Blog: Music

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.


Last night we saw the Broadway tour of Hadestown, a musical retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (and Hades and Persephone). I'll assume my readers know (or will Google) the Greek myths, so in that sense there are no spoilers, but this show puts an interesting spin on it. Narrated by Hermes and with active participation by the Fates, we see both Orpheus and Eurydice "up above" and Hades' realm "down below", which is reached by a train. The train motif shows up in the music, the staging, and (I kid you not) the lighting. The company is smaller than many musicals and put to effective use. I enjoyed the music and don't have a good way to describe it.

Eurydice's and Oprheus's world is harsh from climate change, the program notes, though I might have missed that specific angle otherwise. Orpheus is focused on writing a song that will bring the world back into balance, but it's slow going. In this version Eurydice isn't bitten by a poisonous snake; starving and cold in the midst of winter and unable to find work, she is lured to Hadestown by promises of work and shelter. But the workers there toil away in misery in a factory, building fortifications for Hades' domain. ("Why We Build the Wall" resonates well beyond this show, I assume by design.) When Orpheus shows up to rescue Eurydice, the other workers are taking note too. Meanwhile, Persephone, whose marriage with Hades is rather rocky (shall we say), is also taking note of the power of love.

The story is a tragedy; we know it from the myth and we're told so by Hermes in the introductory stanzas of the show. But it has a positive vibe, too. I don't want to say more about that for people who haven't seen it yet.

Orpheus's music calls for falsetto in some key places -- whole passages, not just a note or two -- and the actor in this production pulled it off very smoothly. At the other end of that, uh, scale, I find myself wanting to catch a glimpse of the score, because Hades has some very low bass notes, also performed well in this production. C2 maybe???

I don't see a lot of Broadway-class shows so maybe this is normal, but I was very impressed by the staging and especially the lighting. There's one set, used throughout, that evokes the different settings just through the movements of small items (by cast members, not gophers) and changes of lighting. The lighting in this show is very active; I commented to Dani that the lighting operators deserved cast credit. It's that integral to the show, and it's not a small effort. One warning, though: there are strobe effects, and there were times when lights were pointed at the audience for brief periods.

There were some sound problems in the show we saw -- engineering problems, not cast problems. When things got loud, they spiked the levels and we got some distortion, making it hard to hear the lyrics in a few places. I'm told by somebody who sees a lot of shows there that this is not uncommon in that venue (Benedum Center), alas.

I enjoyed the show, even with those sound issues. I wasn't familiar with the show and hadn't heard the soundtrack before seeing it; this was very much an "I've heard good things about it" outing.


Eric Coleman hosts a weekly filk podcast, FilkCast. He wrote me recently to ask if it was ok to include On the Mark's music. Twist my arm, I said. :-)

Today's episode includes our recording of "Flowers for Algernon", written by Kathy Mar. It also includes one of my favorite Bill Sutton songs, "The Pilot's Eyes", and a bunch of other songs both classic and modern. I'm glad that this music is getting heard beyond filk circles at SF cons, and glad that I got to be a small part of it.

Some Pennsic music

The Debatable Choir performed at Pennsic last week; check us out (~26 minutes). We knew we were running tight on time so instead of talking about each of the pieces our director made up a program. The list of songs is in the video description, but I'll also list them here for posterity:

  • Shoot False Love (Thomas Morley, 1557-1602)
  • O Dolce Nocte (Philippe Verdelot, 1475-1552, lyrics by Niccolo Macchiavelli, 1469-1527)
  • Nel Mezzo (Giovanni da Florentia, ~1350), performed by Lady Alysoun and Mistress Arianna
  • Ecce Quomodo (Jacob Handl, 1550-1591)
  • Pase el Agoa (Anonymous, from the Cancionero de Palacio, early 16th c.)
  • Weep You No More Sad Fountains (John Dowland, 1563-1626)
  • O Virgo Splendens (Llibre Vermeil de Montserrat c. 1370), performed by Lady Bugga, Baroness Gwendolyn, Lord Pavel, Lady Libby, and Mistress Hilda
  • Sauter Danser (Orlando di Lasso, 1530-1594)
  • Cantate Domino (Giovanni Croce, 1557-1609)

For my Jewish readers who would prefer not to listen to Christian music, when you get to the smaller group singing "O Virgo Splendens" you can skip ahead to 19:30 to get to the next song. But if you don't mind listening to that text, they did a very nice job with it.

