Saturday, March 26, 2011

This 'n' That

Various odds and ends of things going on lately ... What a funny week weatherwise, huh? Wednesday afternoon we go for a late lunch after getting the car serviced and we eat outside for the first time this year. Since it's spring break on campus, it is possible to park, so we go to the place with the great French onion soup.
 The outside tables are set up, and so here we are, eating and looking up at a blue blue sky and fluffy white clouds. After we eat, we run a couple of errands and an hour later we're heading home when ... the wind picks, the sky turns gray and large black clouds appear, the air smells different, and the temperature drops drastically. Yup, ol' winter came back for one more round right at that moment. Maybe the cold will keep the daffodils from finishing up too soon (a few days of heat finished off the early reticulata irises).

Spent the later part of the week finishing Joyce Carol Oates's new memoir A Widow's Story. It would be very difficult to have read ALL of JCO's books because she is so enormously prolific and wide-ranging, but I have read a good number of the novels and would say I am a fan. I don't usually go for memoirs, but I made an exception in this case. What an amazing book! So intensely personal and yet so accessible, so universal in its poignancy, its very intimacy. She lets the reader inside her mind, her heart, and her marriage in a heartrending way.

Now I've started Susan Vreeland's Clara and Mr. Tiffany, historical fiction set in NYC at the turn of the century in the famous stained glass studio where a crew of women artists are creating the masterpieces that will be shown at the Chicago exposition and introduce the world of amazing Tiffany glass art.

By Saturday night, we had to wear winter coats and hats and nearly froze coming out from the Mean Lids gig at 8:30!
Mean Lids refers to the cool hats that these guys like to wear at each gig. We had seem Miriam Larson and Ben Smith at a library concert a while back when Matt Turino couldn't join them. And we knew Ben Smith's wonderful violin performances when he played the Stephan Grappelli parts in the Music of Django Reinhardt (we miss him there!). But we had not heard the three all playing together and it was a real treat!
Ben is a prodigious talent with both the fiddle and the banjo! Matt plays a mean guitar indeed and fiddle as well. Miriam loves to switch instruments from her incredible flute to kazoo, Jew's harp, train whistle, washboard, and any number of other amazing devices. All three sing wonderfully well too! And what kind of music do they play? It's a bit hard to define, but it's an intriguing mix, all skillfully done and a joy to hear. There's a fair amount of Irish folk music, some haunting waltzes, old-timey swing tunes, even a Patsy Cline song, and lots of astonishingly good originals composed by the members of the band. They are not only consumate musicians and laid-back and entertaining performers, but admirable composers as well.
There was a good sized crowd and it was nice to see a handsome and graceful couple who not only knew how to do swing dancing par excellence but who could also waltz! A dance and a type of music with a long and noble history that isn't over yet!

They say it could snow tonight, but it doesn't look like it's gonna happen here anyway. Next week is my birthday, so I'm hoping spring will return just in time! We've got the crew from LetUsGetDirtyForYou coming on Monday to  begin the garden clean-up, put out the chairs and benches, and get the pots ready for this year's annuals. It's my favorite time of year!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Triple Music Weekend

As I've said before in this blog, Champaign-Urbana is a great town for live music, and this weekend was another example. We went to three different gigs, each very different and each very enjoyable.

