Saturday, April 25, 2015

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE 2015 – LETTER “T” – THE TAMPA BAY SYMPHONY


When I first moved to Tampa from Detroit in 1994 for reasons almost too stupid to contemplate, but are rather amusing to relate, so I shall: I left my ex-husband violist who had become upset when I got a gig playing with the Moody Blues, and he didn't. Never mind that the money that came into the house all went into the same kitty, and never mind the fact that we met on a job where we both played viola (I really don't play anything else, although I've pretended to play the violin for money), he got his feelings hurt. I guess there was some expectation that the Flute or Zither Fairy would magically appear and voilà! this violist would become a flautist or a zitherist (whatever they're called); anything but a viola player, but sadly, none of that magic happened. What did happen, is that when I came in off of that tour at the end of the summer of 1992, I returned to school and picked a major that was completely different than music, viola, or anything artistic.


Back in 1967 and 1968, when I had the album, "Days of Future Passed" memorized, if anyone told me, I would one day play it with "The Moody Blues" I'd have called them a liar.

I went and majored in computer science, knowing full well that I was going to have some long, long nights wrangling with some mathematical-type concepts that I'm pretty sure I had either ignored, or never seen in the first place. I was not disappointed. This was a good way to keep my eye on the prize and off my rapidly-disintegrating marriage, as I played in various viola sections around Detroit and either entered the stage before, and left after my soon-to-be ex did, thus being relieved of the possibility of exchanging any words whatsoever with him. It was a crazy time, and intense, but in a way, a very good time, as I discovered within myself, an aptitude for numbers and logic that I had previously thought was non-existent. Up until that point, I had spent more time with my folks playing “Match Wits with Inspector Ford” as we guessed at what happened to Judge Crater, and dissected the meaning of “Message to Garcia”. My parents were kind of odd like that; they enjoyed conundrums, and what-ifs. I'm not entirely sure that either of them had both feet in this world, and I know for damn sure, that I have maybe one or two toes AT MOST in this world.


A typical Wallace photo -- taken by me. Notice that my mom's head is completely covered up by a giant-ass dog-head. Take special note of my father's (to the left) idea of "casual dress" which consisted of a ratty pair of his work dress-pants, cut off at the knees, the same shoes he wore to work and those lovely white, engineer's socks. You could not get that man in a pair of dress socks. My mom was dressed normally. I'm sure I had on jeans and a t-shirt. That gentleman lurking in the background is my godfather, Hank Birch. All of the Wallaces take pictures at LEAST this badly. Most are worse.

Anyway, I was in an accelerated program and ended up down in Hudson, Florida, at the completion of my two years, and was offered a job by IBM – I had divorced the viola player. I started working there, but was nervous, because I really wanted to play, and there were all of these little community orchestras up in Pasco-Hernando Counties and no one really knew who I was.

By chance, the third day I was in Hudson, I saw a man carrying a viola case in a local drugstore and I followed him and asked him if there were any orchestras around the area that I could participate in. He said there were, and he directed me to the H******* Symphony that was playing a concert within a couple of weeks. The conductor, a man named V****** B***, was putting together a concert, and welcomed me. There was only one viola player at the time. The orchestra is still in business and my good friend, Denise Isaacson is still playing up there. It is a nice little orchestra, but it is more dependent on the “snow birds” and is not very big. Anyway, a few rehearsals later, one of the clarinetists came to me and said, “Mary, how would you like to play in a 'real' orchestra?” I said, “What have you got?” Although I was enjoying myself, we were just kind of schlubbing our way through Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and that was rather dismal. Poor Mr. B*** seemed to not really have the concept of conducting in 6/8 and was just making circles in the air in Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen and the orchestra had taken on this sort of random, aleatory, twelve-tone quality. Thus, on the one hand, it sucked for Sarasate, but it was great for Arnold Schoenberg, I guess. My mother was in the audience, and of course, she loved it. She always loved a good train wreck and had lots of fun reliving it on the drive home.


But, I digress. My clarinetist friend introduced me to the Tampa Bay Symphony, which at the time was directed by Dr. Jack Heller, who I believe, founded the orchestra in 1986. When I joined, it was an orchestra that had many retired musicians from the Cleveland, St. Louis and Boston Symphonies, as well as students, doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals from different walks of life.

As I've been writing this, I've been wracking my brain, but I do not think that I had to audition at that time. I ended up sitting 3rd chair, and we played all kinds of great music, along with a lot of crowd-pleasing stuff. We had guest soloists and Young People's Artists and we still do now. The main difference lies in the approach of the two conductors. It was fun working with Dr. Heller; he's a good conductor, and we would always be able to pull off whatever it was, we were trying to play. We were a bit unruly. In particular, I remember when we had gone over one passage several times and it wasn't getting any better and he yelled out, “Violas! You're not a panzer division! Quiet!” This is no better or worse than the conductor in Detroit who hollered at the 2nd violins during Respighi's The Pines of Rome, “Second violins, when you run out of notes, STOP playing!”


THIS is a panzer division!


This is NOT a panzer division!

I played with the Tampa Bay Symphony the first time for a couple of seasons, but time and other commitments forced me to give it up; IBM and later Verizon, was perfectly happy to have me take a laptop on the road, when I was touring as a free-range violist with Anne Murray, Styx, Smokey Robinson, Bobby Vinton, Alan Parsons Project, or whoever, and work from a hotel room, wherever I was. It was a great life. But, like all great things, they pass.

I had a really, really bad marriage, that certainly didn't help the latent health issues I was harboring. I went blind, and developed congestive heart failure. After an acrimonious divorce, I lost a house I was trying to buy and spent two years fighting the bank. I ended up homeless and my essential tremor finally came to the fore. I was forced to stop playing in 2008. That was crushing. When I finally, finally, finally, got a diagnosis in 2013 and treatment to stop the tremors, I had to work up the courage to play again. I waited for a sign. Last August I got one. The Tampa Bay Symphony was going to be playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in the fall. They weren't listing any auditions for violas, but, hey. If you don't venture, nothing is gained.

