Roman Forum 2006

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

Monday, September 29, 2014

Bloggo once again-o Symphonico: Elgar and Saint Saens at the opening Greenville Symphony Concert of 2014-15

The last time Dottore Gianni offered a musical critique of classical music in Greenville (and it still surprises him that there is any classical music to be had there) was in May of this year. Then their season ended and now the new season has just begun.

Dottore Gianni/I/we/whoever attended an interesting and for the most part successful first concert one week ago, featuring just two pieces by two composers. While I've heard the music of both men I don't know it as well as I do several other writers of classical compositions, so I was pleased to be educated, as I don't recall hearing either of the two pieces performed last Sunday.

For the record the offerings were Edward Elgar's Violin Concerto, which featured an impressive guest artist, in the first part of the concert. After intermission the symphony took on Camille Saint-Saens's final symphony, the third, which unusually features an organ in addition to full orchestra. 

But as any of you who have read my blog before must be aware, neither Dottore Gianni nor I know enough about music to comment in detail - at all, in an ideal world...but then that's why blogs were born - doesn't matter! Just write and see if anyone will read!  However, those of you who have read me/us know that I am a fairly good historian, and though my speciality is theatre, I have learned a good bit of the history of music (as much of it parallels artistic movements in theatre, and of course as the two come together in several forms including opera, operettas and Broadway-style musicals.

So as usual the brunt of this post will focus on the composers, their lives and wives (one of them the story of a love-match that lasted until she died, the other...well, the story of a good bit shorter marriage that, to put it mildly, did not end well). I will also focus on the violin soloist, who was as lovely (perhaps more so) as she was talented. I retain a dignified distance from such observations, but Dottore Gianni is a notorious fool for beautiful women, we go

The two composers could not have had more different beginnings, but both grew to be very well thought of in their own lifetimes, and several pieces by each remain in the standard classical repertoire today. 

Edward Elgar, boasting a mighty moustache;
how he et his soup I have no idea!

First, Sir Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934). You all know his music, even if you don't think you do (to reverse the waiter's oft-heard remark in George Bernard Shaw's You Never Can Tell "you think you don't, but you DO!"). But I'll keep you in suspense (Dottore Gianni insists on suspense, whenever possible) on that subject and instead introduce you to the young Elgar. He was one of seven children, his father a piano tuner located near Worcester, UK, though also a violinist "of professional standard" according to Wikipedia - and we know that particular -pedia never lies - his mother a convert to Roman Catholicism, in which religion young Edgar was brought up, much to his father's chagrin. 

Whatever their religious differences, the parents agreed to give all of their children a musical education. Edward was by far the best of the siblings in this pursuit. At age ten, with little formal training, he wrote music for a play performed by his siblings, which he re-worked only slightly 40 years later. But other than lessons on the violin and piano from local teachers, Elgar was largely self-taught. He was gifted, but also worked hard, cramming with books of musical theory on his own. He was exceptional in fact, but still the boy wanted further study. Alas, his father could not afford the at the prestigious Leipzig Conservatory, which Elgar hoped to attend. So the budding composer worked for a time as an assistant to a local solicitor, but wasn't at all suited to it, and struck out on his own, giving music lessons and helping in his father's shop. 

At age 22 he took a job as conductor of a band formed by attendants of a local insane asylum - beggars can't be choosers, Dottore Gianni supposes. He coached the players, wrote and arranged music, acquiring vital practical experience that most young composers, who COULD afford Leipzig and other conservatories, lacked. His early years are quite interesting, but you can read Wikipedia, and even some other, more reliable sources for details. 

At 29 Elgar married one of his students, the daughter of a major general. Sorry to say he was not the very model of a 
modern major general (or was he?) for he became furious 
a portrait of Elgar and his wife
with his daughter and disinherited her for daring to marry a mere musician - and a Roman Catholic musician as well! The unkindest cut of all, apparently. Rather than weaken the relationship, the disinheritance seemed to strengthen it. Alice, for that was her name, she was his business manager, smartly critiqued his compositions, and attempted to meet the "right" people who could further his career. Not only was it a love match, it seemed a fine commercial match as well. While his early compositions met with only tepid praise, with Alice's help he soldiered on and his reputation grew. 

