Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Winter's the summer

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is hard to classify. In the first half of the play, everything is bleak and cold. As one young character says, “A sad tale’s best for winter.” The king of Sicilia suspects his wife is unfaithful, precipitating tragedies including the loss of both his children and his wife. He is cut off from his family by his intense jealousy and fear that others are deceiving him.

Hannah Yelland as Hermione, Mark Harelik as Leontes and Sean Arbuckle as Polixenes in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of 'The Winter’s Tale', directed by Rebecca Taichman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Following intermission, the tone of the play changes dramatically. The setting is now summer in Bohemia, a colorful and crowded land full of fluttering butterflies, drunken shepherds, and young lovers. During these scenes, the play becomes a comedy darkened only by conman Autolycus who lies and cheats the residents of Bohemia. At the end of the play, the characters reunite in Sicilia. The tone is neither clearly tragic nor clearly comic. Shakespeare scholars often classify this play as a romance.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production has a cast of only nine actors, quite a feat for a play with many more characters. Six of the actors play two characters apiece, one in the Sicilian court and one in the Bohemian countryside. By choosing to cast actors like this, director Rebecca Taichman emphasized the similarities and differences between the doubled characters.

The transitions between doubled characters were sometimes shown deliberately rather than being concealed behind the curtain. Actor Mark Harelik, for example, changes out of the tattered remnants that clothe Autolycus into the formal black suit of the mourning king, while never leaving the stage. He slicks back his hair with his hand and steps into the character of the king. The transformation allows the audience to connect the deceitful rogue (whose lies hurt all around him) to the jealous king (whose lies to himself do the same).

Alongside the actors are three musicians who play their parts beautifully. Composer Nico Muhly’s compositions contrast Sicilia and Bohemia with both echoes of the same musical themes and dramatic shifts in mood. The final scene is enhanced by the magical music, the outstanding acting of Hannah Yelland (who plays Hermione), and the set design of Christine Jones.

Hannah Yelland as Hermione in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of 'The Winter’s Tale', directed by Rebecca Taichman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The Winter’s Tale is a play about transformations, magical and otherwise, as well as love reunited. This production brings out depth and meaning carefully. The most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare (“Exit, pursued by a bear”) is safe in the hands of these actors.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Homer's Different Heroes

Homer’s epics present two conflicting images of the hero. In the Iliad and the Odyssey we see two different heroes with two different goals. Achilles in the Iliad chooses death and glory over a long happy life, whereas Odysseus chooses life instead and makes his way back home through all the perils of his odyssey.

In the Iliad, Achilles believes that without a glorious death, he will not be remembered in the far-off future.

In contrast, Odysseus lives through the war, not dying for glory, but living to (finally) make it back home. In the final two books of the Odyssey, he begins to regain his role as king and husband. He sleeps in his own bed with his wife, he reunites with his father, and he purges his house of all traces of the suitors. He begins to live the life that Achilles might have led, if he had not chosen to die for everlasting glory.

Odysseus does get fame and glory, if perhaps of a different sort. At the beginning of book 24, we see some of the dead heroes of the Trojan War, stranded in the afterlife. They are not happy; all they can do is stand in the mire of the Asphodel fields reciting their deaths to each other. After Apollo leads the suitors down to the underworld, they tell of Odysseus’s reclamation of his throne in Ithaca. Without dying, his actions are known even in the Meadow of Asphodel where his deeds are even praised by Agamemnon. Without dying in battle, Odysseus tricked the Fates and wove his own everlasting glory.

In book 11, Odysseus summons the dead and hears Achilles state he wishes that he had not chosen to die. In book 24, we hear this theme restated (which is also hinted at in other parts of the Odyssey) and expanded as we hear that Odysseus has gained the glory that Achilles sought.

Book 24 seems essential in Homer’s explanation of how glory can be achieved in a way other than death. And this theme seems essential to the Odyssey. Instead of dying a heroic death, Odysseus lives a heroic life.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Romeo and Juliet: A Teenage Romance

In this classic play, Shakespeare gives us two immortal characters: Romeo and Juliet. Although Romeo Montague at the beginning of the play is obsessed with one girl, he suddenly forgets her when he sees Juliet Capulet. She falls in love with him just as quickly. They are rash and their minds are quickly swayed by passion. They decide in a day to get married, and everything falls apart. Although the two main characters from 16th century Italy, they have all the flaws of present-day teens. I should know: I am a teenager. And so are the actors performing Romeo and Juliet on stage.

Each year, the Shakespeare Theatre Company takes sixteen young actors through the process of putting on a 90-minute Shakespeare production. These students work four days each week with STC’s teaching staff studying Shakespeare’s texts, refining their acting skills, and learning stage combat. In the second semester of the school year, the Young Company stages their play in the Forum, a large wood-floored room downstairs at Sidney Harman Hall.

The stage was in the center of the room with rows of chairs on each of its long sides. The set was kept very simple. Each of the few set pieces was adapted by the actors to serve multiple purposes. For example, two metal gates served as Juliet’s garden wall, but also as city gates, and even a tomb. The simplicity in the set left more room for creativity on the part of the actors, and more space for imagination for the audience.

