Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Holiday Train Show at New York Botanical Garden, one of the largest ever

I did get to the Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden (link ), which is next to the Bronx Zoo, literally at the northernmost part of that borough.  I had thought this was in Brooklyn, before I checked the ticket.

I would indeed get a "bonus tour" getting there. 
I had taken Acela in the morning, and walked over to get the B Train on 6th Avenue (Herald Square).  At the 145th Street Station, in Harlem, the train stopped, and we were soon told that the rails had lost power.  I had to get a cab, and was lucky to find one quickly, and it was still quite a distance.  I got an “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown” tour of The Bronx, almost the entire borough.

I got there on time, found the Conservatory enormously crowded, but we got in about ten minutes after the scheduled time of 2:30.  It takes about an hour to do the visit. There was a drag queen on stilts (actually female, I think, but not sure -- "somebody's gotta do it", like Mike Rowe).

 The buildings are replicas of NYC landmarks, including Penn Station and Yankee Stadium, made from natural plant materials.  The layout spreads on both sides of the aisle, and the two halves come together after about 200 feet.  But many of the rail loops are separate and do not connect.  On the “fringes” all the rolling stock consists of street cars.  More conventional trains are in the middle.  This is one of the largest exhibits I have ever seen (although in 2010, there was an exhibit near Dulles Airport in Virginia that was supposed to simulate 60 miles of track between two cities).  The style of the exhibit resembles that in Washington DC at the US Botanical Garden near the Capitol, but it is much larger.  There is a certain "Middle Earth" look to it all.  In fact, I don't think there are any trains in "Tolkien" as I recall, but there are in some of the dominions of Clive Barker's "Imajica", so that could motivate further attractions, maybe in Las Vegas or in Orlando.  But this exhibit must be New York City's answer to those two resort cities.
There is also a separate exhibit with unusual cars in feudal Japan.

After visiting the exhibit, a three-year old Canon Power Shot started getting “lens errors”, which might have been provoked by very high humidity in some of the exhibit.  Fortunately, all the pictures were OK.  

(It's hard to put these pictures in logical order.)
Note the replica of the globe from the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing (which I attended in 1965).

Friday, December 26, 2014

Vaughn Williams: "Hodie"; a note about caroling

When I lived in my own apartments or condos, especially in other cities, I usually totted out some Christmas music, either on vinyl (the old days) or CD.  I would play Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”, an RCA recording with the St. Louis Symphony.  In the good old days in Dallas, when they had the Crossroads Market on Cedar Springs (in the late 1980s), Bill Nelson would play it a lot in the store, and his favorite passage was not the conclusion, but the “pas de deux” in G Major just before the end.

But the main event for Christmas Day was always “Hodie” (or “This Day”), am hour long Christmas cantata by Ralph Vaughn Williams (1954).  I have a 1965 ADD recording with David Willcocks on EMI Angel. There is a different performance on YouTube that runs a little longer.

The music is loud, virile, and triumphant.  It is also characteristically modal (Lydian).  The pompous ending settles in on G Major.  There are many little festive solos and ensembles. 

Christmas Day, I did join the Trinity Presbyterian Church caroling at the Virginia Hospital Center. Having a background in piano does not guarantee an adequate adult voice, a totally separate world.   This time, we made it to the maternity ward in the older section of the hospital.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a newborn baby just an hour or two after birth before.  

Remember, today is Boxing Day.  It is still Christmas in Britain and Canada.  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Arnold Schoenberg's opera "Moses und Aron"

I’ve waited for some years for a DVD (possibly a 1973 French film) of the opera “Moses und Aron” (or “Moses and Aaron”) by Arnold Schoenberg to appear on Netflix, so today I dug out my 1985 recording on London with Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
Only two acts were complete;  a text exists for the third.  The entire work runs about 97 minutes.
The opera plays out the major personality difference between Moses (Franz Mazura) and his older brother Aaron (Philip Langridge).  Aaron grew up with his own people and, although he interceded with Moses in the Egyptian court when trying to secure the release of the Israelites from slavery, he reminded closer to the people “emotionally” and his attitude was more permissive when the people became restless while Moses was on the mountain receiving The Ten Commandments.

The music is largely atonal and dodecaphonic, and Wikipedia diagrams the row here. Yet it often becomes quite “postromantic” in characters, especially in the louder passages with full chorus.  At spots in the Act I, there are foreshadowings of the first movement of Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony.  
The most arresting part of the opera is Scene 3 of Act 2, the Golden Calf scene, where the impatient Israelites engage in “idol worship”.  Is that the same thing as my “upward affiliation”?  Most of this 24-minute scene is orchestral and in fast tempi, and in spots it recalls the violent scherzo (third movement) of the Mahler Ninth.  The dance would work well as a standalone work in concerts.  In a few places, it almost anticipates modern acid disco.

