Friday, May 30, 2014

Spam Roundup, May 2014

There's spam, and then there's spam so oddly written it's somewhat amusing. Here's a roundup of some of the "best" comments I received this month from spambots around the world.

No matter what you say -- keep it vague!
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Delivering the good with the goods
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[Keepin' it sensible, man!]

Pressure that message
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[I was just thinking the same thing. You must be learning my mind, man.]

Getting a little too familiar
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[Please, madam, I'm married!]

We continue to lumber along
And of course we received more comments about The Straco Layout, Part 23 - Lumbering along, a short post about small tinplate toy.

The Nomura 3" Lumber Truck, ca. 1960. Still not sure why
my post about this modest toy attracts the most spam.
 - It is important that you convey your information in a manner that is easy to understand and use
information that captivates your audience. The best vacuum for pet hair has plenty of power to get the little hairs out of the carpeting.
[You lost me on that last sentence.]

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[Then you must not have much of a life.]

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[Didn't realize cheap Japanese tinplate toys were an issue!]

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[Fastidious and  funny? I really am so interesting!]

Well, dears, that's enough fastidiousness for a while. Until next month, keep your goods excellent, apply pressure to your message house, and remember: the best vacuum for pet hair has plenty of power!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

1930s Violin Concertos, Vol. 1 - Shaham's snapshot of a decade

1930s Violin Concertos, Vol 1
Gil Shaham, violin

David Robinson, Juanjo Mena, conductors
New York Philharmic
Staatskapelle Dresden
Sejong Soloists
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Boston Symphony Orchestra
2-CD Set
Canary Classics

There's an advantage to running your own record label -- it's easier to do the projects that you really believe in. In this case, Gil Shaham is the owner/operator of Canary Classics, and the project is a survey of violin concertos of the 1930's.

Just the lineup of composers for this first volume show how rich this decade was: Samuel Barber, Alban Berg, Benjamin Britten, Karl Amadeus Harmann, and Igor Stravinsky all wrote violin concertos in the 1930's.

This 2-CD set brings together recordings of Shaham performing in different venues with different forces, so there's a little unevenness in the sound. But not in the performances themselves. Shaham plays every work insightfully and with conviction.

Shaham's rendition of Berg's Violin Concerto brings out the emotion suggested by the subtitle "To the Memory of an Angel." He highlights the romantic expressiveness of the work, letting the dodecaphonic structure fade far into the background.

Stravinsky's Violin concerto is played with dryness and acerbic wit, while Britten's youthful Op. 15 concerto revels in its more somber tone and thicker harmonies.

For me, the two standouts (and that's a relative term) were the Hartmann "Concerto funebre" and Samuel Barber's violin concerto. Hartmann's work reflects the deep dispair this anti-fascist composer felt living in the heart of Nazi Germany. Shaham both plays and conducts, making this a very intimate reading. The pathos expressed is heart-breaking, and Shaham delivers it with the sensitivity it deserves.

The opening work is Barber's violin concerto, recorded in a live performance. David Robinson and the New York Philharmonic make this richly romantic work positively luminescent. Shaham sings through his violin, taking full advantage of Barber's lyrical music. The energy in the final movement is almost palpable, and the enthusiastic response is well-deserved.

An excellent start to an important series. I look forward to volume 2!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Leif Ove Andsnes: The Beethoven Journey Continues

The Beethoven Journey
Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 4
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Sony Classical

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes continues his highly personal exploration of Beethoven's piano concertos. The second release in this series features the second and fourth concertos, which work well paired together.

Andsnes plays and directs the Mahler Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard. The use of a small ensemble give these works an unusual lightness and transparency. And by combining solo and conducting duties, Andsnes is able to have the orchestra do precisely what he wants, instead of relying on his wishes being relayed through a third party (who may have some artistic ideas of their own).

Andsnes plays with delicacy and an almost liquid smoothness. In these performances, the concertos aren't stormy contests of wills, but rather a group of musicians acting in one accord. Andsnes makes the plain the influence Mozart had on Beethoven, especially in the second concerto. The rough-hewn edges of Beethoven's style are smoothed over and polished to a sheen, revealing the underlying beauty of the music. Music which seems somehow more elegantly simple through Andsnes' performances.

It's always a challenge to present works that have been recorded countless times in a new and original fashion -- and remain true to the music. Yet Andsnes does just that in this successfully completed leg of his Beethoven journey.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Straco Layout, Part 33 - Signs for Change

Read all the installments of the Straco Express layout project here.

