Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Memorable Musical Pilgrimage

This column first appeared last year in the "what's new" blog on my web site (SteveEmber.com). It is reprised here in celebration of the wonderful music of both Bert Kaempfert and Herbert Rehbein and with the hope of introducing more readers to some very special delights involving their music.
I have been a huge fan of the Bert Kaempfert Orchestra from, as we used to say, “West” Germany, ever since Kaempfert’s recordings began to be heard on U.S. radio back in the early ‘60s.

Now, I suppose you’ve got to be of “a certain age” to even remember when your basic broadcast band had really fine music stations (sometimes even more than one in certain cities!), and tuning in such a station would reward you with recordings by Sinatra, Ella, Vic Damone, George Shearing, Peggy Lee, and, yes, Bert Kaempfert. I mean real music, not disposable, mindless Pop garbage screeching or thumping out of the speakers.

And, yes, I’m pleased to say in my local radio days, I did indeed get to play some Kaempfert!

Kaempfert recordings were typically a mix of standards (and, later, covers of some current hits) and those great Kaempfert originals, some of the best of which were co-written with a superbly talented composer and arranger by the name of Herbert Rehbein. Rehbein was also from Germany, and additionally conducted an orchestra for Swiss broadcasting.

A rather curious bit of “packaging” marked all of Kaempfert’s LPs on the American Decca label. Perhaps it was the fact that the Second World War had “only” ended about fifteen years before Kaempfert’s music reached our shores (with “Wonderland by Night”), but there was always the notation in the liner notes (Remember liner notes, I mean the kind you could enjoy without the aid of a big, thick magnifier?) that said “Recorded in Europe.” Kaempfert made his recordings in Hamburg for Polydor; Decca was the U.S. licensee. Germany did finally appear in the credits some years later.

Many years later, when I was finally able to locate one of the sublimely lush orchestral recordings by the Herbert Rehbein Orchestra (There is a connection!), also on Decca, I was not surprised to see that same “Recorded in Europe” notation.
Kaempfert…Rehbein…recorded in Germany…a bit too Teutonic-sounding for American tastes? Their music certainly wasn’t. Oh, and then there was the trumpeter in the forefront of most of the Kaempfert arrangements, credited on the backs of all those albums as “Fred Moch.” It wasn’t until many years later that I learned his name was actually Manfred Moch.

But no matter, the Bert Kaempfert Orchestra, “recorded in Europe” with “trumpet solos by Fred Moch” became a staple on American radio. And record stores had bins full of Kaempfert LPs. We fans were always eager to snatch up a new Kaempfert release, run home, slide a fingernail through the shrink wrap (Remember when opening recordings was that easy?), set that 12” vinyl treasure on the turntable, lower that tonearm ever so carefully so the (carefully cleaned!) stylus of that magnetic cartridge gently caressed the lead-in groove…and sit back and enjoy…or perhaps dance cheek to cheek with someone special. Fortunately for his legions of fans, by the mid-‘80s, Kaempfert “albums” soon found their way into the CD medium, somewhat later appearing as double sets with previously unreleased tunes, alternate takes, etc.

Sadly, Kaempfert and Rehbein never got to see the ongoing joy their recordings brought to collectors and fans, old and new, with the advent of CD. Kaempfert died in 1980, just short of his 57th birthday, not long after some brilliantly successful live concerts on the Continent, and at London’s Royal Albert Hall (He had a huge fan base in the U.K.). Herbert Rehbein passed away a year earlier. He was only 57. I suppose, had they lived a more deserved lifespan, they would have been saddened at the decline and fall of melodic “popular” music. Still, so sad to have such talent taken away from us when both men were still in their prime.

Now, I realize this account is likely to be seen, both by Kaempfert devotees and others perhaps less tuned in. So, to the latter group (and with no disrespect intended to the former!), I pose this question:

Still wondering who this Kaempfert guy was?

Would it help if I mentioned Red Roses for a Blue Lady…Spanish Eyes...Danke Schoen…L-O-V-E…A Swingin’ Safari…Strangers in the Night?

Anyhow, about that “pilgrimage”…

Funny how a “casual” search on the Internet can lead to, well, something really wonderful…and what I’m leading up to really was just that.

