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January 9, 2010

Monteverdi Call and Response

RehearsalFolgerConsort3.jpgJanuary 8, 2010, at Washington National Cathedral, the Folger Consort presented a courtly concert of Claudio Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers in tribute to this 400 year-old work. The main sanctuary of the Cathedral was filled with an attentive audience while the altar gave stage to ten singers and fourteen musicians. The Dresser chose this concert after getting a brief taste of the Folger Consort playing Monteverdi in their opening season concert "A Harmony of Friends: Music of Italy and China."

The Folger Consort creatively presented the 1610 Vespers, which has continued through the centuries to be a puzzle for the modern day performer in deciding what to perform. As the Folger Consort's program notes explain, vespers are comprised of five psalms and their antiphons, a hymn, and a concluding Magnificat. The 1610 Vespers is a Marian Vesper, which means the same Latin texts for the psalms, hymn, and Magnificat are used. The antiphons, which respond to the psalms, are a variable component that Monteverdi left up to the producing performers to decide, based on the feast occasion when the 1610 Vespers would be performed. Also the antiphons are traditional pieces written in the plainchant style and are not compositions by Monteverdi. According to Robert Eisenstein, the traditional plainchant antiphons do not relate well musically to Monteverdi's psalms in his 1610 Vespers and he says there is enough plainchant in the texture of the psalms. For a variety of reasons including the 17th century practice of inserting antiphon substitutes of both vocal and instrumental pieces, the Consort has inserted, after the psalms, sacred songs by Monteverdi as well as an instrumental composition by Giovanni Gabrieli which was played after the "Ave maris stella" Hymn and before the "Magnificat."

For this one hour and forty-five minute production, the Consort assembled musicians playing two theorbos, two violins, two violas, one violone, one cello, three trombones (one doubled on cornetto), three cornettos (two dedicated), and one organ. While the 1610 Vespers is considered a chamber music piece, the vast space of Washington National Cathedral demands a bigger sound than what a typically sized chamber group would be.

RehearsalFolgerConsort4sm.jpgAs to the playing, the Dresser considered herself fortunate to have seats up close to the players. While there was subtle mic-ing to aid the sound volume at the back of sanctuary, the Dresser cannot believe that the remote audience received the clarity of music making that she heard. She particularly admired the passionate playing by violinist Julie Andrijeski and Robert Eisenstein who stood for the entire length of the concert. (They were not, however, "on stage" the entire time.) In the playing of the "Magnificat," the Dresser also loved the echo effect Eisenstein created by moving away from Andrijeski and then turning his back. The echo effect also was used by two tenor voices in the Sacred Song "Audi coelum."

Unlike a concert that would have been mounted in Monteverdi's life (1567-1643), two sopranos--Johanna Arnold and Jolle Greenleaf--joined the group of singers. (Jolle Greenleaf, who also performed in "A Harmony of Friends: Music of Italy and China," replaced an ailing Ann Monoyios.) The Dresser guesses that the sopranos sang the parts that would have been assigned to castratis. In his book Monteverdi: Vespers (1610), John Whenham talks about this issue of men singing both male and female parts as well as others addressed by this Folger Consort production. RehearsalFolgerConsort2sm.jpg

The Folger Consort created an impressive Monteverdi program that uplifted and restored the senses. Below is the first call and response pairing (the Latin and English translation) of Psalm 109 with the sacred song drawn from King Solomon's "Song of Songs."


Dixit Dominus Domino meo: Sede a dextris meis, donec ponam inimicos tuos scabellum pedum tuorum. 
The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand until I make thine enemies thy footstool.

Virgam virtutis tuae emittet Dominus ex Sion; dominare in medio inimicorum tuorum.
The LORD shall send forth the rod of thy strength from Zion; rule thou in the midst of thine enemies.

Tecum principium in die virtutis tuae, in splendoribus sanctorum; ex utero ante luciferum genui te.
Thine is the foundation in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness; I have born thee from the womb before the morning star.

Juravit Dominus, et non paenitabit eum:
The LORD has sworn, and will not repent:

Tu es sacerdos in aeternum, secundum ordine Melchisedec.
Thou art a priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedec.

