Saturday, December 29, 2007

Some notes about "completions" of Franz Schubert's works

Recently, I replayed a few CD’s of the controversial “completions” of Franz Schubert’s symphonies, and I think they have a lot to recommend.

First, the most familiar controversy concerns the formal Symphony #8, the Unfinished. (In the old days of LP record collecting, how many LP’s were there that paired the Beethoven Fifth with the Schubert unfinished?) I think that the “completion,” by Brian Newbould, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner (the Academy of St. Martins in the Fields) on Philips actually works. The last two movements remain in B minor, which was a difficult key to orchestra until Tchaikovsky (and maybe Borodin). The finale is based on the Rosamunde Enre’acte, but the lively piece it actually works. I don’t like letting the final chord dissolve into pianissimo, however.

The Symphony #7 in the “courtly” key of E Major, D. 729, was complete as a piano score and Schubert started the orchestration. I have the Koch CD with the Brian Newbould orchestration and Gabriel Chumra conducting the Radio Symphony of Berlin. It sounds a little bit straight-jacked, and is closer to the world of the 5th and 6th than the 8th and “Great” C Major. There are, however, plenty of bumpkin-like harmonic modulations. (The 4th, in C Minor, the “Tragic”, has always worked for me and is an interesting work to compare to Beethoven’s famous work in the same key; Schubert arrives at triumph with a lot more subtlety in the same key.)

The Symphony #10 in D (D. 936) was also “completed” by Newbould as a three movement work. Belgian conductor Pierre Bartholome modified the score, making it bolder, and added a separate scherzo that fits well. The result (on the Ricercar label 023003, which I got in the mail from Records International in the late 1980s; the performance was recorded in 1983) is a most promising work. The first movement, Allegro Maestoso, is in the grand style of the Great and almost anticipates Bruckner (like a Bruckner Symphony -2, if the F minor is -1 and the D minor is 0). True, the development section is minimal (more like a slow middle section), but the Coda is like a second development and is rather Eroica Beethoven-like (this could have something to do with Bartholome) and the conclusion is brazen (indeed anticipating Bruckner). The B minor slow movement builds a Wunderhorn mood that anticipates the slow movement of Mahler’s First, although it has some of the harmonic mannerisms from the slow movement of the Unfinished (which, by the way, is taken too fast by most conductors). The added scherzo is athletic, and the finale sounds a little bit like a relaxing reprise, but again builds up at the very end.

The Piano Grand Duo (D 812) in C, a mature work in his late style, was orchestrated as the so-called "Gastein" Symphony", by Joseph Joachim and others.

Although Schubert (except for a cello piece) wrote almost no concertos, the Liszt orchestration of his C-major Fantasy is most effective and is effectively a Liszt-style piano concerto with sections played without pause, ending in grandiose C major. The piano solo original stretches the sonorous limits of the instrument, especially at the conclusion.

The epic film “Sunshine,” directed by Istvan Szabo and released by Paramount Classics in 2000, built a music score (adapted by Maurice Jarre) from Schubert’s Fantasy in F Minor for two pianos, with great effect. Schubert's famous D minor quartet generates a political thriller set in South America, made in the 90s, "Death and the Maiden," directed by Roman Polanski, from Fine Line Features, and the character Paulina Escobar played by Sigourney Weaver makes an interesting comment about Schubert.

There are other important completions. Giacomo Puccini ‘s last opera Turandot was “completed” by Franco Alfano, and the thrilling choral conclusion recalls the end of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.” Mahler’s Symphony #10 in F-sharp, although essentially complete as a sketch, was orchestrated by Deryck Cooke, and Eugene Ormandy made one of the first recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1960s, on Columbia, with a “Philadelphia” sound that helped make Columbia an industry leader in pre-CD vinyl days.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Opera, hymnology, and the "individualist" personality: Zemlinksy's TraumGorge

Well, I missed out on Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet live transmission (got sold out), but I had a sort of live event this weekend. Sunday, I found myself an accidental tourist at a 50th-plus wedding anniversary reception at a church, served a delicious lunch to be sure, but then expected to stay and pay homage to biological kinship relationships among people in an extended family that I did not know, when I am, as others who read my blogs know, incapable of creating such a family lineage myself. It was actually an uncomfortable position to be in, and maybe not appropriate. I will not name the family here, inasmuch as the gathering is “private” yet curiously very public. The individual and the social world around him come into interplay.

I did, wonder, though, what music has to say about this. There was a guest soloist from Europe, a tenor, and he sung “The Old Rugged Cross” in several variations which he improvised, the last variation nearly approaching twelve-tone music. It was interesting that an earthy old hymn, well liked in the African American community (it could almost fit in "Say Amen Somebody" (1982)), could amend itself to almost expressionistic treatment.

I often find singing repeated verses of the same hymn boring unless the organist/choirmaster varies the harmonies (don’t just transpose one key up). Some hymns, of the higher church variety, do get me going. They would include “All Creatures of our God and King” (the official Music Club Federation hymn when I took piano in the 1950s), “For All the Saints,” and the New Years Staple “O Lord Our Help in Ages Past.” Some of the better hymns are by “real” composers, not just Beethoven (the Ode to Joy), but Vaughn Williams, Stanford, and Perry. Mahler called the first movement of his Eight Symphony (“The Symphony of a Thousand”) a hymn (Veni, Creator Spiritus)

Of course, you expect these issues of personality to be dealt with in opera. So then I looked around for an opera that might simulate my social situation. I thought I could find it in Britten, or maybe in German or Viennese expressionism, in the post-romantic world following Strauss. I found here the 1988 Capriccio recording of Alexander Zemlinksy ‘s Der TraumGorge (“George the Dreamer”, liberetto by Leo Feld, in German) with Gerd Albrecht conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Josef Protschka as Gorge, Janis Martin as Princess Gertraud, and Pamle Coburn as Greta, composed around 1907, contemporaneous with mid and late Mahler. Zemlinsky (born in Vienna though the name sounds Russian), wrote in the post-romantic Viennese style that really does bridge Mahler to Schoenberg and Berg. The writing, while expressive, is often sinewy. He wrote six string quartets (in various forms that anticipate later experiments by Berg like the “Lyric Suite” but that seem to be inspired by late Beethoven), and the “Lyric Symphony” which is often compared to Maher’s “Das Lied von der Erde” as well as several other quasi-symphony pieces. This particular opera is interesting because the protagonist, George, a pastor’s son, has, in a psychological sense, fled the practical world for a bookish one based on his own ideas and fantasy. (Hence the title of the opera.) He is, in a sense, “the little professor,” with his head in the clouds (as if Keanu Reeves could play him). George leaves a real world financee for what seems to be an imaginary princess out of his imagination, but in the opera she comes into reality. He has to deal with the resentment of the townspeople workers, who will exploit him for their “political” agenda. Eventually she becomes real enough that he can protect her and make his life real. The concept of the opera seems to deal with the individual’s own moral outlook fighting the collectivistic, adaptive demands of the society around him (certainly anticipating Bolshevism). The music seems to center around the key of E, and has a couple of martial climaxes, in the epilogue tails off into a dream world, pianissimo, without even the sense of resolution (like Wagner would have provided) that the story itself is supposed to provide. Or does it?

A recent film that deals with this idea of imaginary loves coming to life is MGM's "Lars and the Real Girl" (see my movies blog 12/18).

Sunday, December 02, 2007

St. Olaf's College Christmas Festival Simulcast

Today (Sunday Dec. 2) I attended the St. Olaf College Christmas festival Simulcast at a Regal Cinemas auditorium in Arlington VA at 4 PM ($20). The festival was preceded by a short film documenting the history of the festival (back to 1912), with many black-and-white images of the college and the town of Northfield at different points during the last century. The live Simulcast (by satellite) was broadcast to 197 theaters around the country today. The sound did seem a bit constricted (with a trace of intermodulation distortion), especially in the a cappella numbers.

I attended the event on a Saturday night in 1999 when I was living in Minneapolis. Northfield is about 40 miles SE of Minneapolis, and you have to be drawn from a lottery to get a ticket. The event takes place in what seems like a large gym converted to an auditorium with about 12000 seats. The processional, that year a Lutheran hymn, was a tremendously moving experience. That year I remember some Vaughn Williams was played.

Today the concert started with an orchestral prelude “Messiah: Prince of Peace” from Trinity Canticles by Daniel Kallman. The piece is modern and somewhat impressionistic, mostly in slow tempos. Next the Prologue from Edward Elgar’s The Apostles were performed.

