In Praise of Maximum Overdrive (and 34½ other films): Spooktober 2019

Happy day after Halloween! October this year was another busy month, but between work, church, and family activities I explored a variety of Halloween-themed media. For the first time I experimented with a daily Twitter update, sharing “31 Days of #SpookyMusic” (see my Twitter feed for links). I’ve created Halloween playlists and mix CDs in the past, but this selection was more of a sampler from a variety of genres than a single playlist, as I didn’t choose songs based on their flow or stylistic affinity. The weather here in Kansas was variable enough this month that I could veer from the warm-weather spookiness of Lee Morse singing “‘Tain’t No Sin (To Dance Around in Your Bones)” to Yoko Ono’s eerie “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand in the Snow)”; other songs and pieces of music were drawn from a variety of pop music, film and television, video game, and classical music sources.

And of course I watched as many movies as I could fit in. Once again the only unifying theme was “this pile of unwatched movies on my shelf.” In addition to going through the DVDs and Blu-rays I’d accumulated during the year, I streamed a few on Netflix, Prime, and Night Flight. I also saw several movies on the big screen, including several as part of the annual October at the Oldtown retro horror series, and a couple of new releases; In Fabric was shown as part of the Tallgrass Film Festival.

October has become the month in which I watch the most movies by far: it’s partly because the post-October wrap-up has become a reliable blog entry, something for me to post. It’s also fun being part of several horror-themed discussion groups on Facebook, seeing what everyone else is watching and being part of that conversation. I don’t approach the numbers of films that some fans watch, but it is satisfying to take some discs out of the “unwatched” pile and check off some previously unseen classics from my list. More than that, it’s the media equivalent of gorging on candy; the excess is part of the point of the season. So, without further preamble, here are the films I took in during the month of October, the sweet and the sour:

1. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982) *

2. Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2007)

3. Survival of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2009)

4. Dead & Buried (Gary Sherman, 1981)

5. The Wasp Woman (Roger Corman, 1959)

6. The Power (Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow, 1984)

7. Blood Mania (Robert Vincent O’Neill, 1970)

8. Christine (John Carpenter, 1983)*

9. Maximum Overdrive (Stephen King, 1986)*, **

10. Point of Terror (Alex Nicol, 1971)

11. The God Inside My Ear (Joe Badon, 2019)

12. The Vampire Doll (Michio Yamamoto, 1970)

13. Lake of Dracula (Michio Yamamoto, 1971)

14. Evil of Dracula (Michio Yamamoto, 1974)

15. Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012)

16. Beyond the Gates (Jackson Stewart, 2016)

17. Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)*

18. Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019)*

19. The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman, 1971)

20. In Fabric (Peter Strickland, 2018)*

21. Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014)

22. Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988), **

23. Zombieland: Double Tap (Ruben Fleischer, 2019)*

24. Saint Bernard (Gabe Bartalos, 2013)

25. I Was a Zombie for the F.B.I. (Marius Penczner, 1982)

26. Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)*

27. Fade to Black (Vernon Zimmerman, 1980)

28. Mayhem (Joe Lynch, 2017)

29. The War of the Gargantuas (Ishiro Honda, 1966)

30. Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hiltzik, 1983)

31. Velvet Buzzsaw (Dan Gilroy, 2019)

32. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019)*

33. A Cure For Wellness (Gore Verbinski, 2016)

34. Ghostwatch (Lesley Manning, 1992)

35. The Pit (Lew Lehman, 1981)

35½. Monsters Crash the Pajama Party (David L. Hewitt, 1965)

(This one was only 30 minutes long, originally a “spook show” in which costumed actors would invade the theater and interact with the audience during the film, a William Castle-like gimmick that would have played alongside other features at the time; it made a fitting cap to the month’s viewing.)

* theatrical screening

** rewatch

Best Movie: There were several very good films I watched this year, including the original Poltergeist (a film I’d been too scared to finish as a kid, although now much of it seems downright playful). The most impressive overall was The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as lighthouse keepers trapped together on a remote island. Like writer-director Robert Eggers’ previous film, The Witch, this is historically-informed, atmospheric horror, drawing on documents from the past to build up the dialogue. I enjoyed The Witch, but The Lighthouse is more assured in every way, and the creepiness of the premise (involving mermaids, bad omens, and the secret of the lighthouse’s lamp) is the stuff of classic weird tales.