Dominum a dextris tuis confregit in die irae suae reges.
The LORD at thy right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath.

Judicabit in nationibus, implebit ruinas; conquassabit capita in terra multuorum.
He shall judge among the nations, he will fill them with ruins; he will break the heads over populous lands.

De torrente in via bibet; propterea exaltabit caput.
He shall drink of the spring in the way; therefore shall he lift up the head.

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Glory be to the Father...


Nigra sum sed formosa filia Jerusalem
I am a black and also beautiful daughter of Jerusalem

Ideo dilexit me Rex, et introduxit me in cubiculum suum
et dixit mihi:
So the King loved me and led me into his chamber and said to me:

Surge, amica mea, et veni.
Arise my love and come away.

Iam hiems transiit imber abiit et recessit, flores apparuerunt in terra nostra,
tempus putationis advenit.
now winter has passed, the rain has gone,
and flowers have appeared in our land;
the time of pruning has come

Snapshots drawn from the rehearsal and the Cathedral were taken by Mack Ramsey (trombone and cornetto).

January 10, 2010

The Tenderness of Dennis Brutus (1924-2009)

00BrutusCIMG0101.jpgThe Dresser is not a political animal but one person two years ago moved her to stand in Washington, DC's LaFayette Square across from George Bush's White House to say, "The politics of death and taxes bring me here to grieve." That person was the South African poet Dennis Brutus, who spent time with Nelson Mandela breaking rocks at Robben Island. His crime, like Mandela's, was the audacity of fighting racism in their native land.

The occasion of the Dresser meeting the venerable Brutus was the 2008 Split This Rock poetry conference. As a keynote speaker, Dennis Brutus viscerally made real what conference organizer Sarah Browning meant by naming her conference Split This Rock. What was especially moving to the Dresser was how such a modest and giving person could stand and suffer great hardship in the name of social justice and good common sense. Without hearing him speak, the Dresser would not have attended the LaFayette rally that crisp Sunday in March. The Dresser told those assembled that she was inspired to speak because of what Dennis Brutus said at the Split This Rock conference and she saw that Mr. Brutus who was standing in front of the crowd was moved by that confession. Afterwards, she spoke with him face to face and he embraced her. He said he was hoping people would be moved to action.

00BrowningCIMG0123.jpgOn January 10, 2009, Sarah Browning and many others delivered a tribute program to Dennis Brutus who died December 26, 2009 at the age of 85. The tribute at Busboy & Poets took its name "Somehow Tenderness Survive" from the last line of the poem seen below. Among the participants were poets Kenny Carroll, Holly Bass, and Sarah Browning. Emira Woods, Foreign Policy in Focus, Institute for Policy Studies, and Briggs Bomba, Africa Action, co-hosted. The Langston Room of Busboys was so packed that people were invited to sit on the stage behind the speakers. Vincent Moloi screened "I am a Rebel," a 50-minute documentary of Brutus' life.


Somehow we survive
and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither.

Investigating searchlights rake
our naked unprotected contours;

over our heads the monolithic decalogue
of fascist prohibition glowers
and teeters for a catastrophic fall;

boots club the peeling door.

But somehow we survive
severance, deprivation, loss.

Patrols uncoil along the asphalt dark
hissing their menace to our lives,

most cruel, all our land is scarred with terror,
rendered unlovely and unlovable;
sundered are we and all our passionate surrender

but somehow tenderness survive


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January 14, 2010

Full Moon on Poetry: 120 Plus 10

On January 11, 2010, the Dresser attended a dual poetry program celebration at the Folger Shakespeare Library. On the heavy end, Poet Lore was marking 120 years of publishing and on the lighter end (but certainly no less literary quality) Beltway Poetry Quarterly, at ten years old, was celebrating the print publication and launch of its anthology Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC edited by Kim Roberts. Moderating the evening was Teri Cross Davis, the Folger Shakespeare Library Poetry Coordinator.


