October 5th, 2009

Early Music Now: Galileo's Daughters

We opened the new performance season with the first of a number of concerts we have tickets for with Early Music Now, at the Zelazo Center on the UWM Campus on Saturday, September 26th. 

"Galileo's Daughter's" represents an unusual concept, which is a concert combining a lecture/narration and "illustrated" with astronomical pictures and videos. The musicians are Sarah Pillow, vocals; Mary Anne Ballard, viola da gamba; and "guest" Ronn McFarlane on lute.  The spoken word portion was
done by Dava Sobel, who is a former New York Times science reporter and the author of Galileo's Daughter, a book based on surviving letters to Galileo Galilei from his eldest child.

To me, the most interesting parts of the narration were the early sections, which dealt with the work of Galileo's father, Vincenzo Galilei, who was in his day a famous lutenist and music theorist.
Although Vincenzo taught Galileo the lute and other instruments, Vincenzo encouraged Galileo to study medicine instead of mathematics, which was a poorly paid specialty. (Vincenzo was very aware of this,
since, at that time, music theory was considered a branch of mathematics). However, Galileo had inherited his father's stubborn streak and followed his own interests with the historical results we know. 

Besides being a notable lutenist, teacher, composer, and transcriber of music, Vincenzo was a member of the Florentine Camerata, a group of humanists, musicians, poets and intellectuals who gathered to discuss
and guide trends in the arts, especially music and drama.  One of the major works of this group was the project to 'reconstruct' the dramatic style of the ancient Greek plays, which it was believed had been chanted to musical accompaniment. Composers in the group abandoned the polyphonic style then in vogue, and instead wrote songs for single voices, which could be more intelligible to the listener, more
emotionally powerful, and more ornamented. Applied to a verse drama, this became "opera." 

Vincenzo also worked intensively to improve the lute, experimenting extensively with string lengths and materials in order to determine the best sound. This methodical and hands-on approach may have set the
pattern for Galileo's later physical experiments. It also put Vincenzo into conflict with his old teacher, who tried to suppress his work. Vincenzo eventually prevailed, again setting a pattern of resistance to
authority that his son would follow. Vincenzo's experiments lead to the design of a new lute with graduated spacing of the frets, which has since become the model for all fretted instruments.

The latter part of the readings was less interesting. I didn't get the significance of a portion of a letter from daughter Virginia about sending him candied citron and pears, except to establish that Galileo
did, in fact, have a daughter. Galileo's own writing was represented  nly in the final piece, a rather insipid prayer. Some of the astronomical visuals were interesting, notably pictures of Jupiter's
south pole, but all in all I found it preferable just to listen with my eyes closed in the dark room.

If there was a problem with the musical portion of the program, it was not that it was uneven, but that it was TOO even. It seemed that nearly every piece had a similar, slow, tempo, and I found myself wishing that
they would have worked in a couple more lively pieces.

That said, Sarah Pillow is a fine singer, who has an excellent grasp of the Renaissance and early Baroque styles and intonations. Her delivery of the songs could not be faulted.  Ballard and McFarlane are likewise
masters of their instruments and played beautifully whether accompanying Pillow or in purely instrumental pieces. 

After an intermission, McFarlane and Pillow took the stage for a bit of music not on the program. McFarlane played two pieces for the lute of his own composition, on based on an old tune "Man of Art," and one
inspired by an underwater cave. Then he accompanied Pillow on a couple of jazz standards (one of her other specialties). These were all excellent, but there were only four pieces in this 'second half' and I
could have asked for more. Most disappointing was that Ballard did not appear, as I would have liked to hear more of her instrument. Insistent applause by the audience did not elicit an encore.

All in all, a curious performance of more academic than artistic interest. While glad to have heard it, if given a "do-over" we might well not have chosen this concert.

American Players Theatre, “A Winter’s Tale,” and “Henry V.”

Hmm. Some things I thought I posted don't seem to be there:

Herewith, this rather belated commentary:

Saturday, Sept. 12, we drove the long road to Spring Green (complete with scenic detour) for a Shakespeare double-header: “A Winter’s Tale,” in the afternoon, and “Henry V” in the evening.   Although scatter showers were a possibility, the weather held good, breaking a rain jinx that had plagued us on the “history” plays.


“A Winter’s Tale” is a “comedy” in that it has a happy ending. Nevertheless, it is a dark and strange play, with very little funny about it, save for the comedic characters of the rustics who are only named as “Shepherd,” (Jonathan Smoots), and his son, “Clown” (Steve Haggard).


The first half of the play deals with the jealousy of Leontes, King of Sicilia (David Daniel).  He has pushed his virtuous wife, Hermione (Colleen Madden) to befriend his childhood companion, Polixenes, King of Bohemia (  ), and then puts the worst possible interpretation on their innocent interaction.  Daniel gives a searing interpretation of Leontes’ paranoia, which is every bit as powerful as that of Shakespeare’s Othello. On the one hand, it is more terrible because Leontes is doing it all to himself, with no Iago to mislead him, but also more contemptible, since he does not have the excuse of relying on faked evidence.  When Leontes commands Camillo, his steward (Darragh Kennan), to poison Polixenes, Camillo rebels, warns Polixenes, and the two of them flee to Bohemia. Leontes turns his unslaked wrath on the pregnant Hermione, convinced that the child she is bearing is not his, but Polixenes’.  When the girl child is born, Leontes initially commands that she should be “given to the fire.”  When his noblemen protest the barbarity, he instead orders Antigonus (   ),  husband of Paulina (Catherine Lynn Davis), who has galled Leontes with her staunch defense of Hermione, to take the child to some remote place and leave it there to live or die as the gods will.  


