Thursday, December 31, 2015

Spam Roundup, December, 2015

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. 

Appropriate mercy

- It is appropriate time to make a few plans for the longer term and it's time to be happy. I have learn this put up. [Thank you, Bobby McFerrin.] 

- hey there and thank you for your info - I have definitely picked up anything new from right here. [Well, I guess anything is something.

- expect at their mercy, deform the mint all two to Nina from Carolina percent of the body, [I guess I better give the countersign or I won't get the microfilm.]
It's that toy lumber truck in the center of the photo that's
causing all the fuss.

Lumbering Along

The Straco Express Layout, Part 23 - Lumbering Along continues to be a high-traffic post. I'm still not sure why, and I still don't know who the spambots are trying to fool. 

 - We're a bunch of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community. Your website offered us with useful information to work on. [Trying to picture a community scheme based on vintage Japanese toys.] 

 - Hi, this weekend is pleasant designed for me, because the time I am reading this fantastic educational article here at my residence. [You need a life. I suggest volunteering (see above).] 

 - I read this post fully on the topic of the resemblance of latest and earlier technologies. [Oh, did you? Did you really?] 

Fastidiously yours

How times have changed. When I first started this series, it seemed as if every other spam comment had -- and misused -- the word "fastidious." And now... 

 - Hi Dear, are you really visiting this site daily, if so after that you will absolutely obtain fastidious knowledge. [I guess only my most ardent fans are using the f-word these days.] 

 And remember: 

 - Paragraph writing is also a fun, if you be familiar with after that you can write otherwise it is complicated to write.

Oh, we be familiar, all right. Till next month -- and next year -- keep your mints safe from deformity and say hello to Nina from Carolina for me.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Blue Heron - Christmas in Medieval England

"We want to make a CD of 15th-century music of Advent and Christmas, and seek funding for recording three imminent concerts." That's how Blue Heron described their Kickstarter campaign. They exceeded their modest goal of $7,500, and so that recording is now available for all to enjoy.

And I'm glad it is. The program is a collection of seasonal sacred music that would have been performed around 1440. Some of the selections should be familiar to classical and early music aficionados; Ther is no rose of swych vertue; Nowel, nowel, nowel, Nowel syng we both al and som, and the finale, Nova, nova! Ave fit ex Eva.

In this recording Blue Heron has a loose ensemble blend I find attractive. It gives the music a little bit of a rough edge that somehow makes it sound more authentic. Especially beautiful is the Angelus ad virginem for voice and medieval harp. Soloist Daniela Tosic sings with a warm, clear tone that tells the story simply and reverently.

I'm sure this recording has the best takes from among the three concerts, but even so -- the audience is particularly well-behaved for a live performance. There simply aren't any audience sounds at all until the final burst of applause. And that means there's nothing to distract the ear. The mics are well-placed, capturing the ensemble with just enough ambiance to give us a sense of space.

I have several medieval Christmas albums in my collection -- and as much as I like some of them, Blue Heron's is a real standout. Hooray for Kickstarter.

Christmas in Medieval England
Blue Heron; Scott Metcalfe, director
BHCD 1006

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Vintage Comics Mutts

Mutts creator Patrick McDonnell has riffed on his acorn-bombing squirrels many times. And like the last two times noted in this blog (The Mighty Marvel Mutts and the The Mighty Marvel Mutts 2), there's an overarching theme. And if you're aware of that theme, then the Sunday sequence which appears to be stand-alone, has even greater impact.

July 6-12, 2015 McDonnell features a variety of comic strip characters, some well-known, some obscure. Here's the run-down: (click on images to enlarge)

7/6/15 - Robin is the first victim. He's one of the oldest DC Comics character. He was introduced by Bill Finger and Bob Crane in 1940 as a companion for Batman.

7/7/15 We've moved from comic books to comic strips with Dennis the Menace. Hank Ketchem started the single panel strip in 1951.

7/8/15 And now we're back to comic books. Richie Rich is a character created by Alfred Harvey and Warren Kremer. He first appeared in Little Dot (see below) in 1953, but eventually was published in his own Harvey comic book beginning in 1960.

7/9/15 Little Dot is another Harvey comic book character, She was created in 1949 by Alfred Harvey and Vic Herman as a back-up feature in another Harvey book, and received her own title in 1953.

7/10/15 Charles Schultz's Charlie Brown, though a comic strip character, is a contemporary of Lil' Dot. Peanuts premiered in newspapers in 1950.

7/10/15 Little Orphan Annie is another vintage comic strip character. In fact, it's the oldest one in the series. Harold Grey began the strip in 1924 (although the punchline refers to the 1982 movie musical).

7/11/15 And we finish with a reference to Superman, with a version of the classic 1938 cover of Action Comics. The cycle started with one of DC Comic's earliest heroes, and it ends with their earliest.

Another great sequence by Patrick McDonnell -- especially for die-hard comics fans.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Novitas Nativitas

Last night I hosted the contemporary classical music show on WTJU. It's currently entitled "Novitas." The contrast of the very old Latin word meaning "new" as the title for a new music show wasn't lost on me -- especially as I was doing a Christmas Adam show.*

While we tend to thing of Christmas carols as being timeless, they're mostly a Victorian invention. That's not to say there's not a rich repertoire of seasonal classical music. From the 10th century on, liturgical texts have been set to music. But it was always designed for worship, not singing door-to-door.

