Rhythm for the Soul – Jazz Vespers, dinner, and a mini-concert

September 20, 2007 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Music, Religion 

On Sunday, September 30, 2007, the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville will be holding its first Jazz Vespers service.  A flyer can be found HERE.

The evening kicks off at 4pm with the jazz vespers service.  Dinner follows at 5pm ($5 donation requested).  After dinner there will be a mini-concert at 6pm.  The Rev. Bill Carter and Presbybop will be the performers for the concert and will be featured in the service.  Presbybop is a jazz quarter made up entirely by Presbyterian clergy.

All are welcome.  Come on down!

Rigoletto – Boheme Opera Company – April 22, 2007

May 11, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fancy Shmancy, Music 

On Sunday, April 22, 2007 Carolyn and I trotted down to the Trenton War Memorial for the Boheme Opera Company’s performance of Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi.

This performance was a bit unusual.  The orchestra director (and co-founder of the company) Joseph Pucciatti also served as Artistic Director (as well as Stage Director and Set Concept).  He decided that rather than setting the opera in the traditional mid-1800′s, that this production would be translated to 1938 Italy under the Fascist Mussolini.  The Duke of Mantua was transformed into a high ranking official in Mussolini’s inner circle.

In my opinion, the transformation didn’t work.  Aside from an additional scene after the overture which included newsreel footage of WWII, Mussolini and Hitler, and some shouted salutes to “Il Duce”, the main transformation was limited to military costumes and more modern scenery.  By the third act, even the costumes and scenery seemed more appropriate to the original time period.  Nice idea, but not worth the effort.

Aside from the strange transformation, the rest of the production was excellent as usual.  The sets, while minimalist, were very good and most of the costumes were excellent.  The orchestra as always was wonderful – these folks are always solid and deserving of their ovation before the 3rd act.

One thing that I like about this company is that they often bring in a director who has the performers act, rather than just “standing and singing”.  Too many operas are produced like showpieces for the singing ability of their performers, with the actors simply standing in place and singing their lines.  This company actually expects the players to move around while singing (and even sing from the prone position when appropriate).  These opera feel less like concerts than they feel like plays with music.  The players actually display emotion while performing.  This production was very much in the “act” mode rather than the “stand and sing” mode.  This is what keeps me coming back every year to their theater.

The title character hunchback was played by Constantinos Yiannoudes.  We’ve seen him before as Figaro in The Barber of Seville and as the title character in Don Giovanni.  He was excellent as usual and continues to prove that opera singers should also be able to act (and he can).

The Duke of Mantua was played by tenor Mark Schowalter.  Before the opening curtain, it was announced that he was under the weather but wanted to proceed with the performance.  His voice was a bit weak in the first act, but by the end of the performance he was up to nearly full volume.  He was EXCELLENT in the role of a powerful man who cares not for the consequences of his actions or their effects on others.

In my opinion, the overlooked star of the production was Cheryl Evans in the role of Gilda, the love interest of the Duke and daughter of Rigoletto.  As far as I can tell (and I have enough musical training to be able to hear the difference), she sang the whole opera nearly note perfect.  During one aria, she hit several notes without vibrato that were exactly on pitch with the orchestra – to the point where I couldn’t even hear a beat frequency difference.  She threw high C’s like confetti.  She also acted excellently.  I was disappointed to be one of very few who stood during her bow at the end of the opera – I believe that her contribution was overlooked.

One up-and-comer who was also excellent was Khary Laurent in the baritone role of Monterone.  He acted and sang his small part with energy and emotion.  I hope to see more of him with this company in the future.

I only have one complaint about the whole opera-going experience.  The people sitting around us this time were downright rude.  A row of senior citizens (apparently part of a bus trip from Brooklyn) loudly complained about the people sitting in front of them.  One woman said, “Can you see?  I can’t see – the woman’s hair [in front of her] is too big.” loudly enough that three rows of people heard her.  I realize that we aren’t going to get a crowd in Trenton that is similar to the audience at the Met in NYC, but some civility is expected.  Carolyn and I have been whacked with carelessly placed canes, hit by people’s coats, and been the subject of complaining about being too tall like the complaint quoted above.  Neither of us is particular tall (we’re both about 5′ 9″) but apparently that’s a problem for these folks.  And people wonder why the seats are going empty.

