– There! The Russian-Hungarian border! Did I ever tell you about the time I …?
– No, Commander, but I …
– The year? 1812. I had just defeated the Emperor Napoleon and rescued Empress Marie-Louise from his clammy, froggy clutches, winning her fair heart in the process. It was dawn, the sun had barely risen over the …
– But, but, Commaaaander …
– Yes! French cavalry all around me! I, all alone with naught but my bare knuckles! Man-to-man, hand-to-hand I fought off the Emperor!
– Yes, Commander. How riveting, Commander. Do continue. ~sigh~
Cheers, kittens! It’s me, Hannah Hart! Now, I imagine there’s a whole bushel of you numnuts whom have no clue who Commander McBragg is. (Note: “I wasn’t born then.” is not, I repeat, not an appropriate response. Where you born when Mozart wrote Die Zauberflöte? Were you born when Thomas Jefferson wrote Notes on Virginia? Were you born when Wilbur and Orville Wright lifted off the Outer Banks? No. Now stop using that sad excuse. It makes you sound obtuse, oblivious and uneducated. This goes out especially to the bank teller in San Clemente whom declared proudly, with the look of a dumb turtle, “I Love Lucy? I don’t think I’ve heard of it. I wasn’t born then.” Idiot.)
Anyhoo, I digress, kids. Our own, kippy San Diego Symphony put on a doozy of a show last week and Yours Truly was there to soak in all the melodic goodness. Like getting Harvey Weinstein stuffed into a wetsuit, the concise one-hour and forty-five minute performance (incl. intermission and its $11 cocktails) was seeping and hissing at the seams with variety. Whilst shorter than Yours Truly anticipated, it was most likely the perfect duration for a contemporary attention span: longer than a Disney animation, shorter than a Ken Burns documentary. Within these parameters, musical director Jahja Ling prepared for us a healthy feast of the classical.
- Amuse-bouche of Haydn, Symphony No. 1 in D Major: light and refreshing like a crisp bit of apple, a little baroque violin and flute is the perfect bite-sized smackerel to whet the appetite.
- First Course of Mozart, Oboe Concerto in C Major: always pleasing, never a bad one in the bunch, Mozart perfectly pairs with the incessant chatter of a know-it-all in the row behind you, schooling his friend on all things Mozart. Despite Mr. This was originally written for piccolo., Miss Sarah Skuster trilled her way into my brain with her lilting oboe solo, her elegant, nude silk-crepe and pewter sequined gown glittering and sparkling under the house lights as her form moved melodiously to Mozart.
- Intermission: overpriced martinis and a de rigueur, long line for the ladies’ room. For once, the line was not an annoyance but a nice indication that live performance and The Arts might not yet be dead. Considering a notable attendance of the college-aged, to boot, perchance the symphony is not merely the realm of the dottering and the wealthy.
- Second Course of Martucci, Notturno, Opus 70, No.1: just as one would expect of a late-19thC. Italian, Giuseppe served up a hearty, family-style serving of boisterous joy. The serving was small, the smallest of the night, but like any good ravioli, all you need is a few bites, and a bit of Prosecco.
- Dessert by Zoltán Kodály, Suite from “Háry János”: if Gammy Lippenstift -my paternal, Hungarian grandmama- was correct about anything, it was, Nem túl sok vacsoráznak. Helymegtakarítás a desszert! “Don’t fill up on dinner. Save room for dessert!” That we did. This was the longest piece of the night and, this is difficult for a Mozartphile to admit, the grandest piece of the night. (Entschuldigung, Wolfy!) Like Gammy Lippenstift’s rum-soaked Palacsinta (Hungarian crepes), Kodály and his own Cmdr. McBragg treated us to a rich and heavy, satisfying finale.
Before dessert was served, Navroj “Nuvi” Mehta, San Diego Symphony’s pre-concert lecturer and affable M.C., regaled the audience with the plot points, ingredients as it were, of our coming selection. He tells us of the old, Hungarian legend which says a story must be true if preceded by a sneeze. If one pays close attention, one will note the suite begins with one grand, “orchestral sneeze”: a great, instant crescendo which then swan dives six octaves throughout the entire orchestra.
Happily, too, for this old dame, he ever so politely offered a suggestion to the wet-smack, half-portions of the audience, likely the same ones whom never heard of I Love Lucy. As Kodály knows how to string together a tune and segue intriguingly from satire to drama and back again, Nuvi urged patrons to “please hold your applause between movements” and save it for the end. Thank you, Nuvi! What is this? Al fresco, Italian opera?! Hold your applause, jelly beans!
With libretto based on János Garay’s 1843 epic poem The Old Veteran and Napoleon, Háry János is an Hungarian singspiel -a folk opera, more a country musical than traditional opera- first performed in 1926 at The Royal Hungarian Opera House in Budapest. The S.D. Symphony’s offering was a suite of music from this singspiel: a purely instrumental performance of six movements, telling the same tale.