As the Straco Display Layout has evolved, finding items for it have become more difficult. My self-imposed rules are simple:
  1. Items must have been made in Japan between 1948-1963
  2. Items must be mainly tinplate, or at least have minimal plastic (like the houses and trees)
  3. Items must all be approximately H0 scale (1:87).
  4. Items must cost less than $20
These are not arbitrary guidelines. My goal is to keep the display focused. Everything on it is there for a reason, and that reason should be plain to the viewer.

And the display is at the point where I need to be careful what I add. There are just enough vehicles, I think, to represent a busy town -- but if I add many more, it will be one gridlocked with bumper-to-bumper traffic. I could add a few more trees -- if I could find them. But other types of scenic enhancements are extremely rare, as these Japanese toy sets came self-contained. No add-on accessories were ever offered.

So I was quite happy to find some tinplate signs at a recent toy train meet. There were two -- a "Stop Ahead" sign, and a railroad crossing sign. The signs are pretty simple, just stamped from a single sheet of tin then the lower portion bent to form the base.

The seller had no idea who made them, I could see "Made in Japan" clearly on the base of the signs -- and they fit all four of my criteria. Especially No. 4 -- they were only $0.50 a piece. So I purchased them. And as you can see, they're perfect for the display layout. Now the challenge is to find some more of them...

Total cost for the project:
Layout construction:

  • Pegboard: $4.95
  • Flathead Screws: $0.40
  • Molding: $2.49
  • SilClear: borrowed from a friend
  • Green Paint: left over from another project
  • Wood Screws: $3.60
  • Felt Pads: $1.99
Power Pack: $5.90
Small Houses: $3.00
Testor's Gray Paint for road: $1.29
Bandai Areo Station: $8.99
2 tinplate signs: $1.00

  • Two Japanese toy cars: $2.00
  • A.W. Livestock truck: $4.99
  • Taxi: $2.99
  • Ambulance: $2.99
  • Two Japanese patriotic cars: $6.99
  • Namura Police Car $2.52
  • Haji three-wheel sedan $3.00
  • Namura lumber truck $3.48
  • 1950's sedan $2.99
  • 6 Namura vehicles $16.99
  • LineMar Pepco Truck $8.50
  • LineMar Bond Bread Van $8.00 
  • Linemar Fire Engine $4.95 
  • Linemar Dump Truck $12.99
  • Namura Red Sedan $5.00
Total Cost: $121.99

Monday, May 26, 2014

Diabelli Project 042 - 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 time around I tried something a little less ambitious -- a little piece for piano. Since I don't play piano that well (I probably could if I practiced more), I kept it simple. To me, it looks sort of like something Haydn might have written -- had he been alive today, that is.

So where does this little piece go next? That's up to you. If these eight bars have given you an idea, then I invite you to take it and run. Have fun! And please -- let me know of the results. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

CCC 103 - Stephen Whittington

Australian composer Stephen Whittington is this week's Consonant Classical Challenge entry. Whittington weaves together musical influences from many different cultures (which seem to be tonally based in one way or another). Whittington doesn't write pretty music, nor does he write pop or world-beat music. Rather, his compositions have significant depth to them, and the incorporated elements from other musics simply give him a wider tonal palette to create from.

"Fallacies of Hope," for piano quintet, was inspired by the paintings of J. W. Turner, and share the same impressionistic qualities. The rising and falling of the accompaniment give the work a natural rhythmic pulse, like the ocean.

"Acid Test" for bassoon and piano stretches its tonal center not quite to the breaking point, but enough to give the melody a little dissonance. One might even say an acidic tang.

"...from a thatched hut." for string quartet shows Whittington's fascination with Chinese music. The glissandi of the strings closely resemble the bending of notes common on Chinese instruments, and the movement featured remains mostly pentatonic. While sounding Oriental, the continual circling back of the motifs give the work a minimalist feel as well -- making the quartet sound both ancient and modern.

I found Stephen Whittington's music fascinating, and not sounding quite like anyone else's. That alone should make it attractive to programmers interested in attracting new audiences -- especially when you can assure them that the works can be enjoyed at the first hearing. Although I recommend several to fully understand exactly what Whittington's about.

Recommended Recordings

Music for Airport Furniture

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Kabalevsky Cello Concertos: Serious Music

Dmitri Kabalevsky
Cello Concertos 1 & 2
Colas Breugnon Suite

Torleif Thedeen, cello
NDR Radiophilharmonic; Eiji Oue, conductor

Dmitri Kabalevsky is pretty much known for just one work -- "The Comedians' Gallop." But there's much more to this Russian composer, as this new release demonstrates.

