Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Spam Roundup, September 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.

Hurry, hurry, step right up
- Thank you for the good writeup. It in fact was a amusement account it. Look advanced to more added agreeable from you! By the way, how can we communicate?
[I don't know -- with your shaky grasp of English how can we?]

 - hi!,I like your writing very much! share we communicate extra approximately your article on AOL? I need a specialist in this house to unravel my problem. May be that's you! Having a look ahead to see you.
[Speaking of shaky...]

 - If you'll be able to, twittewr fans that was consistently being tweeted. As these services will takes care of all the details from his perspective.
[There may be something in this -- but I can't find it.] 

For hottest news you have to pay a visit world wide web and on internet I found this web page as a finest web site for most up-to-date updates.
[We're up on our dates, all right!]

"Lumbering along " lumbers along
The Straco Layout, Part 23 - Lumbering along, a short post about a vintage Japanese tinplate toy still brings in the comments -- sort of.

This toy's helped others, and it can help you, too.
 - Je tеrminerai de jеter uun coup d'oeil à tout cela dans lɑ jouгnée
[Merci - or rather, mercy!]

 - Heya i am for the primary time here. I came across this bosrd and I to find It truly helpful & it helped me out much. I am hoping to present one thing agan and aid others such as you helped me.
[Never underestimate the life-changing power of a Japanese tin toy friction car!]

Fastidious to the End
Of course it wouldn't be a Spam Roundup without some fastidious comments!

- Very quickly this web page will be famous amid all blogging visitors, due to it's fastidious articles

- What's up, this weekend is fastidious for me, because this time i am reading this great informative paragraph here at my residence.

That's just about all for this month. out of the over 7,100 comments I received.  Have a fastidious weekend, everyone. I've saved the best for last. This was an actual comment, reprinted in its entirety.

 - And afterwards they had Uncle Tom's Christmas pudding.
[God bless us, every one.]

Monday, September 29, 2014

Diabelli Project 059 Violin 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 flash composition is a short work for solo violin. Yes, the violin can do many things -- double stops, harmonics, glissandi -- but I decided to keep it simple. Well, alright, it is in an odd meter. So maybe not that simple.

What happens next? That's up to you. As always, you're welcome to use all or part of this sketch. Just let me know what you come up with!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Collecting -- and collecting information 19

Linemar GE Courier Car
Assembling pieces of the Linemar set has been difficult. While I'm interested in learning more, it's not an overriding passion. So when pieces come onto the market starting at $80, I'm content to just look at the photos. But occasionally, one comes along a much more modest price, and even more rarely, I'm able to purchase it.

Such was the case with the GE courier car. While not in mint condition, it's still in reasonably good shape -- and the price was right. I now have five of the ten vehicles offered in this set, and I'm leaning towards the opinion that this a set created to get rid of existing inventory. When I last wrote about this set (Collecting -- and collecting information 14), I wasn't so sure.

What changed my mind?

A little hands-on comparison.

Below is a photo of the five vehicles I currently own. It's pretty easy to see that the coal truck and fire engine were made one way (with the chassis crimped to the body), and the other three made differently (with the bodies held to the chassis with tabs).

Top row (L-R): NYC fire engine, Central Coal & Coke Co. coal truck.
Bottom row (L-R) Potomac Electric Power Company truck,
General Electric courier car, Bond Bread delivery van.
 Below is a photo of the underside of the vehicles. Note carefully the differences in the chassis in the first row. From left to right are the Bond Bread truck, the GE courier car, and the PEPCO truck. The second row is the fire engine and coal truck. (click on image to enlarge).

There's almost an evolution in form from left to right. The Bond truck just has a single indentation for the friction motor. The GE car has the same, plus an additional groove. The PEPCO truck has a second distinctive circular indentation. If the motor didn't change design, then there's no need for these variations. After all -- every time you alter a piece it costs time and money. Companies like Linemar operated on a very thin margin, so it's not something they would do lightly.

These variations further convince me that these three vehicles were made at different times, perhaps using three different friction motors (perhaps from different suppliers?) that required the modifications. That's my current conclusion, anyway.