Other works from the standard classical choral repertoire included “For Unto Us a Child is Born from Handel ‘s Messiah; “How Lovely are the Messengers” from the oratorio St. Paul by Mendelssohn; an excerpt from In Terra Pax by Gerald Finzi; “And God Siad: One Day Shall Dawn from King David by Arthur Honegger; Nune Dimittis by Rene Clausen. The concert ended quietly with “Beautiful savior” adapted from a Silesian folk tune by F. Melius Christiansen.

The conductors were Anton Armstrong, Steven Amundson, Christopher Aspaas, and Sigrid Johnson. There was an entre’acte of Christmas carols including a rousing interpretation of “Joy to the World” as arranged by Steven Amundson. A major theme of this year's concert is "liberal arts in a time or war."

I like the idea that musical organizations (including the Met) have some of their broadcasts filmed in HD and then distributed to theaters for limited showings by a regular film distributor (say, Sony Pictures Classics).

Additional note:

A typical film from St. Olaf's film school is "Change Inside" (River's Edge Films, dir. Nathan Haustein) (the trick of putting a penny on a railroad track, and then finding real help inside a church service). Link is here. From the 2007 Insomnia Film Festival. The little film reminds me of the work of Jason Epperson and Will Bigham ("Lucky Penny") in Dreamworks 's "On the Lot" short film contest on Fox last summer.

Update: Feb. 6. 2008

The First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC last Sunday (Feb 3) performed the anthem "The Glimpse of Glory" by David Ashley White. I believe this was performed by St. Olaf's at the 1999 concert that I went to. As a hymn, it seems to be popular in Lutheran churches and it was often sung at the Metropolitan Community Church in Minneapolis as a hymn. But it does not seem to appear in the Baptist hymnal. It has rich harmonies and modulations of post-romantic music. It is probably somewhat difficult for congregations to sing.

Picture: White House on World AIDS day (Dec. 1).

Second picture: Wikipedia attribution link for picture of St. Olaf's campus:

Thursday, November 22, 2007

PBS: Israel Philharmonic 70th Anniversary; curious interpretation of Brahms "youth concerto"

On Wednesday, Nov. 21, PBS aired the 70th Anniversary Gala Concert of the Israel Philharmonic from Tel Aviv, with Zubin Mehta conducting. PBS link is here. There are more airings of the performance scheduled as listed there.

There was plenty of great photography of the city (Tel Aviv), the concert hall, and footage of past outdoor concerts since Israel was established in 1948, accompanied by minor-keyed orchestral music that may have come from the film "Schindler's List" . There was a famous outdoor (in Jerusalem) concert in which Leonard Bernstein conducted Mahler’s Second Symphony, a controversial choice given the issues of the region.

On this concert, there were three items. The first was the familiar Violin Concerto #1 in G Minor by Max Bruch with violinist Bronislaw Huberman. The first movement is essentially an extended prelude, leading to the melodious slow movement and the lively G major finale. I recall hearing this at a friend’s house over a chess game right after I graduated from high school in 1961, setting of a sequence that would eventually become a major life story. (The three Bruch symphonies on Philips are robust and ingratiating.)

The middle piece was Ravel’s La Valse, which is supposed to constitute bitter “satire” of what had just happened in Europe (the shell shock of World War I) at the time it was written.

But the main attraction of the concert was Daniel Barenboim ‘s performance of Johnannes Brahms ‘s Piano Concerto #1 in D minor, which Brahms started at the age of 20, originally as a symphony. It was finally performed as we know it today when he was 25. By contrast, his known first symphony, which he worked on for many years, was not performed until he was 43.

The Concerto was inspired in some part by the attempted suicide of Robert Schumann. At its time, it was “unconventional”, sounding, especially in the first two movements, like a Symphony with piano rather than a concerto. For me, it has always been a curious paradox. The majestic, even monumental first movement proves what Brahms can do with 6/4 time: it starts on a thundering b-flat major chord, then to the dominant A until it settles on the sturm and drang of d minor. In this performance, the orchestra phrased some critical passages unconventionally, with ellipsis, pulling the music forward with an effect that I don’t recall ever hearing before. But at the very end of the movement, Mehta paused be for having the orchestra boom out its final crashing d minor chord, for a tremendous effect. The second movement stays in the tonic D, moving to major, and stays in 6/4 time, which is unusual.

The finale, a Rondo in 2/4, usually sounds “lighter” in many performances. It is supposed to echo the rondo of Beethoven’s C Minor piano concerto (remember how that movement starts with an enharmonic trick on the note G#-A-flat). But here Barenboim and Mehta try to fix what has always been a letdown in the movement. Barenhoim speeds the cadenza up with great virtuosity (giving an effect like that of the cadenza-fugue near the end of Eugen d’Albert’s youth-composed first piano concert) and then Mehta starts to draw out the D Major orchestral ritornel that concludes, speeding up and then slowing down for the very last fortissimo chords. Barenboim also makes a lot of the trills in the piano part, reminding one of the curious effects in the closing passages of Brahms’s youthful Piano Sonata #2 (f-sharp minor).

Brahms did something similar with the second concerto (B-flat) where the first movement is the most massive, and then the scherzo is rather melodramatic, but the slow movement and finale are surprisingly relaxed. (The Schumann A minor concerto is like this,) The custom in some minor keyed romantic piano concertos that would follow would be to convert to the parallel major with a majestic “big tune” for climactic effect. Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Grieg provide the best known examples of this “chills and fever” effect for concluding a concerto, and that concept really had not developed that well by the mid 1850s. That’s why the conclusion of the Brahms first piano concerto has always been problematic by comparison.

In my own mind, as a teenager, I always connected the first movement of the Brahms with the first movement of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, stylistically different until one plays the ossia cadenza, not often used but perform by Van Cliburn in his 1959 recording with Konrashin. In my own crude “concerto-like: D minor piano sonata that I composed at 16, in D minor, I tried to combine the two “styles” and the piece rather works. I tried also making the slow movement in the subdominant (G major), not done often with works in minor keys. I guess I’d like to get Cakewalk set up with midis to record it, at least to offer on the Internet.

When I worked from 2002-2003 calling for contributions to the Minnesota Orchestra Young People’s Concerts, I got complimentary tickets, and I particularly recall a performance of the Schumann Symphony #2, with a guest conductor whom I don’t recall. But there was a Q&A in which the conductor described this as a symphony that “talks to itself” and has a curious circularity. Every movement is centered on the tonality of C, and the music is a curious mixture of march-like figures and folk-like tunes, including the Romanza. The effect works as the climax at the end is almost Bruckner-like. That is the work where Bernstein's unearthing of the opulent "original orchestration" created controversy in the 60s but is well accepted today as the standard way to perform the work.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Christopher Marlowe: Edward II (Shakespeare Theater DC)

The Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington DC has been putting on two Christopher Marlowe plays, Tamburlaine, and Edward II, his last play (1592), which I saw tonight (directed by Gale Edwards) at the Sidney Harman Hall on F Street near Chinatown in Washington DC. The theater seems new and is in a freshly renovated building.

The theater offered two kinds of programming notes, including a larger tabloid style with an essay “Why Marlowe Matters.” Marlowe was one of the first men from a commoner background to become well known as a literary figure; he was the son of a shoemaker who, because of literacy, was able to influence his son go get educated. Marlowe graduated from college at 18 and, as the notes say, postponed “real life” to go to graduate school, but once out on his own, at 23, may have spied for the Queen while starting to write. Marlowe was one of the first playwrights to deal with real social issues, including class distinctions and sexuality. He took real risks, but his plays were quite influential. It appears, however, that his history Edward II, of an apparently gay 14th Century king, may well have contributed to his been framed and murdered (at the age of 29). This was his last play and has been little performed over the years until recently because of the subject matter. Marlowe got into a cultural battle with Shakespeare, not only over writing history, but over presenting “station in life” progression: a high born King like Edward II who falls, or a shepherd (Tamburlaine) who becomes king. The theater flyer indicates that Marlowe set a very important example for Shakespeare. Today, Shakespeare and Marlowe compare the way other contemporary pairs in the arts do, such as Beethoven and Schubert.

