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Monthly Archives: August 2009

The Scarlet Pimpernel, A Case for Cinematic Authenticity

Somehow, I’d always managed to miss the opening scenes of Alexander Korda’s 1934 film, The Scarlet Pimpernel: “London 1792” which shows a British band on parade, and “Paris”, with “Madame Guillotine” dropping her blade on the necks of aristocrats whilst Madame Defarge and her cronies ne’er drop a stitch.

Turner Classic Movies recently televised this wonderful film, starring Merle Oberon, Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey. This time I saw the very beginning, and was delighted that Korda had referenced perhaps the most famous print in the history of western art music, at least for percussionists; a British band on parade in the courtyard of St. James Palace, London, England, c.1790.  Korda had arranged his band precisely as it appears in that print. Leading the parade is a group of musicians playing conventional  band instruments of the period. Then, two young boys. One playing a small kettle drum, which became the Tenor drum of today, and the other, a Triangle. Behind them are Moors playing Cymbals, Bass drum, and Tambourine. In the 1700s, these instruments were new to western music, and known as Janissary instruments in Britain. Behind the Moors, a traditional British fife and drum Corps completes the ensemble. The film’s composer, Author Benjamin, wisely chosen Mozart’s “Turkish March” for this scene.

Then, we jump to Madame Defarge knitting and cackling with glee as each noble head falls into the wicker basket. Here again, Korda relied upon a contemporary print to depict the scene. The guillotine is the proper height, the background buildings are accurately portrayed, and the drum corps, with Drum Major, are properly placed to the right of the scaffold

Soon after, however, the film devolves into the author’s fanciful imaginings. None of its characters actually existed, at least not as author/playright Baroness Orckzy (1865-1947) portrays them. Leslie Howard plays Pimpernel, an utterly fictional British gentleman who organizes an English posse to rescue French aristocratic friends from the wrath of Les Sans Culottes. However, Raymond Massey’s villainous Citizen Chauvelin, actually lived to serve during Napoleon’s era.

Leslie Howard plays an irrepressible fop, whose wife, played by Merle Oberon, is completely unaware of his bravery until the end. Pimpernel’s doggerel poem has become a film classic:

We seek him here, we seek him there,

Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.

Is he in Heaven?-is he in Hell?

That damned elusive Pimpernel.

 

Milwaukee, Chicago and Franks Drum Shop

In 1965 I was playing percussion in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra with Bob Ayers and John Wyre.   The orchestra was new and I was on its first Player’s Committee. The president of the orchestra’s board of directors and its manager were doing everything they could to discourage our committee from writing a master contract: a document binding the players, the local musician’s union and orchestra management in a legal relationship that would enhance the musician’s working conditions and cost management more money.

At that time, the Chicago Symphony was playing ten concerts a year in Milwaukee’s old Pabst Theater, and occasionally, I’d meet their cymbal player, Sam Denov, in the boiler room just before his concert, for a lesson.  Sam had authored a book on cymbal playing, but he was also something of a legal expert and had helped write his orchestra’s Master Contract, the first such document to be ratified in the United States.

After our lessons together, Sam and I would sometimes talk shop, and on one occasion, I told him about our struggles with management. He offered to give me a copy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Master Contract.  This was a big deal.  A volatile atmosphere had for years, permeated the lives of symphony players. Unhappy with being ignored by the American Federation of Musician’s (A. F. of M.), representatives from orchestras met and formed their own organization.  At first, the A. F. of M. actively worked to subvert this quasi union. When they finally realized the vast sums of money they could get by collecting work dues from well paid symphony musicians, they quickly absorbed the player’s fledgling organization.

Sam had experienced all of this, and more. Though I was an orchestral player during this period, my only involvement in the player’s movement was a subscription to their news letter. Now ‘the troubles’ had come to Milwaukee.

Troubles, is not an overstatement. The Milwaukee Symphony was an orchestra in transition. Young professionals had been hired to beef up the local talent and a couple of highly paid ringers from Chicago were brought in to keep watch on everyone and everything, including the young, very inexperienced, and malleable conductor. The orchestra’s board of director’s and manager were controlled by their president. In retrospect, I’m sure he thought he had the perfect balance of temperaments to control events for years to come: a local union president, susceptible to flattery and experienced mainly in dealing with an elderly membership of friends who played week-end polka gigs; a personally appointed chain smoking personnel manager, whose vocabulary was limited mostly to grunts; a young svelte conductor, with a pair of pure white Samoyed dogs to charm Milwaukee Gold Coast residents out of their money; local musicians whose main concern was the extra money earned playing in the orchestra; the two hand picked old pros mentioned earlier; and his own ruthlessness.

Most of the young pros were ambitious and wanted change. Hence, the formation of our player’s committee. The need for change was not shared by everyone. There were a few pros who feared they’d be rocked overboard. They saw Milwaukee in their future, and wanted the committee to wait, even when we learned the local union President was reporting our ‘secret’ discussions to management. (He innocently believed he was doing everyone a favor by smoothing the path ahead of us.) We also discovered spies on our committee, and they too, were regularly reporting our discussions to management. With the help of Chicago’s master contract, pro bono advice from a Milwaukee labor lawyer and an A. F. of M. representative who flew in from New York City, we wrote, negotiated and ratified our orchestra’s first master contract. Then, almost all of the youngest and brightest resigned from the orchestra and went forth into the world to better jobs.