I ventured, went and played probably the most spastic audition ever; I thought it was horrible. Mark said “This is why we have lots and lots of rehearsals!”, then asked me if I would join. Hell ya!



I'm so glad I took that leap; the musicianship has improved, the morale and the overall musical artistry of the orchestra has improved immensely. Mark is the glue that makes the whole thing cohere. The wonderful thing that I love is that he treats us as fully mature artists in this musical journey we're all taking together. If we are struggling as a group, he will find a way to bring us together, usually with a clever little exercise that involves counting – music is 80% rhythm, after all – and we will go through that process a few times, generally under tempo, and then bring it up to tempo. He deliberately tries to keep our performances as true to the composer's intentions regarding tempi and interpretation as much as possible and it really shows. This orchestra which, a few years back, may have seemed like a run-of-the-mill volunteer group, is really something to hear. I listened to the raw recording of our performance of Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations and was knocked out by what I heard. I will leave you with an excerpt of the 3rd movement of Brahms' Third Symphony. I was not in the orchestra at the time, but the musicianship and playing are superb!



Postscript: I am aware that I am exceedingly late for my "T" letter. We currently have hospice in our home, for end of life care of my partner. I will participate as much as possible until the end, but things are more disordered than previously, and I must beg you extend the courtesy of allowing my erratic posting. I will not "claim" that I win the challenge, but will consider myself a participant. It is a sad time, but it is also one with great purpose and clarity. I can do no greater thing for a fellow being than to ease his way from this life and I will be fine, and back here for more next year. You will see a few more posts from me this year, just not in the way, I had originally planned, as things are moment-to-moment. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE 2015 – LETTER “S” – MARK SFORZINI, AMERICAN COMPOSER, CONDUCTOR AND BASSOONIST; DMITRY SHOSTAKOVICH, RUSSIAN COMPOSER


Let's face it; life can be a mess at times. Mine's been total chaos for a while, and is likely to remain so, until. . . whatever. Anyway, now that I've finally wrested control of my system back from She Who Will Remain Unnamed, I can get this here posty-post on the road. It isn't exactly what I was planning, and poor Mark is up to his ears in Shostakovich, Copland and Prokofiev, so, we DIDN'T get to finish our interview. We WILL however, fill in some blanks now, as Mark is a highly interesting person, as well as a highly entertaining one (don't tell him I said that!). But, I am easily amused as you can tell by this sound clip:


Actually, I think pretty much everything is back-breakingly hilarious, so who am I to judge? Anyway, apparently, Mark had a seemingly normal childhood in Alabama playing the bassoon, and being a kid. I'm jealous of the fact that he was a 1979 World Hula Hoop Champion during a time, when Alabama was still in the 50s and Hula Hooping was cool. Fifteen years earlier, when Hula Hooping WAS cool in other parts of the U.S., I stunk at it. Like “stink on ice” at it. One hoop rotation, and that piece of plastic was on the ground. My folks could Hula Hoop. Hell, the DOG could Hula Hoop. I couldn't. But my slinky didn't slink either, so I was like caught in some kind of nerd hell-scape from my day of birth.

courtesy:downtownstpete.ilovetheburg.com                              

I think Mark is the only person I know who could pull this off and look cool doing so.

Anyway, Mark went on from that triumph to become principal bassoonist of the Florida Orchestra for 15 years, and only left in 2007, to take a bold leap into the abyss and start an opera company in St. Petersburg, Florida, a burgeoning arts mecca. Since the inaugural production of La Boheme, The St. Petersburg Opera Company has presented more than 30 operas and attracted a loyal following. Not content with producing only Italian opera, as Opera Tampa is wont to do, The St. Petersburg Opera has presented Ariadne auf Naxos, by Richard Strauss, Norma, Susannah, and Samson et Delilah, by Camille Saint Saens. He tosses in a little Stephen Sondheim from time to time and many of these productions are Tampa Bay area debuts.


Mark Sforzini, Director of St. Petersburg Opera, and Conductor of the Tampa Bay Symphony

Mark's excellence, drive and energy and his ability to put people and music together and his willingness to take chances, have landed him on 2014 Musical America's Top 30 Musical Professionals (I encourage you to read this list; it is a WONDERFUL read!). The list is an international one, citing one conductor in Odessa, Hobart Earle, who took his orchestra to the Odessa open market to play Ode to Joy, flash-mob style, in a country now torn by war and strife.

Mark so aptly fits this model. He is one of the finest persons I've ever met. When we talked about this interview, I asked him why he chose the Tampa Bay Symphony. He answered simply, “I didn't. They chose me.” He had over 10 years experience conducting by the time he was approached. Most of his experience was conducting opera and he relished the idea of having a chance to conduct more symphonic music. Having played principal bassoon for 15 years in the Florida Orchestra under so many different conductors he felt like he knew the symphonic literature very well. His “audition” pieces for the positions were Smetana's Moldau, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. All three pieces present different challenges to the conductor and I think they're probably a good benchmark to understanding how a conductor is going to think and work out the problems each work presents.


Hobart Earle's Flash-mob "Ode to Joy" in an Odessa Fish Market is stunning. He's number 17 on 2014's Musical America's Top Music Professionals. Mark is listed at number 5. There were actually 2 nominees from the Tampa Bay Area. When Mark was asked why Tampa Bay, he looked at the inquisitor and asked "Why eat?" Good answer!

