Saturday, December 26, 2009

Miami has innovative program for middle school musicians: grades improve!

Mark Potter on NBC reported on “America’s Children’s Orchestras for Peace” in Miami/Dade County FL, an extracurricular music program comparing to what was done in Venezuela by Gustavo Dudamel. The program has been shown to lead to an in grades for middle school kids. The music shown in the MSNBC report was mostly Christmas carol music.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Sundance Channel presents "Rufus Wainwright: Prima Donna"

On Monday Dec. 21 The Sundance Channel broadcast a documentary “Rufus Wainwright: Prima Donna”, directed by George Scott. The Sundance link for the film is here.

It’s unusual for a young artists (Rufus is now 36) to achieve enough “notability” (a Wikipedia term) to get a documentary film made about him for cable. He was born in New York State but spent a lot of his youth in Montreal. He came out as gay as a teenager and could convince people he was older, and talked his way into clubs – a sensitive item to mention, but it does happen. The film mentions a gay bar named the Akbar in Los Angeles, but that sounds like a bizarre name for such a club.

Early in the documentary Rufus says that everyone needs to find a personal passion before puberty, or else he will fall under the spell of other people’s aims. He describes himself as a complete libertarian (I don’t recall hearing about him in my Libertarian Party of Minnesota days from 1997-2003).

The film talks about the classical music world, and the view of classical music as a “museum” art film, but Rufus seems to be trying to bridge the pop and classical worlds (but so did Leonard Bernstein). A lover raised in Germany introduced him to the world of Viennese music, including Mahler and Schoenberg. The classical audience is somewhat more demanding and critical.

In fact, an early scene in the documentary shows him trying out for a part in Puccini’s “Tosca”.

The documentary describes a period of drug abuse, where Rufus temporarily goes blind. Then he enters rehab. Later, his mother develops cancer, and Rufus works for her to hear his works.

The film goes briefly into his CD and DVD “Rufus Does Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall” (etc.).

Then the film shows his composition of “Prima Donna”, or “A Day in the Life of an Opera Singer”. The musical style is a mixture of pop and parody of late romanticism, with a touch of comedy. Some of it reminds one of Bernstein’s “Candide” a bit in spots. A little of it resembles Glass. There was some controversy over the commission with the Met. The work was premiered in Manchester, England.

Wikipedia mentions a 2006 DVD "All I Want" with a documentary "A Portrait of Rufus Wainwright."

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Montreal. My most recent visit was in August 1993.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

LDS, Presbyterian Churches in Arlington present combined Christmas concert

On December 13, 2009 the Ward 2 Congregation in Arlington VA of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints joined with the Trinity Presbyterian Church across Inglewood Street, on north 16th (very near the Virginia Hospital Center) to present a one hour “The Sounds of Christmas: Carols of the Season”.

The Trinity church provided trollers, tuned to play a D Major scale (“Joy to the World”) which joined with the LDS choir to perform “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” ; later LDS performed “Night of Silence”.

The two congregations are as far apart politically as imaginable. Both congregations graduated a lot of high school students this year. It’s interesting to note that students who attend church (or synagogue or mosque) of any political leaning tend to do much better in school. There were relatively few minority members present, however.

There were a very large number of small children in attendance. The service was noisier than usual.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Did my own piano lessons make me a good student as a kid? Probably so.

I checked into some scrapbook paper records of my own piano lessons today. It looks like my parents purchased the Kimball spinet piano in February 1951, when I was in second grade (I was born in July 1943). But my first recital took place in June 1952 in Falls Church, near the end of my third grade year. I played the “Tom Thumb March” which is the first piece in John Thompson’s “Teaching Little Fingers to Play”. (The First and Second grade books got more interesting). The piece comprised all middle C’s.

I did well in school the first two grades, but had trouble getting along with my third grade teacher right off the bat. I fell behind physically, a problem that would always nag me, and I actually suddenly had learning difficulties (doing poorly on a “My Weekly Reader” test that fall). But it seems that I started taking piano from a certain Mrs. McDermott in the basement of an Arlington home in November 1951. Curiously, I snapped out of my learning doldrums and by fifth grade was a consistently good student, as I would be from then on, all the way through college. Did the music help? The evidence is certainly that it did.

On the other hand, the "space" or resources in my brain used for music could have detracted from normal physical development. But generally that has not been the case for other male musicians. So I don't know why this happened with me. Maybe a case of measles after first grade (in 1950) did some subtle damage.

Does learning an instrument help with academics in general? There’s a good chance it does. Kids who perform (music, drama) tend to do better in school as a whole. Most movie studios have to hire studio teachers, and it seems like usually only the smartest kids consistently get parts.

The Kimball got out of tune over the decades, and was given away in 2003 before I moved back to the DC area from Minnesota.

Some experts on autism and Asperger's say that developmental issues like mine are the result of a "slow brain reaction time." I could become good at piano (and develop a musical ear) because that involves turning on one "brain application" and letting it run -- in a manner similar to what a computer has to do to start a service when it boots up -- the brain works very efficiently once it is engaged on something, and develops a narrow range of interests. (Can any concert pianist explain how he can play a Rachmaninoff concerto perfectly?) But slowly this range still expands, as into academics, anyway, but always at a measured pace. Playing the piano well (an entire composition) engages the brain very differently than does driving a racing car or hitting a fast ball in MLB.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Trans-Siberian Orchestra on PBS, to come to Baltimore

On November 30, Maryland Public Television presented a brief concert by the “Trans-Siberian Orchestra”, called “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve”. Ossie Davis (late) narrates the homeward journey of a runaway girl who encounters a shelter. A variety of Christmas and adaptations of classical music with a rock-like setting occur, such as the famous Pachelbel Canon.

