History and art: Lyndon Johnson, Civil Rights, Vietnam, Stephen Stucky, the Dallas Symphony, and “August 4, 1964”

August 4, 2017

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Jaap van Zweden, presents the premiere of Steven Stucky's oratorio

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Jaap van Zweden, presents the premiere of Steven Stucky’s oratorio “August 4, 1964,” with soloists, from left, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, soprano Laquita Mitchell, tenor Vale Rideout, and baritone Robert Orth. Photo from the National Endowment for the Arts, Jason Kindig

In an era when our president and Congress appear unable to deal with one issue on a good day, it may be instructive to look back to a day upon which one U.S. President handled a lot, all at once.

On August 4, 1964, President Johnson awoke to the news that two U.S. Navy ships cruising in the Tonkin Gulf had been fired upon by North Vietnamese Navy gunboats; then the FBI called and announced that the bodies of three civil rights workers had been found, young men registering African Americans to vote in Mississippi.  Both of these events rumble through history like a Rocky Mountain avalanche to today; either was a make-or-break event for any presidency.  

Lyndon Johnson dealt with them both, the same day. And though Vietnam did not turn out for the best, it’s useful to note that Johnson’s call for Congress to grant authority to act on the Tonkin incident got results just three days later.

Sadly we note that Stephen Stucky, the composer of this great piece, died of brain cancer on February 14, 2016.

“August 4, 1964,” is an oratorio covering a remarkable and fantastic coincidence in the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.  On that day, the bodies of three civil rights workers who had been missing for nearly seven weeks, were found in shallow graves near Philadelphia, Mississippi — they were the victims of violence aimed at stopping blacks from voting.  The incident was a chief spur to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

And also on that day, the U.S.S. Maddox reported it had been attacked by gunboats of the North Vietnamese Navy, in the Gulf of Tonkin.  The Gulf of Tonkin incident led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave Johnson the authority to expand and escalate the war in Vietnam, which he did.

Cover for the CD of the Dallas Symphony's performance of Steven Stucky's

Cover for the CD of the Dallas Symphony’s Grammy-nominated performance of Steven Stucky’s “August 4, 1964,” Jaap van Zweden conducting.

The Dallas Symphony commissioned the work, from composer Steven Stucky and librettist Gene Scheer, in commemoration of President Johnson’s 100th birth anniversary — he would have been 100 on August 27, 2008.  The works were premiered in Dallas in 2008.

The music is outstanding, especially for a modern piece.  The Dallas Symphony played at its flashiest and most sober best, under the baton of new conductor Jaap van Zweden.  It was a spectacular performance.  According to the New York Times:

Mr. van Zweden, hailed in his debut as music director a week before, scored another triumph here. And the orchestra’s assured and gritty performance was rivaled by that of the large Dallas Symphony Chorus, both corporately and individually, in shifting solo snippets charting the course of the fateful day.

The strong cast, mildly amplified, was robustly led by the Johnson of Robert Orth, last heard as another president in John Adams’s “Nixon in China” in Denver in June. Laquita Mitchell and Kelley O’Conner, wearing period hats, were touching as Mrs. Chaney and Mrs. Goodman. Understandably, the taxing role of a high-strung McNamara took a small toll on the tenor of Vale Rideout in his late aria.

The entire thing deserves more commentary, perhaps soon.  There is stellar history in the choral piece.  And there is this:  Consider that Lyndon Johnson, the best legislator and second most-effective executive we ever had as president, got hit with these two crises the same day.  On the one hand the nation got the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, executive orders and government support to end segregation and the evils it created.  On the other hand, we got stuck with the disaster of the Vietnam War.

How would the nation fared had a lesser person been in the White House on that day?

(August 4 is a busy, busy day in history; much to think about.)

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Joni Mitchell’s “Shadows and Light,” showing off Pat Metheney, Don Alias, Lyle Mays, Jaco Pastorious, Micheal Brecker

April 23, 2017

Cover of the vinyl album and CD of

Cover of the vinyl album and CD of “Shadows and Light,” the album produced from Joni Mitchell’s 1980 tour of the same name. Wikipedia image

I think we have this DVD in our collection — surprised no one’s complained to have it taken down.

It’s wonderful.

Joni Mitchell at her jazzy best, voice in peak form (she always is). What’s so amaazing about this tour is the backup band. Don Alias performed percussion. Pat Metheney, the guitar wizard, accepted Joni’s invitation. Michael Brecker went along on saxophone. Brilliant young (then) keyboardist Lyle Mays played.  The sadly, doomed bassist Jaco Pastorious did some of his best work on the tour. Every musician seemed to be at the top of his or her form — and it shows, gloriously.

