Songs of the Night

A-ARCH-Songs of the NightWhen New Dances Needed a New Band

As the invaluable program notes for the Archeophone release, “Songs of the Night,” tell us, the first decade of the last century saw a change in dance music. Gone were the “innocent” dances of the late 19th century and in their place were the animal steps (fox trot, turkey trot, bear), the one- and two-step, and so on, of the new generation of pleasure seekers.

But this meant that new kinds of bands were needed to play these new sounds. Big brass bands and smaller banjo ensembles lacked the intimacy needed for dance floors—and for recordings. So it was the Victor Talking Machine Company that found at the Plaza Hotel Joseph C. Smith and his ensemble as a possible solution. He was. And the history of dance music took a double turn: a new kind of music and a new kind of band to play it.

The important things to note is that people could dance to these new recordings at home or venues other than dance halls. And we know with the advantage of hindsight that the jukebox was not far in the future!

downloadWith their usual diligence, the Archeophone people have gathered 47 of Smith’s recordings onto two CDs. They are taken from discs made from 1916 to 1925 and the sound is extraordinarily good. Among the familiar titles (well, familiar to those who remember or still play the music of those times) are “Poor butterfly,” “Missouri waltz,” “Smiles,” “Love nest” (theme music for the Burns and Allen shows), “Alice blue gown,” “Three o’clock in the morning,” “Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” and “It ain’t gonna rain no mo!”

Some of the lesser known songs are “Songs of the night,” “Money blues,” “Rose room,” “That naughty waltz,” and “Driftwood.” The Archeophone website has the entire list of this set’s contents. Several have vocalists to add to the interest.

The 32-page booklet, as is usual with Archeophone products, gives copious notes about the times, the band, and each selection, along with plenty of photographs.

For those of us who remember the change in the big bands in the 1940s, it is sad to think how much of the swing of that era was played not to accompany the dancers (who could dance to the frenzied beat of that music?) but to show off before the crowds who went up to the podium merely to listen. I wonder what Smith would have thought.

Oh, yes. This set is a Grabbit for those who like the music and/or are interested in the history of popular music.

 

 

Carol Burnett

 

A-Carol BurnettCarol Burnett Shows Has Much to Offer

Yet again, Time Life has brought onto DVDs a collection of not-too-old-time TV shows, this one titled “The Carol Burnett Show, The Lost Episodes.” (Perhaps “The Up to Now Lost Episodes” would be more accurate?) The contradiction notwithstanding, this 6-disc set is a delight.

There are 16 episodes, the earliest of which was seen on 9/11/67, the latest on 3/1/72. The usual gang is on all of them: Carol herself, Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, and Vicki Lawrence. Among the many guest stars are Carol Channing, Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, Phyllis Diller, Jim Nabors, Bob Newhart, Bernadette Peters, Don Rickles, Julie Andrews, and Flip Wilson.

The funniest sketch (to me) has a sex-mad Carol as Katherine Hepburn supposedly warding off the Humphrey Bogart of Steve Lawrence in a fabulous spoof of “The African Queen.” And I just loved the whole gang’s takeoff of the original “Mission Impossible,” with Carol doing a devastating satire of Barbara Bain. And how audiences loved those moments when Korman tries unsuccessfully to keep a straight face while Don Rickles and Tim Conway are in high gear.

The most frantic routine has Don Rickles as a shoe salesman driven to thoughts of homicide by his female customers.( He tells one of them that she doesn’t need a shoe salesman but a blacksmith.) By the end of the sketch, he looks ready for Dr. House’s team to save him. Conway’s style is quite the opposite and far more subtle. But both get laughs, especially from Korman!

Harvey_Korman_1969
Harvey Korman, a very funny man but even he had to laugh at…

There are some routines that show up on several of the shows. There are “The Old Folks” with Burnett and Korman, “Carol and Sis” with Burnett and Lawrence, “As the Stomach Turns” with Burnett, Korman, Lawrence, and whoever the guest star might be. There is the opening routine in which Burnett answers questions from the audience (with what degree of preparation I cannot tell), Burnett as the Charwoman, and other routines which the audience expects and which the writers never fail to provide.