There are a lot of accounts of the play on the Internet, but much of the play has to do with Edward’s (played by Wallace Acton) relationship with his male lover, low born Frenchman Gaveston (Vayu O’Donnell). Some of the passages in the early part of the play are quite passionate. (One of Mortimer’s lines reads “Leave now to oppose thyself against the king; Thou seest by nature he is mild and calm,
And seeing his mind so dotes on Gaveston, Let him without controlment have his will. The mightiest kings have had their minions: Great Alexander loved Hephaestion,The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept, And for Patroclus stern Achilles drooped. And not kings only, but the wisest men: The Roman Tully loved Octavius, Grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades.”

Gaveston moves in and out of banishment, generating all the political complications and deaths. Gaveston is killed by the enraged nobles just before the Intermission, and Edward II is dispatched by a fire poker at the end – well and then his son king (he was married to Isabella and did reproduce) gets his vengeance for his father, whom he dearly loved.

The production was cinematic and colorful, with trapdoors in the stage providing popups all evening. There is a cathedral scene near the end with multiple candles that reminds one of the Fatima shrine in Portugal (which I visited in 2001). The play was amplified with music, from Tchaikovsky (the 5th and 6th symphonies in the many romantic scenes between Edward and Gaveston), Shostakovich (the 1st, 4th and 5th symphonies for all the political violence), Britten, Leonard Bernstein (“The Age of Anxiety”) and, at the end, the memorial march by Sir Arthur Sullivan (in honor of his father) that ends the play in triumph. The original music was by Karl Lundeberg. The sound was stunning (like Dolby Digital in a first rate movie theater -- Landmark’s E Street Cinema is a few blocks away) and the presentation made me wonder, wouldn’t this play make great opera?

The costumes were from an odd mixture, with a lot of the sartorial tastes of the early 20th Century evident. I think it would have been more effective to use 14th century dress.

Homosexuality was not viewed as an orientation in Elizabethan times; it was viewed as conduct in which some men engaged, often viewed as sinful (as today). Yet, homosexuality does occur in English literature, with this play one of the most important example. It would be hard to teach the topic honestly (even in public school, where some parents pressure schools not to) without acknowledging that. Many sources indicate that it is likely that Marlowe was homosexual, and Shakespeare may have had a homosexual affair, even though he married Anne Hathaway and produced children.

There is a film “Edward II” directed by (deceased in 1994) Derek Jarman from Fine Line Features (1992) with Steven Waddington and Andrew Tiernan. The film is a bit compressed (90 minutes) but uses a mixed modern setting and seems like a filmed play with closeups. The idea that old-fashioned notions of sexual morality and lineage can justify inherited privilege and political power does come through the film version even more than in the play.

Note: As far as I know, no stages in the DC area are affected by the stangehands stike on Broadway. It's obvious to anyone who attends this production how hard the stagehands work, and how hard the actors work, every show. (The two lead characters here get abused and roughed up a bit; it looks like Gaveston's actor gets painted.) Let's hope the strike in NYC is settled promptly.

Update: Nov. 29, 2007

According to news reports, the stagehands' strike is settled. CNN story.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Randall Thompson's Testament of Freedom and other patriotic works at No Va CC concert Veteran's Day

On Veteran’s Day, Sunday Nov. 11, 2007, Northern Virginia Community College, the Music Program ( ), presented a short concert with four items. Performing were the Washington Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, NVCC Annandale Chorus, NOVA Community Chorus, and the Annandale High School Men’s Chorus. Conductors were Henry Sgrecci, Robert Webb and Mark Whitmire. The concert was held in the Rachel M. Schlessinger Concert Hall of the Alexandria Campus of Northern Virginia Community College.

The four program items were

(1) Roy Harris: Variations on “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” The music, developing the minor-keyed Civil War tune, adds quite a bit of massed chordal dissonance in places, in a style that reminds one of the composer’s Third Symphony.

(2) Edwin Eugene Bagley, “National Emblem March,” with a Presentation of the Colors by the Color Guard of West Potomac High School (Academy ROTC Program)near Alexandria, VA. (Both high schools in the concert are part of the Fairfax County Public Schools system.) I remember having a 78 rpm record of this march as a boy. The audience stood for the colors, which interrupted the march, and used M-14s. I was trained in Army Basic on the M14 (just before the M16 was introduced in Basic -- but even then there was no drill and ceremony for the newer weapon) but I would not remember how to disassemble and clean it now.

(3) Randall Thompson, “Testament of Freedom” (1943), a cantata in four movements, written to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Jefferson. The music has little modernism to challenge the popular listener and is accessible and straighforward, having the effect of hymn music. As such, it has relatively little tension compared to most concert choral music. The text comes from
“A Summary View of the Rights of British America” (1774) and the “Declaration and Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms” (1776). The text can be found here.

(4) Carmen Dragon’s arrangement of “America the Beautiful”

The concert hall is modern and ample (almost 1000 seats), with sound dampers that reminds me of all the news stories of the acoustic engineering of major orchestra concert halls back in the 60s. Before the audience was admitted, the choruses rehearsed in the lobby in front of the patrons. There are thirteen colonial flags below the stage symbolizing the thirteen colonies.

A concert like this also seems like an exercise in patriotism, a kind of homage. (We sometimes forget that we used to call this day Armistice Day, and that World War I was at one time called "The Great War." The commemoration hardly constitutes the “windmills” of real sacrificial service. The controversy is, just how much does the freedom of many of us depend on the sacrifices of some of us. (Economically it’s another matter.) In Iraq, just as with Vietnam, we are hardly sure. During WWII, the Greatest Generation, there was no question about it.

Update: March 15, 2008

The other Thomson, Virgil Thomson, composed some film music in the 30s and 40s. Here is a movie review that discusses him (from the National Archive's "New Deal on Film," here.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Musical requiem may be encoded in famous Da Vinci painting

A story by AP writer David Ariel “Leonardo Painting Has Coded ‘Soundtrack’” discusses a new book by Giovanni Maria Pala, “The Hidden Music” (“La Musica Celata”), in which he maintains that a musical composition, like a requiem, is encoded in Leonardo Da Vinci ‘s painting “The Last Supper”. The music would like sound like Renaissance music (which can sometimes sound “modern”). The book was published in Italy and does not yet show up on Amazon. A site for the book (in Italian) is this: The details for the book are La musica celata: With the collaboration of Loredana Mazzarella, Book+CD: Euro 15,00, ISBN 978-88-6206-005-9 (about $22 US). A site for The Last Supper painting is this.

The Ariel link is here.

Da Vinci, as presented in various (History Channel) documentary films as well as Dan Brown’s novel (and Columbia Pictures ‘s 2006 movie) “The Da Vinci Code,” was very much a super-individualist Renaissance Man, with artistic and scientific gifts in many areas that coordinated with each other. It makes sense that to Da Vinci music would be coordinated with painting and other arts and science and engineering, rather than followed as a lifetime pursuit for its own sake. But this, generally speaking, is unusual in gifted people.

It would be interesting to get the reaction from other composers (maybe American John Corigliano, of distant Italian descent).

A typical blogger entry today is by Spulch from the Seattle Times, here.

Picture: from the DC Metro

Friday, October 12, 2007

NBS musical (it doesn't stand for National Bureau of Standards)

NBS at one time in my life stood for “National Bureau of Standards.” In fact, that is where I had my first job, starting in 1963, as a GS-4 lab assistant in rheology, on the old bricked Federal City Campus at Conn. Ave and Van Ness streets. The agency has long since moved to Gaithersburg, MD, one home of Netflix.

I ramble on about this to disguise the title of the stage play, which will upset advertising scripts, perhaps. I need to write a G-rated review of what was superficially an NC-17 film. Computers, with their Asperger-like nature, can’t always interpret words the way a human would, in the proper context. A “tape” of the 1998 play (apparently made at the Hayworth Theater in LA; it also showed at the Celebration Theater in Santa Monica, and has shown in New York) was shown as the opening night event at Reel Affirmations 17 GLBT film festival, this event at the Lincoln Theater in the Cardozo area of Washington DC. The link giving the title is this:

The musical itself comprises a lot of ensemble numbers in the nude, plus a number of musical skits. It is a series that imitates a lot of vaudeville and musical stage style that is lighthearted and innocent (however the young adult men look on stage). I’ve seen the same style in “Senioritis” (reviewed in August on this blog) and even in middle school when I acted in an operetta “The Sunbonnet Girl” back in 1956 or so.