I should just open up those three cars and see if, in fact, the motors are different. There's always a danger in bending and rebending those fragile tabs, tough. That's something I"ll have to think on a while. For now, I'm happy to go with what the external evidence is suggesting to me.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Early Ralph Vaughan William Chamber Music a Revelation

Vaughan Williams: Piano Quintet; Quintet in D major; Six Studies in English folk Song; Romance for Viola and Piano
London Soloists Ensemble

Ralph Vaughan Williams withdrew many of the works he wrote before 1907. Based on this release, he was too modest. In this collection of early chamber music performed by the London Soloists Ensemble, one can tell RVW's compositional voice isn't fully formed, but there's a simple beauty in them, nevertheless.

The disc opens with the 1903 piano quintet in C minor. Although RVW would withdraw it a few years later, at the time he considered it one of his most important compositions.

There's a dramatic sweep and expansiveness that keeps things moving along. Sometimes it sounds as if Vaughan Williams is trying a little too hard to top Brahms (or perhaps Schubert -- the works shares the same instrumentation as the "Trout" quintet). On the whole, though, it's a solid work, looking forward to RVW's pre-war masterpieces.

The 1898 Quintet in D major for violin, cello clarinet, horn and piano is a thrilling, late romantic work. RVW employs a free-wheeling style, letting the evocative melodies unfold as they will. But while the work may follow Germanic romantic tradition, there's still a certain Englishness to the music. I heard it in the harmonic progressions that sometimes employ the false relationships of English renaissance music.

It was only after his death that RVW's "Romance for Viola and Piano was discovered. This short work features a sinuously weaving melody sounds like it could have been an early sketch for "The Lark Ascending" (although it wasn't). Violist Sarah-Jane Bradley gives an emotional reading to this welcome rediscovery.

"Six Studies in English Folk Song" (1926) has seen many incarnations. Originally written for cello and piano, Vaughan Williams arranged it for other instruments, including the clarinet version heard here. Anthony Pike players these small tunes in a quiet, straight-forward fashion in an utterly charming performance.

Of course this is a must-have for Vaughan Williams completists. But these (mostly) suppressed works are of sufficient quality that most anyone who enjoys chamber music would appreciate the music on this album.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Antoine Tamestit Presents Hindemith Viola Music

Antoine Tamestit, viola
Markus Hadulla, piano
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Jarvi, conductor

This release spans the breadth of Paul Hindemith's writings for the viola, from solo sonata  through music for viola and orchestra. Hindemith was a violist himself, and his compositions fully realize the instrument's potential. Violist Antoine Tamestit fully understands these works and their creator, as his interview printed in the booklet shows -- as do his performances.

Tamestit notes that there is a lot of humor in Hindemith's music, and he brings it out in all of these works. Still, I'd have to characterize the orchestral works here as ones of mournful beauty. "Der Schwanendreher" is a reworking of folk songs relating to isolation and loss, composed when Hindemith was being force out of musical life by the Nazis. Tamestit subtly brings out those emotions, making the music sound wistful rather than maudlin.

"Trauermusik" explores similar themes. Hindemith's thickly-textured harmonies provide a melancholy accompaniment to the yearning melody of the viola. Paavo Jarvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra perform with a warm, blended sound that's ideally suited to these works.

Tamestit's performance of the solo sonata Op. 25, No. 1 is a wonderful balance of emotional expression and tasteful restraint. The structural elements are all clearly delineated, and the motives are carefully phrased to help the listener connect them as the work goes along. And yet there's a fiery passion continually roiling under the music, straining to break free.

Hindemith's sonata for viola and piano, Op. 11, No. 4 is a beautiful collaboration between Tamestit and pianist Markus Hadulla. At times the music seems to have a sweetness to it that's quite charming. As with the best chamber music performances, one has a sense of eavesdropping on a conversation. In this case, one between two good friends.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Straco Layout, Part 36 - Milwaukee Mystery

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

It's been a while since I added to the rolling stock of the Straco Express display/layout's fleet. But something came available that I simply couldn't resist -- a Nomura gondola car.