The first act ends very tonally, in fact, in F# minor, with violence;  the second act dies away on a final F#.
Additional:  I just “broke down” and ordered the Amazon DVD of a 2011 performance directed by Daniel Huillet, link, distributed by New Yorker Films.  I’ll add some comments about the scenery (especially the Golden Calf) as soon as I’ve seen it.  This performance appears to add about ten minutes of the unfinished Act III. 

Update: Dec. 24.  The DVD arrived and I reviewed it on the movies blog today. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Baltimore fire department has elaborate "train garden" for Christmas

In Baltimore, the fire department on Glen Avenue (in the Pimilico area NW of downtown) has “train garden open for extensive hours during the Christmas season .

You walk around it in a circle, much as with “Roadside America”.  There three levels, with the second split into two separate mountain loops, and then one streetcar line that is open on each end.
Around the layout there are numerous villages, more or less early American, very much in the style of early Baltimore, which in a totally different world from Washington 40 miles away.  One of the villages has a gingerbread style a bit like Tolkien,

Then there is a surburban development with a tornado that actually spins, digging a hole in a vacant yard among the houses.

There is a typical amusement park, and also an elaborate ski resort.

(Video above shows the tornado). 

You have to know Baltimore pretty well to find it;  streets are not well marked and signs are hard to read at night. 

Update: Dec. 22

There is  smaller train exhibit in the main level lobby at Union Station of Washington DC for Christmas; photography hindered by plexigalss

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Museum in Baltimore has outstanding exhibit, shows on other planets with life possibilities

The Maryland Science Museum in Baltimore offers an exhibit “Life Beyond Earth” with some features that are well worth noting. 
There is a sphere in the main hall, upon which the museum can project the surfaces of Earth, Mars, Titan, Europa, Io, Triton, and a few sample extrasolar planets.  There is a mural showing possible underwater life on Europa.  The museum has the best collection of planetary maps and photography of any museum I have visited (much better than the Smithsonian in Washington, although the Virginia Air and Space Center in Newport News comes closer.  There is also a rich sample of artists’ drawings of surfaces of extrasolar planets (the earth-like ones) though to have been identified, mostly within 25 light years of Earth in the Gliese systems. 
I saw “The Universe Live!” planetarium show, which is narrated by a live person.  You journey from Earth to the edge of the known universe (which may not be reachable because space itself expanded during the Big Bang), and then back home to a rather ordinary star and small planet with a mild climate, in the “Goldilocks Zone” near the Sun. 
The planetarium movie “We Are Aliens” is reviewed on the Movies Blog today.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Mass by Lithuanian composer Vasiliauskaite; Christmas candlelight service

Sunday, December 14, 2014, the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Arlington VA presented, in separate movements at different parts of the service, the (a cappella)  Mass by Kristina Vasiliauskaite, a Lithuanian composer, link here.  Unaccompanied voice has never been my own cup of tea, but I remember it was quite common in high school chorus.    

The music sounds both modal and atonal, which with voice is a rather interesting combination.  Indeed, there was very little sense of tonal gravity in the music.

At 4 PM, the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC held its 57th Annual Candlelight Carols, which had started in 1956, about two years after the sanctuary opened (on December 25, 1955).   It has been canceled only once, in 2013, after an ice storm.

The program began with a half-hour concert, opening with the Organ 5-movement suite “Il est ne le Divin Enfant” (“The Divine Child Is Born), ending with a fugue, played by Lon Schreiber. Besides the usual carols, Lon played a Virgl Fox transcription of Good King Wencelas, and Variations on “Puer Nobis” by David Johnson. Later he played “In Dulce Jublio” by Marcel Dupre.

The concert closed with the finale of the Christmas section (Part 1) of Handel’s Messiah.  

Saturday, December 13, 2014

US Botanical Garden has revised its train show to look like its a real kingdom

It may seem a bit pretentious to put train shows on the “drama page”, but they are performances, or a sort. This morning, while the March on Washington Against Police Violence was gathering to start, I snuck over to the US Botanical Garden at the foot of Capitol Hill to check out the holiday show.

The trains used to be partly outside and broken into separate segments.  But this time, there is a specific room for the trains, which run on three levels, including one overhead.

There are coastal cliffs and tunnels, and a look that seems to come from The Hobbit (does Tolkien have trains?  I know Clive Barker does in the Third Dominion of Imajica).  There are artifacts from early America, however, like Coney Island, which, however, is actually in a flat area. There is also a pirate ship in dock from Treasure Island. 

