Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Bloggo Boogey, Boogey, Boogey: a Halloween/Costume/Theatrical Treat…or Trick?

I’m a bit nervous about writing this post, because it may lose me many friends, but here goes anyway.

I really don’t like Halloween.

Is anyone still reading? For the one or two of you who might be, I’ll try to explain (in Dottore Gianni’s long and twisted manner) why.

I used to explain the reason for my dislike of Halloween thus: I was long a professional actor (still am apparently, having just sent off my Actors Equity dues, even though my last Equity gig was in 1997!), and actors are paid to dress up, so the novelty of getting into costume for Halloween is lost on many of them…well some of them… hmmm, maybe a handful…well, ME anyway, THAT I know for certain. The thrill of pretending to be you’re somebody/something one day a year for tricks OR treats, when almost everyone else is doing it, does not interest me, because when one does it many days a year because one has to, it becomes mundane, not special, and particularly after many performances in the same costume/role, not a treat.

It was not always so. From the time I was a very wee lad I was dressed up in costumes by members of my family – and not just at Halloween, apparently. 
I was too young to have thought of this myself!
I didn't come up with  this, my paternal grandmother did!
That must have been fun, judging from my enthusiastic poses in old black and white photos, and I clearly enjoyed it for a time, as some of the photos are of little Jackie after he KNEW what he wanted to be for Halloween.
I think this must have been MY choice, yes?
You KNOW this is my choice -
Hopalong Hrkach?
Jack the sailor? And my sister Judy as...what?
If I were KING of the fore-e-e-est
Judy must be the queen of May
In the third grade, when I lived in Rantoul, Illinois (my father was stationed there in the Air Force for one year) and went to St. Malachy’s Catholic School, I was taught by Mrs Buckingham, whom I remember adoring, and for one hour of the day by a really scary nun (catechism class) who did cruel things to kids, including me (but that’s a story for another post!) and whom I did not adore. Come to think of it maybe a scary lady in a strange black outfit and no discernible evidence of hair was already, deep down inside beginning to make me think less of dressing up in a costume.

I learned a song In third grade that is one of the only songs (except for hymns in Latin such as “O Salutaris Hostia” and “Tantum Ergo”) that I remember – and I remember it all:

Halloween is coming
With ghosts and big black cats
Halloween is coming
And we’ll put on our masks

We’ll knock on your door
Yell “trick or treat!”
Then run run run way down the stree-eet

Halloween is coming soon


Catchy, yes? And you’ve not even heard the melody!

Interestingly, despite the nightmare nun from hell, I wanted to be a priest at this time. I bring that up because it was another occasion for dressing up and for informally performing. My poor sister Judy, two years younger than myself, was coerced (or physically dragged, can’t remember which) into the performance.

We had a toybox, which in my mind resembled an altar. I covered it with a towel, then put a towel on my back and became a priest celebrating the mass. My sister I forced into being an altar boy (there were only altar BOYS to my limited knowledge at that time). I’m not even sure if I bothered to costume her, but her main stage direction was to kneel, and probably look up reverently at her older brother.

The next year we moved to Alaska and stayed for three years (fourth thru sixth grades for me). Which is the first memory I have of performing in any official way. Whether it was fourth or fifth grade I can’t remember, but the school I went to (Sunflower or Aurora, depending on the grade) performed a pageant about Alaska and what was known as “Seward’s Folly” because back in the nineteenth century Secretary of State William Seward wanted to buy Alaska for the U.S. and a lot of people did not think this wise. I remember playing (and I’m quite certain playing well) one of two dubious Republican (Republican! My first role a Republican!?) senators with whom Seward engaged in heated debate on this subject. We also sang “Getting to Know You” from The King and I for some reason, and the state anthem of Alaska, which is nearly as impossible to sing as our national anthem. I remember only some of those words, as my main memory of not having the five octave range it took to get through the song! It began

Eight stars of gold on a field of blue,
Alaska’s flag may it mean to you

(those first lines sung pretty low on the scale)

the blah blah can’t remember can you toodle-do

(then somewhere along the line rising in the scale)

the blue of the fields, the evening sky

and something else silly la-la-la, why why why

(those lines rising into pretty high territory musically and then…)

the bear, the dipper and shining bright

(here’s where most sane people would just give up and stop singing it was so high, but it goes higher still)

The great north star with its steady light
O’er land and see a beacon bright
Alaska’s flag to Alaskans dear
The simple (or was it symbol?) flag of the last frontier.