The link for Trans-Siberian is here. It will perform in Baltimore soon. There was a mystery adventure film by the same name in 2007.

Friday, November 27, 2009

ABC GMA presents band "Flame" comprising disabled musicians

ABC Good Morning America presented a music band from upstate New York, “Flame”. The news story by Mary Pflum and Suzan Clarke is “Flame's Members Say Disabilities Won't Stop Band From Making Music: N.Y. Band Members Live With Blindness, Autism, Down Syndrome”, link here. There is a video in which the band plays, here (ABC doesn’t seem to give out embed code). The website for the group is “Flametheband” here ( is a band in Russia). The main website has a link on the right to its promotional video as a WMV file that will bring up Windows Media Player.

Flame is said to be the only touring band in the world to consist entirely of disabled members.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Adam Lambert: "I'm a performer" (not ...)

Adam Lambert is not apologizing for his “performance” on the American Music Awards (AMA) ceremony (link). Is he judged by a different standard because he is a gay male? People made a lot of Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson (the “wardrobe malfunction”) in the 2004 Superbowl halftime (resulting in a fine). Rebecca Hagelin made a lot of the Timberlake-Jackson thing in her book (see my books page) about our “culture gone wild”.
Here’s the AP story, as reprinted in the Chicago Sun Times (link).

CNN has an interesting video (hard to get the Embed to work), link.

Here is Seth Goldman’s account on MSNBC

As for the AMA performance, people said, “kids might be watching.” Lambert said, “I’m not a baby sitter, I’m a performer.” Good Morning America on ABC cancelled him out, but the CBS Early Show (which needs the ratings) put him on. Rocktar has a report that Lambert could cost Abc A $500000 fine here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Eigenharp videos demonstrate an instrument for "new music"

A trio group playing an electronic instrument called Eigenharp Alpha showed up yesterday (Nov. 24) as a YouTube “video of the day” "The Future of Music"). The trio plays instruments that are partly string partly wind, posted by Bohlal. The trio members were (according to the related video as best I could tell) Thad Kemp, Mark Wilson, Sydney Carter . The Eigenharp (link; also here on Facebook here) instrument is a long thin stick with 120 keys on the top, and 12 larger keys below; the keys are sensitive to pressure and axial orientation of the finger. It’s ironic that this video is popular at the same time that the film “(Untitled)” plays (reviewed Nov. 14 on the movies blog). Besides the “Alpha” there is an Eigenharp Pico. Will this show up on Jeopardy or Millionaire as a question?

The basic YouTube link is here; check the related videos.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Some standard piano music accompanies Thanksgiving celebration at FBCDC

The First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC held a “dinner concert” during its Thanksgiving celebration today at 12 Noon.

The highlights of the event consisted of two short pieces by Carter-award winner David Hughes: The Intermezzo #2 in A, Op 118 #2 by Brahms, and the Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9 #2 by Chopin. This is the most popular of the Chopin nocturnes (I like the G minor one). I had an Istomin Columbia mono recording of the Nocturnes in high school that got worn out with heavy tracking tone arms and sapphire needles of the 1950s (before then, there were wood needles!). Mr. Hughes also played John Rutter’s “For the Beauty of the Earth” sung by Lee Ellen Carter. Nancy Griswold played a piano transcription of the fanfare from Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”, the original orchestral version of which used to introduce the evening Symphony Hall on WGMS in the late 1950s.

The service was billed as “Christ the King Sunday” and the new senior pastor, Dr. Jeffrey Haggray, gave a sermon “Accusation, Inquiry, or Confession” spoke about religious bullying: one religious group insisting on prevailing over another, and abusing the law or political process to do so. The sermon was constructed in general terms over the First Amendment Freedom of Religion (and from a state religion). He spoke of religious leaders who gave up “searching for truth” for political manipulations. However, it seemed as though the sermon had been well motivated by the recent “Manhattan Declaration” in which conservative Christians plan to defy legal authority, and particularly DC politics: another pastor from Maryland trying to bully the DC City Council into a referendum over same-sex marriage, and the Catholic Archdiocese’s use of the poor as chattel in fighting gay marriage in DC.

Of course, any sermon or media presentation can be interpreted in terms of recent political debates, as with the ABC show “V” which is seen as capitalizing on the health care debate in Congress.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"This Is It": auditions and dress rehearsals for Michael Jackson's intended concert

This Is It”, Kenny Ortega’s homage to Michael Jackson, as a compilation of his last dress rehearsals and some documentary style interviews, sometimes does rise to the challenge of concert film, although it seems lower key than other films of this nature, sometimes made in 3-D. Here, the technique is a straightforward 1.85:1 aspect, with a lot of rehearsal footage shown as embedded hi-def video.

The film actually starts with some auditions, and gradually moves into showing us Michael Jackson’s style in directing his own art. At one point he tells his crew he wants the electronic instrumentation performance to be “simpler” and a little slower. Gradually, the experience gains some steam, as the film shows the pyrotechnics associated with Jackson’s stagecraft, and then there occurs some stirring environmentally-motivate footage, particularly regarding the cutting and burning of the Amazon rain forest. There is also a dress rehearsal, with complete make-up application shown, of the October-like “Thriller”.