Worst Movie: It’s often interesting when special effects artists make their own movies, because plot and logic can take a back seat to whatever crazy visuals the filmmakers feel like cooking up. Saint Bernard (by Gabe Bartalos, FX man for Frank Henenlotter and Matthew Barney, among others) shows the downside of that, however: in the film, an orchestra conductor (Jason Dugre) experiences an existential crisis and carries a severed dog’s head as he wanders from one elaborate set to another, mostly as an excuse for trite symbolism. (In an early scene, the protagonist raises his arm to conduct a piece and a bunch of drugs fall out of his jacket; later, a greedy preacher sees the hero as wearing a suit made of dollar bills and chases him from the church trying to grab them; the hero ends up on Wall Street where passersby strip him of his money suit.) Despite some interesting scenes and images, there is very little forward momentum, and it feels much longer than its 97 minutes. The inadvertent message of all this is that film, like music, is an art that unfolds in time: if you want to make installation art, you should really just do that.

Weirdest Movie: Peter Strickland has become a director whose films don’t always land 100% for me, but whose technique is so incredible and his fixations so resonant with me that they are must-see anyway. As Berberian Sound Studio (also watched this month) channels Italian giallo and The Duke of Burgundy borrows from European softcore of the late ’60s and ’70s, so In Fabric, about a cursed “arterial red” dress, suggests the horror anthologies of the early ’70s such as From Beyond the Grave, with their interlocking stories of terrors lurking beneath the mundane surfaces of modern Britain. The main part of the plot follows one of the dress’s unfortunate buyers, divorcée Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who finds the price tag (and the incomprehensible jargon of the saleswoman, Fatma Mohamed) impossible to resist during a large department store’s seasonal sale. There is quite a bit of dry and absurd humor, much of it local in nature but still apparent. Large swathes of the film are deliberately abstract or cryptic and don’t make things easy for the audience, but there is no attempt to elide the B-movie premise. Strickland seems to understand how goofy scenes of the dress wriggling off of its hanger, crawling across the floor on its own, and floating in mid-air while its owner sleeps are, but having had nightmares of similar scenarios as a young child during the time period in which he has set his film, I think he’s on to something. A throwaway scene, late in the movie, proposes a childhood origin for one character’s erotic interest in tights; like much of the rest of In Fabric, it suggests that Strickland is either an unreconstructed Freudian, or at least he has found Freudianism a useful language for his art.

Scariest Movie: On Halloween night in 1992, the BBC broadcast a supposed live investigation of a poltergeist haunting in suburban London, casting real-life children’s presenter Sarah Greene as the on-site host while genial Michael Parkinson held down the studio, interviewing experts on the paranormal and fielding calls from the audience. As with Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast and The Blair Witch Project, the attempts at verisimilitude worked all too well, and many viewers took the proto-reality TV special for an actual report. Even at this distance and knowing that it’s fiction, Ghostwatch pulls its tricks incredibly smoothly, building from odd but explicable anomalies to all-out terror in the haunted house–and in the studio. I can only imagine what this must have been like when it was shown.

Least Scary Movie: Actually, only a few of the movies I watched this October were capital-S Scary. One might expect this year’s genre outlier, Ad Astra, a relatively hard science fiction movie, to be the least scary, but what could be scarier than the prospect of growing old and being alone in the universe (not to mention the risk of a crazed research primate chewing your face off)? Leaving aside kids’ movies like Beetlejuice and The War of the Gargantuas, I’d like to focus on a pair of movies starring Peter Carpenter, Blood Mania and Point of Terror. In both films, Carpenter (apparently the driver behind both projects) plays a charismatic, irresistible lover of women who gets in over his head, and like all film noir patsies, he pays for his previous transgressions; there’s a Joe Sarno-like disgust at the hedonism depicted, even as the film keeps it coming. Given their titles and posters, I fully expected these films to fit into the Spooktober spirit, but it would be more accurate to describe them as erotic thrillers. Blood Mania at least builds up to a climax that justifies its title, but Point of Terror just isn’t that kind of movie. A flashback to a giallo-style murder couldn’t be more than a minute or two, and the rest of the violence in the movie is purely emotional. Blood Mania and Point of Terror aren’t bad movies at all, but based on their misleading marketing I’m calling Point of Terror the Least Scary. If Point of Terror is a horror movie, Basic Instinct is a horror movie.