God! Wonder if it’s still the anthem? Poor Alaskans! The first line of the last stanza pounded forward one note at a time, the highest note on the first syllable of “steady” – a real bitch of a note to sing – “Grab yer gonads boys, that’s the only way you’ll hit it!”

Another "costume" with
my mother - I was a Boy Scout
though not a very good one - if
that's a merit badge it must be the
one for showing up.
Even with the impossibility of that song, I liked getting up on stage and performing, though looking back, I can’t think why I wasn’t cast in the lead – Seward – cannot figure it out…surely it was a mistake…but I wonder what jerk got that role?!? Which brings a painful memory to mind – I auditioned in Alaska for a local opera performance of the young lead in Amahl and the Night Visitors, but my voice was already changing and some cute little blonde asshole named Benny Gantz got the role instead. Harumph! I was BORN to sing “Don’t you dare, don’t you dare, don’t you dare ugly man hurt my mother!”  

Through good times and bad, for better or worse, I got hooked on theatre and costumes in Alaska, and throughout the rest of my school years I relied in large part on performance to get myself noticed. “Attention! Attention must be paid to this…boy!” (with apologies to Arthur Miller.) God knows my good looks were not going to cut that particular piece of cake!
good looks were not
my strong suit

 And at least through the years in Alaska I know I still liked Halloween.  But something awful seemed to happened to Halloween at some point during the fast-forward. One began to hear about people sticking razor blades in apples and then handing them to trick-or-treaters, other such awful things, Whatever else the 50s were (and they weren’t all that much, believe me) Halloween was fun! We didn’t have to worry where we trick-or-treated, we just had a good time, no dangers apparent. At least not to me. From my point of view it all seemed benign, nothing to be afraid of except the make-believe terrors of dressing up in costume and running down the street calling trick or treat, as the old song goes.

I’ve done no research on this and don’t intend to, but maybe we were being protected. Some of the great trick or treat years were spent by me and my sister and my then one brother (later three in all) on an Air Force base – security was tight, we lived in a non-racial segregation, in officers’ housing, no NCOs allowed, right? Hmmmm…so maybe it was just that I had grown up somewhere along the line in those fast-forwarded years and began to hear real horror stories about the make-believe horrific Halloween, which made it seem less appealing.

I’ve written another long blog, much more serious in tone than this one, on the subject of my youth as an Air Force brat and my use of theatre to get me through it, so let’s fast forward through Halloweens, costumes and  performances in my school years to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when I was out and about on my own.

In 1966 I joined the Air Force myself. I would find this ironic, except that it was expedient instead – Vietnam was escalating and I’d have been drafted into the army or marines, much less safe military venues at that time than the navy or air force. And hey! It was another chance to wear a costume! 
Dottore Gianni as Airman third class with his maternal grandparents
And when I was stationed in Germany (the better part of 1967 through 1968), I, along with MUCH help from the director of the social club on the base I was stationed at, started a theatre group, The Hof Little Theatre,
full of sound and fury
in the evening of
and though I was not paid, I dressed up as characters in plays, one called The Gazebo, an inconsequential comedy, another a really pretentious evening of Shakespeare “conceived, directed and starring” Jack Hrkach (oh yes, my god! What hubris!), and the best of the lot, a one-act by Christopher Fry called A Phoenix too Frequent.

Jack as Tegeus in A Phoenix too Frequent

They had to, or felt they had to, curl my hair for the role
I am not remembering how the Germans celebrated Halloween, but shortly after that holiday the Germans had one LONG holiday called Fasching. 
Dottore Gianni as Linus
It began on the eleventh moment of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – making it 11 November, also Armistice Day – and last until Ash Wednesday! Not non-stop – that would have killed even the Germans – but during that time costume parties were thrown, a lot of beer was drunk, there was even a Fasching train as I recall. You never got off, it just rode you around and you drank beer and partied until you passed out. Then the conductor shook you awake and you were returned to where you got on. Why? As the Germans say” Macht nichts…Fasching!” (“Makes no difference, it’s Fasching!”) My friends and I dressed up and went out to the bars in costume – I as Linus from the Peanuts cartoon strip – and got wasted fairly regularly.