A relative later asked Mark why he would accept a position with an all-volunteer orchestra, since in professional orchestras (and even in “community-level” orchestras, where the players are paid a fee) the players have rehearsed the parts before hand, or already know the charts, the group rehearses 3 or 4 times, plays the concert or concerts and you're done; the first rehearsal sounds good, and it's a matter of polishing and interpretation, but Mark feels that:

there is something incredibly rewarding about exploring a concert program over a period of two to three months with people who have chosen to give of their time and talent for the joy of making music. Sometimes the first rehearsal doesn't sound so good, but by the concerts, the group is playing very well – and musically, with a solid interpretation of the works on the program. Each rehearsal shows noticeable results. Players in the symphony sometimes look tired when they arrive for the 7:00 pm rehearsal after working a regular job at the office, but often at 9:30 pm they are more energized and smiling more than when they arrived. I find the special journey from the very first rehearsal to the final concert with the people of the TBS highly rewarding. I’m a teacher by nature, and the community orchestra setting allows my educator/coach personality a chance to emerge more than it normally gets to in a one-week professional engagement period. That’s not to say that I’m ‘teaching’ them all the time, though. Quite the contrary, they have taught me so much about leading a large orchestra of eighty and have brought the notes on the page to life.”

That is one great answer! For people who think they're too busy, or too important to worry about what would seem to be a rag-tag bunch of volunteer musicians, I was really humbled by this answer. We, as the players, get so much out of our rehearsals. I'm in a unique position; I'm happy to be ANYWHERE playing, but to be back where I started and have this kind of experience is just a dream for me. I've learned more, and started to remember things I'd forgotten. Mark is ever patient with us and it's fun! We have a great time, but we're taking a bit of a darker turn here; like any art, music is not all happiness and light.

We've been rehearsing Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 for Big Orchestra. When I found out we were going to play this piece, I was ecstatic. I love playing Russian music. I'm also out of my mind most of the time. Beethoven has a stern gruffness, and whilst playing Beethoven, I feel I can take anything being thrown at me. My biggest weak spot in the whole wide world and we've discussed this (for those of you reading along at home, or on the bus, or whatever, already know) is Mahler. There are times I cannot listen to Mahler, AT ALL. This is one of those times. Right now, Shosty is running a close second, and there are times I've just about folded up on the whole shootin' match, but I can't.

His Symphony No. 5 for Big Orchestra is an oddity. I asked Mark, “Why this symphony for this orchestra at this time?”

I would say a confluence of events at the time of picking this program: Copland’s Lincoln Portrait and the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. At the time I was conducting Fiddler on the Roof which…. At this time, Russian and Ukraine were also all over the headlines. I kept thinking about Soviet oppression and how even though the USSR collapse in 1991, there are still so many examples in 2015 of oppression of the people. And, if you are oppressing the people, you are oppressing artistic spirit. This is where Shostakovich managed a triumph of sorts. In 1936, his writing had been called into question as being anti-Soviet. Masses of people were being executed during this time in Russia, and not just his art, but his very life were at stake. He published his 5th Symphony with the phrase “a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism”. Yet, I, and many others, don’t believe he was simply pleasing the authorities. The amazing thing about Shostakovich 5 is that the composer manages to please the authorities and say something deeply meaningful to the common people all at the same time. There is very little marked in the score in terms of words so we must look very carefully at the notes. And a trained musician, can see hundreds of ways Shostakovich was telling his story through the music of the 5th Symphony.

I remember when I first heard this symphony and circumstances surrounding it, and thinking “Huh, Stalin either had a tin ear, or like Richard Strauss, Stefan Zweig, and Joseph Goebbels, Shostakovich was deemed too well-known to just have him executed by Levrenti Beria in the Lubyanka.” However, on reflection, Stalin was paranoid about EVERYTHING and Shostakovich was a master at hiding his sentiments within his music. If nothing else, playing this piece has taught me that. So, I think it's a case of the former and Mark has pointed these things out to us along the way. 


During World War II, and on the Eastern Front, which incredibly, I know much more about than I do the Western Front, Leningrad, was under siege by the Nazis for 900 days. The USSR was our ally, and they actually bore the brunt of the Nazi assault along a 1,000-mile front beginning with Operation Barbarossa, on June 22, 1941, and continuing until the tide was turned and the war was taken to the Germans and ended when Germany surrendered unconditionally at Reims on May 7 1945, to the Allies. Anyway, Dmitry Shostakovich was living in Leningrad at the start of the siege, and was a volunteer fireman. He wrote the first 3 movements of his 7th symphony there. He finished the symphony in Kuibyshev, where he and his family had been evacuated and it was to have been played by the Leningrad Philharmonic, but there were only 14 members of the orchestra left, so the conductor Karl Eliasberg had to recruit anyone who could play an instrument. It should be pointed out, that no one is really sure what Leningrad Shostakovich had in mind when he wrote the 7th symphony; if it was the one that withstood the German siege, or the one Stalin had destroyed, and Hitler merely finished off. The Russians and their crazy sense of humor!

Later on,  in 1943, when the family had moved to Moscow, the tide had turned for the Red Army and the Eighth Symphony debuted. The public and more importantly, the authorities expected another triumphant piece from their pet composer. Instead, they got the Eighth Symphony, perhaps the most somber and violent in expression, within Shostakovich's ouevre to date. The government, assigned the name "Stalingrad" to the symphony, explaining that it was an expression of "mourning the dead" in the Battle of Stalingrad, and then effectively, but unofficially banned it until 1956. Shostakovich himself was to have said, "When the Eighth was performed, it was openly declared counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet. They said, 'Why did Shostakovich write an optimistic symphony at the beginning of the war and a tragic one now? At the beginning we were retreating and now we're attacking, destroying the Fascists. And Shostakovich is acting tragic, that means he's on the side of the fascists.'"

His Ninth symphony was much lighter in tone, but that too, brought criticism. It was felt in certain circles, and again within the government, that he took the victory over the Nazis too lightly and his music was a fillip and not serious. Even the New York World-Telegram was dismissive of his work. 


Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitry Shostakovich and Aram Khatchaturian

He, along with several other composers would continue to be censured and limited in their work, until the death of Stalin. Once that dictator died, the strictures on music and other arts were freed up a bit. There is a new frost coming however, in the form of Vladimir Putin. He has made several statements and jailed several people for their musical output; the rock group "Pussy Riot" comes to mind. As long as people are not free to express themselves, people are not free. But, it's so encouraging to see people like Mark Sforzini and the men and women of Music America take their own fates into their hands and move ahead to bring freedom of expression to each and every one of us! Thank you Mark. Thank you for everything! 