Most of Jackson’s major hits (“Beat It” etc) get performed, and the film produces the emotional effect of one reliving the past three decades of one’s own life experiences. Remember Jackson’s performance at the Super Bowl in 1993, just as the debate on the military gay ban started?

By the way, “This is it!” is a famous, if notorious line uttered by Leonardo Di Caprio in Titanic just as he and “kate” are about to sink.

This film is distributed by Columbia, under its full label (not as Sony Pictures Classics). The production company is simply "The Michael Jackson Company LLC".

Guests at a Regal Cinema in Arlington VA received a Michael Jackson necklace and badge. The small auditorium was about half full today.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

National Aquarium in Baltimore offers dolphin show

They call him Flipper, maybe. Actually, many or most of the bottlenose dolphins at the show at the National Aquarium in Baltimore are female, as are all the trainers who swim with them in the half-hour show.

I wondered, as I watched the show (sitting in the bleachers high enough to be above the “splash zone” ) about the movie “The Cove”, which I reviewed on my movies blog Aug. 7, 2009.

The dolphins dumped and engaged in some P.E. tumbling, and let the trainers ride dolphinback. The tank asks visitors not to tap, as the dolphins are easily distracted.

The National Aquarium (link) does offer the public many conservation and sustainability tips as part of the show, particularly about water and Chesapeake Bay pollution.

Apart from chimpanzees, dolphins are among the most intelligent of all animals (especially orcas, or killer whales). Their sound system seems to be a whole language which we have not completely decoded. They are actually mammals that returned to water for food supply. They breathe air, and can hold their breath an extremely long time and sleep while doing so.

Here is a fact sheet on dolphins.

Update: April 10, 2014.

There is a lot more concern now about abuse of dolphins.  See my reviews of the films "The Cove" (Aug. 7, 2009) and "Blackfish" (July 29, 2013) on the Movies blog.  

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Dumbarton Concerts presents Left Bank String Quartet: Beethoven, Strauss, Schoenberg

Tonight, Saturday Nov. 7, the Dumbarton Concert Series presented the Left Bank String Quartet (David Salness, Sally McLean, violins; Katherine Murdock, viola; Evelyn Elsing, cello; with Maria Lambrosm viola, and Kenneth Slowick, cello.

The quartet first played Beethoven’s String Quartet #12 in E-flat, Op 127, the first of the “spiritual” quartets. Triple times proliferate in this work. The brief first movement is a telescoped sonatas form; the slow movement in A-flat is a theme and variations; the scherzo is an adventure in itself (meriting a separate applause), and the finale has the famous Mahler-like march theme.

In the intermission, I talked to the cellist, who said that the group does play the ponderous C-sharp minor quartet, Op 131 (opening with that ambiguous fugue), my favorite (Bernstein orchestrated it). A couple years ago the Dumbarton presented Op 133 “The Great Flight” with the Gross Fugue substituted as the finale.

By the way, while I’m on the topic of Beethoven, I recall that the gay flick “Trick” has a scene where the hero “gets it” while playing the opening theme of the last movement (slow ¾) of the Piano Sonata #30 in E; not even the “Arioso” of Sonata 32 would work as well.

After the intermission, the full sextet picked up with the ten minute “Andante con moto” stand alone movement from Richard Strauss’s opera “Capriccio” (the “meta-opera”) reviewed here in July. The piece is not as impressive as some others, and sounds like something written for the movies to me.

Then the sextet performed Arnold Schoenberg’s famous early adventure in chromaticism, “Verklarte Nacht” or “Transfigured Night”. The poem by Richard Dehmel was read first (text). The woman has admitted she is pregnant with another man’s child, and toward the end the man gives up his old sense of ego and says “It will transfigure the strange man’s soul, you will bear a child for me as if it were mine.” That’s enough to please Phillip Longman whose social contract proposes that we are all responsible for OPC, “other people’s children.” The music moves from one delicious mannerism to the next, before settling to a Wagnerian quiet close in D Major.

My favorite Schoenberg is the Gurre-Lieder, which essentially gives us another “Mahler-like symphony”, this time going from E-flat back to C (reversing the scheme of Mahler’s Second); but the closing chorus has to be performed right. And I love the “Dance of the Golden Calf” from Moses and Aaron (try it on the disco floor), and find his Piano Concerto like a romantic warhorse despite the atonality.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Joshua Bell, young performers at White House concert

Media sources, including the AP in a story run on MSNBC, report on a private concert this week at the White House featuring violinist Joshua Bell, classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Awadagin Pratt. Bell played the devil’s Paganini. There were also some young musicians in performance, including Lucy Hattemer, who with Pratt reportedly played the winsome Schubert F Minor Fantasy. I recall that this music was used in the background of the 2000 epic history film “Sunshine” by Istvan Szabo (with the Schubert adapted by Maurice Jarre). Of course, my favorite Schubert piano piece is probably the wild C Major Fantasy, really a one movement Sonata (in sections without pause), which Liszt would transcribe for piano and orchestra.

The MSNBC story link is here.

Joshua Bell has a prospective account of this happening on his own website here.

Here is a Bloomberg YouTube video of an interview with Joshua Bell before he appeared in the soundtrack of “The Red Violin.”

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Michael Tilson Thomas on Berlioz

Maryland Public television, on Nov. 1, 2009, broadcast a discussion by Michael Tilson Thomas of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique with the San Francisco Symphonye, followed by a performance of the work, lasting about 50 minutes.

