Dido and Aeneas

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by Kristen Strandberg

Shifting between pleasant consonant sounds and stunningly beautiful dissonance, Henry Purcell’s 1689 Dido and Aeneas is still regarded as one of the most significant musical works of the seventeenth century. It is a rare treat to hear such a work performed, and while it is certainly a product of its time, the music is still emotionally striking and relevant over three hundred years later. Indiana University’s Summer Festival Chorus will perform an un-staged version of the work on June 25, under the direction of Dominick DiOrio.

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While Dido and Aeneas has remained popular within early music circles, little is known about the circumstances of its composition. The first known performance took place at a boarding school for young women in the London suburb of Chelsea in 1689, although some evidence suggests it may have been written for the coronation of King William and Queen Mary earlier that year. Very few operas were written in seventeenth-century England, largely due to a lack of patronage and royal support. Yet, Dido and Aeneas’s composer, Henry Purcell, and librettist, Nahum Tate, both had royal connections- Purcell was an organist at the Chapel Royal, and Tate would soon be named court poet.

Historians have suggested that the text for the opera’s prologue (the music for which has been lost) may allegorically reference the union of William and Mary. Additionally, the earliest surviving musical score includes male vocal parts in low ranges, which could not have been sung by the young female students. Still, no record of a court performance exists, so we can only speculate as to whether Dido and Aeneas was a court-sponsored work, and there is no other documented performance of the work during Purcell’s lifetime.

The opera’s plot is based on the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid. Dido, the queen of Carthage, is in love with the visiting Aeneas, who will eventually establish Rome. A sorceress intervenes and destroys the budding romance, leaving Dido to die of a broken heart. Just before dying, Dido sings her famous and heart-wrenchingly beautiful lament. Purcell borrowed the concept of a musical lament from earlier Italian operas, and retains the genre’s trademark repeated bass line. While laments traditionally included a repeated bass line of four descending notes, Purcell adds chromatic half steps to create a six-note descending pattern. The lament’s smooth lyricism combined with dissonant harmonies gives it a tragic, yet unique and strikingly beautiful sound.

The opera involves a small orchestra of strings and harpsichord, and eight sung characters, plus a chorus. Purcell’s chorus fulfills various functions throughout the work, acting as groups of background characters to provide commentary on the narrative.
IU’s production will consist of Jacobs School of Music students participating in the annual Summer Festival, including the Summer Festival Chorus, directed by Choral Conducting Professor Dominick DiOrio. The performance will take place on Tuesday, June 25 at 8pm in Auer Hall in the Simon Music Center.

The Ryder

Teaching Music in Afghanistan

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The Afghan Youth Orchestra’s repertoire includes everything from Afghan patriotic songs to the Four Seasons ◆ by William Harvey

The last time I visited my alma mater, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, was in June 2009, nine months before I moved to Afghanistan. This summer, I will return to Bloomington to teach and perform at the IU String Academy. So what have I been doing for 4 years?

My job title at Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), founded by Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, barely begins to describe my duties. I am the Violin and Viola Teacher, but I also teach cello and double bass, instruments I do not play, whenever we do not have a teacher for those instruments. I have conducted the Afghan Youth Orchestra in gala concerts in Kabul, on television, over half a dozen times for President Karzai, and at sold-out concerts in Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. I teach some music academic classes and coordinate concert activities at the school.

It would be impossible to summarize the joys and heartaches of my life in Afghanistan in one brief article, but I am looking forward to returning to Bloomington this summer so that I will have the opportunity to share with a home state audience some of the transformative experience of making music in Afghanistan while nostalgically reconnecting with aspects of my years in Bloomington.

My first performance will be on June 28 alongside Erin Aldridge, Tzeying Wu, and Csaba Onczay in Don Freund’s Summersongs for String Quartet. I studied composition with Freund from 2002 to 2003. Although I was almost as much a composer as a violinist until I moved to Afghanistan, since 2010 I spend more time arranging music than composing. The Afghan Youth Orchestra is the only one in the world combining Afghan and Western instruments. Since Beethoven mysteriously neglected to include ghichak in any of his symphonies, I arrange our repertoire, from Afghan patriotic songs to the Four Seasons, which, with a few Afghan melodies and rhythms sprinkled in, became “The Four Seasons of Afghanistan.” I’m grateful for the composition training I received at IU from both Don Freund and Sven-David Sandstrom, even if these days, I apply it mostly towards the challenges presented by arranging the music of others (such as when to introduce the tanbur in Ravel’s Bolero).

For those who would like to learn about my work in Afghanistan, on July 8 I will deliver a lecture in Sweeney Hall. The next day, July 9, my recital with Cory Smythe in Auer Hall will relate the experience in musical terms. When Mimi Zweig, my beloved former teacher, informed me that many concerts this summer would focus on contemporary music, I wanted to create a recital program that would ask the question: what does contemporary music mean from an Afghan standpoint? Parts of this recital resemble the recitals I gave or attended while at IU, and other parts resemble the concerts I perform in Kabul.

The recital starts with “Bia ke birim ba Mazar,” the most famous Afghan song. I have played it on the street at the command of the Afghan national police, for conservative Pashtun men whose home I entered by mistake, and on national TV when I was a guest judge on “Afghan Star” (the popular television show similar to American Idol).

The song’s elegiac character connects nicely to the first movement of Bach’s C Minor Sonata, the last movement of which features a rhythmic technique similar to tihai, found in Indian and Afghan music. Next, I’ll play the 4 Lauds by Elliott Carter. When Carter passed away in 2012, I keenly felt how far I was from home when I realized that I might be the only person in Afghanistan mourning his passing. The complexity of his music contrasts well with a different kind of complexity at work in a piece using the Indian raga Marwa composed by Ehsan Arfan, the sitar teacher at ANIM.

The second half opens with Remix, a piece by my Juilliard classmate Ryan Francis. If the influence of minimalism is not far from the surface, then it’s also important to recall the influence of Indian classical music on the minimalist composers; that same influence has dominated Afghan classical music for centuries.

Since I do not want my Afghan students to neglect their culture while learning Western music, I have arranged 24 Afghan songs each for violin and viola and am working on an anthology for bass. These anthologies are available at the ANIM website, and Cory and I will play four at my recital.

Closing the recital with Schubert has a special resonance. Erin played it brilliantly when I was in Bloomington in 2009. Each time I play or listen to Schubert in Afghanistan, it soars above the stresses and dust of my life: I feel like someone who, after returning from a long cold journey to a distant planet, returns to a beautiful mountain here on Earth, breathes the clean air, and drinks from a spring of pure water.