in The Tempest
at FAU

After college I went to an assortment of colleges on the G.I. Bill, performed in theatres at the Takoma Park campus of Montgomery Community College in Maryland and on the campus of Florida Atlantic University in (buess where?) Florida. There I met the woman who’d become my wife, who was an actress…we were, as it turned out, doomed as a couple, but there it is. So it goes.

in The Lady's Not for Burning at FAU
By this time I had completely eschewed Halloween, was already having doubts about costumes and the theatre, and graduated with a degree in English. Still I kept getting drawn to the stage. Joanne (the wife) and I moved to Washington D.C. where she did astonishingly well, 
with Mark Jaster in Scapino! at
Shakespeare & Co
and where I got a little work, at Shakespeare and Company, at the Folger, the Source Theatre, Catholic U while getting my Masters (this time in theatre) at Georgetown U where an egotistic professor of Shakespeare put on Macbeth with himself in the title role – oi! One of the worst and certainly the longest Macbeth in the performance history of the play. By the time Ray whatshisface (the professor) spoke the line: “I ‘gin to be a-weary of the sun” many in the audience had ‘gun to be a-weary of the play. I was Malcolm. I was very good. I even had the smallest role in the biggest production I was ever in – Durrenmatt’s The Physicists, starring Irene Worth, Len Cariou, Brian Bedford and George Grizzard (what a cast! And what a fine police photographer I was in it!) at the Eisenhower Theatre of the Kennedy Center. So costumes in theatre yes, but at Halloween I merely bought candy for the few kids that might come trick-or-treating in the fairly shabby part of DC in which we lived.

At the same time I earned money recording Talking Books at the Division of the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress, where I was able to perform without a costume – a great gig. We got divorced, made a few pathetic attempts to get together with other women, and then, when I was just about to give up on the theatre forever and work full time at the Library of Congress I was offered a ridiculously good role at a theatre in West Palm Beach FL as well as my Equity card, so I took it and was more or less employed through the 1980s as an actor.
With Bruce Ward (on the left) as Jack Worthing in
The Importance of Being Earnest
Cortland Rep
With Annie Stafford in Dark at the Top of the Stairs
Caldwell Theatre Co
As Noel Coward in
Ashes of Roses at CRT
one of my favorite roles ever!
another favorite as the Monarch of the Sea
in H.M.S. Pinafore, also at Cortland Rep

Equity Guest Artist at FAU
as Captain Jack Absolute
in The Rivals
It was in these years that I wore costumes in many plays, and while some of it was great fun, I, somewhat like Macbeth “’gan to grow a-weary of the…stage.” I found myself being rejected more than I was being cast, and when I finally would get cast in a great role I would get an offer that conflicted with it, usually in mediocre play in a mediocre role but at a salary much more financially rewarding than I would have got for the great role. I had to take the better paying job because I was, as were (and still are) so many, a starving actor. I was also having little luck with women until I got into a long-term relationship with someone I adored, another actress, but alas that fell apart, and so did I.

It was time for a major change and in 1987 I took it, beginning a Ph.D. program at the City University of New York. I focused on theatre history, and focused very hard on it apparently because I began paying less  and less attention to a third woman – and yes a third actress (you’d think I’d learn, right?) – and while I lost her I gained a degree, and shortly thereafter a job at Ithaca College where I remained from 1990 to just a few months ago.

In my early years at Ithaca I still did summer stock, but less happily than I had in the 80s. My enthusiasm continued to wane, the lowest point coming in a production of Something’s Afoot, a cute, Agatha Christie murder-mystery musical, for which the concept was a black and white film – 
Dottore Gianni in
Something's Afoot
this meant black, white and occasionally gray costumes and worst of all, black and white make-up! Some in the show enjoyed it, I loathed every minute. So, in 1995, when the artistic director of the Cortland Repertory Theatre theatre where I worked, was fired, it was more opportunity than disappointment for me. I worked professionally only once after that as an Equity Guest Artist at Cortland State in a late nineteenth century melodrama about David Harum (and so titled), a real character and horse trader in the town just north of Cortland, Homer, NY. It meant driving the better part of an hour evenings during the school year in February and March, in sometimes awful snow. A fellow actor could not remember his lines to save his life, I had a scene with a real horse on stage, and when the horse raised his take and shat all over the stage, even though I offered a rather clever ad lib I KNEW I had had it with costumes and the theatre.