Thomas’s comments included mention of Berlioz’s unrequited love. In a YouTube video, filmed around a pendulum, in which Thomas explains Berlioz’s feminine self-indulgence, a desire to make public theater of his own feelings. If Descartes said, “I think therefore I am,” Berlioz thought “I feel, therefore I am” (how about “I love, therefore I am”, as in an All Saints Day sermon today.) There is an RCA CD of Thomas performing the work with the SFO, including excerpts from Lelio, as with this link. Lelio is interesting, being a choral piece describing the artist’s visions after taking a drug overdose out of despair, not a healthful concept, perhaps, but great Romantic art now. Columbia had a recording of Lelio in the 1960s.

The concert appears to have been part of Thomas’s “Keeping Score” series on Sept. 30, 2009, link.

I attended a Michael Tilson Thomas youth concert in New York in the fall of 1973, and I think I typed a letter to him from my apartment shortly afterward.

Wikimedia attribution link for drawing of Berlioz choir, in public domain.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Westover area in Arlington VA offers two free outdoor concerts Halloween afternoon

The Westover neighborhood of Arlington VA hosted two ad hoc concerts Saturday afternoon, Halloween, Oct. 31. The weather was cloudy and mild, in the 60s. This is still the "Upper South" you know.

At the Westover Market, a rock trio performed (“So Beautiful!” etc.) in the Beer Garden. The performers, according to the Market, are Joe Rathbone and The Walkaways.

Across McKinley St, at the new renovated elementary school and library, a New Orleans jazz quartet performed.

November 8, the Market has an event “Be brave and shave for kids’ cancer, Children’s National Hospital Event”. I hope that means “shave heads”. The Beer Garden link is this. (Remember, old Griffith Stadium in DC had its Beer Garden to increase the Senators’ home run output, as well as the visitors’.)

Last picture: Halloween band at Ballston, National Science Foundation atrium, Arlington VA.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dudamel conducts LA Philharmonic opening with Adams, Mahler #1

The 2009 Inaugural Concert for the Los Angeles Philharmonic with 28-year old Gustavo Dudamel conducting took place Thursday October 7 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The LAPO link for the program is here. Many PBS stations carried this concert on Wednesday Oct. 21. The program comprised two works:

John Adams: City Noir
Gustav Mahler: Symphony #1 in D Major, the Titan

Adams, as we know, wrote the opera “Dr. Atomic”. The “City Noir” does indeed make us think of the Frank Miller “Sin City” movies. The music is polytonal, with lots of fluid string passages and climaxes built of chards of sound. The conclusion is very loud.

I got to know the Mahler in high school, when station WGMS sometimes played it; my first recording of it was the Vox Box with Jascha Horenstein (coupled with the Ninth, considered a great performance). The opening is a “derivative work” of the opening of the Beethoven Ninth, starting out with descending fourths in the tonality of A before smoothly shifting to D. Dudamel takes the exposition repeat, and builds to a whirlwind for the jolly climax. Dudamel does not play the Blumie movement, which I think should be included (Fischer’s recording has it). His tempo in the Landler is surprisingly measured. The do-re-mi of the third movement leads to a wistful Wunderhorn middle section. The Finale opens in the remote key of F Minor and will migrate (with the passionate second theme) to D-flat before the transition (recalling the same transition to the recapitulation in the first movement, as the horn players stand), to the triumphant, brassy concluding D Major, with “He shall reign”.

Attribution link for Wikimedia picture of Walt Disney Concert Hall. It looks a bit like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain.

Attribution link for Viennese horn picture

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"It's not about you, or me": Two sermons make a two-man "play"

I don’t review sermons on the “drama” blog very often, except when a sermon has a dramatic impact, or is like a play. That happened today at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC.

The sermon by Dr. Randall Ashcraft was “It’s not about you.” He added, “or about me”. He did not mention the start of Rick Warren’s “The Purpose-Driven Life”, or Warren (controversial at President Obama’s inauguration) at all for that matter, but the message was the same. The supporting scriptures were Job 38:1-7, Hebrews 5:1-10, and Mark 10:35-45. The sermon mentioned the "fall" in the Garden of Eden as like using "knowledge" as "power", that is "the knowledge of good and evil" (that is, of "WHOIS" good or evil) as a reason to become distant from others. He gave some examples, such as the Madison Avenue oxymoron, "An Army of One", indeed interesting given the "unit cohesion" arguments used to justify "don't ask don't tell".

We do have a paradox. The signature mantra for both libertarianism and progressive liberalism (the Obama kind) is “personal responsibility.” Another related concept is “equality.”

But the “communism” of early Christianity started out as the antithesis of modern ideas of individuality. The Gospel took up the plain truth that within any society people are very unequal in talents and circumstances, let alone outcome. It was a flexibility, a malleability to serve others for a higher purpose that marked the experience of the faith. Incredibly, this led to Western thought that made individualism as we know it possible and meaningful. One reason is that there are countless examples of problems in the modern world that go beyond the narrow meaning of “personal responsibility” or the libertarian notion of harmlessness, public health being one of them.