The other two religious songs, in case you're wondering, are from Isaiah (Ecce Quomodo) and Psalms (Cantate Domino). The first is in Slovenian Latin, so the pronunciation is a little different in places. Before learning this song I didn't know that Slovenians had their own special Latin.

The Magic Flute

We were in DC for a few days and, while there, we went to a performance of The Magic Flute (performed in English, not German) at the Kennedy Center. The performers were excellent, and they obviously had fun "updating" the script here and there. The costumes were very good, as was the sound. The set design was rather unusual; the implementation of their design was excellent, but I'm not sure what I thought of the design.

There was a short (optional) lecture before the show, which I'm very glad we went to. Here we learned some of the historical background for the show; while most operas of the time were written for aristocrats and in Italian, this one was written for a for-profit theatre catering to "just plain folks". It's more accessible and less hoity-toity. I don't know what's original to the script and what was added by this performance, but this had more of the feel of (high-end) street theatre in some ways, including humorous wordplay and some physical comedy. It also has spoken dialogue, so it felt kind of like a modern musical.

The story (very briefly; click the link for more): Tamino is recruited by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the evil sorceror Sarastro. She sends with him Papageno, a nutty bird-catcher who dresses as a bird and really only cares about wine, women, and song. (Tamino has nobler goals.) It turns out that Sarastro isn't so evil, and he kidnapped Pamina to save her from her (in his opinion) evil mother the queen. (At this point I expected it to turn out that Sarastro was the father, but no.) Tamino (who has fallen in love with Pamina) will be allowed to wed her if he passes certain mystical trials, and Papageno has to play too because he's there -- but ok, if Papageno behaves he'll also be allowed to wed Papagena, who seems a perfect fit for him, solving his "can't get women" problem. Trials happen (with bumps along the way) and there's a happy ending. (Oh, the flute? The queen gives it to Tamino as a magical aid and he uses it to get through some of the trials. Really, for something that makes the title of the show, it's kind of minor.)

Papageno provides a lot of comedic relief and the performer was very good. (It may be harder to do that kind of role well than that of a serious character like Tamino.) Sarastro was also very good as both actor and singer; he struggled a little with the lowest note, but Wikipedia tells me it's an F2, so I can understand that. (Deep bass.) Tamino and Pamina were well-done; I wasn't as impressed with the queen of the night and Papagena (both sopranos).

There were obvious adjustments in both the dialogue and the lyrics; the former is easy to do but the latter would seem to require a little more work. One of Papageno's songs included references to Twitter, and there was a bit of dialogue where somebody tells the three spirits (played by children) that they'll understand something better when they reach adolescence. (There were other changes too, but you get the idea.) I enjoyed these tweaks, though it made me wonder what is actually in the original script to begin with and whether it included hooks for this sort of thing.

The orchestral score was done well and mostly acted as support for what's going on on stage (as opposed to taking center stage itself, which I understand sometimes happens). The score did not strike me as overly complex; it was a good solid score, performed well.

The set design was rather abstract; backgrounds of colored lines and swirls at times, sometimes suggesting a setting (like "night" or "inside a temple") and other times not. There was one point where the background had animated circles/elliptoids moving around to no clear purpose and I found it a little distracting; I don't know what that was meant to be. There was also an opening number (before anybody was on stage) where they had animated lines moving around on a screen for several minutes, which left me wondering why. (It was only once the show proper started that I would realize that this was part of their overall design.) Lighting design (beyond this) was generally pretty good, though the follow-spot operators were sometimes a little off in tracking the leads. (The leads almost always had spots on them, even when the stage was brightly lit. I don't know if that's typical.)

