Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hogshead Brewing: The Joy of Discovery

Last night's family activities included a brief trek into St. Albert to register Glory for this year's Irish dance lessons. Her instructor Lori just opened up her own studio (St. Albert Irish Dance Studio) just down the street in the Riel Industrial Park from where she was previously.


The Rayborn Crescent address twigged my memory, so I checked the internet to be sure; a-ha! Hogshead Brewing has their brewery and growler bar on the very same street, right next door as it turned out.


I took the opportunity to ride in, and while Audrey and Glory got situated in Scoil Rince Mahony's new digs, I took my growler (a refillable 64 oz. brown glass jug) to the unassuming garage-looking bunker with the boar's-head logo on the awning and stepped inside.


They've made the most of a cozy space, with couches, tall tables and a bar. Some friends from church were there having dinner with some flights of beers and informed me the food was excellent, and the menu certainly looked appetizing.


The server was only too happy to let me sample 3-4 beers from their lineup, which includes not only Hogshead's IPA centric line, but also Roughneck Beers (which I am not too familiar with) and Amber's Brewing, formerly of Edmonton, and crafters of my beloved Sap Vampire Maple Lager, as well as the Australian Mountain Pepper Berry.


I've tried Hogshead's Baby Back Hops and quite liked it, and will eventually get a growler of their far sharper HopSlayer IPA, but I wasn't in the mood for that much bitterness, so I ended up getting their Lemonhead, a reddish beer with fairly intense lemon and tea flavours. Not as smooth as Mill Street's Lemon Tea Beer, with the lemon adding an almost acrid bitterness, but if you like citrus, it is a good find. Next time I may try the HopSlayer, or perhaps their Oatmeal IPA.


Best of all though, a growler refill is only $10, giving you 4 x 16 oz. servings for $2.50 apiece!


The last couple of times I had tried Sap Vampire, I was a little disappointed; the first time the beer was fairly flat, with barely any carbonation, and the second time the sour overpowered the sweet of the maple to such a degree I couldn't even finish it (shocking, yes?). With some trepidation, I bought a sample size of perhaps 2-3 oz. for $1, and was delighted to find something much closer to the smooth lager with the maple finish I fell in love with originally.


If you should find yourself in St. Albert and needing a bite or a brew, I suggest heading into the industrial park and seeking out Hogshead Brewing; I'll certainly be heading back!


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Marvel-ous Cosmic Laughs - Rocket Raccoon & Groot Steal the Galaxy, Reviewed

In a an unprecedented but hardly surprising move, Marvel has timed the release of their first in-house prose novel to their immensely successful cinematic space opera, Guardians of the Galaxy. When you consider that they could have featured Captain America, Iron Man or even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., It's funny to think that when the book was announced back in February, much of the public had not yet heard of either Rocket Raccoon or Groot.

Obviously this is no longer the case.

With a stable of both established and up and coming writers to draw upon for the task, it was gratifying to me that Marvel chose to tap Dan Abnett for this inaugural novel. Abnett, along with co-writer Andy Lanning, coordinated almost all the Marvel Comics space based properties from 2008-2010, and is as responsible as anyone for both the character line-up and tone used in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie.

I've been a big fan of Abnett's since the the mid-nineties, when he began writing a series of short stories and then novels for Games Workshop featuring an Imperial Guard regiment called Gaunt's Ghosts. He is an incredibly prolific writer who has written for everything from the children's Mr. Men books to the Legion of Superheroes comics. Abnett's knack for military science-fiction extends into a lot of his comics work, especially in books like Nova or GotG, but his fantastic visual sense and appreciation for the scope and scale of space based drama make him an excellent candidate for Rocket Raccon & Groot Steal the Galaxy.

The book is set at some point in the comics continuity rather than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, although there are a couple of nods to the latter, such as the keen, star-shaped spacecraft the Nova Corps fly in, as opposed to their being largely self-propelled in the comics. Also, [COMICS SPOILER ca. 2008], the Xandarian homeworld of the Corps still exists, like in the movie, but the Worldmind of Xandar has a role as well, so it is difficult (and probably ill-advised) to determine precisely when and where the story takes place.

The narrative refers to the Guardians team being 'on hiatus', which is why Rocket and Groot find themselves with the keys and papers to a sub-compact jump-freighter and frequenting a seedy bar looking for someone on which to unload "between forty-seven and forty-nine tons of fresh zunks".