Then graduate student (international relations) Mark Royce, in green liturgical scarf, speaking from the lectern, gave a Stewardship Testimonial that really did come across as a brief one-man play. He spoke in a deep “preacher’s voice” that seem to come from Puritan times, as if right out of Nathaniel Hawthorne. He spoke of an upbringing, one side spiritual and religious, the other secular, humanistic and nearly agnostic. His movement into the world exposed him to the competitive, individualistic and presumably “secular” world which he presented in a metaphor based on chess players on Dupont Circle [or Washington Square Park in New York, for that matter]. (Remember how the late Bobby Fischer used to say that when he won a tournament chess game, he would see his opponent’s “ego break”.) Today’s presentation was a moral calling back to the spiritual.

All of this is in marked contrast to a brief youth sermon last spring at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington by an graduating high school honor student, on the theme of "perfection."

Of course, social conservatives know the “compromise”, the “family”, within which karma is shared and quantum uncertainty is the moral norm. Because social structures are so easily abused by those in charge, the bridge between the “family group” and the “individual” might have to become the notion of a new “social contract.” More about that in future posts.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"The Barber of Seville" (was aired at Nats Park)

The Washington Opera presented Gioachino Rossini’s buffa “The Barber of Seville, or Useless Precaution” (“Il barbiere di Siviglia, ossia L'inutile precauzione”) in September, 2009, with a free jumbo-cast into Nationals Park. I missed that, but checked out the ArtHaus DVD of the 1988 performance by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Garbriele Ferro, with Cecilia Bartoli, David Kuebler, and Gino Quilico.

The best music in the 2-1/2 hour opera, for my money, is the overture, which I recall from my high school days. There is a little “storm and stress” in the thunderstorm scene, and a grand chorus, but a lot of the music sounds rhetorical and bit superficial.

Some of the elements of the plot, however, ring true. Figaro, the Barber, plays “uncle”, that is matchmaker, on request, and Count Almaviva pretends to be someone other than his true self. It’s is if someone like me had put on a wig because he had to.

The opera has a couple of arias that are sometimes sung in keys other than that which they were written (E major goes up to F, D major comes down to D-flat), which could lead to some odd transitions or tonal personality.

The mezzo-forte ending is underwhelming. (So it is with the Fourth Symphony of Sibelius.)

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Cox Farms holds fall festival, offers music and "chutes and ladders"

Cox Farms , near Centrevile Va and near the Fairfax County and Loudoun County line on Braddock Road, has been holding its fall festival, with website here. The park is filled with sheaves, “chutes and ladders” and tunnels, and hayrides.

There is a stage with country and western music throughout the day (“I’ve been workin’ on the railroad”, and the like). Curiously, in the sheeps’ pen, leading to a chute, was airing Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”.

There were plenty of teacher-led field trips in progress on a schoolday, a warm October day with temperatures around 70.

The market there certainly reinforces an old kindergarten lesson, “pumpkins are orange.” When I was five years old, I wanted to draw them as red.

Also: horse show near Millwood VA, Oct. 2008.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Washington DC AIDSwalk attracts interesting stage, music performances

On Saturday, October 3, Washington DC and the Whitman Walker Clinic and other sponsors held the annual AIDS Walk at Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue. The walk itself is shorter than it was ten years ago.

A group called “CSDC” performed rap dances on the outdoor stage. Curiously, the audience was told not to record video of the group, dressed in purple and yellow outfits, somewhat resembling the “X-Faction” at Town DC.

But at Federal Triangle Metro, nearby, there was a street trumpet player, playing hymns (like "Amazing Grace") to recorded organ music, with some impressive volume, carrying all around the outdoor patio areas of the Ronald Reagan Center on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Spanish pianist Alicia De Larrocha

Spanish pianist Alicia De Larrocha died very recently at age 86. Born in Barcelona, she had established a unique career and identity by the 1950s, and was well known for her interpretations of Mozart as well as Spanish composers like Albeniz and Granados. Sometimes she was characterized as “minimalist” or “diminutive”. (See how she performs Mozart’s last piano concerto in this YouTube video link). She also played Beethoven, Schumann and Rachmininoff, but her piano style was a bit understated, or at least that’s how I recall her when I took piano in the 1950s. Standing at 5 feet 1, she was unusual, in that many successful concert pianists (especially men) are tall and have large hands.

NPR carries the AP story, dated Sept. 26, here.

In my own mind, I remember comparing her to Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who died in 1959.

Attribution link for picture of a bridge in Bilbao Spain (pd, Wikipedia) I visited Bilbao in April 2001.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Country and western featured at Virginia Hospital Center street fair

On Saturday, September 27, 2009, the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington VA (along with several other corporations in the health care business, including Blue plans) has sponsored a “Family and Friends” street fair on 16th Street, in front of the Hospital.

A country-and-western group (not identified) is performing with elecrtic guitars on the stage. (“It might get loud.”) The music was pretty much what you would hear at a country-and-western bar (like Remington’s in Washington or the RoundUp in Dallas). The fair should go on all afternoon, although in sprinkly and cloudy weather.

The “teddy bear” (not “The Chicken” at MLB parks) runs around the crowd to entertain it, and a taco stand serves low-fat high-fiber taco sandwiches that would have pleased low fat diet advocate Gabe Mirkin in the 1990s.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ellen show presents sensational street violinist

Today, the Ellen Show presented a fantastic 13-year old solo violinist named Justus Rivera, from Philadelphia, who says he is completely self-taught. I thought I heard him say he doesn’t like classical music, but he played some virtuoso Pagainini-like improvisations on the show. The link for Ellen’s “Video of the Day” is <here (no embed was offered).