#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE 2015 – LETTER “R” – RUSSIAN MUSIC


So, while the Russophile is off playing her Rachmaninoff (Рахманинов), Gliére (Глиэр), Glinka (Глинка), Rimsky-Korsakov (Римский-Корсаков), Ippolitov-Ivanov (Ипполитов-Иванов), Mussourgsky (Мусоргский), Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev (Прокофьев), Stravinsky (Страви́нский), or, I thiiiiiink Shostakovich (Шостаковича), I thought I would write a few words. She hates it when I get on HER computer.

courtesy:mapsof.net

There's a whole lotta music-writing going on here. We both love maps. It'd serve her right, if I just put a buncha maps out here and nothing else.

Oh, she'll tell you how she's in love with Beethoven and how he's her muse and all sorts of nonsense, but she's REALLY in love with the Russian composers! She can't get enough Russian music. Hell's Bells, if she could figure out a way to claim Russian ancestry she would! Then, I wouldn't have to listen to all that goddamned bagpipe music on St. Andrew's Day! That would be nice! If I have to sit through one more Bobby Burns night of drunken misread poetry at the St. Andrews' Society I may just take some hot pokers to my ears, but that might make it hard for HER to hear her precious Beethoven. Maybe, we'll just stay home and watch “Braveheart” and pick it apart for the 40th time. That's always fun. It makes a good drinking game, but we quit drinking, several years ago.


Mary's mom saw this picture and wondered why William Wallace looked like Mel Gibson. "No one on her dad's side of the family looked anything remotely liked Mel; they all resembled John Wayne." I don't know which is worse.


Anyway, it's time for Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony; I can't get enough of the opening of that second movement. It's just heaven. Violas only! Can't have too many of those, now, can you? And by the way, since I'm such a shill. The Tampa Bay Symphony is playing Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto next season. Mary will love that! She was practically humming it in the womb, according to her mom. According to her dad? She was more like four or five years old. Dad was always a realist! 

Monday, April 20, 2015

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE 2015 – LETTER “Q” – QUIET, AS IN PIANO, OR PIANISSIMO


I had originally planned on writing about P. D. Q. Bach, everyone's favorite imaginary composer, except that I wrote about him last year, and it would just be a repeat of his stuff like “Suite for Viola 4 Hands” which is really a hoot, and the ever-popular “Beethoven Symphony No. 5 Sportcast” in which, it is a “beautiful night, and there isn't a cloud in the ceiling, so let's throw out the first pitch!” Since I wrote about him last year, as part of my humor series, which frankly, wasn't all that humorous, because I am not inherently funny, and because of some stuff going on in life and some pressing concerts and GAHHHHHHHHHHHHH! I think I probably need to be committed, I have decided to carve out some QUIET time, as in piano, or pianissimo, which is a good thing, because I recently discovered, that all of my years away from symphonic playing, have turned me into a sort of viola-golem, or free-range violist, and my GOD do we need some discipline around here! Especially up there, by Mark Sforzini on the conductor's podium, I'm looking at you, Mary Wallace!


Nothin' to see here; just move along.

You see, my alter-ego, is a schlub, who rats around the mean streets of Tampa Florida, fends off muggers, helps the meek also plays the viola; pretty well at times, pretty horribly at others, because she tends to let her mind drift. What in the hell is going on in her head, only she can say. I ventured in there once, and didn't know what to make of it; but it wasn't QUIET! First off, I ran into this:



Can't say I blame her there, there's an over-rated composer if I ever saw one, but then I started running across a few other things that displeased me:


In short, what's hanging out in pretty much everyone's head, only Mary Wallace's head does it in Trebuchet Sans Serif Bold 12.5 and very colorfully!

Well, this won't do at all. She needs to put these aside and find a true place of calm, quiet. A place where her soul can be at rest for a bit. A place of. . . piano, or even better pianissimo. It didn't help that at a recent rehearsal, the Principal cellist, Fred Gratta kept looking at her, during the Shostakovich, trying to get her to play pianissimo. He was nice about it, but still. . . all those years of playing dance orchestras and with Styx and Smokey Robinson didn't help. AND, this was after the very sweet and talented Viola Principal Allison Kinnel had tried to get you to simmer down! Free-range violists must relearn the old ways, the correct ways, to bring out the emotions. You're no longer in Melbourne, or Sunrise Florida, or wherever, (thank God), you're in the Tampa Bay Symphony! Live up to your heritage and your fine training, Mary Wallace. Remember your muse:


Beethoven and Shostakovich wrote, and conducted during times of war. So many people have been able to create wonderful music during times of stress. Remember that now, especially and for always. You owe this to yourself and your parents, Mary.

If you forget to be Quiet, play piano or pianissimo, you will have me, Viola Fury to deal with, and you do not want to play with me! Go. Make me proud! And for God's Sake! Be Quiet, play piano. Violas! You are not a Panzer Division! ~Dr. Jack Heller.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE 2015 – LETTER “P” – PSY


One of the contemporary artists I knew I wanted to include in Music That Influenced My Life is the artist known as Psy. Born Park Jae-sang on December 31, 1977, in South Korea, he is an internationally-known singer-songwriter, record-producer and rapper. He is known domestically for his humorous videos and stage performances and internationally for his viral video hit “Gangnam Style”. The song's refrain “Oppan Gangnam Style” (translated as Big Brother – to a female – is Gangnam Style, with Psy referring to himself) was entered into The Yale Book of Quotations as one of the most famous quotations of 2012. Psy spent time in the United States and at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, which is evident in his song-writing, but that is not what first caught my ear.


It didn't help that in August of 2012, every Friday, Huffpo would take the week's most idiotic stories and set them to the music of "Gangnam Style". Am I the only one who remembers this?