So what about the modern era? In my two-hour show, I tried to balance original and traditional works -- and in all cases avoiding the trite and cliche. Here's the run down:

Daniel Pinkham: Christmas Cantata
 - This short, three-movement work from 1958 is somewhat thorny, but still leans toward the tonal. If nothing else, it shows that seasonal music doesn't have to be pretty to be emotionally moving.

Lars-Erik Larsson: Four Vignettes to Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale"
 - I know not everyone celebrates Christmas. My definition of "sound of the season" include music inspired by winter. In this lush, post-romantic work Swedish composer Lars-Erik Larsson encapsulates the inherent drama of the play in a shimmering orchestral context. The Vignettes were completed in 1938, which may be a little outside the bounds of a "contemporary" music program. But what the heck.

Jake Heggie: On the Road to Christmas
 - Heggie's 1996 work for mezzo-soprano and string orchestra has eight movements that range from the completely original to arrangements of traditional carols. Frederica von Stade was the original soloist, and contributed text for two of the movements, including the titular section. It describes her impressions as a young girl riding to grandma's -- on the road to Christmas.

David Del Tredici: Wollman Rink, from "Gotham Glory"
 - This is another work for those who want to pass on Christmas. Del Tredici's 2004 piano work "Gotham Glory" has four movements; each a study of a different aspect of New York City. The final movement, "Wollman Rink" references the famous ice-skating rink in Central Park. Subtitled "Grand Fantasy on the Skaters' Waltz" is a 17-minute knuckle-busting tour-de-force. And Del Tredici's inviting neo-romantic style lets you enjoy every note.

Jean Belmont: Nativitas
 - I couldn't resist the opportunity to air "Nativitas" on "Novitas." This 1981 work is an exciting and challenging work for a capella choir, with plenty of shifting meters and extended passages in the extremes of the register. Belmont does quote from medieval and renaissance sources, but there's no mistaking this for anything but a contemporary work.

This didn't make the cut.
Samuel Barber: Die Natali, Op. 37
 - The Boston Symphony commissioned Barber for this seasonal work in 1960. Barber took many beloved carols and wove them together to create an entirely new work. I don't know why this work isn't played more often -- and neither did several listeners who called in while it was airing.

John Tavener: Magnificat and Nunc dimittis
 - John Tavener may have grown up in the English choral tradition, but his conversion to the Eastern Orthodox church opened him up to an entirely different world of liturgical music. His settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (key Advent texts) combine both eastern and western Christian music in a way that's uniquely Tavener. It's serene, deeply spiritual, and totally original.

Kevin Oldham: Silent Night, from Three Carols, Op. 20
 - Whenever I have a Christmas or Christmas eve show, I end with this work. Oldham's 1992 setting of Silent Night is for soprano, flute, and harp. He kept the words, and created an entirely new melody for them. It's a delicately beautiful work that I think should be better known. And so I air it -- year after year...

*Since Adam came before Eve, it only makes sense that the day before Christmas Eve would be called Christmas Adam.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Sibelius series maintains high standards with "Swanwhite"

This is the fifth installment of Leif Segerstam's traversal of Sibelius' orchestral music with the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra. I'm happy to say that the recording and performance standards remain as high for this volume as they have for the previous four releases.

In terms of music, though, I think there's a slight decline. As beautiful as these works were, they didn't quite move me as much as the incidental music to "Jedermann," or Pelléas et Mélisande (comparisons to Sibelius' symphonies seem a little unfair).

That's not to say there isn't much to like here -- there is. And even a lesser work by Sibelius is still a cut above the average in quality. The disc opens with the complete incidental music to "Swanwhite." This 1908 was written for August Strindberg's play based on one by Matterlink. While individual sections are quite nice (one would find its way into Sibelius' 5th Symphony), to my ears the suite never seems to jell.

Much more interesting, I think, is the incidental music to "The Lizard," written a year later. The drama centers around dream visions, and Sibelius creates some engaging and dramatic sonic dreamscapes of his own. To my ears, some sections sounded quite similar to "Tapiola," and deliver the same emotional impact.

Also included are two short dramatic works,"A Lonely Ski Trail" from 1948, and "The Countess' Portrait" from 1905. Both are finely crafted musical miniatures and fit quite well with the larger works on this album.

Jean Sibelius: Swanwhite (complete incidental music); The Lizard, complete incidental music, Op. 8; A Lonely Ski Trail; The Countess' Portrait
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra; Leif Segerstam, conductor; Riho Eklundh, narrator
Naxos 8.5733341

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Marked Improvement for Mark Trail

For quite a while, the comic strip Mark Trail was frozen in time -- and not in a good way. As you can see from the example below, this strip which began in 1946 still had an odd 1950's vibe about it in the late 1990's. (click on image to enlarge)

The art was more than static -- it was almost perfunctory. Mark's face in the third panel has appeared in hundreds of daily sequences unchanged. Sometimes Mark was expressing surprise, sometimes anger, sometimes just talking. The vague expression made it useful for reuse.

Then something happened. In 2010, Jack Allen, the assistant on the strip, took over. The stories became more dynamic -- as did the art. Wildlife was still drawn accurately (a must for this strip), but rather than looking posed (almost like taxidermy), Allen imbued it with a sense of motion.

At first, the changes were subtle. Human anatomy got better. Perspective got better. Viewing angles were more dynamic. And in time, a new Mark Trail emerged -- one I'm actually reading.