Virtually all the information available on this
set is right there on the box. It ain't much.
I've learned a few things about Nomura since I started the Straco Express layout. This Japanese company made their tinplate HO trains under a variety of brands. All of the sets were similar -- an F3 diesel and two box cars.

There were some variations -- the diesel was offered with or without flashing lights. The freight cars came in two different pairs -- a silver Santa Fe refrigerator car and a yellow Santa Fe cattle car, or a green Santa Fe box car with a maroon Mobilgas automobile car. The same shell was also lithographed as a passenger car to make a two-car Santa Fe passenger set.

And then there's the gondola car.

It turns out Nomura made a two-car freight set for G.B.C., an importer based in Skokie, Il (on the outskirts of Chicago). That set included an illuminated F3, a blue Mobilgas automobile car and a gondola car. The locomotive was lithographed with Milwaukee Road silver and orange livery. The automobile car had a small "Milwaukee Road" sign incorporated into the existing graphics, and the gondola car had a similar sign on its side.

An attractive little set -- especially if you were a
kid growing up in the Midwest.
My guess is that G.B.C. wanted a set with regionally popular railroad markings to sell in Midwestern department or dime stores. The Milwaukee Road would be a good choice for such a product.Of course, that's just a guess. Where this set was actually sold, what years it was available and especially why it was created in the first place remain a mystery.

The piece is referred to as a log car on the set box, but as it's missing the load, I think gondola car more accurately describes it. The truck and underframe assembly is identical to those of the later series freight cars, although the body construction is different. The sides are lithographed on all exposed surfaces, and an ingenious folded tab arrangement keeps the four sides of the gondola together.

I think it makes a nice addition to my Nomura/Cragstan/Rosko rolling stock. The entire set would be even nicer, but I've yet to see the other two pieces offered anywhere -- in any condition.

I think the Milwaukee Road gondola fills out a Nomura freight train
quite nicely.

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
4 tinplate signs (with train) $5.99

  • Two Japanese toy cars: $2.00
  • A.W. Livestock truck: $4.99
  • Taxi: $2.99
  • Ambulance: $2.99
  • Two Japanese patriotic cars: $6.99
  • Nomura Police Car $2.52
  • Haji three-wheel sedan $3.00
  • Nomura 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
  • Nomura Red Sedan $5.00
Total Cost: $127.98

Monday, September 22, 2014

Diabelli Project 058 - String Trio

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 flash composition is the opening of a string trio. The notes are barred the way they are to show the structure of the motifs. Each part is also written as an isorhythm. This medieval technique has a set sequence of notes and a set rhythmic pattern. The idea is that the notes cycle through the rhythmic pattern. Carefully constructed, this can create a string of variations.

The bass, for example, has a five-note rhythmic pattern: quarter note, eighth, sixteenth, sixteenth, eighth. It also has six-note tonal pattern: G D C F G A. This means that every time the rhythmic pattern repeats, it starts on a different note in the tonal pattern.

So how long does this pattern continue? And does it evolve into a new one? That's up to you. As with all Diabelli Project sketches, you can use all or part of this music as you will. Just let me know the results.

Friday, September 19, 2014

CCC 115 - Julian Wagstaff

This week's entry in the Consonant Classical Challenge is Scottish composer Julian Wagstaff. Wagstaff's had a varied career before turning to music full-time in the late 1990's. His work and study in German, political history, and science have all provided inspiration for his works. And his musical influences are equally eclectic, coming not only from classical tradition, but also rock and musical theater.

All of which give Wagstaff a unique compositional voice -- and one that's readily accessible.

"John Paul Jones" is a musical, and it's the work that brought Julian Wagstaff to the attention of the classical world. Musicals are all about melody, and Wagstaff delivers. The melodies in "John Paul Jones" are solidly constructed, and it's clear that Wagstaff is more concerned with expressing the emotions of the characters and furthering the story than providing excuses for singers to belt out the show-stopping tunes.