The two concertos, are serious compositions that showcase the solo instrument in a somewhat traditional fashion. Though written 15 years apart, and for different soloists, both concertos are quite similar in sound. Both feature languid slow movements supported by lush harmonies, both require the cello to nimbly skitter around in the fast movements, and both let the solo instrument sing out in the opening movement (and show off a little, too). 

For those who like the "Comedian's Gallop," the "Colas Breugnon" suite, which rounds out the disc, delivers more of the same. Taken from the incidental music to a play, the short movements in this work are brimming with good natured hi-jinx. It reminded me quite a lot of Prokofiev's 1st symphony -- and with good reason. Kabalevsky was tasked with completing and orchestrating Prokofiev's Op. 132 Cello Concertino after his death.

Cellist Torleif Thedeen plays with a warmth and sincerity well-suited to these compositions. And he has no trouble executing the technical challenges Kabalevksy throws in along the way. My only complaint is the recording itself, which to my ears sounded a little out of focus. The ensemble has a smooth, blended sound, but missing some of the detail.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Primosch Sacred Songs Fascinating Blend of Old and New

Sacred Songs
James Primosch 
Susan Narucki, soprano
William Sharp, baritone
21st Century Consort
Christopher Kendall, conductor
Bridge Records

"Sacred Songs" these are, but they're not the comfortable platitudes of ordinary church music. James Primrosch draws from many sources to create works that are indeed deeply spiritual, often thought-provoking, and always demanding the listener's full attention.

From a Book of Hours, for example, is angular and aggressive, but with an almost retro-sounding atonality in some movements. The music matches the unsettled and conflicted musings of the narrator's relationship with God. By contrast, Four Sacred Songs is a more elegiac work, drawing on sacred music traditions of the past to create music that sounds both contemporary and timeless.

Dark the Star has a somewhat mysterious air about it, especially as sung by William Sharp. Sharp seems to be holding back his dark, baritone voice, as if refraining from revealing too much. But his performance fits the dark, nocturnal nature of the work. The program concludes with Holy the Firm, a beautiful and lyrical solo cantata. The work's spacious sound and wide-open intervals remind me a little of Copland or Barber in spots.

Soprano Susan Narucki has very expressive voice. It can have a rich, creamy sound in the lyrical passages, yet still develop a steely edge when necessary for the more dissonant sections.

Christopher Kendall and the 21st Century consort are in top form. Of the four works on this album, only one was originally scored for chamber orchestra, and it's the only one whose chamber orchestra version wasn't premiered by the Consort. This ensemble knows these works intimately -- and it's apparent in their performances.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Lio and the Family Circus

There's no doubt in my mind which comic strips Lio creator Mark Tartulli likes -- and which ones he hates (see Lio and the Comics Commentary). Lio has featured characters from both likes (Calvin and Hobbes) and dislikes (Peanuts) several times. Sequences about the latter always seeming to have the same subtext: why doesn't this strip just die?

Take, for example. this panel from 4/22/13 (click on image to enlarge)

Bill Keene's "Family Circus." started in 1960, and has settled into some pretty comfortable tropes over the years. One of them is the wandering path, in which one or more of the children trace a dotted path through the cartoon to wind up at the end of the journey delivering a punchline.

And the same thing's happened here. Except in this case, the characters have wandered out of their own strip and into Lio's. But the end of the journey still has a punchline -- a special sale for witches -- and Tartulli's message for over-the-hill strips. Time for these characters to go -- if only in a witches' potion.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Diabelli Project 041 - Fugue in C major

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 little fugue has all kinds of possibilities I think. First, the repeated figure is quite simple, so it's easy to follow. And easy to work with. Repeat any note with four sixteenths, and it will be heard as a reference to the fugue's subject. You could diminish the rhythm to just two sixteenths instead of four -- or make a triplet repeated pattern. (click on image to enlarge)

And we haven't even started talking about how you could work with the intervals, invert the melody, use retrograde motion, etc. What happens next? Your choice! Just let me know the results. And I promise share mine when I get this finished.

Friday, May 16, 2014

CCC 102 - Nikos Xanthoulis

This week the Consonant Classical Challenge focuses on Greek composer Nikos Xanthoulis. Xanthoulis is an accomplished trumpeter as well as a composer. Not surprisingly, he's written a concerto for his instrument (as well as other shorter works for solo trumpet). Xanthoulis is also interested in the cultural heritage of his country, and has used the fruits of his research in his compositions. He's composed incidental music for classic Greek dramas, such as Euripides' "Helen," Aeschylus' "Agammenon," and "Antigone."