When you make a film of something, you have a chance to make close-ups and add tension to the scenes, but the film version, from Funny Boy pictures (to be distributed by non-profit TLA) didn’t do that. So it winds up being an experience that mimics what Regal Cinemas does with Metropolitan Opera broadcasts (or even the Washington Opera on the Mall – see September) but here the result is much less effective. The music by Nic Ten-Brook is derivative and reminds me of other musicals (even a touch of “High School Musical”, or even “There’s No Business Like Show Business” or, after all, “That’s Entertainment”.). And there is absolutely no tension at all in the acting.

Still, the “film” is an experiment. Videotapes of stage events can provide valuable low-cost viewing experiences anyway. I remember many examples. like a Fairfax County theater group’s tape of Robert Cassler’s “Second in the Realm” from the mid 1990s, or even PBS’s “The Light in the Piazza” (Adam Guettel, Elizabeth Spencer).

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Stenhammar, Stanford, early music of Richard Strauss: check it out

In the pre-Internet (as far as the consuming public knew)1980s, while living in Dallas, I discovered a mail order record distributor in the Santa Barbara, California area called “Records International” that offered hard-to-find late romantic works, on long-playing vinyl. The company also did its best to get these recordings to CD as quickly as possible, on its own Records International and affiliated Marco Polo labels (often using an orchestra in Singapore); it also sold a lot of high-end recordings from Europe on Chandos, Bis, and other similar labels as these were becoming known in the market then. Of course, the classical CD industry has undergone the same pressures of globalization as everyone else, leading to the closure, for example, of Tower Records recently.

The other day I played the BIS (CD-219) recording of Wilhelm Stenhammar ‘s Symphony No. 1 in F Major, composed around 1902, at around the age of 30, a live 1979 recording with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Jarvi. Stenhammar was a Swedish composer whose career started out in German romanticism and became more disciplined as he grew older. The F Major symphony is often reported as having been withdrawn, but actually it is a towering work (53 minutes) that sits well in the tradition of Bruckner – it rather mixes Brahms and Bruckner into one style, if one can imagine that. You have to listen to it to get it. The F Major key – often associated with “pastoral” qualities when tempered properly (not risen a half step) seems to create a contradiction, until you get into the references and paraphrases that Stenhammar makes of other German romantic work. The second movement, a balladic andante con moto that emphasizes the “con moto” (it’s almost allegretto) recalls the “minuet” minor keyed movement of Brahms ‘s Third Symphony (also F Major, maybe not a coincidence). Curiously, for me, it also reminds me of the famous A-minor movement of the Beethoven Seventh. Along the way, he manages a quote from the C#-minor slow movement of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. Already, Shenhammar is building up a curious summarization of all of the music in his head! The third movement is marked allegro amabile (a little fast to be the “real” allegretto), is the gentlest of scherzo’s, as if one could take Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet style and cast it in German terms. But it is the finale that Stenhammar’s intentions come out. The perfunctory music from the first movement returns but becomes alternatively furious and heroic, then slowing down to a conclusion that takes us back to the end of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. (I believe that opera ends in D-flat, but here were are still in the pastoral F). Stenhammar builds for us his sunrise. But instead of an explosive chord that will die away, he suddenly accelerates into march style, crashing down with a conclusion that recalls “Das Rheingold.” It is if Stenhammar really thinks Wagner should have ended Gotterdammerung with triumph rather than peace. He wants to rewrite it and “get it right.” This is a live recording, and the audience shows it loves the effect with the applause.

Stenhammar’s Second Symphony, in G minor, is more ascetic, but it concludes with a massive fugue.

One could put in a pitch for Richard Strauss ‘s second heard F minor symphony, a brooding work with a familiar slow movement, and a triumphant conclusion based on what sounds like an original Lutheran hymn, leaving an emotional effect similar to the end of Mendelssohn’s Scotch Symphony. This was on the Records International Label 7005.

One other derivative work that I’ll mention today is the Symphony #1 in B-flat Major (Chandos 9049, Ulster Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley) by Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. The last movement has a repeared note motto that seems to combine the effects of the finales of the “smaller” 4th (also B-flat) and 8th symphonies of Beethoven.

When will major American orchestras (like the National Symphony) discover these interesting repertoire items?

Update: Oct. 10, 2007 short news item.

Variety, under the news link on the left side of its home page, has a large number of alarming stories about a looming Broadway strike. For example, on Oct. 9, Gordon Cox has, "Broadway strife reaches critical stage; Great White Way shutdown a possibility", here.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Puccini: La Boheme, The Washington Opera, on the Mall

Today (Sunday, September 23, 2007) the Washington National Opera performed La Boheme (“The Bohemian”) by Giacomo Puccini (1896), libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, based on the novel “Scenes de la vie de boheme” (“Scenes from the Bohemian Life”) by Henry Murger. The outdoor Jumbotron theater was set up between the Washington Monument and Constitution Avenue. Arturo Toscanini conducted the world premiere in 1896, and in the twentieth century Toscanini would get a reputation for taking standard orchestral works “fast” (the opposite of Otto Klemperer).

The four act opera moves quickly, taking 110 minutes (about the length of an average film) with a twenty minute intermission. The central female character is Mimi ( a seamstress), who is dying of tuberculosis. In the big city garret loft there live some artists, most of all Rodolfo, a poet; Marcello, a painter; Schaunard, a musician, and Colline, a philosopher. (It wasn’t until I moved to Minneapolis in 1997 and mingled with the university community through the local Libertarian Party that I began to realize that philosophy, as a major, was more common than I had though.) Early on, the Marcello and Rodolfo burn Rodolfo’s play manuscript, he then starts over. Supposedly out of boredom or writer’s block, that was a little hard to understand; in the modern world, an artists is likely to save his work (literally on a computer) and back it up. As the plot develops, Marcello’s former lover, Musetta, livens things up, and the halfway point of the opera is a high note with a fireworks display. Director Mariusz Trelinski, indicates in his notes, that “the bohemians” have no sense of richness or poverty; money or cash on hand varies from day to day. It’s “paycheck to paycheck” living. In the modern world, they might be vulnerable to payday loan sharks.

At the end, Mimi does pass away. The other bohemiams are left to balance the relative importance of one’s own art, and love of other people for the sake of love. The music switches to blocked chords in c# minor and dies away. The shocking effect is that of nothingness; there is nothing noble about death from a wasting disease (although in opera the singing disguises the wasting; when she dies, her arm just hangs limp.) As a whole, the musical style has a lot of natural minor and melodic line. One wonders if the very end might have inspired Maher’s opening of the 5th Symphony. The music score of the opera is here on an Indiana University music score library website.

Noting that the “heroine” is Mimi, it seems to me that the bizarre longstanding NBC soap opera “Days of our Lives” uses opera and literary characters as names of similar characters in its own story. Mimi (not in the story line now) similar temperament to the heroine of the opera. Nick, in the soap opera, is obviously based on the lead character of FitzGerald’s The Great Gatsby. Curiously, the geeky Nick is forced to balance work and people just as the people in the opera.

The Puccini opera has inspired some films, such as Thriller by Sally Potter, and most notably the musical and movie Rent (music by Jonathan Larson), in which AIDS replaces consumption, and the drag queen Angel dies.

In 1980, right after Reagan was elected, I saw “Turandot” at the Dallas Opera in the old State Fair theater. It was completed by Franco Alfano and has a choral ending that echoes the ending of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” and Alfano gave Puccini’s late style a more Mahlerian kind of sound.

In 1996, I saw Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, composed at age 26 (based on Goethe’s Faus) with its famous angelic chorus (actually performed twice) and “Satan’s whistle” and Witches Sabbath, at the Kennedy Center with the Washington Opera.

The tuberculosis wasting theme calls to mind Britten’s opera “Death in Venice” (1973), based on Mann’s novel, which I saw in New York in the 1970s, and the linear musical style recalls the first movement of the Mahler Ninth (especially true of the orchestral suite). I saw Peter Grimes in Dallas in the 1980s, and Billy Budd at the Washington Opera in 2004. "Peter Grimes" explores the theme of public suspicion of older men with minors (a troubling theme in today’s news), and "Billy Budd" explores unit cohesion and prejudice in the 18th Century British Navy, in a manner that anticipates today’s debate about gays in the military. The “All Hands” chorus near the end has a bizarre harmonic effectiveness, and the sea burial ending again echoes the Spartan late Mahler style. I’ve always thought that the Britten War Requiem resembles the Requiem Mahler would have written had he lived long enough.

