Circus activism: Barnum's female stars demand right to vote, name baby giraffe 'Miss Suffrage' at Madison Square Garden

The famed Barnum & Bailey's presented an elaborate Cleopatra-themed stage show during its 1912 season, featuring over 1,500 performers. The show had debuted just the week before at Madison Square Garden. Certainly some of its stars -- perhaps Cleopatra herself? -- participated in the March 1912 suffrage event. 

Women did not have the right to vote one hundred years ago. I know this is not an unknown fact. There are people who are still alive who remember that an extra X chromosome excluded you from what is today considered a basic American right for adults.

This struck me as particularly odd this morning, having read last evening all about some odd events from a hundred years ago, March 31, 1912, involving the Barnum & Bailey circus troupe, in town to perform at Madison Square Garden (back in its Madison Square location). The female stars of Barnum's traveling show decided to throw their support behind the suffragist cause -- and the newspapers could barely keep their laughter in check.

Modern women activists of the day were happy to see any headlines relating their cause, as long as the environment was a respectable one. The circus was not one of those environs. Then consider that most newspapers were operated by men and read by men. While some progressive sheets supported suffrage, several chose to cast the cause in a satirical light where possible. The ladies of Barnum & Bailey gave reporters a particularly ripe opportunity for a little spoofing.

Seventy-five women employed by America's most famous circus organized an afternoon suffrage rally and invited the press to the world's first 'circus suffrage society'. How indeed could reporters resist a group of comely acrobats and horse wranglers, presenting their cause on the site of caged animals?

It was meant as a solemn pronouncement; reporters mocked it. "They Organize As Man-Eating Hyena Grins, Elephants Trumpet', went the Tribune headline, as the circus's publicity agent "solemnly sw[o]re last night with a hand on his heart that the meeting was a real, honest-to-goodness suffrage meeting." [source]  This was Barnum territory, after all. Although the great showman had died many years earlier, perhaps after decades of chicanery and misdirection, nobody could take a Barnum photo opportunity with a straight face.

But it was a serious endeavor, led by petite circus rider Josie De Mott (pictured at left) and acrobat Zella Florence. Included in the audience were animal trainers, wire walkers, 'hand balancers', dancers, acrobats and even a few strong ladies, including the renown Katie Sandwina, 'the female Hercules' (pictured below).

Not in attendance, however, were key members of the mainstream suffrage movement -- notably Brooklyn socialite Inez Millholland and the movement's de facto leader Harriet Stanton Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Mrs. Blatch, the New York Times noted, was having tea with her fellow esteemed suffragists at their 46 East 29th Street headquarters. (It should be noted they were only a block away from Madison Square Garden!) However, perhaps recognizing the value of a traveling suffragist show, they did deign to send a representative named Beatrice Jones.

Clearly flustered by the appearance of the press -- the society ladies of the suffrage movement did not consider a circus ring an appropriate political venue -- Jones repeatedly asked the ladies if they were serious, then dispensed advice on how to conduct themselves as standard-bearers of the roving suffragist cause.

At one point, the male half of Barnum's husband-and-wife riding act stormed in and dragged his partner from the meeting. The crowd assailed the interloper with boos and hisses.

After the meeting, De Mott and the other circus suffragists created a dandy of a photo op, moving to a cage and presenting the name of 'Miss Suffrage' to a young baby giraffe. The Times coyly suggested the animal was male: "[B]y nightfall he couldn't abide even the sight of a suffragette."

The 'proper' suffragists acquiesced and eventually did meet with their more flamboyant sisters over tea the following week. The society activists marveled at the vigor of the Barnum ladies. "It is because they have so much exercise," one exclaimed, all the while "looking envious at the at the smooth skins and rosy cheeks," the Times condescendingly added.

Top picture courtesy the Boston Public Library. The picture of Ms. DeMott comes from this blog about West Hempstead history and has a lovely story about the feisty circus star. And as for Mrs. Sandwina (at right), you can read all about this wonderful lady at Forgotten Newsmakers.

Carolina Cup

It's finally Friday!! My blogging has been slack this week because I have been sick, had to finish my senior portfolio and had lesson planning for next week to do. It is now Friday however and I am FINISHED with everything!! After all the hard work it is such a sweet feeling! In just a little bit I will be loading up the car with sundresses, jack rogers and floppy hats. I'm Columbia, SC bound for the weekend.

Carolina Cup weekend is by far one of my favorite events of the year. Every spring hundreds of ECU students pack up and head up to SC for the weekend. Everyone stays in the same hotel (I apologize for the families staying), everyone eats at the same places, everyone goes to the same bars. It is so neat to be 4+ hours away but see SO many fellow students and friends. My friends and I will be heading to Columbia for the night where we will meet up with some old friends that attend USC. When I was a sophomore and attended Carolina Cup I met some guys from USC and have been able to keep in touch and remain friends ever since. I even went back for his formal one year!