Actor/director/producer/writer/Twitter-master/Renaissance-Man Ashton Kutcher discovered the boy playing at Rittenhouse Square in Central City Philly, with YouTube link here.

Here is an embed from the Philadelphia NBC affiliate where Rivera talks about meeting Kutcher.

View more news videos at:

Remember that Joshua Bell played at a Metro stop in Washington?

The Ellen Degeneres show today also offered a post-script from the Red Carpet act at the Emmy’s, with Andy Zenor, in shirt and tie, offering himself in the spirit of the 50s honky-tonk, “Who wears short shorts”. The video link is on the left side of Ellen’s home page. He caught a little bit of what has happened to Steve Carell, as the revelations continued. (Remember what happened to Troy McClain on The Donald's "Apprentice"?) It was hot outside in LA (September is LA’s warmest month), and they didn’t leave him alone. And he didn’t undergo it for a team. (See all May 14 2009 post, August update).

Friday, September 18, 2009

Composer Leon Kirchner, who synthesized many modern idioms

The New York Times today (Sept. 18) a story by Anthony Tommasini about the death of composer Leon Kirchner at age 90, link here. Kirchner’s style varied, varying from Bartok, through the atonal expressionism of Schoenberg and Berg, to inclusion of electronic music and jazz. The news story discusses his four string quartets, of which the last is the shortest. He also wrote two piano concertos and various other chamber works.

This YouTube clip of Kirchner’s music is the “Trials and Tribulations of Learning Kirchner”.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

NY Philharmonic opens season tonight with Lindberg, Messaien, Berlioz; new conductor is Allan Gilbert

Summer in New York City moved into fall at 8 PM tonight at the Lincoln Center, with the opening of the 2009-2010 Season, broadcast on PBS, with the main link here.

The new music director is Allan Gilbert, and the work opened with a tone poem “EXPO” by the composer in residence, 51 year old Magnus Lindberg. The work was in a typical polytonal style, almost reminding one of Bernard Herrmann.

Renee Fleming, in a bright blue dress, performed the song cycle by Oliver Messiaen, “Poemes pour Mi” (1936). The work comprises nine short songs and sounds esoteric. In the middle, Gilbert suddenly had to turn a lot of pages of score. The orchestral writing had a lot of parallelisms in the woodwinds. The music was the composer’s celebration of his marriage, and the work (in the text of the poems) is said to celebrate marital passions, something missing from modern culture according to conservative movie critics like Michael Medved. Here’s another link describing the piece which can be played with piano instead of orchestra (although that’s hard to imagine).

If you want an interesting comparison to the Messiaen, try “Reflections on James Joyce” (2004), here by Tudor Dominik Maican, written when he was 15 (piano, flute and voice – when I see the Washington Post offer audio files of new music on its website, I remember that the newspaper had a Sousa march named after it). This sort of music takes the Mahler concept of art song to the ultimate.

The conclusion was Berlioz’s warhorse, the Symphonie Fantastique in C Major. Although some writers thought of this music as a drug trip, even back in the 1960s, this performance was no-nonsense, reading it as if it came from German (rather than Gallic) symphonic repertoire. Gilbert even took the first movement repeat. The signature performance for this work was the Command/Grand Award recording with Vandernoot in 1963, on 35 mm film to record (in the days that elliptical styli were coming into use); the brass in the “March to the Scaffold” really snarls and brings back the days of the guillotine.

Wikipedia attribution link for Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York (GNU license). The hall looks different than it did in the 1970s, when I went to many concerts.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Arlington Constitutional Garden Bell Ringing

It may be stretching things to call this a “performance”, but Arlington’s Constitutional Garden (Virginia), at Wilson Blvd and George Mason Drive, about one-half mile from the Ballston Common, has its bell ringing at “High Noon” every federal holiday, particularly Labor Day. It’s a very loud percussion instrument, almost like its parent in Philadelphia.

It’s the “private citizens” who do the bell ringing.

The garden tends to stay in bloom until well into December, until finally there have been several hard freezes, maybe some snow, and maybe one night in the teens to finish the purple blossoms off.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Retrospect: Brahms Symphony #3, Op. 90: still an analytical enigma

In June and July, when I drove around locally and had my car radio on, PBS station WETA played various performances of the enigmatic Symphony #3 in F Major by Johannes Brahms several times, with various conductors including Giulini and Abbado. My own CD is a slow-paced performance from Leonard Bernstein.

I have to preface my comments by a quote from some young person’s concert in my own piano days of the 1950s: “I will play Brahms. You may not like it, but it will be good for you.” Some people do find listening to Brahms (apart from the First Symphony) like eating your vegetables.

I’ve always found the Third (Op. 90) a curious work, following Brahms triumphant #1 and then the relaxed and then ebulliently explosive #2. F Major sounds like a strange key for a symphony, as the most pastoral of all the tonalities (hence Beethoven 6 and then 8).

But the opening of the work: A F Major chord, then a diminished 7th emphasizing the minor A-flat, then major, then descending on the minor, seems not at all ironic or martial in character as such major-minor shifts do in Mahler (or even Schubert); instead, the effect is that of self-analysis, of soliloquy, the kind of that famous song in Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel”. (Say, the work, like Gershwin's Piano Concerto, is F, rather than specifically F Major.) Brahms, with all is compound and syncopated rhythms and excursions to remote keys like A and D major, seems to be annotating his own style of composition with his exercises in unresolved dissonance and long lasting tension that follow (no doubt inspired by a single moment in Beethoven’s Eroica). This was a very daring work harmonically for 1883.