As for Halloween, for years it had not interested me, but at least I had given out candy to kids trick-or-treating. Now I began to loathe it, all the time and money spent on it, the foolishness of dressing up and going to a costume party (and then dousing the costume while nearly drowning in a tub of water dunking my head and “bobbing” for apples), the ridiculous pastime of trick or treat when children get ridiculously greedy over a ridiculous amount of candy that will only serve to make them fat.

I began to find excuses to not be home for trick-or-treaters, and when I WAS caught at home I darkened the place as much as possible, put a bowl of candy outside my apartment door, and let them have at it, though there were few takers. The next day I’d bring the leftovers to the theatre department main office and the admin assistants would put it out for the students, who wolfed it down.  I’m not sure when trick-or-treat night is this year. On the day itself? Probably. I haven’t yet bought any candy, and may not. I live in an apartment complex with VERY few young children, and it will be very easy to pretend not to be home at trick-or-treat time.

Ha! You know I find this essay on my dislike of Halloween a bit like Chekhov’s great monologue, On the Harmfulness of Smoking Tobacco. The “tobacco” is really an excuse for Chekhov to get at other, more complicated subjects (his wife, his life), as I suppose Halloween is for me in this post. But while Chekhov’s piece and this one are dark they can also be very comic, at least in places, at least to me, at least in a Chekhovian sense of comedy, which is, I'm afraid, not very easy to describe, less easy to perform

On the left a photo of me in my dressing room as Equity Guest Artist at FAU, playing one of my favorite characters ever, Dr Astrov in Uncle Vanya.
In this production I am not ashamed to say I was very, very good!

Dottore Gianni's last role to date, and probably
forever more - a cameo as Polski Ogorki
in a delightful dance concert, number
wonderfully choreographed by
Mary Corsaro, 2010
Now THAT was fun!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Bloggo Piccolo e Presto: Raven Cliff Falls at Caesar's Head

Dottore Gianni is REALLY going to let the photos do the talking in this post, which he is creating mainly because of family members who might want to see the photos but are not on Facebook.

On Monday of this week it was so crisply clear and lovely that I decided on impulse to head back to Caesar's Head State Park, primarily to trek to the 400 plus foot waterfall called Raven Cliff. 

But first I stopped in at the park office to make sure I'd know how to find the correct trail to the falls. While there I also used their "facilities" and walked the short distance to the overlook. 
View from the platform at Caesar's Head
As I thought it would be, the day, while not completely clear, offered a better view than was available on my first visit, about a month ago, on my way back from Brevard. And while my point-and-shoot could not capture in this photo as much of the fall colors as I'd have liked, I think you can see some in the lower center of the photo.

Caesar's Head, you'll remember -- or maybe you won' fact it's quite likely you won't -- so I'll tell you that it is near the North Carolina border but still in the northwestern corner of South Carolina, and as a helpful marker near the viewing platform explains, the view is of the southernmost point of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The two peaks in the upper right Table Rock Mountain (nearest the water, which is called The Table Rock Reservoir and which provides the city of Greenville with its water) is nearly as high in altitude (3124 feet) as the platform from which I snapped the photo. and the peak to the right of it is a good bit higher than either Table Rock or Caesar's head. At 3425 feet above sea level it is the highest point in the entire state of South Carolina, so is rightly called Pinnacle Mountain. 

To the left of those two peaks you'll note a dramatic change of terrain, to the Piedmont region, characterized by rolling hills. Nearest to the left of the two peaks is a woods known as the Dismal Forest -- sounds like something out of Arthurian legend, doesn't it? Below is a view to the left of the photo above, where you'll see clearly the rolling hills of the Piedmont versus the mountainous peaks of the Blue Ridge.
The Piedmont, from the viewing platform at Caesar's Head
My destination for the day, Raven Cliff Mountain, is at the very right hand corner of the first photo, partly obscured by the autumnal looking branches in the foreground. The parking area is only about a mile north of Caesar's Head, but the hike from the parking area to the viewing platform that looks out on Raven Cliff Falls is two miles in both directions. 
An easy stretch of trail to Raven Cliff
There is a well-marked path, but there are some not terribly steep inclines up and down on the way there and back, and while the path in some parts is fairly wide and easy to negotiate, other parts are a bit tricky, at least for Dottore Gianni. The hike is marked "moderate" and at certain points I was thinking that perhaps I'd better stick to hikes marked "simple." 