We will all be heading out tonight for a few drinks at our favorite college bar- Pavlov's. Despite the guaranteed fun, but late night we will be waking up bright and early to get dressed up in sundresses and floppy hats to head to Camden, SC for Carolina Cup 2012. Here there will be no shortage of Lilly Pulitzer, Vineyard Vines, seersucker, bow ties, bows and floppy hats. If you have been following me for a while you may have picked up on my roommate and I having matching cups for all kinds of events. (yes we are entirely that cheesy) We couldn't let the tradition die this weekend so we will be sporting monogrammed mason jars(;
I'll be back Sunday very tired but with lots of stories to share. If you're at cup and see me be sure to say hello! Have a great weekend!!

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, March 2012)

Quartz 2089 / ****1/2

The German-born Japanese pianist Chisato Kusunoki, now resident in London, has garnered a reputation as a fine interpreter of Russian music. Her début recording on the British Quartz label showcases repertoire favoured by legends like Lazar Berman and Emil Gilels. In this august company, she is far from being overawed. In the six early Moments Musicaux Op.16 by Rachmaninov, she finds the perfect marriage of Schubertian lyricism with coruscating emotionalism. From within also flows a wellspring of bittersweet irony, which also colours the fulminating excesses of Scriabin’s Fantasy Op.28, a transitional work between well-groomed romanticism and more feral tendencies.

Nikolai Medtner’s single-movement Sonata in G minor Op.22 is not often heard these days, a pity as it possesses the same passion and inner fire as the best Rachmaninov scores. The skilful development of its pithy themes is also the work of a master. The positive rarities are three Transcendental Studies by Sergei Liapunov, clearly a tribute to Lisztian virtuosity. Rondo Of Sylphs is the perfect Russian Feux Follets, a luminescent ballet of fireflies, while Tempest draws its inspiration from Chasse Neige, Liszt’s torrid vision of a blinding snow storm. Kusunoki obviously loves this music and it shows in her brilliant and incandescent advocacy.

DUBOIS Orchestral Works
Marc Coppey, Cello
Orchestre Poitou-Charentes / Jean-Francois Heisser
Mirare 141 / ****

The name of Théodore Dubois (1837-1924) is often remembered in a pejorative way in relation with the Ravel Prix de Rome scandal. It was on his watch as head of Paris Conservatory when the obviously talented Maurice Ravel was denied the ultimate prize for young composers not once, but five times. The ensuing uproar resulted in his resignation, and it is not difficult to see why. In the face of modernism and progressiveness. Dubois’s music was one of an arch-conservative. The concertante works on this album, Fantaisie-Stück (Fantasy Piece) and Andante Cantabile for cello and Concerto Capricciso for piano, are highly tonal and do not stray off the beaten track with either idioms or harmonies.

There are many pleasant and hummable tunes, with a high charm factor characteristic of the Belle Époque. The oddity here is the Suite Concertante in four movements, one of very few concertos for cello and piano together, almost an accompanied cello sonata. Both French cellist Marc Coppey and pianist Jean-Francois Heisser (who also conducts) bring a high level of expressiveness and musicianship to these neglected lyrical pieces. If you enjoy the music of Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Bizet or early Fauré, do not hesitate.

GALA CONCERT / Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Orchestra / Review

Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Orchestra
Lee Foundation Theatre
Tuesday (27 March 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 March 2012 with the title "Glorious finale for new director".

As the cliché goes, a new broom sweeps clean. Never has this been more apt in the case of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) Orchestra under its new Music Director Lim Yau, recently appointed in January. His first concert promises to bring about a renaissance in the student orchestral scene downtown.

Also led by Lim, the NAFA Chorus, numbering healthily over 130 singers, was roped in for the opening work, Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande (below). The curious love child of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia and Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, it gave the proceedings a decidedly edgy start. Young Malaysian pianist Lim Dao Sheng was a most convincing soloist, revelling in its tricky syncopations and virtuosic riffs.

True to form, any Lim-directed choir would be well-disciplined, and precise in its entries and diction. Despite their motley appearance in street clothes, the voices produced a uniformly even sound, sensitive to shifts in dynamics even when occasionally drowned by the excitable brass. All’s the pity about the alto solo at the end, whose English was all but indecipherable.

Not to be outdone on the keyboard was Chinese freshman Lin Jiaxin (below), with a diminutive frame that belied power and projection needed for Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto. Hers was a totally confident showing, mixing agility for the filigreed bits with an outsized octave technique. Steady as a rock, she was one with the ensemble throughout, which made for many thrilling pages.