A word about visual aids: This was only my second (live performance of an) opera (excluding Gilbert & Sullivan, if you count that), and the first was a dismal failure because it was in Italian, we were sitting too far back for me to read the supertitles, and having read the plot synopsis in advance hadn't been enough to really follow it. So this time we splurged on the second-best class of tickets (the price point for the best tripped our "you've got to be kidding" alarms). I mean, it's the Kennedy Center; it's likely to be good, and how often are we going to do this? Data point: the second-best class of tickets, which put us four rows back in the first balcony, allowed me to just barely read the supertitles about three-quarters of the time. (So I definitely missed some jokes, including, I later learned, a Twitter hashtag.) And this opera was in English, so I had extra input. (Operatic sopranos and children are a loss; I can't understand what they're singing regardless of language. The male leads were better, and there was a good alto mezzo-soprano.) So, it looks like it's only viable for me to go to an opera if we get seats up close; I doubt I'll bother again.

Spamalot (short notes)

That was very silly (as expected, given the source). One thing I didn't expect, and greatly enjoyed, was how "meta" the show is. Several songs comment on the show itself (e.g. "this is the song that goes like this", talking about standard tropes), and the watery tart's solo midway through the second act was hilarious. (No spoiler here, but if it comes up in comments, consider yourself warned.)

Providing the lyrics for the final song (hey, some people might not know all the words already) so the audience could sing along was a nice touch.

There are a few hooks for localization. Some cities scan better than others, but I assume touring companies are up for the challenge. :-)

Wicked (short notes)

We saw Wicked tonight in London. I previously only knew the short (two-sentence or so) description of the show; hadn't heard the soundtrack or much about the show.

Great show! There is a lot of complicated stage-craft (and lighting-craft) in this show and the production we saw was smooth and effective and at times visually stunning. I'm sure I missed a lot of smaller details from row T, but even so I thoroughly enjoyed myself. We also had a good cast and (except for the finale) excellent micing, so everything was clear. I loved some of the humorous bits in the show, too. ("Blonde." :-) )

And let me also say how thrilled I am to see a starring female role written for an alto. I was beginning to doubt that these existed.

I hadn't considered the difference between touring companies and long-term residence. Building out the production pays off when you'll be there for a year or ten... I don't think I've ever seen a show that's been in its theatre for more than about three weeks before.


I went to the final Darkover convention this weekend. There'll be another convention in the same place on the same weekend starting next year, but this chapter is ended. (The founder and consistent organizer of the con died this past year.)

It seemed like there were more people there this year, some for the memorial and some because it's the last one, I assume. I hadn't been there in several years, but they asked if On the Mark would be interested in doing a concert, so we came out of retirement to do that. One of our members lives four hours away now, so rehearsals were challenging (and alas, Google Hangouts didn't work out for us), but we made it work and had a good time. I think it was a good concert and they seemed to like us.

This was also the final Clam Chowder concert. They've been a fixture at this convention for ages, and they were my inspiration when thinking about building On the Mark. They, too, have geographic problems, which are about to get worse, so I believe them when they say they're done this time. (They retired once before, but it didn't stick.)

I enjoyed the Homespun Celeidh Band concert. They have some fine individual musicians and their group really holds together. They're fun to watch. There were also some fun informal music sessions (jam session, choral singing, etc). Darkover is unusual among SF cons in having this much folk and instrumental music. It's a big part of why I went to the con for so many years. (I'm not actually a fan of the Darkover books -- but Darkover is such a small part of the programming lately that that doesn't matter.) It was nice to be able to reconnect with some folks I haven't seen in a while.

Note for the future: while the drive to the convention is 4.5 hours (maybe less, but when is there not traffic on I695?), the drive home from the convention is way longer. Two hours to get through the Breezewood interchange today -- ugh!