During my 2009 visit to Bloomington, Erin Aldridge and I gave the premiere of “Dialogue,” my composition for two violins that deals with the perils and promise of dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. I based the piece on my experiences leading cultural diplomacy projects in Muslim countries with my non-profit organization, Cultures in Harmony, which I founded in 2005 as a response to the tragedy of September 11, 2001. I am delighted to reprise “Dialogue” with Erin on July 15 of this summer, but were I to compose such a piece now, it would be very different. The ending is optimistic; it might not be so optimistic now.

In spite of the challenges I face there, Afghanistan has given me more than I could possibly give it. So has Bloomington. Every day that I teach violin in Kabul, I use principles and techniques I learned from Mimi Zweig. This summer, through teaching students at the String Academy and performing in the Summer Festival, I will do what I can to give back.

[William Harvey is the Afghan Youth Orchestra Conductor and the Artistic Manager of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music.]

The Ryder

FILM: Wait ‘Til Your Father Gets Home

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Movies to Watch on Father’s Day ◆ by Craig J. Clark

On television, fathers may think they know best, but at the movies they aren’t always so sure-footed. Whether they like to admit it or not, they can’t all be Atticus Finch.  As portrayed by Oscar winner Gregory Peck and brought to the screen by Robert Mulligan,  Atticus is the father to the impressionable young Scout and her brother Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird.  He is the preeminent upright father figure, but few of his peers can ever hope to measure up to him.

 Not that they don’t try their best, of course. In Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or-winning The Tree of Life, Brad Pitt attempts to instill his values in his three sons, but the eldest (who grows up to be emotionally distant architect Sean Penn) chafes against his authoritarian stance. The same goes for Burl Ives as Big Daddy in Richard Brooks’s adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Based on the play by Tennessee Williams, which lost some of its subtext in the transition, Cat finds Ives struggling to relate to his grown son Brick (Paul Newman) and mostly failing, but they eventually reach a kind of mutual understanding.

Finding a way to relate to his family is also foremost on the mind of Gene Hackman in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Long absent from the scene, he has his work cut out for him with his adult children (financial wiz Ben Stiller, moody playwright Gwyneth Paltrow, tennis pro Luke Wilson) who all blame him for the ways they’ve faltered in their lives. It’s hard to get more estranged, though, than Jack Lemmon is from his son in Costa-Gavras’s gripping political drama Missing. Another winner at Cannes, taking home the Palme d’Or and Best Actor for Lemmon, it’s a true story set in the aftermath of Chile’s 1973 coup and sees the deeply conservative Lemmon coming to a political awakening as he tries to find his activist son, who has disappeared without a trace.

Albert Brooks has a bit more luck as an animated clownfish in Pixar’s Finding Nemo, which turns a parent’s worst nightmare – a child being snatched away right in front of their eyes – into a thrilling and frequently hilarious adventure. That’s definitely a far cry from the work of writer/director Lodge Kerrigan. In his debut, Clean, Shaven, newly released mental patient Peter Greene attempts to track down his daughter in his own unhinged fashion, and his later film Keane follows a desperate Damian Lewis obsessed with finding his young daughter, who was abducted from New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. The way Kerrigan gets inside his characters’ heads, you feel for them almost as much as you fear for their dwindling sanity (and realize that even if they found their children that might not be the best thing for either of them).

A kidnapping is also central to the plot of Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, only this time the twist is that instead of the son of industrialist Toshiro Mifune, the perpetrators take his chauffeur’s son instead – and then insist that he still pay the ransom. There’s a great deal of tension in the first half of the film as Mifune debates whether he’s willing to ruin himself financially for the sake of another man’s son, but when his chauffeur pleads with him, one father to another, he knows he can’t refuse.

A father’s desire to protect his offspring is the driving force behind Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin as well, but it manifests itself in a completely different way. In addition to writing and directing, Welles also plays the title character, a filthy rich man of the world with a murky past who hires a private detective to dig up whatever dirt can be found on him – largely so his daughter (Paola Mori) will never hear about it. On the other side of the fence, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone knows all about his father’s dirty dealings in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, but Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) tries to keep him out of the family business anyway (and we all know how that works out).

For some fathers, protecting their children is their way of atoning for past mistakes. In Firestarter, based on the Stephen King novel, David Keith is on the run from a sinister government agency that is really after his pyrokinetic daughter (Drew Barrymore). Of course, she would have been a completely normal little girl if Keith and his wife hadn’t taken part in a government experiment in college that left them with residual (but weak) psychic powers. Little did they know what they would be passing on to the next generation.

A similar situation is found in David Cronenberg’s Scanners, although in that case the mutation was the unexpected side effect of a pregnancy drug developed by scientist Patrick McGoohan, who subsequently withdraws himself from the lives of his two sons. That they grow up to be bitter rivals, battling for control of his legacy, is something he never could have foreseen, but at least McGoohan makes it up to the young brother (protagonist Stephen Lack) in his own way. Elder brother Michael Ironside, on the other hand, is a lot less forgiving.

Continuing the theme, it’s never explicitly stated where pint-sized Danny Torrance gets his telepathic power from in Stephen King’s The Shining, memorably brought to the big screen by Stanley Kubrick, but it’s intimated that his father Jack (a scenery-chewing Jack Nicholson) also has a touch of it. Instead of leading to father-son bonding, though, it merely leaves Nicholson more open to the malevolent influence of the Overlook Hotel, which eventually drives him to try to murder his wife and son, echoing the actions of a previous caretaker.

Jack Torrance may not be a candidate for Father of the Year, but at least he can blame his crack-up on a combination of cabin fever and supernatural forces beyond his control. In contrast, John Meillon, who plays the father in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, has no such excuses, and we never do find out what prompts him to drive to the Australian outback with his two children (a teenaged Jenny Agutter and Roeg’s own son, billed as Lucien John) and try to shoot them before turning the gun on himself. This also causes their car to go up in flames, stranding Agutter and John, so it’s a good thing they’re soon befriended by an Aboriginal youth (David Gulpilil) on walkabout who guides them back to civilization.

A car accident of a different sort is what precipitates the action in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, in which an outwardly noble surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) kidnaps young women in an effort to restore his daughter’s beauty since he feels responsible for her disfigurement. Shocking in its day for its graphic face-transplant scene, the film also manages to get under the skin with its chillingly poetic imagery thanks to Edith Scob’s performance as the daughter, who glides through most of the film in a featureless mask. Brasseur gets points for his dedication to her, but what he really needed was to find another, less destructive, outlet for it.