The jewel in the crown was the performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony, a second reading of the work to be heard within six days. Compared with last week’s Singapore Symphony run under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, this one was more idiomatic and perhaps more sincere. Lim’s approach allowed the music to flow more naturally, and the result was a full ten minutes swifter.

Any rawness in sound – common to all young ensembles - could not disguise overall commitment. The slow movement refused to meander, and dark clouds were soon dispersed to reveal sunshine outright. The chirpy third movement had fine oboist Vladyslav Shevchenko to thank, and it was the finale that brought the house down.

Any earlier diffidence had evaporated completely, as the forces came unerringly together for a glorious close. Was this a different orchestra from the past? No, it’s just the sound of the perceived gap between Academy and Conservatory rapidly closing.

Before 'Newsies': The Brooklyn Newsboys Strike of 1886

The grueling life of a Brooklyn newsboy, taken by Lewis Hine, 1910 (Library of Congress)

The new Disney-produced Broadway musical 'Newsies' puts melody to the events surrounding the Newsboys Strike of 1899. For one week that summer, young newspaper sellers fought back against their employers' unfair pricing schemes, turning their former street corners into places of mass protest. [You can hear all about in our 2010 podcast on The Newsboys Strike of 1899.]

But did the producers of the Broadway show realize they're opening their new musical on the anniversary of another significant strike?

The organized disobedience of 1899 was only the grandest of New York's newsboy strikes. Despite their youth and inexperience, newsies fought back on several occasions throughout the late 19th century. While the image of the street-smart, scrappy whelp was a stereotype often relayed by the newspapers themselves, in some cases, journalism's youngest workforce used its hot-blooded pluck to great advantage.

With the growth of New York after the 1850s came a fierce competition among its many dozens of newspapers, leading to lamentable and unfair business practices aimed at those who actually sold their product. After all, selling newspapers was a grueling job with low financial reward. Adults looked elsewhere for higher paying work, so in the era before substantial child labor laws,  newspapers often employed younger New Yorkers, mostly boys. And children, cynical publishers believed, were a pliable workforce.

The independence the job required initially appeared to discourage any kind of organization, and newspapers felt they could systematically underpay their 'freelance' sellers, often pitting groups of newsboys against each other. A newspaper across the East River, in the pre-consolidation city of Brooklyn, made just such a mistake in March of 1886.

Above: Determined Brooklyn newsies hang around the Brooklyn Navy Yard (at Sands Street) looking for potential buyers. 1903 Picture courtesy Shorpy 

Brooklyn Takes Sides
The Brooklyn Times employed newsboys all throughout the city of Brooklyn, a fast expanding metropolis by the mid-1800s. Originally just the area we consider Brooklyn Heights and the Fulton Ferry, the burgeoning city grew to absorb many Long Island towns along the bay. In 1854, it also expanded to include the independent city of Williamsburgh (today's neighborhood drops the -h) and Bushwick. These new additions were often referred to as the Eastern District.

However, the city of Brooklyn had a good deal more expansion ahead of it and would eventually swell to include many towns south and southeast of its original borders, an area referred to back then as the Western District, including areas like Bay Ridge, Red Hook, and many others. (This is a tad confusing today as many of these areas were later called South Brooklyn; the Eastern/Western distinction makes sense of you orient it with 'true north'.)

In an effort to expand sales into the newer regions of Brooklyn, the Times made a unique deal to Western District newsboys. They would receive stacks of newspapers at a lower cost (one cent per paper) than those sold to Eastern District newsboys (one-and-a-fifth cent per paper). The Times publishers believed this would boost sales by encouraging the Western District newsies to "push sales vigorously in new directions."

Above: Newsies gathered near the Brooklyn Bridge. Courtesy NYPL

Riot on South Eighth Street!
Oh, but when the Eastern District newsboys found this out the following day! On March 29th, according to a report by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a hundred newsboys, armed with sticks and stones, stormed the Times distribution offices at South Eighth Street and tried to prevent two wagons of newspapers from heading to the Western District. A whip-wielding wagon driver and arriving police officers thwarted the boys, but one of the trucks was later overturned at the area around today's Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Many Williamsburg newsies refused to sell the Times, even defying orders of older, more compliant newsboys. Wagons filled with papers were continually attacked on their way south. Any regular newsboy caught selling the Times was set upon by other boys, often roving bands "backed by a number of roughs." The Daily Eagle reports of some young newsies hiding newspapers in their jackets, selling them to customers in secret, for fear of reprisal.