On Saturday night we went to the Iron Post for Desafinado, our favorite Brazilian samba group. The group has changed its membership a bit recently because of some folks moving away and others being busy with family things. This time the group included Elis Artz on vocals, George Turner on guitar, Tom Paynter on piano, flute, and melodica, Giraldo Gonzales on congas, Karim Yengsep on bass, and Luciano Tosta on mandolin, guitar, and various percussion instruments.
Desafinado is experimenting with some new tunes, as well as continuing with well-known Brazilian favorites such as "The Girl from Ipanema," sambas by Antonio Carlos Jobim, the theme from the film Black Orpheus, and Aquarelles de Brasil. They played two sets and we loved all of the songs!
 Elis sings in Portuguese in a most expressive and spirited way, so the meaning of the songs comes across even if you don't speak the language. Her performance just keeps getting better and better. She says she had a few voice lessons last year in Portugal and a few here in town (she was a total novice to performance when she started with this band) and the results really show! Her voice is stronger and her range is greater (and she's more confident as well). But the beauty of the singing is how totally natural it is and how perfectly it expresses her feelings for the songs she is singing.
The rhythms of the Brazilian beat are, of course, part of the magic too. And there was plenty of variety in the musical sounds coming out of the group. The foundation of the infectious beat itself is the conga. Giraldo has three congas and he certainly knows just what to do with them. It's an essential part of what makes you keep time on your tabletop, just like they do in Rio or Sao Paulo ...
Many of these pieces have beautiful and intricate melodies that are perfect for leading into George Turner's expert guitar improvisations. I was so happy to see George playing his acoustic this time and Karim Yengsep his acoustic bass (including some lovely bow work). I've heard them use the electric instruments well too, but to me this music is best acoustic.
Tom Paynter is an incomparable musical talent, and he really had a chance to let loose and show it at Saturday's gig. He had use of a genuine grand piano for a chance, a Baldwin, as well as his flute (and a wooden or bamboo flute for one number) and his melodica (a sort of combination of accordion, keyboard, and harmonica with a unique sound). He manages to play all three at the most appropriate times in hauntingly lovely ways.
A couple of the new numbers were songs from the Northeast of Brazil, from Paraiba where Elis and Luciano are from. The sound of this regional music is very distinctive and really interesting. Luciano adds to the range of sounds with his mandolin, small electric guitar, and lots of cool percussion such as triangle, wind chimes, gourds, whistles, shakers, and bongers (is that a word?)
Karim plays with such intensity and passion on the acoustic bass that you can't help feeling the deeper tones within the songs. The wonderful thing about this group is the way they really do play together, their "esprit de corps," as the French say: the spirit, the sense of connection and being totally immersed together (including the audience) in the music and culture being expressed.

Of course, the evening was great fun most of all because of the best company at my table, my sweet husband David.
Bossa Nuevo
The next afternoon, on Sunday, we went to the Urbana Free Library to hear Bossa Nuevo play.
In the past, this group has performed some of the same Brazilian tunes as Desafinado, but since their singer, Holly Holmes, has gone to Brazil to study, the band decided to expand their repertoire to include tangos and other interesting arrangements of lesser-known compositions by modern composers. There is some overlap in the membership with other bands we enjoy. George Turner (on electric guitar this time) is also in this group, as well as Karim Yengsep on bass.
 Behind George, hopefully you can spot the beautiful and talented jazz pianist Lara Driscoll. We used to hear Lara play with a number of local musicians at V. Picasso, which sadly is closed now. She also plays in some other groups, including with Mikael Templeton, who graced Bossa Nuevo with sterling performances on four horns: alto and tenor sax, clarinet, and flute.
The beat is entirely different for these Argentian tango pieces and quite interesting.
Cody Jensen on percussion, a new musician to us, did a great job and was playing with Andy Miller on bongos, whose virtuosity we've enjoyed regularly in the Cuban guahira son band called Sandunga.
I especially liked the tangos by composer Astor Pizzarelli. There was one long modern piece that was a bit different in tone from the rest of the concert, but the other musical numbers were definitely in the realm of Latin jazz.

