Saturday, January 31, 2015

Timonium train show near Baltimore, some of the largest commercial show layouts ever

Today, I drove up past Baltimore to the train show on the Maryland State Fairgrounds at Timonium, off I-83.  Parking was very full (except in another lot behind the Exhibition Hall, which wasn’t used, as the exhibit was in an agricultural hall on the north side of the grounds).
This was perhaps the largest train show in floor space I’ve ever seen, and most of the exhibits were larger than usual.
The most complicated exhibit belonged to club in Hartford County, but some yellow “rope” made it difficult to get “realistic” shots with the camera held close to the exhibit.
MARRS (The Meade Area Railroad Society) had a large exhibit, with one very long straight stretch with little scenery, but in one area there was a castle right out of “The Lord of the Rings”, which I don’t think has trains (whereas Harry Potter’s world does). 
There was a smaller area exhibit of European trains. 

There was also an exhibit from a Baltimore club with a curious combination: a replica of the monorail at Disney World in Orlando, but in the same layout there was a model of Fort Holabird, MD, the Quartermaster Corps, with eyebrow barracks resembling those I lived in during Basic Training in 1968! 
A note: vendors, at least some, didn't take credit cards.  You needed to bring cast (there was an ATM).

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Swan Lake", at Bolshoi, shown as a Fandango event, offers "tragic" ending without the usual Tchaikovsky triumph; an implied political protest?

Today, I attended a Fathom broadcast of “Swan Lake” by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Op. 20, originally composed in 1875-1876 (which the composer was in his mid 30s). 
Wikipedia explains that Tchaikovsky questioned the practice of “specialty composition” of ballet, and took the work as symphonic in scope.  However, there are various versions of both the choreography and music, one of the most controversial having been developed in 1895 by Petipa, Ivanov and Drigo.
The broadcast today was said to be live from the Bolshoi in Moscow, which would be 8 hours ahead.  Since it started at 1 PM, it must have been performed at 9 PM tonight in Moscow, which is late.
The choreography is by Yuri Grigorovich, based on Marius Petipa.  There were pre-show and intermission interviews by Katya Novikova.  The cast comprises Denis Rodkin as Prince Siegfried, Svetlana Zahkarova as the fated Odette.Odile, Artemy Belyakov as the sorcerer, and Igor Tsvirko as The Fool. The Bolshoi Theater Orchestra was conducted by Pavel Sorokin.
As presented, the action was compressed into two acts, with several scenes.  The basic controversy concerns the tragic ending, which according to the notes Tchaikovsky wanted, but which was not allowed to be shown (for “propaganda” reasons) until 2001.  The story incorporates the idea of Odette’s having a doppelganger, Odile, and prince Siegried’s marrying Odile when Odette has been turned into a swan.  At the end, Siegfried realizes he has been duped, and apparently drowns himself.
The music, as performed today, dies away quietly into a soft ending.  The usual performance end in great triumph, with the music switching its main theme to the Picardy B Major and ending in a kind of empty yet powerful triumph.  A number of horror and dramatic films recently have played the doppelganger idea, and the most important is, of course, Darren Aronofsky’s own “Black Swan” (reviewed on the Movies blog Dec. 3, 2010). In that film, the triumphant music crashes at the end, with great irony as the doppelganger ballerina dies on a public ballet stage.  The triumphant music actually works in combination with horror and tragedy, as if to hollow it out.  The film (along with Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood”) is a favorite among many younger classical musicians. 
I think if you want to play the quiet ending to the stage action, fine.  But then play the 5-minute orchestra suite conclusion, with the closing bombast, during the bows, to give the audience the right effect. 
In the performance above, of the conclusion of the Suite. Tonu Kalum conducts the University of North Carolina Orchestra (at Chapel Hill) in Memorial Hall at UNC in December 2012, where a college orchestra plays the music like a major city orchestra would.  This interpretation gets the majestic conclusion and the effect exactly right. Note the drawing out of the final drumbeat before the last octave crashes.  