"Breathe Freely" is a chamber opera with an interesting origin. It was commissioned by the University of Edinburgh School of Chemistry, and tells the story of Polish chemist Stanislaw Hempel. Wagstaff's scientific background serves him well. The work itself is highly chromatic, but not atonal, And as this excerpt video shows, there are even some beautiful melodies that have a hint of musical theater about them.

I suspect that Wagstaff's background as a German translator and his interest in political history may have had something to do with his string orchestra work, "Treptow." It was inspired by the Soviet war memorial in Treptow Park (in the former East Germany), and to my ears, sounds somewhat akin to the chamber works of Shostakovich.

The Symphony for Chamber Orchestra shows Wagstaff's mastery of the orchestral form. In this excerpt, one can hear that Wagstaff isn't just a melodist -- he can take his themes apart and reassemble them in new and interesting ways that still further the aim of the composition.

Listen to an excerpt of the Chamber Symphony on Soundcloud.

Julian Wagstaff is a young composer, and one who's quite comfortable in many musical genres. And that's what makes his music work so well. Younger audiences are also comfortable listening to many musical genres. Performing organizations who are looking to develop new audiences might do well to consider Wagstaff's music. And best of all, it shouldn't alienate older audiences either. At least I was left wanting to hear more.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Collecting -- and collecting information 18

Three vehicles with many uses. They were sold
both under the Marx name, and Linemar,
their Japanese subsidiary.
 Sometimes the accumulation of knowledge can be incremental -- and very slow.

When I researched Japanese tinplate toy cars back in 2012, I discovered that the 1920's- style vehicles that came with the Marx "Untouchables" playset weren't necessarily made exclusively for the set (see Japanese Tin Toy Vehicles, Part 5).

The four-door sedan and top-up convertible versions of this car were included in the "Untouchables" playset. The set was sold under the Louis Marx and Co. brand, but the vehicles themselves were marked Linemar, the Japanese subsidiary of Marx.

If they weren't marked, you couldn't tell what
vehicles these toys were meant to resemble -- and
even then the markings didn't help much.
I had discovered a third version of the vehicle -- a convertible with the top down. The Marx playset vehicles were labeled "Rolls Royce," but this version was marked "Cadillac." (Any resemblance between the Marx/Linemar car and either Rolls Royce or Cadillac car of the 1920's is purely imaginary.)

As it turns out, though, that stand-alone Cadillac wasn't just a one-off. I recently ran across a Linemar set of six vintage vehicles. Which provided further insight into the efficiencies of low-margin toy production of the era.
The "Cadillac" top-down convertible was
sold separately, as this box documents.

The "Old Timer Collection" features six vehicles inspired by (but not closely resembling) cars and trucks from about 1915-1929. In addition to the Cadillac, there's an Antique Car (looking somewhat like a 1904 Buckmobile), Antique Truck (based on a Model T pickup), Limousine (resembling a 1906 Renault), Station Wagon (based on a 1916 Renault truck), and Delivery Truck (looking a little like a 1905 Mack delivery van).

The Linemar Old Timer Collection
The three versions of the Cadillac/Rolls Royce share many of the same parts, which make them cheaper to make. The fewer unique parts, the greater the savings in production. Just by a few cosmetic changes were the three different cars created.

And you can see the same economies being made in this set. There are only two different wheel sizes, each with its own hubcap. the three cars all have the same headlights.

The three trucks all have the same steering wheel and steering columns.

Click on images to enlarge and more easily
see the similarities between these six vehicles.
The chassis for the antique truck and the delivery truck are the same.

The fender assembly for the antique truck is also used on the station wagon, and all six use the same friction motor.

I haven't seen any examples of those other vehicles ever being offered for individual sale like the Cadillac, but who knows? There still be more information out there waiting to be discovered.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Dohnanyi Second Symphony revived by FSU Symphony Orchestra

Ernö Dohnányi
Symphony No. 2; Two Songs, Op. 22
Evan Thomas Jones; baritone
Forida State University Symphony Orchestra

Alexander Jimenez, conductor

This is a Florida State University project from start to finish, and that makes perfect sense. Ernö Dohnányi finished his career on the faculty of FSU, and conducted the FSU Symphony Orchestra (albeit a half century before they made this recording). The performing editions for the Symphony No.2 and the Two songs were prepared from manuscripts in FSU's Dohnányi collection, by one of the leading authorities on Dohnányi who received his doctorate at -- FSU.