The Music of Django Reinhardt
The third gig of the weekend was Sunday evening at the Iron Post with the regular once-a-month appearance of a band called The Music of Django Reinhardt. This group's membership is pretty fluid too and various musicians sit in if they're in town. But the music is always great and lots of fun for those of us who recognize songs that are seventy years old!
The two "regulars" are the leader of the band Jordan Kaye, guitarist par excellence and a guy with an enormous sense of humor, and his happy sidekick and terrific bass player Josh Houchin.
A nice surprise tonight was the goofy but delightful singing that Josh and Jordan did (evidently they always sing when they play with the Prairie Dogs and do bluegrass and country). Also, Chris Reyman was there for the second set with his wild and lively accordion.
But Paul Asaro's amazing performance on the Baldwin was not to be missed! Paul is not always with the group because he tours nationally, currently with Leon Redbone. He is a master of stride jazz piano, an incredible technique requiring extreme two-handed dexterity to say the least, and he seems to know every early jazz piece ever written. Most of the songs that Django played were from the forties, often performed by jazz bands in occupied Paris.
This group does some standards from the time that are well-known and much-loved, such as "Stardust," "Honeysuckle Rose," and "Ain't Misbehavin,'" but they also perform some Django originals such as "Nuages" and "Manoir de Reve" (Django's Castle).

It was a small audience because of U of I spring break and a warm evening with lots of folks probably out riding bikes and kicking soccer balls, but the show was much appreciated. What a great town for live music!

Friday, March 18, 2011

What's Happening?

It looks as though the worst of the winter is past us now here in Urbana and daylight savings time has come along to help with the gloomy blues. We're had a lot of rain lately (don't my joints know it!) and it rained again today. But there are signs of life: snowdrops, yellow aconite, adonis, and reticulata iris in bloom (photos to come later when it's not raining).

We had a lovely St. Pat's Day dinner last night. Friends Victoria and Frank joined us for corned beef (from the slow cooker, nice and tender), fresh cabbage (cooked lightly so it still has texture), boiled potatoes (with real butter), and Gala apples and craisins cooked in a light maple sauce. We finished off with pistachio ice cream and lemon Pepperidge farm cookies. Vicki brought some Celtic music CDs to add to the Irish atmosphere and a good time was had by all.

This morning we went to another dance class at Krannert as part of the Dance for Parkinson's program. This was a smaller group, about 14 people, led by two dancers from the U of I dance department. Again, there was piano music and some lovely stretches and movements. I couldn't do everything because my knees are so stiff right now and I think I've pulled my back muscle again, but I used my walker for part of the activity. Everyone was so nice to us!

We followed up the morning's adventure with a quick stop at Panera for bagels and latte and then back home again.

We've got a DVD for this evening and then Brazilian samba tomorrow night (after our usual Saturday library afternoon) with Desafinado and then Bossa Nuevo on Sunday at the library and Django Reinhardt Sunday night. So it's a big weekend for live music! Hope you all have a great weekend too.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Saw a couple of really good DVDs lately that I wanted to share with you. Hachi: A Dog's Tale and An Education.  

Hachi is based on a true story of an akita in Japan who was so loyal to his late human that he returned every day to the train station to wait for ten years. Lasse Hallstrom, who also did Chocolat, Cider House Rules, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape? was the director. The story has been tranplanted to a suburb of Rhode Island, but the spirit of the story is universal. It's about loyalty and unconditional love and acceptance. Richard Gere does an excellent job as the the music professor who takes in the stray akita pup and forms an amazing bond. The dog trainers did great work with the akita actors, who are adorable. The story is heartwarming and heartbreaking without being at all sentimental.

An Education was done by Lone Scherfig, a Danish woman who directed Italian for Beginners. It's set in a London suburb in the late fifties/early sixties. An innocent and brilliant young woman at a girl's school is preparing for entrance exams to Oxford when she meets an older man who opens up a more sophisticated world to her but ultimately deceives her. She learns from her experience and all ends well. It's a common enough journey but it is told with great delicacy and nuance and is a wonderful portrait of the coming of age of the girl and of postwar Britain into the modern world.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dance for Parkinson's

A few weeks ago, we ran into a woman I know at a jazz gig. She has problems with her health and especially with balance and movement. She mentioned that friends had recommended to her a special program of workshop/classes at the university that were supposed to help with these problems. She hadn't gotten the details, but she passed on what she knew in case David, my husband, was interested because the program was called Dance for Parkinson's.
So I googled and found out the information. Here's a description from their website:

Dance for PD® offers dance classes for people with Parkinson’s disease in Brooklyn, New York and, through our network of partners and associates, in more than 40 other communities around the world.  In Dance for PD® classes, participants are empowered to explore movement and music in ways that are refreshing, enjoyable, stimulating and creative. An on-going collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group—a chapter of the National Parkinson Foundation—the Dance for PD® program also provides teacher training and nurtures relationships among other organizations so that classes based on our model are widely available.

