Thursday, June 25, 2015

You're Fired!

The old blog receives an average of six or seven visitors a day, on a good day, so I don't expect this story to get far. The point of writing it is to express my ire, though, so that's fine. It's like writing a scathing letter and throwing it away. Catharsis.

Here's the deal. In a round-about way, I was invited to play in a band assembled to commemorate McKinley's inauguration in 1897. The person who put this together—we'll call him Joe—has done a great deal of research, has photos of the event, a copy of the original program of music performed and replica uniforms for this special band to wear in performance. And he has managed to dig up copies of music for songs that haven't been played in years. In some cases, he's reviving songs that haven't been played, or at least recorded, in 100 years. Interesting, right? I think so, so I was intrigued enough to agree to participate.

But then I got the music. It's mostly marches, because that's what bands played in the late 1800s, what with no John Williams themes to thrill a movie-going audience. I'm OK with marches and wouldn't normally be choosy. I'm usually just happy to participate. As I turned the pages, though, I came across a tune called "Passing the Cotton Fields," subtitled "Negro Characteristics." I was bothered by the title, because what thinking person wouldn't be, and when I heard the band play it during the first rehearsal, I was bothered even further. It has the feel of the worst of Stephen Foster, who had slaves mourning "Massa" buried in the "cold cold ground." Though the piece doesn't have lyrics, it made me think of this stanza:

Massa made de darkeys love him,
Cayse he was so kind,
Now dey sadly weep above him,
Mourning cayse he leave dem behind.
I cannot work before tomorrow,
Cayse de tear drops flow,
I try to drive away my sorrow
Pickin on de old banjo.

You can overlook almost anything if you're willing to just do your job and play the notes on the page, but I have been affected by several things of late. First, I re-watched Ken Burns' "Civil War" series. Then husband and I watched "Selma." Then the young man murdered nine people in their church in South Carolina, claiming racial superiority as his justification, posing with a Confederate flag in several pictures portraying his twisted views.

And now, at this very moment, southern states steeped in their tradition of glorifying their Lost Cause are discussing removing the Confederate flag in its various forms from public land. Even Alabama. I mean Freaking Alabama just went ahead and pulled it down.

So, in light of this heightened sensitivity, coupled with my normal level of sensitivity, I emailed Joe with my case for being bothered by the Cotton Field song, and I suggested maybe this is one song he could skip over, leaving it in the vault along with black-face vaudeville and Stepen Fetchit stereotypes.

I was respectful and reasonable in my tone, I believe, making sure to include the fact I was pleased to participate in this event and impressed with the guy's efforts for historical purity. And then I waited for his response. I imagined he might reply with something equally reasonable, maybe a note saying he appreciates my thoughtfulness but has decided to keep the song for the sake of history, or some such. Maybe something like "I see your point, and thanks, but let's go ahead with the program as planned. See you at rehearsal."

But I got none of that. What I got was a terse reply saying there was nothing wrong with the song, and given our "artistic differences," I should not play the concert at all. I should, instead, recycle my music. This man fired me for having the audacity to approach him with an idea that wasn't his own, is what it boils down to.

So, I chucked my music in the recycling bin and washed my hands of the whole business, except for sitting here seething over this man's inability to communicate rationally and thoughtfully. I don't see this as an artistic issue. I see it as a moral issue, a situation of being culturally aware and recognizing that not all elements of history are worthy of being revived and featured in a performance people pay money to attend.

For the same reason, I don't believe the Confederate flag should be displayed on public land (I don't believe it should be displayed at all, but that's another issue). I don't believe every act in history deserves a re-enactment. And I don't believe a music ensemble should go out of its way to perform a piece of music that romanticized a grossly immoral cultural system, accept applause and move on to the next song.

Well, it's done, and I am slightly wounded. At the same time, however, I hold my head high knowing I acted according to my conscience.  What do you think about music like this? Should we play it like it doesn't mean anything?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Find Me On Etsy

Wow, this site feels like a favorite place to spend time, like a coffee shop I used to linger in with friends or that bench at the zoo where you can sit and still see the flamingos, all afternoon, if you'd like. I should come here more often, catch my breath, order an espresso, make origami with the table napkins while we chat.

For now, let me just say I have been busy making things—wine cork trinkets and shadow boxes, mostly. Here is what it all looks like. Go browse for a bit, and if something strikes your fancy, place an order.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Christmas Reverie

I must begin each post here by recognizing the many months between posts. There was a time I wouldn't let a day go by without writing here, but now my writing efforts are elsewhere. Still, this remains the place for longer explorations.