Many years later, Nexus played with the Milwaukee Symphony. The moment I walked on stage, a veteran from those days stepped forward, shook my hand, and said simply, “You were right”. Where was he when he was needed?

One good break from Milwaukee was a trip to Franks Drum Shop with my Daughter, Dorothy Anne. Its late, great owner, Maurie Lishon, sold me a fine sounding Ludwig snare drum that someone had jerry rigged into a Super Sensitive look alike. During that visit Maurie excitedly showed me Ludwig’s latest marvel, the Keylon xylophone. He told me it was indestructible, and to prove his point, thrust a brass headed glockenspiel mallet into my hand and said, “Go ahead. Hit it as hard as you can. Nothing can hurt it”. I aimed for one of the bars and creamed it dead center.  A chip the size of the beater flew off leaving a cream colored hole where a brown plastic coating had been. There was silence for a while and then Maurie, bless him, gave a bemused shrug and said, “Hmm”.  His wife Jan took the Polaroid photo below.1 A cherished treasure from an otherwise irksome era.

1. See: http://www.pas.org/News/memoriam/Lishon_IM.cfm

 

A Princely Dinner in Ontario Wine Country

His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburg, established the Duke of Edinburg’s Awards in 1956.1 Subsequently, his son Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex has taken on some of the Duke’s duties and, near the end of a July, 2008 tour in Canada, he accepted an invitation to attend a fund raiser for the Awards at Stratus, a winery near Niagara-on-the-Lake in the heart of Ontario’s wine producing region.

In line with many new wineries, Stratus is eco-friendly, producing limited quantities of wine based on the true gravity-flow system. Since its founding in 2000, Stratus has acquired a reputation for high-end wines created under the direction of Loire Valley native, J-l Groux.2

Thirty people paid $10,000.00 a plate for the pleasure of dining with Prince Edward and Chef Michael Stadtlander was asked to prepare a ‘princely dinner’.

A few years ago Stadtlander was named the world’s ninth best chef by a panel of British culinary experts. A wonderful honor indeed, particularly for a chef whose restaurant, Eigensinn Farm, is in an old farm house almost three hours by car north of Toronto. Eigensinn Farm has a global reputation and its patrons care not a whit for its isolation. Michael decorated his dining room with as much care as he prepares pork, but still, it surprises new customers who arrive with images of posh French country inns in mind. Michael’s kitchen, a culinary landmark, rivals the decor of his dining room.3

Stadtlander, a good friend, had recommended me for the event’s purveyor of music. When the call came, I was delighted and ambivalent; a drummer providing music for a $10,000.00 a plate royal dinner? But Stratus evidently trusted Michael and suggested I set up in the vineyard, a few discreet yards from the patio dining table, far enough to be heard, but not close enough to intrude. (Any wedding harpist understands the role.)

I asked my friend, recording engineer and percussionist, Ray Dillard to join me. We would play quietly and sparsely on bells and gongs, but add occasional drum beats for frisson.  It was fun, all of it, even with the intrusion of the worst storm I’d ever experienced. A tornado from some ring of Dante swooped in, but was avoided, thanks to the Stratus early warning weather radar. Michael’s apprentices carried our instrument ladened racks through the loading dock door into the winery Press Alley. I lived on a farm north of Toronto for twenty years, and had never experienced winds and pitch black skies such as these. Within minutes, the fund raiser switched to plan B.

The Prince arrived, met and spoke with the dinner party.4 With the help of servers from restaurants in the area, the meal was a spectacular success. During the amuse-bouche, the winds howled and the rains really did beat a tattoo. But the storm’s fury was matched by its brevity and when singers from the Shaw Festival began their dessert selections, all was calm. (They opened with Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”. From my distant perch, I smiled ruefully for my Nexus colleague William Cahn, who declares this his most disliked song.)

Ray and I heard the Prince of Wessex’s friendly voice signaling the evening’s close, but, given the Press Alley’s cavernous acoustic, we understood nary a word. We continued to play until the only sounds were ours. Then I went forward, past the kitchen where the ‘help’ was cleaning up, and onto the patio where Michael was relaxing, alone with a glass of Stratus white. I joined him for a few moments and then returned to pack up. I had not met or seen the Prince, nor had I drunk a glass of wine or eaten anything Michael had prepared. Oh well. With visions of frocked Esterházy musicians in our heads, Ray and I drove back to Toronto.

Footnotes:

1. See: WWW.dofe.org

2. See: WWW.stratuswines.com

3. See: www.nytimes.com/1997/11/12/dining/the-chef-who-got-away.html

www.torontolife.com/guide/restaurants/out-of-town/eigensinn-farm

4. Prince Edward, the third son and fourth child of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburg, is now seventh in line of succession to the throne of England.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos are by the author.