Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Kate Loder Piano Music - a Victorian composer returns

In the 1840s The Musical World called Kate Loder (1825-1904) one of the finest pianists of the day "without reference to her age or sex or country." Loder was young, female, and British at a time when audiences preferred their musicians older, male, and foreign (preferably German).

Loder came from a musical family and exhibited an early talent at the piano. Her musical life is too rich to detail in a review.

Among other things, she performed Mendelssohn's G minor piano concerto in the presence of the composer. She was close friends with Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann. Like Clara, she enjoyed a successful career as a concert pianist and composer.

Then she married.

In the Victorian Age, the wife of a prominent surgeon did not perform in public. Kate Loder Thompson concert career was over. She did perform, teach, and compose privately throughout the rest of her life.

So what was her music like? This release features her two published collections of studies, plus a few short piano works.

The Twelve Studies Books 1 and 2 document her impressive technical ability, and also her musicality. Though some are quite didactic, Lodor, like Clementi manages to make them more than just finger exercises.

The Study No. 9, Book 2, for example, has a hint of Mendelssohn about it. On the other hand, the Study No. 5, Book 2 seems to be inspired by Chopin. That influence sounds even stronger in her later piano works, such as the Voyage Joyeux in A major (1868).

Ian Hodson performs with a calm assurance and tasteful musicality. He's able to bring out the musical contours in the studies, giving them music form instead of letting them just be a jumble of notes.

If you're interested in women composers, this release is a must-have. But that shouldn't be the only reason to explore Kate Lober's music. It doesn't sound especially youthful, nor feminine, or especially British. It simply sounds like what it is: well-constructed music of the middle Romantic period.
And that should be reason enough.

Kate Loder: Piano Music
Twelve Studies, Books 1 & 2; Romance in A flat, Pensée Fugitive; Two Mazurkas, Voyage Joyeux
Ian Hobson, piano
World Premiere Recordings

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dick Tracy's Spirit - Part 3

Dick Tracy recently concluded a storyline involving Will Eisner's creation, the Spirit (Dec. 2016 through Mar. 2017). In Part 1 I tried to fill in the background of this important comic strip character (for those who came in late). In Part 2 I looked at how parts of the Spirit's mythos were handled by Mike Curtis and Joe Staton.

It's not my intention to rehash the entire story arc, but in this final installment I want to look at a few details embedded in the story.

By now, Boston Charlie (of "Terry and the Pirates") is now a supporting character in Dick Tracy. So it's not surprising to see him piloting in a mysterious figure for an exclusive auction. Also shown are Oliver Warbucks, ("Little Orphan Annie") who's found a home in the Tracyverse. The last panel shows the Spirit's archenemy, the Octopus, and his henchman, Mr. Carrion.

Up for auction is an immortality formula. The Spirit relates the last time he encountered one, which was also the first time he met P'Gell in 1946, who would became a love interest/opponent throughout the series.

P'Gell's first appearance in the Spirit, 1946.
More P'Gell from 1947. Note how her features look a little less exotic.

I have to admit I liked this sequence. Commissioner Dulan and Chief Patton are trading stories about their respective crime fighters. Sammy Strunk, the Spirit's sidekick, isn't impressed. What I find amusing about the first panel is that the middle character has served both as superior and sidekick to the hero. Pat Patton started out as Tracy's assistant, and became police chief only because Tracy turned down the offer.

The immortality formula is being auctioned off by Perenelle Flamel, widow of Nicolas Flamel. The name may be familiar to Harry Potter fans, but Flamel's story predates JK Rowling.

Nicolas Flamel (1330-1418) was a scribe and printer in medieval Paris. He was also an alchemist -- not unusual for the time. Centuries later, he was credited with finding the Philosopher's Stone, actually turning base metal into gold, and developing an elixir of life. These legends continued to grow, and far outgrew the original person.

Its always fun when Diet Smith, Chester Gould's original plutocrat mixes with Oliver Warbucks. Warbucks mentions Doc Savage had an immortality formula in 1934. I'm not sure about that, but I do know Lester Dent's pulp character did encounter such a formula in 1939's "The Crimson Serpent."

And we see who Boston Charlie was transporting -- the Dragon Lady, Milton Caniff's quintessential villain from "Terry and the Pirates."

It's the details such as these that make the story, I think. As always, Curtis and Staton tell a great story.

