All posts by kruekutt

Grateful for my beloved wife, son, daughter-in-law, grandchildren and siblings. Also a lover of theology, music, history, philosophy, classic novels, science fiction, fantasy and Looney Tunes.

John Garth, The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien

Serious fans and scholars of J.R.R. Tolkien need little introduction to John Garth.  His Tolkien and the Great War (2003) is among the best books of this century on the creator of The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  With urgency and clarity, Garth laid bare the biographical and historical roots of Tolkien’s legendarium, along with the unique gifts and vision of the man who gave it life.

In the acknowledgments for The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, Garth promises that another major book on Tolkien’s creative process is in the works.  Until then, what an delectable hors d’oeuvre we have to sate our appetites!   Focusing on “the places that inspired Middle-Earth,” Worlds is gorgeously illustrated with snapshots, paintings and drawings from Tolkien’s life, along with many more maps, illustrations and stunning photographs (sampled below).   

But it’s Garth’s commentary — always accessible, always deeply empathetic  — that leaves us richer for the reading.  He probes much farther than any mechanical equation, i.e. “Tolkien saw this [location/building/natural feature] and this place from the legendarium was obviously the result.”  In fact, knocking down some of the wilder theories in play is part of his brief — the family names in the Shire don’t all come from two villages in Kentucky; the “two towers” aren’t a dystopian refraction of Birmingham’s dark satanic mills.  Instead, Garth strives to see Tolkien’s art as the holistic fruit of his life — the circumstances, people, environment, culture and education that shaped him, working together organically with his mind and heart, loves and hates, interests, friendships, education, vocations and travels.

The result can seem unsystematic, yet it’s satisfyingly thorough, surveying how Tolkien drew on the creation he knew to realize his sub-created imaginary world over six decades.  The chapter “The Land of Luthien: from Faerie to Britain” is perhaps Garth’s most delightful achievement here, tracing the evolving picture of Middle-Earth and its correspondences with this world from 1918’s The Book of Lost Tales through to The Lord of the Rings.  But there’s a great deal more on display, as Garth muses on the impressions that seas, mountains, rivers and lakes, forests, centers of learning and towers of guard made on Tolkien — not just in his early life, but throughout his years as a scholar, soldier, husband, father, linguist, storyteller, colleague and friend.  The penultimate chapter, “Places of War” focuses once again on the crucible of the Western Front; Garth is in his element here, digging ever deeper into how the Battle of the Somme and its aftermath refined Tolkien the man, ultimately unleashing Tolkien the legend-maker.

For all this, John Garth and the design team at Quarto Publishing deserve heartfelt thanks.  Words and images work in concert throughout The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, convincingly showing how the bardic depths of Middle-Earth are firmly founded on Tolkien’s experience in — and meditations about — the wonder and beauty of the fields we know.

To order The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien direct from the publisher at 50% off (ending June 28 at 11:59 pm EDT), click here.

— Rick Krueger

 

 

 

 

An Ontario Tempest

The next Shakespeare@Stratford film to hit YouTube is the Festival’s 2018 production of The Tempest, premiering on Thursday, May 14 and running for three weeks.  Here’s my review from when my wife and I saw the play live in October of that year.

This is the third production of The Tempest we’ve seen at Stratford, Ontario; since we started attending in 2004, the Festival has usually marketed the play as a chance to catch an actor of high skill and reputation (and often getting on in years) in the role of Prospero. 2005’s Tempest served as a grand farewell for William Hutt, the most accomplished classical actor in Canada’s theatrical history; the 2010 production was built on Christopher Plummer returning to the scene of his earliest triumphs. This time around, the hook was seeing Martha Henry (since Hutt’s passing, the current Greatest Living Canadian Actor) playing the exiled magician — part of a season with multiple productions (a gender-swapped Julius Caesar and a gender-fluid Comedy of Errors, along with the drag-rock musical The Rocky Horror Show) trendily exploring postmodern conceptions of freedom.