Goriest Movie(s): Late in his life, George Romero expressed frustration that he couldn’t get projects financed unless they involved zombies, and some of that boredom comes through in the last two entriees in his “living dead” series, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead. In the first, a group of student filmmakers are making a monster movie that turns into a documentary as a mysterious zombie epidemic emerges (that distinguishes Diary from the first four Dead movies, which roughly trace the collapse of civilization). Romero was clearly interested in commenting on the new media landscape and “citizen journalism,” and he has a few things to say about filmmaking and the state of contemporary horror (“dead things move slowly”), but the zombie stuff revisits all the greatest hits: loved ones turning, good old boys and rogue authority figures who are the real monsters, disenfranchised minorities given a chance to be in a charge, and even a clown zombie. It’s uninspired, but serviceable.

By contrast, Survival seems like it would be better without any zombie business in it at all, giving Romero free reign to make the magic-realist Western he appears to have had in mind (but then of course it wouldn’t have been made at all). The film centers on two families feuding on an isolated island. One side sees the cold logic in putting down the zombies, even if they were once loved ones; the other holds on to them, corralling them into stables in the hopes of curing them one day, or at least training them to eat something other than human flesh. In the previous Dead films, a dividing line between the living heroes and villains is how they treat the dead, with the bad guys using them as sport or slave labor or scientific experiments, revealing their own inhumanity. Survival touches on that theme, and in fact makes it the central point of the conflict, but that thoughtfulness is at odds with with the inventive ways the protagonists dispatch the zombies, like in a slasher sequel trying to up the ante with more and more outlandish kills.

Funniest Movie: Speaking of sequels upping the ante and dispatching zombies in creative ways . . . well, I laughed a lot at Zombieland: Double Tap.

Most Fun at the Movies: I also laughed a lot at Maximum Overdrive, a rewatch that was part of a “Stephen King killer car double feature” with Christine. Readers of this blog have seen me gradually turn from a Stephen King skeptic to a fan over the years, and stuff like Maximum Overdrive is part of the reason why. King’s only directorial effort, the film is based on his short story “Trucks,” about a mysterious revolt by the machines of Earth against their human masters. King made a trailer in which he directly addresses the audience, infamously declaring “I’m gonna scare the hell out of you”; Maximum Overdrive doesn’t live up to that threat, at all: how could it? But it’s a hoot nonetheless. Sometimes when reading King’s books, you recall that he was an English teacher, that he has written intelligently about literature and the writing process, that he knows what he is talking about. Maximum Overdrive isn’t the work of Mr. King, man of letters. It’s the work of Uncle Steve the trash-hound, enthusiastic reader of EC horror comics and watcher of B-movies, the slightly disreputable older relative who shows you his scars and tattoos and has a story behind each of them, who will happily loan you the movies they won’t rent to you at the mom-and-pop video store, or failing that will lovingly describe the best parts to you. From the moment King appears in a cameo as a bank customer being called an asshole by the ATM (in the trademark “loudmouthed townie” persona he used whenever he showed up in his buddy Romero’s movies), to the shots of stuntmen ecstatically flying through windshields, to the generous use of blood squibs as people are riddled with bullets, it is clear: this is the work of a fan who is thrilled to finally have his hands on the controls. Looking back at his small role in the film, Giancarlo Esposito complimented King’s direction, saying, “He certainly directed me beautifully. I’ll never forget when I was shaken to death at the game machine, and he wanted me to shake harder and shake more.”

Shake harder. Shake more. I can’t think of any wiser words to leave you with as we say farewell to Halloween 2019.

Wichita Symphony Orchestra: “The Gershwin Experience”

Wichita Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Hege, Music Director and Conductor
Lisa Vroman, soprano
Rick Faugno, dancer/vocalist
Jeffrey Biegel, piano

I reviewed “The Gershwin Experience,” a concert with multimedia elements (including still photos and archival footage projected onto a screen) celebrating the music of George Gershwin, presented by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra with the guest artists listed above. Many of Gershwin’s classic songs were performed, as well as the complete Rhapsody in Blue and excerpts from some of Gershwin’s other instrumental works. You can read my review for the Eagle here.

St. Olaf Choir in Wichita: An Interview with Conductor Anton Armstrong

StOlaf.Armstrong

The internationally-renowned St. Olaf Choir arrives in Wichita next week as part of its 2016 National Tour. In advance of the concert, I had the opportunity to speak with conductor Dr. Anton Armstrong. He looked back at his longtime affiliation with the St. Olaf Choir (over a quarter of a century), provided details on some of the compositions the Choir will be performing, and spoke about his inclusive philosophy of programming and the challenges of balancing tradition and innovation in a church school.

Guy Vollen: Would you like to speak about the section of the program paying tribute to Kenneth L. Jennings (Armstrong’s predecessor as conductor, who passed away in 2015)?

