Back in the early 90’s, Washington Revels did a few post-Christmas shows at the Birchmere with the local folk-rock band The New St. George. Now the New St. George’s leader, Jennifer Cutting, has a fabulous new band, and we’re reuniting with her to do a show tonight at the Birchmere!
Monday night was our last rehearsal–the show is tonight at 7:30. We ran through a few songs from this year’s Christmas Revels and also practiced with Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra.
The biggest thing we do at Washington Revels is The Christmas Revels, but we have lots of events through the year, too. I love this kind of gig, where we don’t have much rehearsal and the directors are figuring things out on the fly. Some of the arrangements changed over the weekend. The mummers rehearsed their play tonight for the first time. It feels very seat-of-the-pants, but it’s great to know that we can put together a great show quickly, after the massive, months-long project of The Christmas Revels.
This post is a reprint of “The Shortest Day” by Paddy Swanson (Artistic Director, Revels, Inc.). It was published on December 21, 2011 in the Revels Winter Newsletter.
In our own time the Winter Solstice is indissolubly linked with the festival of Christmas, though it was not always so. The myths of the festival are so deeply embedded within us that we no longer ask why we bring an evergreen into the house or decorate with candles or hang mistletoe. We take these things for granted as we plunge into the hectic preparations for Christmas and the New Year. Overall there is a heightened sense of something significant happening at a fixed point on the calendar. For some it is Christmas night, for others it is watching the ball drop in Times Square. The commercial frenzy of gift buying is fueled by references to holly and stars and carols and the streets are illuminated by strings of twinkling lights. Sometimes the blurring of images can distort the meaning of the event that is being celebrated.
Underneath it all the unifying event is the arrival of the shortest day of the year. Perhaps in response to some primal human anxiety our common ancestors marked out the shortest day as the turning point in the year’s cycle of warmth and plenty and cold and scarcity. Over history major feasts and celebrations have accumulated around this time, sacred and secular – Yule, Christmas, Saturnalia, Midwinter – over the years amassing volumes of literature, custom, ritual, music and dance. It is from this great bounty of compressed emotion and meaning that we find the core material for our shows. The Christmas Revels format includes sacred and secular traditions from a wide collection of cultures and presents them in the context of celebration of the shortest day of the year. One of Susan Cooper’s lines in a Revels mummers’ play presents the great mystery of life and death very simply. When the call goes out for a doctor to bring the dead hero back to life, a boy answers,
There is no doctor can bring this man to life,
His dying was a mystery and did not come from strife.
So let the blessed mistletoe about him,
and about him,
and about him go,
And bring him back among us – so.
May you have a very merry Christmas and a happy Solstice and “Great joy to the new!”
Chorus member Terry Winslow e-mailed this photograph of a tarasque to the chorus this week:
Here’s proof that the tarasque is a real live piece of Provence’s folk history: a carving on a column at the church of Saint-Trophime in Arles. If I understand the construction history correctly, the oldest parts of the complex date back to the 12th century. This column is part of the cloister next to the church. Explore the church on this nifty website.
Terry’s wife, Diane, was the one who had the idea to knit tiny tarasques, and she pointed out how much this carved tarasque looks like my design. My brilliant team of tarasque knitters used my pattern to produce 10 of the little guys to be sold at the merchandise table the second weekend of The Christmas Revels.
If you’re a knitter, the tarasque has its own pattern page on Ravelry, although I haven’t uploaded the pattern yet.
Well, it’s over. Our beautiful Andalusian world has been dismantled.
The final step in The Christmas Revels is taking down the set and moving all of our things out of the theater that we’d occupied for the last two weeks.
The entire cast helps out with strike. The actual set was mostly taken apart by professionals wielding power tools. The main task for the rest of us is carrying things. Props, pieces of flooring, bundles of costumes tied up in sheets. When the truck was full, anyone who was available drove to the Revels office in Silver Spring to move everything back off the truck. I’m not usually one for volunteering for extra heavy lifting, but I know it goes better with more people, and I didn’t have to get up early in the morning.
We formed bucket brigades passing merchandise up to the mezzanine, programs to the mezzanine, programs back down from the mezzanine (there was indecision about the programs), props into the rehearsal room to await sorting, hair and makeup supplies down to the basement, and programs to their final location, stacked on a landing halfway to the basement. It was midnight when I left the office.
The enchantment has ended. The magnificent treasure room has somehow turned back into two-by-fours and piles of elderly sofa cushions. And those of us in the chorus go back to our regularly scheduled lives as lawyers and teachers and speechwriters and science writers–taking the memory of Al-Andalus forward into the world.
Most of us get to walk around on stage with our own hair showing, but if your hair is too short or too pink, you have to wear a wig. Yesterday Jane Bloodworth, alto section leader and all-around awesome person, was kind enough to let me take pictures of having her wig put on with the help of volunteer Barbara Brodie.