The costumes looked like neither 16-century Italy nor Shakespeare’s London. The elder Montagues and Capulets dressed up in formal wear. The younger characters wore hoodies, chopped-up black jeans, and worn-out Converse emphasizing their desire to be different from their parents. While not at all Shakespearian, the costumes appealed to the sense of teen-ness that is so important to Romeo and Juliet.

The members of the Young Company each portrayed their characters well. Many of the actors inhabited their characters with great ease and gave the impression that they were not actors standing on the stage but were instead

Shakespeare’s characters themselves. One time when this was particularly apparent was in Act 3, when Mercutio dies. All the actors together communicated the emotion of his death to the audience. Romeo’s sadness and anger became almost tangible and Benvolio’s fright and loss stood out in the dark theatre. Throughout the rest of the play the actors worked cleanly as a group. While not always seamless, they still conveyed the sense of an ensemble completing each scene together. The Young Company may not have the same depth of emotion they will after ten more years acting, but they still pulled subtlety out of a play taught so often that it sometimes feels like a cliché.

This performance of a Shakespeare play about teenagers highlights teenage actors wearing teenager-y clothes. And I, a teenage reviewer, think they did a fantastic job. I look forward to reviewing the actors of the Young Company again in the coming years if I become a professional reviewer (as I might) and these actors continue into the next level of acting (as they certainly can).

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Practice Plan: 8 May 2013

This is Metronome Week!  Play absolutely everything with the metronome.


Bach A minor:

1st movement

James complimented my vibrato.  He also pointed out that my tempo is too fast. So, use the metronome. Continue the tape-recorder routine with the metronome. Bad news: metronome work often takes away expressiveness, so make sure to overdo the dynamics and melodic line. In other words, try going over the top to balance out what's lost. Between each couple of rehearsal letters, point out the two most out-of-tune notes, then play them to plus-three. This will help bring everything into focus. Think about why the note was out of tune. Was it flat or sharp. Why? Also: this is a concerto, so play it like a soloist, not a chamber musician.

2nd movement

Keep playing it slowly, with the metronome.

3rd movement

The tricky part is much better. Some days, start the chords at the beginning, sometimes at the end, or even in the middle. Don't let any of them get shortchanged. Relax the arm and focus on tone at the same time. Listen to the recording! Tricky part number two: play first with sticky separate bows, then sticky slurs, then full slurs.

Chamber music

Bach D minor:

Have all movements ready for Thursday.   Listen to the recording.

Polish dance by Severn.

This is the number one priority for next week.   Clean up memory issues.  Play everything closer to the frog.  They aren't grace notes, but full sixteenth notes.   Play them as such!  Keep bow speed absolutely steady during harmonics.   Count out the slow sections.   Have Mum help by counting anything longer that a half note.  Work on the fourth chords to plus-seven.  In measure 237-240, have Mum help by playing the C's on the piano. E sharps as well.  Play more with music than without. Find the CD and listen! The whole piece can be played with a more aggressive sound, except for those bits that aren't. Work on wrong notes. Play harmonics as 4 in a row. Work on keeping a good bowhold even while doing pizzicato. Metronome!

Fiddle when I can, especially Morris.

Sunday, May 5, 2013



Getting ready to run the Takoma Park 5K Challenge
(to benefit Safe Routes to School)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Practice Plan: 1 May 2013


Country Dance by von Weber. (Performance piece.)  My goal is to play this book five piece at a book 7/8 level.  I especially want to focus on bow control and expressiveness, being more conscious of dynamic contrast, and building intensity throughout the piece.   I also need to remember to be relaxed and playful with the piece, adding my own flair and emotions to it.   Keep the bouncing low on the bow.  Work on shifting, using a loose hand, and watching my fingers.

Bach A minor:

1st movement  Work to keep tempo very even.   Bring out the melody and emphasize dynamics!  Continue recording, then reviewing audio with the sheet music.

2nd movement  Slow down the whole piece.  Work especially on bow control, like I'm pulling the bow through taffy.  Keep using a lot of bow, but hold back, and don't necessarily use all of the bow. Closer to the frog.   Start memorizing for next week.

3rd movement  Start up-bow.  Practice double stops with as little vibrato as possible.   Both chords and rolls.  Loosen the hand for shifts.   Not too slow.

Chamber music

Bach D minor:

3rd movement  Watch rhythm from rehearsal letter G through H.  Take care of little flubs so I can work more on how it fits with violin 2 part.

2nd movement  Keep counting.  Practice with the metronome.

1st movement  Review for the chamber music party.

Polish dance by Severn.  Closer to the frog, and not too graceful.  It's a dance; make it sound like one!  Polish Polish dance.  (Or is it the other way round?)  Raise E sharp into tune.  Work out flubs in memory.  Rhythm!



Prepare for performance at the TP Farmers' Market on the Sunday after next. Pay special attention to Shostakovitch's Praeludium and Gavotte to practice in master class next week.


Play Danse Macabre each day with the metronome, counting each of the rests.  Alternate between Rondo and Agincourt.



Become more comfortable with all of the tunes. Play each while loud random music plays over speakers--making sure to keep perfectly steady, no matter what the distraction. Listen to the recording several times.

Other fiddle

Continue to prep tunes for busking.  Run through session tunes frequently.   Fill in gaps from the Hedge book if there is time and interest. Possibly work on Bog tunes?