His breakthrough came in 1899 with the composition of "Variations on an Original Theme." It is not known as that now, however, for over the first six bars of music Elgar printed the word ENIGMA. Sparks your interest, yes? It seems that the "enigma" was not the fourteen variations he composed on the theme, but on what he called an overarching theme that Elgar claimed ran through the music, but that (again Elgar said) "is never heard."

Okay...(pause while Dottore Gianni smokes a pipe of opium and ponders the last statement)

The "Enigma Variations" put the composer on the map and afterwards success followed success. He wrote two symphonies, a violin concerto (that should be obvious) a cello
Elgar "statuesque"
concerto, dances, choral pieces - he set Cardinal Newman's poem "The Dream of Gerontius," and it is one of his more frequently performed works. But he is best known (and the reason many of you readers know him, whether you know him or not) a set of marches. The first of these has had words put to it, and the title of the song is "Land of Hope and Glory," which many consider England's unofficial national anthem. It's a moving piece - there's also a dark British film called Hope and Glory that everyone interested in England should see - still confused? Well the title of the marches is "The Pomp and Circumstance Marches." Lightbulbs going on now? For some of you I'm sure, but for those of you that still don't have it, think just about every U.S. high school graduation - the music of the first march is ubiquitous, and perhaps deservedly so - it is eminently march-able!

However we want to focus on the Violin Concerto, Op. 61 in B minor. It was commissioned in 1910 by one of the worlds most celebrated violinists, Fritz Kreisler, and proved a great success for Elgar as well as Kreisler. It is written in three movements:

I. Allegro
II. Andante
III. Allegro molto

I must admit that Dottore Gianni's socks were not knocked off by this piece - they didn't even begin to slip down his ankles. I don't find it memorable, but it was well played by the orchestra and ably played by American violinist Elena 
Ahem! Elena Urioste
Urioste. Dottore Gianni insists, so I will say that in the publicity she looked quite lovely. When she walked out on the stage Sunday afternoon she was even more so. She wore a stunning white gown, bare-shouldered, with a long white sash down her back. She was - what can one say? - a vision! 

She has a very impressive resume and was certainly proficient in playing the piece, still it wasn't to my mind as well as to the increasingly disappointed Dottore Gianni's mind...after she had started so well...her entrance was breathtaking. But until she left the stage, another act of beauty as she sashayed into the wings, she seldom rose above  the mark of very nice in terms of her musicianship. 

Of course the audience didn't agree with me - immediately standing, shouting Bravo (it should be Brava), and carrying on as they always do...I have yet to see a GSO concert NOT give a standing ovation, thus rendering it useless - what good is a standing ovation if it happens every time? But the good doctor and I have complained of this often enough before - does anyone listen? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what WE see? (If you know the musical 1776 you'll wince at my paraphrase - at least you should).

I could go on, and I will, but now to the second part of the concert! If Elgar was a gifted child,  Camille Saint-Saens 
(1835-1921) would have been a candidate for Mensa (had that organization existed)! Wikipedia tells us that at the age of two he was found to have perfect pitch, and he composed his first piece for the piano before he turned five years old - move over Mozart! entry goes on to say that the composer's "precosity was not limited to music. He learned to read and write by the age of three, and had some mastery of Latin by the age of seven." He first performed publicly at the age of five, playing, appropriately enough with a Mozart sonata, and at the age of ten he performed at the hallowed Salle Pleyel, this time playing Mozart, Handel, Hummel and Bach. As an encore he offered to play any of Beethoven's piano sonatas...from memory! Wonder which one the audience chose for him?

It was only AFTER these early accomplishments that he entered the Conservatoire de Paris, at the ripe old age of thirteen, where he met an even younger student Georges Bizet (age 10), and also became friends with Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz, who said of Saint-Saens, "He knows everything, but lacks inexperience."

The young genius (an overused appellation today, but Dottore Gianni and I agree that in this case it fits) also studied geology, archeology, botany and lepidoptery. In addition he was an expert at mathematics. I could go on, and the Wikipedia article does, but I think by now you get the point. 

He made money by playing the organ for several churches in Paris, and was rewarded by being offered the position of organist at the important church la Madeleine, a post he kept for 20 years. 