Anton Armstrong:
Dr. Jennings served on the St. Olaf faculty for 37 years, and the last 22 he served as conductor of the St. Olaf Choir. He was my mentor; I actually sang under his direction my last two years at St. Olaf, and Kenneth Jennings was really almost without peer among choral conductors. He followed 65 years of the founder of this choir, F. Melius Christiansen, and his son Olaf, who in many ways, while he added his own distinctive mark, perpetuated the ideals set forth by his father. And when Dr. Jennings took the helm of the choir in 1968, he respected that legacy, and he built upon its best traits, but he also understood that it needed to grow in new directions. So first of all it was creating a natural and more healthy sound for the choir, which to use his own words “had gotten a bit stiff”; a wider repertoire, especially looking at music that was now being published and available to singers from a more modern period, but especially went back and started looking for earlier music with greater historical performance accuracy; and he introduced the use of instruments, because up until that point the St. Olaf Choir had been known primarily as an a cappella choir that sang without any accompaniment. He introduced the use of instruments, and also he began the use of secular music, and even some wider global music.

Kenneth Jennings was also a wonderful composer. Certainly, during his teaching career he didn’t have a lot of time for that. He did some: actually, the last work of that set, “All You Works of the Lord,” was written in 1981, while he was still on the faculty. The other two pieces come from the 1990s: he wrote the “Spiritual Songs” and “The Lord is the Everlasting God” in the first decade after his retirement. They show I think, though, the consummate craftsmanship that he brought to choral composition. Always text was paramount with him, and the beautiful setting, how that was handled as a composer, and you saw that revealed with how he interpreted text with a choral ensemble.

GV: I see you’re working with Andre Thomas.

AA: Andre Thomas and I have been friends for 38 years; we were in graduate school together, and our friendship has been both professional and he’s one of my closest friends, so it’s nice when you have talented people like that you can go to. And certainly, Dr. Thomas is a native of your city. He still loves Wichita, and he is a graduate of Friends University, he began his teaching career there some years ago, and he still considers that home, he still has family there, so it’s also neat to be bringing that piece on this tour to his hometown. This “Credo,” actually, I did not put “premiere performance,” because I cannot actually state that for a fact, but I know we’re doing some of the earliest performances. He and I will debut “Credo” at Carnegie Hall in March. The music was available now, and I don’t want to go to Carnegie Hall in March not knowing the piece. This was a great piece to take out. The New York people were a little bit miffed.

GV: So is that something I can say is a “preview”?

AA: It’s a preview, yeah, so he and I are doing what we’re now saying is the New York Carnegie Hall debut of this piece, with a choir of about 800 singers. I will be conducting, and he will be at the piano.

GV: That is exciting. And I notice you’re programming a piece by a student composer. Would you like to say anything about “And You Will Sleep” and the context of the composition?

AA: Yes. Philip [Biedenbender] is a senior in the choir, and you’ll also see him featured on this concert if you’re able to attend; he’s one of our two student pianists. He’s a very gifted young man. He actually approached me last spring and said, “I want to write a piece for the Christmas festival,” and to his credit he worked and had a piece ready for me when we resumed school in the fall. We went through a couple of periods of revision. First of all, I’m not a composer, but I will take the piece, I will sing through part of it, I will play it at the piano, and I thought, it feels good under my fingers. Vocally, there were some points where I asked him to do some rewriting where it was too complicated, and I think he was trying to do text painting, but I said it’s maybe too complicated. Less is more sometimes. Well, he found that balance, and there was a portion in the first version: most of the text is by his mother, and then they had inserted text from Scripture. Well, the first text that they used, the music changed, and it just didn’t work. I said, this sounds like two different pieces right here, and he said, “I know. I’m not happy with it.” He said, “We have another possibility,” and this was the verse from Philippians that we later used. And all of a sudden it became a cohesive entity.

What I appreciate is, his mom came in and shared: the text of this piece speaks of “The walls of a stable are not worthy of the King. You come, little one, born of the songs of angels, echoes of prophets, and the life of a strange star. Do not cry, though you must lie on this rough, unforgiving wood, wrapped in lengths of linen, and you will sleep.” And she goes into this text from Philippians from that. But she came to talk to the choir, and it’s a paradox: the “unforgiving wood” is not just the imagery of a manger, it also refers to the imagery of the cross, which Christ was killed on, and the linen is not just the swaddling cloth but also the linens that wrap the body of Jesus afterward. So this image of this paradox–he’s young, twenty-one, twenty-two years old–he really captured this.