Knowing when to let go can be hard, but one of the most important things a father can do in the movies is give his daughter away to another man, as widower Chishu Ryu demonstrates in Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring and An Autumn Afternoon. Made 13 years apart, the films bookend the final stretch of Ozu’s long career and find Ryu playing characters that comes to realize their adult daughter needs to be married off before they’re consigned to the life of an old maid. Don’t think their plots are identical, though. Ozu may have been fond of remaking his own films and reusing certain plot devices, but he always knew how to spin them in such a way that they always felt novel.

Things are a bit more lighthearted in both versions of Father of the Bride, which were made four decades apart. In the first, directed by Vincente Minnelli, Spencer Tracy is the doting dad overwhelmed by the hectic arrangements surrounding the wedding of his darling daughter (Elizabeth Taylor). In the second, directed by Charles Shyer, Steve Martin takes over the role, which means the emphasis is placed more on his physical comedy. At the end of the day, though, all he wants is to make sure his daughter’s big day goes off without a hitch (and doesn’t bankrupt him). You can’t ask for a better wedding present than that.

The Ryder

3 Days In Bloomington

THURSDAY, MAY 16TH, 2013

■ EXERCISE SilverSneakers Cardio Circuit; Twin Lakes Recreation Center; 8:30AM

■ EXERCISE Nia; Twin Lakes Recreation Center; 8:30AM

■ EXERCISE SilverSneakers Cardio Circuit; Twin Lakes Recreation Center; 9:30AM

■ YOGA Yoga class; St. Thomas Lutheran Heritage Hall; 10AM

■ ART TAPA: Unwrapping Polynesian Barkcloth; IU Art Museum; 10AM-5PM

■ EXERCISE SilverSneakers Muscle Strength and Range of Movement; Twin Lakes Recreation Center; 10:30AM

■  YOGA Hatha yoga class; Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center cultural building; 4:30PM-6PM

■  BOOK CLUB Secular Alliance book club; Rachael’s Cafe; 5PM-7PM

■ EXERCISE Core Essentials; Twin Lakes Recreation Center; 5:30PM

■ CLASS Put It in Order: Circulation Volunteer Training; Monroe County Public Library; 6PM

■ CLASS Job Search and Resume Help; Monroe County Public Library; 6PM

■ YOGA Yoga Class; Unity of Bloomington; 6:30PM

■ MEDITATION Sitting/walking meditation; Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center; 6:30PM-7:30PM

■ EXERCISE Body Blitz; Twin Lakes Recreation Center; 6:30PM

■ LIVE MUSIC Built for Comfort; Player’s Pub; 6:30PM; $4.oo

■ DOCUMENTARY Room 237; IU Cinema; 7PM

■ LIVE MUSIC Live Music at the Brewpub; Upland Brewing; 7PM

■ LIVE MUSIC Dead Roses; Max’s Place; 9PM

■ COMEDY John Dore; The Comedy Attic

■ LIVE MUSIC Three Story Hill; The Bluebird

■ PLAY Underneath the Lintel; John Waldron Arts Center

FRIDAY, MAY 17TH, 2013

■ ART TAPA: Unwrapping Polynesian Barkcloth; IU Art Museum; 10AM-5PM

■ RACING USAC sprint cars Larry Rice Classic; Bloomington Speedway; 5:30PM-11PM

■ FOOD & DRINK National Bike to Work Day Block Party; Upland Brewery; 5:30PM

■ ART Kinsey Institute Juried Art Show: Zoom; artist Sophie McMahon; Grunwald Gallery at the Kinsey Institute; 6PM-8PM

■ DOCUMENTARY Room 237; IU Cinema; 7PM

■ LIVE MUSIC Monika Herzig & Oliver Nelson Duo; Cafe Django; 7PM

■ LIVE MUSIC/COMEDY Heywood Banks; Brown County Playhouse; 7:30PM; $25.oo

■ PLAY Spun: A Brother/Sister Rock Musical; Bloomington Playwrights Project; 7:30PM

■ LIVE MUSIC Summertime Band; Player’s Pub; 8PM; $5.oo

■ LIVE MUSIC Instrumental Pop Series; Rachael’s Cafe; 8PM; $5.00

■ LIVE MUSIC Here Come the Mummies; The Bluebird; 9PM

■ LIVE MUSIC Charley; Max’s Place; 9PM

■ COMEDY John Dore; The Comedy Attic

■ LIVE MUSIC Time Travels; John Waldron Arts Center Auditorium

■ PLAY Underneath the Lintel; John Waldron Arts Center

■ LIVE MUSIC River Roots Festival; Bicentennial Park

■ BIKING Bloomington Bikes Month Cycle to Service Weekend; City Hall Showers Building; all day

■ BIKING Bloomington Bikes Month National Bike to Work Day; City Hall Showers Building; all day

SATURDAY, MAY 18TH, 2013

■ MARKET Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market; City Hall parking lot; 8AM

■ BIKING Bloomington Bikes Month Bike to Market; City Hall Showers Building; 8AM

■ EXERCISE Beginner Boot Camp; Twin Lakes Recreation Center; 8:30AM

■ HEALT Active Living Coalition Health Fair; City Hall Showers Common; 9AM

■ YOGA Hatha yoga class; Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center cultural building; 10AM-12:30PM

■ ART TAPA: Unwrapping Polynesian Barkcloth; IU Art Museum; 10AM-5PM

■ ART International Art Museum Day celebration; IU Art Museum; 10AM-5PM

■ ART Trained Eye Arts Art Sale; Trained Eye Arts; 10AM-3PM

■ EXERCISE Zumba; Twin Lakes Recreation Center; 10:30AM

■ HEALING Ch’i Gung Healing Circle; Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center; 10:30AM-12PM

■ WORKSHOP Emerald Ash Borer Workshop for Homeowners; City Hall Showers Building; 11AM-12PM

■ WORKSHOP Discover the Spirit of Gratitude and Generosity by Rediscovering Macedonia; St. Thomas Lutheran Church; 1PM-4PM

■ MARTIAL ARTS Tae Kwon Do; ages 6-12; Unity of Bloomington; 1:15PM-2:15PM

■ ART Power of Pattern workshop for simple block carving; Mathers Museum of World Cultures; 1:30PM-3PM

■ MARTIAL ARTS Tae Kwon Do; ages 6-12; Unity of Bloomington; 1:15PM-2:15PM

■ PETS Adorable Adoptables; Monroe County Public Library; 2PM

■ MARTIAL ARTS Tae Kwon Do; ages 13 to adult; Unity of Bloomington; 2:15PM-3:45PM