But I made it and the hike was filled with beautiful natural scenery. In fact at one point I grew so exhilarated that I thought, I must do more of this -- I simply must spend some of my time in retirement hiking the Appalachian Trail! 
a stunning display of color
on the trail to the falls
I felt one with nature, found myself thinking of the Cherokees who had this gorgeous land to themselves before they were pushed, and not very gently pushed, out of it. Did it ever bore them, when they woke up and embarked on a hunt for game, for example? Possibly. Familiarity in many cases does breed, if not contempt, a sense of the mundane. "Another day [in this beautiful, barely trod, nearly virgin forest]," thought the Cherokee, "another dollar (or in his case another deer, another piece of wampum)." But one can't live in such an environment without at least occasionally absolutely adoring it, thanking god, or the gods, for it...can one?

However! Dottore Gianni has in earlier posts discussed his paranoia when in just about any situation less than usual for him, and along with the euphoria he felt for the place, his  paranoia concerning bears, became all too apparent. 
The Winter's Tale
Act III scene 3
I will admit that the only animals I saw on this trek were of the human persuasion, and the only "critter" was a dog being walked along the trail by his owner. Not a deer, certainly, not a snake (thank god), not even a squirrel! But I found myself thinking, fairly rationally to give myself what little credit is due me, "What god forbid if I come across a bear?" and answering myself, "Well, you're just totally screwed old boy, this will be the last day of your life. Not so bad, you've lived well and for the most part happily, so be it -- so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut repeated again and again in Slaughterhouse Five. Oh! What a beautiful tree! But oh! what was that noise?" 

You get the picture. But I must say I was, if unable to shake off the bear paranoia, at least able to keep it under control. So after much beauty, but also much ado, and also as just noted a good bit of anxiety, I arrived at the viewing platform. 
The viewing platform for Raven Cliff Falls
and next to it this signpost:

I must admit that as beautiful as the spot was, I was a bit surprised and not in an entirely good way, at the location of the falls. Here was my first view:

The dark area in the center of the photo is where the falls is located. Bet you can't see them, right? I got to the edge of the platform and had this view:

Look close and you can see the falls again in the dark area at the center of the pic. Two observations: aren't the colors great? and don't you like the branch in the foreground just above the falls? It exudes an air of mystery, perhaps even foreboding...the bear again! No, no, but I discovered that Raven Cliff, the mountain and falls, was so named because raven has nested at and soared over the top of it for more than 100 years. Now whenever I hear the word raven I immediately think Poe. Edgar Alen. "Quoth the Raven, nevermore..." 

At any rate, not a lot to see with the naked eye, though one does get a sense of the height of the falls, over 400 feet. However, after fooling a bit with the zoom on the camera I was able to close in, and that's what we'll do now:

And then we'll do a little more:

The quality isn't all that great as my zoom was able to zoom no closer than this, still you get the idea -- that as far as I can tell is not the bottom of the falls, for as you see there is no discernible pond in the lower portion of the photo.

Another look:

The above photo show part of the upper level of the falls, the one before it the lower level. I tried to get ALL of what I could see in one long skinny shot:

If you look very closely at the in the upper quarter of the photo (ABOVE the area in the close-up on the photo just before it), to the right of center, you might spot what looks like the threader of a sewing needle. That is no needle, that is a suspension bridge! Again, straining my poor point and shoot to its utmost:

You see the right end of the bridge clearly here, in the upper right portion of the pic, and if you look very closely you can just make out the span itself. The left end of it is out of view. Now THAT would be a cool place from which to view the falls -- but how to get there? I don't know yet, but I think I want to find out -- unless it's like a 14 mile trek in to get to it.

Did you ever see the 60s flick Blow-Up? Antonioni directed it, David Hemmings played a photographer who caught a murder in a photo he took, by blowing it up closer and closer. I think Julie Christie was in it as well. Who knows? Had my zoom been more effective (and you'll admit it didn't do badly) I might have found something myself...a bear, perhaps! or at very least a raven. 