As I mentioned, being an inveterate liner credits reader, I had always been aware of this “shadow presence” named Herbert Rehbein. His name appeared next to Kaempfert’s in the writer credits for all of my favorite Kaempfert “originals.” These tunes, often lush and romantic, but always rhythmic…and just very special and distinctive in their "sound"…were among my strong favorites in any Kaempfert set.

I even remembered hearing, many years ago, when radio stations actually featured such music, a recording by the “Herbert Rehbein Orchestra.” As I recall, it was a Kaempfert tune, but given a somewhat more lush arrangement. Sometimes, when you cut your teeth on a particular recording, the song becomes so closely associated with that "sound," that someone else's recording just sounds "off." I remember this not being the case with the Rehbein "cover" of the Kaempfert tune. No surprise, this simpatico sound, for reasons I'd later come to understand, and appreciate!

Well, good things sometimes come to those who wait, thought I, and proceeded to do a Google search on Herbert Rehbein, hoping to find perhaps a CD or two re-issuing some of those lush, melodic recordings…

Now, the CDs remained elusive for a while, but I did find an ebay listing for a Decca Stereo LP by the Herbert Rehbein Orchestra. It was called (typical for that period) “Music to Soothe That Tiger.” And the album art was, of course of a lovely gal on a tiger rug flashing a “come hither” smile. In fact, the seller’s listing had to do more with the “cheesecake” album cover than the vinyl inside. But I bid…and won…and soon got to relish the long-lost sounds of this master arranger/conductor from “Europe.”

Well, now my interest was truly piqued. While I thought I was fairly conversant with Kaempfert, I developed a strong interest in learning more about the still shadowy Mr. Rehbein. Naturally the liner notes were typically vague, although I think they did concede to Rehbein’s connection with Swiss broadcasting.

Further nocturnal research on the computer led to the discovery of a two-CD Rehbein set from the then-current primary U.S. licensee of Kaempfert recordings. The set contained, on two CDs, all of the material from the three albums Rehbein arranged and conducted with his own orchestra, in collaboration with Bert Kaempfert. But, sadly, it was “out of print.”

I checked Amazon/Germany, thinking perhaps it might be available on a German label. Nope, only one used copy, and the seller did not ship overseas. So, back to Amazon/U.S. where one private seller, knowing he had “treasure,” wanted an exorbitant sum for his Rehbein set. Fortunately, he had competition, and I was able to snag mine for under fifty bucks. It was immediately copied as a safeguard against any accidental damage separating me from this hard to find and truly lovely lush orchestral material. Copies of the two CDs ride with me everywhere in the CD changer of my car, along with, of course, recordings by Bert Kaempfert.

But the Internet crawling did not stop there – I still wanted to know more about Mr. Rehbein. Then, Eureka! A link to YouTube, with a page full of video clips from a superb TV documentary on Bert Kaempfert, done by a German by the name of Marc Boettcher. Mr. Boettcher, to his great credit, gave ample coverage to the collaboration of Kaempfert and Rehbein as a songwriting team. Beyond that, it contained interview footage with such core players of the original Kaempfert band as Ladi Geisler, whose “knack-bass” guitar was a major element of the distinctive Kaempfert sound--fascinating to hear him describe how the sound was created.

There were segments with Kaempfert’s daughters, Marion and Doris, Rehbein’s widow Ruth, and so many others, all contributing fascinating information... conversation from other core players, both original and more recent, Kaempfert’s recording engineer, Peter Klemt, home movie footage of Kaempfert in his beloved Florida Everglades…There were also elements of one of the televised live concerts, including the wonderful Swedish Jazz vocalist Sylvia Vrethammar coquettishly singing to a bashfully smiling Bert Kaempfert, “Remember When (We Made These Memories).” I could go on and on about the quality, thoroughness, and sensitivity of this superb program. I had to have what existed beyond the You-Tube clips. But – Oh, no! – while the documentary has both German and English narration tracks, it’s not available in U.S. format.

But if you are a Kaempfert (or Rehbein, or both) fan, don’t let that stop you. Do yourself a big favor: Go and find a “universal” DVD player that will play PAL-standard DVDs and will accept other regions’ coding – they’re not gonna be at your local electronics superstore, but, trust me, an Internet search will get you where you need to be, and for around a hundred bucks, you’ll have such a player that snorts at petty concerns like “Region 2” or PAL vs. NTSC, and says “feed me anything and I’ll make it appear on your screen and emerge in glorious stereo from your speakers."