■ FILM The Shining; IU Cinema; 3PM

■ OPEN MIC LGBT Aging & Caring Network Open Mic/Open House; Rachael’s Cafe; 3PM-6PM

■ DOCUMENTARY Room 237; IU Cinema; 7PM

■ LIVE MUSIC Der Vorfuhreffekt; Rachael’s Cafe; 7PM-9PM

■ PLAY Spun: A Brother/Sister Rock Musical; Bloomington Playwrights Project; 7:30PM

■ LIVE MUSIC Hoosier Young; Brown County Playhouse; 7:30PM; $20.oo

■ DANCE Dancing with the Celebrities presented by Arthur Murray Dance Studio; Buskirk Chumley Theater; 8PM

■ LIVE MUSIC Harsch Reality; Player’s Pub; 8PM; $5.oo

■ LIVE MUSIC Istanbul Breeze; Cafe Django; 8PM

■ LIVE MUSIC Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials; Max’s Place; 9PM

■ EVENT A Night at the Club with Mr. Gay Southern Cities ’13; Uncle E’s Nightclub; 10PM

■ COMEDY John Dore; The Comedy Attic

■ LIVE MUSIC Smooth Country; Mike’s Dance Barn

■ LIVE MUSIC Dot Dot Dot; The Bluebird

■ RECORDING Creative Aging Month oral history recording; Monroe County History Center

■ PLAY Underneath the Lintel; John Waldron Arts Center

■ LIVE MUSIC River Roots Festival; Bicentennial Park

■ BIKING Bloomington Bikes Month Cycle to Service Weekend; City Hall Showers Building; all day

The Ryder & Kurt the IT Freelancer bring you the best of Bloomington.

MUSIC: Local Live—Bloomington Magical Musical Mojo

by Ryan Dawes

With a limitless broadcasting format, WFHB (FireHouse Broadcasting, FM 91.3, 98.1, 100.7, 106.3) becomes a busy crossroads for countless bands and musicians representing a daunting array of genres. Besides the thousands of albums mailed to the station from labels across the globe, WFHB also draws bands and musicians in the flesh, ready to perform live for listeners via in-studio or remote broadcasts. A select portion of this artistic traffic has been captured on a series of albums featuring local musicians performing at remote broadcasts at various recording studios in Monroe County. WFHB’s Local Live: Remote Broadcasts, Volume 3, is due out just in time for the station’s Spring Fund Drive.

WFHB’s downtown studios have hosted thousands of live broadcasts with touring and local bands alike, but this particular series of recordings features exclusively local artists performing at remote broadcasts transmitted from area recording studios including Russian Recording, Midwest Audio Recording, Farm Fresh Studios, and White Arc Studios. Given that each of the recording studios are inarguably of professional caliber, the audio quality is clearer and better mixed than what you would expect of a live recording elsewhere at a venue or club. In addition to each recording studio’s full time engineer, the remote broadcasts are supported by station music director Jim Manion and a seasoned squad of volunteer producers.

“All the studios offer different environments but the sound is consistently great at each one,” says Manion. “The talent pool of audio engineering in this town is insanely good.”
While you could find traditional recordings from most of the artists featured on the Local Live series, many of the tracks include songs unreleased elsewhere. Furthermore, as Manion explains, there are unforgettable qualities in the recordings that could only come from performing live, before an audience.

“The added value is the ineffable magic musical mojo that is present on the live songs we pick from the sets we archive. You could never find all these songs out there in the form they take on our CDs.”

Volume 3 is as diverse as the first two volumes, featuring old-time bluegrass by the Indiana Boys, blues from Gordon Bonham, Motown/garage-rock from The Vallures, psychedelic surf-rock from the Triptides and a more, amounting to 16 tracks in total.

The station gives away copies of the CDs as fund drive incentives to donors, but the intent behind these recordings is culturally much broader. Manion also sees this initiative as a means of historic preservation, marking trends and strengths in the local music scene at this point in time.

“I hope these recordings show that Bloomington has a high-quality and wide-ranging music community full of creative musicians and songwriters,” says Manion.

The Ryder, March 2013

Dido and Aeneas

A sorceress intervenes and destroys a budding romance.

by Kristen Strandberg

Shifting between pleasant consonant sounds and stunningly beautiful dissonance, Henry Purcell’s 1689 Dido and Aeneas is still regarded as one of the most significant musical works of the seventeenth century. It is a rare treat to hear such a work performed, and while it is certainly a product of its time, the music is still emotionally striking and relevant over three hundred years later. Indiana University’s Summer Festival Chorus will perform an un-staged version of the work on June 25, under the direction of Dominick DiOrio.
While Dido and Aeneas has remained popular within early music circles, little is known about the circumstances of its composition. The first known performance took place at a boarding school for young women in the London suburb of Chelsea in 1689, although some evidence suggests it may have been written for the coronation of King William and Queen Mary earlier that year. Very few operas were written in seventeenth-century England, largely due to a lack of patronage and royal support. Yet, Dido and Aeneas’s composer, Henry Purcell, and librettist, Nahum Tate, both had royal connections- Purcell was an organist at the Chapel Royal, and Tate would soon be named court poet. Historians have suggested that the text for the opera’s prologue (the music for which has been lost) may allegorically reference the union of William and Mary. Additionally, the earliest surviving musical score includes male vocal parts in low ranges, which could not have been sung by the young female students. Still, no record of a court performance exists, so we can only speculate as to whether Dido and Aeneas was a court-sponsored work, and there is no other documented performance of the work during Purcell’s lifetime.
The opera’s plot is based on the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid. Dido, the queen of Carthage, is in love with the visiting Aeneas, who will eventually establish Rome. A sorceress intervenes and destroys the budding romance, leaving Dido to die of a broken heart. Just before dying, Dido sings her famous and heart-wrenchingly beautiful lament. Purcell borrowed the concept of a musical lament from earlier Italian operas, and retains the genre’s trademark repeated bass line. While laments traditionally included a repeated bass line of four descending notes, Purcell adds chromatic half steps to create a six-note descending pattern. The lament’s smooth lyricism combined with dissonant harmonies gives it a tragic, yet unique and strikingly beautiful sound.
The opera involves a small orchestra of strings and harpsichord, and eight sung characters, plus a chorus. Purcell’s chorus fulfills various functions throughout the work, acting as groups of background characters to provide commentary on the narrative.
IU’s production will consist of Jacobs School of Music students participating in the annual Summer Festival, including the Summer Festival Chorus, directed by Choral Conducting Professor Dominick DiOrio. The performance will take place on Tuesday, June 25 at 8pm in Auer Hall in the Simon Music Center.