Jane’s hair is pinned down in the back, but nice and floofy in front. That’s because the front of her hair will be combed over the front of the wig to make it look more natural.
When we do the show over and over, first in practice, then in performance, we start to notice who we run into as we move around the stage during the show. There are some people I never see – I have exactly one chance to stop and chat with my friend Autumn Wilson, and a moment near the beginning where I say hi to Will Wurzel. Otherwise I hardly see either of them. But there are at least three points in the show where I look behind me and see Jane. I like knowing that, at any point, this smiling face could appear behind me.
Doesn’t her wig look great? I’m always happy to see this face behind me. (I feel lucky to hear her voice behind me, too – Jane’s a great singer.)
This year the evening performances of The Christmas Revels are over at about 10:15. After the show I hang around in the lobby to chat with any friends who were at that performance, then go upstairs to get out of costume, wash my face, and leave the theater.
Then I have two choices: Go home or go to Bertucci’s. Last Saturday night my choice was Bertucci’s. It’s an Italian restaurant in the lower level of a shopping mall near Lisner Auditorium. For several years, people from the cast, crew members, specialty performers, and friends have been retiring there after the evening performances to eat and drink. They do a great job of looking after us. They even keep the kitchen open late, bless them. (For the past few years, we’ve sung “Happy Birthday” to one of the waitresses – somebody had better remember that tonight or tomorrow.)
This is Revels, so singing is a big part of the event. We sing Revels standards, like “Let Union Be” and “Country Life.” Favorite songs from the shows find their way into the Bertucci’s repertoire; the American-themed Christmas Revels show from 2006 has a particularly large number of very singable songs. Some years the specialty performers lead us in song and dance. In 2008, the Quebecois dancer Pierre Chartrand called some fantastic dances.
Some nights a lot of people go; after a particularly long day (or before a particularly long day) more of us might make the other choice, to go home and get some rest. There’s a risk of messing up your voice or making yourself too tired for the next day’s performances. I don’t know if I’ll have enough energy for Bertucci’s either night this weekend.
This is Revels. I love performing, but our get-togethers at Bertucci’s really get to the essence of the experience: celebrating with your community in song and dance.
Melissa has been my assistant music director for The Christmas Revels for many years, but this year I have finally gotten her back on stage … playing guitar! Because of the theme of the 2011 Andalusian Treasures show, we decided to form a large group of guitarists to play on several of the Spanish pieces. Melissa expressed her interest in being on stage, the fabulous costume folks found her a gorgeous costume, and voila! The group is called “Guitarras Doradas” and includes Melissa, Howard Bass, Bobby Gravitz, Jake Hendren, and William G.M. Hoffman (you can also catch Bobby and Bill in the mummer’s play). Melissa brings her background of both guitar and early music to the show (she is a graduate from the College of Music at Florida State University with a degree in musicology with focus on Early Music).
So, to learn more about Melissa, here are some fun facts:
She grew up in a haunted house (not sure where that was, so you will have to ask her).
She has lived in Ankara, Turkey for three years as a child, and then near Catania, Sicily for three years when she was in her early 20’s.
Her mother was Spanish — the family was from Oviedo in Asturias. Her father is Welsh and English – and her branch of the Carter family is part of the Carters who were one of the “First Families of Virginia.”
She has always been involved in the arts — she danced ballet for 8 years in childhood and adolescence and played the viola starting at age 9. She began guitar at 10, and then switched from viola to violin!
Over the years, she has had a love/hate relationship with the guitar. Melissa says, “At age 11 I put my guitar under my bed for a year, certain I would never be able to REALLY play because I couldn’t make the chord changes in ‘Yesterday’ fast enough. I pulled it back out at 12 and tried again. I got it by the time I was 13.”
By age 15, it was decided… she would learn classical guitar in time to pass an audition to college.
Melissa also sang with various choirs in college, and had the thrill of singing Beethoven’s 9th with the Atlanta Symphony conducted by Robert Shaw. However, after getting nodes on my vocal chords, she joined the Collegium Musicum and learned to play baroque recorder and krumhorn (and she still loves playing the krumhorn to this day).
Don’t miss this year’s fabulous guitarists… only five more performances remain.
Last night I went to a play at the Shakespeare Theatre. After the performance, some of the actors came back out on stage to answer questions. Someone asked what part the audience plays in a performance. One of the actors said that audiences have different personalities; one night everything will be hilarious and the next night you’ll have an audience who never laughs at anything.
This sounded very familiar to me. The audience is the last part of The Christmas Revels to fall into place, and every audience is different. The audience is so important that, for our final dress rehearsal, we bring in several hundred people who wouldn’t otherwise get to see the show to help us practice. In most stage productions, the audience pretty much has two roles: laugh at the jokes and clap at the good parts. Revels goes a step beyond, into the realm of audience participation.