Then, while you’re waiting for it to arrive, scoot over to Amazon.de and type in "Strangers in the Night, The Bert Kaempfert Story" in the DVD category. Find a friend who knows German, or just plunge in – German Amazon is laid out pretty much like its U.S. cousin. You’ll pay in Euros, your bank will do the conversion to greenbacks, and you, my Kaempfert-loving friend, will thank me.

As a bonus, the documentary also comes with a CD containing some very worthwhile Kaempfert material you might not already have.

Say, oh wordy one, what about that pilgrimage?

I was saying how nocturnal Internet searches can bring unexpectedly wonderful results

In February, I enjoyed a wonderful trip to Germany, a visit planned around attending a concert in Frankfurt honoring the Bert Kaempfert sound.

Y’see, a click or two after nailing down that documentary, I landed on the news that in February there were to be four Tribute Concerts to the music of Bert Kaempfert, in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Düsseldorf, and Berlin, featuring some of the band’s long-standing key players, including Ladi Geisler, saxophonist Herb Geller, and the wonderful Dutch trumpeter and flugelhorn virtuoso Ack Van Rooyen, as well as the above mentioned Ms. Vrethammar, who had become closely associated over the years with Kaempfert’s music.

I considered this an event “not to be missed,” and planned a trip to Germany around it…a sort of musical pilgrimage to the man whose music I’ve loved for such a large chunk of my life.

Part Two

©2009 Steve Ember

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

In Bruges (Not the movie) Part Three (Conclusion, at least for now...)

So, there I was last November, enthusiastically planning the visit to San Francisco, including the performance of "Die tote Stadt" at the Opera, and visiting those locations seen in "Vertigo" (and "Bullitt" of course) for some photography, especially The Golden Gate Bridge from Old Fort Point. Yes, I know Ernie's is no more, and the mission down the coast has no bell tower. But that's all right; there'll be much to enjoy.

Well, talk about "best laid plans." As I'm about to reserve my seat at the Opera, and make the other necessary arrangements, something comes up that stops the process. Not important what it was, but the frustration I felt at having to cancel a trip I was really looking forward to soon turned to being very glad I didn't go.

Ed is an old friend and professional colleague who shares many of my interests in music. He found, on line, a review of the production in one of the San Francisco newspapers and, thoughtfully, e-mailed me a link. What follows explains why this was the rare instance where backing out of a trip I'd so looked forward to planning turned out to be...a relief. The review instantly told me what I would have had to spend a grand or more, and blow a bunch of valuable airline miles, to find out: I would have been sadly repulsed at sitting through that around which I'd enthusiastically been planning a trip.

I mentioned in Part Two that I had an axe to grind against a certain segment of the opera (and other musical performing arts) world, inhabited by egos-on-steroids directors intent on putting their own - often bizarre - stamps on the works they stage. Who knows the reasons - there are probably many. Perhaps to make a "dated" piece like "Die tote Stadt" more "relevant" to what passes for present day "culture." Or maybe just to feed their sometimes outrageously over-developed egos and make an artistic "statement."

Case in point...I cited the easy-to-obtain DVD of the Opéra du Rhin 1999 Strasbourg performance of "Die tote Stadt." Without doubt, it is beautifully sung, with a cast headed by Angela Denoke (another fine singing actress) as Marietta/Marie and and Torsten Kerl as Paul. I'd gladly listen to it, alongside the three preferred performances mentioned earlier - as long as I didn't have to watch this bizarre staging.

Before giving examples, let's state the obvious: Paul remains hopelessly in love with his dead wife and can only try to revive such feelings with her doppelgänger, and only in a tortured dream sequence that turns into a sort of mortal combat. So it's rife with the stuff that makes psychiatrists and psychoanalysts rich. But Korngold's music and vision are sublimely beautiful. As are the Bruges settings in any simpatico staging, such as the 1975 New York City Opera or the 1983 Berlin productions mentioned earlier.

As with any fantasy, no matter how dramatic or emotionally tortured, it requires a suspension of disbelief, and certainly in the case of Korngold's powerful music, the willingness to immerse oneself in the story, especially in Paul's dream-turning-to-nightmare, which constitutes most of the opera.