Xanthoulis uses tonality in a fundamentally different fashion than composers of Western Europe. Chords support the melodies, but the harmonies remain static. Motion is provided by rhythm and syncopation rather than harmonic transitions.

"Dimoula Intro" is part of a cycle based on the poetry of fellow countryman Kiki Dimoula. Xanthoulis uses traditional instruments, such as the accordion, acoustic guitar and violin to give the music a folk ensemble sound. But the treatment of the material belies its seemingly simple origins. Xanthoulis develops his themes in a contrapuntal (and decidedly non-folk like) fashion.

The Fugue 12-6-2012 further establishes Xanthoulis' "classical" credentials. This orchestral work is abstract in design, with melodies that have more than a hint of romanticism about them. But the cerebreal nature of the counterpoint is mitigated somewhat by the restless Greek folk rhythms that keep the work moving forward.

As expected, Xanthoulis' Fantasy for Trumpet and Piano is a work that fully explores the potential of the solo instrument. Just not in a way one might expect. The music begins quietly with hint of jazz inflection (do to the 9ths and 11ths in the chords), then moves to more rhythmic sections. But make no mistake: this is a carefully constructed classical work throughout.

The Magic Violin is an appealing interpretation of folk material. I don't know if it's officially considered a folk opera, but based on the excerpts I auditioned, it certainly sounds like one. And that's not a bad thing. Ethnically-based music can provide freshness and energy to the operatic stage, as it does in the excerpt below.

Nikos Xanthoulis is a composer with an original voice. But not an incomprehensible one. I think most audiences -- no matter how conservative -- would find his music both appealing and interesting. It's certainly hard to ignore his infectious rhythms! There's a lot of his music I wish I could hear -- but I dispair of any orchestra being so bold as to program it. The Trumpet Concerto, the Concerto for Two Guitars, the Concerto for 4 Horns, the Fantasia, Prelude, and Fuga for piano and strings -- I'm curious to hear how Xanthoulis handled these large-scale forms. Perhaps someday I'll have the opportunity to hear them.

Recommended Recordings

Works by Greek Composers for Trumpet

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Joyce Yang's thoughtful performance of Tchaikovsky 1st

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; The Tempest
Joyce Yang, piano
Odense Symphony Orchestra

Alexander Lavarev, conductor
Bridge Records

It seems every pianist has to record the Tchaikovsky 1st piano concerto, and Joyce Yang's no exception. So how does her interpretation stack up against the others? In this live recording, Yang seems to approach the work from a fresh perspective, presenting the music on her own terms.

Yang avoids the temptation of bombastic drama. She can play with plenty of power, but it's always under control. Her fluid technique was especially well-suited to the lyrical middle movement, which seemed to take on a warm glow somehow.

Because it was a live performance, one could hear little irregularities that are missing in studio recordings -- such as Yang's occasional grunts and sharp intakes of breath. Rather than distract, to me they added to the intensity and authenticity of the performance. I had no doubt that Yang was fully committed to the music she was playing.

Included on this release is another Tchaikovsky work, The Tempest, Op. 18 -- a welcome relief from the usual fillers. This 1873 tone poem is based on Shakespeare's play of the same name. While similar in sound to Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet," the relative unfamiliarity of the work keeps the drama and big tunes sounding fresh and exciting.

As good as this disc is, I do have one quibble. The recording sometimes sounds a little hollow, especially when the full orchestra's playing. Some of the detail of the ensemble gets washed out (although it returns in quieter passages).

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Gliere -- Symphony No. 3 "Il'ya Muromets" -- an epic journey

Reinhold Moritsevich Gliére
Symphony No. 3 "Il'ya Muromets"
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
JoAnn Falletta, conductor

Gliére's sprawling symphony takes the listener on an epic sonic odyssey. From the somber opening bars that foreshadow the arrival of the heroic Il'ya Muromets, to the closing chords where Muromets and his brave Bogatyrs knights are defeated and turned to stone, Giere weaves a tightly-constructed narrative that's both coherent and immersive.

The first recording of this work was with Stokowski, who (with Gliére's permission) trimmed the work down from 70+ minutes to a svelte 38 minutes. Although it's a thrilling performance (it is Stoki, after all), it didn't do the work justice. Because Gliére's third symphony has no filler -- every note is there for a reason, and every note helps further the story.