So, why would I, a middling-aged non-playing violist (at the time) care, and want to include him in my entry of people who influenced my playing career? Well, in the summer of 2012, I wasn't playing and hadn't been doing so for quite a number of years. I had some kind of motor disorder and it wasn't getting better; in fact, it seemed to be getting exponentially worse. I was having trouble cooking and eating. I didn't have any real medical insurance, so I was kind of patching together a sort of treatment through my primary care doctor with muscle relaxants and going to the E. R. when the headaches became too bad for me to cope with. I would not be receiving Medicare until March of 2013, although, I did have full Disability. Playing was out of the question. I had tremors so badly, I couldn't hold my bow. (Later diagnosis showed that I in fact, have familial tremor; my mother had it – I corroborated this with my aunt – the tremors are quelled with primodone) But the only relief that I really found was movement; dancing.


I already was pretty much living on my computer. I had had a second eye surgery and was still blind and walking into walls. I think my brain has adjusted somewhat; I only walk into walls once in a while, but just bounce off and keep on going. I can play the viola now, like the hell-raiser I was meant to be and am stronger for it.

But, I was drawn back to “Oppan Gangnam Style” for a long time, because it does a lot of things that are firsts. It was the first song in youtube to break 2 billion views; the counter is stuck at 2,306,804,064 views. I know this, because I watched it three times in a row and it never changed. I really go all out for my readers!


Actually, this is wrong, the total number of views is 2,307,748,841, as of this viewing, so just this counter is broken. 

It also has the distinction of bringing us a bit closer to the “Hermit Kingdom”, which both Koreas have the distinction of being called, which is unfortunate, because the video is a total hoot. Grandmas in buses, hollering, gals galloping like ponies, kids on swingsets, people in boats, yelling “Oppan Gangnam Style”.

Psy did another smart thing with this video, although there are probably some versions he's sorry about. He allowed ANY ONE WHO WANTED TO make a parody of the video, so we have “Klingon Gangnam Style”, “Sorprano Gangnam Style” and sweet Moses on a buttered cracker, the Very Special 10-hour Version of “Hitler Gangnam Style”. Even as big a goof as I am, I'm skipping the “Hitler” version, but, I do think the “Klingon” version is pretty good.

So, what makes something like this knock Justin Bieber off his throne – besides the fact that the Biebs has no talent? I've thought a lot about this, and like the groups .fun and their marvelous song “We Are Young” and Ylvis' “What Does the Fox Say?”, it's all about the talent. “Gangnam Style” is deceptively simple, but the underlying beat is a repeated 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3-4, and it's catchy. Adding to that on the 1-2-3-4, the bass walks it on down to the tonic, and begins again, only to layer it with a 1-2-3, 1-2-3, a few measures later, leaving Psy the ability to “rap” and scan his own rhythms. Very simple, elegant and the rhythmic offsets work beautifully.


"Oppan Klingon Style", an approved parody of Psy's hit tune


Admittedly, I love things like this; it may not be everyone's cup of tea. But, I spent plenty of hours hopping around like a mad thing in the living room, and in the kitchen and bedroom; the pure joy of the music kept me going. Then, I discovered dubstep. Wub, wub, wubwubwubwubwub... Just kidding!

Friday, April 17, 2015

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE 2015 – LETTER “O” – THE GLENN MILLER ORCHESTRA


Okay, so I'm cheating a bit here. This article is much more about Glenn Miller than it is his Orchestra, of which he had several iterations. Alton Glenn Miller was born March 1, 1904 and went missing, December 15, 1944, when his plane disappeared over the English Channel during World War II. He was then a Major in the Army-Air Force. There was just a little bit of hair standing up on the back of my neck when I came across some of this information: my pilot-dad's name was Glenn Alton Wallace, and he was a Captain in the Air Force at the time of his mustering out. I was born on December 15, 1955. Just. Weird. Coincidences happen all the time, but these are not the reasons for which Glenn Miller and his fine orchestras and songs were admired in my house, when I was a little kid.


Apropos of not this; my father and I from times forgotten used to ring in the New Year. He would invariable be soaked to the gills and at midnight would go outside and shout "AND HIGH ATOP THE TRIANON BALLROOM! IT'S GUY LUMBAGO AND HIS BOILED ARABIANS!" He proposed to my mother up there and I was never sure if his shouting was in celebrating or in consternating.

They were admired, and nigh-unto worshiped, because they were wonderful! Take a song like “String of Pearls” or “In The Mood”. You cannot but help find yourself pulled into Glenn Miller's world of Swing. Whether it was something like “Moonlight Serenade”or “Pennsylvania 6-5000” which was a novelty song of the Swing era, which music critics recognized was able to permeate the public gestalt, in a way few other songs could.


"Moonlight Serenade". The counterpoint is every bit as hummable as the melody. What an awesome tune.

Miller's Orchestras differed from other popular orchestras of the era, in that everything was highly, highly rehearsed. Therefore, the criticism of lack of spontaneity and the ability to “riff” as was becoming popular in other orchestras, led by Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Joe Venuti, was leveled towards Miller by some of his critics, although Gary Giddins and Gunther Schuller* (who was still hanging around when I was at the U of M) defended Miller, and his non-Jazz ways. Early on, in his career, Miller had played with all three men and their orchestras, and decided to go in another direction.

courtesy:wikipedia.org       

Gunther Schuller (left) receiving the NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy in 2008, with A. B. Spellman. *Gunther is something else, and plain-spoken. Once at a party of musicians and composers, he was asked what it all meant. His reply? "We're all dirt under the carpet." A very witty, kind man. 

Whatever it was that Miller was developing and rehearsing, the public wanted it. Miller didn't write songs by himself. He either collaborated, or orchestrated a finished song. Up until 1937, there were so many talented people and groups, that Miller was discouraged. Benny Goodman said in 1976:

In 1937, before his band became popular, we were both playing in Dallas. Glenn was pretty dejected and came to see me. He asked, 'What do you do? How do you make it?' I said, 'I just don't know, Glenn. You just stay with it.'”


"In the Mood" I played the saxophone part on the violin when I toured with Bobby Vinton. Don't ask me how it worked, or what it sounded like, but the Vintons and the audience seemed to like it. I was to tour with them for 4 years.