Next fall, the Boheme Opera Company is doing Verdi’s La Traviata and then in the spring of 2008 they will be experimenting with Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

Turandot, Boheme Opera Company, November 5, 2006

November 6, 2006 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fancy Shmancy, Music 

Here are two names to remember – Benjamin Warschawski and Olga Chernisheva.  If you follow opera, you WILL be hearing these names again.  You just might have to pay a lot more to actually see them.

Carolyn and I made our twice a year trek to the Trenton War Memorial to see Giacomo Puccini‘s Turnadot performed by The Boheme Opera Company.  The Franco Alfano ending was used.  This was a Sunday afternoon matinee.

The short version of the story:  It’s a fairy tale of ancient China.  The law states that in order to marry Princess Turandot, a suitor must ring a gong and then answer 3 riddles.  If he fails, he is executed.  If he succeeds, he wins his bride.  Calaf, the exiled Prince of Tartary and his father the exiled King, along with their servant Liu, come to Peking and Calaf is entranced with the Princess.  He rings the gong, and then the real fun ensues.  He successfully answers the riddles, and Turandot is horrified that she’ll have to marry.  She gets the unknown prince to agree that if she can discover his name by dawn, he will die.  Then the whole city spends the night trying to get the name under penalty of death.  He reveals the name to Turandot, and her heart melts and she marries him anyway.

This opera is interesting in part because Puccini died before he completed it.  Just after Liu’s funeral scene, Puccini died of a heart attack while undergoing experimental (in 1924) radiation therapy for throat cancer.  The opera was completed by Franco Alfano – a student of Puccini’s and a fully-qualified composer in his own right – under the direction of Toscanini.  I am not particularly fond of the duet that Alfano wrote, but the ending is every bit as magical as I’m sure Puccini imagined.

(For those who have read my opera tales before – nothing went wrong with the production.  I usually get some disaster, but for this night I only spotted one mistake by a chorus member.)

Olga Chernisheva was fabulous in the soprano role of Liu, the slave girl to the Tartar King Timur.  She sang the entire night beautifully, particularly in her death scene (Tu che di gel sei cinta).  She can also act, and played a very convincing corpse for the following scene.

By far, the oral fireworks of the night came from Benjamin Warschawski in the tenor role of Calaf.  The character gets the most famous aria from this opera – Nessun Dorma – “None shall sleep”.  (HERE by Pavarotti)  Warschawski performed it note-perfect with as much emotion as I’ve ever seen.  It was clear that he both sings well AND understood the emotions behind the words.  In fact, he performed it just as well as Pavarotti in the clip that I linked to.  Unfortunately, Puccini didn’t leave a gap for a standing ovation at that point in the opera – we had to wait until the curtain call.

One thing about regional opera – you almost always get a standing ovation from some of the audience during the curtain call.  I think that people come to the opera in part to be a part of such a celebration.  However, this opera got a richly deserved Standing O from the crowd – about 80% of the crowd were on their feet before the minor characters had taken their bows and 100% were on their feet by the company bow.  As always, the Boheme orchestra was excellent and the sets and props and lighting and such were wonderful.  When Warschawski took his bow, the roar from the crowd was deafening.

The one downside to the production was the performance of Othalie Graham as Turandot.  This is a tough opera part for anyone – Puccini wrote more high C’s into this part than I’ve ever seen in a soprano role.  However, Graham didn’t seem up to the part in this performance.  Her high C’s were loud but she never quite reached the pitch, and her staging was wooden – even at the end when her heart had supposedly melted.  I have to wonder whether or not she had a cold for this performance.  However, she was creditable in this very difficult role.

Next up for the company – Rigoletto April 20th at 8pm and April 22nd at 3pm.  The company gives a pre-curtain talk about the opera 1 hour and 15 minutes before curtain – I strongly recommend arriving in time for it.

Happy Birthday – the copyright

October 19, 2005 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Life, Music 

The website UnhappyBirthday.com points out that it is a copyright infringement to sing the song “Happy Birthday to You” in a public place or to a group of more than just friends and family.  They call upon each of us to write to ASCAP requesting permission to perform the song.