While some of the comic sketches might fall a bit flat, the dance routines are of the highest caliber. Among the vocalists doing guest star duty are Pat Boone, Vikki Carr,  Jack Jones, Dolly Parton, and Chita Rivera.

download
…Tim Conway, an even funnier man in his own way

As with the other Burnett anthology, there are over 5 hours of bonus materials: interviews, famous sketches, outtakes, and even a backstage tour. An informative booklet gives all the tracking and lots of extra information and pictures. A great collection of one of the best variety shows from the past!

 

 

“Life and Death of Classical Music” Tells It All

A-Life and DeathBook Traces  the Decline of Classical Music 

  Many people, and I hope that is most of my readers, will be most interested in a book that I have just read through for the third time, “The Life and Death of Classical Music” by Norman Lebrecht (Anchor Books, 2007). In a cool, entertaining style, Lebrecht spends 151 pages describing in some detail how the recording industry first was a boon to classical music and then its nemesis.

Of course, money was the main cause of the major labels’ recording fewer and fewer classical releases. But most of the fun in this otherwise sad narrative comes from the personalities of the people involved: the businessmen on the signing side of the check and the artists on the receiving side. Of the latter, Herbert von Karajan comes out smelling the least sweet.

There follows a long section of 100 of the best recordings ever made and a shorter one of 20 of the worst. Yes, one man’s opinion, but a man that gives good reasons for his judgement. Fascinating stuff.

Damnation de Faust

A-OP-Damnation de Faust

Ozawa Takes on “Damnation de Faust” in Restored Recording

 

Hector Berlioz’ “La Damnation de Faust” (1846) was meant to be a cantata, but several houses have tried it as a fully produced opera, despite the elaborate stage effects demanded by the composer-lyricist. It is really a series of scenes drawn from or at least inspired by Goethe’s “Faust, Part 1,” and is in the full Romantic tradition of its time. It got a production at the Metropolitan Opera some years ago that made too much use of computer graphic images and other gimmickry.

Before the DVD format came along, there were several LP and later CD versions of this work. When “Opera on Record 2” appeared in 1983, there were 8 recordings, some less complete than others, and one of the critics wrote that “there is no satisfactory Damnation on disc.”

Seiji_Ozawa_1963
Ozawa as he was in 1963

The 1954 LP version is said to have the best Faust in David Polari, whereas my favorite has been the 1980 set, conducted by Georg Solti with Kenneth Riegel as Faust and Jose Van Dam as Mephisto. Now Pentatone has released a 1974 recording on CD, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. It falls somewhere in the middle of the other sets. Stuart Burrows and Donald McIntyre are not superb as Faust and Mephisto, but my test for any thrilling recording of this work is to play the double chorus of soldiers and students that ends the second part and the ride and scene in hell towards the end. Here, Ozawa’s Boston Symphony Orchestra really does its stuff!

Possibly the conductor is not quite as devoted to the quieter moments. However, I find this a very enjoyable recording, but perhaps not a first choice.

The packaging includes good program notes and the two CDs are enclosed in a hard cover book format that has the libretto in French and English. Pretty good for a budget set.

One or two full productions of this work can be seen on You Tube. There is a terrible “concept” production on DVD and a very good concert version on another. The latter, conducted by Solti, is worth the watching.

By the way, my website at franklinbehrens.com has a series of 7 essays about operas and instrumental pieces based on the Faust legend. I hope that my readers who already are familiar with the Gounod “Faust” and perhaps even the Boito “Mefistofeles” will want to try the Berlioz work. I hope they will find it as thrilling as I did when I first heard it many decades ago.

 

 

A “Carmen” to Avoid

A-OP-Carmen (Vernona)A “CARMEN ” to Avoid

With all the video versions of Bizet’s “Carmen” available, there is no excuse for the Arena di Verona 2014 version on a BelAir DVD. It is the same Zeffirelli production that is still available on a TDK video, with all its excesses, constant crowd movement, groups of dancers forever going into their routines, and lots of horses.

The Don Jose (Carlo Ventre) and Carmen (Ekaterina Semenchuk) are not romantic looking, are not especially good actors, and have not particularly spectacular voices. Even the Escamillo (Carlos Alvarez) has little stage presence, but Irina Lungu is an attractive Micaela. The best voice in the cast is that of Seung Pil Choi as Zuniga. The children’s chorus is charmless.