This panel from the end of the story arc is a study in shadow and
light that is worthy of Eisner.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Duet for B-flat Clarinet and Bass Clarinet - Part 3

As part of my Diabelli Project flash composition series, I wrote four sketches for a B-flat clarinet and bass clarinet duet. Even when I was sketching them out, I knew they were part of the same four movement work. 

In Part 1 I posted the third movement, which is where I started with this piece. I then moved on to the opening movement, which I posted in Part 2

I finished up the sketch for the second movement (below). In the original Diabelli Project sketch (bottom), I had thought this would be a slow movement. But I liked the one I came up with better. Two slow movements were too much. And when I really looked at the music, I could see that it would work at a faster tempo, too. 

So here's the result. The alternating seconds which serve as the rhythmic accompaniment get handed from one instrument to the other. But it's always there, always defining the pulse as 3+3+2. That's why I made the meter 8/8 instead of 4/4. 4/4 implies an eighth note grouping of 2+2+2+2. 

Now it's on the finale.

And here's the original Diabelli Project sketch (No. 147) this movement grew out of.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Line Mar Match Box Construction 051 - Trapeze

I found a Line Mar Match Box Construction Set from the 1930s, complete and with instructions. The box claimed the set made 100 different toys. I decided to test that claim -- one toy at a time. You can read all the posts for the Line Mar construction project at 100 Toys.

051. Trapeze

The trapeze had one major challenge -- and it's one I've had to deal with before. Stacking  one long dowel atop another isn't very stable, even with a wooden collar spanning the joint. Fortunately, those dowels didn't have to support a lot of weight. 

I also didn't get the "rope" as long as it in the illustration, but after fiddling with the dowels for over a half hour, I went with what I had.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Lessons from York: What We Saw (Part 3) - 6464 No More?

It appears such displays are moving from the
collector's home to the open market.
Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of the state of the hobby.

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them.

In Part 1 I outlined the reasons for what I see as a major shift in the hobby. Basically, younger collectors seem more interested in operating their trains rather than simply displaying them. And that, I think, explains what we say this time at York -- the results of upgrading.

And that upgrading, I think, has affected one of the mainstays of toy train collecting -- the Lionel 6464 series box car.

A little background

 From 1953 to 1969 Lionel Trains made a semi-scale box car that would become the standard for O-gauge railroading. It's known as the 6464 series, from the catalog number prefix all these box cars share. 29 different models were made. They were found in both high-end and entry-level sets. Some were available separately.

The Lionel 6464-300 from 1955-56. All the box cars in this series start with

Stamp collecting for trains 

The 6464 box cars look good on layouts, but the primary reason these boxcars have retained their value over the years is their desirability as collectables. There are two different door types, four different body types, one of which has two different roof types. There are variations in the colors and applications of the graphics. There are factory samples, production prototypes, and factory errors.

Some of the box cars are readily available. Some, like the pastel-colored box car for the ill-fated Girl's Train are extremely rare. Just like stamp collectors seeking all the denominations of a single stamp design, train collectors have been filling their shelves with row after row of just 6464 box cars.

Taking it off the shelf

Vintage 6464 box cars have appealing graphics, and they look great in a train rolling along the track. But there are some disadvantages for the collector/operator.

  1. The cars (especially the ones from the 1950s) are somewhat heavy, which limits the length 
  2. The wheels don't turn that easily, increasing the strain on the locomotive. 
  3. Only about 17 road names are represented. If you like the Norfolk & Western, for example, you're out of luck

But the 6464 box car remained an influence in the hobby long after they were discontinued. When MPC took over Lionel in the 1970s, they reused the molds to issue their own "collectible" line of 9700 box cars. While some of the graphics were interesting, the cheapening of the plastic and trucks made these less desirable.

An MPC/Lionel 9700 box car from the 1970. Compare it to the original 1950s
version above. It's easy to see that the plastic is cheaper, and the
graphics not quite as crisp.

As time went on, others (including the new Lionel) offered better quality box cars designed for the operator. The advantages over the classic 6464 cars are:

  1. Modern 6464-like box cars are much lighter than the vintage cars 
  2. Needle nose axles produce minimal friction, allowing the wheels to spin freely, reducing strain on the locomotive. 
  3. Between all the manufacturers, hundreds of road names (both of current and defunct railroads) are available. If you like the Norfolk & Western, you can find examples of their box car liveries from the 1940s through the modern era.