The Brooklyn newsboy strike lasted for a couple days. Like the later newsboys strike of 1899, the key to success came from adult newspaper sellers at regular newsstands. Once a few of them joined the boycott, the Times agreed to lower their wholesale cost to just one cent per paper for newsboys in both areas of Brooklyn.

By April 1, 1886, newsies returned to their street corners, their hands stained with the ink of the Times and glowing with the satisfaction that their efforts might reward them with a little extra money that day.

SIDE NOTE: It's probably a good guess to say that many of these young workers lived at the Brooklyn Newsboys Lodging House at 61 Poplar Street, which opened its doors in 1884, one year before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.


Fiasco! New York's first Republican presidential primary

One hundred years ago yesterday, New York hosted its first-ever Republican presidential primary. Not only was it an organizational failure of epic proportions, but the results handed a stunning and rare defeat to one of New York's most iconic politicians.

Making the 1912 primary a unique contest was that it was between two presidents -- the current one, William Howard Taft, and the prior one, Theodore Roosevelt. (Robert La Follette was also on the ticket, serving as a bit of a Ralph Nader-esque outsider.) Dissatisfaction with Taft's administration had convinced Roosevelt to obtain his party's nomination once again, having served in the White House for almost eight years already.

Roosevelt laid out his plank during a memorable speech at Carnegie Hall (pictured above) on March 20, 1912: "THE great fundamental issue now before the Republican party and before our people can be stated briefly. It is: Are the American people fit to govern themselves, to rule themselves, to control themselves? I believe they are. My opponents do not."

Getting out a powerful incumbent was a difficult task, one that Roosevelt supporters thought could be overcome with the debut of the Republican primary process to the political system. The primary system was considered progressive for its day, putting the delegate process to a popular vote. But New York's first Republican primary, held on March 26, 1912, quickly dissolved into chaos.

Poll workers were ready to make history that morning, only to arrive at polling stations bereft of ballots. Voting locations throughout the city opened that day with nary a ballot in sight. The outer boroughs suffered greatly, and in over a hundred locations, ballots never arrived. Voters waited in line for hours, only to be told that would not get an opportunity to select a candidate. At some voting locations, ballots arrived a few minutes before the polls closed at 9 p.m.

'Kings, Queens and Richmond Largely Disenfranchised,' proclaimed the New York Sun, while the Tribune found 'Big Confusion Throughout the City'. Some clever operators quickly hammered out unofficial ballots on typewriters for anxious voters, hoping they would be accepted.

Below: First lady Helen Herron Taft makes greets supporters in New York

Manhattan voters had fewer problems at their polling stations, as moving vans rushed ballots to locations throughout the city. But the result did not help out the former president.

Political machines still held sway in local politics, and New York was now firmly in Taft's camp. The incumbent easily won the state, although the voting hiccups throughout the other counties allowed Roosevelt supporters to cry foul. A representative of Roosevelt's election committee wailed to the New York Times that "the primary election here today was not only a farce, but goes beyond that and is an insult to the city."

Roosevelt came back from this messy defeat to win nine primaries in other states. Unfortunately, most states still chose delegates at state conventions, a system that favored Taft. At the national convention, Taft was chosen again as the Republican candidate. Roosevelt bolted and ran as a progressive third party candidate (the so-called 'Bull Moose' party).

While campaigning in Milwaukee, Roosevelt was shot in the chest by an insane saloon keeper, surviving the impact due to his eyeglass case and a voluminous speech absorbing most of the blow.

Both Taft and Roosevelt lost that November to the Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Pictures courtesy the Library of Congress

200 YEARS OF THE PIANO / An Interview with Kenneth Hamilton

Piano Recitals by Kenneth Hamilton
31 March & 2 April 2012 /
7.30 pm, Esplanade Recital Studio

Singapore welcomes back the Scottish virtuoso Kenneth Hamilton, who has over the years presented some of the most interesting and intriguing piano recitals to my knowledge. Not only is his breadth and depth of the piano repertoire astounding, as he is a scholar with the most inquisitive of minds, it is his breath-taking delivery and the inimitable wit which have made his recitals memorable and treasured events. For the first time, he performs over two evenings.

The full programme is available here:

As generous as always, Kenneth Hamilton avails himself to yet another exclusive Pianomania interview.

200 years of piano literature encompassed in two recitals. Surely omitting certain works by iconic composers must have been a painful experience. How did you arrive at this final programme?

You are quite right. I simply had to resign myself “with regret” to wholesale omissions. There is no way, after all, that I could have offered an example of everything, even if the recitals had been of a gargantuan, Anton Rubinstein-like length (and that in itself would have been a bad idea—one can have too much even of a good thing). So I was basically guided by a few ground-rules: to make sure that the programmes had sufficient variety, while also giving some idea of how writing for the piano had changed over the last two centuries; and only to perform pieces that I myself loved and admired. After all, if the performer isn’t himself enthusiastic about what he is playing, he can hardly expect the audience to be!