The ensemble, and conductor, Alexander Jimenez come to the music with not only a deep understanding of the music, but something of a personal connection to the composer as well. And for the most part, that holds them in good stead.

Two Songs, Op. 22, written in 1922 features lush, post-romantic harmonies, similar to those in the orchestral songs of Richard Strauss or Alexander Zemlinsky. Unfortunately, the booklet doesn't include the song texts for these world premier recordings, but Naxos makes them available online. Wilhelm Conrad Gomoll's poetry provided the dramatic framework for the work, and the words are effectively illuminated by Dohnányi's music. As a pure listening experience, the songs are thrilling. Baritone Evan thomas Jones sings expressively, and sometimes with gravitas. The FSU ensemble performs with a supple responsiveness that adds to the beauty of the work.

Dohnányi's massive Symphony No. 2 was completed in 1945, and revised in 1957. The revision (heard here), tightened the structure, and made Dohnányi's vision of conflict and hope more focused in the process. Dohnányi never abandoned tonality, but the textures are more austere than those of the Two Songs. Nevertheless, the work is quite lyrical throughout, especially in the second movement. The FSU Symphony Orchestra is an amazingly talented student ensemble, with only a few slips to betray their lack of professional experience. Some of the string attacks sounded a little soft to me, and occasionally soloists seemed a little weak in exposed passages.

Still, Maestro Jimenez and the FSU Symphony Orchestra deliver committed and authoritative performances of these works. And in the process they do a great service to further the reputation of their former professor.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Lars-Erik Larsson Receives His Due in New Recording

Lars-Erik Larsson: Symphony No. 1
Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Manze, conductor 

Swedish composer Lars-Erik Larsson is not well-known outside of his native country, but this new series from CPO may change that. Larsson is part of the generation immediately following Sibelius, and follows him stylistically as well.

Larsson's works are decidedly neo-romantic, with rich harmonies and expansive melodies. His Symphony No. 1, written in 1927, is the centerpiece of the album. This four-movement symphony is a youthful work, full of excitement and high spirits. And yet it's also tightly constructed, with clear-cut melodies and masterful (albeit straight-forward) orchestration. To my ears, the overall sound resembles the symphonies of Nielsen, with a more lyrical bent.

The other works help present a more rounded portrait of the composer. The Music for Orchestra, written two decades (and world war) after the Symphony, has a sparer, more somber sound. Larsson stretches the limits of tonality, and imbues a restless energy into the work.

Four Vignettes to Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" is an attractive, tuneful work, reminding me Larsson's colleague, Dag Wiren, in its beautiful simplicity.

Andrew Manze leads the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra with authority. He's made a deep study of Larsson's music, and that understanding ensures that these works receive sympathetic readings. This is a strong start to what should prove to be an important series. Larsson's music deserves a place alongside that of his more famous Scandinavian colleagues.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Diabelli Project 057 - Violin and Cello Duo

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 sketch was really an outgrowth of last week's string quartet. Not that the material's from the same work, but I was still thinking about strings when I did this week's flash composition. Since I only had to write two voices instead of four, I was able to go a little further into the work, and add dynamics and expression marks as well.

As with all the Diabelli Project sketches, this one's offered freely and without obligation to anyone who'd like to use it as the starting point for their own composition. Just let me know how it turns out.

Friday, September 12, 2014

CCC 114 - Vahram Sargsyan

This week the Consonant Classical Challenge looks at Armenian composer Vahram Sargsyan. Though Armenian, Sargsyan studied in Canada, and eventually made his home there. His music has elements of his Slavic background, tempered with post-modern elements.

Sargsyan's catalog is mostly made up of choral music. Like many contemporary choral composers, he tends to write with a strong tonal foundation. At times, his harmonies can become quite thick and obscure that tonal base, but usually not for long.