6464 galore

So what did we see at York?

Tons of vintage 6464 box cars, including several examples of the Girl's Train model. If, as I believe, the trend is towards operation, then a wall of box cars has perhaps lost its appeal. Virtually all of the graphics of the original 6464 box cars are now available at much lower prices.

If you want a green NYC box car on your layout, why not use the Mikes' Train House version instead of the vintage Lionel one? It's less expensive, it runs better, and it looks just as good.

A 6464-900 Lionel NYC box car from the 1960s. 

The MTH version. 

We've always seen 6464 box cars at York, but never like this. There were tables with nothing but boxes stacked in four or five layers. And they were all there -- all 29 models.

Prices seemed a little soft, too -- about $40 to $120. Is this just the beginning?

Next: American Flyer's flown

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Quattro Mani - Lively Lounge Lizards

I love everything about this release. The performances are top-notch, the theme is focused, yet within that focus is an amazing variety of compositions and styles.

This recording is with the new Quattro Mani duo piano team (Steven Beck replaced retiring Alice Rybak in 2013). Though the Susan Grace/Steven Beck chemistry is slightly different than that of Grace/Rybak, there's no diminution in quality. The Quattro Mani perform with a single vision, and all the virtuosity and energy the program demands.

"Lounge Lizards" features piano 4-hands works by (mostly) contemporary American composers. It's a program that delights, challenges, and ultimately entertains the listener.

The most challenging work is the oldest: Charles Ives' 1925 "Three Quarter-Tone Pieces." In context, though, it seemed like a work that finally found its own time. As played by Grace and Beck the work has a beautifully expressive quality.

Fred Lerdahl's "Quiet Music" opens the program. Though quiet, motifs move in and out of phase with each other, creating a restlessness and forward motion that carries all the way through the 13-minute piece.

John Musto's unabashedly neo-romantic "Passacaglia" seems to be music written by a pianist for pianists. And it sounds like a great deal of fun to play.

"Of Risk and Memory" by Arlene Sierra is a more introspective work, with the two pianists seemingly playing against each other. For me, the tension this conflict generates between the players made this work one of the most exciting on the album.

The title track, "Lounge Lizards," documents Michael Daugherty's somewhat checkered past with four cocktail piano bars. Of course, this is Daugherty, so the lounge music is more than just lounge music.

It's actually a well-constructed four-movement work that uses the language of Muzak to say something far more substantial. Kudos to percussionists John Kinzie and Michael Tetreault for their sometimes ironic, sometimes cheezy, yet always appropriate interpretations to Daughtery's score.

I love this album.

Quattro Mani: Lounge Lizards 
Steven Beck, Susan Grace, duo piano 
Works by: Fred Lerdahl, John Musto, Charles Ives, Arlene Sierra, Michael Daugherty 
Bridge Records 9486

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Dick Tracy's Spirit - Part 2

Dick Tracy recently concluded a storyline involving the Spirit (Dec. 2016 through Mar. 2017). Last week, I shared some of the basic backgrounds for Will Eisner's creation (see: Part 1). But importing a comic book character from the 1940s isn't just as simple as drawing it accurately.  Mike Curtis and Joe Staton had to strike a delicate balance between the accepted canon and modern sensibilities.

Ebony White was always a valuable aide for the Spirit.
But sensibilities for acceptable cartoon
exaggeration have changed greatly
since the 1940s.
A Changing Cast of Characters

The Spirit had a fairly stable cast of supporting characters. There was Police Commissioner Dulan, who was one of the few people who knew the Spirit was resurrected policeman Denny Colt. Dulan was the reason the Spirit was able to work with -- and under the sanction -- of the police department.

Ellen Dolan, the commissioner's daughter, was the love interest of Denny Colt/the Spirit. She was more than just a convenient damsel in distress. Ellen Dolan was competent, capable, and often more than a match for the men in her life.

Like many masked crime fighters of the 1940s, the Spirit had a youthful sidekick. Ebony White was drawn as an African American stereotype, but his character was anything but.

Most comic scholars agree that Will Eisner wasn't inherently racist, just a product of his time. But times change. By 1949 it was clear that Ebony had to go.