As shown, the Bolshoi performance today seems almost like a political protest, against Valdimir Putin’s aggression (in the Ukraine) and support of the “anti-gay propaganda law”, which seems predicated in many ways by Russia’s low birth rate, and the fear that young adults will be persuaded by western “propaganda” not to have the children and big families that the country needs.  That presumes adults can’t think for themselves and are so easily influenced.  Imagine the ending:  instead of fertility (in the marriage in the happy ending where the sorcerer is defeated and the real Odette returns from “being” a swan), the prince is himself sterile and suicidal, as is the “swan”, a caricature of what Putin fears is happening to Russia. 
There is a full length version, 2014, on YouTube with the Bolshoi, ending with the triumphant music, here. So why did Bolshoi change the music for Fathom? It does appear though, that in the visuals, at the very end the prince keeps Odette from the Sorcerer.
Much of the rest of the music seems episodic, with many short numbers (even though Tchaikovsky wanted his ballet music to have more form and seriousness).  There were some irritating interruptions for applauses. At one point, a team "flower" dancer actually fell.   
The pre-show did include a view of the Bolshoi outside, and often there are light shows. 

Wikipedia attribution link for image of Bolshoi at night.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Science museums in Baltimore and Philadelphia create extraterrestrial and "Fantastic Voyage" experiences

It may be a stretch to consider a visit to a science museum like a “stage event” for this blog, but for me the effect is the same.  I missed the visit to Epcot (and the “Mars trip”) in December and hope to do it in the spring, but I found some of the same materials in the science museums in Baltimore and then Philadelphia.  These contain material not found in the Smithsonian in Washington.
Baltimore’s (the Maryland Science Center, link in the Inner Harbor, not too far from the stadiums for the Orioles and Ravens) best exhibit is “Life Beyond Earth”.  I see I covered it Dec. 17, but I'll summarize again today for some comparison. There are many artistic renditions of what other extrasolar planets and other moons and surfaces in our own Solar System look life.  Furthermore, there is a globe upon which the museum can project the surfaces of (besides Earth in various seasons) many planets and moons in our own solar system with surprising detail (this includes Titan, Io, Triton, and Europa as well as planets like Mars and Venus) as well as several hypothesized extrasolar planets (as in the Gliese systems).  There are regular showings of these projections.  There is also a biology exhibit: “Cells, the Universe Inside Us”.
But even bigger (and a little more expensive) is the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia (link), within long walking distance of the 30th Street Station on Amtrak.  (It’s about two miles from the City Center.)  The museum occupies three floors in a 1930’s art deco building, and when I visited it yesterday there were hundreds of kids on field trips.  I felt like a sub again.  They were certainly having a good time. 
Franklin doesn’t have as much about alien worlds in its exhibit areas as does Baltimore, but it does have a lot about the NASA Apollo and various other missions, and furthermore it may have the best big-screen film right now showing the surfaces of other planets in the Solar System, “Wildest Weather in the Solar System”, oddly shown on a planetarium screen.  It also has an Omnimax and a regular 3-D theater.  When you buy an admission ticket, extra movies are “extra” but reduced in price.  But the best exhibits at Franklin are the biological.  There is a “maze” (or "Fantastic Voyage", as in the 1966 movie) in walking through a big model of heart and lungs (with a large amount of stair climbing) that actually takes some time to get through.  (NBC Washington has had a smaller such exhibit at its health fairs.)  There is an even more impressive “maze” of the neural circuits in the human brain, simulated in a number of nets that you climb around it. 

Visitors can also try the Virginia Air and Space Museum in Newport News (in the Tidewater, SE of Williamsburg), which offers some extraterrestrial landscapes.

And a nice surprise is a museum at the Meteor crater in Odessa, Texas, with its globes of Mars and Venus. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Some of the "big, romantic" Sibelius symphonies

When I was a senior in high school, on that wonderful Mt. Washington trip in May 1961, I told people that Sibelius was my favorite composer. 

I dug out the performance of the Symphony #5 in E-flat, Op. 82 (1919), on Sony-Columbia with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen from 1987. 
The work went through several versions, and for all its ascetic romanticism, it’s still enigmatic.  The first movement combines a conventional “Sonata” with a scherzo.  The slow movement is a song without words, and the finale has that “3/2” march which ends in the famous six loud chords. 
When I was finishing high school, I thought of various symphonies as “musical pictures” of favorite friends of mine, and the Sibelius Fifth was at one point the favorite of all.