Last night, the orchestra performed its annual Christmas concert, which includes a certain number of traditions, almost non-negotiable. We assemble a children's chorus—in past years, more than 150 kids would sign up for the thing, but we're now working with 60 or so—and with them on risers behind us, we perform "The Marvelous Toy." That's for certain. With them, we also occasionally perform "Here In My House," which I do wish someone would video record and post for all to hear because it's a keeper.

We have also begun including a chorus of high school girls who gather from various schools on Saturday mornings and rehearse together. They joined us last night to sing some incredibly beautiful music, these kids who listen to godknowswhat the rest of the year (this is how old I have become—any pop music recorded in the last ten years is generally labeled "godknowswhat.") Last night, the young women sang Bach's "Wir Eilen" and Holst's "In the Bleak Midwinter."

There were no horn parts for these pieces, accompanied lightly with some strings and keyboard, so I sat quietly on stage and listened, with the singers behind me and their conductor before me. Our conductor, Eric, stepped off the podium here and handed the baton to the choral director, Shawna Hinkle, who teaches choir at one of the local high schools. She was key in gathering these girls and teaching them the music for the evening.

Conductors don't play the instruments, obviously, but they hold the power to make or break a performance simply by their demeanor. They can lead gruffly (and ineffectively) or with encouragement expressed in their facial expressions—even the pleasant raise of an eyebrow can do it—(and effectively if the effect you're after is great music created cooperatively).

I was struck last night by Shawna's expressions as she led her singers to deliver the music she knew they could give the audience, and themselves, which is just as important. Her graceful gestures, her smile, her wide-open hopeful eyes, every visible muscle telling them "Women, you sing beautifully. Show them."

When they finished, we were wrapped up by their performance. In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Their final whispered "Yet what else can I give him? I would give my heart" settled over the hall like a pleasant, dizzying fog. And their conductor gave them the best reward she could have offered, the look of satisfaction and pride. I say that from experience because I look for that same expression from our orchestra conductor. It's the punctuation I need to finish the sentence after our instruments go down.

We went on to perform the rest of our program—two pieces from Engelbert Humperdink's Hansel and Gretel with horn parts worth waking up for, and new work by Conductor Eric, "On the Night Before Christmas" and the centerpiece for the evening, his new piece based on Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales," with the chorus and narrator. I could go on for paragraphs just about that piece, which I have been following since this summer when he began its composition, but that requires a separate post, perhaps. Just here, I'll say it was remarkable, pulled together nearly miraculously. I don't really believe that. I believe it was pulled together through skill and hard work, but at times during rehearsal I confess to thinking this will take a miracle. I suppose you could attribute its success to the miracle of human cooperation, a miracle because sometimes that seems in short supply.

It was there in abundance last night, though, with the musicians working together through the leadership of our conductor, and through the singers responding so trustingly to the thoughtful guidance of their teacher.

Here is a photo from yesterday's rehearsal, a reflection of the young women singing:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Midsummer Night's Dream—at A Castle

Playing the French horn has provided me with some interesting opportunities, and with my horn in my hands, I have found myself doing things I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise—performing on stage with an orchestra, for one, playing with a community band, for another. I have played at a wedding, performed a solo at a fund-raising luncheon and been part of a pit orchestra for a couple of high school musicals; and outside of playing, I have been involved in organizing events around the orchestra.

Last week, my horn and I were part of one of the most memorable experiences—we were part of the band accompanying a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Mt. Union University in Alliance created a new annual event, Shakespeare At the Castle, because oddly, Alliance has a castle. In the early 1900s, a man named William Morgan, owner of Morgan Engineering Company, built what amounts to a castle on his 50 acres, with the architect traveling to Europe to study the construction styles and designs of actual castles. The family didn't live in it long before Morgan died, and the thing was sold to the Elks Lodge. It was eventually sold again and restored and is now owned by the public school system, which uses it as an administration building.

A smart guy at the university decided the castle would make the perfect setting for Shakespeare productions, the building's owners agreed, and the first play was performed last week with seating on the lawn and the production happening on the balcony/patio. My horn and I took our seat with the band, conducted by Conductor Eric who also wrote the music.

This is the view from where I sat:

I have enjoyed A Midsummer Night's Dream since my English major days in high school, and I used to walk around with an antique pocket edition that looked just like this:

I had it with me when my best friend died my senior year, and I began memorizing portions as a way to work through my grief. The only section that stuck was Puck's epilogue—"If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended..." etcetera. Most of that has faded in my memory now, but I can't hear those lines without recalling the circumstances in which I first learned them.

I have seen this play at community productions in Chicago and once at Regent's Park in London (with one of the characters playing a horn as a prop, actually), but this production on the lawn of this castle with this horn player mostly handling her part was my all-time favorite.