Soon after Antigonus departs, the King’s messengers to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi return, Leontes not having been quite willing to judge her guilty of treason purely on his own authority. Hermione is brought into the court, at which time the judgment of the Oracle is delivered: “Hermione is chaste;
Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes
a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten;
and the king shall live without an heir, if that
which is lost be not found.


Leontes dares even to rage against Apollo and declare the oracle false, until a messenger arrives with the news that his son has suddenly died. Hermione falls into a swoon, and is likewise shortly pronounced dead. Leontes is overcome with grief as his eyes are opened to his folly.


Meanwhile, Antigonus has landed on the shores of “the deserts of Bohemia” as a storm threatens. He has chosen this spot having been so directed by the spirit of Hermione in a dream, who also told him to name the child “Perdita”, and prophesied that he would never see his wife again.  As the storm breaks, he finds a sheltered spot to leave the babe, along with a coffer of gold and a scroll telling her story.  Then, he is attacked by a savage beast, giving rise to one of the most famous stage directions in theatre: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”  The child is found by the shepherd. His son, “Clown” enters, and relates the news he has seen: Antigonus torn apart and devoured, and the Sicilian ship destroyed with all hands by the raging weather.  They find the coffer of gold and rejoice: the clown vows to go back and bury what is left of Antigonus, since it is a “lucky day” and they’ll “do good deeds on’t.”


The second part of the play picks up sixteen years later, with Perdita, having grown into beauty, believing she is the Shepherd’s daughter. Her looks and grace have won the love of Florizel (  ), son of Polixenes.  The course of true love, however, does not run smooth, and how things all work out, driven in part by the machinations of Camillo, and the rogue Autolycus (Brian Robert Mani), are in some ways logical, and in some ways fantastic. The second half has a more farcical tone than the first, but with some jolts of drama, such as when Polixenes, threatening Perdita, shows that he can be just as tyrannical as his former friend, Leontes.


The stand-out acting job in this performance was David Daniel as Leontes, who held nothing back in his portrayal of the king whose jealousy rises to the level of mental illness. I was impressed by how Daniel, whom I have tended to see as a second-string leading man, has matured as an actor. He was of course well supported by the rest of the cast who were as ever line-perfect and effective in their roles.  The very stark set, consisting of one wedge-shaped piece of ramp and a skeletal throne-like chair, proved quite versatile in presenting the various scenes. I’m not sure why the fashion for early Twentieth-century period costuming in Shakespeare persists, but at least the costumes did not distract—with one exception.  Perdita, in the scenes at the farmstead, is given a pleated linen gown which looked like a leftover from “Anthony and Cleopatra,” did not flatter her, and was entirely unlike the other “shepherdess” outfits on stage.


Overall, a very fine performance we were glad to have enjoyed.


The evening’s show was “Henry V,” which made it a very long day for Matt Schwader and David Daniel , both of whom had major roles in this play also, Schwader as Henry, and Daniel as Fluellen, among others.  There were some very interesting approaches taken with this production.  Taking as a theme the Chorus’ (James Ridge) opening speech, to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts,” the play was staged with a surprisingly small cast, most of whom (except Schwader) took on three and four distinct roles. The actors were dressed in boots, jean-like pants, and coordinating tops, and swapped accessories—hats, cloaks, bits of armor, skirts, etc., as they switched parts. This all worked very well.  There were some interesting interpretations as well: Henry’s “Once more unto the breach” speech at Harfleur is the rousing battlefield exhortation we all expect and that the scene calls for.  By contrast, his “St. Crispin’s Day” monologue, which is often presented as a set-piece speech to the troops, was here done as a more intimate and almost casual conversation with his intimates—it worked, but I felt it lacked a bit. In the scene with Princess Katharine, Henry comes over more as a “regular guy” than someone who knows he’s charming.


In my opinion, the play benefited from the “uncut” treatment APT is famous for, which shows us that Henry’s attempt at boosting the morale of his troops before Agincourt is not a qualified success; that “Hal” has not lost the sense of humour he had in his days with Falstaff;  and gives us the (all offstage) lamentable deaths of Falstaff, old and “heartbroken,”; Nym and Bardolph, hanged as thieves; Falstaff’s page, slain at Agincourt, one of the “none else of name;” and Pistol, angry and bitter, left to return to England, a life of crime, and no doubt an end similar to Nym and Bardolph.


Schwader gives a very energetic and naturalistic performance as Henry, which works well with the direction given the play.  Having played one of Shakespeare’s Welshmen (“Sir Hugh” in “Merry Wives of Windsor,”) I can attest that it is difficult to make American audiences take the Welsh as funny as Shakespeare evidently thought them, but Daniel  did as well as anyone I have seen with his aggressive and canting Fluellen. It was fun and interesting to see actors like Smoots go smoothly from being the high-flown Constable of France in one scene to the grubby and growling Pistol in the next; equally good was Carrie Coon as Falstaff’s boy and Princess Katharine, with kudos to her and Tim Gittings for pronunciation of French that made clear why parts of the English-teaching scene should be funny--.


This was a really fine show that I would recommend to anyone. (And we enjoyed it the more for not having been rained out!)