MUSIC: Jazz, Funk, And Cuban Rhythms

The IU Latin Jazz Ensemble ◆ by Kristen Strandberg

Latin jazz’s fusion of Cuban music with American jazz and funk has captivated audiences for decades with its catchy syncopated rhythms, and prominent brass and percussion sections.  Long known for its outstanding jazz program, the IU Jacobs School of Music has recently broadened its scope to include a Latin jazz ensemble, directed by percussion professor Michael Spiro.  On Monday, April 8, the IU Latin Jazz Ensemble will perform in the Musical Arts Center with internationally acclaimed composer and trombonist, Wayne Wallace.

What began five years ago as a small jazz combo has since grown into a group of twenty to thirty performers featuring Jacobs School of Music students on piano, guitar, drum set, trumpet, saxophone, and trombone, along with Latin American percussion instruments including the conga, timbale, batá drum, bongo, chekeré, guiro, and maraca.

The ensemble specializes in music often described as a blend of Cuban music and American jazz — a genre that emerged in the late 1940s, which, according to the group’s director, Michael Spiro, is “rooted in Cuban rhythms and American harmony.”  The repeated, syncopated Latin dance rhythms worked their way into American jazz in the 1940s and 1950s, as jazz legends such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie worked alongside Latin American performers.  Genres such as the mambo, bolero, and cha cha cha eventually became popular choices for big bands playing in American dance halls.  By the 1960s, Latin Jazz musicians were incorporating elements of African-American popular music, leading to boogaloo and eventually salsa, which combines Cuban music with American rock, R&B, and funk.  While the Latin rhythms and unique timbres of Cuban percussion instruments give the music its distinct Latin flavor, the brass section, along with the piano and guitar, are reminiscent of the funk styles of Earth, Wind & Fire, and James Brown.

San Francisco-based Wayne Wallace continues this tradition of combining Cuban and American musical styles.  Spiro particularly points to Wallace’s bass, horn, and drum set patterns, which are strongly influenced by funk.  Wallace is a five-time Grammy nominee who has performed with a wide variety of well-known musicians including The Count Basie Orchestra, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, and Tito Puente, among dozens of others.  Additionally, Wallace and Spiro have collaborated in many previous performances and recordings, including the CD ¡BIEN BIEN!, which was nominated for a Grammy in 2011.

The IU Latin Jazz Ensemble concert, featuring Wayne Wallace, will take place on Monday, April 8 at 8pm at the Musical Arts Center.  A smaller jazz combo will perform in the lobby beginning at 7:15.  The event is free.

The Ryder, March 2013

Gumshoes In The Heartland

Fictional detectives have found a place in the Midwest ◆ by Ray Zdonek

Philip Marlowe hung out amid the glitz and grunge of LA, Mike Hammer around the mugs and dames of the Big Apple, and Sam Spade in a fog-shrouded San Francisco. It was the name of the game — glamorous places full of mystery, sex, greed, and frequent violence — the action was on the “coasts”, left and right. The Big Time, you know? Maybe it’s the Cyber Age democratizing the landscape or maybe it’s a sort of literary tourism, where a simple paperback takes you on adventures in places you hadn’t imagined you would go. But the mighty Midwest is finally making its mark on the private eye archetype, setting the action and characters into heartland communities, great and small.

The road, however, has been a bumpy one. Jonathan Valin, whose private detective Harry Stoner visited the dark back alleys of Cincinnati in books like The Lime Pit, a world populated by bikers and sprinkled with meth labs, was an early casualty. Though it was great stuff, Valin finally gave up writing altogether and is currently immersed in a high-fidelity sound equipment business in the Southwest. Harry was a tenacious investigator with a soft spot for lost causes, an essential aspect of the private eye brand, and the proximity of Covington across the Ohio River carried over the Southern grit of Cincinnati’s Kentucky neighbor, in a relationship like New Orleans and Algiers, or Los Angeles and Long Beach. But as fate would have it, even a TV movie couldn’t save the Harry Stoner series.

Another Midwestern series that has gone out with more of a whimper than a bang is Michael Z. Lewin’s notable mystery novels featuring Indianapolis detective Albert Sampson, whose business is so threadbare that he has to operate out of a spare room behind his mother’s business. Quirky and erratic in quality, the Sampson series of books is petering out slowly, and no one should miss them much. Lewin became an expatriate and has lived in England for some years, and it appears his once-vibrant character is withering now that the author has left his Indy roots, seemingly for good.

Of course, the elephant in the room has to be the ultra-successful V.I. Warshawski bestsellers by Chicago writer Sara Paretsky. The tables began to turn when her female detective made the scene. Rivaled only by the likes of Robert B. Parker and Jonathan Kellerman, Paretsky struck a well-timed blow for feminism in a genre that much needed to think outside the box. Vic is feisty to the extreme, and will toss caution easily to the wind if an issue of bigotry or a failure of justice looms. Caring and loyal, Paretsky’s prime character is relentless in the hunt, and surrounded by a cast of returning characters like Mr. Contreras and Dr. Lotty Herschel, who add richness and color to the novels, and make you look forward to the next installment. In books like Burn Marks, Total Recall, and Hardball, Paretsky over the years has not been afraid to deal with the hard edge of life in the Windy City, from homelessness, to Holocaust survivors, to the blacklists of the 1950’s, to the not-yet-won battle against racism against African-Americans in Chi-town. V.I. is beautiful and hard-nosed — a perfect combination.

Sometimes, though, a strength can morph into a weakness, and while the matters at hand are new each time, the character development is practically at a standstill. Vic’s young cousin Petra has been added to the mix, but not much else. Oh, Vic’s had a classical musician boyfriend for a few books now — he lives in her building—big deal. I have to think of the Sharon McCone mysteries by San Francisco author Marcia Muller. Shar has lived through more than twice the number of novels as her Chicago counterpart, as well as finding out she’s a full-blooded Native American who’s been adopted by her white parents, being shot in the head and virtually paralyzed for a book or two, and getting married to an ex-mercenary security specialist and pilot to boot. Still, mystery lovers swell with pride when V.I. Warshawski steps into the literary room every time.