Downhearted, Miller returned to New York and re-tooled his sound; he needed something unique. He made the clarinet the solo melodic line, with the tenor sax holding the same note, while three other saxophones harmonized within the same octave (closed harmony).


Outside of the french horn, the trombone has got to be the hardest instrument to play. No valves (although there are valved trombones) you have to have an ear that is dead-on. Most of their music is in closed-harmony, which makes it even more difficult for them. 

With this vastly improved and much different sound, he talked it up to the magazines and went on the road. He opened for ballrooms, and did live music three times a week for the Chesterfield cigarettes on CBS. In 1939, he had his first gold record with “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”, with singers Gordon “Tex” Beneke, Paula Kelley and the singing group the “Modernaires”. He went on to appear in two star-studded cavalcades in the movies, “Sun Valley Serenade” and “Orchestra Wives”. He was scheduled to appear in later movies, but his disappearance and presumed death forestalled that.


"String of Pearls" has always fascinated me, because of the "walking inner line" in the harmony at the beginning. There is a bit of jamming towards the middle, so this is not typical Miller, but it works just fine!

His critical reception has always been mixed. Some felt that his letter-perfect playing, both his and his orchestras, diminished any feeling from performances and shifted away from the “hot jazz” of Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Yet, while many jazz critics look to that as a fault, Gunther Schuller (Composition professor at Yale, author and critic) and Gary Giddins have separately defended Miller's music; Giddins, noting that the popular opinion should hold sway – make no mistake, Miller was VERY popular – along with the argument that:

Miller may have exuded little warmth on or off the stage, but once the band struck up, the audiences were done for: throats clutched, eyes softened. Can any other record match 'Moonlight Serenade' for its ability to induce a Pavlovian slaver?”

Schuller himself goes one better:

"[The Miller sound] was nevertheless very special and able to penetrate our collective awareness that few other sounds have. . . [it is to] Japanese Gagaku [and] Hindu music in its purity." High praise indeed.


"Pennsylvania 6-5000" wasn't a song that was sung in my house; it was shouted. My poor mom must have felt like she had two kids, not one.


Although his Orchestra(s) have outlived him, there is of course much speculation about which course his music would have taken. It is hard to say; he was daring, and not afraid to take chances if he was looking for a new sound or a new way to express that sound. At the end of the day, this is the same thing so many composers and musicians aspire to. That ineffable sound; that energy; that lightning in a bottle that we call music! 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE 2015 – LETTER “N” – NOTE


Yesterday was to have been the letter “M” for Glenn Miller Orchestra, however, that did not happen. In as brief, succinct and non-emotional way as possible, I will just say this: I am dealing with an end-of-life issue (not my own) of a close family member, and we had a minor medical emergency yesterday. I owe it to some very, very wonderful people; my readers, along with the people of the Tampa Bay Symphony to forge ahead, as we have some very, very wonderful treats in store later in the month. Rather than drop out of the Challenge all together, I am moving Mr. Glenn Miller and his Orchestra to the letter “O”. Consider this letter “N” as a note of apology, but also a discussion of the musical note.


Modern Notation

There are scads of artistic relics from ancient times that depict images of music-making and it is clear that music was a normal part of life for the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Romans and other people. Pythagoras studied certain aspects of music theory, particularly, the mathematical nature of harmony and musical scales. He knew for example, that the pitch of a vibrating string was related to its length, and that simple ratios of length gave rise to harmonious notes (e.g., if you halve the string, it sounds an octave higher). These early Societies used various forms of musical notation, such as indications about using particular strings on the lyre and how the lyres were to be tuned.

courtesy:mfiles.co.uk                                            

Illuminated manuscript, plainsong, or Gregorian Chant

However, our knowledge is incomplete and the first real song, complete with lyrics comes to us from the Ancient Greeks, on a single piece of music called Seikelos Epitaph. It is carved on a piece of stone in Turkey and probably dates from the 1st century AD. During the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople developed the equivalent of the western “sol-fa” scale and a form of notations based on pitches being higher and lower than the previous one. The alternative to “sol-fa” method is the system used today with notes interpreted by the letters A-G. (I remember, as a kid, with my first violin, before my very first lesson, being very excited, looking for the “H” note. I still sometimes wonder where that went.) This means of representing notes seems to have had its origins in “Boethian notation” developed by a Roman philosopher named Boethius in 6th century AD.

courtesy:mfiles.co.uk

To me, this looks like a buncha melismatic scat, but I don't think Ella Fitzgerald was rockin' it in the late middle-ages.

Early development of Western musical notation developed through the churches, as most of the music was choral, and in general, church people were the only people literate enough at the time to read music. Plainchant, plainsong, or Gregorian Chant, named after Pope Gregory the Great who was pope from 590 to 604 AD. The tunes “Dies Irae” and “Pange Lingua” were big hits during this time. The notation was still primitive however, showing just a note head above a lyric, and it moved up or down, according to change in pitch.

courtesy:mfiles.co.uk

Beethoven kept notebooks for his sketches; this is an early draft of his Sixth, or "Pastorale" Symphony

Outside in the secular world, music was being passed down through an oral tradition and not many people could read and write music. Several developments made this a thing of the past. The organization of musical notation, using staves, four at first, then five, later on, and the addition of treble and bass clefs, allowed for organizing notes in a coherent pattern. The printing press with moveable type allowed for printing on a mass scale, and books, news, music and information became more readily available and during the Elizabethan era, the standardization of musical notation began. Elizabeth I granted Thomas Tallis and William Byrd (his pupil) a monopoly to print and publish their music and this resulted in their works becoming widely known. Elsewhere in Europe the development of printed music helped to give composers a degree of independence from their patrons since they could earn an income publishing their own music.


The opening to the threnody, "To the Victims of Hiroshima", by Krzysztof Penderecki. Note the absence of standardized pitches, bar lines, and the grouping of the instruments. Penderecki uses time measurements in seconds (13" and 11" and so on through out the piece), and his instructions are not always explicit, but are often left up to the interpreter. It should be noted that Penderecki is one of the greats of 20th century music composition and as disturbing as this piece is, it is worth a listen.