This is an emerging talent and he is a very humble young man. Very gifted but very humble and very thoughtful. I am not one, especially on a tour program, to put a student composition out simply because I think it’s neat to feature. But we’ve had, especially in the last ten to fifteen years, wonderful growth in those coming to St. Olaf who want to study composition, and a fine faculty of mentor-composers on the St. Olaf faculty, so a number of our students are hitting things out of the park even before they leave college. We’ve had several students who have been award-winners, both state and nationally, for their compositional skills, and so I’m delighted to have found a piece that not only is very fine, but we’re able to say, “this is something that can stand on the same program with music of J. S. Bach, the music of Kurt Weill.” It’s a lovely piece, and I think one that is going to be very emotionally compelling and musically compelling to those who hear it.

GV: That’s great. I look forward to hearing it. So I can see from your program that, like you said, you’ve really broken it wide open in terms of repertoire. What else would you like to highlight about the pieces the Choir will be singing?

AA: The music of Bach has always been part of the staple repertoire, even back to the founding days of F. Melius Christiansen. “Ich Lasse Dich Nicht” is a motet that is not one of what I call the “Big Six,” things like “Singet dem Herrn,” and “Der Geist” and “Jesu, meine Freude,” but it is lovely. It comes from an earlier period of Bach before he was in Leipzig, and then the piece was added onto during his Leipzig years. It’s a delightful piece. For seventeen summers I’ve been on the conducting faculty of the Oregon Bach Festival, in Eugene, Oregon, so this is a piece I got to explore last summer, and wanted to bring it here. I found out later that this piece was done one time by the St. Olaf Choir back in the 1950s when Olaf Christiansen had the choir, but I think he did it in English. I didn’t recognize it at first until I was doing some reading.

The “Magnificat” by David Childs was commissioned by me for the Oregon Bach Festival. I direct a high school program there of extremely talented high school students. I founded that organization–the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy is what it’s called–in 1998 and two summers ago we were celebrating the 15th anniversary of the SFYCA, and so the “Magnificat” was a commission by the Bach Festival for that occasion, and so this will only be the second set of performances that it has. David Childs is a composer and a conductor in Dallas. I often try to find music at least that represent composers who are either in or have a connection with a region, so Andre’s piece for one, and this piece by David Childs. It’s a beautiful piece for organ and choir. David is a New Zealander by birth and upbringing, and moved to the United States as an adult, married an American, and lives and conducts in Dallas. But for many years David’s father was the organist and choir director at Christchurch Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, and you feel this very strong Anglican tradition coming out in this piece.

I think one of the unique pieces on this program, not only for the St. Olaf Choir, but I don’t think it’s a well-known piece at all, is this “Kiddush” by Kurt Weill. Weill you know as writing for the theater and other things. Last summer at a conference of Chorus America, the Zamir Chorale of Boston, which is maybe the preeminent choral organization in this country dealing with music of the Jewish tradition, had this as part of a workshop, and I was just captivated. It’s written for chorus and soloists, and it was written for Shabbat service for Weill’s father’s synagogue. You get the harmonic flavor of Kurt Weill, you get the influence of blues notes, but for choir and soloists and organ: it’s like a breath of fresh air. And the kids have enjoyed it and we’ve found soloists who can sing it in the choir, so it’s really turning into a neat piece.

And the last section, I was simply going to say was a collection of hymns and spiritual songs, so you know “Come, Ye Disconsolate” is actually a setting for men’s voices. Part of, for me in a college of the church, is to still keep a younger generation–it’s why the St. Olaf Choir actually was founded. F. Melius Christiansen started this choir because he felt the young people of these new immigrants–these Canadian immigrants, these Norwegian immigrant children–were forgetting the great hymns of their forebears. Well, the same thing could be said a hundred-some-odd years later, with the current generation. And you know for a lot of students, they did not know this hymn. When you hear the guys sing it it’s very moving. Terre Johnson’s setting is beautiful.

And “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” is not the typical tune that most people know about. This is actually an older version that is known mostly in the black community: [sings] “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Lord.” It has stayed in the black community. But I love that “Nobody Knows” because I think everybody’s going to be expecting us to sing something, and a lot of them won’t know this tune, and as an African-American I see a lot of people arranging spirituals, and even African-Americans, the younger ones. The slave song is basically a simple song that had a natural improvisation with layered melodies that came together to make harmony. So the essence of the true slave song is melody and rhythm.

