Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sorry, Emily, Madison, Jacob, Michael and Ethan

Zachary Taylor was born 225 years ago on Nov. 24 in Virginia. I'm guessing that no child has been named after him, specifically, in the past 100 years. Nevertheless, the Virginia Historical Society is giving free admission to anyone named Zachary or Taylor between now and Jan. 3, 2010, during their mini-exhibition of documents and images related to the nation's 12th president.

So who will the VHS see taking advantage of this crr-aaazy offer? Statistics say it will be 17-year-old boys and 13-year-old girls.

According to, Zachary was among the top 20 most popular boys' names from 1992-2002. In Virginia, it reached its peak of popularity, #9, in 1993.

Taylor has been among the top 1000 boys' names since at least 1880, when the SSA online records start. It peaked nationally at #51 in 1993.

Interestingly (if you're a nerd, I guess), Taylor as a girls' name didn't hit the top 1000 until 1979, but by 1993 had reached the top 10, where it stayed until 2000. In Virginia, it reached the zenith of #3 in 1996.

The thing is, people under age 18 never have to pay admission to the VHS anyway, so the museum isn't taking any big risks with this offer, while getting free and feel-good publicity at the same time.

Admission to the VHS is cheap anyway ($3-5 and free on Sundays), and it's an excellent under-appreciated museum, so visit no matter what your name is. I plan to get over there to see the John Brown exhibit soon.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Richmond Symphony Masterworks: Beethoven, Sheng, Franck

My review of Richmond Symphony's most recent Masterworks concert ran in Monday's Times-Dispatch.

In discussing "Nanking! Nanking!" the phrase I use, "pounding the audience into shock," is not an exaggeration. The piece ends with about eight (I forgot to count) fortissimo repeated notes that made the word "rape" spring to my mind. (I later realized that the title "The Rape of Nanking" had been in my subconcious, though I've never read the book.)

I couldn't believe that was how the piece ended, and I suspect others in the audience had the same reaction. There was a pause of several seconds, and it wasn't until Fagen turned to Wei to shake his hand that applause began.

It's very hard to explain, especially in a written review that doesn't permit much, if any, first-person voice, the state of not liking a piece but being glad to have heard it. My not liking it was for two reasons, as was my gladness for hearing it.

I didn't like it because it didn't have anything especially new to add to the catalogue of music-that-imitates-violence, and because I'd just rather listen music that's more subtle, if not traditionally melodic.

I was glad to hear it for the reasons I mentioned in the article, and because, more specifically, it did have some very interesting aural pairings of the pipa with other sections and soloists the orchestra-- the pipa-contrabassoon duets, for example.

I still haven't answered the question, "Why the pipa?" Sheng writes that the solo instrument in "Nanking! Nanking!" has the role of victim, witness and survivor. Maybe giving this usually delicate-sounding instrument an often-violent line to play says something about the human capacity to adapt, to react, to act both basely and nobly, and about music's ability to reflect all aspects of our humanity.

Before beginning the piece, Fagen led three excerpts from "Nanking! Nanking!" with very brief remarks before each. I though the chosen bits were a little long, but I suppose that was necessary.

Fagen did an excellent job conducting the whole program, clearly composed and authoritative. However, the Egmont didn't have as much brightness to it as I thought it should. Is "new hall" still an excuse after 3 months? I don't know, not knowing what can be physically done to sharpen the sound and get rid of (or temper) excess boom and resonance.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"This Is How It Goes" Again

On the radio this morning, I heard yet another reviewer use the word "uncomfortable" to describe "This Is How It Goes."

Maybe this is the best reason you should go see the play. If something's uncomfortable, shouldn't it be fixed or changed? If a chair was uncomfortable, we'd examine it to see why, and then we'd do something about it. Why would we do anything less for our response to our social/emotional/political world?

("This Is How It Goes" isn't just about race--see yesterday's post-- but this topic is probably the source of most of whatever squirming goes on.)

I wonder if the "white" people in the audiences generally feel any more uncomfortable than "black" people and other identified minorities might feel every day in the face of the benign ignorance of a majority.

Benign Ignorance: A Story.
I play pick-up soccer on various second-rate fields around the city. Once I was having a great game, then we switched sides at half time and I realized I had been running downhill the whole first half.

Why am I uncomfortable with _________? [Fill in the blank with just about any scene from the play.] That's a personal question., but for god's sake, ask it!!

Busy as Bees

Apropos to my previous musings, this article in the Omaha Herald discusses the notion that conductors bring musical benefit to their orchestras by conducting more than one orchestra and/or taking many guest conductor jobs--a sort of cross-pollination effect.

Makes sense. But do the benefits outweigh the benefit that might be gained by having a conductor who identifies so strongly with a single orchestra that he or she is around town enough to truly represent the orchestra in the community? The answer, of course, will vary from place to place.

As much as I hate to say it, I doubt that orchestras will retain and build audiences in the 21st century on the strength of their musicality alone. It will also be their education programs, their advertising approaches, their special events or concerts... their collective "personality" as perceived by their city/audience. A conductor needs to be in one place at least enough to really "get" how the orchestral organization as a whole is working on this.