Anyone who has loved intensely and lost that loved one should be able to view Paul as the tortured and tragic figure he is...to empathize, even to a modest degree, with his rapture at discovering this young woman who reminds him so much of his lost love, as well as with his ill-starred attempt to regain the love he had with Marie.

I could continue throwing words at it...but if you watch James King in the 1983 Berlin production (as far as I know, the only available video representation of a "traditional" staging), you won't need my words. Mr. King nailed it.

And he did so with dignity. We do not see him clutching a ... doll! Nor do we see him reaching for a skeletal hand coming out of the floor (presumably from where he buried his dead wife??) Are you creeped out yet? Must admit I was at learning of these new staging features. Nah, I thought, that can't be - you must've misread something in the reviews. Viewing clips on YouTube confirmed these bizarre aberrations and countless others, both in the Opéra du Rhin and the San Francisco Opera production I'd been so anxious to attend.

But here's a particularly odious "touch" that seems to be showing up a great deal in these "modern" stagings of "Die tote Stadt." Marie's hair (and that of Marietta) are key dramatic elements in the plot. Paul loved Marie's hair. He keeps a long braid of it in a glass enclosure. He is attracted to Marietta, in no small measure, because her hair reminds him of his beloved. In the dream sequence, Marietta, determined to win Paul over from his devotion to his deceased wife, reminds him how much he loved to touch her own hair.

Perhaps I'm missing something here, but what then is the logic or validity of having Marietta spend most of the dream sequence...in a bald wig?!?

I suppose I should be glad this is a "modern" quirk. As beautiful as Karan Armstrong is as both Marie and Marietta, in the 1983 Berlin production, I doubt I'd have cared to see even Ms. Armstrong portraying a bald Marietta. And, fortunately, I was spared of any such nonsense being inflicted on the lovely Ms. Neblett in 1984 at the Kennedy Center.

Oh, yes, I should add I'll gladly do without crucifixion in the dream sequence...and why make a mockery of the classic beauty of Bruges, as some recent stage settings have done?

What is going on here?

If a segment of the Art Universe were seeking to drive a stake into the passionate heart of "Die tote Stadt," they could not have found a better way to do so than some of these recent travesties.

Then, in December, I learned The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden had a production scheduled for January. Surely, this august and venerable institution would stage the opera with more respect to its creator's vision...

So, once again, the travel wheels start turning. A few nights in London, perhaps also taking in a musical or two on the West End...then, a first ride on the Eurostar to Belgium for, naturally, a pilgrimage to the ever-appealing Bruges, once again in close proximity to having seen a satisfying performance of "Die tote Stadt."

Now, I'm really excited. Until I learn more about the production planned for Covent Garden. Yep, more bald-Marietta and other gross distortions to the beauty of what I've come to love as sympathetic staging of the opera.

So, the airline miles stay in my account. But, at this stage, I despair of seeing "Die tote Stadt" in a European opera house. And that's more the tragedy, as it seems these "adventurous" (to be kind) stagings are somewhat the norm in Europe and elsewhere, at least for the present. Even in Korngold's Vienna, it would appear the upcoming Staatsoper production is to be one of those bizarre distortions.

One hopes this idiocy and disrespect for a beautiful work will pass. Meanwhile, I suppose I can either imagine Korngold turning in his grave...or if there is a Heaven, I'm sure it's equipped with the very best celestial audio/video system imaginable, and I envision dear Erich Wolfgang, perhaps kicking back with Götz Friedrich and James King, smoking cigars, drinking brandy, and watching the tape of the 1983 Berlin production, with big broad smiles, entranced as I at viewing a production that is truly a Gold Standard. When I get there, I want to shake their hands and say "Thank you, Gentlemen, for a gift that enriched me immensely." Perhaps when Karan Armstrong arrives (and hopefully, not for many years!) she'll join us and I can thank her too.

Meanwhile, on the serendipitic chance that someone reading this knows of a "traditional" production of "Die tote Stadt" (no bald headed Marietta, no Paul clutching a doll or a skeletal hand, no one nailed to a cross, please) with a suitable sized orchestra and fine performers, planned for...anywhere...I'd certainly appreciate your being in touch with the particulars.

