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Monday, March 17, 2014

West Side Story*: a review with benefits

West Side Story and this writer have a long and (forgive the turn of phrase) storied co-existence.  It was the first musical he played in the pit orchestra on trombone (Hope Summer Repertory Theater, 1978, featuring Tom Stechshulte as Lt. Schank, and the first play in which he played a supporting role (Ofc. Krupke, Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, 1979). He has played the Symphonic Dances on several occasions, for both orchestra and concert band and watched the movie on TV countless times. He's now coming full circle and seeing it live from the audience for the first time, over 35 years after his first performance.

In the ten years the writer has been living in Norristown, he has heard seemingly hundreds of accounts of the Cecil B. De Mille-like proportions of Bishop Kenrick HS/Kennedy-Kenrick HS/Pope John Paul II HS's musical theater productions, leading him to wonder if West Side Story should more accurately be named Western Hemisphere. Nonetheless, he will attempt to keep an open mind as he listens, watches, and evaluates.  This review is, as I say, with benefits, because I will also pass judgement on PJPII's musical theater program.
Sunday: Saw the show; took the family out for dinner afterwards.

Monday: Well, rather than give a blow-by-blow description and my opinion thereof, I'm going to make statements and let you compare what I witnessed to what you've seen in high school and college productions of this show.

1.  I was handed a program that topped out at 186 pages--35 of which were actually about the show. The remainder consisted of advertisements and personal messages purchased by the family and friends of cast and crew.  Charles Dicken's novel A Christmas Carol wasn't that long.

2. Pre-show, they presented a slide show of "rehearsal highlights", with music from the West Side Story soundtrack.  I was really tired of "Tonight" and "Somewhere" by the time they started, which was

3. 20 minutes late.  

4. Instead of the overture, they played a short film featuring toddlers, voiced-over by teenagers and adults, in scenes from the play.

I don't have strong enough adjectives (fatuous and tacky come to mind) for my opinion of that film.  It's one thing to create that for one's own personal use, but don't make me sit through it as part of the admission price.  It insulted Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents, Robbins, and everyone involved in creating the original play. If you can't honor the composer and other creative forces who came together to create a masterpiece like West Side Story, then you have absolutely no business putting on that play.

5. Now, keep in mind the student's parts with lines were double-cast. I have no fundamental problem with that. Vocally, this is a demanding show. Tony, Maria, Bernardo, and Anita were triple-cast. I suppose that if you have the qualified folks to do those roles in great enough number, fine.

The problem I had was that the cast totaled--get ready--over 250 students (plus the four adult roles--Doc, Schrank, Krupke, and Glad Hand).  This made for a longer show than necessary, although I did admire the effort made in getting that many actors in and out of the auditorium and off and on the stage. 

6.  All I will say about the choreography is this:

"Cool">swing dancing on the last chorus>NO. Just say NO.
"Nightmare">Truer words were never spoken.
That being said, the kids did execute fairly well. There were just too many of them, and frankly the masses muddied any sense of nuance or artistry that the directors wished to portray, not to mention the fact that I couldn't find the singing/speaking actors on more than one occasion.

7.  20 minutes for intermission turned into 35. Pile that on to the 20 minute delay at the beginning and it makes for a long evening.

8. The best parts of the show were when only the named roles were on stage, and not when the cast of hundreds was literally spilling over the edges.

9. They seemed to take great pride in the fact that 25% of the student body was involved--250 out of 1000--but this is a show about a small neighborhood in New York City, not about all five boroughs.

10.  Orchestra: needed a piano and competent pianist. Badly. One of the co-directors, I forget who, is also reportedly the instrumental music teacher at the school.  Out of 19 musicians in the orchestra, only five were current students; the rest were alumni or ringers or both. Bernstein's score is uncompromising in its difficulty, especially for the instrumentalists in the pit--and frankly, the orchestra didn't measure up. Again, why no overture?

11. There are shows that no doubt lend themselves to this showy, glossy, glitzy treatment--State Fair, Footloose, Grease, and 42nd Street spring to mind--but not West Side Story.

I said at the beginning of this post that I would pass judgement on the PJPII musical theater program, but if you got this far, you know how I feel. 

*--Music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein; book by Arthur Laurents; original choreography by Jerome Robbins, 1957.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

One Step Up (and Two Steps Back)*

By my own estimation I’ve submitted roughly 50 applications for library positions so far.  Of those, I’ve received perhaps half a dozen rejection letters and 4 interviews.  The interviews were for the following:
West Chester University (Music Library)
West Chester University (Main Library)
Manor College (Catholic two-year in Jenkintown PA)
Neumann University (Catholic four-year in Aston PA)
Salem State (MA) University
Bucknell University (Lewisburg PA)

The rejection letters were from the above, plus:
Montgomery County—Norristown Public
Holland (MI) District (LD)
Allegan (MI) District (LD)
University of Virginia (Music)
There are more but I don't have a record currently.  

I should start calling the jobs I haven't heard from.

PSERS is a big pain in the butt.  Because I'm taking disability pension, I can't apply to Pennsylvania universities (PSU, Temple, Lincoln, Pitt), PASSHE colleges (i.e., West Chester, Edinboro, Kutztown, etc.), Pennsylvania community colleges, or PA K-12 charter or public schools (well, I can apply, but it makes things enormously complicated--and frankly, not much of any significance has come up).