Audience participation is scary. It makes people think of being dragged on stage and humiliated by a hypnotist. Revels isn’t like that. Yes, we are going to bring one person on stage, but it will be someone who wants to do it, and they don’t have to hop on one foot or quack like a duck or anything. For everyone else, there are opportunities to sing along – lyrics and music are printed in the program.
Some people only come to the show for one reason: to join hands and dance down the aisles in “Lord of the Dance.” At most performances, there are traffic jams in the aisles. This moment belongs to the audience – they even sing different lyrics from us. It wasn’t until I joined the cast that I learned that the refrain starts with the words “Dance, then.” The audience sings “Dance, dance” and that is ok. Not everyone wants to dance. We’re directed to offer a hand to audience members along the aisle, but if they’re not interested, you just smile and move on. Maybe next year they’ll change their mind. One of my best friends comes to see the show every year, but always sits firmly in the middle of a row so there’s no risk of getting dragged into the dance.
At the Shakespeare Theatre last night, the actor Ted van Griethuysen said he’d once been told something like “an audience is a group of people who are together for one moment in their lives.” I love this. We put on The Christmas Revels nine times – one dress rehearsal and eight performances – for nine different assemblages of people. Every time, we’re joining them for an authentic, joyful celebration and every time is different. You never know if an audience will applaud in a solemn moment or wait, breathless. Some audiences sing out, while others hold back. And on some special nights, in the silent moment of the poem “The Shortest Day,” when we’re listening for the sounds of our ancestors, a baby cries. I’m sure the baby’s parents are mortified, but I love it. That’s exactly the sound of our ancestors, isn’t it?
David is the third member of this year’s guest musical ensemble, Layali El Andalus (along with Rachid Halihal and Daphna Mor). He is the group’s “beat keeper,” playing the riq, dumbek and frame drum. I would describe David as a “gentle giant” — bean-pole tall and thin with a warm smile and a quiet countenance. But, when he picks up one of his percussion instruments, all of that changes. In this year’s show you will hear David’s percussion beat strongly supporting the full company (of about 80 singers and instrumentalists) in pieces like “Seven Ways to Cook an Eggplant” and delicately bouncing along with the children’s chorus as they sing and play on stage.
In looking around for some basic facts about David, I found a wonderful article entitled “Mr. Tambourine Man,” by Dan Friedman. Below is a terrific description of the instruments that David plays…
The tambourine, or “riq” as it’s called in Arabic, is actually, despite its Western connotations of preschool classrooms, a staple of classical Arabic music. Unlike kids or folk dancers who shake or clap it, classical musicians hold it vertically and still, at knee level. Like the larger bongolike dumbek, there are three major categories of sound: the “dum” the “tak” and the “kat.” But on the riq,each note can be varied not only by the tension and pace of the hand or the number of fingers applied, but also by the amount of accompanying jingle, the tautness of the drum skin and the amount of resonance the player allows any given beat or sequence.
It has been an amazing lesson for me to watch and hear the many sounds that a skilled player can draw from this instrument. David has also been warm and welcoming to chorus percussionists like Guen Spilsbury (who is playing his frame drum on a couple of pieces) and our “staff percussionist” and sound effect’s man, Don Spinelli. And with five more performances remaining to this year’s Christmas Revels, you have many opportunities to come and hear him too!
Actually, I met Tina Chancey back in 1983, when she played viola da gamba with the Washington Bach Consort (a group that I sang in at the time). Who would have thought that all of these year’s later, we would be making music together again?
Tina is the “bowed string” musician in Trio Sefardi (along with Howard Bass and Susan Gaeta) — they are featured in this year’s Christmas Revels. While Trio Sefardi is a fairly new group, Tina also directs HESPERUS, the world-traveled early/traditional music ensemble dedicated to bringing the past alive through collaborations between early music and film, theater, dance and world music–sounds a bit like Revels doesn’t it?
So… what does Tina play? She plays early and traditional bowed strings from rebec, Pontic lyra and vielle to viola da gamba and Old Time and Irish fiddle. And, on these instruments she plays roots music from Sephardic and blues to early music and jazz standards.
In this year’s show, Tina is not only playing… she has also arranged “Ocho Kandelikas,” (written by Sephardic singer, Flory Jagoda) for our chorus and brass (and, it has audience participation too), and wrote the fabulous brass arrangement for our “Eggplant” song (this one, you really have to experience in person!).
It has been a real joy for us to collaborate with Tina again this year during the development of this wonderful show (she last appeared with the Washington Revels in 1999 as part of our “Celestial Fools” show), and it will be a joy for all of you to experience her musical arrangements and to hear her play.