Monday, August 17, 2009

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


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 09, 2009

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


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 03, 2009

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 02, 2009

W.A. Mozart: two more pieces found


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

The Agence-France Press has a story here.

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

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

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

Update: August 18

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