And why couldn’t the children, as well as some of the soloists, be told that a final “e” in French is pronounced “eh” and not “ay” as in Italian? So “garde” is “gar-deh” and not “gar-day.” A small point, but annoying when more attention is paid to spectacle than the language of the text.

Other details are superfluous. This is a “Carmen” to avoid.

 

Loitering Without Intent

 

A-Chaplin LoiteringLOITERING WITHOUT INTENT  

I wonder how many listeners would be interested in a Carl Davis CD titled “Loitering Without Intent.” In the silent movie days, thousands of pianists were in demand to play along with the film in cinemas. Usually they would improvise, sometimes the film would arrive accompanied by a score composed especially for it. Carl Davis is a specialist in restoring that kind of score.

It was decided that screenings and video versions of Charlie Chaplin’s films made at the Mutual studios in 1916 and 1917, for which there were no official scores, would be accompanied by scores composed by Davis and played by a full orchestra. And so, this CD contains selections from these original scores made for 12 Mutual films, among which are “The Floorwalker” and “The Pawnshop.”

But take note that Davis closely studied the music Chaplin did compose for 'The_Pawnshop'several of his later films and he carefully adopted and adapted Chaplin’s musical techniques to make these new scores sound as if Chaplin might have created them himself.

The results are pleasant enough, as played by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and The Wihan Quartet. But yet I wonder, who but film majors and Chaplin devotees would be interested? But the project is a noble one and the disc worth a hearing.

 

BBC Comedy “Detectorists” Concentrates on Character

A-DectoristsBBC Comedy Concentrates on Character

First thing, if you ever see a person with a metal detector, remember to call him a “detectorist” or you will be told firmly that the machine is the detector. This much I learned from a 6-part miniseries from the BBC titled “Detectorists,” now out on a single DVD from Acorn Media.

The general plot revolves around Andy (Mackenzie Crook, who also scripted and directed the series) and Lance (Toby Jones), whose Impossible Dream is to find a buried Saxon treasure ship near the village of Danebury (get it?). The land under which they are sure it lies belongs to the crotchety and eccentric Bishop (David Sterne), who has trouble keeping his invisible dogs in check.

Love interest is provided by Andy and his teacher girlfriend Becky (Rachael Stirling), the latter of whom is not thrilled by a pretty young lass named Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) who expresses an interest in joining the boys in finding hidden treasure—most of which shows up as tin can pulls.

Lance is still very much in love with his ex-wife Maggie (Lucy Benjamin), who is now happily married to Paul (Paul Casar), a Pizza Hut employee. When Andy finds an actual gold coin on his own, Lance breaks off their friendship.

The villains of the piece are two antiquarians with connections in higher places, who are forever trying to treasure hunt on the same land, preferably without Andy and Lance. In the meanwhile, the treasure hunting club in Danebury, seven members strong, has been spectacularly unsuccessful in finding anything worthwhile. In fact, the President is reduced to giving a talk on buttons, which puts most of the members to sleep.

In a series of interviews, Mackenzie makes it clear that he wanted the series to be a “comedy of character,” not a series of one liners. I see by my notes that I laughed out loud exactly four times during the 180 minutes running time. One time was when Andy is trying to watch TV but is utterly defeated by all the remotes his now departed Becky left him. Another was seeing the utterly blank treasure hunting group’s Business Chart whiteboard.

“Detectorists” is a pleasant look at nice characters obsessed with their hobby. The saddest, perhaps the funniest, scene is the Open House given by the group. There are several tables displaying the fruits of past efforts: can pulls, buttons, and other items of no interest whatsoever. All the event needs is just a single visitor.

The show is worth the watching, but not quite as “hilarious” as the quotations in the press release put it.

Shades of Love

Good Scenery, Dull Characters in Romance Story

A-Shades of LoveAcorn Media has released a set of 4 DVDs titled “Shades of Love” (2011), based on works by Rosamunde Pilcher, writer of romances. While I know that many viewers will like this 4-part miniseries because of its fine acting (with one exception) and beautiful Scottish locations, I could not build up any enthusiasm at all during the six hours of running time. Possibly, I just dislike the genre; but all I can give is my opinion.