Others have recorded the complete version of this work, but somehow failed to completely communicate overarching dramatic motion of the music. There are plenty of beautifully written sections that its tempting the linger over, but just as with the organic music of Wagner and Mahler, they're most effective in context.

And JoAnn Falletta understands that context. Her performance with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is one that delivered new pleasures every time I listened to it. The story for this programmatic work is quite detailed -- but you really don't need to follow it with this recording. Falletta and the BPO effectively paint each scene completely.

The release is beautifully recorded, allowing the listener to hear Gliére's subtle orchestrations. A joy to listen to from start to finish.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Comical Dick Tracy, Part 3

The current storyline in Dick Tracy is something of a tour-de-force, I think. Mike Curtis and Joe Staton are currently weaving three story lines together, and all three reference vintage comic strips in some fashion. In Part 1 I looked at how Al Capp's "Li'l Abner" was cited through a pastiche of Capp's "Fearless Fosdick," a comic-within-a-comic parody of Dick Tracy. Part 2 foreshadowed the arrival of Punjab and Asp from "Annie" (originally "Little Orphan Annie"), bringing Harold Gray's creations into Dick Tracy's continuity.

And in Part 3, another vintage comic character is referenced -- long forgotten by his strip, which still runs to this day. (click on images to enlarge). And be warned: if you just skim these panels, you'll miss half the fun.

The sequence starts at the racetrack. How seriously should we take all this? That first panel is a reference to Chico Marx's classic routine in the 1937 Marx Brothers film, "A Day at the Races."

And that tout in the second panel may ring a bell with comics fans. Rusty Riley was a comic strip by Frank Godwin that ran from 1948-1959. It featured an orphan who was a stable boy for a large horse-racing outfit. Stands to reason that many years later, he'd still be haunting the tracks!

One final reference: Quick-Draw McGraw was a Hanna-Barbara animated cartoon character from the early 1960's; a horse who was sheriff of a Western town.

The storyline is actually focused on one horse, though.

Sparkplug was originally owned by Barney Google, and the two were among the most popular comic strip characters of the 1920s. Billy DeBeck created the pair in 1919. Sparkplug (not looking as trim as he does in Dick Tracy) spawned many toys, books, games, and other licensed merchandise.

Then in 1934, DeBeck introduced Google's hillbilly cousin Snuffy Smith, and things began to change. By 1954, Barney Google had disappeared from the strip, and today many readers only know the feature as "Snuffy Smith," (currently drawn by John Rose).

The threads are beginning to come together. Vera Alldid, the artist of "Straightedge Trustworthy" (the "Fearless Fosdick parody), is working in same movie studio as the Moon Maid. Said studio is owned by Tabby McAngus, who also owns Sparkplug. Who seems to have trampled the crooked studio head to death. Or did he?

Meanwhile, Asp and Punjab are in transit to see a certain detective...

These are the things that make reading the daily funnies a true pleasure.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Diabelli Project 040 - Chorale

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.

As I explained in the very first post,I do these little flash compositions while waiting for our church service to start. I only have about five minutes or so -- no time to be self critical. I just draw some bar lines on the front of the bulletin and the music just flows.

I mention this because in today's sample, I drew some inspiration from my surroundings and wrote a chorale. The bass could be simplified to quarter and half notes, but I rather like the motion. (click on image to enlarge)

So what happens next? That's up to you. I'll definitely be revisiting this at some point, but that doesn't mean someone else shouldn't take a crack at it. Perhaps there's a parody mass in here (and if you know that term has nothing to do with humor, you might be just the person to do it). As always, there's no copyright involved here. Just sharing your results with me is all I ask.

Friday, May 09, 2014

CCC 101 - Zsolt Gardonyi

This week the Consonant Classical Challenge focuses on Hungarian composer Zsolt Gardonyi. Gardonyi is not only a distinguished organist and composer, but he's also the son of composer Zoltán Gárdonyi, who studied with Hindemith and Kodály. That musical lineage is evident in the younger Garonyi's work. Zsolt Gardonyi writes tonally based music without being confined to traditional major/minor triads.

The "Grand Choeur" is a good example of Gardonyi's style. The work has a clear-cut melody, propelled forward by logical harmonic motion. It's a work that takes full advantage of the expressive power of the organ. Even though there's rapid pedal work, and thick textures throughout, the music never sounds muddy, but rather clearly delineated from start to finish.

"EGATOP" -- Hommage à Erroll Garner + Art Tatum + Oscar Peterson, shows Gardonyi perfectly comfortable with non-classical music. On the surface, it's a fun, jazzy little showpiece for organ, but listen carefully. Gardonyi doesn't just present a medley of tunes, he skillfully weaves the themes together to support each other, creating a cohesive and unified whole.