And at this point I make my exit, but not I hope, pursued by a bear!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bloggo Sehr Schnell und Wild

Sehr Schnell und Wild -- a marking for the first movement of Paul Hindemith's Kammermusik No 1 Op 24, one of the four pieces I heard yesterday in the Gunter Theatre at the Peace Center. The music was certainly "very fast and wild." I'll try for this post NOT to be.

What can I say? I am now more sold on Greenville than ever. My second visit with the Greenville Symphony Orchestra (GSO) proved at least as enjoyable as the first, one weekend ago (see Bloggo Allegretto ma non Troppo). While last weekend's treat featured between two and five members of the orchestra for each piece played in a theatre (Centre Stage) that seats 285, yesterday's concert was performed by a chamber orchestra of between 30 and 40 members in the elegant and acoustically fine Gunter Theatre at the Peace Center, which seats 400. In two weeks I'll see the full symphony in concert at the main hall of the Center, much larger than either Centre Stage or the Gunter -- 2100 seats. 

In other words, I'm being introduced to the symphony in one sense from less to more, and while Mies van der Rohe famously noted that "less is more" I'm beginning to think that while he might be right in terms of architecture, "more" can pretty darned fine as well.

Yesterday's concert was called Oktoberfest. Oktober in that it takes place in October, Oktoberfest in that it is a bow to that great German celebration of beer and brotherhood, and Oktoberfest too in that Oktoberfest beer (courtesy of the local brewery Thomas Creek) was served gratis after the concert.

Before I get to the actual music, I want to tell you about the music director of the GSO, Maestro Edvard Tchivzhel, a dapper old Russian, native of St Petersburg, who began his career in that city, at that time known as Leningrad for you know who, in the mid-1970s, just out of the music academy. 
Maestro Edvard Tchivzhel
In the 1980s he became known in several western European countries as well, including Sweden where in 1986 he became the chief conductor of the Umea Sinfonietta. In 1991 Tchivzhel was enthusiastically received in a U.S. tour, and afterwards defected to the U.S., aided by certain citizens of Greenville, SC, a place he considers, to quote the program notes, his “American cradle.” After conducting at orchestras throughout the U.S. and Central America, in 1999 he was made Music Director of the GSO, where he has, happily, remained. I say happily because the citizens of Greenville are lucky to have him, and also because he made ME very happy with his witty (if heavily accented) introductions of each of the pieces in the program. These friendly, informative chats lessen the stiff formality sometimes associated with concerts of important music, is as I noted funny in places, and probably most importantly, without hitting the audiences over the head, it is instructive.

After his first introduction I was already delighted with Maestro Tchivzhel, but I hadn’t heard the orchestra, so imagine my thrill when the orchestra embarked skillfully and assuredly on selections from Handel’s Water Music, a favorite of mine. Immediately upon ending the music and before the audience could begin to applaud the Maestro turned his head back to the audience with a smile and said something like, “That’s the end! Not ALL of the Water Music, but enough for now. The whole piece lasts more than an hour, and we have other music to get to!”

Then came laughter, from myself among others, followed by applause. Before I go on to the next composers, I want to remind you a little about Georg Frideric - aka George Frederick - Handel (1685-1759). He probably needs no introduction, as all readers of my blog are highly intellectual and super educated, but I’ll introduce him anyway, as it is Dottore Gianni’s wont to do so.

Handel was of course from Germany – as were the other two composers chosen for Oktoberfest – another reason for the concert’s title. Born interestingly in the same year that J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti were born, Handel was something of a prodigy, and at age 21 went to Italy to study. 
But he spent much of his life in London, England, where he introduced a vogue for Italian opera and wrote many during his stay, and where he wrote several oratorios as well, among them the piece probably most associated with him, The Messiah. He was named Kapellmeister to King George I. Now if you know your history of England you’ll be well aware that George I was the first in the line of Hanoverian kings of England, who just happened to be German. Among Handel’s obligations to George I, was to write pieces of music for special occasions. One such was demanded for the summer of 1717. It was performed on a barge in the River Thames, heard by George and his party who were ensconced on the royal barge listening to it – thus Water Music. King George enjoyed it so much that he demanded three performances – twice before dinner and once after – that’s a LOT of water music, as the full piece is over an hour in length, but there’s a lot of water in the Thames, and of course whether or not all the guests liked it as much as George, it had to be – it’s very good to be the king!