In my opening I mentioned one happy marriage...that would be Elgar's. Again I quote from Wikipedia (I joke about it a lot, but it is very good on composers) to describe the marriage of Saint-Saens in 1875 (that would make him almost 40 years old) to Marie Laure Emile Truffot (aged 19). "They had two sons, both of whom died in 1878, within six weeks of each other, one from an illness, the other upon falling out of a fourth-story window (as the composer, approaching his house, watched). For the latter death Saint-Saens blamed his wife, and when they went on vacation together in 1881, he simply disappeared.

Saint-Saens in action - I tried to find a pic of him and his no avail
That ended the marriage, though they never officially divorced.

Sidebar, briefly: Two things: first, are Dottore Gianni and I alone in thinking Saint-Saens extraordinary??? Whether for good or bad? And second, there should be an umlaut (two dots to the uninitiated) above the "e" in "Saens" but I couldn't figure out how to type it - sorry.

In 1886 Saint-Saens composed two of his most famous works: "Carnival of the Animals" and Symphony No. 3 Op. 76 C minor. The latter composition we heard last week. It is called the "Organ Symphony" because an organ is one of the instruments. It is not featured, as it might be in a concerto, but it adds a sort of comprehensive feeling to the symphony, and also increases its power.

Okay, so it wasn't exactly like hearing Bernstein's version - but not bad

It is marked

I. Adagio - Allegro moderato; poco adagio
II. Allegro moderato-Presto; Maestoso-Allegro

Where you might ask are the third and fourth movements? According to the GSO's program notes, although it is written in two sections, it does divide into four movements musically speaking. I for one didn't at all mind only one break in the music, though it appears to have confused Dottore Gianni somewhat. In my view the orchestra, led of course by Maestro George Tchivzhel, seemed a tad lost early in the music (the probable first movement) but did better in the second section, and what I determined as the last movement really showed the orchestra at its best.

As the saying goes (according to Shakespeare at least), all's well that ends well. And this concert did.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Bloggo Piccolo on Doppelgängers/Alter Egos

Dottore Gianni has been rather quiet of late. After his extensive notes on his trip to Ireland in May there seemed for a time little of any worth on which to comment, and lately the good doctor has taken to what may seem to be a strange mix: Yoga and crossword puzzles, which occupations take up much of his time! Ask him/me no questions and he/I will tell you no lies.

He (and I) is soon to publish blog posts on symphony concerts, and in late October he/I will overwhelm you with posts on his imminent journey to Germany, France and Switzerland. Can't wait, can you?

Meanwhile, I have been pondering my relationship with Dottore Gianni. It's an extremely close one, but difficult to describe. I suppose the German word Doppelgänger addresses it well. I don't mean it in its sense as a ghostly double, who if spotted with the human version will cause his death, but more as an alter ego. Perhaps the most famous of these is the strange case of another good doctor, Jekyll by name, and his double/nemesis, Hyde. 

My doppelgänger of course was created by myself, and is a much more friendly fellow than the notorious Mr Hyde. Why did I do it? a whim I suppose - but as I write that, I cause Dottore Gianni to wince. He doesn't consider himself a whim, a trifle. He is much happier with the version of why he was invented that follows.

One of my very favorite artists is Vsevolod Meyerhold. Do you know him? If you don't you should. An extraordinarily talented and pioneering performer/director, he began as one
Meyerhold reading
The Seagull
of Stanislavsky's finest students, originating the role of Kostya in Chekhov's great play
 The Seagull. He tired of Chekhovian and Stanislavskian realism quickly, and began in the early years of the twentieth century some of the first Russian experiments in symbolism while directing for Vera Kommissarjevskaya (an easy name for me to write - a bit trickier to say!) in St Petersburg. He constantly experimented in theatrical form and was at the same time thrilled with the new soviet state. He was one of the earliest artists to become a member of the communist party, and he offered the soviets a new theatre for the new world that was being created. That's the way it should be, right? Oh, those optimistic early days! He continued brilliant explorations onstage utilizing constructivism and biomechanics in performance, directing plays in the new style by the poet Mayakovsky as well as daring interpretations of Russian classics, most notably Gogol's Inspector General.