We lucky folks in Bloomington, of course, have our own resident private eye novelist, at least for part of the year. That would be Michael Koryta, the youngish ex-crime writer for the Herald-Times, who broke through with the intriguing debut novel Tonight I Said Goodbye, and the worthwhile follow-up mysteries Sorrow’s Anthem and A Welcome Grave, introducing readers to the Cleveland-based PI Lincoln Perry. Tonight I Said Goodbye won the Best First Novel award from the Private Eye Writers of America, and was nominated for an Edgar in 2004, the year Koryta turned twenty-one. A Welcome Grave was nominated for a Shamus award as best PI novel in 2007 by the Private Eye Writers group.

Michael Koryta’s Latest

Going somewhat in the direction taken by Dennis Lehane, Robert Crais, and others, Koryta has turned to standalone novels mainly in recent years. Whether he wants salability to Hollywood or bestseller status for his books, his standalones have received generally good reviews from critics. The Lincoln Perry series stands currently at four entries, and its future remains in question. In some ways, Lincoln Perry is a throwback to earlier fictional private eyes, and something about him seems strangely out-of-date. He doesn’t embody the technical savvy and modern stance of V.I. Warshawski, and his personality lacks real depth. Particularly, his relationship with his journalist girlfriend comes across as wooden and unconvincing. I found the most recent Lincoln Perry novel, The Silent Hour, the weakest of the series. Let’s hope Mr. Koryta injects some vitality and relevance into his private eye and returns with a Lincoln Perry novel that really grabs us by the throat. A feel for suspense and an ability to generate tension are Koryta’s strong points; characterization, not so much, at least not yet.

Last, but certainly not least, is the case of mystery writer Steve Hamilton, a novelist originally from Michigan, now living in New York. Reluctant part-time private eye Alex McKnight is Hamilton’s Upper Peninsula Michigan creation, a Detroit ex-cop with a bullet lodged near his heart who has “retired” to rural northwestern Michigan, where he owns and manages a bunch of vacation cabins his handy-with-tools father left him. Atmospheric and moody, the McKnight novels have engaging supporting characters and dazzling action. What’s scary is: he’s getting better. His last novel in the series, Misery Bay, was nothing less than riveting, certainly one of his best. When he’s on his game, he captures some of the passion and drama of James Lee Burke, which is a considerable achievement in the world of mystery and crime novels today. The heart-wrenching death of Alex’s Mountie fiancé Natalie Reynaud at the end of Ice Run gets lodged in the reader’s memory in much the same way as Dave Robichaux’s wife Annie’s graphic killing in Heaven’s Prisoners. Hamilton’s current release, Die a Stranger, is not quite as powerful as Misery Bay, but still provides page-turning action and further fleshes out the McKnight character, as well as his Ojibwa best friend.

Michael Koryta’s latest standalone novel, The Prophet, finds our Bloomington author painting the sad and dark landscape of Chambers, Ohio, a Rust Belt community where the only going enterprises are prisons, bail bonding, and the local high school football team. And a serial killer is trolling for victims there. Think Stephen King meets Elmore Leonard. The main characters are brothers, Adam and Kent Austin—one a bail bondsman, whiskey-laced and tortured by guilt over the decades-before murder of his sister by a killer who has since died in prison; the other a God-fearing football coach who has successfully buried the loss along with his failed previous gridiron seasons. It is indeed a sad thing that pop culture has been dominated by a serial killer fixation since Anthony Hopkins first brought Hannibal Lector to the big screen in Silence of the Lambs, as sequels, imitations, and outright rip-offs have seemed endless in subsequent years. More than that, spinoff genres populated by FBI profilers and police CSI technicians have provided pulp fiction writers and TV hacks with a steady income, making it largely impossible to write a crime blockbuster without plenty of forensic trivia and thank-you’s to their technical consultants. Fortunately, Koryta does not fall for these DNA diversions, and instead gives us an in-depth look into the hearts of the brothers Austin. The football analogies are carried to the extreme, but then all the time the author spent with the Bloomington High School North football squad couldn’t have been for naught, now could it?

While The Prophet is testosterone-soaked and sometimes dreary, especially in the beginning, the action picks up in plenty of time. More importantly, we care about the characters, which is a vital element in any kind of suspense novel in which danger confronts the protagonists. Adam’s girlfriend Chelsea Salinas, to Koryta’s credit, comes across as a fully-realized human female, which is an accomplishment, considering some of his previous attempts, and this bodes well for his future writing career, since American women purchase a vastly higher percentage of fiction novels than do men. Witness the extraordinary popularity of Stieg Larsson and his cyberpunk detective, Lisbeth Salander. There are plenty of twists and turns in The Prophet; some can be anticipated by the reader, but others come unannounced. All in all, Koryta shows a maturity in this standalone novel that I have not seen before, so maybe the standalone field does bring him a freedom that the private eye novel never did. Real people in extraordinary situations—that formula can certainly stir fear into the mix when it’s done well, as it is here. Maybe I’ll go back and pick up another of Koryta’s standalones, which I have bypassed until this one. Stephen King, James Patterson, Michael Connelly, and Dean Koontz have all gushed about his work. Guys like that can’t be wrong, can they? Still, I wonder about no females being on that list.

The Ryder, March 2013

BOOKS: The Famine Plot

Book Cover

Could Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy have been prevented? ◆ by Brandon Cook

In 1996, almost 150 years after it occurred, Tony Blair issued the first apology on behalf of the British authorities for the part they played in Ireland’s Great Famine. “That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today,” the prime minister said.

Nowhere does one feel this pain more acutely then within the pages of Tim Pat Coogan’s most recent history The Famine Plot, which sets forth to describe “honestly, without either malice or cap touching, how [Irish] forbears died.”

It’s no surprise that the famed Irish historian has at last settled himself upon the Blight as his next subject. His 2001 book Wherever Green is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora contains early seeds of Coogan’s interest—it is probable that the diaspora itself would not exist if the famine had not displaced so many of Ireland’s natives.

But the tragedy, Coogan writes in The Famine Plot, has heretofore been treated with a “strange reluctance” by historians who seem either to subscribe to A.J.P. Taylor’s declaration that “all Ireland was a Belsen,” or else defer from chronicling the grimmer details of the Famine and, in so doing, embrace what the historian Cecil Woodham-Smith called a “colonial cringe” mentality.

Coogan’s book, a pastiche of scintillating research, theory, and vitriol, contains more of the former class than the latter, and yet the author is careful to try and play fair and objective. Like any good historian, he endeavors to let the facts speak for themselves.