We start with Mozart and Beethoven, who were among the first of the great composers to have tried their hands on the pianoforte. Mozart was indifferent to it while Beethoven embraced it with open arms. Do you think that was some turning point in the history and fortunes of the instrument?

Yes, it was a turning point, but motivated more by the development of the instrument itself than anything else. When Mozart grew up, the harpsichord and clavichord were still in general use, and the piano was simply one of a selection of keyboard instruments one could choose to play on. When Beethoven was trained a few decades later, the piano had slowly begun to supplant the other instruments, at least for domestic and concert purposes (let us not forget that Beethoven was also known as an organist in his young days). The piano had “won”, if you like, because it was gradually becoming more reliable, more responsive and somewhat louder than before. Of course, it still had a very long way to go. Beethoven was well known for still being unhappy with the state of what he called “a most imperfect instrument”. Still, it was more “perfect” than it had been in Mozart’s day, and that was the turning point. For the first time, the advantages of the piano - sensitivity, a range of dynamics - outweighed the disadvantages.

You have given more than ample playing time to Charles Alkan (1813-1885), who celebrates his bicentenary next year. Just how important and revolutionary was his contribution to the piano, with respect to Chopin and Liszt?

Alkan was a fascinating pianist and composer. I don’t think, however, that his direct influence on keyboard writing was that great, given that his music tended to be relatively little known (even if it had always attracted a clique of influential fans, like Liszt and Hans von Bülow). His indirect influence, on the other hand, was much greater. That was mediated through Ferruccio Busoni. Many aspects of Busoni’s keyboard style - the spacing of scales and figuration two octaves apart, for example, or the chordal technique - are pretty obviously derived from Alkan. And from Busoni we then derive several important aspects of early 20th-century pianism. Alkan at a distance, as it were.

Liszt's Totentanz was inspired by the Dance of Death fresco by Francesco Traini.

Tell us a little more about Liszt’s Totentanz, which is better known in its orchestral form. It polarises many listeners because it contains both transcendental and vulgar aspects of Liszt’s pianism. What is your take?

Well, the devil was supposed to be a virtuoso (like Paganini), so it is quite appropriate that a musical “dance of death” should be virtuosic! And the virtuoso writing in Totentanz - the implacable, overwhelming piling up of difficulties - is an essential part of the musical expression. It is, to some extent, the horror-film music of the 19th century. They didn’t actually have horror films, of course, but they had Gothic novels and various other macabre art forms. Totentanz is a musical realisation of this sort of thing. It is, in my view one of Liszt’s very best pieces.

It originally did not have much success. It was obviously too “advanced”, novel and shocking for most people. But then in the early 1880s, when Liszt was an old man, some of his pupils began to revive it (Alexander Siloti was the best known of these) and it suddenly became a huge hit with audiences, much to Liszt’s surprise. “I’ve now had my revenge” he said, “for failures of days gone by!” Liszt then revised some sections of the piece, and extended some passages in the version for piano and orchestra. These revisions are still often neglected (simply because many pianists don’t know about them), but I’ve added them into Liszt’s solo transcription of the piece that I’ll be playing in Singapore, so to that extent it will be a “new version”.

As for Brahms, was he a better composer for the piano in his youth with his large-scaled Sonatas and Variations, or as a mature sage with his late miniatures Klavierstücke and Intermezzos?

That’s a very pertinent question, especially as I have just played the F minor Sonata (Op.5) in a few concerts in the UK. The early works have many intriguing features, and promises of greatness to come, but they also exhibit some fairly glaring faults, at least in my view. The piano writing is often uncomfortably thick, verging on the stodgy. And a few of the sonata movements are, quite frankly, too long for their material. The slow movement and Scherzo of the F minor Sonata, for example, work very well indeed. The outer movements are nevertheless problematic, albeit still interesting to play and to hear once in a while. It was with the Handel Variations (Op.24) that Brahms completely came into his own. That is an unalloyed masterpiece, and most of the later, shorter pieces are also utterly beautiful, and perfectly proportioned. I feel the same way about the two piano concertos, incidentally. The first has some wonderful ideas, but also some pretty tedious stretches. The second is magnificent throughout.

We know you love playing transcriptions. With respect to Ronald Stevenson, Busoni, Liszt, Brahms and Rachmaninov (whom all appear in the programme), what makes successful transcriptions work?