Pennsic 42

This was my 32nd Pennsic. As best I can recall, we had the best weather I've ever had at Pennsic. That is the opposite of what I was anticipating; late July in western PA is usually hot and sticky, except for brief interludes where downpours turn dirt roads into mud (but with no lasting relief from the heat and humidity). And yet, the weather was nearly perfect -- highs mostly in the 70s (sometimes low 80s), lows mostly in the 50s (maybe upper 40s one night; you did bring blankets, right?), a little rain but nothing severe or that killed a whole day. Nice!

Several friends I enjoy hanging out with didn't attend this year for various reasons, and I never managed to connect with my friend Yaakov (who was there) and his family. Drat!

Attendance was just under 10,000 this year, for the first time in (I'm told) almost 20 years. Between being a week earlier and being truncated (see later in this post), I'm guessing that people for whom it's a significant effort or expense decided that this was a good year to skip.

There were some fun moments and "quotable quotes" in camp this year, all of which I am currently failing to remember. Maybe later. Read more…

Les Mis (movie)

I never got around to seeing the Les Mis movie in the theatre, but I watched it on DVD last night. (Remember when we had to wait a year or more, rather than a few months, for a movie to come out on DVD? My, how times have changed.)

It appears that my standards for musicality, for a musical, are higher in a film than they are on a stage. On the stage you get one shot, and sometimes you have to sing in challenging postures (like while lying down or leaning over), and you have to account for the acoustics of the hall. None of these considerations apply on film. So while I enjoyed many aspects of the movie, particularly being able to see details of gesture and facial expression and setting that I would never be able to see on a stage, in the end I was disappointed because the singing was not, in general, as good as I had hoped it would be. I've seen three live productions, and all had stronger singers. So I'm disappointed; I guess I expected that to be even better in the movie. I'm not saying the singing was poor; most of it was quite serviceable, and Javert and Marius were consistently good. Oh well.

Every time I see this show my appreciation of Javert as a tragic character increases. Here we have someone who is so bound up in a worldview as to be harmful, yet he doesn't come across as a nut-case as sometimes happens.

One question: in every production I've seen (including the movie), the child at the barricade has a thick, exaggerated accent (which I would call Cockney were this not set in France). What's up with that?

Answer in comments: the accent is a proxy for "low-class".

Fun with ceremony (Coronation)

This past weekend I had the chance to participate in something really spiffy -- a recreation of a historic coronation ceremony. Most SCA ceremony is fundamentally modern, dressed up in renaissance trappings; the chance to do more-serious recreation is pretty special.

Of course, there are some special considerations -- historically, ceremonies like this would have been Christian religious services (part of a mass, I think), which in addition to being problematic for some participants (ahem) also would be a violation of SCA rules. So some work needed to be done on that, but I'm impressed by how real it felt nonetheless.

Baron Steffan wrote/adapted the ceremony based on the Coronation service of Maximilian I (1486). Music was a central part (rather than being incidental as is sometimes the case), and we had about 20 singers from across the kingdom (about half from the Debatable Choir), organized and led by Arianna of Wynthrope. We sang four songs: "Te Regem Laudamus" (adapted from a "Te Deum"), Non Nobis Domine, the roll of kings and queens (more on that below), and "Da Pacem Domine", which we'll be using throughout the reign as processional music.

By ancient custom, the coronation ceremony includes the reading of the roll of all the past kings and queens. Usually this is read by a herald; we chanted it (adapting the Te Regem). One thing that was fun about this was that, to make it not clash, we sang Latinized versions of all the names (thanks Steffan!), and "collapsed" different rulers with the same names. So if you listen to the chant you'll hear Christophers 1 through 6, but that's really two different people each ruling three times. Some names underwent more transformation than others; I think the biggest change was "Rurik" to "Rodericus". I wonder how many of them were startled by hearing their names this time. :-)

Dagonell has collected the ceremony, its documentation, the sheet music, and recordings (and other stuff from the event). Check it out! (The recordings here are of the music parts; I do hope somebody was recording the rest of the ceremony and that it'll make its way to that page.)

I don't go to a lot of SCA events any more, and almost never ones not in my local group, but this was totally worth the effort.