It turned out that several classes had already taken place last fall and winter but that there were a few more this spring. David decided that he wanted to try it, so we got up early Friday morning and went over to Krannert Performing Arts Center. The class was held in the dress rehearsal room, so we had a long (I was glad I brought my walker. The damp weather is really hard on my back and leg problems these days) but rather interesting trek down the corridors of the not-so-public part of the center, passing by big props for plays, rooms where orchestral rehearsals were going on, and so forth.
The dress rehearsal room is a huge space with mirrors all along one side and a sturdy wooden rail (the "bar" in ballet, I suppose) against the wall. We arrived late (as usual, sigh) and saw a big circle of chairs. People sitting in the circle included Parkinson's patients, their friends or spouses, and some students from the dance department. In the center were three chairs for the group leaders. To  start off, one of the instructors of the program who is on the dance faculty here demonstrated some seated warm-up movements. A grand piano and a lovely lady named Beverly provided musical accompaniment.

The program developed by the Mark Morris Dance Group was being offered as a cooperative effort by the dance department, a Carle clinic Parkinson's group, and the MMDG. We were especially fortunate to come to this particular session because it was also attended by three members of the MMDG who were in town for a special reason (to be revealed later in this blog post!). So after the warm-up, each of the three dancers led the group in a series of interesting (and sometimes pretty difficult!) movements.

The movements all involved fairly intricate sequences of movements of all different parts of the body (some seated, some standing holding onto a chair, some walking) with live music. The people in the group were at different stages in terms of which movements they could do most successfully; some of them were a challenge for me with arthritis as well as for those with Parkinson's. But there was a wonderful atmosphere of acceptance; everyone was encouraged to do what worked for him or her. 

At one point, we were doing standing movements that my husband couldn't manage and he had sat down. David Leventhal, a dancer who is devoting all his time right now to directing the PD education program in 14 states, came over and sat down across from my husband and helped him do a seated equivalent of some of the moves.
Some of the activities were lyrical, some humorous, many imaginative. We saw a few people we knew from the community. Everyone seemed to be making an effort, enjoying the music and companionship, and smiling and laughing. The dancers themselves were marvelous to watch and very kind and patient with all of us. It was a really great experience.

To my surprise, at the end they said we shouldn't forget to pick up the letter for the free tickets. I didn't know anything about it. It turns out that the reason the dancers were at this particular session was because the Mark Morris Dance Group was giving a performance Friday night at Tryon Festival Theater in Krannert Center. So we had two free tickets! (The regular price for senior citizen tickets for the performance would have been $33 per person.)

So we went home and rested and then went back to Krannert in the evening and had dinner there at the Intermezzo Cafe with a friend and then went to the concert. We had seats in the front row, just left of the stage, and could see everything on stage very well, and we were also right next to the area with the two pianos, three violins, and the cello. 

We realized soon that many of the movements that were used in the class were taken from the marvelous choreography of the evening's performance of the Mozart dances. And of course it was a thrill to see some of the dancers in the troupe as people we had as leaders in the morning's activities! The performance itself was exceptionally delightful. The dancing is modern (barefoot and no tights or tutus) and bold. Sometimes the troupe's movements and gestures are synchronized, but sometimes they are all moving differently in a sort of living dynamic sculpture. The skill of the dancers, the incredible musical performance, and the visual delight of the costumes were all thrilling! What a terrific treat!

We plan to attend the other sessions of the Dance for Parkinson's and thank all involved in the efforts that went into developing the program