March 21st, 2007

An Evening in Deutchland, Alverno College.

Long time, no post: so some catch-up entries will follow.

On Wednesday, march 7th, we went to Alverno College for "An Evening in Deutschland" dinner and performance. Alverno is a smaller Catholic, women's college on south side of Milwaukee. Georgie worked in their library for a couple of years, and we are still on their mailing list for cultural and outreach events. About once each year, the "extension" program has an ethnic dinner evening, and this year's choice was Germany. Having the taste of Austria still figuratively in our mouths, we thought it would be good to try their German cuisine.

Alverno sets up for the dinners in a "ballroom" space in one of their newer buildings, which is a pleasant venue. Diners are seated eight to a table, and we did our usual thing of finding an otherwise empty table and seeing who would choose to sit with us. We were fortunate in our dinner companions, in particular a well-traveled couple who had a good store of pleasant chat. The buffet dinner included a very tasty beef rouladen, chicken marinated in dark beer, spatzle, red cabbage, braised root vegetables, cucumber salad, and apple strudel, with coffee, iced tea, or milk for beverages. (The lack of alcoholic beverage, beer or wine, was the only un-German thing.) All the food was quite good.

The after dinner program was introduced by a mamber of the Alverno staff, who gave a capsule review of German history and culture in ten minutes, a feat which would have been more impressive had she not managed to mangle all the names of more than two syllables. The performing group was the DANK (Deutsch Amerkanischer National Kongress) Choir and Folk Dancers. The DANK Choir is one of five German-language choral groups in Southeastern Wisconsin and the only mixed choir. (There are three "mannerchor" and one "damenchor".) There were about three women to every man in this group, and I was rathr uncharitably thinking that the men must be solely husbands dragged along for the ride, since during the early part of the performance the men's voices were hardly present and marked by mumbling when discernible. However, once the chorus got to "Drink, Drink, Drink!", men warmed up and began to pull their weight.

The vocal program was a choral "tour" of German lands, starting from Hamburg in the north, and ending up in the Tyrol in the south. We heard a lot of songs that were new to us, plus some very familiar, like "Edelweiss", "Lili Marlene," and "Du, Du, Leibst Mir in Hertzen." Songs were introduced by choir members with brief descriptions of the region and what the song was about, which made for a very informative as well as entertaining time. The program was ended with four folkdances (five were scheduled, but the CD player refused to play the music for the "naughty" Window Dance) including an impressively complcated Maypole dance which both wound and UNwound the ribbons.

A good time was had by all. We've attended a number of Alverno's ethnic evenings over the years, and expect to continue in the future.

The Chieftains, Riverside Theatre

On Thursday, March 8, we had tickets to see The Cheiftains at the Riverside Theatre in downtown Milwaukee. Although the venerable Irish group was a regular fixture at Milwaukee's summer Irish Fest, that hasn't happened for several years. Instead, they have lately hit town as part of their annual tour, usually around St.Patrick's day. (This year ON St. Patrick's Day they were playing some other low dive--Carnegie Hall--.)

The four surviving members of the band, Sean Keane, Matt Molloy, Kevin Conneff and Paddy Moloney, were accompanied by a number of "guests," three of whom sat in and performed as part of the group all evening. These were Triona Marshall, the notable Irish harpist, ably filling in for the late Derrick Bell, Jon Pilatzke doulbing on second fiddle and dancing, and keyboardist Jeff White. Champion dancer Cara Butler joined Jon and his brother Nathan Pilatzke as the show's lead dancers. The Chieftains were also joined by Liadan, an all-female Irish group, formed at the University where the Chieftains have been artists in residence. When all the musicians were playing on stage, it was a veritable Irish orchestra, including pipes, two harps, keyboard, whistle, four fiddles, two flutes, bodhran, and accordion. (Liadan consists of Síle Denvir, harpist; Deirdre Chawke, piano accordion; Valerie Casey and Claire Dolan, fiddles; Sarah-Jane Woods, flute; Elaine Cormican, whistles.) As an obligatory local touch, some members of the Cashel-Dennehey dance school also got to share the stage for a couple of numbers.

A note on dancing: while I respect and admire the Irish dancers, espeically those of champion caliber such as accompany the Chieftains, I am a bit put off by the following scenario which uniformly occurs: band has been playing full-out virtuoso music for a good four minutes: dancer comes out, and gives thirty seconds of flying feet: thunderous applause. While the dancer is in the nature of a soloist, nevertheless, it seems they get more and louder applause than musical solos of equivalent brilliance. Now, with the Chieftains, this changed as the night went on and the audience warmed up, but it still seems a bit undiscerning on the part of audiences.

That said, the dancers were also worthy of all the applause they got. Cara Butler is just a beautiful dancer in all senses, and her joy in her art is evident. The Pilatzkes added some interesting nuances, in that besides the Flatley-style Irish dance that has been the vogue, they also do a Canadian variant of step dancing that is a looser, more mobile style (imagine Buddy Ebsen as Jed Clampett doing Irish dance), as well as classical American tap dancing. The difference between tap and "Lord of the Dance" is subtle, but discernible, and I believe has much to do with where the weight is placed and what part of the foot hits the floor when, so far as I could see.

As far as seeing goes, the Riverside is a nicely renovated Vaudeville house, that has become one of Milwaukee's major venues for travelling music groups. The small or quirky groups tend to go to the Pabst, and the Broadway road companies now go to the "Milwaukee Theatre," (formerly the Arena). The Riverside renovation was a centerpiece of an attempt at downtown revitalization in the late 80's and was nicely done. The sight lines are very good. Much was made of replacing the old seating with newer, wider seats at the time, but the theatre's very steep rake still means there's not much knee room between rows. In order to make the business viable, the developers insisted on, and obtained a liquor license, which means that there are bars on each level in the European fashion. However, they do not close down during performance, and I don't believe that they do the European style thing of taking advance drink orders during the interval. When you combine this with the theater policy that they DO seat latecomers once the performance is started, meant that for the first three numbers of the show, and to a lesser extent after the break, there was a more-or-less steady stream of ushers and latecomers, many bearing drinks in hand, filing in, which I found rather annoying. Admittedly this was a Thursday night, after work date, and the Chieftains may well draw people from far away, but I did not see any excuse for people being that late to the performance since the weather was not bad.

Bit, all in all , that was a minor irritant. The Chieftains and all their guests were in very fine form, and when they are the best in the world at what they do, that is saying much.