Till then, I shall treasure the Götz Friedrich/Karan Armstrong/James King Berlin production on my DVD...The Stockholm production on CD...and those Dolby-B tapes of Leinsdorf's recording in Germany...as I hold out hope of enjoying at least one more fully staged and beautifully sung and played - "traditional" - production of "Die tote Stadt." Dare I hope for such a staging in Bruges itself, or at least a train ride away?

OK, Dear Reader, that's my story on "Die tote Stadt," and I'm stickin' to it. If I've introduced even a few, out of curiosity, to this work, I'm happy.

One quick post-script before closing: I wrote in the previous post how taken I was with Karan Armstrong's intelligent beauty and expressiveness as an operatic actress. Even if you are not moved by the foregoing narrative to fully immerse yourself in this video of "Die tote Stadt," please go on YouTube and look up the clip of the final scene. Type in: Die tote Stadt James King Karan Armstrong - that should be enough to get you on the right page. Then select "Die tote Stadt - Final." Make sure you select the HQ version for the clearest video. If you're in a hurry, scoot the cursor up to 1:54. You need only watch from there to 3:08. In that one minute and fourteen seconds, you'll see a good example of why Karan Armstrong is so enchanting as a singing actress. A vision in stylish white, she returns (as Marietta) to Paul's house, where she left her umbrella and the very large bouquet of roses the infatuated Paul gave her in Act I.

She sings how she wonders if perhaps her returning for them might be considered an omen...she draws ever closer to Paul, searching his eyes as to whether they might kiss, but sees that he can not respond to her. Watch the recognition in her face and the sensitivity of her acting and movement as she turns to leave, pausing to look back once more at Paul's helpless stance, his hands still held out, but unable to call her back, and her curtsy to Paul's friend Frank who enters as she leaves. All to Korngold's achingly beautiful orchestral accompaniment.

Some of life's most indelible and affecting beauty comes to us in short moments. For me, this was one of them.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

In Bruges (Not the movie) Part Two

2008 was my “rediscovery” year for "Die tote Stadt," Erich Wolfgang Korngold's powerfully romantic stage work of which I wrote in Part 1. I do not even recall what prompted this re-awakening of interest, but it was probably a combination of influences. Probably the most direct nudge in that direction was seeing the trailers for the film “In Bruges” with its visuals of the Belfry, the canals, and the distinctive Flemish architecture.

Of course, it could easily have been more subtle than that, as there are numerous framed photographs in my house of images I captured on film during my visit to Bruges in 1984.

Or it might have been an evening spent with my DVD of “Vertigo,” one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films, and one I’ll probably never tire of viewing. If you are familiar with “Vertigo,” you know that James Stewart’s character, former San Francisco Police detective John “Scotty” Ferguson, is caught up in a deadly deception by his old acquaintance Gavin Elster. Elster plans to do away with his wife Madeleine, and his plan hinges on his knowledge of Scotty’s affliction of vertigo, dizziness relating to heights. Elster engages Scotty to shadow Madeleine, whom he describes as suicidal, haunted by the spirit of an ancestor she never knew, but who took her own life during the “mission days” of old California.

Scotty is reluctant to take on such a job, but one look at the alluring “Madeleine” at Ernie’s Restaurant is all it takes to reel him in. Much of the first half of the film has Scotty following this mysterious and troubled woman, played by Kim Novak, to various places in San Francisco, and rescuing her when she jumps into the bay in the cinematically iconic scene at Old Fort Point on the Presidio, with the Golden Gate Bridge looming in the misty background. By the end of the first act, Scotty is helplessly in love with “Madeleine” and intent on helping her solve her mysterious affliction. Her death by suicide, this time jumping from a mission bell tower, leaves him institutionalized out of grief…and guilt over his not having been able to prevent her jumping, due to his fear of heights.

When released from the hospital, it is not long before Scotty spots, on a downtown street, a woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to his beloved Madeleine. Her hair is a different color, worn in a different style than Madeleine’s, she is definitely more earthy, and decidedly hard…but Scotty becomes obsessed with Judy Barton’s similarity to his lost love “Madeleine.” The role of Judy is also played by Kim Novak, as a brunette. He follows her to the seedy hotel where she lives and implores her to allow him to spend time with her. A romance develops, but it, too, is ill-fated.