For many readers, Ireland’s colorful and in many ways tragic early history will be more or less unknown. To these readers Coogan pays special attention in characterizing the struggles of the 18th century Irish natives, most of which were paupers, as a perennial uphill battle against British imperialism. Like the Americans just 25 years before, the Irish rebelled against their oppressive authorities in 1798, under the flagship of the incomparable Theobald Wolfe Tone. What resulted was not only calamitous for the Irish population (Coogan estimates that 30,000 were “shot down or blown like chaff”) but also for its leadership. Cheating the hangman’s noose, Wolfe Tone committed suicide before he was sentenced to execution. His death would prove to be a haunting precursor to Ireland’s future history of crippled, sovereign heroes (notably, Charles Parnell in 1890 and Michael Collins in 1922).

Great Britain responded to the 1798 Rebellion by extracting all organizational power from the nation that it could, causing a future “leadership deficit” whose harmful implications would be realized during the Famine when it was already much too late. Countrymen, flocking to relief efforts, would find only sporadic benefactors (namely, Quakers) and the clergy, whose circumstances were little better than the countrymen’s. This, combined with a sense of “backyardism,” (England’s belief that it could dictate the goings-on of its neighboring country) would later lead to legislative conflicts, external and internal.

For Ireland’s part, its citizens, particularly its peasantry, reacted to the British ruling with a psychological state known as “learned helplessness.” Cognizant and yet paralytic to their thralldom, their state was characterized by demoralization, a sense of primitivism, and a very real inability to advance their social status. People stayed where they were, inherited their ancestor’s land and their Catholicism, married young, and had children to alleviate their boredom. The effects resultant of “learned helplessness” can still be seen today. Irish citizens, particularly those in the west where the Famine hit hardest, suffer from some of the highest rates of schizophrenia and alcoholism in the world.

It is under this backdrop that Coogan’s “main players” finally enter onto the stage. There are five although only two really matter: the acting prime minister during the first year of the Famine: Sir Robert Peel and the infamous secretary to the Treasury: Sir Charles Trevelyan.

Peel is the only one who earns much sympathy. While his leadership during the Famine did not garner near enough resources to prevent calamity, his main battle was fought against a perverted English ideology of Laissez-faire. A quote from Adam Smith’s masterwork, The Wealth of Nations, provides the basis for these beliefs: “the natural effort of every individual to better his conditions…is so powerful a principle, that it alone…is only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity.”

What Smith’s economic ideology does not include, as indeed no ideology includes, is the human variable, or the means of making the ideology, as Peel fought for, “applicable to the real world.” Even the “natural effort of every individual” will not prove enough when he is harried by foreign despots, a lack of resources and education, and poor mental health. Unfortunately for the prime minster, his cries fell on deaf ears. The policymakers held staunchly to Smith’s ideology and believed erringly that a nation which could launch a rebellion could use those same energies to launch itself out of turmoil. The fact that the policymakers were also from Peel’s rival Whig party probably didn’t help much either.

These factors, coupled with his failing health, the burden of the Famine tragedy, and also the hatred he bore from his own Tory party, caused Peel to resign his post in 1846. Coogan chronicles the prime minister’s final broken years and his minor heroism pointedly.

With Peel’s resignation there was nothing to stop the implementation of Trevelyan’s economic policies, which combined both the misguided interpretations of Adam’s Laissez-faire with a blunt jingoism. Before the policies take root, Coogan presents Trevelyan in a few choice details, quoting Yeats in describing him as “a soul incapable of remorse or rest” and citing details found at the Trevelyan estate, where the civil servant kept a stained-glass window of himself depicted as “St. Michael the Archangel in golden armor” under the inscription by St. Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course.”

For Coogan, Trevelyan embodies the extremes of Irish racism and misguided belief, second, only to the idea of Laissez-faire, of which was that “poverty was the fault of the individual.” Yet Trevelyan serves also to embody Coogan’s more extreme dual thesis that “God sent the blight, but the English made the Famine,” and that the English executives used the Famine to propel a Hibernian genocide.

Tim Pat Coogan

As to the latter, much of Trevelyan’s records substantiate that possibility. His feelings towards an Irish free state were certainly indignant, as is expressed in one of his correspondences: “one of the greatest of the delusions which have been put into the heads of the peasantry is that they are a nation.” While this was technically true (Ireland would remain apart of the Union until 1922), his attendant letter, contained in the book’s excellent, though short, appendices, exemplifies not a small amount of British imperialistic ideologies as well as bigotry directed towards the peasantry and the Catholic clergy. One need see only the disturbing, anthropoid depictions of the Irishman in the early cartoons of Punch magazine to get a sense of this anti-Irish zeitgeist.

His policies for the distribution, or non-distribution, of relief rations, and for the exportation of good crop in Ireland despite the starving masses of over 3 million (it is important to note too that Ireland’s population in the mid 19th century was just over 8 million), also qualify a degree of sadism.

Coogan cites several stories of horror and misery to back this point up. Following through with his mission to render the history as true and objective as possible, he unflinchingly delivers pages of starving children, noisome workhouses, putrid disease, and obtuse government. One story, referenced in his Introduction, gives the account of Nora Connelly: a poor peasant woman who walked miles on foot to a food distributor so that she could feed her dying children. Turned away because her name was not on the list of those to be fed, she walked back to her home where she discovered that four of her children had starved to death. Only later was it realized that she should have been on the list but that a careless official had entered her name incorrectly.

While stories such as these are meant to signify governmental obliviousness and a lack of general human kindness, they do not prevent Coogan from implying that the blame should be placed directly upon Trevelyan. Such a maneuver is repeated in the later chapters on peasant evictions, workhouse conditions, and immigration.

Trevelyan certainly worsened the conditions of the Famine, yet much of this can be chalked up to basic incompetence, which Coogan himself acknowledges when he details the ineffectual Corn Laws, (laws that governed the importation of Indian maize) and posits that the British “literally did not know a great deal about corn,” or rather, enough about the corn to instruct the Irish on how it should be ground and digested, which was done in a series of lengthy and inaccurate articles that resulted in widespread deaths caused by dysentery and scurvy.

Coupled with this were other negligible reports that, flagrantly misleading, would be laughable if their results weren’t so tragic. At the height of the first year of the Famine and during the outbreak of corn-related diseases, Trevelyan was fed information stating that there were “ ‘scarcely any’ gastric complaints” and that “ ‘the general health of the people has wonderfully improved.’ ” How he managed this information with the thousands of gastric disease-related deaths can only be left up to conjecture.

Whether Trevelyan chose to believe any of what he was told doesn’t seem to matter to the author, who focuses more or less only on how the man reacted. And yet it doesn’t appear to be too far a stretch to assert that Trevelyan, already proving himself highly delusional in his self-depiction as archangel Michael, caved again to willful delusion and chose his policies not as a means of genocide but in the interests of self-preservation.