I think of programming is a smorgasbord type of thing, that there needs to be something on the program for everyone. There are going to be those there because they will love some of the new pieces, those who just want to hear Bach and Mendelssohn (“Lift Thine Eyes”) and they could go to heaven with that. Ginastera (“O Vos Omnes”), you know, for some people that will be out of the box, not quite like Penderecki and Ligeti, but it certainly is pushing things for a lot of people. But I’m also cognizant that we’re going through areas in this tour that are still strongly faith-based communities on this tour. I call this the “I-35 tour,” driving around I-35 to get all the way down to San Antonio and back. There’s a reason we’re in many more churches on this tour than maybe a tour to the East coast. If you look at the tour book, we were in many of their major concert halls, college concert halls; that’s not so much the case with this one. There are strong communities of faith that have thriving music programs, and so the music reflects that, the tour program reflects that, but with a wide variety.

I always think, “If my mother was in the audience, what would she want to hear?” I mean, she would love Bach, she would love Mendelssohn. She might put up with some of the other stuff, but if I gave her those hymns and those spirituals, she’d be a happy camper. So there’s something I think on the table for everyone: for the choral aficionado, those people who want to come and maybe have no faith connection but they appreciate the artistry of the choir, maybe they’ve seen it on television or heard the recordings; and then for that person of faith who just needs to come and fill their soul in a certain way, and maybe some of the other music will be high-falutin and off-putting, but when you sing “It is Well with My Soul” it just goes right to the core of who they are. It transcends age and race, and all the other things that can be barriers. I hope that this concert can bring people together: we live in a country right now that is living in fear, that is living in division, and I hope that even for the ninety minutes people experience it they can find comfort, they can find hope, they can find unity.

GV: You mentioned the school’s foundation in the faith tradition and Norwegian immigrants, and obviously there’s this very concentrated Lutheran tradition in your part of the country, but with St. Olaf’s reputation I’m sure you attract students from all over now.

AA: We certainly do.

GV: So would you like to say anything about that diversity, and how far some of your students have come to be part of the choir?

AA: This is where we maybe are a little bit different from some of our wonderful sister schools in this region: if you were to look at the personnel pages for instance of, maybe, Concordia or Luther, you’d find excellent singers. Their choirs are excellent. But you’d find very regional schools. You’d find a lot of people from Minnesota, and Iowa, maybe South Dakota, Wisconsin. You’ll find certainly a fair amount of those populated in this choir; you’re going to find people from literally throughout the nation. I think this year I don’t have any international students; last year I did have three. But it’s a wide view.

And when we talk about diversity: now you’re talking to the African-American conductor, but I want to go beyond. You’ll see racial diversity: I have African-American students in there, I have Asian students in that choir, I have Latino students, I have biracial people in that choir that some of you wouldn’t ever recognize, depending upon how you’re looking at them. But for me diversity is also–and it’s not a cop-out–I have a variety of socio-economic [backgrounds]; I have young people in that choir who, yes, would say they are people of faith, they come heavily from a Christian tradition. But you see Kurt Weill’s in there because I also have students in that choir who do come from a Judaic [background], they come from mixed–I have a student in there who one parent’s Jewish, one parent’s Christian. Whether it’s Muslim, whether it’s Buddhist, or as they would say today, none (they have no faith affiliation, whether they call themselves atheist or agnostic), the only thing I ask–and there are a couple of students, I very well know, they’ve been very pronounced without being offensive about it–that they’re in this choir because they can appreciate, respect the high artistry and the music-making in the choir. They can understand and appreciate the wonderful texts that are experienced, whether or not they can formally say that this is their journey. But they are welcome, and I will say to the student, “You are free. What I won’t tolerate is somebody who will be dismissive of that, if you’re going to be part of that, but I’m not asking you to swallow something that you can’t personally believe.” But there is a mutual respect amongst that.

And I think that’s true Lutheranism in the broadest sense: it’s a very ecumenical movement. And I’m saying this to you because I’m on a committee that’s dealing with this, because as we’re diversifying our community at St. Olaf, there are a lot of people–some staff, some students–who feel that if you’re not Lutheran, you’re being excluded, and we’re trying to figure out, how do you explain that Lutheranism is about a global awareness, you know? And I think at least Lutheranism as it’s practiced in the twenty-first century, and not a parochial viewpoint but if you actually go back, it has always been, especially in Lutheran education, one that seeks excellence, so academic excellence is not to be compromised. It’s a very interesting paradox, an interesting tension, for the search for excellence and truth, and also that we believe that we’re rooted in a sphere of a creator God, but a creator God who doesn’t ask you to be myopic, and to be narrow about how you view things. So I think that over the years this choir has been kind of a microcosm of the college in saying yes, we are still faith-based, but we look beyond that. There is almost no secular music on the program this year: that was intentional. Last year you would have seen almost a third of the program was secular. And part of that was where we were going. We were out on the East coast, a very different thing, and an audience that is seeking different things. This is my twenty-sixth year as conductor, and I understand that much, and I travel the country as a guest conductor a great deal, and you get a feel for what people want. I’m not in any way trying to type-cast a region I think, but you understand what people seek. If I took this sort of program to the Pacific Northwest, it would not be met in the same way. They would enjoy part of it, but they would want something else, and I know they’d want something else.