Háry János is an aging veteran of the Austrian Army, a cavalry hussar of the Napoleonic Wars. With little to do in his old age but drink and tell tall tales, he indulges locals with intricately-woven histories of his glory days: foreign foes, Herculean combat and lovelorn ladies left strewn across the land. This night at the smoky bar-tabac, he tells of the time he defeated Napoleon and his entire army, slashing and chopping his way through a thick Frog soup en seul and rescuing the Empress Marie-Louise, whisking her away to glitzy, waltzy Vienna for a life of Austro-Hungarian riches and coffeehouses.
Soon though, the country lad tires of her needy and high-maintenance, City Girl ways, longing for the simple life back in his wee Hungarian village with his childhood sweetheart, Örsze, presumably buxom and beauteous with hay in her blonde braids, an apron filthy with blueberry stains and a devoted herd of goats following her lovingly across the farm.
The saga and its music float seamlessly between the foolish ways of the French and the flighty nature of coquetry, using brass and piccolos to signify silliness and satire and the deep, dark, dramatic patriotism of our Hungarian hero, employing strings, oboes and a cimbalom to elicit feelings of human heartache, true love and national duty. The story ending with what Kodály himself described as “an ironical march of triumph” as the Emperor of Vienna returns to his sycophantic court; Háry János returns to Örsze and the farm.
Now, back to the Cmdr. McBragg discussion. (See, the topic came full-circle.) If you are not aware of Commander McBragg, as chided previously, I can only assume you are equally unaware of Hungarian director Zoltán Korda and his 1939 film The Four Feathers. If you want to watch it, watch it. Suffice it to say here, it seems pretty clear that C. Aubrey Smith’s portrayal of Gen. Burroughs in the film had to be an inspiration for The World of Commander McBragg. Was Gen. Burroughs inspired by Háry János? Maybe, baby. The timing is certainly correct. Think on that over lunch.
With the current release of DreamWorks’ Mr. Peabody & Sherman, you might be aware of Rocky & Bullwinkle. (Please tell me at least you jelly beans know who Rocky & Bullwinkle are. Moose and squirrel?) Along with Underdog, (the canine adventures of Shoeshine Boy and Polly Purebred) Rocky & Bullwinkle aired cartoon shorts within their show, like Fractured Fairy Tales. The World of Commander McBragg was one of these shorts and today, the name McBragg is still synonymous with braggadocio blowhards. Like him or not, he does spin a ripping good yarn! If you see him at a steampunk party, stick close by … but leave yourself an easy egress.
Interesting story, both Zoltáns, director Korda and composer Kodály, served as Hungarian cavalrymen in their youth … just like Háry János says he did.
Now, many of you know my pally, authoress Jennifer Susannah Devore. Turns out she’s quite the Austro-Hungarian fiddler herself. (Not to mention a bit of a Commandess McBragg. Zip it, once in a while, Betty!) With a few, albeit unsuccessful, symphony auditions under her belt, she can still play a mean Irish jig, a mournful Mother Machree and a very pretty rendition of Little House on the Prairie‘s theme song. She is also currently teaching herself The Blaggards‘ Drunken Sailor.
Nevertheless, her German-crafted, Pfretzchner violin awaits patiently in its leather case for her to pick it up seriously, daily, once again. Terrifying memories of stuffed-shirt auditions and creepy college tutors urging her to “run away with me to Paris where we”ll drink champagne and play violin!” still haunt her. (True story. Ick.) Come on, JennyPop! You owe your parents! How many years of expensive lessons? How many custom-made violins? Maybe a few more nights at the symphony will churn you into gear, you orch dork!
Beaded gowns, pricey cocktails, muted smartphones and the questionable tales of a mustachioed braggart? Sounds like many an evening I spent with Clark Gable. (Did you know that man had a 44″ chest with a 32″ waist? He was so uniquely proportioned only bespoke Brooks Brothers suits could fit that Heavenly physique. Zowie!) An evening of sophisticated, analog entertainment that doesn’t take itself too seriously oft makes for an excellent date.
The moral of this story? If you used to play an instrument, pick it up again. Don’t throw away that hard-earned talent, it’s still in there; muscle memory is wild thing. If you have tales to tell, tell them and do it with pizazz! Hold court and gather a crowd! Wear more silk and sequins; at least pretend you care about your appearance. (Good Heavens, you’re a schlubby generation!) Get over expensive drinks during a night out; it’s still just a ten-spot. Eat more of your grammy’s baked goods and always heed Grammy Rosalyn’s advice: “A story must be true if preceded by a sneeze.” Háry János never started a story without a good one.
“Yeah. Milhouse played the violin for years, until it turned out the vibrations were screwing up his bones.”
-Kirk VanHouten, The Simpsons
Ah, yes. Quite.
*Une mille mercis to SD Symphony’s concertmaster Jeff Thayer, for spurring me on to play my violin again! Mesmerizing bow-hand, Sir!
Hannah’s other fave places to haunt online?