The CD also has a performance of Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49, which dies away (in B-flat) after flirting with majesty.

Earlier, though, I had learned by ear some of the earlier ones.  I had a Monteux RCA recording of the Sibelius Symphony #2 in D (Op. 43), which I got for Christmas in 1960 (of my senior year).  That saga-like second movement became a symbol for winter, which that year featured and Inauguration Day Blizzard (when John F. Kennedy would say, “Ask Not…”).   The Finale has another famous majestic 3/2 “march”. (Robert Schumann had penned a “March” in ¾ at the end of his “Carnaval” for piano.)
But in my junior year, I had become familiar with the Symphony #1 in E Minor, Op. 39, which “critics” had complained was too much like Tchaikovsky.  The use of tonality is interesting.  The Sonata firm first movement first presents the majestic second subject in the dominant B Major, and in G Major in the recapitulation, before crashing back to E Minor.  The second movement again is a song one half step lower (in E-flat).  The finale has a “big tune”, appearing to end the work in the Dominant B Major, beore the work crashes to tragedy back in E Minor. I remember that weekend in New Hampshire, we did a hike up “Rattlesnake Mountain” near Bear Camp Pond (near Sandwich, NH), and that “big tune” played in my head as we came to the climactic view of the “nighthike”.

My other best friend, a Dvorak lover, claimed “The music of Sibelius is musically sterile.”
I see that on March 1, 2013, here, I covered the Symphony #7.
Finland has always been an interesting, enigmatic country.  In my novel, an “alien” artefact is discovered near the Russo-Finnish border and smuggled back into the US, where the consequences of its influence are then felt.  Putin just could have designs on the area.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Timo Andres plays Schubert, Glass at the Philips collection in Washington DC

Today, Timo Andres gave a piano recital in the Music Room at the Phillips Collection near Dupont Circle in Washington DC.  Timo (who lives in Brooklyn NY) has returning from a “road trip” where he had “played” at UNC Chapel Hill and then in Raleigh NC three nights, and then an “afternoon game” in Washington (about four miles from Nationals Park, thank you) – risky in the winter, more so in the South than in areas that are used to snow and ice.  I-95 in bad weather is not fun.

He had played George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (E Major) and his own second piano concerto, called “Old Keys” with the North Carolina Symphony.  I didn’t make it down there, given the weather and all the distracting news, but I want to hear “Old Keys” as soon as possible, maybe online if necessary.  I understand he is working on another concerto for Jonathan Biss, and I think there has been mention of a violin concerto, or did I just dream that.

His concert today opened with “At the River”, reviewed here earlier April 5, 2013.  I can only add that I was struck again by the gradual progression from Debussy-like Rosicrucian impressionism, into expressionism, with an odd (though ultimate quiet conclusion) where it seems like some music sounding like “Modern Family” is harmonized in lush twelve-tone, Schoenberg style, over a descending ground bass figure.  (The notes say that the chorale theme is predicated on the church hymn “Shall We Gather at the River?”) There are lots of delicious sextuplets in the high registers all along.  Timo is a part of a group of young NYC composers called “the Six Sleeping Giants” – and, no, I can’t name “Les Six” from France right now. 
The rest of the concert comprised an alternation of three Impromptus by Franz Schubert, each followed by an Etude by Philip Glass, known from his characteristic and repetitious film scores (like “Koyaanisqatsi”, “Kundin”, “The Hours” ). Glass had contributed a piano piece to the film “Stoker”.  Andres asked the audience to "hold applause" until after the last of the sequence of six pieces.
The Schubert impromptus were F Minor, Op. 142 #1, A-flat Major, Op. 142 #2, and C Minor. Op. 90 #1. All three end quietly.  The first is almost like a “concert overture” for piano.  The A-flat is not the more familiar one in the same key from Op. 90 that starts with arpeggios in A-flat minor, which I played when I took piano.  The third of these was the most familiar.