The great work of F. Melius Christiansen, and John Finley Williamson with the Westminster Choir, and the heavy hitters like Robert Shaw, they did their work well enough that they planted seeds, and they’re no longer the only thing on the block, but I still think the St. Olaf Choir is a pace-setting choir, a choir that not only brings artistic excellence, but what we try to do through our concerts is a transformational experience. It goes beyond entertainment; it wants to touch the entirety of the listener, in body, mind, spirit, and voice.

Dr. Armstrong will lead the St. Olaf Choir in concert in Wichita at East Heights United Methodist Church (4407 East Douglas Avenue) 7 pm, Tuesday, February 2, 2016.

Interview conducted by phone Thursday, January 21, 2016. Edited for clarity and length.

David Bowie, Immortal

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Observing (and sharing in) the outpouring of grief following David Bowie’s untimely death at age 69, it’s striking just how diverse Bowie’s 40-plus-year career was, and how many avenues existed by which young fans might discover him: his appearances as an actor or the use of his songs in movies; as a continually reinventing man-of-a-thousand-faces fashion icon; as recording artist and producer, or as the writer of songs covered by the many artists whom he influenced. There are probably young people who first heard his name through the many references to Bowie on The Venture Bros., whose creators are obviously big fans. A Picasso or Stravinsky of rock music, Bowie was continually taking on new looks, sounds, and personae, always exploring.

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As a kid in the 1980s, I think my first awareness of David Bowie was his “pop” album Let’s Dance, followed within the next couple of years by his duet cover of “Dancing in the Streets” with Mick Jagger and his lead role in Labyrinth. It would be some years later before I was really conscious that Bowie had been a huge star before his dalliances with MTV and Jim Henson, and that Labyrinth wasn’t even his first starring film role. The Man Who Fell to Earth had previously been the perfect vehicle for Bowie, the story of an alien visitor who succumbs to the temptations of life on Earth.

bowie.labyrinth

Bowie’s characters, musical and otherwise, were almost always otherworldly, even when playing down-to-earth self-caricatures like his cameo in Zoolander. What unified his most far-flung performances was his magnetism: he couldn’t help but be the center of whatever scene he was in. This is what I wrote on Facebook just last October, after watching The Hunger:

David Bowie is the man: you can slather him in old man makeup, and cast Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon as vampire lovers, and Bowie’s STILL the most interesting part of the movie!? That is star power.

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Reading A Year With Swollen Appendices, the 1995 diary by Bowie’s friend and collaborator Brian Eno, I was struck by the many appearances Bowie makes in its pages, just exchanging emails or meeting socially, or appearing at art openings, charity events, et cetera. By the mid-’90s, Bowie had amassed a body of work anyone could be proud of, and it would have been perfectly understandable for him to settle into famous rock star retirement. Yet he continued to produce music and videos up until his last days, releasing his final album, Blackstar, just last week. It’s obvious in retrospect that it was a farewell gesture from a man who knew he was ill, but nonetheless an act of courage and incredible will.

Bowie.Blackstar

It’s been heartening to see how much Bowie and his work meant to people, not to mention a reminder that seemingly unstoppable artists, even the otherworldly Bowie–chameleon, alien, vampire, Goblin King, magician–won’t be with us forever. He leaves behind an enormous body of work, much of which I still have yet to discover for myself.

Wichita Symphony Orchestra: Handel/Mozart, Messiah

I had the opportunity to review the recent performance of Messiah by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and Chorus this weekend. The version they performed was the 1789 revision of George Frideric Handel’s work by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. My review for The Wichita Eagle can be found here.