Go see. Then buy the CD and the DVD of the tour.

We won’t see a tour like this again, probably ever. Joni Mitchell’s health problems are well known. Jaco Pastorious died in 1987 after a descent into mental illness. (Son Kenny introduced us to the great Robert Trujillo-produced film “Jaco” last summer; another one worth watching and listening to.)

But we do have the performance from that one night in 1980, at the Santa Barbara Bowl.

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Ashes to ashes, airplanes to spread them, Damon Runyon and silver bells; Wrights flew on December 17, on December 18 an airplane spread Damon Runyon’s ashes (not the same year)

December 18, 2016

Spent a day with my aging father-in-law last week. Conversation is difficult, but memories always flow. We watched the movie version of “Guys and Dolls,” with Sinatra and Brando, and Stubby Kaye’s get-up-and-sing version of “Sit Down! You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”

He was happy to see the thing again, though in the first few minutes he said he didn’t think he’d ever seen the film. My fondness for the piece, and for Damon Runyon’s stories, goes back (too many) decades to a production of the play by the Utah Valley Opera Society. They hired our high school drama director, David Larson, to direct. On a lark I auditioned, telling them I couldn’t really sing or dance, and ended up with a lot of lines in a couple of supporting roles, and singing and dancing both in the chorus.

When my father-in-law joined in the movie chorus of “Fugue for Tinhorns,” I knew we had a good couple of hours. We laughed, watched, reminisced, and sang along.

Damon Runyon could tell stories, true stories about real people. Sometimes the names were changed to protect the innocent, or the guilty; sometimes the real names were more entertaining than the fictional names Runyon invented.

Some time ago I stumbled across the story of Runyon’s son, Damon Runyon, Jr., using an early airplane to spread the playwright’s ashes. It’s a story Runyon would have appreciated. It’s appropriate for the day after the anniversary of the Wrights’ first flight; December 18 is the anniversary of the event.

On December 17, Orville and Wilbur Wright got their heavier-than-air flying contraption to actually fly with motor driving it along.

First flight of the Wright Flyer I, December 1...

First flight of the Wright Flyer I, December 17, 1903, Orville piloting, Wilbur running at wingtip. Photo from Wikipedia

On December 18, Damon Runyon, Jr., got Eddie Rickenbacker to fly over Broadway to scatter the ashes of his father, Damon Runyon.

First Lieutenant E. V. [Eddie] Rickenbacker, 9...

First Lieutenant E. V. [Eddie] Rickenbacker, 94th Aero Squadron, American ace, standing up in his Spad plane. Near Rembercourt, France. Photo from Wikipedia. This photo dates near World War I; Rickenbacker remained a hero for a couple of decades. In 1946, he flew a DC-3 over New York City, and illegally scattered the ashes of raconteur Damon Runyon over his beloved Broadwary.

Not exactly the next day. 43 years and one day apart.  The Wrights first flew in 1903; Runyon died in 1946.

Today in Literature, for December 18:

On this day in 1946 Damon Runyon’s ashes were scattered over Broadway by his son, in a plane flown by Eddie Rickenbacker. Runyon was born in Manhattan, Kansas; he arrived at the bigger apple at the age of thirty, to be a sportswriter and to try out at Mindy’s and the Stork Club and any betting window available his crap-shoot worldview: “All of life is six to five against.” Broadway became his special beat, and in story collections like Guys and Dolls he developed the colorful characters — Harry the Horse, the Lemon Drop Kid, Last Card Louie — and the gangster patois that would swept America throughout the thirties and forties.

A lot of history packed in there.  Runyon’s early reportorial career included a lot of that history — he wrote the lead story for United Press on the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt, for one example.  Runyon found a uniquely American vein of literary ore on Broadway in New York City, and in the ne’er-do-wells, swells, tarts and reformers who flocked to the City that Never Sleeps to seek fame, or fortune, or swindle that fortune from someone else.

As a reporter and essayist, he smoked a lot.  Throat cancer robbed him, first of his voice, then his life at 56.

Runyon’s ashes were spread illegally over Broadway, from a DC-3 piloted by Rickenbacker. Runyon would have liked that.