His instrumental works, though fewer in number, seem to be far more adventuresome than his choral compositions. The melodies are often disjunct, with chord clusters built with seconds. To my ears, they sound post-modern, using the angularity of twelve-tone music for the melodies, but keeping an underlying tonality (albeit one that often strays far afield).

Joyful Light is a good example of Sargsyan's choral work. The music moves slowly, with long, melismatic passages, recalling those of Byzantine chant. The way Sargsyan voices his chords further strengthens the work's Slavic character.

Tribulationes was commissioned by the Boston Choral Festival. It's sung by that organization in this video, the strong Slavic character of the music coming through even when sung by American choristers.

Sargsyan's Selbstvergessenheit for 2 clarinets, cello and piano shows the other side of this talented composer. The music is more aggressively dissonant, though it still maintains a tonal center. Although the character is more cosmopolitan than Slavic, it's still compelling and expressive.

Selbstvergessenheit on SoundCloud

I wish more of Vahram Sargsyan's music was available for audition. While choirs have embraced his music, it's still a somewhat rare thing to hear his works performed in concert. I recommend his Sound Cloud page.

Vahram Sargsyan on SoundCloud

There are enough works posted to give a good impression of the composer's style -- and just enough to wet my appetite for more.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Michael Brown's loving tribute to George Perle

George Perle: Eight Pieces 1938-1997)
Michael Brown, piano
Bridge Records

Every composer should have a champion. For George Perle, that champion is pianist Michael Brown. As a teenaged virtuoso, Brown fell in love with Perle's music and had an opportunity to meet the composer. That developed into a close personal and professional relationship over the years, culminating in this release.

Brown collects not only Perle's published works for solo piano, but some earlier works still unperformed at the time of Perle's death. Brown has a deep understanding of Perle's music, and that makes this collection so exciting to listen to. The eight works span Perle's creative output. The earliest work, the 1938 "Classical Suite" receives it's world premier recording here.

In many ways, it's similar to Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony." While using traditional forms and mostly tonal harmonies, Perle continually plays against expectations as his melodies veer off into unexpected directions.

The "Six Celebratory Inventions" (1989-1997) is the collection that Brown played for Perle as a teenager. Each invention honors a different composer by imitating his style. And while one can hear the dedicatee in each movement -- Leonard Bernstein, Gunther Schuller, Ernst Krenek, et al -- it's all filtered through Perle's inventive imagination, giving this set an overarching sense of cohesion.

Michael Brown has lived with some of these works for a while, and he plays with authority and sensitivity. Perle isn't primarily known for his keyboard compositions. Brown's performances suggest they should be reassessed.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Stradella: Arias and Cantatas

Alessandro Stradella: Arias and Cantatas
Complesso Barocco Di Milano 

Few composers had as colorful history as Alessandro Stradella. He took part in a scheme to embezzle money from the Catholic Church and had to flee Rome. He was an inveterate womanizer, causing not one but two families to take out a contract on him (as he hastily left town). The first group of assassins failed, the second group succeeded. It's important to remember, though, that during his lifetime Stradella was as famous for his music as he was infamous for his deeds. And this recording helps the listener understand why.

Stradella was a professional opera singer, which informed his writing for the voice. This collection features three of his solo cantatas along with a concert aria and a duet. Stradella's melodies are supple, fluid things that move gracefully with the text.

Il Complesso Barocco Di Milano performs with refreshing directness and clarity. While singers of Stradella's time might have more heavily ornamented his melodies, this ensemble chooses to let the music come through with minimal interference. The sound is a little soft and details are somewhat muted (I suspect this is a vintage analog recording). One major drawback -- no librettos are included. Stradella's music is so closely intertwined with the text that this is a real minus, as it prevents the listener from fully appreciating Stradella's artistry. And why he was so eagerly sought after by more than just angry husbands.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Straco Layout, Part 35 - Passenger service!