Sound familiar? A doppelgänger for a lost love, appearing by chance, less refined but terribly alluring…bell tower, misty settings by the water…a lovelorn man helplessly clinging to his second chance…

Oh, yes, and powerfully, passionately, romantic symphonic music. “Vertigo” is regarded by many as the legendary Bernard Herrmann’s finest film score.

Not to say that Korngold and Herrmann wrote in a really similar style, but, to my sensibilities, the Herrmann of “Vertigo” and the Korngold of “Die tote Stadt” come close enough to elicit some of the very same emotional responses.

And, in a way, one makes you want to listen to the other. Add the similarities of plot, and, well, a great many nocturnal hours can get spent in front of the speakers and the screen, just letting it all wash over you.

Also in 2008, I discovered two other superb recordings of “Die tote Stadt.” One was even a video, but both were eye-openers into this emotionally affecting and musically powerful work.

Naxos offers a very reasonably priced 2-CD set of the complete opera, a live performance by the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm, conducted by Leif Segerstam with Katarina Dalayman as Marietta/Marie and Thomas Sunnegardh as Paul heading the cast. It is well recorded, with the orchestra and singers living up to the power of Korngold’s score.

But the real “sleeper”  was the video - initially discovered in a few short clips on YouTube - of the 1983 Berlin Opera performance created and directed by Götz Friedrich and brilliantly conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser. This production featured the American tenor James King, in the role of Paul. Anyone at home in the operas of Wagner or Richard Strauss, as King was, is certainly a fine casting choice for Paul. Plus he simply looked right in the role. (Some of his stage gestures and expressions were just that, and perhaps appear too exaggerated in TV close-up, but that's a very small quibble!)

Ah, but the real surprise was his compatriot, the lovely Karan Armstrong, also with an active opera career in Germany. As I admitted in Part 1 to not being an opera maven, I freely admit I’d never known of Ms. Armstrong, and discovering her, singing both the free-spirited, coquettish Marietta, the spectral Marie, appearing to Paul at the end of Act I, and certainly the wicked dream-Marietta, and making each a compelling stage presence, was one of life’s happy revelations. Not only a fine – and breathtakingly beautiful – soprano, but genuinely a singing actress. Apparently Herr Doktor Friedrich agreed, as not only did he star the gorgeous gal from Montana in several productions; he married her. (Could I be imagining here, or is the lovely Ms. Armstrong the only true actress/soprano to have a cleft chin? No matter, it made her even more beautiful to me, and somehow this facial feature lent character-strength to both her Marietta and her Marie.)

To understand why I came to truly cherish this production, despite any video and audio quality limitations on the DVD – and believe me as a serious audiophile when I say, you will quickly get past them in perhaps the first few minutes of the first act when Paul sings his rapture at seeing Marietta’s resemblance to his deceased wife – you have to possess some awareness of the vandalism certain present day egos-on-steroids directors have inflicted on “Die tote Stadt.”

Let me return to that thought in Part Three. Meantime, I didn't mean to so highly praise a production that can only be seen in low-quality clips on YouTube. While not as readily available as the Opéra du Rhin 1999 production on a commercial DVD, for reasons I’ll get to later, it’s definitely worth seeking out. Or perhaps it would be instructive to seek out both, to see what I mean about vandalism in service to ego. More on that topic in Part 3. Yes, I have a wee axe to grind on that particular topic, especially when it comes to this particular opera...

So, back to “Vertigo,” “Die tote Stadt,” and…photography. Should I have named this blog Non-Sequitur instead of Thunderflakes? I don’t think so…

Last time I visited San Francisco was in 1984 (if you don’t count changing planes at SFO on the way to Vancouver in 1999). That’s too long…as many viewings of “Vertigo” (and “Bullitt”) pointed out.

So, when I heard the San Francisco Opera was mounting a performance of “Die tote Stadt” in late 2008, the wheels began turning. A chance to see a live production of Korngold’s operatic masterpiece…and, as photographer and incurable romantic, to make a pilgrimage to the locations I found so affecting in Hitchcock’s cinematic masterpiece.

OK, plenty of United miles to do it, even in First Class, if I so chose. Mark Hopkins or Fairmont on Nob Hill for lodging, in honor of those scenes in “Vertigo” and “Bullitt”). The naughty side of me considers renting a V-8 Mustang…or a black Charger. Nah, nix on the latter. The ’69 Bill Hickman drove in “Bullitt” was simply more snarky than the present bulked up version…Hmm, imagine instead a ’56 De Soto Firedome two-door hardtop with a big ol’ V-8.