As is so often the case in such circumstances (and such drinking establishments), Fate intervenes, putting our heroes in the midst of a battle to secure an android; to be specific, a Rigellian Recorder, a not unfamiliar sight in the Marvel Universe. Impartial observers of an advanced it cautious interstellar society, Recorders are excellent conduits for important exposition that also make excellent straight-men, as shown most deftly in Bob Layton's Hercules stories.

This particular Recorder, however, is carrying special knowledge he cannot access, part of a devious plan for galactic domination, which has two effects: the first is that it makes him incredibly valuable to a number of powerful parties, including, but not limited to: the Kree Stellar Empire; a Badoon War Brotherhood; the Alpha Centauri mega-corporation called Timely Inc. and their covert agent, a disenfranchised Galadoran spaceknight (like Rom!); and the lord of the Negative Zone, Annihilus, and his proxy, Gamora (!). Before too long, the recorder will also be pursued by the Nova Corps and elements of the Shi'Ar Imperial Guard, with Rocket and Groot along to see if any financial gain can be had from their association.

(The Imperial Guard are an interesting addition to the tale, since they originated in the pages of the X-Men back in the '70s, and are, for all intents and purposes, a Marvel analogue to DC's Legion of Superheroes. My interest stems from a) Abnett having written quite a few Legion stories back in the grim and gritty '90s, and b) the Marvel Cinematic Universe being unable to use the Shi'Ar since Fox owns all things X-Men,

The second effect is that this knowledge gap has made Recorder 127 behave in a very erratic and eccentric manner, described on the book jacket as 'about as sane as a sandwich with no mustard', and since he also serves as the primary narrator of the tale, this makes for some entertaining insights, such as his initial description of Rocket:

He is very much less than a human meter tall. His coat is glossy and in wonderful condition. His spectacular tail is bouffant. He walks upright in a way that makes the human in you want to exclaim, "Lookit the little man! Lookit! Walking on his back paws! Ooooaww!"
Do not do that. Ever. If you do that, he will shoot you to death as many times as necessary.
And then there's the hands. Look, this is the thing. I can't get past it. Rocket's hands...they're so disconcertingly human. It's uncanny (not in the mutant sense, obviously. Mutants are uncanny in an entirely different way). It's amazing, astonishing, astounding, incredible, adjective-less...okay, it's just distressing. Rocket Raccoon's hands are disconcertingly human in the most distressing way.
Let's think about something else for a moment, because the hands thing is creeping me out a little bit.
Narration duties slide between multiple perspectives and from first to third person, but the humour is never lost. Fans of Weird Al's recent business catchphrase anthem "Mission Statement" will no doubt appreciate some of the dialogue that comes out of the diabolical HQ of Timely Inc.:

"As you know, Timely Inc. leads the way in innovationized development to make all of its products optimized for maximum market-agreementabilization. It's our core philosophy. We want to resolutionate the lives of all our purchase benefactors and redactify the problemistic areas of their day-to-day existence experience with synergistic solutionoids."

(The first 21 pages of the book can be read online at, if you are so inclined.)

Obviously, I was predisposed to enjoy the book as a rollicking space adventure, but I was unprepared for exactly how much humor Abnett was able to bring to the fore in this novel; in fact, it is probably going to draw favourable comparisons to the high water mark of sci-fi comedy, Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Sure, there is an overwrought description of Rocket's favourite cocktail (the Timothy) somewhat reminiscent of the pan-galactic gargle blaster, but consider this description of the device Timely Inc. gives the former spaceknight Roamer to find Recorder 127:

"It's essentially a teleport device," replied Gruntgrill, "but it operates off tachyon-state temporal energies. It contains a multi-phase destiny generator, totally experimental, that, once triggered, calibrates the causal nature of reality, recognizes the pathways of the Universe in terms of satisfying dramatic progressions, and deposits the user at..."
"At what?" Asked Hanxchamp.
"Well, sir," said Gruntgrill, "in theory, exactly the right place in time and space to effect the greatest dramatic consequence. It assesses universal life as a story, and places the user in precisely the right moment to influence that story."
As if the concept of machine-driven intentional coincidence is insufficient, Abnett not only uses the Interpolation Inserter to keep the story at a satisfactorily farce-like pace, but also to make incisive insights about its user and his motivations in a surprisingly sensible manner. Certainly a worthy successor to Hitchhiker's Infinite Improbability Drive!