The second movement, an Andante, and the official “slow movement”, actually works in its dominant key C Major, and stays with the ear. It’s the “minuet” or Poco Allegretto that is the most famous from this work, and the most common on YouTube (the Berlin Philharmonic offers a trailer of it), and it moves more slowly than the official “slow movement”, and it sounds like real Brahms, not like a Landler. The movement figured in the 1961 French film “Aimez-Vous Brahms” (about a love rectangle) which I saw with a friend in Williamsburg as a college freshman just before my debacle at William and Mary, well documented elsewhere in these blogs.

The finale goes back to the tonic, but F minor, with a Hungarian style theme reminding one of the early piano sonatas. The music fakes a triumphant resolution but settles, in the descending figures from the first movement opening, into a quiet close, the only Brahms symphony to do so. All four movements end quietly.

Brahms represents one major arm of German romanticism, the "disciplined" style derived from Beethoven. Mahler, Bruckner and Strauss (eventually Schoenberg and Berg) seem to me more dervied from Schubert, with Liszt and Wagner entering on their own (and also eventually inspiring "modern" atonality).

Berlin Philharmonic teaser follows:

Still photo: glass blowing kiln in Jamestown VA; I think I visited it Thanksgiving Day 1961 with parents and a friend; this is my photo from Aug. 2009.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Secret Service, other fibbies hire actors for training gigs and "pop quizzes" (you have to be fit)

The U.S. government, especially the Secret Service, FBI, CIA, Capitol Police and US Marshalls hire actors to help them stage training exercises for agents. The fake incidents often occur in public places, such as motels, and the actors themselves may or may not need clearances.

Actors say they have taken jobs when they couldn’t get film or stage or TV parts, and find it more interesting than waiting on tables. The jobs tend to require a measure of physical fitness – not surprising, if you look at what it would take to film a whole season of “Supernatural” or “Smallville”. I suppose Tommy Lee Jones is the stereotype, but there is plenty of diversity sought.

The story, by Laura Blumenfeld on the front page of the Monday Aug. 17, 2009 Washington Post, is “ Threat Theater: For the actors, it's a living. For the officers, it's a test of nerve” with this link.

I don't know whether SAG (Screen Actor's Guild) of Aftra membership would have any effect on the jobs.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"The Cliburn: Playing on the Edge": 2001 competition in Texas shown on Netflix DVD

The DVD “The Cliburn: Playing on the Edge” traces six pianists through the Cliburn competition in Fort Worth, TX in 2001. The contestants (5 men and one woman) seem to come from Russia or former Soviet republics (one from Italy) or Eastern European countries.

The first side of the DVD is an 80 minute film directed by Peter Rosen, showing the contestants going through practice sessions, often playing music of Prokofiev and Liszt (such as Hungarian Rhapsody #6). They work with conductor James Conlon for the concerto competition. Conlon encourages them to respect the orchestra’s limits, and keeping tempi in sync is a real issue.

The pianists have to be careful about injury, and at least one male wears wrist bands to protect himself from carpal tunnel.

At the end of the first part, two second place winners and two first place winners are announced.

The second side shows the two first place winners perform concerti (on a Steinway). Stanislaw Toudenich plays the Tchaikowsky Piano Concerto #1 in B-flat minor. We all know the introductory D-flat major tune that never returns, but the entire first movement, with its dance rhythms and calculated B-flar major climax, is masterly.

Olga Kern plays the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #3 in D Minor. This work is the composer’s masterpiece, taking us on a life-summarizing adventure based on a simple plain-song tune that introduces the work. Kern uses the Ossia cadenza in the first movement. The harmonies and mannerism work perfectly even if there is a lot of use of the dominant A major and a lot of diminished chords; the effect never becomes trite, as it could with less gifted or skilled composers. The big tune climax and presto-race-to-the-finish come off perfectly. I’ve always thought of this as a “man’s concerto”, but Olga gets really into the excitement of the conclusion.

Did Rachmaninoff know the early D’Albert B minor concerto, which I’ve discussed before? I suspect he did. The way the climaxes are prepared seem strikingly parallel now. The Op 32 preludes, the last of which is the grandiose D-flat major, prepare the pianist for the Third Concerto.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Major Washington church puts on skit on the "two" prodigal son stories (a major political inference?)

Today, August 9, 2009, college summer intern Sam Hill (from Kansas City, MO area, attending William Jewell College in Liberty MO) gave the sermon to a large congregation at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC, a few blocks from the White House. The title of the 25 minute address was “Waiting at the Gate”, but what was interesting was that he turned into a micro-play, somewhat in the same style as a skit at Revolutionary City at Colonial Williamsburg.

Spurning pastoral robes and with sleeves rolled up, Mr. Hill set up a chair and music stand and started to speak without mike (I wondered if he needed a wire). Pretty soon, he set up two more stage props at the narthex, simulating a gate, as he related two stories about absent sons.

The first son is the Prodigal Son from Luke 15, who passes through the gate in the skit; the second story is the tragedy of David’s rebellious son Absalom in 2 Samuel 18. The charismatic and handsome son was snared in a low tech accident while riding in a mule and then killed by David’s forces, after he had led a rebellion. In the skit, a messenger comes to tell a grieving David that his rebellious son is gone. The particular Bible story (well illustrated by Hendrik Van Loon in his “The Story of the Bible” from 1928) is highly political, dealing with wills and succession, as well as Absalom’s claim that he represented the poor, and that King David had become too entrenched as the establishment.