"Genfi zsolter," for chorus and organ, shows more of Kodály's influence than Hindemith's (at least to my ears). The hymn tune has a folk-like quality to it that sounds distinctively Hungarian. Yet the thick harmonies and extended relations add complex and subtle shadings to the text.

Gardonyi's "Introduction and Chorale" for Organ, Three Trumpets and Tympani is a setting of a well-known hymn-tune. Yet even while Gardonyi delivers the familiar melody, he does so in an original manner. The harmonies are more complex than one might expect, and the interplay between the instruments more involved, taking the work beyond that of a simple fanfare.

Zsolt Gardonyi's output seems to be primarily for liturgical forces. But rather than be limited by that focus, it seems to inspire him. Garonyi's music is well-rooted in tradition, so the average listener should find it immediately accessible. At the same time, the depth and nuanced harmonic shading of his music provide plenty of interest for the more advanced listener.

Recommended Recordings

Works By Zsolt Gardonyi for Organ Dezso Karasszon Organist

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Lessons from York - What We Didn't See: Old Favorites

The Lionel 1938 catalog. Apparently, this is no longer
the book of dreams.
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 always, we discussed what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and why. Last post I shared what we saw -- and what it meant (Minors and evergreens). Here's what was missing.

Six months ago when I shared our observations from the show, I titled this post "What We Didn't See -- Old Favorites." In a sense, that's still true as the demographics of collectors continues to shift. But so does the meaning of the word.

In October 2013 what I meant by old favorites were the items we saw show after show, year in and year out. Specifically, standard gauge train sets, MPC/Lionel product from the 1970's, and classic post-war Lionel trains from the late 1940's-early 1950's.

The Lionel 1962 catalog. This is no longer a book of
dreams, either.

What I meant this time is that we didn't see the old favorites -- the trains of our youth. For my dad, that's the late 1930's. For me, it's the early 1960's. We saw almost no pre-war 0-gauge trains, either in sets or individual pieces. No rolling stock, no accessories, no locomotives.


Two reasons, I think.

First, the value on most of those items has always been somewhat low compared to the premium sets, which still command top dollar (see: What We Saw: Minors and Evergreens).

Second, the primary market for these items were collectors looking to either replace or add to the toys of their youth. And with preteens of the late 1930's now in their eighties, that's a rapidly shrinking market.

And unfortunately, it's the same with toys from my own youth. The extremely rare and desirable items retain their value (although we didn't see many for sale). But the commonplace trains of the early 1960's are no longer in demand.
Children of the sixties who are collecting now are looking to upgrade to the good stuff Santa forgot to bring them -- or if they have operating layouts, are more interested in the current products offered by modern manufacturers such as Lionel, MTH, or Atlas.

An industrious change

In reports of past shows, I've noted the almost complete absence of Industrial Rail products. This was a line of inexpensive 0-scale rolling stock designed to fill out freight trains on operating layouts. There's never been any real collecting appeal to these practical products, and I've always had a hard time finding them at the shows.

This modest line of rolling stock may have
finally, come into its own.
But when I did, the price was always between $10-$20. This time, I found at least one Industrial Rail piece in every exhibit hall (there are seven in all). Not a lot of variety, but far more quantity then I've ever seen. And the prices ranged from $15-$20.

Why? I think because more people want inexpensive rolling stock for their operating layouts. So demand has picked up -- but I think that will continue only as long as the price remains flat.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Lessons from York - What We Saw: Minors and Evergreens

Lionel H0 - in the 1960's kids just weren't interested in what this
venerable company had to offer.
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 always, we discussed what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and why.

At the last show (Smaller scale, smaller sets) we noticed more and more vintage trains of other scales than 0-gauge and standard gauge. And that was significant, as it also represented a change in the market based on demographics. For toys, collectors seem most interested in the what was available in their youth (whether replacing what they had or obtaining what Santa didn't come through with).

American Flyer touted their two-rail S-gauge trains as a more realistic
(and space-saving) alternative to Lionel's larger 3-rail 0-gauge sets. And
yet Flyer also failed to make the transition to the even more realistic
and smaller H0 market.

A little background
Standard gauge trains were made between 1906-1933 and was the primary interest of the men who founded TCA in the 1950's. 0-gauge was introduced around 1932 and continued throughout the post-war era (Lionel ceased production in 1969). In the 1970's late pre-war and early post-war 0-gauge trains rose in value and popularity, as a new generation of collectors sought to reclaim their past.

