Monday, April 27, 2009

Colonial Williamsburg's outdoor drama "Revolutionary City"

In April 2006 I watched the two largest portions of “Revolutionary City,” an outdoor segmented drama experience offered at Colonial Williamsburg at several locations in the Restored area. That particular weekend I sandwiched an Equality Virginia dinner in Richmond between two visits to Williamsburg (50 miles). The website that describes these is here. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays shows Part I, called the “Collapse of the Royal Government” which starts at the Capitol. (By the way, I recommend the Capitol on the regular tour, where a young man in 18th century costume explains how the three branches of American government are related, somewhat circuitously, to the “branches” of colonial government.) Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays the second main portion is “Citizens at War”, with much of the action in the Raleigh Tavern area. In 2008 Colonial Williamsburg added a third presentation, “Building a Nation”, on Mondays only (which makes it a bit of an inconvenience). The presentations, especially the Monday portion, have sections with close starting times and overlapping, so it can be difficult to see everything.

The emphasis in the activity is showing the way ordinary citizens in Williamsburg perceived the issues of the day as it related to their lives. Young men were required to own guns and to be available for militias, but men often struggled with the issue of going to war or staying home to support families. The slaves were promised freedom (by Governor Dunsmore himself) if they would fight with the British – much is made of this in the outdoor dioramas. And freedom of religion and speech were much more subtle in practice than most people realize – you weren’t always free to oppose the rebels if you wanted to.

The website offers a number of podcasts, videos, and dramatic text transcripts in each section, which lists the major characters. Many of the podcasts are shared by many sections (and some movie files are missing).

For example, the Monday “Building a Nation” section starts with the presentations (called “That Freedom Ain’t for Me”) of two slaves, Lydia Broadnax (a slave in the household of George Wythe) and Eve, a “highly-valued slave” in the household of Peyton Randolph. This leads to a video of the April 4-5 2009 “30th Anniversary of African American Programming” with Jamie Ingram and Richard Josey, followed by a musical video “Juba” (for “Jubilee”).

Other characters include Martha Washington, Gowan Pamphlet, the Marquis de Fafayette, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry.

There is an “Electronic Field Trip” which gives an interesting video on colonial cryptography. A secret letter was related to a template which was necessary to interpret the letter. Spies were hired to confuse the enemy (the British). There is a video there on the Tea Party, that explains that participation was coerced. There is a discussion on how tobacco was important to the economy because it was smoked in Europe. There is a “made in America” video that shows how farm machinery was manufactured, and was surprisingly sophisticated for a Luddite.

There are transcripts of the debate between Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson (more or less like a miniature stage play – it could have been shown in Final Draft) on freedom of religion and the way that would migrate among the colonies (or states after victory). There is also a question on the role of government in caring for the poor.
There is also a proposed “blog”, to show what Thomas Jefferson would have written if Blogger had been available then.

Picture, old Capitol, from Wikimedia commons, taken before 1978 and in public domain. Attribution link.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Green Apples, Flaming Lips lead Washington DC Mall "Earth Day" concert

“Green Apples” (its link for DC Earth Day celebration)) and the psychedelic rock band “Flaming Lips”) helped make for a lively (pre) Earth Day concert on the Mall in Washington DC Sunday April 19.

One of the sequences started with the closing ballet from Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” with its melodramatic B Major conclusion (sometimes heard in discos). I didn’t get the names of the performers, but I thought one of them was Wayne Coyne.

Lisa Jackson, director of the Environmental Protection Agency, made a passionate pep talk. She mentioned the EPA ruling last week, directed by a previous Supreme Court ruling (see Saturday on my issues blog).

Then the band entertained us with floating green volleyballs, bouncing around the crowd, and one of the performers got into a bubble and rolled around off the fingertips of the crowd. He looked like a caricature of a bubble boy from a sci-fi movie.

The stage was mounted on the East End of the Mall, just before the pond in front of the West side of the Capitol.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Much of YouTube Symphony concert is viewable online; winners' clips are available

YouTube has a one hour video of the “YouTube” symphony orchestra, starting with a presentation by Michael Tilson Thomas, link here. Tilson has to start by explaining what classical music is, in general terms, over the past 1200 years, saying “who we have been”. It calls itself “the world’s first collaborative online orchestra.” The speech is followed by many self-introductions.

The first work on the video is the scherzo from Brahms Third Symphony.

Thomas then went over the percussion section and played a work by Lou Harrison.

Then a cellist explained how music gave him a solitary lifestyle, and he compared it to poker.