It’s interesting how often opera explores important social issues. I’ve thought that a composer like John Coragliano ought to tackle “Smallville” and write an opera about the teenage Clark Kent from the social perspective of hiding being “different.”

Update: Dec, 25, 2009

On Dec. 23, PBS Weta aired the sumptuous film "La Boheme" directed by Robert Dornhelm, from Emerging Pictures. The PBS link is here.
(I had trouble with this Shockwave trailer in Vista in Chrome and Mozilla; IE worked OK and Windows XP was OK with it in all browsers.)
The imdb list is here.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Bellini: I puritani, broadcast of Met performance

The term Puritan has a scale of meaning. It was applied to those in the period of the English Civil War in the 1600s who favored Parliament and breaking away from Catholicism. But it also applied to strict religious beliefs practiced by settlers, particularly in Massachusetts (giving rise to Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible”). The concepts are related but not necessarily synonymous. The reader can study this in detail, starting in Wikipedia and chasing references. The World Book, under England, gives a simplified history of the English Civil War with Cromwell. An examination of the shaded meanings of the term would make a good world history essay question.

On Sept. 4, 2007 MPT rebroadcast a Metropolitan Opera performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Puritani” (“The Puritans”) where the term refers to the English Civil War, toward the end. This appears to be Bellini’s last opera. The Sicilian composer died at the age of 34. Russian soprano Anna Netrebko played Elvira. The story is a kind of “Romeo and Juliet” (or maybe something like the 70s novel “An Affair of Stranger” between a Palestinian and a Jew). Here Elvira, a “puritan” (or protestant) has fallen in love with a Royalist (Arturo). By the end of the opera, Oliver Cromwell has pardoned everyone in victory, so execution is avoided and the lovers can live happily ever after, as in a fairy tale.

Along the way, Elvira has some “mad scenes,” which Rene Flemming and Beverly Sills discussed in the second intermission. The musical style, very early romantic, seems diatonic and lightweight (with its long melodies and soprano high notes) given the convoluted seriousness of the historical material, and makes the experience seem a bit artificial. This is just the use of European history to tell a good story.

Even so, some of the lines convey a seriousness that transcends the atmosphere, as when Royalist soldiers sing about the military duties. In our world, that is a dead serious subject. And "Puritanism" in our American context suggests fundamentalism and even radicalism, and this opera underscores the possibility that this is not necessarily always so.

There is a little bit of gospel parallel. The first Act takes place near a fortress in Plymouth, England, which reminds us of Plymouth, MA.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Moises Kaufman: 33 Variations (a layered play about the composition of Beethoven's famous variations)

From Aug. 24, 2007 to Sept. 30, 2007 Arena Stage in Washington DC (in the Waterfront district, not too far from the new Nats stadium) is presented a “preview” of “33 Variations”, by Moises Kaufman, also directed by him, in the auxillary Kreeger Theater, which has a conventional stage with stadium seating.

The play presents two layered stories: one, Beethoven’s composition of his famous Variations on a Theme of Diabelli, Op. 120, for piano, and maybe the longest variation form composition in music literature. The tale is that a publisher Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia) wrote a perfunctory waltz theme and invited fifty composers, including Beethoven, to write one variation a piece. He would publish all fifty for a handsome profit. That was numbers-driven music publishing, 19th Century style; and perhaps the dilettante Diabelli (mostly businessman and not artist) thought of himself as the composer's "search engine" in the pre-tech enlightenment era. Beethoven reportedly thought the theme was too trivial to be worth his attention, and relayed the message back through his business manager, Schindler. But then he took an interest, and first was going to write six variations, and the number grew to 33. The variations include a fugue, and the last variation is a stately minuet (ending on one forte C major triad), which Kaufman choreographs to give the play (about 120 min) a curious epilogue. The variations would be composed over many years, with a three year break, and Beethoven’s compositional style would deepen as his deafness intensified and finally, in 1822, became total and complete. The cerebral style is reflected in some other variation sets that form the finales of a couple of late sonatas, no. 30 in E Major (used in a critical scene in the indie movie "Trick"), and the last, in c minor (with the Arioso and variations). For the play, a pianist (Diane Walsh) plays excerpts from about half of the variations in the sequences in which they were actually composed.

The story is told in parallel with the tale of an aging musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt (Mary Beth Peil) who is dying of ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- we don't learn "the diagnosis" for a while), with her daughter Clara (Laura Odeh) having to care for her. A male nurse Mike (Greg Keller) helps, and there is some development of a romantic relationship with the daughter. Dr. Brandt travels to Bonn to research the composition of the variations, and the parallel stories are told simultaneously, sometimes with characters from both on the wide stage at the same time. The stage background includes compartments and projections of Beethoven’s handwritten notes and handwritten scribbly drafts. The point is made that Beethoven composed from written notes and represented the common man (in the post French Revolution era) where as Mozart had been a prodigy composer of the Austrian court.

During the modern story, the daughter is encouraged to grow closer to her mother, with a degree of forced intimacy (the term is used in the script) that frightens her at first, as she resists having to touch her mother to give physical therapy. Later, though, she winds up feeding her mother.

The musicology of the piece, as discussed in the play, presents the Diabelli Variations as a mediation on the nature of dance, starting with a dance that is more social (the waltz) and ending with one the is stately, courtly, proper and conservative (the Minuet, which used to be the third movement of most symphonies until Beethoven popularized the scherzo). Beethoven would explore the dance more fully in the Symphony #7 (with its famous Allegretto in place of a slow movement, and a finale that could almost work in a disco). My own piano lessons with the Sherwood course emphasized form, with the Sonata form being the most developed, and the variations being a special opportunity to explore musical fabric for its own sake. I recall a piano teacher calling the Liszt Legends (St. Francis Walking on the Water -- one of my favorites) variations, but they are not in the same sense. The most famous modern example of variation form is probably Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (a theme often used by other composers for variations).

After the play, Kaufman led a Q&A for the audience. I said that I saw this as a film as well as a play. Kaufman says that the idea for the play came to him as he was visiting a Tower Records store just before Tower Records shut down.

The play is a stunning mixture of music as aesthetics, and the moral side of family values.

I did pick up a CD of the Diabelli Variations, a London Decca 4758401 with Vladimir Askenazy as pianist (49 min) with a supplement: "12 Variations in A Major from Paul Wronitzky's Ballet Das Waldmadchen", WoO 71 ("The Forest Maiden"). The Diabelli, when played at home, does have a hypnotic effect. The entire composition is in C Major except for the fugue, Var. 32, in E-flat, and the Minuet indeed provides an ironic conclusion, final C Major chord and all.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Comedy Club on DVD: Eddie Izzard, Kate Clinton

Netflix has a number of DVD’s of comedy-club like monologues. Some of them do a lot of satire on GLBT issues, or other major political controversies and show up the hypocrisy of politicians.

Eddie Izzard: Dressed to Kill (Ella Communications / Edgewater, 1999) is one of several Izzard shows. The subtitle, of course, refers to the famous 1980 Brian de Palma film. It was was originally produced in New York City at the Wesbeth Theater. Izzard is a transvestite, dressed in a fleshy cape covered with stars and wrapped around “her” body, with a bowl haircut that resembles a man’s. The stage has a wall with what looks like a map of the LA area. The DVD starts out with narration about San Francisco, trying to link the cable cars to Alcatraz, before the comedy show starts. He talks about why he didn’t join the Army, but how he could teach the Pentagon a thing or two. He mentions “don’t ask don’t tell” early on, and comments that the Ban deprives the military the element of “surprise” whatever its shock and awe. The comments sound strangely prophetic given the date of the show. He goes ahead and plays world history teacher, talking about Stonehenge, Henry VIII, the way we were during the two World Wars, and then brings us up to date on Bill Clinton. At one point he mentions “The Gesture” and doesn’t quite tell us what it was, at least when I was in the Army: aka “OGAB” aka “O Go Way Butterfly!” (This informal skit got acted out in the eyebrow barracks at Fort Eustis (Fort Useless) VA in 1969 by the men (one of them having shaved some of his forearm to give blood) by imitating Tiny Tim tiptoeing through the tulips, and then just doing the limp wrist and saying the lithp-lisp "yeth: with a moon face; it was a real show. It was followed by invocations of me as Chicken Man long before I became Mr. Burns of The Simpsons.) Later Izzard talks about Steve McQueen (“The Blob”, “The Great Escape”) as a caricature of an American Man. He gets around to talking about space exploration, how we keep looking for monsters on Mars and don't find them, and also makes a strange comment about anthrax, two years before it was a public issue.