I have to wonder how people currently working in academic libraries got their foot in the door. How is “entry-level” defined in the academic library world?  In business, one might assume you’ve had an internship or at least some related experience. I'd love to hear from people and how they snagged their first job.

*--Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love, 1987.

UPDATE: This process is teaching me the value and virtue of patience.  I received an email from a school in New England that needs a  Humanities/Social Sciences reference librarian.  I'll be doing a phone interview on Monday at 3:00 pm.  Wish me luck!
UPDATE #2:  A job as a Performing Arts Librarian just opened up in the Midwest.  It's applied for. Now the waiting comes...

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Brothers, Sing On!*: A concert review with benefits

Today has been one of those rare days.

When people have days like this, they usually say something like, "I can't possibly explain it to you--you had to be there".  Nonetheless, I'm going to do my best to do just that.

I drove up to New Brunswick, New Jersey, to hear a concert at Rutgers University, under the auspices of the Intercollegiate Musical Council (IMC), an organization that promotes male choruses and glee clubs at all levels.  This year's conference was hosted by the Rutgers University Glee Club, whose director, Dr. Patrick Gardner, had been my glee club director my senior year at Michigan.  He was just 27 at the time, and I remember thinking that having your doctorate in anything at that age was impressive.  Well, he left me with a strong impression that has lasted throughout my career as a trombonist, singer, conductor, and teacher. Makes me sorry I didn't do my MLIS at Rutgers, if only to sneak into rehearsals once in a while to say, "Hi, Pat!".

The afternoon concert was a bit different than the others this weekend in that three of the four featured groups were comprised of singers who were past college age--into their 70's and 80's in some cases. 

The fourth, the Central Bucks High School West Mens' Choir from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, opened the concert with strong, well-balanced singing and demanding literature.  The highlights for me were an Eriks Esenvalds setting of Joyce Kilmer's poem Trees,  which featured rich, languorous harmonies accompanied only by tuned water glasses, and Tjak, a so-called "Balinese Monkey Chant", where the students were challenged to execute demanding choreography while singing a complex a capella score.  I admire the moxie of their conductor, who not only gives his charges musical challenges but isn't afraid to go beyond the "stand and sing" model that too many choirs follow. The multi-media and dance elements were an excellent addition to outstanding singing.

Next up was a group with which I was familiar from my last Glee Club Tour in 1982--The University Glee Club of New York, with whom we shared the stage in Lincoln Center. All of their members had belonged to their respective college glee clubs and choruses, and it was clear from the get-go that they loved their craft and cherished their art.  Their soloists on the Russian folk song, Kalinka, the Jerome Kern standard, Old Man River, and the gospel standard Swing Down, Chariot,  sang well and were offered balanced accompaniment by chorus and piano.

Third on the program was kind of the reason I went to this concert in the first place.  Measure for Measure, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, is populated with Michigan Glee Club alumni, and two of the singers, Dennis Giszczak and Brent O'Banion, were in the Club when I was, and we hadn't seen each other in almost 30 years.  It is not an understatement to say that this was one of the most joyous reunions I've ever had.  We caught up in the minutes before the concert, took the obligatory cellphone picture (posted on Facebook) and wished each other well.  At that point, I didn't really care what they sang--it could have been "Mary had a little lamb"--but I'll try to be objective.  My favorite piece of the concert had to be "Tell My Father", where a  young soldier sings of his father and his own mortality. .  Dr. Ohrt, M4M's conductor, told the audience that it had been first composed for a middle school choral festival, and, in a moment of poignancy, stated that the text took on a very different significance depending what age you're working with.  It moved me deeply and found myself sobbing quietly--and I'm sure I wasn't alone. After that came "War Music", a noisy, bumptious piece that reminded me of Holst's and Vaughan Williams' settings of Whitman's Dirge for two veterans.

Finally, ex-Chanticleer veteran and IMC President Frank Albinder took the stage with the second of his two groups, the Washington (DC) Men's Camerata, whose performance consisted of highlights from both previous and upcoming concerts of the season.  I especially enjoyed the Claude Debussy Noel des enfants qui n'ont plus de maisons (Carol for the homeless children), which was described as a protest against the ravages of the First World War. Albinder was clearly the most gregarious of the four directors, and had the audience chuckling on more than one occasion.

I'm resisting the urge to dig into specifics on the concert, and while that may be maddening to those of you who know my penchant for acid-dipped prose, in every case today, the men were energized, focused on their musicianship, and clearly enjoying the moment.  Congratulations to all involved, especially Dr. Patrick Gardner. IMC is there to support male choruses and the music they perform, and that they do well.  May they continue to do so.

Brothers, sing on!

 *--Music by Edvard Grieg (original title, Sangerhilsen, catalog number EG-170), 1883; English lyrics by Herbert Dalmas and Howard McKinney (c. 1940's).

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Don't Cross the River (if you can't swim the tide)*

I'm a little slow out of the gate on this one, but I wanted to congratulate the University of Michigan men's swimming and diving team for steamrolling the rest of the Big Ten and winning the conference title this past weekend.  They won eleven events and scored 889 points, leaving Indiana (564 points) and Ohio State (515 points) in the...well it's swimming and diving so I can't say in the dust--how about floundering in a mud puddle?  Go Blue!

*--Dan Peek for America, Homecoming,  1973.