There's not much more to say about musical notation, except that it does occasionally change per the composer's instructions for a single piece of music, such as Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody “To The Victims of Hiroshima”, which I've heard, but never played. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE 2015 – LETTER “L” – LYRICS


In the course of my music career, I had the opportunity to play in Opera Tampa for twelve seasons, under the baton of Maestro Anton Coppola, who finally retired a few years ago, at age 98. We should all be so lucky. We played Italian Opera only, and I really enjoyed it; it was also an education in playing rubato and and education in patience. Opera tells a story through lyrics, action, stage-setting and music, no better exemplified than by Giacomo Puccini's “Turandot” and the magnificent “Nessun dorma”.


Giacomo Puccini, Italian Composer, December 22, 1858 - November 24, 1924

I almost feel like Anna Russell in describing this opera, because it's a typical opera; love story, the Prince loves the Princess, but she doesn't love him. There's another mousy girl waiting in the wings; she kills herself because the Prince doesn't love her, and you think the Prince is remorseful and will off himself, so, you think, “Well, another unhappy opera.” but you're be wrong. Puccini died before he could finish this and unlike “Madama Butterfly” which is the most depressing opera I've ever played, this one ends happily for once. One of his students fiddled with it and gave it a happy ending for once, thank the Christ.

That, however doesn't make the lyrics any better. Here they are in English:

Nobody shall sleep!...Nobody shall sleep!Even you, o Princess,in your cold room,watch the stars,that tremble with love and with hope.But my secret is hidden within me,my name no one shall know...No!...No!...On your mouth I will tell it when the light shines.And my kiss will dissolve the silence that makes you mine!...(No one will know his name and we must, alas, die.)Vanish, o night!Set, stars! Set, stars!At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!
Pretty God-awful in my book. If someone sang that to me, I'd have them rushed to the E. R. to find out if they were brain-damaged, but that's Italian Opera and no one really gives a shit what comes out of your mouth, as long as it come out beautifully, and it does!




Rather than plague you with the Italian version, I think I'll just let Luciano Pavarotti sing it for us; he does a bang-up job! Tomorrow, we'll visit the Glenn Miller Orchestra!

Monday, April 13, 2015

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE 2015 – LETTER “K” – EDUARD ANATOLYEVICH KHIL, (Эдуард Анатольевич Хиль) RUSSIAN BARITONE


Here is a big secret about me; I am a total kid. I know; color you shocked. As Ricky Ricardo might say, I got some 'splainin' to do. First off, I am truly a responsible adult. I pay my bills, practice my music, write my challenge posts,take my vitamins, eat all my veggies and all that good shit. After that, I'm pretty much doing what I please, when I please to do it, and not a damned bit of it is productive. For those who don't know, I'm on Disability, came out of a horrible, horrible marriage (yeah, Bill Nunnally, “savior of families” at AmericanHeartlandforChildren.org, helmed by CEO Teri Saunders, cheater on wives, and all-around abusive spouse, I'm talking about YOU, when I was hospitalized with congestive heart failure, even though, despite what YOU think I DID help you through school, cleaned your house, did your laundry and cook; I was so gullible) lost two houses, ended up homeless, in the hospital, and in physical rehabilitation, so I've damn well earned my right to do as I please.


This particular god I'm ranting about acts like the 2nd coming of Ronald Reagan. I threw in with the god who is voiced by Sean Connery, bein' a homie and all that. But seriously, there are more gods and cabals and backstabbings in this game; it's like "Game of Thrones" except we respawn.

One of those is to be a gamer, but I actually only REALLY play one game with any regularity. It's called Runescape and I've mentioned it before. Since I've been playing it for the last eight damn years, with the same people, we have a little family, of sorts, and a Clan, by the name of SpiritZ. It's probably one of the oldest clans in any game going and one of the most influential in RS. We are ranked 1185 out of 22,000 plus and we just celebrated our 10th year anniversary and I've been there for eight of those years. I'm a co-leader with two other people who have also been there for the entire time, so, we're apparently not going any where. The game has expanded, so that the higher levels are constantly challenged. It's definitely not a game for kids and although some of the “clannies” were kids when they started, several are out of college, some have started families and some are in their forties. A few are close to my age. It is truly a wonderful clan, and the people are amazing. It's pretty international, and multi-lingual. We also have something called a “TeamSpeak” wherein, we can all get on a server with headphones and mics and listen to music, or talk, during events that are dangerous and we need to coordinate. We also just get on and chat; about our lives, music, pets, what we're trying to do in the game, etc.


Eduard Khil, during the performance of his song, "I Am Glad, 'Cause I'm Finally Returning Back Home", the non-lexible vocable version, in 1975. 

So, what does all of this narrative have to with Eduard Khil? Well, one of my co-leaders decided he would put together a music channel, and took suggestions from other members. Of course, the usual suspects crept in: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, “The Hamster Dance”, some weird Indian ragas, and then Jer found “The Troll Song”.


While not the origin of "lame white-guy dancing" this is one HELL of a good example of it! Rick Astley singing, "Never Gonna Give You Up!" Note the non-production values. Everyone in this video looks like they just worked eight hours in an accounting office.

There is some background here. Several years back, everyone was getting “Rick Rolled”. You'd click on a link and it would take you to this video that had some dude, named Rick Astley singing this horrible tune from the '80s. The video has zero production value, just this white guy singing and trying to be cool. That meme finally faded, but it was a way to “troll” people, by having them click on one thing and then having this god-awful video pop up. Jer did it to me, and I said, “If I ever get this mess off my screen, Ima hunt you down and kill you!” To which, he said, “Tee hee” and ran off into the woods of the Great Gnome Stronghold, and when that sucker wants to hide in Runescape there is no finding him.


Eduard Khil, singing the 2:38" version of "The Troll Song". There's actually a 10-hour version of it on youtube, but there's also a 10-hour version of Hitler doing "Gangnam Style". Psy generously allowed any and everyone to do parodies of his hit. I wonder if he's regretting that now?