But any dreams or fears of a transgressive Tempest faded quickly; Henry forthrightly played Prospero as female — duchess of Milan, mother of Miranda, wizard ruler of an uncharted, enchanted island — with a few modest tweaks of the script not even scuffing the verse rhythms, and that was that. (After all, it’s a fairy tale; if you’re worried about the lines of descent for Renaissance Italian nobility being messed up, you’ve come to the wrong play.) Even better, this was an ensemble Tempest, with Henry clearly featured, but also clearly first among equals. Rather than chewing scenery a la Plummer or waxing grandiloquent like Hutt, she drove the plot without swallowing the stage, working to provide for her daughter, bring those who exiled her to book, reward virtue and punish wrong with formidable focus, aplomb and dry humor. And all the while, she genuinely wrestled with conflicting impulses: would she take vengeance on her adversaries, or show them mercy? It’s a tribute to Henry’s and director Antoni Cimolino’s conception that, even if you knew the play, the answer wasn’t telegraphed.

The strong cast also elevated this production, consistently playing off Henry’s indispensable work while fruitfully developing their own characters. Andre Morin’s Ariel did Prospero’s bidding with delight, while holding her to the promise of eventual freedom; Michael Blake’s Caliban chafed convincingly under her authoritarian rule. For once, the shipwrecked mariners were three-dimensional characters, not plot tokens — the King of Naples Alonso (David Collins) ripely autocratic, Prospero’s usurping brother Antonio (Graham Abbey) convincingly sociopathic, counselor Gonzalo (Rod Beattie) more of a sage and less of a fool than usual. Tom McCamus as butler Stephano and Stephen Ouimette as jester Trinculo clowned to perfection, nailing every laugh possible whether on their own, with Caliban or with the ensemble. The young lovers were the most pleasant surprise; Ferdinand and Miranda can feel like weak sauce in the wrong hands, but Sebastien Heins & Mamie Zwettler were spunky, passionate, intelligent, fully cognizant of their developing affections — strong & spot-on.

And yes, the special effects and pageantry (serious creature puppetry by the ensemble of Spirits & Monsters at key moments, Festival stalwarts Chick Reid and Lucy Peacock regally presiding over Act Four’s celebratory wedding masque) were impressive as always. But Stratford productions go deepest when they cut to the heart — and this Tempest showed us, beyond its numerous charms and delights, the depth of Prospero’s sacrifice. To become truly great as well as truly free, the exiled ruler must serve her enemies as well as her friends — forgiving wrongs, securing Naples and Milan’s future through Ferdinand and Miranda’s marriage, releasing the spirits of the island, and abjuring her “rough magic.” Martha Henry’s reading of Shakespeare’s Epilogue – bereft but relieved, slyly humorous in its appeal to the audience for final release through prayer and applause – communicated both the cost of Prospero’s renunciations, and their true worth. It was a lovely end to the best, most bracing production of The Tempest we’ve seen at the Festival.

Watch the premiere of The Tempest on the Stratford Festival’s YouTube channel tomorrow at 7 pm EDT; a pre-show chat with Martha Henry, Mamie Zwettler and Antoni Cimilono starts at 6:30 pm.

— Rick Krueger

Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Songs of Yearning

I have never before heard anything quite like this album.  And since I first listened to it at a friend’s urging this past weekend, I find myself returning to it again and again.  It resists description, yet compels a response; it’s utterly fresh but feels like it’s been around forever.

Working as a loose creative collective since the mid-1980s, Liverpool’s Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus have consistently pursued what they describe as “echoes of the sacred” in their work, striving to access a sonic space where transcendence can invade a stiflingly measured-out world.   On their fourth album Songs of Yearning, they’ve discovered new room for rumors of glory to run, and the result is uniquely powerful, its resonance strikingly amplified by the shadows of doubt that now openly stalk our lives.

RAIJ’s music calls to mind much that I’ve heard and loved over the years — abstract soundscapes by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno; the “holy minimalism” of composers Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki; the sparse, charged post-rock Talk Talk found with Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, to name a few.   But comparisons to other artists fall short of describing Songs of Yearning’s rich mix of reticent modesty and bold experiment. Dissecting the music into its component parts — a breathtaking gamut of sound sourced from liturgy, folksong, chamber music, pop & rock of all stripes, ambience, industrial noise, found dialogue and much more — won’t do the trick either.  The only way to catch the breadth and depth of what’s here is to dive in:

Short and relatively direct as it is, “Celestine” unfolds the Revs’ approach with inviting clarity.  The simple acoustic guitar pattern and the female vocal in French doubled by bells — they’re straightforward enough.  But that flute — is it slightly out of tune, or carving out its own tonality?  The acoustic bass and harmony vocals — how is it they sound now consonant, now dissonant, flickering in and out of sync by the second?  And in the end, each layer goes its own way, ever so gently drifting apart harmonically and rhythmically, but still bound up in an organic, contemplative whole.