Unfortunately for its artists, the soviet regime began to favor simple, realistic theatre that any Russian peasant could understand. Then Stalin came to power and insisted upon a simple soviet realism in the arts. Mayakovsky killed himself under this pressure, and others were "disappeared" - taken away and killed by Stalin's frighteningly efficient secret police. Stalin imposed this "simplicity" ("sancta simplicitas" as Shaw put it ironically in Saint Joan) in music as well, and he proved a nightmare for Prokoviev and Shostakovich, among others. 

Meyerhold refused to tow Stalin's party line, but it's not nice to disagree with "Uncle Joe." Meyerhold and his wife were murdered, she first, brutally in their apartment where she was found with 17 stab wounds, none close to the heart so that she would slowly bleed to death. He was arrested and tortured until he was forced to confess that he was a British spy (!) - any excuse would do. He was executed by firing squad in 1940.

Meyerhold with his wife, Zinaida Raikh

Sorry to be gruesome. It was hard to be an artist under Stalin. Hell, it was hard to be just about anyone under Uncle Joe!

WHY did I/Dottore Gianni tell you this story? Early in his career, during pre-revolutionary Russia, Meyerhold, living in St Petersburg, was appointed director of imperial theatres. At 
Meyerhold as Dr Dappertutto
this time he was performing really radical experiments at a cabaret of sorts called the House of Interludes. The powers-that-were saw this activity as potentially subversive and insisted that if Meyerhold wanted to continue his clownish efforts in the style of commedia dell'arte at that lowly cabaret he must perform under a pseudonym. So he did! He chose the name Dr Dappertutto (Dr Everywhere) based on a subversive character created by ETA Hoffman.

Dr Jack
It was this relationship, I think/have come to believe, that inspired me to invent/be introduced to Dottore Gianni. So I did! Though I fear with nowhere near the genius of Meyerhold and Dr Dappertutto. But aren't we all happy Dottore Gianni exists (more or less)? Of course we are!

Dottore Gianni

Bloggo Tryonico: a day trip to Tryon, Pearson's Falls and Campbell's Covered Bridge

Dottore Gianni is not certain if he is just putting it off, but he has yet to write about last Sunday's symphony concert. He began a post on it, but it became the brief story of Dr Jack and his doppelgänger. 

Avoidance or no, today's blog will not be about the symphony either. (Dottore Gianni, Doctor Jack and just plain Jack are hoping inspiration will strike Friday and/or Saturday) as the second concert of the season will take place the next day. The blogs on concerts will begin to get behind-er and behind-er!

The good doctor found his morning into early afternoon trip yesterday to the mountains of North Carolina to see a waterfall, a small, artsy town, with a stop at an historic site in northern South Carolina, so pleasurable that today's post will briefly (??? is ANY post by Dottore Gianni ever brief???) honor that trip.

I'll describe the trip in the order I traveled, northwest along route 414 to route 14 and from there to route 176. 

Meaningless, right? Right. So I'll elaborate. I drove northeast along 414 as I understood I could get a look at the last covered bridge in South Carolina, a bridge called Campbell's. In fact it is very easily reached, and is just off 414, well sign-posted so that I found it easily. I was the only person there, and that remained the case until I left it. Nevertheless the state of South Carolina has honored it with picnic tables and benches near and quite distant, that offer many a different view of the the rust-red bridge built in 1909.

The pretty and well cared for entrance to the bridge

I'm not certain that it's worth all of those views, but as Dottore Gianni has reminded me, if it's the only one left in the state, better to keep and display it rather than ignore or worse tear it down.

I'll let the historical marker explain a bit about the bridge:

It's pretty, isn't it? (the bridge, not the marker - markers all look alike!) and lies in a lovely setting, don't you think?

and how about a view from another angle?

for the engineers among my Facebook friends (and I know of at least one), the interior:

And I think that's all that need be seen of and written about Campbell's Covered Bridge, agreed? But while it is at best a not unpleasant diversion, I'm very glad to have seen it!

Not far at all from Tryon is the town closest to the North Carolina border in that part of the state, Landrum. I have it on the best authority (my sister-in-law, Kara Hrkach) that it's a charming little town, and I thought about stopping, but I really wanted to get to Tryon and the falls.