Next the finale from the Dvorak Serenade #2 was performed.

Next followed some brass music (Gabrielli, I think).

Then the cellist Joshua Roman (introduced by YoYo Ma) played a Sarabande from a Bach unaccompanied cello suite. He discussed the idea that music bridges nationalities (he mentioned Romania and China).

Then the orchestra played a Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras.

The last piece was the “Ride of the Valkyries” from Richard Wagner’s Die Walkure.

The concert was held at Carnegie Hall Wednesday April 15. The YouTube file appears to be the first half of the concert before the intermission.

The Youtube link presents an orchestra seating chart with the winners, with links to their submissions. The piano submission was the first movement of the Beethoven Waldstein Sonata, on an open upright piano.

I heard Tilson Thomas perform at a "Young People's Concert" in New York City in 1973.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ford's Theater presents Wildhorn's musical "The Civil War"

I grew up in the DC area, and for some reason I had the impression that Ford’s Theater had been right across the street from the White House. So I bought a ticket to the musical “The Civil War” and had to ask a secret service agent where it was – I didn’t bother to look it up. And really, the building is quite conspicuous at 10th and F, taking up most of the East side of the street from E to F.

Inside, the theater is small, with columns obscuring the balcony view, and the third balcony is not open. The overhang from the second level (where I sat) obscured the view when the actors moved forward in a couple of spots. (I believe that the President’s Box is on the highest level.) The theater was sold out, however.

The 96 minute production is directed by Jeff Calhoun, the music is composed by Wildhorn, and the book and lyrics are by Frank Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd, and Jack Murphy. There are thirty musical numbers, and they tend to have a Broadway-style
“lilt”. There was a seven-piece guitar and percussion orchestra.

Behind the stage were projected many stills from the Civil War, in Ken Burns style. Most of them were in black and white, although there was a color painting of Blue Ridge countryside, which dissolved into a black and white photo.

Copyright and union rules prohibited photography of the performance (as of these pictures) but some of them are in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

One of the most striking songs was “A Nurse’s Diary”, for which a picture of a Civil War hospital was shown. Somehow it reminded me of my stay in the Fort Jackson SC infirmary during Basic Training in 1968!

A few of the songs required cast ensemble (21 members).

Toward the end of the show there were stills of the 1963 March on Washington (with Martin Luther King's speech) and finally (in color) of Barack Obama's inauguration.

An early song denies that the Civil War (or War Between the States) was fought to save the Union, and claims it really was about slavery. Wikipedia has an important article on “Abraham Lincoln on Slavery” here.

The Ford’s Theater link for the show is here and it offers a couple of embedded preview videos.

I generally have not been big on musicals of this type. But in 1979 I saw "Shenandoah" (1975), with music by Gary Geld and music by Peter Udell, at the theater in the Northpark Mall in Dallas.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

PBS shows American Masters documentary on composer Philip Glass

On April 8, 2009, many PBS stations aired the “American Masters” film, “Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts”, directed by Scott Hicks, link here. The last part was titled “Opening Night,” referring to the opera (below). The Maryland Public Television synopsis is here. Kino has theatrical distribution rights for the film.

Glass is well known for his style, of repeated chords or figures making a kind of ground bass with a hypnotic effect. The figures may be in triple or quadruple time, and tend to be in moderate tempo. His filmography on imdb lists 85 movies as of now, among the most famous of which are “Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance” and “Powwaqatsi: Life in Transformation”. Some people call his style “minimalist.”

His comments indicate that he sees music theory as, by itself, self-serving; he is more interested in how music is experienced. He is asked what the difference is between a symphony and an opera and he says, not that much. He says that working for film is hard. Music has the advantage of allowing the artist to “say” what he wants in a socially acceptable manner without censorship, but that brings up the old controversy over program music v. absolute music.

The film covers several episodes, including a ride at Coney Island (they show the “Cyclone”, but I recall the Seaside Courts for paddleball), a premier of his opera “Waiting for the Barbarians” in Germany (with some small ballet-like and then vocal excerpts shown – somewhat reminding me of Paul Adams -- bright red is often used as a background color), and a performance in Australia with an Aborigine instrument, the didgeridoo. When played on the piano, sometimes his style reminds one curiously of some of the music in Chopin’s nocturnes (previous posting). The opera is based on J.M. Coetzee's novel with libretto by Christopher Hampton, and is both abstract and political, involving the relation of people to the state, and to the limits of their means – an important problem today. The last line of the opera is "I am a man caught in an ugly dream."