Note Allen's use of the single panel in the example below. He fills the space without cluttering it up. And there's no question that the eel is in motion. The diver's pose, plus the diving motor going off to the right, indicate that the diver's falling backwards, ambushed by the eel.

Here's another single-panel action sequence from the same story. Bad guys on Sea-Doos with machine guns might be common in action movies, but for Mark Trail, this is real innovation in story-telling!

One final example: look at that last panel. That is one dynamic panel -- and because the perspective is accurate, it really makes the machine gun look like it's coming right out of the page.

Actually, Allen does a little visual trick. Note that the machine gun is in front of the sound effect, partially obscuring it. We assume that sound effects -- not being part of the scene, are floating on the surface of the fourth wall. By placing the gun in front, it appears to be breaking through that fourth wall.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Walter Saul a welcome discovery

I have to admit I'd not heard of American composer Walter Saul before this CD landed on my desk. I'm glad it did. Saul's music has a directness to it that I find refreshing. Saul writes in a post-tonal style that's extremely accessible, yet avoids triteness and cliche.

Case in point, Saul's 1992 Christmas Symphony. This is no medley of holiday tunes, but a tightly-organized four-movement symphony that uses oblique elements of the Christmas story (Gabriel, the Star, Simeon, and heavenly Glorias) to document an emotional journey. It's one of those works that may be inspired by the season, but could be played any time of the year.

"Overture for the Jubilee" and "From Life to Greater Life" - like virtually all of Saul's music --draw on the composer's deep-seated religious convictions for inspiration. The Overture is an uplifting, yet restrained, concert opener. "From Life" moves from chaos to order as it progresses (thus illustrating its theme of ascending from life to afterlife).

The Violin Concerto is the most adventurous work on the album, with a snarling twelve-tone middle movement that resolves eventually into some beautiful lyrical passages in the finale.

"Kiev 2014" is an engaging work for oboe and orchestra. Its relentless energy keeps driving the music forward. According to the composer, it "reflects on the history, challenges and hope for Ukraine in the 21st century." And that perhaps explains the restless nature of this work.

The album is warmly recorded, with the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine under Theodore Kuchar delivering straight-forward no-nonsense performances.

Walter Saul: Kiev 2014; Violin Concerto; Overture for the Jubilee; A Christmas Symphony; Metamorphosis
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine; Theodore Kuchar, conductor
Rong-Huey Liu, oboe; James Buswell, violin; Walter Saul, piano
Naxos 8.559791

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

December Celebration: New Carols by Seven American Composers

Now here's a good idea. If you're like me and are sick to death of hearing the same old holiday "classics" year after year, then you'll welcome this new release from Pentatone.

December Celebration presents a cohesive program of fresh-sounding, accessible carols by living American composers. And while the musical language might lean a little on the conservative side, these are all well-constructed compositions. There's no dumbing down here. Even the well-known "Silent Night" gets an imaginative -- but wholly appropriate -- re-imaging by Gordon Getty.

One of my personal favorites is "How Bright the Darkness" by Luna Pearl Wolf. It's a delicately beautiful work, with a similar character to Britten's "Ceremony of Carols."

As with virtually all Pentatone releases, I strongly recommend purchasing the SACD version (as opposed to just downloading it). The more detailed the sound, the more beautiful the Volti Chorus seems to sing.

December Celebration will be getting heavy rotation in my personal holiday music playlist.

December Celebration: New Carols by Seven American Composers
Mark Adamo: The Christmas Life; Jake Heggie: On the Road to Christmas; Joan Morris & William Bolcom: Carol (Neighbors, on this Frosty Tide); David Garner: Three Carols; Lona Pearl Woolf: How Bright the Darkeness; Gordon Getty: Four Christmas Carols; John Corigliano: Christmas at the Cloisters; Franz Gruber, arr. by Gordon Getty: Silent Night
Lisa Delano, soprano; Lester Lynch, baritone; Volti Chorus; Musicians of the New Century Chamber Orchestra; Dawn Harms, conductor
Pentatone SACD PTC 5186 537

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Sally Forth and the Art of Foreshadowing

Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe  have done remarkable things with Sally Forth, including playing with the conventions of the daily comic strip. The structure for a daily gag strip is simple: use 1-2 panels to set up the joke, deliver the punchline in the third. Sally Forth, like many strips, also uses story arcs to provide a framework for those gags. In August/September, 2015, though, Sally Forth had a remarkable sequence. (click on image to enlarge)

It's a bitterwseet sequence, and seems to foreshadow the breakup of Hillary and Jon. Or is it? When we start reading, we think we're reading third-person omniscient narration -- but it's Nona talking. When we flash forward to next summer, it's not clear if we're seeing reality, or just Hillary's imagination. 

Sometimes adventure strips, such as Judge Parker or the Phantom, will have some foreshadowing. A single panel will introduce something that won't be explained for a few weeks. Usually, though, it's laying the foundation for the next story arc, so there's a smooth transition.

In this case, we had to wait three months -- and several other story arcs -- to see if what happened next. 

Is this really the end, though? We'll have to wait until summer, 2016 in order to find out. But for now, it appears as if Nona knew what she was talking about. And note that in the strip above, Hillary also offers an observation on the three-panel gag.