In the 21st Century, though, middle-aged collectors are looking back to a youth with H0 gauge trains -- if any trains at all. And so for a while the recognized desirables of the hobby -- standard and O-gauge trains continued to be collected almost by default.

At the last show, we saw early N-gauge sets (introduced in the early 1970s) and common H0 sets in significant quantities for the first time. This show, that selection was somewhat refined.

A failed effort
When H0 became popular in the 1950's, both Lionel and American Flyer, who were heavily invested in other gauges, scrambled to get in on the trend. Both offered H0 train sets that were, for the most part, scaled-down version of the equipment they were offering in larger sizes. Both companies failed to make the transition, partly because the failed to understand that unlike 0-gauge (Lionel) and S-gauge (American Flyer), H0 was more about realism than toy-like representations.

This show there was a lot of H0 sets offered, but the selections seemed more focused. We saw on table after table both Lionel and American Flyer H0 sets in original boxes -- and all commanding premium prices. As well they should. H0 equipment is notoriously fragile (not matter who made it), boxes were often discarded, and neither Lionel nor American Flyer set sold that well to begin with.

Lionel's Standard Gauge State Set, 1929-1933. That's about 9 feet
of train, there.
The passing parade
Another thing we saw were the premium standard gauge sets. And beautiful they were to behold! Lionel, Ives, and American Flyer standard gauge trains all reached the pinnacle of quality right around the same time -- just before the Stock Market Crash. These top-of-the-line sets were premium products even in the late 1920's. Their original price tags represented several months' to a year's salary for many, so relatively few were sold. And after 1929, almost none at all.

My personal theory is that four things really determine value for a collectible item -- rarity, condition, desirability, and inherent value (materials and craftsmanship). Premium sets like the Lionel standard gauge State Set and the American Flyer Presidential Limited, continue to match all four categories.

The Chicago American Flyer Presidential Limited -- a beautiful set
that still commands high prices almost a century after
it was first offered for sale.

Because they were so expensive, sets like this were often only used for Christmas displays, and treated with great care (so although few were sold, they're almost always in great shape). Demand has remained high, and these are massive pieces have a great deal of inherent value.

The generation that fondly remembers toys from the 1920's is mostly gone. And so, too, (apparently) is the demand for those toys -- save the ones that are valuable for other reasons.

So minor offerings by the major post-war companies, and evergreen favorites seem to be the most popular items in the show this time around.

Next: What we didn't see.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

The Comical Dick Tracy, Part 2

In the comic strip Dick Tracy, creators Mike Curtis and Joe Staton have set three different story arcs in motion -- all of them related to other comic strips. The first involved a reference to Al Capp's "Lil Abner" (see The Comical Dick Tracy). The second, foreshadowed at the same time, brings back a character whose own strip ended with an unresolved storyline. (click on images to enlarge). 

In the very first panel we see the logo for Little Orphan Annie. The actual comic strip, updated to just "Annie" was abruptly discontinued on June 13, 2010. Here's the final sequence:

And so it ended, with Annie being spirited off into the Guatemalan interior by a war criminal on the run -- fate unknown.

Then these sequences appeared in Dick Tracy, interwoven with other story lines:

March 24, 2014

 March 26, 2014

 March 27, 2014

Harold Gray's characters return -- not on the comics page where that first Sunday panel suggested, but actually in the world of Dick Tracy. Which, we hope, will mean that the saga of Annie will finally get the conclusion the strip deserved.

But there's yet a third comics-related storyline in the current sequence, as we'll see in Part 3.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Diabelli Project 039 - Variations over a ground

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 time I have a ground over which free-form variations flow. Or at least the start of such a piece. The ground starts over in the measure after I stopped. The plan was to have that low G tie over into the first count of the next measure, and pick up the bass from the beginning with the second eighth note G.  (click on image to enlarge)

That's what I intend to do, but what about you? As always, this sketch is offered freely to anyone who's interested in finishing it. Just let me know what the final results are.

Friday, May 02, 2014

CCC at 100 -- Taking a look back

Back in October, 2011 I read something that really pissed me off. So much so, that I decided to do something about it.

For years, I had been hearing the same thing over and over again: contemporary music is unlistenable, unplayable, and unwelcome. Say it enough, and it seems believable-- never mind that ensembles such as Kronos Quartet, So Percussion, and Bang on a Can are commercially viable (and attract large audiences) playing just such material.