Note to self: Do I watch too many movies?

Now, this is not the first trip I’ve planned that was inspired by a musical event, and I’ve enjoyed them all. So, why did the vision die? Not for lack of motivation, time off, airline miles, or funds.

Hold on to that egos-on-steroids vandalism thought, and we’ll pick it up in Part 3. Meantime Google “Die tote Stadt” James King Karan Armstrong Berlin, in whatever order you like. If you are at all a romantic…if you love Korngold’s music…even if you already have an audio recording of the opera, I think you might enjoy this discovery, especially if you sleuth around and find the DVD from that 1983 Berlin TV production. It’s ridiculously affordable and you might love it as much as I. The DVD is offered by a company named Premiere Opera. You'll find it on this web page:

Sunday, March 15, 2009

In Bruges (not the movie)...

Disclaimer: I am not a music critic. I don’t even play one on TV. And I am not an opera maven. I am a lover of fine music, with a decided preference for the lush romantic scores, powerfully played by a large symphony orchestra. Should that include a sensuous vocal line as in Puccini, I’m there.

Ditto, Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Korngold, opera?? Isn’t he the guy that scored those Errol Flynn swashbucklers for Warner Brothers in the ‘30s and ‘40s? The Sea Hawk? Elizabeth and Essex? Right. And many soaring, romantic, lyrical scores as well. But that was after he fled the Nazis from his beloved Vienna in the ‘thirties and settled in Hollywood.

Korngold was a true musical Wunderkind, praised by no less a figure than Gustav Mahler. That Korngold loved and understood the power of a large symphony orchestra and all its textures can be appreciated in listening to any of the fine audio showpiece recordings in conductor Charles Gerhardt’s “Classic Filmscore Series” for RCA in the ‘70s (See note at end of this post for availability). Or check out his Symphony and other “serious” orchestral works. (How I hate that term “serious” and the notion of inferior quality it's use often implies regarding some of the finest symphonic film scoring ever done…)

Anyhow, back to Korngold…opera…and a magical place called Bruges. If you’ve not visited this “Venice of the North” with its meandering canals and characteristic Flemish architecture, the gothic Bell Tower, and cobble-stoned byways in the northwest of Belgium, perhaps you have some recent images in your mind’s eye from the 2008 film “In Bruges.” Please hold onto them, or any other images you may have of Bruges, preferably by night, while I attempt to tie this all together…

When Korngold was but 23, he created a powerful, romantically intense opera (with his father’s collaboration as librettist) based on a troubling story of a young widower in Bruges who cannot move past the death of his beloved wife. He sees her doppelgänger in a young actress/dancer in a troupe visiting Bruges and what ensues is highly romantic, erotic, turning violent, but only in his frightening dream journey through love, lust, and grief over a loved one he cannot replace.

The opera was “Die tote Stadt.” The title, German for “The Dead City,” was derived from the novel by Paul Rodenbach “Bruges-la-Morte.” That “Dead City” reference is to the decline of Bruges as a seaport as its harbor silted up. There went its commercial life, and its glory. Of course, that was before the big modern tour buses and “If it’s Tuesday this must be Belgium,” oh yes, with a quick stop in that quaint little Bruges. Culottes, anyone? But I digress.

To the passionate strains of Korngold’s music, the protagonist, Paul, whose house is a shrine to his deceased wife Marie, spies the young(er) Marietta. She is warm and inviting and receptive to his attentions, until…

“Die tote Stadt” was immensely successful for Korngold. It even had simultaneous openings in Hamburg and Cologne. It quickly made its way around the world and was a big hit at the Metropolitan Opera. Perhaps a part of its immense success was in being the right work for the times, with audiences having just come through the turmoil and trauma of “The War to End All Wars.”

Sadly, unjustifiably, for many years, all that was really heard from “Die tote Stadt” was the meltingly beautiful “Mariettas-Lied,” the song with which Marietta enchants Paul in the first act, as she plays the lute that belonged to Marie.

The opera's time for full rediscovery– finally – came in 1975, with a magnificent production by the New York City Opera, featuring soprano Carol Neblett in the dual roles of Marietta/Marie. She had also appeared in a full length recording on RCA conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.