And so he was replaced by Sammy Strunk, who would fill out remaining three years of the Spirit's run as his sidekick. For true Spirit fans, Ebony White remains the Spirit's true sidekick. But for new readers in 2017? No way.

(L-R) Sammy Strunk, Commissioner Dulan, the Spirit. I do wonder how
he managed to board a commercial flight with a mask and traveling
under an alias...

Singing a song

Although Ebony White was gone, he certainly wasn't forgotten. Staton and Curtis had the Spirit singing the song "Every Little Bug" in several sequences. The tune first appeared in a Spirit comic in 1946, and was a running gag through 1950.

The tune was written by Ebony White, and was on the Hit Parade (at least in the Spirit's world). Sheet music for the tune was also published in the real world (Will Eisner, lyrics; Bill Harr, music), although it was less successful outside of the comic strip.

The Lunar Connection

In the course of Staton and Curtis' story, it's mentioned that the Spirit has been to the moon.

By 1951 appeal for the masked hero had pretty much run its course. After World War II superhero comics were on the decline, and popular tastes were changing. Will Eisner employed Wally Wood, one of the premier science fiction comic artists, to help steer the Spirit into a new direction.

In 1952, the comic was rebranded "Outer Space" with the Spirit parenthetically mentioned. The six-part story involved the first moon expedition. The crew was a mix of scientists and criminals, earning their pardon by participating in was could well be a fatal mission. The Spirit came to keep the cons in line.

It was a gritty, mostly somber tale with stunning artwork. And it pretty much marked the end of the series. After the Spirit returned to Earth, there was one further adventure (with the Spirit as a UFO hunter), and the comic was canceled.

 Since the Moon also played an important part of Chester Gould's Dick Tracy strip, it seemed only natural that the subject arises in conversation.

Next week: the ever-expanding Tracyverse

Monday, May 15, 2017

Duet for B-flat Clarinet and Bass Clarinet - Part 2

As part of my Diabelli Project flash composition series, I wrote four sketches for a B-flat clarinet and bass clarinet duet. Even when I was sketching them out, I knew they were part of the same four movement work.

In Part 1 I posted the third movement, which is where I started with this piece. Here's the first movement.

Those seemingly random notes in the margins do have a purpose. I like to set a general metronome marking for the piece to begin with. I then calculate how many measures would encompass a minute at that tempo, how many for 30 seconds, and how many for 15 seconds. This helps me with the overall proportion of the movement.

In the upper right is the approximate playing time of each movement. Once again, this helps me keep the overall structure of the work in balance. (I'll be filling in the times for the second and fourth movements when they're completed.)

And just for comparison, here's the original Diabelli Project sketch this movement grew out of.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Line Mar Match Box Construction 050 - Swing

I found a Line Mar Match Box Construction Set from the 1930s, complete and with instructions. The box claimed the set made 100 different toys. I decided to test that claim -- one toy at a time. You can read all the posts for the Line Mar construction project at 100 Toys.

050. Swing

This toy marks the halfway point of the 100 Toys project. Not to give too much away, but I've already looked ahead on the instruction sheet. On average, it looks like the toys get much more complex as we progress. 

So what about toy no. 50, the swing? It runed out to be another construction made challenging by artistic license. The illustrator could make the dowels as long as they needed to make the picture look good. 

The builder (me) didn't have that option. I had to use the lengths issued with the set. So, as you can see, the taller dowels are balanced on shorter ones. The metal pillars provided a good deal of stability; putting fiberboard collars on the taller dowels helped, too. But still, it's a pretty rickety affair, though it did photograph well. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Lessons from York: What We Saw (Part 2) - Powering Up

Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of the state of the hobby.

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them.

In Part 1 I outlined the reasons for what I see as a major shift in the hobby. Basically, younger collectors seem more interested in operating their trains rather than simply displaying them. And that, I think, explains what we say this time at York -- the results of upgrading.

If you have more than a 4' x 8' train layout
in the 1950s, you needed a Z transformer.

Power base

Most Lionel train sets of the 1950s and 60s came with small 35-watt transformer power packs. For the small oval or figure eight, the supplied track could make, that was enough power to keep the train moving.

When the owner of one of those sets built something bigger and more elaborate on a tabletop, though, 35 watts didn't cut it.