There is also an underwater area, with a mermaid.

The highest level seems to make a complete loop around the room. 

I wonder how this compares to the layout in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"Die Frau ohne Schatten", by Richard Strauss, certainly provides an allegory for the culture wars

I had requested the rental of the (TDK) DVD’s for Richard Strauss’s 1911 opera “Die Frau ohne Schatten” (“The Woman without a Shadow”), over a year ago and it stayed in the Netflix “very long wait” for a long time.
But suddenly I got it, as an extra over my quota, a two-disc set.  The performance is conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, in 1992, at the Aichi Prefectural Art Theater in Nagoya, Japan, with the Bavarian State Opera. The stage director is Ennosuke Ichikawa, and soloists include Peter Seiffert (the emperor, and somewhat foppish). Luana Devol, Marjana Lipovsek, and Alan Titus.
The libretto, by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is controversial. A particular Emperor has adapted a half-human wife as an empress.  She is “without a shadow” meaning she cannot bear him human heirs.  But unless she overcomes this obstacle within twelve moon cycles, the Emperor will himself turn to stone, as his kingdom comes to an end. 
Much of the plot concerns the intervention of the empress in the lives of a dyer and his wife, who secretly does not want to have children; so somehow there needs to develop a scheme for the empress to get that capacity from her.  Wikipedia gives all the allegorical details, spread out over three acts.  At the end of act two, the dyer (named “Barak”) and his wife are swallowed by an earthquake, simulated on stage by red and blue curtains, but survive.

At the end, the world is not a zero-sum game, and the empress’s kindness gives her fertility without taking it from the other wife.

It’s possible to see this as a meditation on the moral issues surrounding openness to procreation, the way the Vatican has spun it.  But some see Mozart’s “Magic Flute” (May 3) that way. 

The opera demands some bizarre effects, such as children singing out of a frying pan, and a golden waterfall.

The music seems typical of Strauss, being  chromatic and sometimes bordering on polytonality.  The opening seems to be in the unusual key of G# Minor.  The second Act ends with the earthquake in a cacophonous B-flat minor.  The orchestra is huge. In the last act, there is some much that foreshadow’s "Peace Day” ("Friedenstag", which I have on  Koch CD, and which is notorious for the gratuitous bombast at the very end)  but the music dies down to a quiet ending in C.
I’ve seen Salome (in Dallas) and Elektra (in New York) in opera houses.  Other composers:  I’ve seen Britten’s “Peter Grimes” in Dallas and “Billy Budd” in Washington;  Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” in New York and “Lulu” just on PBS. 

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Beethoven's Solemn Mass during Advent

Although I have the Beethoven “Missa Solemnis in D Major” Op. 123 on Telarc with Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus, I was pleased to find a 1955 recording on YouTube with Otto Klemperer and the Cologne RSO
In my early days of record collecting, Klemperer usually appeared on Angel records, even in the days that the labels were red.  I actually got a recording of the Beethoven Ninth with Klemperer on Christmas 1962, shortly after I had VM stereo, of a 1957 early stereo recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Klemperer had a reputation for stodgy tempos, particularly in fast movements. (He was said to be "tortured".)  That was true somewhat in the Ninth, and, as I recall, of the way he handled the Second at the time (the last symphony Beethoven would compose before noticing hearing loss).  Yet, his performance of the Solemn Mass comes in almost ten minutes faster than some of the competitors.
I attended a live performance of the Solemn Mass in the spring of 2007 at the Washington Cathedral.
I’ve always been dazzled by the fugues in the Gloria and Credo. The work is very difficult to put on within anything less than a paid professional chorus.  
On Sunday, December 7, 2014, the Men’s Choir of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC performed the “Benedictus” section, which is actually just part of the “Sanctus” movement.  Lon Schreiber provided the orchestra with the Austin Organ.
The last movememt, Agnus Dei, actually starts in B Minor (echoing the famous Bach mass) before going back to D Major, which now is in parallel, to end loudly, which is unusual for a mass (although the same kind of ending happens with the Mozart Requiem).  
Update (other notes):

Sunday, December 7, Lon has provided a setting of "Veni Emmanuel" on the Austin organ by Leo Sowerby.

At the monthly dinner, the Family Life Christmas Program enacted "Look Around the Stable".