To my knowledge, no comic strip has been this far-ranging in setting up a story arc. Brilliant.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Respighi: Lauda per la Nativitá del Signore

Now this is my kind of Christmas album. While all the works were written for the season, they aren't part of the classical Christmas top 40 (with one exception -- sort of). And they're all beautifully performed and recorded. The Rundfunkchor Berlin has a rich, creamy sound with an almost seamless blend of voices.

The program opens with Sven-David Sandstrom's arrangement of Praetorious' "Es is ein ros entsprungen" (that's the exception I was talking about). Sandstrom stretches this well-known carol out, creating long, sinuous taffy-like strands polyphony.

Morten Lauridsen's "O magnum mysterium" benefits from the choir's smooth sound. This delicate, lyrical work almost shimmers in this heartfelt performance.

Francis Poulenc wrote his "Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël" in a madrigalist manner. That is, he uses the music to illustrate the actions of the words as well as the underlying emotions. The Rundfunkchor Berlin performs these motets in a clean, clear fashion -- even if you don't understand the words they sing, the emotions come through loud and clear.

Respighi's "Lauda per la Nativitá del Signore" is (for me), the high point of the album. The choir, combined with the Polyphonia Ensemble Berlin shows Respighi at his best. The rich harmonies, the imaginative orchestrations, and the wonderfully simple (but not simplistic) melodies all come together for a seasonal work that in my opinion just isn't heard enough.

If you -- or someone you know -- is looking for something out of the ordinary in seasonal recordings, I highly recommend this release.

Ottorino Respighi: Lauda per la Nativitá del Signore; Sven-David Sandstrôm/Michael Preaetorius: Es ist ein Ros estprungen; Heinrich Kaminksi: Maria durch ein Dornwald ging; Morten Lauridsen: O magnum mysterium; Günther Raphael: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland; Francis Poulenc: Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël  
Yeree Suh; Kristrine Larissa Funkhauser; Krystian Adam; Rundfunkchor Berlin; Polyphonia Ensemble Berlin; Nicolas Fink; Maris Sirmais, directors 
Carus 83.473

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Hindemith - The Long Christmas Dinner

In an ideal world, Hindemith's 1961 on-act opera "The Long Christmas Dinner" would be be a perennial holiday favorite, alongside Menotti's 1951 "Amahl and the Night Visitors."

Both operas use a deceptively simple tonal language, making the music sound accessible without being cliche or trite. And both offer fresh takes on traditional holiday narratives.

"Amahl" is associated with the Christmas story, while "The Long Christmas Dinner" looks at a more personal holiday story -- the American family. This one-act opera traces the history of the Bayard family through several generations of Christmas dinners. There are marriages, births, deaths, and family falling-outs, all told in a marvelously economic fashion.

Hindemith's music makes connections between the constant parade of characters -- motifs for one generation are reinterpreted for the next. The opera opens with the first Christmas in a new house, and ends ninety years later with the final Christmas at that same house. Hindemith's opening music is referenced in the closing, helping provide dramatic closure to the work, while hinting that life for the Bayard family will go on.

Thornton Wilder's libretto should resonate with anyone who has grown up with holiday family dinners. There are the comfortably familiar family stories, the interplay between family members, the remembrance of those passed, and the excitement of new additions to the family, both spouses and children.

This performance works quite well, I think, and effectively carries the drama (although seeing it might help me keep all the characters straight more easily). Leon Botstein conducted what sounded to me like a simple, straight-forward performance of the work. The singers blended well in ensemble, and delivered clean, clear solo performances, making it easy to understand every word.

To me, it was an ideal presentation of a work that should appeal to more than just opera aficionados. Thornton Wilder's insights into family traditions, illuminated by Hindemith's music should resonate with most people, I think. But it can also conjure up a ghost or two, which perhaps keeps it from being a holiday favorite.

Beautifully recorded and highly recommended.

Paul Hindemith: The Long Christmas Dinner
Libretto by Thornton Wilder
Camille Zamora, Sara Murphy, Catherine Martin, Kathryn Guthrie, Glenn Seven Allen, Scott Murphree, Jarrett Ott, Josh Quinn
American Symphony Orchestra; Leon Botstein, conductor
Bridge 9449

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Lio and Sendak

This particular sequence doesn't really need any analysis from me.

But Mark Tatulli created such a charming tribute to Maurice Sendak in his strip Lio, I thought it was worth sharing -- in case you missed it when it was published on August, 14, 2015. (click on image to enlarge)

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Colonna - Triumphate Fideles: Complete Motets for Solo Voice

Giovanni Paolo Colonna (1637-1695) is not well-known today, although he one of the most well-respected (and interesting) figures of the mid-1600s. He was a composer, teacher, organist and organ builder. His fame as a composer rested mainly on his large-scale sacred works -- oratorios and masses.

This release, however, features a collection of his sacred motets for solo voice, presenting a different side of Colonna.

While his larger works show his skill at counterpoint, these motets are more concerned with melody. And what gorgeous melodies they are.

Phrases lead naturally into each other, and because this is music for the church (rather than the stage), ornamentation is kept to a minimum. The result is a set of twelve simple -- but not simplistic -- settings of Latin texts.

Soprano Francesca Cassinari has a particularly appealing sound (for me). Her clear, pure voice serves the music well. Salvo Vitale is another standout. His rich, full bass voice has a rounded warmth to it I really liked. That's not slight alto Elena Carzaniga or tenor Paolo Borgnovo -- their performances were appealing as well.