The first half of the concert also included a piece for piano and orchestra by Richard Strauss (1864-1949),
Richard Struass
painted by Max Liebermann
no relation to the watz king (thank god), instead the great late-Romantic composer from Munich (one of Dottore Gianni’s very favorite cities – AFTER those of Italy, obviously, as the good doctor loves nothing more than bella Italia!). Like Handel, Strauss wrote several operas, most famously Der Rosenkavalier, but the pieces for which he is best known called tone poems – Also Sprach Zarathustra is the most familiar of these thanks to Stanley Kubrick and his film 2001: A Space Odyssey, or as Maestro Tchivzhel slightly mis-named it in his entertaining comments: “Odyssey 2000.”

Side-bar: what the hell is a tone poem anyway? Dottore Gianni has heard the term but until today no one has ever bothered to define it for him. So! He went to the wise and wiki pedia and found this answer: It is “a piece of orchestral music in a single continuous section (movement) in which the content of a poem, or story or novel, a painting, a landscape or another non-musical source is illustrated or evoked.”

Okay, but what the hell is a tone poem? The good doctor is joking of course – that’s actually a good, succinct definition.

The piece we were treated to at the concert is called Burleske in D minor, Op. 11, a dazzling and difficult piece for piano accompanied by a chamber orchestra, written when the composer was only 21. He was working in Meiningen, a very artsy place, as assistant conductor to Hans von Bulow, one of the greatest German conductors of the era. The story goes that Von Bulow was to play the piece for its premiere while Strauss conducted it, but Von Bulow looked at the score and proclaimed it unplayable. Now of course it IS playable, with difficulty, but the reason it was unplayable for Von Bulow is that he had only one musical misfortune – tiny hands. Alas, the premiere was delayed as a result of old “tiny-fingers” Von Bulow, but was a great success five years later when Strauss found a pianist with hands and talent large enough to handle the task.

The pianist engaged for the task at our concert is also German, David Gross. He also happens to be on the music faculty of Furman University, and lucky are his students because he has the longest fingers in the world – no, no of course he doesn’t (though who really knows?), but he IS gifted. He easily handled the the showy piece with ease and verve, and received a standing ovation (which Dottore Gianni thought a tad much, but joined in as he could have seen nothing but the large buttocks of lazy Americans had he not risen).

The second half of the concert included two pieces, another by Strauss, which ended the program, but first Kammermusik Op. 24  No. 1 by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). 
Paul Hindemith
Hindemith has never been a favorite of mine, in fact most twentieth century composers have never been favorites of Dottore Gianni, but you may remember my last post, in which I noted that while I see no reason to own a CD, or even to download an MP3, of most twentieth century composers, I can easily appreciate the pieces they write when I see them well performed in a live concert. This proved true for Kammermusik (which simply means “chamber music”) No. 1., not just because it was very well performed, but because of Tchivzhel’s amusing and informative comments about it.

Hindemith, along with Stravinsky and others, wrote in what’s been identified as the neoclassical musical style of the early twentieth century. Such music is characterized by dissonance and often boisterous musical surprises, and also by the incorporation of jazz, and music associated with cabaret and circus. Instruments not usually associated with the classical repertoire (including in this case accordion, vibraphone and unusual percussion instruments, as well as a siren!) are employed to achieve interesting and frequently humorous effects.

The piece lasts only 15 minutes – Tchivzhel kept reassuring the audience in his remarks that if nothing else it was short – and is in four movements, the markings of which have little to do with classical style:

I.            Sehr schnell und wild (very fast and wild)
II.         Mässig schnell halbe (massively fast half-notes)
III.     Quartet
IV.      Finale 1921

From the description of the piece and from hearing about its premiere, in which a near riot broke out I thought I’d really hate it:
“Whistles blew, boos resounded, chairs flew through the air, a hellish noise filled the room. Hindemith, in the meantime, had disappeared backstage with the other musicians. As the spectacle reached its height, he reappeared – thoroughly calm – seated himself at the percussion, beat with all his might on the drums and let the slide whistle [the siren] howl. The honest Münchener [citizens of Munich] were so taken aback by this unexpected behavior that Hindemith was the victor in an uneven battle.” (from the program notes)

But hearing about all the fuss actually prepared the audience for much more than they received in the way of shock. Tchivzhel said to the people gathered something to this effect: “I am not concerned about chairs flying through the air, as the chairs in the Gunter Theatre are VERY well secured, but please, no tomato throwing.”) and a piece filled with humor and frequent beautiful passages as well as some cacophony (which was part of the humor) was what the audience got. And the Maestro capped the piece by turning quickly to the audience and ducking! This man knows how to sell a piece of music that might be perceived as difficult.