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Some accounts of the "Grand Event" in July 2014 for Universal's Diagon Alley

I postponed a trip to Florida to see Universal (Diagon Alley) and Disney (the Mars Voyage at Epcot), probably until April 2015;  reasons I’ll get into on another post.
But I did look over some of the YouTube materials on the big “Event” of opening Diagon Alley, part of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, at the Universal Orlando Resort, which happened on July 8, 2014. 
Really, the best video that shows the look of Diagon Alley seems to be “Behind the Bricks: A Tour of Diagon Alley with Tom Felton and Matthew Lewis” and Alan Gilmore posted by “All Central Florida”, here.
The “Bricks” refer to a brick wall with a large hole, through which visitors pass from “King’s Cross” and the London Waterfront (after getting off the Hogwarts Express Railway).  Once in Diagon, the visitor sees quaint century-old-like buildings tilted at angles (although some of Barcelona, Spain looks like that), with the dragon blowing fire above.  There are about 150 square blocks of shops and attractions, most of all Gringotts (and the escape ride). 
There is a PBS POV “London to Hogsmeade on the Hogwarts Express” here  The passenger sees images from Harry Potter's world through the windows, apparently created by CGI.  The actual station is quite large, like a typical European "gare".  The train cars are elaborate and like second class on BritRail or Eurailpass.  
Music arrives courtesy of John Williams. 
There is a tour of the London waterfront here which looks pretty much like the read London near Kings Cross, as I best remember it the last time I was there, in 2001.  Besides Orlando, London and Finland are on my list for destinations next spring.
I was last at Universal Orlando in person in December 1993.  I remember a ride and a set of western movies.  As I drove north, I visited Jacksonville (the St. Johns waterfront) and saw the MCC church building there.  That was the weekend that negotiations for the merger of my employer at the time started.  In fact, Jacksonville has a lot of life insurance companies, but I wound up in Minneapolis after that sequence. 
Wikipedia attribution link for Universal Studios entrance (pd).  

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The "utility music" of Paul Hindemith; more church music; a personal milestone

Back in the late 1950s, I bought a paperback book on modern music, and learned that German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) had been an exponent of “gebrauchsmusik”, of music that “works” or “utility music”.
As such, his music sound more obviously tonal and lush to the average ear.  It is often thick and unrelenting.  He is popular with conductors, and at a QA at the National Symphony recently (Nov. 20), someone said that NSO might put on the 30-minute Symphony in E-flat next season.
I have two Chandos recordings with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier.
The “Chan 9060” (1992) has the Symphony in E-flat, Nobilissima Visione and “Bues vom Tage”.
The Symphony, composed in 1940, appears to be his second  and has no key signature on the score, but is resoundingly tonal around E-flat (the slow movement is in A-flat minor).  It is lush and self-referential.  The slow movement is a bit of a dirge, and the finale is rather declamatory in the brassy ending.

The Suite “Nobilissima Visione” (1939) is based on a ballet  These pieces are more minimalist and effective. The “Introduction and Rondo” shows St. Francis at prayer. The March and Pastoral depicts medieval soldiers, but the Passacaglia, foreshadowing Britten, wraps up everything to an impressive close in G.

The “News of the Day” overture  was intended for a comic opera in 1928.  It is quite spunky.  None of this music seems to realize what was going on in Germany at the time. CNN anyone? 
The other disc, “Chan 9217”, from 1993, offers the Symphonia Serena, and “Die Harmonie der Welt”
The “Symphonia Serena”, from 1946, is the third symphony, in A Major.  I don’t get the title; it is not particularly serene.  The work is a bit like a concerto for orchestra.  The second movement, for winds, is based on a Beethoven march, and the slow movement, called “Colloquy”, is for strings, so Hindemith uses a structure also appearing in the Vaughn Williams Eighth.  In high school, I had an angel record of this work with the composer conducting the Philarmonia Orchestra, paired with the Horn Concerto, played by Dennis Brain.  The last movement of the Horn Concerto is a palindrome.  The concerto was surprisingly popular in the late 1950s; even high school bands knew of it.
The CD is rounded out with the symphony, “The Harmony of the World”, in E, and is related to an opera named the same.  The three movements, “Instrumentalists”, “Humana”, and “Mundana” are episodic and based on components of the opera. 
A couple of other notes:
On Sunday, November 30, 2014, Carol Feather Martin performed the impressive Toccata om “Veni Emmanuel” by Adolphus Hailstork, at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA.

I also made a personal milestone yesterday.  I got my the “religioso” episode from the slow movement of my Third Sonata entered by “voice” in Sibelius.  It’s still Sibelius 7.0 and an old operating system (10.6.8 on Mac) which I plan to upgrade this month.  Played on a computer, it sounds a bit like Prokofiev.  It needs human rubato.  
I remember that I composed this passage in the spring of 1962, after a particular classmate at GWU, an honor student, had been killed near campus when struck by a car.