(Thanks, Clarke Bustard at Letter V for the link.)

Firehouse Theatre: "This Is How It Goes" on a dark and stormy night

Today I got my email update from Firehouse Theatre and halfway down, after the blurbs, there was a note that tonight would be a special, rainy-night pay-what-you-will ticket deal for "This Is How It Goes."

All right! I took them up on it, since this was exactly the motivation I needed to go see a play I kind of wanted to see, but wasn't dying to attend. (I payed twice what I paid for a cup of coffee (bottomless) and a piece of chocolate pecan pie at Garnett's this afternoon. So today was a high-flyin' kind of day for me, and if you have any spare freelance writing jobs or substitute teaching gigs for me, please let me know.)

I refuse to discuss what this play is about. That's an exercise in reductivity; the play is a veritable smorgasbord of about-ness, so you can take your pick from the topic that hits closest to home for you. But does overdetermination make a play good? Sort of -- at least, I prefer plays that aren't excruciatingly simple.

What I truly liked about the play itself was its pacing and gradual revelation of information. It's got a story, and it's told well -- at least the "acting" bits are. Playwright Neil Labute chose to use a narrative frame involving the white male lead talking directly to the audience, although actually it feels like he's writing directly to the audience, as the character is a playwright supposedly, I think, writing the play as we go along, or some sort of worn-out post-anti-post-modern technique that, come to think of it, is rather like blogging.

I got tired of it, as you have of my discussing it.

The Firehouse website has links here to the Style Weekly, WCVE and Times-Dispatch reviews. I agree with the universal sentiment that the acting by Iacovo, Kennedy and Satterfield and direction by Patton are top-notch. It's the kind of production that makes me glad to live in Richmond, even though I wouldn't say the play itself is one I'd go see again.

A note on the set design, which at least two critics didn't like: My first thought on seeing it was the Malvina Reynolds song, "Little Boxes," a song which I think is only true enough to be a lie we want to believe in. Chew on that, if you've seen the play, eh? The music during the play matched the ticky-tacky perfectly. (It was the props I didn't care for; Cody and Belinda are wealthy, but the props didn't reflect that.)

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there's doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

P.S. Yes, that photo's from "Being John Malkovich." No, I can't explain why I thought it fit. Mostly, I'm just trying to use more pictures in my blog.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fagen, Threnody and Cameo Appearances by Rocky and a Special Alt Character

I was in Philadelphia this past weekend visiting an old friend (My daughter and her son were training; see photo) and forgot that the profile of final RSO director candidate, Arther Fagen, ran in Sunday's Times-Dispatch.

I'm particulary eager for this weekend's Masterworks concert because I want to hear "Nanking! Nanking!" by Bright Sheng, whose "Postcards" the symphony performed last year for a Metro Collection concert. The "Threnody for Orchestra and Pipa" was written for the memory of the 300,000 or more victims of the 1937 Japanese attack on Nanking, China. (A "threnody" is a song of mourning; I had to look it up.)

I'm also curious to hear how Fagen takes the Egmont. This is one of those Beethoven pieces that you've probably heard, even if you think you haven't. The ΓΌberdramatic opening section can go slow, very slow, or very, very slow. Which will it be?!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Shape-Note Singing in Richmond

This article brought back my memory of attending a sing -- maybe even in Singers Glen, VA -- with my parents many years ago. I was a distracted, if not sullen, teenager, but still vividly remember how the timbers of the log church seemed to glow and the sound filled every corner.

Having grown up in a church tradition of acapella congregational singing-- everyone sang-- it has taken me a long time to realize just how impressive the sound of many unadorned human voices can be, especially if you've never heard it.

I've never been a confident singer. I'm not ever going to solo. But people singing together is definitely something that should happen more often.

Richmond Symphony: Lollipops and Dead Composers

Forgot to post the link to my review of the Richmond Symphony's first concert in its new Lollipops series, published in Sunday's Times-Dispatch.

Yes, "The Composer is Dead" is funny, and I don't think it's just "inside" jokes. For example, even if you don't really get why the part about the violas is funny, the music written for them sort of explains the joke.

This is the sort of piece that will certainly become standard repertoire for family concerts, if not for the occasional adult concert, too. (I think the grim humor of performing this piece on March 26, the date of Beethoven's still mysterious death, would be perfect.) What parent wouldn't rather take a kid to a show that they themselves will appreciate, too?

The symphony partnered with Radio Disney to provide publicity, I guess, and to help run the pre-show and half-time entertainment (costume contest, perky DJ). As much as I, the Snob, detest the Disney Channel (I'm guessing that Radio Disney is similarly detestable), I think this was a excellent move for the symphony. Advertise in the same places, you'll get the same people. Advertise in new places, you'll get new people. Maybe they've done RD partnerships before; I dunno.

By the way, speaking of funny, watch this video of Lemony Snicket and Nathaniel Stookey discussing "The Composer is Dead," in which Snicket compares it to a dead butterfly and a gateway drug, and makes the case for a hospitals to have house bands.