My wife’s birthday is coming up.  So, with a hat tip to Stay Free! Daily, I have requested permission:

ASCAP – New York
One Lincoln Plaza
New York, NY 10023
licensing@ascap.com

Dear ASCAP,

The copyright status of “Happy Birthday To You” and the law related
to public performances of copyrighted works have recently been brought
to my attention. I would therefore like to request permission in
advance to sing “Happy Birthday” to my wife at the Sovereign Bank Arena
in Trenton, NJ, on November 2, 2005, sometime between 6:30pm and 9:30pm.

My wife will be turning 40 on this day and we will probably be
attending a game of the Trenton Titans (ECHL) Hockey team as we are
season ticket holders. The rest of the party will likely include my
sister and the Weiss family who hold season tickets for the seats next
to us. Five of us will be singing though most will be off-key. We
expect there to be
approximately 4000 disinterested witnesses.

I realize this is short notice but we only recently settled the
details. If there is a charge for the privilege of singing in this
instance, please let me know. And, if there is, please specify whether
or not the cost can be reduced by moving to another location.

I look forward to your prompt reply.

Sincerely,
Mark Smith

iPod – Day One

May 10, 2005 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Music, Web/Tech 

The iPod arrived yesterday.

First, a big thumbs-down to buy.com.  I ordered the iPod last Tuesday – “In stock – delivery in 3 to 5 days”.  They claimed to have shipped it on Tuesday – “order by 4pm EDT for same day shipping”.  However, all they apparently did was send the package info electronically to Fedex Ground.  Fedex didn’t see the package until Thursday.  They delivered in Monday, 6 days from ordering (not 3-5 as advertised).  On top of that, the packing list in the box was for some poor person in Parma, OH for a rack-mount Ethernet router.  I hope that item made it successfully.

The box that it comes in is tiny – and so is the iPod itself.  It’s about the size of a cassette tape case (or, if you’re really young a cassette case is about the size of an iPod).  It seems to have come about 80% charged – I had to plug it in for about an hour to fully charge it.

Installing the software was tricky.  I had to load the CD, wait for it to activate, and then plug in the iPod through the USB cable.  It chose to format my iPod (since I’m a Windows user rather than Mac).  After the reboot, the computer didn’t see the iPod for a while and I had to pull the USB cord (after waiting 15 minutes with “Do Not Disconnect” on the screen) and re-enter it.  It then let me into the serial number screen.  That accomplished, the PC rebooted and iTunes came up.

I’d already loaded music into iTunes, so it started sync’ing the approximately 350 MP3 files.  That took quite a while (at least 45 minutes).  While I was waiting, I ripped a few more CD’s, though that ran at 1/2 speed (about 3x).

So far, so good.  I’ve used it at work, and the sound quality is very good.  I used the Apple earbuds for a while, but found them to be uncomfortable after an hour or so.  I plugged in the cheapie headphones that I keep at work, and had to crank up the iPod’s volume (though not all the way up – full volume is still too loud).  These headphones play treble stronger than the Apple buds, but I was able to turn on Bass Booster on the iPod and it seems to help.

The User interface is pretty straightforward, once you figure out that you have to drag your finger around the dial to get the menus to move.  I haven’t had any trouble finding the menu options that I want.  The games are a little hard to play, but that’s not why I bought it.

My music selection is decidedly skewed by the small number of CD’s ripped thus far – and the fact that they were all sorted together on my shelf.  I suspect that Shuffle will produce more random play once I’ve got more CD’s loaded.

I definately need some accessories:
Car Cassette Adapter
Car Charger
Better headphones

I also want to download and play with iArt to put album cover art on the Photo iPod.

Joining the iPod Generation

May 9, 2005 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Music, Web/Tech 

I’ve decided to join the iPod generation.

I’m a Systems Analyst.  I do project planning, requirements definition, design, programming, testing – the whole gamut of the system project lifecycle.  That means a lot of time spent sitting at my desk typing.  I work in cubicle-land, and until lately my cubicle neighborhood has been pretty sparse.  However, it’s getting more crowded lately – and therefore noisier.

I’ve burned an MP3 CD and listened to it on my PC at work, but I get tired of the number of songs that fit on one CD.  I also listen to Internet radio, but I assume that someday the network folks are gonna catch on and ask me to stop.  Therefore, what I need is a way to carry my CD collection around with me.

Sounds like an iPod to me.