I left the experience completely loving the behind-the-scenes atmosphere of the theater and being a part of such an event, everything from the first laugh from the eager-to-please audience to the their final applause to the sawdust on the floor that traveled home with me, stuck to the bottom of my horn case. I didn't mind that torrential rain drove us indoors to a small theater in town or that I hauled music stands in the back of my car or that a power outage had the players delivering lines in the absolute dark.

I tend to eat up every experience as if it were my first and last at once, and this one was a full meal. "So, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends."

Monday, June 09, 2014

Country Again

Pardon me while I fold up the sheets I have had draped over the furniture here these last few months, and please excuse the dust hanging in strings from the light fixtures. Blogville is a ghost town, and my plot on the corner of it has been pretty ghosty as well.

Well, here we are with our feet up and gin and tonics all around, so let’s get started. My orchestra performed a concert this past Saturday night, and the experience was thrilling enough for me to make a trip here to tell you all about it.

Every two years, we put on a show, like Rooney and Garland, but instead of Babes in Arms, we put on a country show, and we do it partly for money because it’s guaranteed to sell the house, or at least nearly. This isn’t to say we play country music begrudgingly or condescendingly. Members of this orchestra love a good symphony as much as anybody, but we don’t mind getting together on stage with other kinds of music on our stands. This season, we have played swing, contemporary American, and a choral piece based on poems by Robert Frost, for example, and there was only a minimal amount of grumbling. You can’t put sixty or so people in one place without some complaining no matter what you do.

Anyway, about this country business—we have a couple of regular guests we invite, Elizabeth Langford-Estes and her husband Jon Estes (you can look them up). Liz is originally from Small Town, but they now live in Nashville where they have some amount of success as professional musicians. Liz is an award-winning fiddler and sings, and Jon plays everything else, basically. This year, we also brought in some local talent, Reb Robinson, Jacob Stockdale and Rick Troyer who puts together a small country band for us he calls the Onenightstandband. Our apologies to Rick for listing him as Rick Yoder in the program. We don't really believe the names Troyer and Yoder are interchangeable (you'd have to live near Amishworld to understand the mixup.)

And we flew in a special guest, Rich Travers, a piano player from Massachusetts who, from what I can tell, can play any damned song put in front of him. I may never play the piano again, after hearing him handle the keys with such ease and expertise.

If I were to tell you about every single song we played, you’d nod off or start checking your email and kicking at the fringe on the rug, so I’ll just hit the highlights, at least the moments that highlighted this concert of me.

We kicked the whole thing off with everyone on stage to play "Mountain Music," and hearing the full hall applaud so enthusiastically and even hoot a little (you don’t typically get that with a symphony), I knew this was going to be exhilarating. I have written in the past that playing before half a house isn't so bad because we really just play for ourselves anyway, but I may be lying. Having so many people seated on two levels cheer and clap in your direction makes all the difference.

After a few tunes played by the guests, all really well received, the orchestra came in again to play with Reb singing a couple of her original tunes and the classic "Crazy," which Reb sang with the depth I appreciated so much when hearing Patsy Cline. She didn’t impersonate Cline, though, because she didn’t need to, with her own style worth hearing. I have a soft spot for Patsy Cline, and “Crazy” in particular, and when I hear it, I always go back to an evening in a barbecue joint outside of Atlanta when my brother-in-law used up all our quarters on the Cline songs in the jukebox because he knew his Yankee family would enjoy them.

At some point, Jacob, the fiddler performed his set, playing and singing, and I’m telling you, that boy is so adorable, you would all want to eat him up with a spoon. But he plays the fiddle like a full-grown man with enough life experience to draw awe from an audience. And he and Liz played a few tunes together, including “Ashokan Farewell.” 

We opened the second half with an arrangement of “Shenendoah” that starts with a soft horn line and ends with the horns popping veins with the kind of volume you can feel in your chest, like when you’re standing on the street corner for a parade, and the base drums march by. And I have to say, from the standpoint of a participant, that was my favorite moment. 

As a listener, though, being witness to so much going on without horn parts, I’m not sure I could claim one particular favorite tune. I generally enjoy hearing and watching music performed with remarkable skill, and there was that enough to marvel at for days. And I was personally pleased I didn’t miss my pitch on a single note. I got tripped up with some exacting articulation, but in general I’d give myself a nice pat on the back for not being my usual neurotic self on stage.