Mr. Hill then mapped the stories to some politics of today – especially the desire of the Religious Right (and fundamentalists of any religion, including Islam) to “be right” rather than deal with the tough problems that transcend “personal responsibility” as we unusually understand it. I just hope someone from the Obama White House, as well as someone from each party in Congress, was there to hear this prescient presentation.

Afterwards (and after a reception), I adjourned to the Rhodeside Grille in Arlington, no relation to “Roadside Attractions”, although the material in this little play makes for the kind of indie film that “R.A.” likes to distribute. But so would “Revolutionary City.”

Monday, August 03, 2009

I finally visit "Revolutionary City" (Colonial Williamsburg) on a Monday

Today, I finally made it to Colonial Williamsburg on a Monday, in time to see the “Building a Nation” portion – that is, in my case, three sections of it – of “Revolutionary City”, which airs only on Mondays. In the midsummer it starts around 11 AM, probably to beat the Virginia tropical thunderstorms; in the spring and fall it sometimes starts later.

I asked why this section airs only on Mondays, and the guide said, “this section is very difficult for many people to understand.”

The first of the three sections that I saw was “Lady Washington Visits the Capitol”, supposedly happening in August 1777. Martha visits the capitol, meets with her husband, and then listens to pleas of soldiers injured in the war and still not discharged or compensated by the new nation (which at the time was a Confederation) or by the commonwealth. By the way, I see that the country’s first draft may have been the National Conscription Act passed by the Second Congress in 1792, link here The war itself had been fought largely by state militias. (PBS’s timeline of conscription is interesting, here.) The episode was punctuated with a large cannon blast.

The next section was held behind the coffee house, and is called “Thy Rod and Thy Staff”, and the online version had been discussed here April 2009. In person, the performance is compelling: a black man rejoices in being considered fit to become a pastor, but he becomes a political bedfellow with slave owners who will help him get access to printing presses – a lesson that anticipates today’s Internet.

Then, in “Looking Forward: a Founding Father Envisions the Future of the American Republic”, Randolph introduces George Washington (in front of the Raleigh Tavern), who, among other things, insists that the current generation pay its own debts and not pass them on to its children. How prescient!

One thing I noticed about the kids who attend Revolutionary City in the summer: most are lean. It seems that kids who don’t spend all their time playing computer games are more likely to be interested in an outdoor event like this.

I asked a staff member at a Colonial Williamsburg store if any DVD had ever been made of the skits in Revolutionary City. Not so far, she said, and she thought it could be suggested. A good screenwriting exercise would be to stitch the skits together into an independent film -- but you have to own the material first. Colonial Williamsburg would do well to consider trying to develop and sell the concept to the indie film market. But it would have to hire directors, writers, and work with the motion picture industry in the usual manner.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

W.A. Mozart: two more pieces found

Several media outlets are reporting the discovery of at least two very early
pianoforte pieces by W. A. Mozart, probably written down by his father Leopold as the boy played them. The pieces appear to contain a lot of technical difficulty and amazing “jumps.”

The Agence-France Press has a story here.

The best story may be the AP story by Veronika Oleksyn on ABC, that describes a piano concerto movement and a prelude, with the concerto possibly Mozart’s first known orchestral music now. The AP story contains replicas of four pages of sheet music that appear to be quite legible. The link is here.

It sounds unlikely that the music has the emotion that Mozart had developed by the time he wrote his Sinfonia Concertante, say K 364. Note the difference between the two G minor symphonies.

Music: my own juvenile themes, and that of a college roommate, 1961.

Update: August 18

Reuters has a story that Mozart may have died of a simple strep throat, link here. I recall my own last strep in 1983!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Classical pianists face heightened risk of carpal tunnel injury

The Sacramento Bee carried a story July 15 by Edward Ortiz on carpal tunnel syndrome for musicians, who do not like to admit (or cannot afford to admit) to a music performance related injury. The Scripps Howard link is here. The most vulnerable seem to be classical pianists, and sometimes surgery is necessary. The article recommends changing practice habits and techniques. I don’t recall anything like this from my nine years of piano as a boy, but I never experienced this kind of intensity of practice.

The story appears on p 27 in print in the DC Examiner July 20.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Interesting old pianos visible at Ashlawn-Highland (James Monroe's home)

Yesterday I also visited the former home of James Monroe, (the facility is called Ashlawn-Highland), near Charlottesville. The facility now belongs to the College of William and Mary.

The newer, two-story building was constructed in the late 19th Century after a fire, and Monroe never saw that building. But in the original, one-level portion, in the salon there was a curious fortepiano that appeared to span only a little more than five octaves, about 66 keys. Some of Mozart’s piano sonatas were composed for a more restricted piano range and timber.

There was a copy of sheet music on top with the heading “Sonatas” but I couldn’t see the composer’s name (“do not touch”). The music had a lot of eighth-note scales in the natural A minor key and looked perfunctory. The sonata may have been by Domenico Scarlatti or Domenic Paradies. The guide said that Monroe's older daughter played te instrument "badly."

The “staff” area of the new building had a full piano visible, and I don’t know why it wasn’t in the public areas for the tour.

The facility did not allow indoor picture taking, so I can’t show the actual piano here.

Attribution link for Wikimedia GNU picture of fortepiano.