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

Although the Straco Express set provided the inspiration for this display/layout project, it's really been the offerings of Nomura that have kept it going (from the train aspect). I had a Cragstan/Nomura set as a child, and it's now part of the display. It consists of a Santa Fe diesel and two pieces of rolling stock -- a refrigerator car and a stock car.

I've since discovered (and obtained) an earlier version of the set, with different couplers and different graphics on the cars. I knew that Nomura also made a passenger set (presumably for toy importer Cragstan), and finally I was able to obtain one.

No question -- the only difference is the lithography.
The couplers are definitely later period, similar to my childhood set. What I was most interested in, though, was to compare a passenger car with a freight car. I suspected they were identical, save for the lithography. And I was right.

The construction of both is the same. And it's another example of how the Japanese toy manufacturers kept costs down on these sets that were sold for a few dollars in U.S. 5 & 10 stores. The F3 diesel is unchanged. To change the appearance of the set, all the company had to do was change the graphics. The same shape could be insulated panels of a refrigerator car, the wooden open  slats of a stock car, the metal sides of a double-door box car, or the fluted aluminum sides of a streamlined passenger car.

The surfaces of both cars are flat -- only the graphics
suggest otherwise.
Since the Aero station has images of passengers coming and going lithographed on it, I'm glad to finally offer rail service. It makes for a more logical display than having a freight train stopped at a passenger station.

And there's a bonus: as you can see, the silver refrigerator car looks just fine with the passenger cars. Although it strains the pulling power of the locomotive, having a three car train just looks a little better, I think.

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
4 tinplate signs (with train) $5.99

  • 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: $127.98

Monday, September 08, 2014

Diabelli Project 056 - String quartet

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.

Not sure what happened this week -- but all of a sudden I had the opening to a multi-movement string quartet. Since the time for the flash composition is extremely limited, I didn't have time to add dynamics and articulation, although I have a pretty good idea what they should be. As with my other sketches for this project, though, I only edit for clarity, resisting the urge to tweak passages or add more material after the fact.

 Do you think this quartet has possibilities? You're welcome to explore them. If you happen to complete this sketch, or use it as the basis for some other work, please let me know -- that's the only condition I have for using the material.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Lior Rosner: Awake and Dream

Awake and Dream: Works by Lior Rosner
Janai Brugger; soprano; Katia Popov, violin; Steven Vanhauwaert, piano
The Hollywood Studio Symphony
Lior Rosner, conductor, piano
Bridge Records

Lior Rosner is best known for his film and TV scores, which show the wide range of styles he's mastered. This collection of his classical works betrays some of that background -- the music is mostly tonal, and is more about conveying atmosphere and emotion than being concerned about formal structure. And yet these works aren't just fleshed-out film cues. Rather, they're compositions of real substance -- post neo-romantic, if you will.

Rosner's featured soloists are real standouts. Katia Popov performs with a clean, slightly steely tone that's well-suited to these modernist works. Awake and Dream is an impressionistic work that seems to float between dream and reality. Popov spins forth the long, flowing melodies effortlessly, moving from motive to motive seamlessly. The solo violin work "G-Pull" lets Popov display some of her technical skills, but it's her shaping of phrases and subtle articulation that holds the piece together.

Soprano Janai Bugger has a rich, warm voice, with an upper register that sounds well-rounded and clear. She beautifully performs "In time of Silver Rain," a song cycle based on Langston Hughes' poetry. Rosner's settings sound more like Copland and Barber than Duke Ellington, giving these poems a universally American character, rather than African-American. Bugger performs them in a simple, straight-forward fashion, letting the words themselves deliver the emotional impact. By contrast, Bugger provides the emotion for "Three Poems by Sappho." Her singing communicates the full range of emotions this cycle expresses, from ecstactic love to deep mourning.