Comedy Presents: Kate Clinton (2006, Liberation / HDNet), performed in LA, is a bit more to the point on the gay issues, asking all the obvious questions about how straight society is to be harmed by gay marriage or by letting gays serve openly in the military.

Another comedy performance to check out is "Suzanne Westenhoefer -- Live at the Village" from the Village Theater in Hollywood (2004, Image). She certain has fun with the urban legends about gays.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Senioritis, from Cappies

Senioritis, as a colloquial term, refers to the tendency of some high school seniors to slack off after getting college acceptance during their senior years at high school. This has become a big problem at some universities, who have sometimes withdrawn acceptances, or placed students on probation at admission.

The musical Senioritis(135 min) is produced by Cappies, and written by nine students in Virginia and Maryland. The book writers are Miriam Engle and Maggie Shaw; the music composers are Riley Keenan, Dustin Merrell, A. J. Pendola, Abi York; the lyrics are by Erick Pope and Maddie Underwood. The play is directed by Glen Hochkeppel. I attended a performance Aug. 5, 2007 at McLean High School in northern Va. The show started about twenty minutes late, as the production team set up digital recording and rehearsed the audience in applause, talking, and laughing, to add to the DVD, which will eventually be sold.

The musical is in two Acts, and seventeen scenes, with an intermission after Scene ten. Some scenes have more than one song, and others are all spoken. The stage props are rather simple but fill the wide stage with color, giving the effect of a 3-D movie of a musical of the “Hairspray” genre. It reminded me more of that than of the obvious “High School Musical.”

Nevertheless, the story concerns a number of students slacking off while producing their own musical, a “High School Mystical.” Some of the songs have surprising and amusing names, such as “C’s and D’s Are Very Good for You” (the teachers); “Senioropolis” (where the kids stage the musical in mock Greek times with togas and just a hint of dirty dancing), “Crackdown.” “Older Woman and a Younger Man”, “You’re Fired” and “Admission to Life” – which is what college is for.

In fact, there are some clever lines about other social issues, like a “global warming drill” or a line where one student fills out his college admission essay and wants to say, “If I don’t go to college, I’ll have a miserable life.” Later, the student contests what his father wants him to do with his life. There are little shreds of issues of great moral importance. The conspicuous regal character in "Mystical" seems to be called "Babushka" -- I'm not sure of the significance of using a Russian doll (there is actually a toy retail chain by that name, as in the Mall of America near Minneapolis) as character nickname.

Apparently this musical will be performed in the Kennedy Center lab, Aug 6-7.

Andrew Karlsruher has directed a short subject on this theme that Fox Searchlight Pictures is due to release this year.

In 1956, in 7th grade, I acted in the comic operetta "The Sunbonnet Girl" by Morgan and Johnson. The operetta seems to date back to about 1930, descriptive link here.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Comedy Club in line at the Washington Monument

Well, I paid $4.35 for a timed ticket at the Washington Monument (the real one) at 9 this morning, picked up the ticket in the kiosk-building on 15th St, walked up the incline and found it to be an efficient experience.

As we waited in the time ticked holder's line, the park attendants decided to entertain us with a ten minute comedy club. They said we would climb the 555 feet of stairs because of one them had as training for the 52nd Airborne. At one point they tried to get me to join the act.

I say, invite Hiya Shia LaBeouf to put on an act some time during a visit.

The Monument is the highest structure in Washington DC, whose building height limits have always been controversial. Out in the suburbs, the limits seem to get higher quickly. The other high points are the Capitol, The Post Office Tower, and the Washington Cathedral. At one point, another visitor loaned me his high powered binoculars and I could see a black limousine with Dick Cheney getting at the White House on the Ellipse. Just lime in the movies.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

National Symphony Orchestra / National Trustees' Summer Music Institute Orchestra, free concert

On Saturday July 28, 2007 the Kennedy Center / National Symphony Orchestra ( ) presented the last free concert of the National Trustees’ Summer Music Institute Orchestra. This is a four week music festival sponsored by the Orchestra for music students aged 14 to 20 form 28 states and a few countries overseas. I saw up front and it was pretty easy to watch the synchronicity of fingering and bowing in the string sections, especially in the Tchaikovsky (below).

The program, conducted by Elizabeth Schulze, consisted of:

(1) Franz Von Suppe: Light Calvary Overture – a martial overture that starts out impressively but simplifies into a spirited romp.

(2) Nicolai Paganini: Violin Concerto #1 in D Major, first movement. The violinist was Cao Qi from Singapore; she played a violin made in France in 1805. Sometimes the second movement and finale of this rather rhetorical and virtuositic concerto are not performed. The playbill notes that the orchestral part was scored in E-flat major with the violin tuned up, to add brilliance, but the piece is usually performed in D. Yet there has always been confusion between “concert pitch” and “international pitch.” Sources give a range of frequencies for Middle C from 256 to 278. Keys have personalities, and to someone with recognition perfect pitch, the 256 calibration sounds right. (Brahm’s Third Symphony really needs to sound like F Major, not F-sharp or G. Mozart piano concertos really sound wrong if mistuned.)

(3) Tchaikovsky. Symphony #4 in f minor. This is always a crowd pleaser with the pizzicato (that tests a student orchestra) and frenzied finale, but it is the first movement, with the brass motto that plays games with the f minor tonality, and then the compound 9/8 rhythms for the themes, the very thorough exposition and development (although Wikipedia finds Tchaikovsky's concept and implementation of "development sections" to be episodic), and then explosive coda, crashing down on fortissimo F's, that drew an applause just for this movement. The orchestra played it with the passion that would befit a youthful work, but Tchaikovsky was 34 when he wrote it. Smallville sometimes draws on Tchaikovsky, a composer whose music dramatizes the struggle of being open about who he really is.

It would be good to see a student orchestra play some large scale early works of romantic composers. One suggestion would be Richard Strauss, many of whose tone poems are early, by the Symphony in F minor, written at 19, with a powerful (somewhat Mendelssohn-like) hymn-like conclusion that will sound familiar despite the work's obscurity. One could try the first piano concerto of Eugene d'Albert, written at 19, a long Liszt-like opus with a stunning fugal cadenza and smashing coda, again with themes that will sound familiar from the movies. Or try the first piano concerto of Ernst von Dohanyi, again with a climactic close that anticipates Rachmaninoff.

One could cart out the g minor "American Youth Concerto" by Marion Bauer, which I learned in the mid 1950s, but I have never seen performed. My favorite piano concerto by a female composer is Amy Beach 's Piano Concerto in c-sharp minor, and unusual key for a concerto (Prokofiev used D-flat major). Sorry, Clara Schumann's a minor concerto sounds perfunctory.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Capitol Fourth on the Mall fights off the thunderstorms

Practically every year for the past ten years or so, I have gone to the Mall in Washington on July 4 for the Capitol Fourth. A couple of exceptions: in 1999, and again in 2002, I watched the celebration from the East Bank of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. In 2000, I started filtering to the South Capitol Metro as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture crashed to a close, because the next morning I would get up to fly back to Minneapolis.

Today I went in to town, and after a burger dinner of 17th Street, I heard rumors that they had cleared the Mall because severe thunderstorms and maybe tornados were coming. So I went back home and watched this years on PBS. It was similar to the celebration of previous years.

Tony Danza (who starred in the Best Film “Crash”) was the MC, and he rather stumbled a couple times, once clutching his chest as if he could have a coronary. But the rest of the evening went off beautifully. Little Richard (wasn’t he at “The Boys’” Di concert in London?) got everybody going – his wig is obvious, but I remember “Long Tall Sally” and “Oh Baby” in the 50s. Driks Bentley sung some country and western. Elliott Yamin (American Idol) actually started things off. Hayden Panettiere sung “Try” from “Bridge to Terabithia”.

Erich Kunzel conducted the National Symphony Orchestra. The main classic was a medley from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (aka “Romeo and Juliet” between NYC street gangs). There is a concert dance suite, which, I believe, ends loudly as did this medley. The actual “opera” ends ambiguously, with the nearly dodecaphonic “Maria” theme dying away in a cartwheel, leading to a final tritone (an ending that reminds one of Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”).. Bernstein combined popular theater with the extreme postromanticism of Mahler (and Strauss, Zemlinsky) leading into the atonal expressionism of Schoenberg and Berg, as comes out in some of his more formal symphonic and choral works like the “Kaddish” Symphony and “Age of Anxiety” symphony-concerto for piano and orchestra. Bernstein reworked his light sattirical opera “Candide” (Voltaire) in a version with the London Symphony in which the final choral is drawn out to Mahlerian effect.