To represent both magazines, Kim Addonizio and Kyle Dargan, who have each been published by these publications, gave what the Dresser calls stylized readings. Dargan read his poems from his laptop computer in a relaxed approach. Addonizio read from books and paper in the traditional approach, but concluded the reading of her original poetry with a harmonica performance of two compositions. The Dresser captured her blues train riff.

After the readings/performance by Dargan and Addonizio, Jon West-bey, director of the American Poetry Museum, led Beltway founding editor Kim Roberts and Poet Lore editors Jody Bolz and E. Ethelbert Miller in a discussion about these publications and the literary scene in general.


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January 23, 2010

The Ars Poetica of Chinese Dance Theater

Lately the Dresser cannot get enough Chinese culture to satisfy her curious mind. One aspect of this hunger for things Chinese has manifest through the Dresser's love of dance. On November 26, 2009 at the Shaanxi Grand Opera House in Xi'an, China, the Dresser saw the Tang-Dynasty Palace Music and Dances. On January 20, 2010, she saw the Shen Yun Performing Arts show at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, DC. Both shows are based on the art of classical Chinese dance and have connections to Chinese opera.


As in Chinese opera, the philosophy behind Chinese dance theater is to achieve mei or beauty. For example, this comes through graceful rounded movements, the music, the costumes, and the seamless transition from various art forms such as the combining of dance movement with acrobatics. In both the Tang-Dynasty and Shen Yun shows singing is one of the elements, though unlike Chinese opera, the performer delivering song is not delivering the song with dramatic gestures or other skills one would see in a Chinese opera.

SYFanSM.jpgThe Tang-Dynasty show offered ten scenes while the Shen Yun show, a much longer performance, offered about twenty. What the Dresser liked about both shows was the variety. While no repetition of dance scene occurred between the two shows, both shows seemed to follow a similar formula for how to achieve this array of entertainment. The format went something like this: pageantry scenes on the front and back end of the shows, and then a mix of water sleeve dances, instrumental interludes, folk dances from various Ethnic Chinese groups, prop dances (fans, handkerchiefs, plates, lanterns, masks), folk or fairy tale ballet, and dance with martial arts.

What was surprising to the Dresser for both shows that elements of western ballet were used along with the tiny steps and feet close to the ground that characterize movements that only Chinese dancers do. Shen Yun dancers also incorporated elements of what the Dresser characterizes as Russian squat kicks. Some of the Shen Yun dancers (and most had the strength and control to exercise leaping turns that the Dresser has always associated with such Russian dancers (in their prime, of course) as Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. However, the young Shen Yun dancers did not exude the individuality and personalities of such ballet stars. Perhaps that is not allowed in Chinese dance theater, that one dancer should attract so much attention.jumpSm.jpg

While both shows had eye-catching costumes, the Shen Yun costumes were stunning in terms of colors selected and used together as well as details on the costumes (such as beads, coins, gold thread, glitter). The Dresser doesn't know how the Tang-Dynasty show costumes were made, but those for the Shen Yun show were made by hand. Often the costumes provided special effects. Those familiar with Chinese dance movement know the undulating ribbon effect of water sleeves. Water sleeves are usually a secondary white silk sleeve attached to the cuff of the primary sleeve. In the "Heavenly Maidens" scene, the Shen Yun performers not only wear exotic color combinations (dresses that are tastefully both chartreuse and salmon pink) but also wear gauzy white capes that when the dancers whirled, they disappeared. The Dresser felt like she was watching an animation of cream being whipped, a very delicious experience especially since the Dresser no longer indulges in eating such confections.


Traditional Chinese sets in most theater arts are minimal and both theater groups achieved this spareness in different ways. While the Tang-Dynasty Show used sets that were painted with pictures of China's countryside and great cities (including the Great Wall, and the Forbidden City), the Shen Yun Show used projections that often were interactive with the performers. For example in the fairy tale scene "Splitting the Mountain," a goddess who marries a mortal is imprisoned in a cave by her brother. The live performer playing the goddess is transformed into a video figure and whisked into the cave. The brother, a live performer, interacts with the video such that a huge video boulder is sent flying across the entrance of the cave.

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About January 2010

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in January 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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