Bigger layout, bigger power demands

In order to overcome power drops in longer loops,  a 75-watt or higher-powered transformer was required. If one had two trains running, then a transformer with dual controls was a must. So the Z transformers (250 watts) and ZW transformers (275) became increasingly desirable. Lionel stopped making these powerhouses in 1969.

As more collectors turned to operating layouts, the demand for these transformers increased, as did their price. And they became scarce. Because once they were installed on a layout, they were out of circulation.

 The Lionel ZW transformer. At one time, this was the
ultimate power source for a large 0-gauge layout.

Power shift

This show we saw vintage Z and ZW transformers at virtually every table. Why?

I think the older transformers no longer cut it. Beginning in the late 90s, manufacturers installed printed circuits in their locomotives.

Some were for sound effects, which became increasingly realistic as digital sound technology advanced. Other circuits allowed for sophisticated remote control. The older transformers limited some of those functions.

So Lionel, MTH and other current manufacturers built new transformers for the new generation of trains. The MTH Z-4000, for example, provides 400 watts of power, and connectivity for newer remote control functions that didn't exist in the 1960s.

I think operators are trading up, and when they replace their Z or ZW with a Z-4000, the vintage transformer goes up for sale. There were many at this show, and prices were lower than I've ever seen them.

If you wanted to create a strictly vintage  layout, you were in luck. But most just passed them by without a glance.

The MTH Z-4000 transformer. While its form gives a nod to the vintage ZW, its electronics and functionality
is strictly 21st Century. 

Next: 6464 no more?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Martucci: Piano Trios, Piano Quintet

Giuseppe Marticcui is credited with being the first Italian composer of the late 19th century to eschew opera for instrumental music, paving the way for Busoni, and Respighi.

This collection of chamber music gathers together prime examples of Martucci's craft and makes for an engaging listening experience.

While Martucci didn't write opera, he had an Italianate gift for lyrical melody. The themes for these works are beautifully turned, letting the instruments sing.

He was also a child prodigy at the piano -- the piano parts for these works aren't showy, but they're quite substantial. Pianist Maria Semeraro rises to the occasion. Her expressive playing revels in the sound of her instrument while keeping it part of the conversation with her fellow performers.

Included in this collection are Martucci's two piano trios and his piano quintet. They reminded me a little of Schubert's music in the way that they just seem to flow from idea to idea. Martucci's music is more formally structured, though, making it easier to follow the development of his material.

The performers are closely mic'ed, with only a hint of room ambiance. That actually serves the music well, making it easier to hear the subtle interplay between the instruments. If you enjoy late-romantic chamber music, you should appreciate Martucci's efforts. After listening to this recording, I certainly do.

Giuseppe Martucci: Piano Trios, Piano Quintet
Maria Semeraro, piano; Quartetto Noferini
Brilliant Classics 94968

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Dick Tracy's Spirit - Part 1

Dick Tracy recently concluded a storyline involving the Spirit (Dec. 2016 through Mar. 2017). It's significant for a number of reasons. First, the creative team of Mike Curtis and Joe Staton bring the Spirit's world into the ever-expanding Tracyverse.

Second, it was well-done from start to finish, remaining true to Will Eisner's iconic character. And third, it was the type of story that would have worked for either detective individually.

So who was the Spirit?

For those who came in late, the Spirit was a masked detective created in 1940 by Will Eisner. The character was part of a 16-page newsprint insert distributed to the Register and Tribune Syndicate newspapers for their Sunday comics.

In addition to a 7-8 page Spirit story, the insert included 4-page stories from supporting characters from the Eisner shop, such as Mr. Mystic and Lady Luck.

And so it begins.

So who cares?

Quite a lot of people. Eisner used the Spirit to stretch the boundaries of sequential art. The splash page featured the title treated differently each week.

The first page of three different Spirit stories. Each week the title was
treated differently.
An example of Eisner's virtuosity. The comic
strip panels are incorporated into the house.
As the eye moves from left to right, the story
unfolds, with the dramatic point being hit
in the last panel (room) in the lower right.

The stories could be anything from a simple crime adventure to a love story, to social satire.

After the Spirit was discontinued in 1952, the comic lived on. The original comic inserts were collected and studied. Several series of reprints were also collected and studied.

As a result, Eisner's work influenced several generations of comic strip and comic book artists. He so defined the field that in 1988 the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award was created.