Messiah
George Frideric Handel, orchestrated by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wichita Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Hege, Music Director and Conductor

Janet E. Brown, Soprano
Barbara Rearick, Mezzo-soprano
Dinyar Vania, Tenor
Timothy LeFebvre, Baritone

Wichita Symphony Orchestra Chorus
Michael Hanawalt, Chorus Director

Wichita Symphony Orchestra with Sarah Chang, Violin

Wichita Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Hege, Music Director and Conductor
Sarah Chang, Violin

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Richard Strauss
West Side Story Suite for Violin and Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein (arr. David Newman)
Tzigane, Maurice Ravel
La Valse, Maurice Ravel

I reviewed the opening concert of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra’s Classics Concerts series for The Wichita Eagle; the article can be read here.

Wichita Symphony Orchestra: Disney Magic

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Saturday’s Wichita Symphony Orchestra Pops Concert, “Disney in Concert,” was subtitled “Magical Music from the Movies.” As such, it was as much stage show and multimedia event as orchestral concert. Playing to an enthusiastic audience that included both costumed children and regular Symphony attendees, Guest Conductor Robert Bernhardt took the podium in Century II Concert Hall and shared the stage with four singers: Juliana Hansen, Stephanie Burkett Gerson, Kyle Eberlein, and Nathan Andrew Riley. All four are veterans of Disney stage productions, with experience putting their own spin on characters already familiar to the audience through the classic film versions. Throughout the performance, clips and still images from Disney movies accompanied the music on a large video screen; expressive stage lighting also contributed to the spectacle.

Unsurprisingly, the program leaned heavily on movies spanning the last twenty-five years, from the Menken-Ashman scores from The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast, to the ubiquitous hit “Let It Go” from 2013’s Frozen. There was time for history as well, however: the orchestra got things rolling with an instrumental medley (arranged by Bruce Healey) that combined favorites “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” and several songs from Mary Poppins and Cinderella with non-film classics “Mickey Mouse March” and “It’s A Small World.” Later selections paid tribute to The Jungle Book and (again) Mary Poppins.

The four vocalists, at first introduced one by one, took turns playing emcee, soloist, and backup singer: Hansen lit up the stage as Ariel from The Little Mermaid, before turning the lead over to Gerson for a gorgeous rendition of “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas. A suite of songs from Beauty and the Beast was an opportunity to unleash some inventive staging, with the four soloists reenacting the opening ensemble “Bonjour!” with Hansen as Belle. Later in the same number, Eberlein showed off his comic chops as Lumiere for “Be Our Guest,” again joined by the other three for a rambunctious performance that climaxed with an energetic kick-line. (Eberlein in particular has a knack for bringing characters to life without simply imitating Louis Prima or Robin Williams: to say he stole the show would be unfair to the other singers, but he displayed the most individual personality.)

The orchestra played strongly under Bernhardt’s unfussy baton, especially in a few purely instrumental selections (fittingly, as Bernhardt pointed out, they performed a suite from Klaus Badelt’s score from Pirates of the Caribbean on “Talk Like A Pirate Day”): Alan Menken’s score for The Hunchback of Notre Dame had plenty of big moments that showed off the brass (always important in film scoring!) and percussion. (The arrangements often incorporated elements from the score in interesting ways: the Beauty and the Beast suite, for example, began with the celebratory music of the Beast’s final transformation, a good example of composer John Oswald’s adage that when repurposed, “endings make good beginnings.”) Principal oboist Andrea Banke’s fluent playing also provided the requisite Middle Eastern flavor between vocal selections from Aladdin.

A few numbers pushed at the limits of what could be recreated live, and two numbers suffered from the combination of a resonant hall and live mics: in Riley’s “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid and Eberlein’s “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book, the sound was muddy and the drum-heavy rhythms didn’t show off the orchestra at its best. In both cases, however, the soloists poured on the energy, bringing the audience to its feet. The bottom line is that when the singers are so evidently having this much fun, it’s hard not to join in. (A few numbers were sing-alongs, with lyrics displayed on the screen; my five-year-old son, at his first orchestra concert, was having just as much fun mimicking the instrumentalists, enthusiastically beating on invisible drums or sawing away at a phantom double bass.)

Two highlights capped the evening: Gerson took the lead on Frozen‘s “Let It Go” in an arrangement that followed the film version closely, but with added harmonies from the other three singers. The effect was dazzling in its precision, and gave the audience a chance to hear a very familiar piece of music in a new setting. Finally, the orchestra and singers left it all on stage with selections from The Lion King (a collaboration of Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer), including “The Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” (which had much cleaner sound than the other rhythmic numbers), and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” It was a strong note to end on; with the beginning of the Classics series next month, the Wichita Symphony has the makings of a strong season ahead of it.