Continue reading Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Songs of Yearning

“In My Room”

From Grand Rapids’ Vintage Parlor Orchestra (the brainchild of impresario/conductor/artistic director/mastermind Thomas Pike), a completely apropos cover of the Beach Boys’ “In My Room”.  Featuring the delightful vocal talents of soprano Emily Smith — and a vintage Hammond L-100 organ:

Since 2018, the VPO has been bringing the masterpieces of classical music to nightclubs, art galleries, brewpubs and other non-traditional venues in West Michigan.  Learn more at vpogr.com.  (Full disclosure: I’m a regular VPO patron and donor.)

— Rick Krueger

 

Shakespeare @ Stratford on YouTube

Since 1953, the little Ontario town of Stratford has hosted what is arguably North America’s premier repertory theater.  Down the decades, every summer the Stratford Festival has presented world-class productions of plays by William Shakespeare, along with other classics of the world stage and new, cutting-edge efforts.  (Not to mention musicals ranging from vintage Broadway to The Who’s Tommy.)

As with so many other performing arts institutions, Stratford’s 2020 season is currently on hold.  To fill the gap, the Festival’s YouTube channel kicked off free screenings of its Stratford on Film series last night — Shakespeare’s birthday — with an intense, gripping 2014 production of King Lear:

 

Each film of the series (an effort to film all of Shakespeare’s plays in ten years) will be available to view for 3 weeks, scheduled as below:

  • King Lear (2014): April 23 to May 14
  • Coriolanus (2018): April 30 to May 21
  • Macbeth (2016): May 7 to 28
  • The Tempest (2018): May 14 to June 4
  • Timon of Athens (2017): May 21 to June 11
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost (2015): May 28 to June 18
  • Hamlet (2015): June 4 to 25
  • King John (2014): June 11 to July 2
  • Pericles (2015): June 18 to July 9
  • Antony and Cleopatra (2014): June 25 to July 16
  • Romeo and Juliet (2017): July 2 to 23
  • The Taming of the Shrew (2015): July 9 to 30

My wife and I have been regular attenders at the Stratford Festival for over 15 years.  We return again and again because of the Festival’s consistently high quality  — an acting company of impressive craft, dedication and emotional heft, working together on the unique thrust stage of the Festival Theatre and other more intimate venues, creating utterly immersive artistic experiences.  (And all in a welcoming, delightful small town environment.)   We hope to return later this summer to see Richard III, Wolf Hall and Spamalot (!)  but in the meantime we agree: the Stratford on Film series is the next best thing to being there, and a first-class way to drink in Shakespeare’s luminous genius.

— Rick Krueger

A Passion Like No Other

On Good Friday 2020, the Leipzig Bachfest presented a unique version of Bach’s St. John Passion in Bach’s home church, the Thomaskirche.  It was a performance uncannily suited to these extraordinary times.

To quote the announcement of the performance (quickly re-scheduled for Good Friday following the cancellation of the 2020 Bachfest):

The actual Passion story will be performed by just three musicians. In this production, the Icelandic tenor Benedikt Kristjánsson tells the story of Jesus’ Passion on the basis of Bach’s Passion, taking on the role of the Evangelist and all the other characters – and also conducting the virtual choir. Harpsichordist Elina Albach and percussionist Philipp Lamprecht take the role of the orchestra. (Photo: Nino Halm).

All the viewers at home are invited to sing the chorales besides five singers in St. Thomas’ Church led by Thomaskantor Gotthold Schwarz, and the artists. Bach choirs who were invited to the 2020 Bachfest will be participating by video link.

At first, I found the idea of a chamber St. John Passion a bit disconcerting — like an unrealized idea of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, perhaps?  But the Thomaskirche (with video inserts from the absent choirs) proved the perfect setting for the sparse instrumentation. And as the 90-minute work unwound, it became more and more moving; the musicianship, focus and dedication Kristjánsson, Albach and Lamprecht conjured up was inescapable — especially during a riveting version of the Passion’s finale.  It brings me to tears every time I hear it, and this time was no exception:

Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
To Abram’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me,
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my fount of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.