For the industry, the Eisner is equivalent to the Oscar. Awards are given each year for categories such as Best Writer, Best Artist/Penciller/Inker, Best New Series, Best Continuing Series, Best Letterer/Lettering, Best Limited Series or Story Arc, and more.

That's how much Eisner's artistry (and his creation) are regarded.

So how do you incorporate a character with so much history into a current comic strip? We'll look at what Curtis and Staton brought from the canon into Dick Tracy next week.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Diabelli Project 151 - Piano Piece

The Diabelli Project is about offering my weekly flash-composition sketches freely to all. Like Antonio Diabelli's theme, these sketches aren't great music. But perhaps (as in Diabelli's case) there's a Beethoven out there who can do great things with them.

This week's sketch is something fairly simple. I started with a descending figure in the right hand, and an ascending one in the left. It didn't take long for things to go off track. I seemed to have kept the notion of contrary motion going throughout the sketch, though.

As always, you can use any or all of the posted Diabelli Project sketches as you wish for free. Just be sure to share the results. I'm always curious to see what direction someone else can take this material.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Line Mar Match Box Construction 049

Line Mar Match Box Construction 002 I found a Line Mar Match Box Construction Set from the 1930s, complete and with instructions. The box claimed the set made 100 different toys. I decided to test that claim -- one toy at a time. You can read all the posts for the Line Mar construction project at 100 Toys.

049. Sink

The sink was a pretty simple build. The most difficult part was making sure the legs were as straight as they could be. Fiberboard collars pressed together from both sides of the metal basin helped secure them (at least long enough for me to take the photo).

There was one compromise I had to make. The illustration shows the side pieces for the faucets having five holes each. Those, plus the horizontal five-hole strip makes three needed for this toy equals one more strip than came with the set. I needed the length in the horizontal strip, so the side pieces are three-hole braces, rather than five.

If you look very  carefully at the drawing, it appears as though there are supposed to be some braces under the sink. But that would have required two additional strips that I didn't have. And of course, the dowels representing the faucets are drawn at about half their actual length.

This is one of those times when the artistic vision differed greatly from the reality of the build.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Lessons from York: What We Saw (Part 1) - Operators Welcome

Sure, it's great as a display piece -- but this 1925
American Flyer set probably doesn't have that many
spins around the layout left in it.
Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of the state of the hobby.

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them.

Changes in the wind

There's a major change happening in the toy train world, spurred in part by the changing age demographic. The older collector who accumulated vintage trains to proudly display on shelves is being replaced by a younger collector who prefers to run their trains.

Both are reconnecting with the toys of their youth (the essence of any type of toy collecting, I think). But there's a big difference. The toys of the first and second generation TCA member's youth date from the 1920s and 1930s -- and are too fragile to be run regularly without restoration work. But for the early collectors, that was fine. The toy was a trophy, not a, well, toy to be played with.

For current enthusiasts, the goal is not necessarily to get that toy train Santa never brought but to build that dream layout they never got around to. There are several professional layout building companies ready to serve this market. Classic Toy Trains, one of the premier magazines of the hobbies, features two or three operating layouts every issue and offers tips for DIY modelers.

The toy trains of these collectors date from the 1950s and 1960s and still run fairly well. But not as well as the current crop of locomotives. Digital electronic sounds and wireless commands are now standard equipment on Lionel trains. For the modern operator/collector, the reliability of the new products has resulted (I believe) in a declining interest in older trains.

Out with the Old?

For the first time, the York train meet was open to the public. It was only open for a limited time, and only for the halls that dealers and manufacturers of new products were. The goal was to reverse the slow decline in membership by showing potential members first-hand what TCA was all about.

As you can see from the above video, the public areas of the show were all about operating trains. In addition to layouts operated by Lionel, Mike's Train House, and Atlas displaying their latest offerings, there were smaller demo layouts for various accessories and products. There were also three large modular layouts for visitors to enjoy.
Unlike the example at the beginning of the post,  this reproduction of a classic Lionel 1930s train set runs just fine.
And MTH has built-in the modern electronic sound and control features that operators are looking for.
So what happens when people move from static to active displays of their collections? I think the answer can be found in what we saw (which I'll explain in Part 2) -- what we didn't see.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

British Tone Poems, Vol. 1 - Luminous English Idylls

I'll start with the bottom line. If you love the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frederic Delius, and Gerald Finzi and want more of the same, buy this disc. The works may not be familiar, but they'll take you to that same idyllic English countryside as "The First Cuckoo of Spring" or "Egdon Heath."