Just to set the stage, there are two upper class families. At Bainard House are Edmund and Virginia Aird (Charles Dance and Eleonore Weisgerber) and their children, Henry (Liam Evans-Ford), Alexa (Susanna Simon), and Laura (Rebeca Night).  Alexa is married to the unpleasant villain of the piece, Noel (Adrian Lukis). In residence is also Edmund’s mother Violet (Eileen Atkins), who like so many characters in this sort of story, will do anything to cover up any unpleasantness for the sake of the family’s reputation.

At Balmerino, we have Archie and Isobel (Anthony Higgins and Harriet Walter). Their son Hamish (Johannes Zirner) is in love with Laura but unwilling to declare his feelings, and their daughter Lucilla (Susan Anbeh), while Alexa’s best friend, is having an affair with Noel. And add to the mixture Archie’s sister Pandora, who died before the story begins.

At the start of the first part, a man named Conrad Tucker (Michael Brandon) sees a picture of Laura in a magazine and is sure she is really his daughter. Further along the way, yet another character discovers a love-child named Olivia (Esther Schweins). And rotten Noel blackmails someone to be voted in as Chairman of the Board in Edmund’s company, a post slated for Henry.

And so on and so on.

All of this would be just fine, if only the characters were more interesting. This whole tale is plot-driven when it should be character-driven. They all act predictably and even the rat Noel holds no surprises. Iago and Richard III are fun; Noel is simply predictable.

The cast does what they can with the roles as written and do a good job as they go from one romance cliché to another. The rotten apple is Rebecca Night as Laura. Sorry, but I find her a terrible actress with a voice that is like the sound of feet slushing through a marsh. And since she is a central character, I began to find all the scenes in which she appears grating. But that is my opinion and many are bound to disagree.

Each episode runs 91 minutes and there are subtitles.

L’Arlesiana

 

Obsession is Basis of Rarely Done Opera 

 A-OP-Arlesiana A collection of short stories by Alphonse Daudet titled “Letters from My Mill” appeared in 1862. A decade later, Daudet used one of the short stories as a play titled “L’Arlesienne” (The Woman from Arles), with incidental music by Georges Bizet. The play flopped but Bizet’s score appeared in two suites and they are the most frequently played CDs in my collection.

The story of a man obsessed by a woman is an ancient one. When Francesco Cilea decided to base an opera on the play, it was decided that the titular female would never appear and the psychological tale would revolve around the obsessed Federico and his mother Rosa Mamai. Premiered in 1897, “L’Arlesiana” had a mild success, but not enough of one to keep Cilea from making many changes. Nevertheless, the opera is seldom performed in major opera houses.

180px-Francesco_Cilea_Portrait_circa_1900
Cilea in his early 30s

So it is a Good Thing to see the first video production as it was performed in 2013 at the Teatro G.B. Pergolesi, Jesi on a Dynamic DVD. The conductor is Francesco Cilluffo. The program notes are quite informative and make a good case for this opera, which is still tonal and melodic but has no “big tunes” that linger in the memory. Indeed, the success of any production of this work lies in the acting abilities of the singers—and of course their voices. Here, the cast does not fail on either ground.

Tenor Dmitry Golovnin makes the crazed Federico believable, while Annunziata Vestri really makes Rosa the main character. Despairing over her younger mentally challenged son, she devotes herself to curing her older son of his obsession. The young Vivetta, in love with Federico, is not given a strong enough character in the script; but Mariangela Sicilia does her best to be at least sympathetic.

The most intense music, dramatically and musically, are “Federico’s Lament” and Rosa’s monologue “It is hell to be a mother.” As the program notes point out, the setting in the lovely Midi region of France is never exploited musically.

The Director could not resist bringing on a mute Arlesiana (so the unimaginative audience could see what Federico was thinking) and even a second Federico locked in a cage in the third act, which seems to be set in some sort of a mental hospital. It is never wise to take an unfamiliar opera and stage it with a “concept,” since it invariably confuses the audience. Even here, what one sees at the last minute contradicts the synopsis given in the program notes.

The running time is 105 minutes and there are subtitles, but no bonus material.