I ordered an iPod Photo 30GB from buy.com last Tuesday.  I’m a little annoyed at them for slow shipping – they claimed to have shipped it the same day on Tuesday, but Fedex’s system shows that they didn’t get the trailer until Thursday.  It’s really a one-day delivery to me, but it’s not here yet.  Should arrive this afternoon.  buy.com claims “3 to 5 day delivery” for this item, so they didn’t make it.

In order to get ready, I downloaded iTunes from Apple and installed it on my home PC.  I then started what I thought was the CD burning process.  It was taking just a few seconds per CD, and I went through a small pile in an hour.

That’s when I realized that I wasn’t getting anything in iTunes from the CD’s.

As it turns out (after an hour of digging on the Internet), my old Dell (purchased 1/2000) needed an ATA driver update in order to play/rip CDs with iTunes.  After installing that, it worked fine.

I have two drives – DVD/CD reader, and a CD burner.  I got about 7-8x speed on my ripping 192 bitrate MP3′s.  That translates to about 10 minutes per CD, or 6 an hour.  It’s gonna take me quite a while to get all of my 100+ CD’s (probably more like 150) ripped.

I’ll post more as I get a chance to play with it and use it.  I expect to be buying some accessories as well – probably an AC charger for work and a car charger plus a cassette adapter for the car.

Louie Louie and Benton Harbor, MI

May 5, 2005 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Can't Make This Up, Current Affairs, Music 

Paula Dawning, the Superintendent of Schools in Benton Harbor, MI, has banned the McCord Middle School marching band from playing Louie Louie this weekend in the town’s Grand Floral Parade.  (AP Story via Yahoo)

Apparently, she’s concerned about the “raunchy lyrics”.  As far as I know, NOBODY knows what the lyrics to the song are.  However, the ability to play it must be a human instinct – I’ve never seen a marching band use any sheet music yet all marching bands are able to play it instantly with or without a conductor.

I sent the following letter to Ms. Dawning urging her to reconsider:

Dear Ms. Dawning,

I read a news story today stating that you had banned the McCord Middle
School band from playing the song “Louie Louie”.  I would urge you
to reconsider.

At age 36, I fondly remember my years playing music in school.  I
strongly believe that my musical experiences, in addition to being fun,
were a major part of the foundation that was built for my future
success.  I played in the school’s band and jazz band, and
ultimately was a member of the NJ All-State Band and All-State
Orchestra.  I went on to be a member of the Rutgers University
Marching Band and Pep Band.

Music is important in many ways to a student.  It builds
confidence through public performance.  It builds character
through the discipline required to practice and learn your
instrument.  It builds the ability to work smoothly in
groups.  Evidence shows that music builds mathematical ability as
well.

And “Louie Louie” is an important tradition in marching bands.  I
have never been a member of a marching band where that song was not
played.  I have never met anyone who belonged to a marching band
that did not play that song.  In fact, “Louie Louie” seems to be
more of a natural instinct – I have never seen any sheet music for it
but I’ve also never seen a band that didn’t know how to play it -
nearly flawlessly on the first try.  If you leave a marching band
alone long enough, it will spontaneously play “Louie Louie”.

I feel that I must address the question of the lyrics.  While I’ve
never met a band that didn’t know “Louie Louie”, I’ve also never met
ANYONE who knows the lyrics.  In the 1960′s, the FBI investigated
the allegedly obscene lyrics and concluded that they were not obscene,
and in fact were “unintelligible at any speed”.  I have seen many,
many Internet websites purporting to have the lyrics – and no claimant
has any better claim than any other.  The song has just never been
understandable.

I hope that you will reconsider your decision, and allow the band to play “Louie Louie” this weekend.

Sincerely,

Mark Smith

Ms. Dawning may be reached via e-mail at pdawning@remc11.k12.mi.us .

UPDATE: (5/6/05) – The superintendent has relented.  After hearing from a majority of parents (and not just the single complainer), she has decided to let them play Louie Louie in the parade.

And I got a nice note from the band director in response to my e-mail above, which I had forwarded to him.

Band Sausages

July 22, 2004 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Can't Make This Up, Games, Music 

Michele at A Small Victory has a little game called Band Sausages.

What you do is put two (or more) band names together where the band names overlap:
Boys II Men at Work
George Michael Jackson

Go to her page to see the entries thus far. If you have a new entry, add it to her page to keep them all in once place.

This one’s a LOT of fun.