This first installment of Chandos' British Tone Poem series presents a collection of works that all deserve a place in the repertoire. Rumon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales received glowing reviews for their Overtures from the British Isles releases.

These performances are at the same high level. Under Gamba's direction, the orchestra's sound has a luminous sheen, ideally suited to these impressionistic works.

For me, the highlight of the release was Ivor Gurney's "A Gloucestershire Rhapsody." This piece I can only describe as a pleasing amalgam of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi, which a charm all its own.

Speaking of RVW, the album ends with his work, "The Solent." This early work is seldom performed, but it should be. This quiet, introspective music rivals RVW's similar passages in his 5th Symphony and "Pilgrim's Progress."

Most of these tone poems were inspired by the English countryside, and share a certain sameness of character. Listen to this album from start to finish and you'll hear quiet, serene music with distinctively British harmonies throughout.

British Tone Poems, Vol. 1
Works by: Frederic Austin, Sir Granville Bantock, William Alwyn, Henry Balfour Gardiner, Ivor Gurney, nd Ralph Vaughan Williams
BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Rumon Gamba, conductor
Chandos CHAN 10939

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Retracting the Rapture in the O-Gauge Zen Garden

Where is everybody?

There's always something that bugged me about larger scale train layouts. And it's something I've been guilty of myself. 1/43 diecast vehicles look great on an O-gauge layout. But they don't come with drivers or passengers. And that's a problem.

Look closely at this traffic jam below on my O-scale Zen garden.

Luke 17:34-37
It looks like the Rapture's just hit, and all of these cars are now suddenly empty (too bad about that sinner walking down the street).

Once I noticed that diecast vehicles out of the box were driverless, I started noticing them on every layout I saw.

Fortunately, it's an easy problem to fix -- sort of.

Drivers wanted!

Seated figures are readily available for modelers. I decided that rather having folks seated at the station, I'd use some as drivers for my seemingly abandoned cars.

I purchased two sets of seated figures. One set was true O-scale, the other slightly smaller, about 1/50. Because I bought them separately, I didn't realize they were two different sizes. But it turned out to be a good thing I had both. As it turned out, some of my scale diecast vehicles weren't so scale after all.

Open up

Virtually all my diecast vehicles, regardless of manufacturer, share the same basic construction. The chassis was secured to the diecast body by one or two screws. In some cases, the seats were molded into the chassis. In others, the cabin with seats and dashboard was a separate piece that usually was just held in place by the chassis' screws. There were a few that used rivets -- those I'll have to relegate to parking lots.

This vehicle only had one securing screw. Most have two.
To open up the vehicle, unscrew the chassis. I recommend using a magnetized screwdriver. Most of the screws were deeply recessed and very difficult to remove.

Make sure you place the screws someplace safe. They can be difficult to replace. Once the screws are removed, it's best to open the car up slowly. Sometimes the chassis is the only thing securing bumpers, lights, and other small pieces to the body.

In the case of the Russian car, the rear bumper had to be removed to get to the seats.

The Procrustean Pontiac

When it comes to the seats, one size does not fit all. In most cases, I had to cut off the legs of the figures to make them sit properly. While the bodies may be scale, the interiors usually scrimp on leg room. And often the steering wheel was almost touching the seat.

Once I prepared the figures, I secured them into place with a mild fixative.

You might be able to notice the shortened legs in this shot. Add
 the tinted windows and limited vantage points of the car body, and you won't.
The fixative is important to two reasons. First, in most cases, I had to turn the car upside down to get all the pieces back into place. Second, although I won' t be moving these vehicles around much, they will get relocated from time to time, and be subject the vibrations of passing trains.

I'd prefer not to have my drivers all slumped over. Going from modeling the Rapture to an Andromeda Strain outbreak isn't much of an improvement.

Ready to travel

 I have to say I was pleased with the end results. Even just sitting on the workbench, this car looked way better.

And here's the final result. Having people on board adds to the realism of the scene, I think. 

Of course, I still have a passenger train with brightly lit cars full of empty seats. It's the least successful railroad ever. But that, too, will soon change...