In a good transcription, the piece is reconceived for the piano, not simply transliterated. With the work of the best transcribers, one might think that the music had been written for the piano from the start. The other side of the coin are these truly dreadful vocal score arrangements of operas and oratorios et cetera, some of which are almost unplayable. And of course, the very finest transcriptions also have a “value added” aspect. They highlight some elements of the piece that are perhaps not so obvious in the original, or shed new light on the work in some other way. Both Liszt and Busoni had a quite phenomenal ability to reconceive orchestral, operatic, or organ music in terms of the piano. Ronald Stevenson also has this gift. For instance, his arrangement of Richard Tauber’s My Heart and I is more or less a new composition, but one that retains the passion of the original, and adds a bittersweet, nostalgic tinge to it as well. Truly “value-added” indeed.

There was a time when the piano was a necessity in all households, but this has been replaced successively by the radio, television and now personal computers. Do you think someday that the piano will make a glorious comeback?

No, alas, the real glory-days of the piano are over in that sense. We can’t un-invent the CD player, and all the rest. But in fact, one of the most astonishing things is how popular the piano has remained, notwithstanding all the domestic musical rivals that turned up in the last century. The piano, of course, produces live music - and consequently gives the performer and audience a direct contact that they don’t get in many other media. And whether the player is good or bad, he or she is still instrumental in producing the music, rather than simply being a passive recipient from the radio, CD player, or whatever. There is something unusually thrilling about being in the presence of live music and that, I think, is one of the reasons why there are still audiences for piano recitals, and why so many people still learn the piano themselves, even if they have no intention of becoming professional players. All in all, the piano is still holding its own pretty well these days, despite the competition!

Kenneth Hamilton was interview by PianoManiac.

GREAT MASTERS OF CHINESE MUSIC / Ding Yi Music Company / Review

Ding Yi Music Company
Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday (25 March 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 March 2012 with the title "League of extraordinary gentlemen".

Not since the coming of the Berlin Philharmonic has Esplanade Concert Hall been filled to the rafters for a classical concert. This concert by the Ding Yi Music Company, a young semi-professional group of Chinese instrumentalists, was graced by four venerable soloists from China, all of whom are legends in their own right. It was as if Chinese music’s equivalent of Menuhin, Segovia, Rostropovich and Richter had all turned up, with an audience eating off their hands.

The concert began with sanxian player Feng Shaoxian, looking dapper in a cowboy hat, playing Sui Lijun’s Song of the Black Earth. Accompanied by percussion that resembled oars and washboards, Feng’s act on the banjo-like instrument punctuated by a curious combination of song and oratory was reminiscent of a minstrel singing the blues.

Then dizi master Lu Chunling, all of 91-years, charmed with the popular Jiangnan melody Xing Jie (Walking on the Street), which ambled from a stroll to a brisk jog. His next act was a change in outfit and his own Festival Dance Song, delightfully played on a bawu, a flute-like ethnic instrument with a lower pitch and mellower timbre.

On the guqin, the most ancient of Chinese instruments, Gong Yi demonstrated a quiet authority in his arrangement of Flowing Water. Its range of tempered sonorities had the uncanny resemblance to that of a modern piano, and it is not so far-fetched to imagining both instruments to being related.

Completing the quartet of virtuosos was erhu specialist Wang Guotong (above), whose sleek sound rose above the accompaniment for the upbeat Joyous Harvesting and nostalgic Mountain Ballad, both compositions of his. The ever responsive musicians of Ding Yi were conducted by the Cultural Medallion winner Tay Teow Kiat.

All four exponents were subjected to mini-interviews on stage, helpfully translated into English, before resuming with more music. It was the animated Lu, a former rickshaw puller turned musician, expressing the greatest excitement and gratitude being on this stage, who seemed to touch the audience most. He and 16 young flautists, aged 10 to 33, closed the concert with his classic Happy News (above).

There was an impromptu encore of Guan San Yue, uniting all four masters (above) in unison for a familiar melody. That was probably the least convincing item of all, but this league of extraordinary gentlemen had already earned their deserved standing ovation.

All photos courtesy of Ding Yi Music Company.

Work Hard, Play Harder

Work hard, Play harder..

That is my  motto this week my friends. You see on Thursday I have to turn in the biggest assignment I have had to complete since I have been in college. I kid you not, this sucker is big. 40 single spaced pages of information, video clips, and lesson plans with 9 rubrics being used to score this sucker. That's my final Elementary Education Portfolio that is due in just a few short days.

It's okay though. (Not really, but it has to be right? ha, kidding!) I have come to accept the fact that every night this week will be spent working on nothing but this portfolio until the wee hours of the night. So far the past two nights have contained lots of coffee, some Hootie and the Blowfish, not much sleep and every now and then glancing up at my Carolina Cup dress.

