Saturday, November 22, 2008

National Museum of American History reopens

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Arlington VA church performs brass music by Russian composer Victor Ewald

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Music education and practice improves academic performance (study)

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 08, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 01, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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