Saturday, August 30, 2008

BrickFair Lego exhibit held in northern Virginia


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

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


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

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

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

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

Friday, August 15, 2008

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


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

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

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

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

The link for the DVD is this.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 03, 2008

PBS plays historic Bernstein concert of Beethoven's Ninth


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 02, 2008

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


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

The main website for the theater is this.

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

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

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

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

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