Glancing up at my dress is random, I know! That's where my motto comes into affect however. I am going to bust my you know what to get this portfolio done this week (work hard) so that this weekend I can play harder!! I'm BEYOND excited to leave for Carolina Cup 2012 this Friday after my internship! This is one of my favorite events of the entire year. If I have to have a miserable week preparing my portfolio that is A-okay with me because this weekend will be just enough fun to make up for all the hard work! 

Are any of you ladies going this year?
Alright back to work for me!

DAUNTLESS SPIRIT 2012 / Singapore Youth Chinese Orchestra and Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra & Youth Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (24 March 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 26 March 2012 with the title "Old hands, young talent united in Spirit".

If one thought that Chinese instrumental music appealed mostly to the older generation, this concert is proof to the contrary. There exists a vast pool of young talent here, a heartening phenomenon displayed by the prowess of the Singapore Youth Chinese Orchestra conducted by Singapore Chinese Orchestra Associate Conductor Quek Ling Kiong (below).

The ensemble showed that subtlety was a quality equal to virtuosity in the opening work, Law Wing Fai’s Tang Capriccio. Erhus in unison yielded a refined homogeneous sound in The Herd, where rapt pianissimos were shaded with sensitivity. This was followed by a gentle serenade of plucked strings (pipas and ruans) in River Snow, the stillness of wintry climes evocatively captured. Only in the finale, Drunken Monk Calligraphy, where the piccolo-like timbre of the bangdi (Chinese flute) with its delightful lurching about, did everyone let down their collective hair.

A wonderful solo erhu poignantly coloured Liu Xing’s Bian Ba, the composer’s romance-like tribute to a Tibetan erhu player of the same name. Sheer exuberance from the 9-member percussion then lit up Tang Jian Ping’s Dragon Leaps To The East, its steadfast and implacable beat matched only by the 8-member suona clique with its strident clarion call.

Individual virtuosity was also showcased in two concertante works. Accompanied by more senior colleagues of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra conducted by Yeh Tsung (left), young guzheng soloist Roy Yuen, a Geography major, exhibited both utmost clarity and disarming panache in Gu Guan Ren’s Mountain and Water. Then the sister erhu duo of Tay Zhi Wen and Tay Jun Wen became one in thought and deed for the perpetual motion in the Hunt movement from Liu Xi Jin’s Hymn of Wusuli.

Both professional and student orchestras were united in the final work, four movements from Zhao Ji Ping’s Qiao’s Grand Courtyard. Like an earlier concert bringing together the Singapore Symphony and Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestras, this was another occasion where the experienced and the young became equal partners in harmony.

The music, written for a television drama, gave ample opportunity for teamwork, even if old hands such as Zhao Jian Hua’s erhu and Han Lei’s guanzi had pride of place in sumptuous solos. The future of Chinese music in Singapore is in good hands indeed.

'Mad Men' notes: New Jersey invades the Statue of Liberty

The lady of Liberty Island makes an appearance in a 1965 United Airlines ad campaign. Don Draper, of course, prefers American Airlines. (Courtesy Flickr/What Makes The Pie Shop Tick) 

WARNING The article contains a few spoilers about last night's show, so if you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode. 

'Mad Men' returned to AMC last night, ramping up its regular displays of well-primped, misogynistic Madison Avenue ambition. On Mondays here on the blog, I'll drill down for inspiration into the smaller details from the show that deal specifically with New York City history. And on Sundays, during the show itself (when possible), I'll be playing along on Twitter, throwing out little trivia tidbits as quickly and accurately as humanly possible.

Everybody seems to be talking about the slinky performance of Gillian Hill's ditty 'Zou Bisou Bisou' -- or 'Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo' if you prefer the Sophia Loren version -- by Don Draper's new wife Megan. And civil rights issues finally begin to bubble to the surface when a nasty water-balloon incident by a rival firm (based upon a real event, down to the dialogue!) somehow ends with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce possibly hiring their first African-American secretary.

But I was struck by a throwaway line uttered early in the episode by Don's son Bobby Draper -- played by yet another young actor, the fourth Bobby in the show's five seasons. With the children over at Don and Megan's Manhattan apartment for the Memorial Day holiday, Don emptily suggests this will be the day they go visit the Statue of Liberty. Bobby shrugs and says, "We always say that, but we never do."

The remark is meant to imply all the cheerful, all-American things that the Draper family never seem to do together anymore. When Don drops the kids off at the home of ex-wife Betty and her new husband, he refers to the couple inside as 'Morticia and Lurch'. (Did Don know that ABC had just cancelled The Addams Family the month before?)