A bit more on the proximity of Landrum and Tryon - as you leave Landrum heading north you see a sign "North Carolina Welcomes You" (or something like that). Only a minute or two later you enter Tryon NC - the towns are almost connected - except of course by maybe a mile and a border.

I'm writing this, as I already noted, in chronological order, so you'll have to wait a bit to hear about Tryon. About four miles of mostly very twisty-turny road after I left Tryon, eagle-eyed Dottore Gianni spotted a sign that lets us know that Saluda is about 4 miles away. Knowing from experience (tell you how in a minute) that the falls is only about three miles from Saluda I began looking for the entrance to the falls, Pearson's by name. It was easy enough to spot the entrance, as the place is clearly marked from both directions. A left turn and a mile later and I arrived at the office of the Falls, which is a small NC state park. I was welcomed by a friendly ranger, paid my $5 and drove in. And realized that, similar to my experience at Campbell's Covered Bridge, mine was the only car in the parking area. 

"Babble to her, Mr Brook..." along the trail to
Pearson's Falls
So! I had the place to myself! The trail is a fairly easy 3/4 of a mile walk in a mostly upward but not overly steep incline. I immediately thought back two years and a few month to when I'd first visited, on my first ever trip to NC - Saluda specifically - from my new home in SC. I was glad to be back. As I walked upward on the trail a stream ran downhill (naturally) to my right, at times peaceful, at other, steeper sections of the walk somewhat turbulent, in a very gentle way. I crossed over the old stone bridge as I neared the falls, and the babbling brook was now to my left. At the bridge I could just make out the falls themselves, and it was only a short climb until I reached the small, roped off area with a bench or two and a lovely view. 

Pearson's Falls, and the dogleg right the water takes as it heads down the hill

The Pearson's Falls are not mighty. Only 90 feet high they stream over a rather wide precipice. I imagine that after a 
Pathetic "selfie" at the Falls
very heavy rain they might appear more dramatic, but there is a quiet dignity and a delicate beauty to them. I suppose that in two weeks they'll be even prettier, as the fall foliage will be near its peak, but I will be in Germany in less than two weeks and was very happy with the few autumn leaves that were just beginning to fall, with the slight change in color of the trees. I stayed a while, looking at the falls and the surrounding woods from different angles, made a few futile attempts to take a "selfie" (Dottore Gianni refused my request to take a photo of me - I wonder why?), and then began the even easier stroll back down. 

The Falls from a different angle

As I watched the stream on my left now running down the hill I thought of a song, as I often do - but this song was specific to the place, a song by Brahms, "Waldesnacht, du Wunderkühle," translated to English as "Wondrous Cool, Thou Woodland Quiet." 
on the way back down the trail
We sang it in high school chorus. I remember little from my school years, but I still remember the song, even the bass part: 

"Wondrous cool, thou woodland quiet; 
Thee a thousand times I greet.
Far away from rush and riot, 
Ah, thy soothing charms are sweet
Dreaming on thy mossy carpet, 
here is rest and peace.
'Tis as if beneath thy shadows, 
all my cares and troubles cease.

Needless to say, it made my day!

Trade Street, Tryon
BUT! I still had Tryon to visit and there perhaps to have a little lunch. So back I drove and arrived on the main street of the town, called not Main but Trade Street. While Tryon (named for the colonial governor of the area) had been populated by a few Anglos since before the Revolution (apparently they traded with the Cherokee in peace and harmony - a relationship that was not to last as more and more immigrants decided to settle the area) it was not given a charter as a city until the 1880s. Later, in the 1920s it was again chartered, this time as a town and as a brief history in "Welcome to Polk County" on line puts it "since then the municipal population was, is, and will continue to be less than 10,000."

Trade Street from the other end - note the old movie house -
unlike many others, this one is still active (see below)
Trade Street is not quite as nice, to my mind, as Saluda's main street, but it's longer and as in Saluda, just next to the rail tracks. It is a difficult climb by rail (or otherwise) to Saluda from Tryon, so steep that the rail grade is known as "the Saluda grade" said to be the steepest east of the Rockies!