Hindemith had to “duck” as well in his life, but in his case as in so many others he was “ducking” Hitler. In the 1930s he got out of Germany, and in 1940 arrived in the U.S. where he continued a distinguished composing career and combined it with teaching, as Professor of Music at Yale, among other places.

The Nazi reference allows us a neat return to Richard Strauss, whose suite from Der Bürger als Edelmann, better known as Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme from the play by the great seventeenth century writer Moliere, 
capped the program. Whereas Hindemith, a bad-boy of music at the time, whose work was called “degenerate” as was  music by other modern composers, and paintings by many visual artists – Goebbels denounced Hindemith as an “atonal noise-maker” – high-tailed it from Germany and rightly so, Strauss, a well-respected senior statesman of German music, remained.

Strauss’s sympathies were not with Hitler, but early in the Nazi era the composer had hopes that the regime might promote German music and art. His daughter-in-law was Jewish and by staying in the country Strauss was able to protect her and her children throughout the war. According to Wikipedia, in his private journal Strauss scorned Goebbels, calling him a pipsqueak (!), and wrote: “I consider [his] Jew-baiting as a disgrace to German honour, as evidence of incompetence — the basest weapon of untalented, lazy mediocrity against a higher intelligence and greater talent.” And about Strauss Goebbels wrote in his diary: “Unfortunately we still need him, but one day we shall have our own music and then we shall have no further need of this decadent neurotic.”
In the turbulent atmosphere of those times no matter how highly Strauss was valued, such was the power of a Goebbels that the composer was lucky not only in that he was able to save his family, but that he himself was allowed to live.
But the music we heard on Sunday was composed before the Nazi rise to power, having premiered in Salzburg in 1920, so enough speculation on the fate of artists living in a tyrannical regime, Dottore Gianni, to the music, bitte!
The introduction to this piece saw Maestro Tchivzhel at his most instructive, telling the basic plot of Moliere’s play, 
The Bourgeois
in which a wealthy but boorish fellow wishes to be made into a gentleman, and of course despite all his striving and handing around of money to those who would make him so, cannot succeed. And the Maestro was also at his most demonstrative, literally, in that as he described the different events musically depicted by Strauss, he stopped and had the orchestra play themes that he spoke of, including the frequent entrances of the bürger, gentilhomme, gentleman, (call him what you like he was none of these), marked by ponderous music from the the brass and winds; a drunken guest at the dinner treated in the last movement, a piccolo shrilly playing “La Donna e Mobile” from Verdi’s opera, and so on. In fact after he described and had the orchestra demonstrate from the first four movements:
I.             Overture
II.          Minuet
III.       The Fencing Master
IV.       The Entrance and Dance of the Tailors
(you may perceive from these titles that a dancing master arrives to teach him that skill, a fencing master to teach him swordplay, and tailors to attempt to dress him in the fashion of the day)
he announced to the audience that he would stop before the final movement:
V.          The dinner
to further demonstrate what was going on at this event – and he did! If it may seem in the reading of this post to have taken place in a classroom rather than a concert hall, it if so it was a most pleasurable classroom indeed, and of course the music was divine! I for one am very happy to know more about the music than less. Too often audiences sit in blissful ignorance of what the music is doing, treasuring the music itself but not understanding the subjects it addresses.
The playing of the piece was delightful and skilled, as I’d already come to expect from the fine ensemble of musicians. Strauss knew how to get the best use of an orchestra and the GSO under one of my now very favorite conductors, Maestro Edvard Tchivchel, seemed to know how to best perform the beautiful music of Strauss. One last note on the Maestro. To end the third section, on the fencing master, it seemed to be at least that his last stroke of a baton looked extremely like the thrust of a sword. I kid you not!
By the way, for those of you who read my last post, my new girlfriend-from-afar, the violist, was present – first (and endowed) chair in that section of the orchestra, so my happiness, musical and amorous, was complete!
And so now, is Bloggo Sehr Schnell und Wild!