No, my gripe was the assumption that one equaled all. Arnold Schoenberg, who died in 1951 is still to some the Great Satan of classical music, the Man Who Killed Melody. Let's put that into perspective. The man's been dead for over half a century. It's like someone saying (in 2014) that they can't come to terms with how the British Invasion ruined American Top 40 (also about a half century in the past). The latter opinion would be considered antiquated and out-of-touch. But the former is accepted as a ringing indictment of the state of classical music today.

Here's the thing. Contemporary classical music -- even during the heyday of the 12-tone school -- was never about just one style. Aaron Copland came after Schoenberg. So did Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, and even Leroy Anderson.

Yet the stereotype of contemporary music as ugly, bloodless, academic exercises persist. And it seems to remain the excuse for keeping concert programs conservative. Only in classical music is the promise a music program exclusively by composers safely dead and buried is considered a draw.

Jonathan Bastian's article Battle of the Curmudgeons: Classical Music vs. Literature, wasn't the first time I had read a quote like the following, but it was the one that spurred me to action: "Orchestras are basically playing the exact same historical music, again and again and again. It’s Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, and so on. And because contemporary classical music is both obscure and exceedingly difficult to listen to, it gets left out."

So I set out to prove Mr. Bastian wrong, by profiling living composers writing tonal music that builds on and extends the classical music traditions audiences are familiar with. The resulting Consonant Composer's Challenge (CCC) eventually evolved into something a little more far-reaching.

Initially, I was looking for composers with symphonic works that could be programmed alongside Beethoven, Mahler, et al.  As time went on, I found a wide range of modern composers writing interesting music while concentrating in other genres. Some primarily write choral works, others specialize in organ music, there are those most comfortable with chamber music, some mainly write operas -- and there are still plenty who compose orchestral works.

I've profiled 100 such composers so far -- they're young, old, male, female, and hail from every continent. I've always included audio samples as well, so you can hear the music for yourself. And -- when possible -- a list of recommended recordings so you can hear more (and support the composer) if the music speaks to you.

Next week we continue on with CCC 101. I encourage you to read the posts, listen to the music, and judge for yourself. Obscure? Exceedingly difficult to listen to? Not every composer, not every work. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Barabara Harbach: Orchestral Music -- an appealing collection

Barbara Harbach :Orchestral Music
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kirk Trevor, conductor
Frantisek Novotny, violin
Cynthia Green Libby, oboe
MSR Classics

Barabara Harbach is perhaps better known as a pianist and harpsichordist (and a champion of women composers), but this new release shows she's equally accomplished as a composer -- and not just as a composer for the keyboard.

Venerations for Orchestra, is, according to Harbach, is a three-movement symphony celebrating "love, beauty, attractiveness and desire" -- and the veneration of those themes. So it seems. Overall, this is a pleasant work, orchestrated with a soft focus that keeps it a little removed emotionally. Harbach has a gift for evocative melody, and there were some imaginative orchestral touches that made this an attractive work.

As the name suggests, Frontier Fancies for Violin and Orchestra has a vaguely American cast to it. But don't expect distilled Copland. Harbach has her own ideas about what Americana music sounds like. The violin and orchestra maneuver about each other like to protagonists -- or two lovers. Solo violinist Frantisek Novotny makes the most of the gorgeous material Harbach gives him -- especially in the slow movement, "Twilight Dream."

One of Ours - A Cather Symphony was inspired by Willa Cathar's book of the same name. The work conjures up the sprawling plains of Nebraska in its opening movement with the orchestra's wide-open harmonies and soaring melodies. The second and third movements skip to the end of the novel, set on the battlefields of the First World War. But don't expect an overt depiction of war a la Shostakovitch's "Leningrad" symphony. Harbach, like Carther, is more concerned about the emotional effect of the conflict. The symphony ends, not triumphantly, but in an elegiac and life-affirming fashion.

The Rhapsody Jardine for Oboe and String Orchestra is the most adventurous score on the album. The oboist, Cynthia Green Libby, has worked with Harbach before, and is able to bring substantial insight to the score. The melody goes through several transformations, but Libby never lets us lose sight of the thread. Her performance really brings this work to life.

And it also highlights the one flaw with this recording. As good as the Slovak Radio symphony Orchestra is, their performance overall sounds flat, as if they were sight-reading. Using Eastern European orchestras to make a contemporary music recording is common practice these days -- without these relatively inexpensive and competent ensembles, a lot of deserving American music simply wouldn't get recorded. Conductor Kirk Trevor does what he can, but he can't fully compensate lack of adequate rehearsal. I'd love to hear these works done by an American orchestra after playing them in concert.