Ray Charles 1930-2004

June 10, 2004 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Music 

Ray Charles 1930-2004

Ray Charles died earlier today at home, surrounded by friends and family. CBS has the best story/obituary.

My parents were about my age (or even younger) when Ray was most popular. I can remember listening to Ray Charles records (yes, those black 12-inch round things) when I was little. I also remember fairly vividly his appearances on Sesame Street.

My wife and I had the luck and honor of seeing him in what has to have been one of his last few tours a few years ago at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ. His voice was a little shaky and raspy, but he could still play a mean piano! I was glad to have had the chance.

We’ll miss you, Ray. We’ll still be listening.

Il Barbiere di Seviglia

April 25, 2004 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fancy Shmancy, Music 

On Friday night, my wife and I went to see the Barber of Seville presented by the Boheme Opera company at the Trenton War Memorial in Trenton, NJ.

The performance was excellent. Most of the actors (and I call them that intentionally, rather than singers or soloists) were very good. And it was FUNNY!

The opera is a comedy by design. It’s clear to me that Warner Bros. didn’t have to work hard to have the Bugs Bunny version be hilarious. In fact, it was clear to me that some of the gags in this production were stolen from the cartoon (or maybe it’s vice versa).

I won’t go into the story here – this page has a synopsis. You may want to read it before finishing this review.

Constantinos Yiannoudes filled the baritone part of Figaro. He did VERY well in his Boheme Opera mainstage debut. Figaro is a relatively easy part to play comedically in this opera – it’s impossible to be too over the top. The role of the title barber is a tough one to sing – he has to do his most famous and hardest aria (“Largo al Factotum”) as he walks onto stage for the first time in the first act. The audience gave him a well-deserved and long round of applause until he was forced to gesture for a stop. He was also very funny in the little “extra” comedy that this production added to the script. When he encouraged Count Almaviva/Lindoro to sing to his Rosina, he had to find something to sing. He finally walked up to the box centerstage and asks for a piece of music. He sings “Some Enchanted Evening” and then complains rapidly in Italian that he wants a piece “en Italiana”.

Mika Shigematsu sang the soprano part of Rosina. She also did a good job of comedic acting. Unfortunately, her voice was rather weak in the first and second acts. She improved for the third act, and turned in a good performance.

Matthew Lau played the baritone part of Doctor Bartolo, augmented by LOTS of makeup to age him and provide the perfect sour face (kudos to the makeup folks – it was amazing). He also did an excellent job of playing the comedic buffoon and bad guy in the same person.

The show was stolen by John Easterlin singing the tenor part of Count Almaviva pretending to be Lindoro wooing Rosina. His singing was extremely good (possibly the best of the cast), but that was overshadowed by his comedic acting! He could easily get a role as a comedy actor – preferably in a sitcom with lots of slapstick. He received the loudest applause at the end – and it was totally deserved.

The singing was powerful. No amplification was used in a full-sized theatre. I was seated in the 6th row of the right hand side of the house. When the singers faced us directly, I could actually feel the pressure of their voices.

Those who have read my story of a previous trip to the opera (A Night at the Opera) are probably wondering if any unplanned hilarity occured. I have to disappoint you on that score – as far as I can tell the production was staged perfectly. There were only two problems that marred the whole experience. For some reason, the printer failed to deliver enough programs, and only those patrons who arrived for the pre-show lecture were given them. I have had to use an article printed on Friday in the Trenton Times to keep my details correct. The other problem was a begging speech made by a woman from the opera company for 10 minutes before the overture began – begging for money to support the company and make sure that it will be able to continue next year. This was inappropriate at a performance from a company that calls itself “professional” on its website. I did enjoy the opera and would have been willing to make a donation – unfortunately, I was unable to find out HOW to make a donation by reading the program!

I did hear two Bugs Bunny references. My wife and I arrived early enough to have to sit in the lobby before seating began. Two men entered, and I heard one of them clearly saying “welcome to my shop … let me fix your mop.” During the overture, a woman seated in the row ahead of us had trouble not laughing, since the Bugs Bunny Rabbit of Seville cartoon used the overture as the main body of music.

All in all, a god time was had by my wife and me. I will be checking out the Boheme Opera Company’s schedule next year, and might be willing to see TWO operas as a balance to all of the hockey games that I drag her to.

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