I'll level with you, I've actually fallen out of book reading for a while now, having read only one dead-tree novel in the past year or so. I've done plenty of reading, but it's been largely online articles, short stories, magazines, and scads of comic books on the iPad rather than the backlog of actual factual books accumulating on my nightstand. Picking up Rocket Raccoon & Groot Steal the Galaxy was a means of getting me back in the habit of proper page turning, and I couldn't have made a better choice.

Abnett's tremendous descriptive ability, his innate familiarity with the Cosmic side of the Marvel Universe, his quirky and playful sense of humour, and his enviable command and use of language made this book a real treat to read, and I often found myself reading the more amusing portions aloud to my family (who, of course, now know and love the main characters thanks to the movie). Abnett's knack for crackling dialogue makes it continually surprising to me that he hasn't transitioned to screenwriting, but who knows, maybe they will adapt this novel as an animated feature.

Complications get resolved in often violent but occasionally creative ways, such as when Recorder 127 uses his knowledge of legal process to circumvent an arrest by Nova Corps Centurions, lamenting afterwards that he has no briefcase to close when departing. Or that he doesn't look more like Matthew McConaughey. The large and species-diverse cast of characters behave in a manner consistent with their goals and allegiances, except when they don't, with the exceptions being entertaining and insightful. Most of all, the entire novel positively revels in the insanity of its circumstances, and delights the reader as it does so.

It's a light read, to be sure, but I can give Rocket Raccoon and Groot Steal the Galaxy my unequivocal (but disconcertingly human) thumbs up.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Spirit v. Letter: The Eternal Struggle

Of all the ways in which people show flaws in their character, one of the most telling is the way in which they interpret rules and standards, both on the tabletop and in the wider world.


This is most obvious in gaming, of course. I still remember playing Battletech with a couple of friends in university and someone I hadn't met before. We introduced ourselves, decided on tonnages and set about choosing our 'mechs.


Battletech was a game we played a lot in the late 80s and early 90s, not just because it had a great science-fiction setting that made giant robots fighting each other seem entirely sensible, but because it was tremendously well balanced; the weight or tonnage of the 'mechs worked like currency, so as long as each side weighed the same, the forces could be considered even.


The four of us picked our vehicles, set up on the edges of the map board, rolled dice for initiative and got into it straight away. I can't recall what I was driving, something in the 50-60 ton range I think (perhaps a Griffon, as I had a decently painted miniature for that one), so I strode after the new guy's mech, a 30 ton Panther. It was more nimble than I, and packed a 2-shot short range missile launcher in addition to an arm-mounted particle cannon, but was very lightly armoured. It was worth over-extending myself in order to draw first blood, and if I didn't incapacitate him, I could probably survive long enough to disengage.

A turn later, I used my Griffon's jump jets to get the drop on him and unloaded my auto cannon and long range missiles. My accuracy was typically average, and although I damaged the Panther, it was all superficial, and after I was done rolling my dice, he returned fire.


I was prepared for the PPC, which stripped ten points of armor off my mech's torso, but as my new opponent prepared to roll the dice for his SRM-2, he casually announced that he was launching inferno missiles instead of regular munitions.


"Wait, inferno missiles?" I asked, confused.


"Yeah, they're like napalm and increase your heat-"


"I know what they are," I interrupted, "but they are an infantry weapon. There are no rules for using them in a 'mech."


"Sure," he rebutted, "but the infantry SRM-2 has the exact same stats."


My head spun. "Okay, but in the text where they introduced the infernos, they specifically mention how they are too dangerous and unstable to be packed around in a battlemech, and how it would almost never happen."


"Almost never..." he replied.


Clearly, this application of logic and sportsmanship was futile in the eyes of someone who would play for any advantage not explicitly prohibited in the rules. Rather than delay the game any further, we conceded the point, and the combination of my weapons fire, jump jets, and incendiary missiles pushed my Griffon's heat to a point where it impeded both my movement and aim. I don't actually recall which side actually won the game, but I do know it was the last time I ever played that particular individual.