These concerts used to play the entire 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, but no more. The pick up with the recapitulation, as this time the fireworks over the Washington Monument had already started. Of course, the guns (near the Reflecting Pool, I think) go off as the final chorus plays, but, with the singing of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the effect is rather like that of the movie “Reds.”

I worked a few weeks at the end of 2003 selling subscriptions for the National Symphony, for a Canadian intermediary company called Arts Marketing. I could sell the music, but it was difficult to sell entire subscriptions (when they can be bought on the Internet) and (with complaints about our calling after 9 PM) I quit. (The company brought in a music school graduate from Toronto to help us sell; but it seems odd for a conservatory graduate -- an artist and performer -- to make a living by selling other people's work (without performing it, that is).) But in Minnesota I had worked for the Minnesota Orchestra for fourteen months from 2002-2003, calling for contributions to the Guaranty Fund and Young Peoples Concerts, and that worked out fairly well. Although non-profits were largely exempted from the “crackdown” on telemarketing, the mood was certainly negative, even for "telefunding." (There is a discussion here.)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Show Business: The Road to Broadway: film about four broadway musicals

The DVD digital video film “Show Business: The Road to Broadway” (2007, Regent, dir. Dori Bernstein, 102 min, PG) documents the rise (and sometimes the fall) of four major Broadway shows “Wicked”, “Taboo”, “Avenue Q”, and “Caroline, or Change”.

Websites:, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz The Gershwin Theater, with the story set in the Land of Oz. There is a rehearsal scene where Schwartz corrects a note of a woodwind player. Book by Winnie Holzman, dir. Joe Mantello

Caroline, or Change, music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, dir. George C. Wolfe, deals with an African American maid in a Jewish family in Louisiana in 1963, just before the Kennedy Assassination, closed on Broadway in August 2004. The film shows a composing session with electronic recording of piano chords. A similar scene occurs with the character Ephram in the TV series Everwood, and in Maican’s film (Dec. 20 in this blog).

Avenue Q music by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, book by Jeff Whitty, known as a quasi-Sesame puppet show. The film shows some scenes which both men (and Marx’s parents) discuss their boyhood backgrounds in music and how they became composers.
At the Golden Theater

Taboo by and about Boy George, takes place in London in the 80s and was produced by Rosie O’Donnell and was canceled after three months.

The film shows many intimate acting scenes (such as a rehearsal for a fight in “Wicked”). It ends with the Tony Awards ceremony in 2004, where all the musicals win awards (Avenue Q amazes everyone.)

The film also mentions many other broadway plays that failed quickly or never opened, despite their “angel” investments.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Thornton Wilder: Our Town: Grover's Corner NH revisited

Our Town, by Thorton Wilder, 1938.

One inexpensive anthology is “Three Plays”: Our Town, The Skin of our Teeth, and The Matchmaker, published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics, ISBN 0-06-092985-5. “Our Town” runs 114 pages in print and exactly two hours to perform, and it moves in slow movement tempo. The book contains a Preface by Wilder himself, and a Foreword by John Guare.

I saw the firs two acts at school, in the 1977 NBC Performance directed by George Shaefer with Hal Holbrook as the stage manager, where the prototypical “Grover’s Corner NH” is laid out as a model, as if this were to become a Dogme film. That version (VCR from Mastervision) doesn’t seem to be on DVD, so I rented the 2003 PBS version, directed by James Naughton, where Paul Newman plays stage manager. In the newer version, relative unkown Ben Fox looks a bit mature for the sixteen-year-old George, and Robbie Benson was more on the mark in the 1977 version (yet Benson had shattered us in “Ode to Billy Joe”).

The play is famous for its structure, as it reflects upon itself. The stage manager provides commentary, sometimes discursive and descriptive (even to the point of naming the play and author), obsessed with trivia in an almost Asperger way. Yet it morphs into real life and a depiction of our society’s cultural norms about love and marriage, and how these map into our view of the afterlife.

The Intermission occurs after the first two ("The Daily Life" and "Love and Marriage") of the three acts, after almost 75% of the running time has elapsed. Then in act three, the “dead”, on simple chairs, become the undead, and comment on the living, as Emily, having just died in childbirth, perfoming her social duty, gets into a “time machine” and relives her twelfth birthday. Young man George visits her grave as a widower, curiously with the opportunity to become the “self-centered” hero he really wanted to be, perhaps a “god” who receives the godhead from the passage of another god as in Wilder’s early novel “The Cabala” (or Cabal), which is discussed in the Foreword. In fact, Wilder’s novel proves that he looked at this whole family values thing from a bit of a distance.

For a play written in 1938, at the end of the Depression and before WWII, the play is quite prescient about the struggle between individualism and group consciousness (or psychological surplus and adaptive living) and values, especially around the family and social norms. On p 27, Mr. Webb mentions that people have always tried to find a way to reward individual merit while helping those who can’t take care of themselves, and then there is a question about beauty and culture. Webb admits that there is not much artistic or extra-personal “culture” in this small town. Just people. Soon Dr. Gibbs sets aside his precocious teenage son George and humbles him in a general conversation, asking him to be more attentive to his mom (chopping wood for her without being asked) even as he increases George’s allowance. George is ambitious, and already an accomplished baseball player (in 1901 Major League Baseball as we know it today were just coming into being), and talks about going away to agricultural college. Dr. Gibbs correctly anticipates the George probably doesn’t have the psychological patience for farming, with his tendency to shun sharing the adaptive family chores.

In Act II, the centerpiece, and self-proclaimed to be about love and marriage, the stage manager announces that “everybody climbs into their graves married” almost without exception. Marriage and procreation are almost compulsory, but hardly anyone would think of asking the question that way.

Then the stage manager introduces a scene where George and Emily know they are right for one another. Emily confronts George with the observation that everyone sees George as becoming stuck up and conceited since he is doing so well at baseball. (He reminds he of Martin Brewer, played by Tyler Hoechlin, in TheWB’s series “Seventh Heaven.”) Not that George does anything so overtly bad, he just has become unresponsive to people “as people,” and he seems even to ignore the needs of his own family (still). He wants to be a better person, in terms of a world that accepts interdependence and the will of God rather than just an inner driven self. They have an interesting discussion about whether men can be naturally good or whether goodness and perfection comes from girls, and Emily says girls are too "nervous" (emotional) to be perfect. At the end of Act II, they get married, but not until both George and Emily both have soap-opera like cold feet (almost like Sami and Lucas in “Days of our Lives” recently). There is some archaic talk, where George says “all I want is to be a fella” and where Mr. Webb says to Emily that George is a “fine fella.” The tragedy that will follow in Act III, where Emily dies by giving new life while George eventually moves on, seems to encapsulate the whole question of what people have a right to expect from life, given the needs of others. It’s curious and a moral paradox that transmitting life reinforces reverence for life, yet Emily had to give up her own earthly life for the permanence of the chairs in the cemetery in order to transmit life.

There are more comments on my regular movie reviews site, here.

Note: "Our Town" is at the Ford's Theater in Washington DC in early 2013.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat: note

The Washington Post today notes that the Lazy Suzan theater at U.S. 1 at Furnace Road, Woodbridge, VA. 703-550-7384 is performing as a dinner theater event Andrew Lloyd Webber 's lilting musical "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat", book by Tom Rice, originally performed in 1967, starting today.

I recall seeing a full-blown production of this in 1996, I believe at the National Theater in downtown Washington. Besides the exhilaration of the music, I remember the moral of the story, where the character Joseph in Genesis rather believes he is a bit special because of his "gifts" -- seeing dreams and visions, where he draws attention to himself and makes himself a celebrity (when otherwise he would be the Biblical equivalent of the geeky Nick Fallon in "Days of our Lives"), and eventually gains favor in Egypt with his dreams, verbal and intellectual skills, and is able to save the people from famine. We all know the Biblical story, that would lead the tribes of Israel to Egypt, setting up Moses and the Exodus. But the "moral edge" from the tale comes from the way he draws the ire of his more humdrum brothers for attracting all of this "undeserved" attention and making fun of their more conventional mode of becoming men. (Not that Joseph wasn't himself capable of heterosexuality -- he was -- yet the "Technicolor" suggests both the movie print process and the rainbow symbol -- even as the musical is popular with churches and even the LDS -- just look at all of the performances shown on Google.)