While the soloists shine, the ensemble could use some polishing. The Hollywood Studio Symphony is a pick-up ensemble, made up of session musicians contracted for the project. There's nothing wrong with that -- but sometimes the ensemble doesn't quite jell. Attacks are a little imprecise and some entrances seem a little tentative. It's not a horrible sound, just a little rough around the edges. I'd be interested in hearing these works performed by an orchestra that has lived together for a while. I expect it would really make the music come alive.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

George Crumb, Vol. 16 Presents Two Innovative Song Cycles

George Crumb Edition, Vol. 16
Voices from the Heartland; Sun and Shadow
Ann Crumb, soprano; Marcantonio Barone, piano; Patrick Mason, baritone; Orchestra 2001; James Freeman, conductor
Bridge Records

Bridge Records' sixteenth(!) installment of George Crumb's compositions feature two works that are both similar and different. Similar, in that they're both song cycles. Different, because one is based on traditional tunes, while the other springs from Crumb's imagination. But they're really not that different.

"Sun and Shadow" is another collection of songs based on the poetry of Federico García Lorca. Lorca's work has inspired several Crumb compositions, including the "Ancient Voices of Children." This set, subtitled Spanish Songbook II is classic Crumb. In this case, he uses just an amplified piano to create his unique soundscapes, making this a somewhat intimate composition

"Voices from the Heartland (American Songbook VII)," presents Crumb's arrangements of some traditional American songs. Baritone Patrick Mason and soprano Ann Crumb perform, along with the James Freeman and the Orchestra 2001. Actually, these songs are more re-imaginings than arrangements. While the melodies of such tunes as "Softly and Tenderly (Jesus is coming)" and "On Top of Old Smokey" are easy to pick out, they've been transformed by Crumb's imagination.

Triadic harmonies are replaced with clouds of sound; phrases are broken up and folded back upon themselves; melody and accompaniment veer off in different directions. And yet, rather than obscuring these simple songs, Crumb brings out the deeper emotional themes that, in retrospect, were there all along.

Ann Crumb has extensive experience singing in Broadway shows. While she sings Sun and Shadow in a clear, classical tone, she lets her musical theater roots show in the American Songbook. Which somehow makes these transformed American folk songs sound even more authentic.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Prickly City's Phantom Gap

Scott Stantis' Prickly City is, at heart, a comic strip that uses humor to make political commentary. It's not difficult to figure out where Stantis himself stands. But because his message is delivered subtly, rather than with a bludgeon, the strip succeeds in delivering a certain viewpoint even to those who might otherwise not wish to be exposed to it.

His late August, 2014 sequence is a good example of that -- doubly so since it uses a convention of the comic strip to tell the story.

The first sequence breaks the fourth wall, as the two main characters notice the white space (called a gutter) separating the two panels. (click on images to enlarge)

One character is conservative, the other liberal. While long-time readers will know which is which, note that throughout this sequence Stantis provides no labels at all. Because having one side winning over the other isn't what this sequence is about.

The gutter expands as the sequence continues, further separating the two characters. And note how it expands -- it grows out from the middle. The left side isn't squeezing the right, nor the the other way around. Both sides are being squeezed, and as it continues and communication breaks down, both seem to blame the other.

It's a brilliant use of the medium. Stantis makes his point about the breakdown of political discourse, and does so in a way that everyone can relate to. The villain isn't the character on the other side of the strip -- it's the white void of nothingness that's boxing them both in. 

The gutter is always there between the panels, just like political differences exist between people. Most times, we just don't notice it (either the gutter or the differences). But when it grows, neither side benefits -- either in the funnies, or in real life. That's the message I got from this sequence. How about you?

Monday, September 01, 2014

Diabelli Project 055 - Percussion Trio

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.

My undergraduate degree is in percussion performance. My major instrument was keyboard percussion. So it was fun to return to my roots somewhat by dashing off the opening to a percussion trio. The trick, I think, to writing for instruments of indefinite pitch is to find something the listener can hold on to. Since a hummable tune isn't an option, one can go with a rhythmic cell, or even a pattern of timbres.

In this case, I used both. This is one I might continue, and if I do, I'll continue to develop the tension between the sixteen/eighth figure, and the irregular pulse of the music. The number of instruments would expand as well, changing and adding to the texture of the work.

What would you do? That's up to you. As with all the Diabelli Project sketches, this one's available to any and all who would like to use it as a starting point for their own composition. No strings attached, either; just a request that you share your results.