Close-up showing the latest Helen Mirren film, a poster by those who run the theatre,
and best of all, the old box office window!
Dottore Gianni notes that that statement might require some checking. But perhaps they're right.

This is horse country, and Tryon holds a horse show as well as an annual steeplechase race that is known nationwide. 

Still, a wooden horse on Trade Street??? Maybe it's Dottore Gianni's classical training, but when he sees a wooden horse brought into town he thinks Trojan Horse, not Tryon Horse! And I instantly thought of the famous line "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts." In this case maybe "Beware of Landrum-ites bearing gifts?" A surprise attack on a North Carolina town by a rival town just across the border in South Carolina? North vs South again?

This is a very peaceful looking horse however, and goes by the none too bellicose appellation, Morris. I'll let the historical marker explain:

The Polk County article names some famous people who have lived here. The poet Sidney Lanier spent the last two months of his life here and a library named for him was founded in 1890. While it began with only one shelf of books, it has grown and remains "the last private library in North Carolina," though that statement too has been disputed. And the bookish atmosphere has continued. Passing one of its book stores I noted and chuckled at a sign put up by its proprietor: "Carpe librum," a play on the more familiar Latin phrase" Carpe Diem." Instead of seizing the day, the owner suggests that you seize the BOOK! Tryon boasts at least three book shops on Trade Street alone. By contrast Greenville SC's Main Street, longer and a good bit prettier, boasts not ONE. 

"Tsk, Tsk," says Dottore Gianni.

I was amused to see that the famed turn of the twentieth century actor William Gillette built a home in Tryon. He is well known among theatre historians like myself (and few others, Dottore Gianni points out) for writing and then starring in plays that include Secret Service and more famously, Sherlock Holmes. He built a a very big home known as the Gillette Castle in Connecticut, which can be toured and which Dr Jack DID tour - a rather bizarre place, but comfy-feeling inside and boasting great views high above the river.

The article does NOT mention Nina Simone, one of my favorite jazz and soul singers (also a strong advocate for civil rights). Dottore Gianni finds that a tad irksome, as several others, most not as interesting, are named. All Caucasians, of course. Perhaps it was a memory lapse? Hmmmm...

Nina Simone Plaza - someone remembered, though there is no inscription or description
Well, she was born here, a preacher's daughter, and she's certainly as important as William Gillette! At least the town remembers, and rather nicely, as on the railroad side of Trade Street there is an unmissable statue in a shady area called Nina Simone Plaza.

Lady Nina, up close and personal

Well! I spent little time in the many artsy stores along Trade Street, as my hike had made me hungry. I by-passed a rather 
pricey "Bistro" and chose instead the 10 Trade Street Cafe 
and Bakery. It was a good choice! I ordered the special, a very tasty hamburger with Swiss cheese and caramelized onion. As my side I was about to order the potato salad but I asked the waitress if it was very mayonnaise-y. She said, "It's creamy with it." So I decided to try something else and ordered the rather exotic sounding mango cole slaw instead. I was a bit nervous that this too would be drowned in mayo, as are so many sides in this part of the country. In fact the last cole slaw I had (at another homey restaurant in another small North Carolina town) was almost inedible, so sweet and packed with mayo that I couldn't taste the cabbage! 

My lunch at the Cafe - look beyond the burger - the slaw's heavenly!

The Cafe's mango cole slaw was a different story altogether - NO mayo, a very tasty oil and vinegar dressing instead. In fact it was one of the very best cole slaws I've ever et! I pronounced it "heavenly" to the woman at the counter so when I paid my bill, but she mis-heard me and repeated, questioningly, "Heavy???" I corrected her and repeated my praise, after which she told me that many people come to the restaurant JUST for the unique slaw - they were right to!

The lunch crowd at the Cafe - notice that they're almost all
facing away from me...FINE! Just the way I like it!

After lunch I walked back down Trade Street, hopped back in the car and drove off, thinking about it one of the Stage Manager's lines in Our Town: "Nice place, know what I mean?"  I drove back through Landrum, but I was tired, it was already getting on towards 2 pm, so I promised myself that I'd visit there another time. 

And so I shall! And if Dottore Gianni insists, you may see another blog post on it, but only after I've blogged on and on about my European adventure.