My suggestion: set aside an hour and a half today or tomorrow, hook up your computer or miscellaneous online device to a big screen and a good sound system, and let this powerful version of one of Bach’s greatest masterpieces rip.  The stream is here; program (with the chorales printed out for singing) is here.

— Rick Krueger

Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time

I remember something the philosopher Gerald Heard told me.  The first thing a man is aware of, he said, is the steady rhythm of his mother’s heartbeat and the last thing he hears before he dies is his own.  Rhythm is the common bond of all humanity: it is also the most pronounced and readily misunderstood ingredient of jazz.

— Dave Brubeck

We’ve waited way too long for a serious biography of Dave Brubeck — but at last we’ve got it, and it’s a good one.  British music journalist Philip Clark’s Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time rises to the challenge of portraying the pianist/composer in his fullness — his days, his works, his friendships, and his ideals.

Fittingly, Clark plays with time to unlock the rich pageant of Brubeck’s 92 years.  Pivoting off a extended interview conducted on a 2003 British tour, the narrative unpacks Brubeck’s career in progress, building from West Coast beginnings through growing popularity coupled with critical puzzlement on the jazz scene to the mass culture break-out of Brubeck’s classic quartet (with Paul Desmond on sax, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums) via 1959’s “Take Five” and the Time Out album.  It’s only the strangely muted reception of Brubeck’s ambitious 1962 cantata The Real Ambassadors (a sly satire expressly written for Louis Armstrong) that sends Clark doubling back again — to Brubeck’s upbringing in rural California and the influences that forged him as musician and man.

Continue reading Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time

Available to Pre-Order Now …

From Robin Armstrong’s Gravity Dream Records:

‘The Bardic Depths’ is an all new progressive rock project formed from the writing team of multi-instrumentalist, Dave Bandana with lyrics and concept from Bradley Birzer, plus contributions from Peter Jones (Camel/ Tiger Moth Tales) – Saxophone/ Vocals, Tim Gehrt ( Streets/ Steve Walsh) – Drums, Gareth Cole (Tom Slatter/ Fractal Mirror) – Guitar and Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf) – Keyboards/ Guitar/ Bass, amongst a host of other amazing musicians from the progressive rock community around the world.

“The album is about friendship and its ability to get us through anything including war, with the concept centering on the literary friendship formed between J.R.R Tolkien and C. S Lewis between 1931 and 1949. “ says the Lanzarote based band leader Dave Bandana.

Friendship also provided the catalyst to enable such a wide cast of musicians to come together for the record, largely from the community provided by the Big Big Train Group on Facebook. The resulting album is an immersive combination of ethereal soundscape with Floydian undertones, and Talk Talk progressive pop sensibilities.

The Bardic Depths is available to pre-order now from Gravity Dream on CD or in an extremely limited CD/T-shirt bundle.  It’s also available on CD from Burning Shed, who provide the tracklist:

1. The Trenches
2. Biting Coals
3. Depths of TIme
i) The Instant
ii)The Flicker
iii) The Moment
4. Depths of Imagination
5. Depths of Soul
6. The End
7. Legacies

And of course, there’s an album teaser on YouTube:

— Rick Krueger

Sir Stephen Cleobury, 1948-2019

A giant of British sacred choral music has passed from our scene:

It is with great sadness that King’s College has learned of the death of Sir Stephen Cleobury. Stephen died last night, 22 November, in York, his hometown since he retired in September, after a long illness. He died peacefully in the late hours of Saint Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music and musicians.

cleobury

Sir Stephen was the Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge from 1982 to this past September, when he officially retired.  His first recording of Christmas carols with the choir at King’s, O Come All Ye Faithful, is one of the albums that changed my life; his final Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s (held on Christmas Eve 2018 and celebrating the 100th anniversary of the tradition) was released on CD & digital download earlier this month.

For more about choral music at King’s, Timothy Day’s I Saw Eternity the Other Night is a recently published, accessible and moving history of the tradition.  In the meantime, the next Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s will be held on Christmas Eve, directed by Sir Stephen’s successor, former King’s Organ Scholar Daniel Hyde.

May our Lord grant Sir Stephen eternal rest, and may light perpetual shine on him.

— Rick Krueger