And here’s where the magic of “Die tote Stadt” and Bruges came together for me.

In 1984, the NYC Opera production was staged at the Kennedy Center in Washington. By this time, I’d already discovered the recording mentioned above, actually on a superb two-reel Dolby-B tape set. I can still remember being lost in this quintessentially romantic ocean of sound as the reels turned at 7.5 ips on my Dolby system equipped Revox and those analog electrons journeyed down the cables to my then-new Yamaha C-1 preamplifier, thence to my warmly glowing McIntosh 275 tube power amplifier, and down the thick speaker cables to my AR-3 speakers, augmented by the MicroAcoustics tweeter arrays. Ahhh, it is times like these when living in a detached house on a hill is the only way to go, especially at 2 AM or thereabouts….

So, I knew the “sound.” But was I ever not ready for the visuals! When the action of “Die tote Stadt” is not in Paul’s gloomy high-ceilinged house, it is on a quay overlooking one of Bruges’ many canals, at night. NYC Opera’s scenic design was – and there is no other way to say this – breathtaking in its use of both sets and scrims derived from actual night images of Bruges. These very effective projections even included moving images on film.

It was visually indelible…as I was to discover later that year, when I first visited Bruges and roamed its nightscape with my cameras…I still remember that incredible déjà vu of the Belfry, seen from across a canal…the quays…the stolid Flemish architecture, the forbidding-looking religious buildings, all emerging from the indigo night sky, glistening in the after-rain ambience. All the while, Korngold’s achingly beautiful score filling the rest of my senses (no Walkman required).

Hundreds of Agfa, Perutz, and Ektachrome images of Bruges, many by night, fill my image bank. A relative few managed to get printed and displayed over the years. So many more reside in boxes of slides in my filing cabinets. Perhaps time to get them out and scanned to D-files. Guess you can imagine what will be on the audio system while this activity is going on…

There’s a more recent chapter to this “Tote Stadt”/Bruges musical journey. Please stay tuned.

Meantime, my applause and gratitude to ArchivMusic.com http://www.arkivmusic.com/ for ensuring the continued availability of several of those great Charles Gerhardt recordings of Korngold film scores and those of other masters of the genre (sadly neglected by the original company). You'll find other Korngold offerings in their catalog, as well.

Who is -- or what are -- Thunderflakes?

In a word, ME! And since this (dare I say it as a somewhat reformed Luddite?) B-b-b-b-blog is likely to be about anything, everything, music close to my heart, airplanes, trains, photography, travel, voice-over projects, Mewer (The World's Best Cat), serendipity, romance, favorite movies, curmudgeonly rants about people yapping at high decibel levels into their mobile phones in public places, and perhaps a wicked fantasy regarding Those-Who-Live-To-Text-or-Twitter-at-Inopportune-Times (Do I really need to know, or even care, what total strangers are doing this very moment?)...I just decided Confessions of an Airplane Lover, Intransigent Romantic, Why I Love My Cat, or Curmudgeon (even Cuddly-Curmudgeon, as I've been known) were, well, a bit limiting. (I promise you all subsequent sentences will be of manageable length!)

Now, about that Thunderflakes moniker...
I have a friend named Marge. We go back eons. Probably for many reasons. In no particular order: She was a fan of my radio programs...she is the kind of friend who pulls no punches...and she always manages to make me laugh at myself and my foibles. Plus, she's a damn fine travel consultant. But back to the old radio show. One day, in a universe far distant, I was doing my program on an afternoon of quite unsettled weather; as I recall, the only thing that wasn't going on outside was a blizzard of frogs.

Anyhow, I described what was going on as "Thunderflakes," which was quite accurate, inasmuch as the sun was out, but the sky to the west was dramatically leaden, big wet snowflakes were swirling about...and there was impressive thunder.

Marge found my neologism -- sheesh, I hate pretentious sounding words! -- Marge happened to be listening that day and found my made-up-word tickled her sense of humor. As I recall, she said something like, "It's so you!"

So, it kinda stuck, to where I'd sign my e-mails Thunderflakes. (OK, at least to her...)

And, I kinda like the sound of it as the name for a blog that can cover some wildly disparate subject matter.

And with that bit of "explanation," I welcome you to my naughty little blog. (Well, you never know, it might be...)