The Astrarium Consort has a good ensemble sound. The use of the baroque harp in the continuo provides some nice contrast to the harpsichord, and make the ensemble sound more intimate, somehow.

Giovanni Paolo Colonna: Triumphate Fideles: Complete Motets for Solo Voice and Instruments
Francesca Cassinari, soprano; Elena Carzaniga, alto; Paolo Borgonovo, tenor; Salvo Vitale, bass; Astrarium Consort, Carlo Centemeri, conductor
Brilliant Classics 94647 2 CD Set

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Jedermann by Sibelius -- a welcome rediscovery

The latest installment of Naxos' Sibelius series features a rare and wonderful treasure -- the music from Hugo von Hofmannthal's play "Jedermann." "Jedermann" is a re-imagining of "Everyman," a medieval mystery play. The drama is an allegory of original sin and redemption, and Sibelius was inspired by the subject matter as he wrote.

Unfortunately, what Sibelius produced for the 1916 production wasn't really incidental music. It more closely resembled a movie score. Sibelius was very specific about how the play and music should be paced so that key dramatic elements coincided with musical climaxes. Easy to do on film, but difficult to do in live theater. Over time, Sibelius' music was dropped from the production, and all but forgotten.

Divorced from the stage action, as it is in this recording, the score to "Jedermann" works quite well. There's a natural dramatic pacing to the movements, each setting its scene while moving the drama along. The rich harmonies and orchestration are pure Sibelius. It's a shame he never made an orchestral suite of this music. But I'm glad that it's being made available once again through this recording.

The album also includes Two Serious Melodies for Violin and Orchestra. Violinist Mikaela Palmu's transparent performance lets the music come through in all its simplicity and beauty.

In memoriam  was completed in 1910 although the themes were developed earlier, The bulk of the work was composed after Siblius' near-death bout with throat cancer. The somber music is so deeply personal in its contemplation of mortality that it seemed only fitting that it be performed at Sibelius' funeral. This performance brings out the meditative nature of the music without making it sound lugubrious.

This is the sixth Sibelius recording Leif Segerstam and the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra have done with Naxos. And like the previous five, it's one I've thoroughly enjoyed.

Jean Sibelius: Jedermann, Op. 83; Two Serious Melodies for violin and Orchestra, Op. 77; In memoriam, Op. 59 
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra; Leif Segerstam, conductor Pia Pajala, soprano; Tumas Katajala, tenor; Nicholas Söderlund, bass; Cathedralis Aboensis Choir; Mikaela Palum, violin 
Naxos 8.573340

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Collecting -- and collecting information 22

Part of my interest in post-war Japanese toy trains and small vehicles is this: there's virtually no information about these toys at all. Lionel trains, Gilbert Erector Sets, Marx Play Sets have all been carefully researched and documented. And the same is true for the more popular Japanese tin toys. There are multiple reference works about Japanese space and robot toys, and the large-scale car models put out by Bandai, Alpine, and others.

Not so with the low-end toys I'm interested. in. For me, part of the fun has been in the acquisition of information about these toys (rather than the toys themselves). Recently a colleague sent me some photos of a set he had found.

It's actually the surviving components of two identical sets thrown into the same box. But that box is most interesting. The train set was made by Bandai -- the equipment and track bear their brand. I knew that Bandai marketed their own products in the US (as they do today), and also supplied products for Cragstan, an importer of toys in the 1950's-early 1960's. 

Some very helpful info is here -- on the box, that is.

Cragstan imported train sets made by Nomrua and Yonezowa, and -- apparently - by Bandai, too. 

The box is helpful, as it has an inventory printed on it. So I now know what the set actually consisted of. And it's helpful because it explains why the Bandai rolling stock had plain, single-color bodies. All the other manufacturers lithographed details and road names on their cars. 

But this set was designed as a blank slate. A set of road name stickers came with it, so you could decorate the engine and cars as you chose. When I see these pieces come up for auction, many have stickers still attached. And now I know why. 

I still don't know precisely when the set was offered, but the graphics suggest early 1950's. Why? Because the image is "borrowed" from the Lionel 1948 catalog. In the book, the artist made a mistake and made the body of the Santa Fe diesels black instead of silver. The images were correct for the 1949 and later catalog. 

Bandai copied the image from the 1948 catalog, and therefore made its diesel with a black body instead of a silver one. 

I think we can say the Cragstan/Bandai box art was "inspired" by the image
in the 1948 Lionel catalog (lower) -- as the Santa Fe never had any
diesels in that color scheme.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Spam Roundup, November 2015

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.

Fractured English? It's splintered!

 - it's very trouble-free to find out any matter on net as compared to textbooks, as I found this post at this web site. [As you say.]

 - I have been browsing online more than 4 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It is pretty, worth enough for me. [I feel pretty, oh so pretty...]

 - Hi there, everything is going perfectly here and of course every one is sharing facts. That's genuinely good. [Glad to hear those facts as getting shared. BTW - what facts are we talking about?]

 - It's impressive that you are getting ideas from this piece of writing as well as from our dialogue made here. [What dialogue?]

If a photo of just one of these toys generated a huge volume
of spam, imagine what posting in a image of two will do!

Lumbering Along

The Straco Express Layout, Part 23 - Lumbering Along continues to be a high-traffic post -- at least among spammers.