Anyway, Jer added the “Troll Song” to our little mix of songs that we could all sing along to (badly, over shitty microphones) and I remembered this song with giddy delight. This is my go-to song whenever I want to make people howl, during our TeamSpeak karaoke nights. It actually has "lyrics", and here they are:
AhhhhhhhhhYa ya yaaaahYa ya yaaahYaaah ya yah

OhohohohooooOh ya yaaahYa ya yaaahYaaah ya yah

Ye-ye-ye-ye-yehYe-ye-yehYe-ye-yehOhohohohoh

Ye-ye-ye-ye-yehYe-ye-yehYe-ye-yehOhohohohooooooooooo

Aaaaoooooh aaaoooHooo haha
Nah nah nah nahNuh nuh nuh

Nuh nuh nuhNuh nuh nuhNuh nuh nah!
Nah nah nah nah nun

Nun-ah nunNun-ah nuhNah nah nah nah nah!
Nah nah nah nah Naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

Dah dah daaaaaaaaaah...Da-da-dah....Daaah..Da-dah...

Lololololoooooooooooooo!
Lah la-laaahLa la laaahlol

haha
Ohohohohoho-ho-hoho-ho-ho

oh-ho-ho-ho-ho
Ohohohohoho-ho-hoho-ho-ho

Lololololooo...
AAIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEeeeee-eeeee-EEEEEEEEE!
Luh-luh-lah...

LahLah-lah
Ohohohohooooooooo!BOPadudududu-dah-da-du-daaaah!

Da-da-daaaahDaaahDa-daaah...
Lololololo

lololololololLalalalah!
Trololololo

lalala
Oh-hahaha-hoHaha-hehe-hoHohoho-he-ho

Hahahaha-ho
LolololololoLolololololoLolololololo

Lololo-LOL!
Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh!La-la-laaaah!La la laaaah!

LaaaahLa-lah...
Ohohohohoooooooooo!La, la-laaah!

La-la-laaahlolhaha...
Lololololo

LololoLololo
Ohohohoho!
Lololololol

LololoLololo

I was giddy with delight, having heard the song before, long ago and thinking it was just the silliest thing I had ever heard. It's replaced Rick Astley's “Never Gonna Give You Up” as the “Troll Song”, but I dug a little deeper to find out about the remarkable singer of this tune, with it's non-lyrics and slap-in-the-face key changes. Eduard Khil was born in 1934, in Smolensk, the Western Oblast (Area) of Russian SFSR, Soviet Union. He was a recipient of the People's Artist Award of the Russian SFSR, and became known to the west in 2010 when his 1976 recording of him singing a non-lexicle vocable version of “I Am Glad, 'Cause I'm Finally Returning Back Home" ("Я очень рад, ведь я, наконец, возвращаюсь домой") became an internet meme, known as “Trololol” and instantly was associated with internet trolling.


Mr. Khil receiving his Order of Merit for the Fatherland in 2009

But more than that, Eduard Khil is one HELL of a musician. Life was particularly hard on him as a kid. During what the Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War, his kindergarten was bombed and he was separated from his mom and evacuated to Bekovo, Penza Oblast, which was several hundred kilometers from his home, which borders Lithuania and Poland. He ended up in a children's home, which lacked the basic necessities, yet, despite that, he regularly performed in front of wounded soldiers from nearby hospital.
In 1955, he enrolled in the Leningrad Conservatory, and graduated in 1960. While there, he began performing in lead operatic roles, including Figaro in “The Marriage of Figaro”.

courtesy:bjoernvold.com

Mr. Khil struck a similar chord with all of his listeners; I found this on an IT website, in his honor. The posters were saddened at his passing; he'd brought them many hours of fun. I can relate. He was a wonderful man by all accounts and a superb musician!

He fell in love with pop music, Soviet style, and began to perform popular music. This led him to winning several prizes in the next two decades. He won the “All Russian Competition for Performers” in 1962 and was invited to perform at the “Festival of Soviet Songs” [editor's note: I'm sure this was a knee-slapper] in 1965. He continued winning and performing in public until he retired from public life. He did teach solo singing at the St. Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy, as well. He was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour in 1977.

After retirement, he sang cabaret in a cafe in Paris and worked with his son in 1997 in a joint project with a band called Prepinaki and in 2009, on his 75th birthday he was awarded the Order of Merit for the Fatherland, 4th Class by Russian and in 2010 performed in St. Petersburg's Victory Day Parade.

When the non-lexicle vocable version of the song was uploaded to youtube, the quirky and catchy version went viral and Khil became known as “Mr. Trololo”, or “Trololo Man”. The song was written by Arkady Ostrovsky and there are REAL lyrics. According to Khil, it's about a cowboy, riding home to his love.Here's a sample:

I'm riding the prairie on my stallion, so-and-so mustang, and my beloved Mary is thousand miles away knitting a stocking for me."

Mebbe it's better in Russian; that so-and-so mustang:

Я скачу по прерии на своем жеребце, мустанге таком-то, а моя любимая Мэри за тысячу миль отсюда вяжет для меня чулок.”

I think it's 50-50. A lot of Soviet songs of the era are like this. At any rate, it fascinated people. It popped up on the Colbert Report, Christopher Waitz parodied it on Jimmy Kimmel Live (when does Christopher Waitz NOT parody something every time he's on Kimmel?). It made a brief appearance on “Family Guy” and “Big Bang Theory”.


I do enjoy "Family Guy" and this little clip is one of the reasons why! Enjoy!

The thing that gets me, is the music, musicianship, playing and singing are all superb. It's a happy, deliriously giddy song; one cannot listen to it without feeling immediately better. When Eduard Khil died at age 77, he was recognized as one of Russia's great singers and I have to agree. Mr. Khil made this song fun and he brings such enthusiasm to his performance. In spite of his harsh beginnings, he led a full and happy life. That is one thing that is apparent from this song; this is a happy man, singing a happy song. You can't ask for much better than that!