Country music isn’t my preference, I’ll admit, and I will choose just about any other genre when given a choice. But this is the music of my childhood, and when I sit on stage for this event, I go straight back to my roots in my appreciation for these tunes. This is the music my father and his brothers played on their front porch in Alabama, with each boy handling a different instrument. This is the music I heard coming from the kitchen radio when I was a little girl, as my father rose before dawn to pack his carpenter-sized lunch and would listen to Grand Ole Opry as he tapped his work boots on the Linoleum. And this is the music I was taught around our piano, singing alto with my mother out of yellowed gospel song books the family had saved since their tent-meeting days in the '30s and '40s.

I’ll probably not listen to country music tomorrow when I turn on the radio or iTunes, but I'm still floating from quite a dopamine boost from Saturday's event, and I’ll look forward to putting on this show again in two years.

Here is a video of Reb singing one of her original tunes (courtesy of one of her friends):

Saturday, February 01, 2014

What Comes from Jamaica

Pardon me while I dust off this place that has been collecting cobwebs strung from the chipped plaster and rotting woodwork. 

I had intended to write in December and to talk about my orchestra's delightful Christmas concert. I was going to write about a performance by the Canton Symphony, too, and about going to Atlanta to see my family for the holiday. I did none of that, obviously. Well, then I was going to write about how Husband, the girls and I flew to Jamaica the day after Christmas for a five-day rest-up at the Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton Resort and Spa, complete with pictures and restaurant reviews, but I didn't do any of that either. But I'll tell you this much—while the trip to Jamaica was overall a success, I came home with a souvenir I wouldn't give you ten cents for.

As I mentioned, we stayed at a resort, an all-inclusive kind of place with a massive pool, a lovely beach, a spa and lots of restaurants. We stayed on the property for all but one day when we took a trip up into the mountains for a waterfall excursion. We didn't go to the one everyone seems to be familiar with but to a smaller place that was supposed to be a little less challenging. Not having been to the other one, I can't say if it was or wasn't, but it was something I could handle without too much trouble, and the lunch that was included, prepared at a small ramshackle camp with chickens and ducks afoot, was delicious.

Mostly we staked out our spot on the beach and planned our day around meals and the occasional spa visit.

Well, on our last full day there, two days after the falls visit, I woke up with a touch of an intestinal issue, if you know what I mean. It plagued me into the next day, about the time we had to board the plane for home when it subsided enough so that I could travel. Back home, we unpacked and dived into piles of laundry when this virus or bacteria or what have you evolved into something that gave me a high fever, chills and vomiting for a day or so. For about 24 hours, I only got out of bed to hurl.

When that portion of this situation subsided, I was left with a lingering fever and abdominal pain that was uncomfortable but not excruciating. It wasn't enough to send me to the hospital, but it was enough to make me feel like laying down all day long. By the next Monday, a full week after this thing began, I still had a fever and pain, so I went to a stat care place, thinking I had some intestinal bug. And I'll admit I thought I might even have a parasite from the waterfall water I accidentally swallowed, and I kind of got a kick out of the idea. It seems like an interesting story to tell.

It wasn't so interesting, it turns out, because what I had was gall stones, and I was sent home with instructions to go to the emergency room if my symptoms worsened. That night they did worsen, with increased pain and a temperature of 103. So, husband took me to the ER. The staff there dismissed the gall stones, and after a CT scan, two ultrasounds and two pelvic exams at 3:00 in the morning, it was decided I had an ovarian cyst, or possibly an infected appendix. The two things are so close to each other in the female anatomy that it was difficult to decide which. Then the doctors decided it wasn't a cyst but an abscess about the size of a silver dollar. It's likely caused by the bacteria that made me sick initially—it traveled until it found a crevice to camp out in and to reek havoc from.

I spent the rest of the week in the hospital on antibiotics, and an ultrasound on that last day proved the abscess had not shrunk but may have even grown. I was sent home to take two very strong antibiotics for two weeks. I took the things as responsibly as possible, but I have to say there were days I wanted to chuck the things and let this abscess—Rosemary's Baby, I began calling it—take over. Those drugs caused such fatigue, as did the infection, and light headedness that I could barely finish sentences, couldn't drive, couldn't walk the dog, could barely even play with the dog. Husband did the cooking, and I did the laying down on the couch and watching movies.

Finally, after I finished the drugs, and with no fever and not much pain to speak of, a follow-up visit to the doctor left me with instructions to get back to my normal life. I still have this abscess, which occasionally reminds me of itself with twinges and mild pain, and I'll soon have an ultrasound to determine the size of it, but it looks like I might be on the other side of this infection, this souvenir from Jamaica that I'd rather not have. Five days on the beach led to four weeks of being sick. Not much of a fair trade, I say.

So, vacation in Jamaica. I have some nice memories from the trip, so I'll try to focus on those. Here are a few photos:
The daughters waiting for a table at one of the hotel restaurants.

View from our spot on the beach.
The lobby of our cute villa.