 - Yes! Finally something perezhiltonperezhilton. [Um.... no.]

 -  I like what you guys are ususally up too. Such clever work and exposure! [And we're up, too.]

And finally...

No one used -- or rather, misused -- the word "fastidious." Perhaps it's the end of an era. But I did receive these two comments:

 - After reading this amazing piece of writing I am also delighted to share my familiarity here with mates.
 -  Hello mates, its fantastic post about teachingand completely defined. Keep it up all the time. [Are these the same mates?]

Till next month then, remember to keep it up all the time, too. And may your clever work be exposed and trouble-free.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Far in the Heavens -- Heavenly collection of Stephen Paulus choral works

The choral works on this release were all composed or revised within the last four years of Stephen Paulus' life. Their originality, quality, and expressiveness show just how great a loss the classical music world suffered with Paulus' early death.

“Prayers and Remembrance” is the largest work on the album, written to commemorate 9/11. According to Paulus, it was written to be "spiritual without being religious." In that, he was successful. The work is elegiac and uplifting, without referencing the music of any faith tradition. Lush harmonies and deft orchestrations support the smoothly flowing melodic lines. Soprano Kathryn Mueller is a particular standout in the third movement, making the seemingly simple melody a song from the heart.

Shorter choral works make up the rest of the album, but don’t consider them mere filler. “Nunc dimittis” (rev. 2013) is an effective setting of the text -- an excellent example of Paulus at his best.  "The Incomprehensible,"  "I Have Called You by Name" "Little Elegy" and "When Music Sounds" all demonstrate why Paulus was considered one of America's premier choral composers.

The Concord of Voices & Orchestra, directed by Eric Holtan perform these works beautifully.  The chorus has a good blend, and the performances -- as to be expected from Reference -- are impeccably recorded.

Stephen Paulus: Far in the Heavens
True Concord Voices & Orchestra; Eric Holtan, conductor
Reference Recordings FR-716

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Barney & Clyde Desert Peanuts

Long-time readers of this blog know how I feel about "Peanuts." Yes, it was a great strip and Charles M. Schultz influenced an entire generation of newspaper cartoonists with his inventiveness and imagination.


Schultz died in 2000, and for the past 15 years his comic strip has been in reruns, taking up space that should be used to showcase the current generation of comic strip creators.

I wonder if the moribund nature of this zombie strip (it's dead, but it's still moving) is what creators Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten and David Clark had in mind with their September 29, 2015 sequence in "Barney and Clyde." (click on image to enlarge)

 For those not overly familiar with the world of Peanuts, it's a reference to Spike, Snoopy's brother who lives in Needles, Arizona. His sole companion is a cactus.

Yep, 15 years after the end of the strip, that's how I imagined Spike would end up.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Roger Sessions: Music for Violin and Piano

For me, this release works on many levels. First, it chronicles an important phase of Roger Session's career when his style moved from neo-classical to embrace -- however lightly -- serialism. It also is an enjoyable listening experience, as pianist David Holzman and violinist David Bowlin perform together and separately, bring some variety to the program. And there's a mix of well-known important work and some (relatively) light occasional pieces that provide some emotional balance.

The album opens with the 1942 Duo for violin and piano. It's a work cast in a single movement of continual contrast. While the piece is highly chromatic, Sessions never quite crosses over into atonality.

By contrast, Sessions does cross that line in his Sonata for Violin written nine years later. It is indeed a twelve-tone work, but one that still borders on tonality. Bolin brings out the inherent lyricism in this sonata, smoothing out some of the spikiness of the piece, and showing just how close to line Sessions remains.

According to the composer, Sessions' Second Piano Sonata was supposed to be "not only short by easy to play." I think he missed on both counts (the work's about 13 minutes long). Nevertheless, Holzman handles the dense, complex score with apparent ease.

Two short piano pieces round out the program. The 1936 Waltz for Brenda is a delightful little piece written to commemorate the birth of a neighbor's child (who was writer Brenda Webster), and a 1947 Adagio given as a retirement gift to a colleague.

The recording quality is very good, as are the performances. In fact, I really only had one quibble. This is a disc of solo and duo music for violin and piano. So why does the cover show Sessions conducting from a podium?

Roger Sessions: Music for Violin and Piano
David Holzman, piano; David Bowlin, violin
Bridge 9453

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Ives Quartet continues outstanding Quincy Porter series

Quincy Porter was a well-respected American composer and pedagogue. Although he composed several concertos and two symphonies, his reputation rests primary on his nine string quartets.

A contemporary of Aaron Copland and Howard Hanson, Porter wrote absolute music that tended to use established forms. But that didn't limit his imagination at all.

This is the second volume in the Ives Quartet's traversal of Porter's quartets. The ensemble has a very rich, warm recorded sound that seems quite appropriate to these post-romantic compositions.

Porter's fifth string quartet, written in 1935 is somber and introspective in character. It's contrasted by The sixth, written two years later. That quartet has an edge to it, with a restless energy in places (especially the first movement).

The seventh quartet was composed during World War II, and seems poised between to worlds. It has a light, open sound with some memorable motifs that seem a little old-fashioned. Yet its extended chromaticism in places obscures the tonality and some of the repeated rhythms seem to look ahead.

The post-war eighth string quartet is new music for a brave new world. It's much more aggressive than the other quartets on this album, and highly chromatic in a way that borders on the atonal (without crossing the line). Yet Porter is at heart a traditionalist, so even in this most modern of his works, melody is still paramount.