There was a video of this musical made in 1999, distributed by Universal and Polygram, directed by David Mallet.   (Apologies: "Raincoat" appears in the URL title because of an original typo; the correct title has "Dreamcoat".) 

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Thomas Keneally: Either Or

Author: Thomas Keneally
Title: Either Or
Director: Daniel De Raey
Where Seen: Theater J at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater / Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts, 16th and Q Sts. NW, Washington DC, 20036.
Length: 115 minutes plus one 15-minute intermission
Stage setups: one basic setup, small

I saw this at a Wednesday lunchtime matinee (May 30, 2007), to a sold-out very professional crowd. Apparently theater matinees appeal to business people not far away on K Street or Connecticut Ave. (So do baseball games.)

The play gives a biography of the double-life led by Kurt Gernstein (Paul Morella), vacillating between prison and membership in the Nazi party, where he eventually became the head of SS Technical Disinfection Services at the concentration camps and helped introduce Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide), which the Nazis used to replace carbon monoxide in gas chambers. Yet, Gernstein wanted to be a “good man: and frantically tried to get the word out to both the Vatican and other countries like Sweden and Switzerland. Each act of the play starts in 1945, where the Allies are debriefing him and may try him; then the play fashes back to 1933 (for Act I) and 1941 (for Act II).

One interesting problem of history is how the German people (referring to the Gentiles or practicing Lutheran and Catholics) were so easily taken in by Hitler and the Third Reich at a personal level. An early scene portrays the economic relief promised by the Reich, as well as the focus on aesthetic beauty (as in classical music) and personal perfection. But aesthetics were to be controlled by the state, not explored by individuals with personal freedom. Indeed, God (in the name of Jesus) had supposedly imputed the State with the knowledge of what is beautiful – the knowledge of “good and evil”. In our society, even with personal freedom, we become concerned that too much such “rational knowledge” in the hands of one person or a small number of people can become dangerous to everyone. Later, there is a line where Kurt is told to tell the SS what they want to hear as a “civic courtesy.” It’s interesting to watch how a promised economic or cultural liberation quickly turns into oppressive conformity with the state making up all kinds of criminal offenses to suppress dissent.

Curiously, you don’t hear “Hail to Hitler” (in any variation) in the play, and the subject of anti-Semitism for its own sake is little explored (although one character is a converted Jew going to a Lutheran seminary, whereon he is eventually kicked out). Dr. Edward Pruden, of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC at 16th and O (the Church met in the JCC in 1954/1955 while its present building was being constructed), wrote a lot, in his 1951 book “Interpreters Needed” (Judson Press) about the failure of Christian churches (whether Lutheran or Catholic) to respond to the Nazi threat in the 1930s.

One other note: As I recall, the second part of Ayn Rand 's novel Atlas Shrugged is called "Either-Or".

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Benjamin Britten's operas -- still controversial

The May 2007 Pittsburghy Out has a story by Mike Crawmer, “Homoerotic Billy Budd staged by Pittsburgh Opera,” on p. 1. The story reports that artistic director Christopher Hahn had to deal with the controversy surrounding the opera by Benjamin Britten, dating to about 1951. At least one opera threatened never to come if the opera company ever put this masterpiece on. I saw this opera at the Kennedy Center in Washington in September 2004. The music from the opera formed the backdrop for the 2000 film by Claire Denis, Beau Travail (“Good Work”) from New Yorker Films, in a story about the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti, with a story that parallels the opera. There is a writeup here.

Britten died in 1976, had a long term relationship with Peter Pears that Leonard Bernstein would sometimes discuss with some candor. Since the onset of the current debate over gays in the military erupted with President Clinton’s adoption of “don’t ask don’ tell” in 1993, there has been a growing interest in whether Britten could have foreseen this issue when he wrote the opera.

The immediate subject is mutiny in the 18th Century British Navy. Since Britain is an island, its whole history and economic growth over centuries was based on the sea and on naval power, so it had to come to terms with the social issues surrounding men confined together for long periods of time at sea. In the modern Navy, the ultimate expression of this problem would be life on a submarine. The early colonists had this problem in their voyages to the New World, although sometimes families came together, whereas at other times the men came first. (That would be a whole subject in itself for dissertations, suitable for the Jamestown VA 400th Anniversary – family life during colonization – more movies and books, starting with New Line’s “The New World” in 2005).

But if mutiny is an issue, so would be personal jealousies and potentially sexual and homoerotic tensions. Britten surely knew this. In the opera, a likeable kid Billy Budd joins the warship. His “fatal flaw” is stuttering but he gets along with everyone except Claggart. When in a conflict Claggart winds up dead, Captain Vere tries Billy, who is executed in the tragic end of the opera.

Britten’s eclectic musical style combines British pastoralism with romanticism, resulting in a palette with stunning effects, as in the choruses (“Down All Hands”) near the end of the opera. He achieves similar effects in Peter Grimes, which I saw in Dallas in 1980. In that opera, a young apprentice dies in an accident, and Peter is accused of his death by the angry townspeople, with a suggestion of abuse. The same theme comes up in the ghost story chamber opera The Turn of the Screw (1954), where ghosts of people possibly suspected of child abuse inhabit a house with young children and a governess. Of course, Death in Venice (1973), which I saw at the Met in New York in 1975, has a dying older man chasing a young man in a cholera epidemic. The orchestral suite from that opera invokes a mood similar to that of the first movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1909), the movement that announced twentieth century music as we know it!

Britten, as a young man, was an admirer of Gustav Mahler. It is said that Mahler would have written a Requiem Mass had he lived longer, but Britten’s War Requiem(1962) may resemble what Mahler had wanted to write.

I have another writeup of Britten's music here.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Visit to the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh

I visited the Andy Warhol Museum in downtown Pittsburgh this weekend. It is on the “North Shore”, two long blocks down from the Pittsburgh Pirates ‘s new PNC Park. When I tried to drive there, I got sidetracked in the baseball crowd around the park, could not turn onto the right street because of pedestrians, and got pointed onto an HOV lane (illegally) by a police officer. But eventually I got there.

I wasn’t in time to see the pseudo-opera Red Dust by Matthew Rosenblum (and the tickets apparently had to be purchased a couple days in advance) although I saw all the jazzy props on the second floor.

The tour started on the sixth floor with “6 Billion Perps Held Hostage: Artists Address Global Warming”. This exhibit did not allow photographs because of proprietary copyrights, and there were a number of interesting visual experiments. The most interesting as a little film where little “black holes” are shot into the air above Pittsburgh and they explode into smoke that envelops the sky.

The Fourth Floor had a special exhibit “Gift of Gretchen Berg: The True Story of ‘My True Story’ and The Troublemakers.” There are a lot of photos of the protests, and a glass cabinet with Time and Life articles about the Vietnam period, such as pictures of people being inducted by the draft (1965), and of the Kent State shooting (Ohio) in May 1970. That period covered my own Army service and first job of my “working life’. I was driving out from New Jersey to Indianapolis for a job assignment when I heard about Kent State (amongst all of those 800-835-3535 Sheaton ads – in a time when I was getting used to “the road.”). This was the other exhibit section not allowing photos. (All other sections did allow them.)

There was plenty of floor space to the more typical Warhol stuff (the soup cans and catsup and hamburgers). Somehow this all makes me think of a colorized “Last Picture Show.”

The exhibit “Buggin’: Taps for Justice” was largely roped off for renovation, but I could see a lot of the bugging from the lower tech Hoover eras. Good Night and Good Luck.

Earlier this year, the Warhol Museum hosted an exhibit on loan from the Holocaust Museum on Eugenics in Nazi Germany.

The Weekend Factory, downstairs, had people experimenting with the "silkscreen" art techniques. A friend of mine in the 1970s, Stuart Lamle, had a somewhat similar idea called "aquagraphics".

Warhol, it seems, wanted to make his mark on the world in his own way, without competing on other people’s terms. He changed the way we perceive art, and maybe even how what we perceive what is important in ourselves, just with his expression. Although he became a shrewd businessman, manipulation families or other empires was not his thing.

Related review of movies at the museum, here.