the music recapitulates all of the traditions of that period, concluding on two loud G Major chords as periods.

The scherzo is well known for the use of the solo violin tuned a step high for scordatura. The first violinist actually picked up a different violin (reminding me of the garden party that I had witnessed). The music is in C Major, but the theme is cleverly constructed to sound polytonal and take advantage of the out-of-tune sound of the violin. This sort of effect would be used later by Alban Berg in his operas. Formally, the music is a Landler, a kind of Viennese waltz. Listeners who know Mahler now notice the brief quotes from future works (the fifth and ninth symphonies). The last two notes of the movement are fortissimo in the woodwinds, a conclusion that caused squawk on the inner groves of the first stereo record I ever owned (Mahler’s Fourth as performed by Klemperer, which I got, along with Beethoven’s Ninth, on Christmas Day in 1962 – hence I associate the Fourth with winter – and that, as readers of my blogs know, was not a good time in my life.)

By the way, the "polytonal" scherzo theme resembles the opening of the tune "A Place and Time to Call our Own" from the CBS/Paramount sci-fi series "The 4400." But Mahler's handling of the melodic concept is much more interesting.

The slow movement, Poco Adagio, is expansive and seems to be written in the variation form of late Beethoven. This performance took it a bit too fast. Toward the end, the music builds to a massive “sunrise” climax in the distant key of E Major, before migrating back to end quietly on the dominant D and lead to the finale, which is simply a song “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”) from “Das Knaben Wunderhorn”, sung with orchestra by Ms. Wortham. The music is playful and childlike, recalling the sleighbells, but for the last stanza, curiously descends a “chromatic third” to E Major, in which the symphony ends.

Mahler originally considered adding this song as a seventh movement to the Third Symphony (which I heard the Minnesota Orchestra perform in 2002), which would have been a mistake. The Third Movement ends powerfully with its majestic D Major slow movement. (Curiously, the famous first movement migrates from D Minor to F Major, so it’s fitting to end in D). I spoke to Ms. Wortham during the reception, and she said that the descent of the “chromatic third” is supposed to ensure a sense of calm. I always felt that it still leaves a question mark, at the end of the Wunderhorn period. Mahler’s next symphony would be written in a totally new style for him.

I also met Mr. Gerber during the intermission.

Update: June 11

Maryland PBS today aired a performance by the Cleveland Orchestra in Florian Abbey in Linz, Austria, conducted by the youthful Franz Wesler-Most, of Anton Bruckner's Symphony #5 in B-flat. And that's both major and minor, as the main motive has the D flattened most of the time. The work oscillates between religiosity and driving energy. The first movement crashes to a close with an outburst that almost seems to conjure off images of Smallville's Clark "speeding" off to Metropolis. The finale is a massive fugue that combines all the motives of the previous movements, and ends with a majestic brass chorale. The mood of the work fits an abbey, but the conductor's tempos were a little fast, particularly in the Adagio.

Would Oprah approve of the WMPO's shopping bag?