You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Factoids of history:

  • Twenty movies got crafted from Runyon stories, including “The Lemon Drop Kid” — in two versions, 1934 and 1951. Appropriate to the Christmas season, the 1951 version introduced the song, “Silver Bells” composed by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. (Great explanation of the movie, and song, here.)
  • Runyon got fame first as a sports writer.  He was inducted into the writer’s wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967.
  • According to Wikipedia, Jerry Lewis and others owe a great debt to Damon Runyon:  “The first ever telethon was hosted by Milton Berle in 1949 to raise funds for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.”
  • One might salivate over the varied fare offered in the theaters of Broadway in 1946, Runyon’s final year, “Annie, Get Your Gun” through Shakespeare, and everything in between and on either side
  • Runyon and H. L. Mencken both covered the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, the accused (then convicted) kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh’s baby son
  • Yes, of course, “Guys and Dolls.” Frank Loesser created it, but not of whole cloth, but from the stories of Damon Runyon; it is a masterpiece, perhaps in several realms.  In homage to Runyon, Adam Gopnik wrote:

    Just as Chandler fans must be grateful for Bogart, Runyon fans have to be perpetually happy that the pure idea of Runyon, almost independent of his actual writings, produced the best of all New York musicals: Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls,” which made its début in 1950 and is just now reopening on Broadway in a lavish and energetic new production. But then “Guys and Dolls” is so good that it can triumph over amateur players and high-school longueurs and could probably be a hit put on by a company of trained dolphins in checked suits with a chorus of girl penguins.

    Your author here, Dear Reader, was once one of those trained dolphins. It was magnificent.

“Silver Bells,” from “The Lemon Drop Kid,” with William Frawley, Virginia Maxwell and Bob Hope (1951 version):

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A view of New York City in 1946:

Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975)

Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) “The Artist’s Show, Washington Square,” painted in 1946

Times Square, showing part of Broadway, in November 1946, from the magnificent archives of Life Magazine:

Brownout Time Square.November 1946.© Time Inc.Herbert Gehr - See more at: http://kcmeesha.com/2011/11/29/old-photos-times-square-through-the-years/#sthash.ru9W0F9h.dpuf

Brownout Time Square.November 1946.© Time Inc.Herbert Gehr – See more at: http://kcmeesha.com/2011/11/29/old-photos-times-square-through-the-years/#sthash.ru9W0F9h.dpuf

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

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Beethoven’s birthday and baptism, and accident on the way to the concert hall

December 18, 2016

Beethoven takes an unplanned swim in his rush to the concert hall in Google's Doodle honoring the composer's 245th year. Image from Google, via Washington Post

Beethoven takes an unplanned swim in his rush to the concert hall in Google’s Doodle honoring the composer’s 245th year, 2015. Image from Google, via Washington Post.

Maybe we should say “happy baptism.” The infant Ludwig von Beethoven was baptized on December 17, 1770; he was born the previous day, perhaps (some historians disagree). In 2016, Beethoven is 246. No longer alive, of course.

But the point is, Google honored Beethoven with an interactive Google Doodle in 2015, one of the best they’ve ever done. The Doodle features the composer finishing scores and heading to the concert hall — with a series of mishaps along the way that scatter his musical scores and leaves them torn up, speared and generally out of order.

Then you, Dear Reader, get a chance to re-arrange the score in order. When you do that, it plays. Finally Beethoven gets to the concert hall.

It’s a great learning device, really. Can Google do this for history? Can we figure out a way to create these for use in our classrooms?

Here is the intro to the piece (I’m not skilled enough to embed the entire quiz). Click to Google for the entire piece, with the quizzes.

Now that you’ve finished the quizzes, relax for 42 minutes with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, The Pastorale, performed by the Bremen symphonie, directed by Paavo Jarvi.

Information:

Beethoven: Symphony No.6 in F, “Pastorale”, Op.68
Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
Paavo Jarvi, dir.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience. Just teaching history requires patience.

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Down in the River to Pray, with Longhorn Tubas

November 30, 2016

I love low brass.

An Ohio friend alerted my wife to this piece from the University of Texas Tuba/Euphonium Studio:

Nice production of an old folk/gospel tune, “Down in the River to Pray.” (Considerably different from the Allison Krauss “O, Brother Where Art Thou” version, no?)

Did they record this as a recruiting tool? Or just for the beauty of it?

Credits:

The University of Texas Tuba/Euphonium Studio
Charles Villarrubia, Associate Professor Tuba/Euphonium

Euphonium
Alex Avila
Jose Flores
Luke Gall
Eric Gonzales
Fabian Vargas

Tuba
John Flores
Clay Garrett (soloist)
Keith Packman
Danny Trumble
Ben Vasko
T.J. West

Taylor Rudd, Director of Photography
Mario Mattei, Camera Operator
Jacob Ryan Hamilton, Aerial Photography
Joshua Gall, Recording Engineer
Ani Villarrubia, Production Assistant

Follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/UTTubaEuph/

Tip of the old scrub brush to Donna Hughes and Kathryn Knowles, and their decades-old, interstate friendship.