Although this theory might not hold during Trevelyan’s later moments, such as when he learned of the massive farmer deportation: “I am not at all appalled…that seems to me to be a necessary part of the process,” or when he presided over the relief efforts during the Famine’s worst year (“Black ‘47”): “with the smallest amount of abuse [we will] encourage such principles of feeding and action…to improvement of the social system,” it is still a possible avenue the reader wishes the author didn’t leave unexplored.

Though a study of anti-Irish psychology could very well encompass its own book, room could have been made had the author chosen to cut his chapter on immigration, which is a brilliantly treated topic in Wherever Green is Worn but which meanders here.

Even so, the unsparing depiction combined with his laboriously conducted research mark The Famine Plot as fine a work as any in the chronicles of Famine books. Should the reader choose to disagree with the contention that England’s role was one of extermination, he will nevertheless yield to Coogan’s evidence that historians have long undermined the tragedy’s shocking reality. What’s most important is not that we place the blame on all those responsible, but that we honor and remember all those who suffered.

The Ryder, March 2013

TV: House Of Cards

Kevin Spacey stars as an amoral schemer in the new series produced by Netflix ◆ by Ben Atkinson

Television has blurred the line between pro-and-antagonist for a number of years. Frank Underwood, the central character and foundation for Netflix’s House of Cards, is the latest example of a bad guy we care about. Underwood, the embodiment of villainy, destroys careers and lives, and back-stabs colleagues who trust him, all for the noble goal of personal political advancement. Any thought for the causes he had hoped to champion were forgotten long ago. Denied the cabinet post he feels is his due, he drops all loyalty to friends and political party and uses his position as House Majority Whip to launch a tightly orchestrated campaign to weaken his personal enemies and position himself for an endgame that is revealed gradually throughout the premier season. Along the way he breaks ethics codes, laws, and anyone who stands in his way. And along the way, though we might not root for him, we inevitably start caring about what happens to him.

Kevin Spacey In “House Of Cards”

David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club) brings his Hollywood director sensibilities to the show, blurring the lines between television and film. House of Cards shares its name with the early 90’s BBC miniseries and original novel by Michael Dobbs on which it is based. Netflix has released House of Cards in 13 “chapters” of about 50 minutes each. They function more or less as standard one-hour television episodes, with most episodes paired with its neighbor and sharing the same director. The result is basically 6 two-hour movies, and, like movies, the directors have far more influence than the usual television day-worker director. Netflix released all the chapters at once, knowing that many of its users prefer to immerse themselves in a series. The “Netflix Effect” has even become a euphemism for binge-watching entire seasons of television shows, often leaving viewers a season behind the actual airing of the show. Technology has made it easy to watch many episodes together, which has had a huge impact on the production of shows. Viewing several episodes immediately and sequentially allows for a cohesian not possible when a series is doled out weekly over the course of seven or eight months. With around 11 hours of material, season one of House of Cards achieves epic length akin to the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, while still being broken down into digestible amounts. Look for the release of more shows using this format. The recent doubling of Netflix’s stock price won’t go unnoticed by its industry competitors, and Fincher won’t be the only one marrying film and television.

This is a show that values directors and uses the visual medium to great effect. It does not rely on an uplifting story arc or an idealistic hero who stands up to corporate and political corruption. There are no stirring speeches or fast-paced witty dialogue. A great deal of House of Cards’ power comes from visual cues and subtext. For instance, in one episode Frank returns to his district to deal with a potential lawsuit. Outside of Washington, he shows a completely different face to his friends back “home” in South Carolina. After showcasing so much of their wholesome South Carolina home with its flowerbed, welcoming front porch and homey living room, the exit shot for the episode is the stark sterility of the Underwood’s Washington brownstone.

Instead of dry, long conversations about morbidity, we get to see Frank’s middle-aged wife Claire experience jarring interactions while jogging through a cemetery, having to wait for her coffee while an older barista gets help with the digital cash register by a younger barista, and extended moments standing in front of an open refrigerator. She is more than a Lady Macbeth and heads her own non-profit organization. Frequently, she and Frank use each other’s positions to gain influence for themselves, and in many ways it seems a marriage of convenience, as indicated by the extra-marital affairs both enjoy. But like everything else in this show, it’s just not that simple. There are many moments of genuine love and compassion between them and a mutual respect and admiration, and each honestly hopes the other will succeed. Many couples know there is much more to marriage than dewy-eyed romance, and to find a television series in which a long-term relationship is built on something other than children or nostalgia is refreshing. While Claire plays the good wife often enough, when push comes to shove she looks out for her own interests and knows that partnership does not mean subjugation.

Ultimately, it is acting that carries the show home. There are no “good guys.” There are political characters, like Frank and Claire, who care mostly for personal advancement. But even the characters of pure heart and sweet intention either struggle to overcome personal demons. Surrounded by the overwhelming temptations of power and wealth, the characters in House of Cards succumb to the dark side of Washington politics. This isn’t an idealistic portrayal of government or people. Neither is it a condemnation. The characters are real, and the acting is superb. Corey Stoll plays Peter Russo, a congressman compromised by substance abuse, who wants to do right by his constituents but finds the glitter of power too alluring, and once he becomes Frank’s puppet we get to witness some of the personal consequences to Frank’s Machiavellian schemes. Robin Wright (Claire Underwood) and Kate Mara (reporter Zoe Barnes) portray the difficulties their characters face trying to satisfy their professional ambitions without sacrificing their personal lives.

Kevin Spacey is the keystone. Netflix used the vast data collected from users to know that Spacey is a name that would attract a large and specific audience. Like a successful politician he is all things to all people, and it takes a brilliant acting job to pull it off. We see an amoral schemer, a good ol’ southern boy, and a gregarious colleague, all wrapped up into one. The viewer gets a special glimpse of Underwood during his asides. Breaking the fourth wall is an old stage tradition that allows the audience to share the innermost thoughts of characters. The camera adds another dimension. Underwood, instead of merely achieving distance from the action to address the audience, addresses us directly through the camera. These private moments in the spotlight are when Spacey truly shines. And instead of being fooled like Frank’s family, friends, and colleagues, viewers are in the know, privy to the dark inner secrets of this enigmatic mastermind. Ultimately, House of Cards is the story about the variety of stories Frank tells his targets and co-conspirators as he cons his way through Washington. Frank’s asides to the audience are another story, perhaps the story he is telling us, or perhaps the story he is telling himself.

The Ryder, March 2013

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