Oh, but I do wish the Drapers had gone to the Statue of Liberty at that moment, in late May 1966, as they might have witnessed a rather remarkable sight -- the virtual invasion of Liberty Island by stolid representatives from Jersey City!

Once called Bedloe's Island, the alleged hiding place of pirate's treasure and the home of Frederic Bertholdi's statue since 1886, Liberty Island actually sits within the state line of New Jersey, as does its partner Ellis Island. In fact, some of Ellis Island's reclaimed land is still considered part of New Jersey. However, Bedloe's has been within the jurisdiction of New York since a compact between the two state governments was signed in February 1834.

New Jersey has not always been happy with this arrangement. On the afternoon of May 23, 1966, a group of over four dozen Jersey City Chamber of Commerce members stormed across the water and 'conquered' Liberty Island, pressing their contention that the island should be part of their state.

With 'the Federal Government cooperating as a friendly non-belligerent', the New Jersey businessmen, joined by Jersey City mayor Thomas J. Whelan in a 'festive, bloodless invasion', rattled off their demands, including equal recognition of Jersey City and New York, direct access to Circle Line boat service from the island, and even a change to Liberty Island's postal address.

Don could have even brought his new bride Megan -- of 'French extraction' as she might say -- as a representative of the French government was also on hand to confirm friendly relations between the two parties. (I assume he meant between America and France.) Afterwards, Air France even provided a box lunch to the Jersey City aggressors!

The event was, of course, mostly for show, for greater plans were already in play. In the previous year, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island were enjoined as a national monument under one administrative entity, the National Park Service. By October 1966, they were also listed as inaugural members of the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

The Statue of Liberty often served as a complicated symbol for 1960s political debate, a touchstone for civil rights activists and an ironic construct for many antiwar protesters embittered by the Vietnam War.

In 1965, the FBI and New York police snuffed out an attempt by the Black Liberation Front to smuggle dynamite onto the island and blow up the statue. That same year, President Lyndon B. Johnson (at right) traveled to Liberty Island to sign into law the Immigration and Naturalization Act, a pivotal and far-reaching change to American policy that essentially eliminated immigration quotas.

A few years later, antiwar activists staged a Christmastime demonstration here, barricaded themselves inside the statue for almost two days. In sad need of disrepair by the late 60s, Lady Liberty even represented a certain dislodging of the American dream to many, a sentiment strongly recognized by the 1970s which led to the statue's rehabilitation for her 1986 centennial celebration.

Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) Thank You Dinner

A shameless bit of self promotion. Here's to receiving the MICA (Ministry of Information, Community and the Arts) Special Recognition Award (SRA) from the Minister Dr Yaacob Ibrahim himself.

Another shot for good measure.

Finally, all the SRA recipients. Not exactly the Cultural Medallion or the Oscar but something to be proud of anyway. By the way, the actual award weighs almost a ton, and will make for a superior paperweight.

Another Thank You Dinner, within the space of three evenings. This time, it is the turn of MICA (Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts) to host its groups of advisors, committess and panels at the School of The Arts (SOTA). I do not sit on any of these groups but my presence there was due to the the honour of receiving a MICA Special Recognition Award (SRA) from MICA Minister Dr Yaakob Ibrahim. Reason: for sitting in all those committees in the National Arts Council (NAC), the kind organisation that nominated me for this award. There were 13 awards given out this year, including to volunteers of the National Heritage Board (NHB) and - I love this one - to founders of the Taxi Drivers Literary Circle, awarded by the National Library Board (NHB).

A rowdy drumroll to great the guests.

Three doctors proud to have been conferred the SRA. Dr Ma Swan Hoo (left) and Dr Janncy Wong (right), who have been faithful guides for the National Art Museum, National History Museum and Peranakan Museum.

A moment with Mrs Hwang-Lee Poh See, former Principal of St Nicholas Girls' School, who sits on a committee which vets Chinese language programmes. She's also the mother of one of my classmates, the neurosurgeon Dr Peter Hwang.

Raymond Lye, Member of Parliament Baey Yam Keng and composer Dr Ho Chee Kong (from L to R).

Members of the FCP (Film Classification Panel, also known as the Film Censorship Party) having a light moment: Rosihan Dahim, Ng Wei Chin, Mona Lim and Nadiputra. Let's see if they're still laughing after viewing I No Stupid Part 6, Saw 13 or Debbie Does Dallas Part 29.

Looks like everybody is having a good time. The roti jalak and chicken curry was particularly good.

A few floors above the Multi Purpose Hall of SOTA was the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) having their first rehearsal of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G.

Here is my very sturdy (and heavy) Special Recognition Award in a pride of place at home, just in front of the appreciation gift for helping to organise Bali Classical Nights. (Let's hope the cats don't pee on it!) Thank you, NAC!