Highly recommended to anyone interested in exploring American repertoire.

Quincy Porter: String Quartets Nos. 5-8
Ives Quartet
Naxos 8.559781

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Recycling in postwar Japan

I recently purchased this brush fire jeep for one of my train layouts (see: An Accidental Addition). The style and color of the lithography suggests that it was manufactured in Japan in the mid to late 1950's. There's no brand on it, so I'm not sure which company made it.

When I was cleaning the toy, I saw what appeared to be two eyes staring up at me from the floorboard. I carefully removed the body from the chassis, and found a surprise -- and a mystery.

The chassis for this vehicle was stamped from a sheet of metal that have previously been lithographed. The pristine condition of the lithography and the lack of dimples or extraneous creases in the metal suggest to me that the toy was made not from a recycled finished product, but from a flat sheet of metal that had been decorated but not used.

Who's there?
And what was that decoration? A little research revealed that it was the design for a Burgermeister beer can. This San Francisco brewery updated its graphic regularly. This particular version is from 1953-54, which is in line with my assessment of the jeep's age.

Here's the mystery, though. Where did that sheet of Burgermeister cans come from? The brewery would have used an American cannery. Were unused sheets/factory seconds sold to a jobber for the overseas market?

It makes a certain amount of sense, as it ensures no unscrupulous domestic company could make the cans and pass off their own product as Burgermeister beer.

Container freight is economical now, but would it have been cost effective to ship used steel to Japan in the 1950's? I'm not sure. But if not, then where did this recycled sheet come from? It's unlikely Burgermeister had a brewery in Japan.

And there's one more mystery. Because there are no markings on the jeep, I don't know who made it. I'd like to -- because I'd like to see if they regularly used recycled metal for their toys, or if this was unusual.

The original can (L) and the jeep chassis superimposed over it (R)

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Gubaidulina - Complete Guitar Works essential listening

Sofia Gubaidulina hasn't written much for the guitar -- it all fits handily on a single CD. But what a CD! Her unique voice seems well-suited to the instrument, as this new release shows.

Repentance, from 2008, is the biggest work on the album. To my ears it seemed a study on held and repeated notes for violin and guitar. Vaguely modal harmonies and light texture takes the listener on an introspective journey through a sparse and sometimes strange sonic landscape before arriving at its conclusion.

This version for three guitars, cello and bass actually third iteration of this music. First was Ravvedimento for cello and guitar quartet, then Pentimento for bass and three guitars (both from 2007). This version includes both bass and cello, and represents perhaps a consolidation of the other two versions -- at least in the string parts.

The other major work on the album, Sotto Voce, is also from three guitars and strings -- this time viola and bass. It's also a work that uses its instrumental forces sparingly. According to Gudaidulina, the three lowest guitar strings "contains the mystery of a purely acoustic phenomenon," that can be exploited in different ways, depending on whether the string's lightly touched or plucked hard. The motif generated by those three strings is then explored by the other instruments in fascinating and sometimes unexpected ways I found deeply compelling.

Rounding out the album are two short works. Serenade (1960) is the earliest composition, and treats the guitar in a more traditional fashion. It seems to have almost a Spanish flavor to it.

The Toccata from 1969 receives its world premier recording. Gubaidulina also treats the guitar in a somewhat traditional manner in this piece, though with an almost non-stop melody that runs throughout the three -minute work.

David Tanenbaum and his colleagues perform with delicacy and precision throughout, bringing sympathetic readings to these works. All in all, an important addition to Gubaidulina's recorded catalog.

Sofia Gubaidulina: Complete Guitar Works
Repentance; Serenade; Toccata; Sotto Voce
David Tanenbaum, Thomas Viloteau, Paul Psarras, Marc Teicholz, guitar; Peter Wyrick, cello; Mark Wright, Scott Pingel, bass; Jodi Levitz, viola
Naxos 8.573379

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Blondie's Halloween Party

On Sunday, October 25, 2015, Blondie ran an unusual sequence. The Bumpsteads hosted a Halloween party, and a remarkable assortment of guests showed up (click on image to enlarge).

There have been character cameos in Blondie before -- and cameos in other comics as well. But there were some interesting features about this particular collection assembled by Blondie's creative team, Dean Young and John Marshall. First, most of the characters are from King Features Syndicate strips, the syndicate that also distributes "Blondie." (I've noted the exceptions in the character key below)

Second, all the strips are currently in production, releasing new material on a daily basis (albeit not necessarily from the founding creators).

Note panel B -- it's filled with kids. And note that all the teenage and young adult characters -- Dustin, Luanne, and Jeremy (from Zits) are all using their smartphones. Some characters appear more than once, and some King Features characters don't appear at all.

An interesting sequence, and -- for a comics nerd like me -- one that was great fun.

