Posted in Brain Bits, Opera, Television

Gingerbread Month and Other Brain Bits

The holidays are almost over, but for me, the all-time ginger fanatic, my favorite treat is always in season. Ginger snaps are my passion, and for no other reason I love December because that’s the time when Celestial Seasonings trots out a gingerbread herb tea that’s beyond delicious. You don’t need dessert after sipping a cuppa, post-dinner.

Johann Strauss II with a large beard, moustach...
Johann the Younger

I’m spending this afternoon listening to an archival Metropolitan Opera broadcast from 1951–Die Fledermaus in English, featuring Patrice Munsel, Rise Stevens and Richard Tucker as Alfred, among others, with Eugene Ormandy on the podium. The Met usually digs into its historic trove once or twice during a broadcast season, and they make fascinating listening. It’s fun to hear how performance styles have changed over the years, and it’s equally amusing to see how some things are destined to remain the same, such as the presence of over-parted singers, like today’s Rosalinda, Marguerite Piazza. On the other hand, this Fledermaus presents us with a considerable bag of  goodies–Eugene Ormandy keeps the performance wonderfully frothy, Patrice Munsel is a delightful Adele and Richard Tucker, in addition to that golden tenor of his, is incredibly funny. Plus we get to hear “Roses from the South,” my favorite Strauss waltz, during Orlofsky’s party! What a great treat on New Year’s Eve.

Speaking of music and New Year’s Eve, the last couple of days have been a boon for classical music fans. It’s the Annual WQXR Classical Countdown, and while I was disappointed that Berlioz’s “Symphony Fantastique” didn’t make the Top 75, I was delighted to see my ballot box stuffing pay off for Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” which clocked in at No. 20. Although there’s little suspense, what with Beethoven’s 9th, 7th and 5th always among the Top 10 (enough already), it’s still a great way to celebrate year’s end with the best music ever written.

Since December is TV rerun hell, I’ve had a chance to catch up on my DVD viewing. I fell in love with Downton Abbey, and can’t wait for next Sunday when Season 2 begins on PBS.  But the most entertaining show I’ve seen in a long time was the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary, Prohibition, which originally aired on PBS. I’ve not always been a Ken Burns fan–I much prefer the work of his brother, Ric, whose darker view makes Coney Island, The Donner Party and especially New York so engrossing. Ken’s films, postThe Civil War, seem to me to be suffering from terminal bloat. Fortunately that’s not the case with Prohibition which in the argot of the times, could best be described as a snappy tale told in snappy style. It’s especially fun to watch side by side with Boardwalk Empire, and to see how well-grounded the HBO series is—yes, George Remus spoke of himself in the third person, Al Capone began his career as Johnny Torrio’s gofer and the Assistant U.S. Attorney played by Julianne Nicholson is obviously based on Mabel Walker Willebrandt, Assistant Attorney General whom President Harding put in charge of enforcing the Volstead Act. Unlike the series Baseball, Prohibition doesn’t get lost in pre-history—we never have the sense of being bogged down in the 19th century, impatiently waiting for the good stuff to begin. Events move swiftly, and based on the press for this series, I suspect the improved storytelling may have been Lynn Novick’s doing. There’s very little that’s clichéd—while we get Al Capone and machine guns, this is more than offset by the droll observations of Lois Long originally published in The New Yorker. And as always in a Burns documentary, whether Ken or Ric, the musical score couldn’t be better,  what with composer David Cieri’s evocative main theme and Wynton Marsalis and the boys tearing up 1920’s jazz. It doesn’t get better than that.

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