The film shows excerpts of his married family life, in New York and Baltimore (where he was born in 1937), where his studio is quite cluttered and where his wife (he has had four) has to learn to leave it alone during housekeeping. The second part of his film shows him in meditation.

He is interested in all faiths, and the documentary shows a fascinating model of a Hindu mansion. But, as his current wife says, “music is his underlying passion for everything he does.” There is a curious scene where he and his spouse share their computer passwords. Glass himself also says (about the novelist of the opera, I think) that "writing can become the meaning of one's life" and that it is not necessarily an "escape to become sane."

The film shows him working with Chuck Close, Ravi Shankar (Indian sitar performer and composer) and Woody Allen.

Picture: see previous post.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Brian Ganz gives Chopin recital at Dumbarton in Washington DC

On Saturday April 4, 2009, the Dumbarton Concert Series presented Brian Ganz in an all Chopin piano recital. I got mailed an extra ticket for this when I ordered the ticket for the Feb. 21 chamber concert, so here I was. I peaked at the piano at Intermission, and it is a Steinway.

Some of the concert called to mind my high school piano days, particularly the Nocturnes from Op 27 (numbers 1 and 2) in the enharmonic c-sharp minor and D-flat keys. Number 1 gets into a violent middle section that continues almost to the end. Chopin was a master of the simple three part ternary form and the use of the middle section. I had a mono Columbia recording of the Nocturnes, that I remember playing a lot my senior year of high school, even for company during chess games. The record got destroyed by worn sapphire needles – this was 1961, after all.

Chopin, in fact, was the master of the use of the black keys – many of his compositions are in keys that start on black keys or that naturally use all of them – so many sharps and flats – fingering is easier on them. The same was true of Liszt to some extent – when we got to Rachmaninoff it was less true (although the last Rachmaninoff Prelude from Op. 32, which I learned as a senior in high school, was heavy into D-flat major resonance).

Okay, get back to Chopin – I tended to see his music as a bit frivolous and even effeminate – except for the Sonatas (and Ballades and Scherzos). The second piano teacher I had, starting in Ninth Grade (after my first teacher died suddenly of cancer in 1958) used to say you can’t give Chopin sonatas to people before college. Beethoven, yes. I’m not sure that makes sense. (Remember how an episode of WB’s Everwood had the prodigy character Ephram learning the Beethoven Appasionata in one day?)

Ganz played the B-flat minor sonata (number 2), one of Chopin’s most “virile” pieces. The first movement has an expansive architecture and rhythmic drive that foreshadows the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the same key – reaching a thundering B-flat major climax. Ganz took the repeat. I’ve always thought this particular movement is masterful in its design and emotional momentum – and yet it’s “just” the opening movement. The scherzo is violent and then sentimental, and we all know the funeral march, which here sounded a bit salon-like. (Remember Beethoven also gave us a funeral march in A-flat minor in one of his middle sonatas.) The finale is gossamer, rather a coda to the whole piece, to crash down on a single B-flat minor chord. I’ve always wondered what the significance of the “etude-like” finale is. Some observers say it is almost atonal, although not in the same way as the later music of Viennese composers (it’s more Parisian).

He picked the best of the scherzo’s, number 3 in C-sharp minor (again), that is nothing less than heroic. (I wondered if he would pick the G-minor Ballade – used in the Dutch horror film “Mill of the Stone Women” and late in a climactic scene in Roman Polanski's "The Pianist", where the hero impresses a Nazi soldier by playing the piece) – he didn’t, but it has one of the most violent conclusions in all of romantic piano literature. It would have made an excellent audition piece for Ephram in “Everwood” if the character hadn’t blown it – a tragedy.)

Ganz played four mazurkas, and substituted an earlier one in B-flat minor for the one that was printed. He took them all somewhat dutifully. He opened the program with two polonaises from Op 40 (the A Major is the “Militaire” and the C minor is slow and emphasizes bass lines, that didn’t always come out well). The concluding work was the Heroic Polonaise in A-flat. He played the Aeolian Harp Etude as an encore.

One other piano piece, not on the program, comes to mind here. Brahms wrote three piano sonatas, all when he was young, but number 2, in F-sharp minor, has always struck me as strange, especially the enigmatic conclusion. I wonder if we’ll hear that at Dumbarton some time.

I see that Dumbarton will have the Miro String Quartet perform Tudor Dominik Maican’s “String Quartet #5” on April 10, 2010. I don’t know what happened to Quartet #4. I’d love to hear Dumbarton do Dohanyi’s youthful and expansive Piano Quintet, Op. 1.