Character key:

Panel A
1. Prince Valiant from "Prince Valiant" by Mark Schultz and Thomas Yeates
2. Snuffy Smith from "Barney Google and Snuffy Smith" by John Rose
3. An unnamed character from "Rhymes with Orange" by Hilary Price
4. Hi and Lois Flagston from "Hi and Lois" by Brian Walker, Greg Walker, and Chance Browne
5. Darryl and Wanda from "Baby Blues" by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott

Panel B
1. Dustin Kudlick from "Dustin" by Steve Kelley and Jeff Parker
2. Marvin Miller from "Marvin" by Tom Armstrong
3. Dennis and Alice Mitchell from "Dennis the Menace" by Hal Ketchem, M Hamilton and R Ferdinand
4. Trixie Flagston from "Hi and Lois"
5. Tillman Tinkerson from "Take it from the Tinkersons" b y Bill Bettwy

Panel C
1. Leroy and Loretta from "The Lockhorns" by Bunny Hoest and John Reiner
2. Luanne DeGroot from "Luanne" by Greg Evans*
3. Mooch and Earl from "Mutts" by Patrick McDonnell
4. Mother Goose and Grimmy from "Mother Goose and Grimm" by Mike Peters
5. Curtis from "Curtis" by Ray Billingsley

Panel D
1. B.C.  from "BC" by Mason Mastroianni**
2. Marvin (again)
3. Jeremy, Walt, and Connie Duncan from "Zits" by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman
4. Marmaduke from "Marmaduke" by Paul Anderson
5.Joe and Marcy Cobb from "Jump Start" by Robb Armstrong

Panel E
1. Beetle Bailey and Sarge from "Beetle Bailey" by Mort Walker
2. Buckles from "Buckles" by David Gilbert
3. Dilbert from "Dilbert" by Scott Adams*
4. Arlo from "Arlo and Janis" by Jimmy Johnson*
5. Oscar, Gordo, and Ed from "Arctic Circle" by Alex Hallatt
6. Rose Gumbo from "Rose is Rose" by Don Wimmer*

Panel F
Blondie, Dagwood and Daisy from "Blondie" (duh) by Dean Young and John Marshall

1. Hagar the Horrible and Crazy Eddie from "Hagar the Horrible" by Chris Browne
2. Garfield from "Garfield" by Jim Davis*
3. Mooch and Earl from "Mutts" (again)
4. P. Martin Shoemaker and Professor Cosmo Fishhawk from "Shoe" by Gary Brookins and Susie MacNelly
5. Lio from "Lio by Mark Tatulli*
6. Billy, Jeff and Dolly Keane from "Family Circus" by Jeff Keane
7. Earl and Opal Pickles from "Pickles" by Brian Crane++
8. Darryl from "Baby Blues" (again)
9. Goat, Pig, and Rat from "Pearls before Swine" by Stehan Pastis*
10. Crankshaft from "Crankshaft" by Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers
11. Elly Patterson from "For Better or Worse" by Lynn Anderson*
12. Mother Goose and Grimmy from "Mother Goose and Grimm" (again)

*Syndicated by Universal Uclick
**Syndicated by Creators Syndicate
+Syndicated by United Media
++Washington Post Writers Group

Monday, November 09, 2015

Daibelli Project 104 - Marimba Solo

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. 

The last two flash composition sketches have been for solo marimba (see nos. 102 and 103). When I did the second one, it wasn't intentional -- it just happened to be a piece of music written for the same instrument as the previous sketch.

This time, though, it's deliberate. For the next few weeks when I sit down to dash off something for this project, it will be something for solo marimba. What I'm curious to see is if an overall pattern begins to emerge by revisiting this same instrument over and over. Will the sketches all be part of a greater whole? And will that whole be a long, single work, or a short, multi-movement suite? Or neither. (click on image to enlarge)

This fragment, I think, might work well as part of an up-tempo final movement.But that's my opinion. As with the rest of the sketches in this series, I offer them to any and all to use as you will. Just be sure to share the results.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Lessons from York - What we didn't see: depth

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 What We Saw I mentioned that there was a general leavening of toy trains. Both Lionel and American Flyer (the majors) were well-represented, as were the more prominent minor companies, like Marx. There were trains from both the prewar and postwar era, plus examples from the 1970s and later. But there was no depth to any of it.

What does that mean?

Last time I mentioned all the Lionel F3s that were available -- but only of certain road names. And they were almost exclusively offered individually -- not as part of the sets they were sold with. This time there were virtually no examples of Lionel's space and military toys to be found (previously a hot commodity).

You'll find all of Lionel's postwar F3s in this book
-- but we didn't find them all at the show!

American Flyer post-war trains were in abundance, but not their pre-war offerings. Some Marx trains from the 60's were available, but little else -- and not in the quantity available in previous years. It was possible to find the non plus ultras of prewar standard gauge trains -- Lionel State sets and Blue Comet sets -- but mot the mid- and low-end offerings of the same era.


When I first started making the trip to York with my dad, you could pretty much find anything in the seven exhibit halls. If it was unusual, there might be only one or two available, but the possibility at least was always there. This time it seemed like the variety wasn't there. Table after table had the same basic things -- almost as if there was a top 40 for toy trains.

Does that mean vendors are focusing only on what moves the quickest to maximize their profit? Or does it mean that more unusual items have all found homes, and won't be seen again until those collections are broken up? The spring, 2016 meet should be interesting.

One thing more

I continue to search for Industrial Rail rolling stock, and it's still hard to find -- at least the few pieces I'm interested in. But there's been a disturbing trend. When I first started buying this "off brand," the cars were selling for $10-15 (see: The Impact of Practicality from 2012). In 2014 I noted that the price range was $15-$20 (What We Didn't See). This time, Industrial Rail pieces were selling for $20-$30 each. And I still can't find the car I want -- at any price.

Have you seen this tank car?