October 31, we remember the sinking of the Reuben James

October 31, 2016

U.S.S. Reuben James (D-245) on the Hudson River in April 1939, over two years before she was sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic.

U.S.S. Reuben James (DD-245) on the Hudson River in April 1939, over two years before she was sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic. Photo from the Ted Stone Collection, Marines Museum, Newport News, Virginia, via Wikipedia

It was a tragedy in 1941, but before the U.S. could develop a serious policy response to Germany’s action, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.  Within a week after that, our policy towards Germany was set by Germany’s declaration of war on the U.S.

It’s important history for a couple of reasons.

  • The sinking was part of the massive, years-long Battle of the Atlantic, which the Allies won only by building ships faster than Germany could sink them.  Had the Allies lost this battle, the war would have been lost, too.
  • While the USS Reuben James was a Navy destroyer, the key weapons of the Battle of the Atlantic were Merchant Marine cargo ships, carrying goods and arms to Britain and other Allied nations.  “Civilians” played a huge role in World War II, supplying the soldiers, armies, navies and air forces.
  • Recently, politicians took to making claims that the U.S. declared war on Germany without any hostile action having passed between them, without Germany having perpetrated any hostilities toward the U.S.  Look at the dates, it’s not so.
  • Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the event, giving us a touchstone to remember.

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub covered the event with longer, detailed articles in past years, including these, which you should see especially if you are a student in a history class or a teacher of one:

Europe has changed. The world has changed.  The U.S. has changed.  War has changed.  We should remember, especially those people who died defending the merchants who defended the idea of the Four Freedoms.

Where did the ship get its name? From a Barbary War hero:

Reuben James was born in Delaware, Ohio about 1776. He joined the U.S. Navy and served on various ships, including the frigate USS CONSTELLATION. It was during the infamous Barbary Wars that the American frigate PHILADELPHIA was captured by the Barbary pirates. Having run aground in the pirate capital of Tripoli on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the crew had to abandon ship and formulate a plan of attack. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, along with a group of volunteers which included Boatswain’s Mate Reuben James, entered Tripoli harbor under the cover of darkness in an attempt to set the PHILADELPHIA to the torch so that the pirates could not make use of her.

The American volunteers boarded the PHILADELPHIA on 16 February 1804 and were met by a group of the savage Barbary pirates who were guarding their prize. A furious battle ensued, and during the bloody chaos of hand-to-hand combat, a villanous pirate made ready to end the life of Lieutenant Decatur. Reuben James, with both of his hands already wounded, in an act of selfless dedication and courage did throw his hand before the pirate’s cleaving blade! Willing to give his life in defense of his captain, Reuben James took the blow from the sword!

Having proved to the world over the courage and dedication of United States Sailors, Reuben James also hammered home the fact that US Sailors are undefeatable by not only surviving, but recovering from his wounds and continuing his career in the U.S. Navy! After spending many more years with Decatur, James was forced to retire in January 1836 because of declining health brought on because of past wounds. He died on 3 December 1838 at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C.

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Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

 


A suitable hymn to new beginnings from Michael Hunter Ochs

October 5, 2016

In the spirit of

In the spirit of “Playing for Change,” Jewish cantors and congregations from around the world cooperated to produce the 92nd Street Y’s version of “A New Year,” a song by Michael Hunter Ochs. Pictured is Cantor Julia Cadrain, Central Synagogue, New York City.

New York’s arts-active 92nd Street Y produced a fine little video of several Jewish congregations and cantors from around the world collaborating on a tune for Rosh Hashana.

“A New Year” would be a suitable tune for any congregation that sings, I think, regardless faith. While the video is for the new Jewish year 5777, no reason it can’t be adopted by any group needing a song to see in 2017, or a new liturgical year, or a new fiscal year.

In fact, it would do the nation good were Congress to walk out on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and sing this song at the start of every Fiscal Year, on October 1 (not too late for this year, Paul Ryan . . .).

Details about the film from the YouTube site:

Published on Sep 28, 2016

Communities around the world join together in song to celebrate…A New Year. #NewYearPrayer#RoshHashanah2016#RoshHashahah

Download the lyrics and the sheet music here: http://www.92y.org/…/Bronfman/A-New… Special thanks to Michael Hunter Ochs for writing such a beautiful song! http://www.ochsongs.com/bio/

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(Note: I get a “runtime error” when I try to link to the sheet music; I hope you have better luck.)


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