The Glass Etudes (14, 16, and 20) sounded like they were in G Minor, A-flat, and F minor.  They were tonal, and did not have as much dissonance as most contemporary music.  (The Ligeti etudes, reviewed last summer, are more dissonant.)  As an encore, Mr. Andres played another Glass impromptu, which I believe was in C Minor.  All of the pieces ended quietly.

Let me mention one of my favorite Schubert implementations: the film "Sunshine" (2000), by Istvan Szabo, about three generations of a Jewish family in Hungary (enduring the Nazis and then Soviet occupation), from Paramount and Alliance Atlantis, with the Schubert 4-hand Fantasy in F Minor (D940) in the background used most effectively. 

The concert did sell out.
The music room is darkly lit, since there are oil originals all around – every room in the museum has a humidifier, and of course no flash photography can be allowed.  I had attended a couple concerts there way back in late 1962 when I was a “patient” at NIH.  (It’s in a separate building – the museum has several – on the second floor;  there is a larger auditorium, too.)  The piano sound had tremendous dynamic range but the top notes could have used a little more ring – maybe it’s a function of room acoustics, or of 70-year-old inner ears.  

Update: Jan 15

Timo does a cooking show for XOXO cooks in Brooklyn, link here, fixing a steak salad. Will he get on one of the big daytime shows, like Ellen, Meredith, or Rachel?  The eclectic chamber music in the background is familiar, but I'm not sure which piece.

Update: May 25, 2015

Timo's recital was broadcast on 90.9 WETA FM Classical in Washington DC Memorial Day at 9 PM EDT.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Piano lessons, sales drop; some piano music of Stenhammar, Wagner

The number of people – especially kids – taking piano lessons has plummeted, as have sales of traditional upright and console pianos (let alone grands).  The Minneapolis Star Tribune has a discouraging story today (by David Pitt of the AP) about a store closing in Bettendorf, Iowa (Quad Cities) when there were still no more competitors left, link here
I had a Kimball console from 1952 (when I started lessons) until 2003, when I gave it away in Minneapolis, before returning to Arlington VA to look after Mother.  It had gotten banged up a bit and was rather out of tune. 
In 2011, shortly after her passing, I bought a Casio (all 88 keys) , for direct input into Sibelius.  Rather than assembled the stand with it, I put it up on sawhorses, which seems to be just the right height.  (It seems like a lot of users don’t assemble them.)  It plays almost like a real piano and in natural mode makes an outstanding tone with a real overtone ring.  The pitch is always a perfect match to recordings.
It seems that kids like to buy the electronic pianos, but for someone serious about piano as a possible major life activity, you need the real thing.
Let me note another milestone, recently getting my “Polytonal Prelude” (in D and E) entered more properly into Sibelius.  I am still on 7.0 with Mac 10.6.8, but I am expecting an upgrade my mid January.  The newer environment will, I hope, make some things easier.  I’ll get into my plans in more detail again soon.
Today’s “concert” music is a Naxos CD of piano music by Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927), played by Niklas Sivelov (1996 recording).
The Three Fantasies (Op. 11) rather resembled a mixture of Schumann, Brahms, and big Chopin (the style of the Ballades).  The first, “molto appassionato” in B Minor comes across as “another” majestic Chopin “scherzo”. 
But the remaining short pieces (“Late-Summer Nights”, Op. 33, and the Three Small Piano Pieces), are much like Schumann miniatures.  The last of the small pieces, a polka, is familiar:  I believe my second piano teacher taught it (to another student) when I was in high school;  I’ve definitely heard it performed live. 
The CD includes the Impromptu in G-flat  (I prefer to call it F-sharp), and the twenty-minute G Minor Sonata (there are five, but this seems to be the only one published and performed).  The work is again rather like a Schumann sonata.  The third movement has a nice trio, and its odd to see to movements in a row marked Allegretto (with the finale).  The ending is vigorous but it does not go into the Picardy major, but remains stormy at the very end. 

Richard Wagner actually composed a few early sonatas, said to be hard.  The first, in A-flat, is in one movement and is on YouTube. It is rather quiet.   There is also an early Symphony in C on YouTube, played by the Rundfink Symphony and Rogner, link here.  The opening rather resembles Franz Schubert.