Working for Games Workshop and adjudicating games of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 at tournaments and game nights exposed me to still more people like this, immediately recognizable by their rallying cry of, "Well, the rules don't say I can't do it!"


In the long term though, at least in gaming, the problem tends to sort itself out, as the win-at-all-costs crew unerringly gravitate towards each other and commence alpha-nerding the living hell out of each other's armies while those of us who Iike to win but don't need to win have substantially more fun.


It's disappointing to see similar themes play out in arenas like politics, whether you are talking about attack ads running well before an election has even been called, or the recent issue with an Alberta PC leadership candidate buying party memberships on behalf of those who intend to vote for him.


Jim Prentice's campaign initially denied that this was happening, and then he himself later clarified that, yes, his campaign was in fact paying the $5 fee for party memberships for his supporters, and furthermore, there was nothing wrong with this.


Both of his opponents, Thomas Lukaszuk and Ric McIver took exception to this and got a couple of good sound bites out of it:

"If the price is simply incidental, and you can give them out for free, I might as well have a sale next week — Tuesday madness, PC memberships two for one. But that’s not the intention, that’s not what is supposed to be going on," he said.

"Let him do what he believes he can get away with. I will continue to do it the way I believe it was intended to be." - MLA and PC Leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk


In the end though, party officials shrugged their shoulders and admitted that there was nothing in the rules prohibiting such actions, although they are frowned upon, and historically have not been pursued because of this. It is likely that the next convention will introduce some new rule or bylaw to prohibit this in the future, but since it is not currently against the rules, Mr. Prentice will continue to extend his lead by purchasing his leadership votes for $5 a pop. It's a pretty good deal, when you stop to think about it, especIally when the winner of this particular game will be the next Premier of Alberta, even if he doesn't have a seat in the legislature to start out with!


Now, I should say here that I do not have a dog in this fight; I am not a member of any political party and don't have any particularly feelings, fair or foul, towards any of the three candidates. After all, it's not like there has been a televised debate, or public comparison of their various platforms and policies or anything like that to help me form an opinion.


I will say, though, that it makes a very poor impression on me to have the leading candidate's first real opportunity to display his character be the unfurling of a familiar banner that reads, "THE RULES DON'T SAY I CAN'T".


Could such a brazen assertion impede Mr. Prentice's slide into home plate and his anticipated coronation? Tough to say, but a bunch of political pundits and bloggers are speculating that way, and The Globe & Mail seems to think so too.


We will know in three weeks when the votes, free-range and paid for alike, get counted up. In the meantime, be choosy about who you play with, and you will be happier in the long run, I promise.



Sunday, August 10, 2014

Korustura - Cantilon Chamber Choir Tour 2014

There are a lot of ways to measure the success of a youth choir's international tour:

  • Did all the choristers make it back?
  • Were they largely intact?
  • Did all the chaperones survive?
  • Are there any outstanding warrants we need to be aware of?
  • Did anyone get any new tattoos this time?
  • Is everyone still talking to one another?
  • How did they do in competition?


When we met Fenya at the airport last Wednesday, we expected some tears and red eyes from her and the other members of the Cantilon Chamber Choir, but we didn't realize that almost everyone on tour had gotten sick with a cold or similar illness at one point. Fenya herself was suffering from a nasty sinus cold that 4 days later is only now beginning to slacken its grip. Other singers suffered various afflictions ranging from 'tour tummy' to at least one case of conjunctivitis, but nothing so serious it couldn't be dealt with by the nurse and pharmacist among the chaperones,


Despite the number of historic learning opportunities and chances to perform in amazing venues, the tour was largely focused on the contest at the end: The Bela Bartok International Choir Competition in Debrecen, Hungary. Over a dozen highly talented young choirs from all over the world went head to head with their best material, hoping to impress the judges with their tone, inflection and mastery of choral music from a variety of cultures and periods.


Reading the tour blog entries posted by the choir director and her tour director husband, I knew the competition would be impressive, but I had no idea just how much:

Two of the choirs in our class are from Hungarian music schools. These are specialized schools whose students are generally selected as young as 5 or 6 for exceptional musical ability. They are taught one or two instruments, they sing every day, they are instructed in music theory and history and ear training with a curriculum unlike anything North America knows. And our little group of amazing young singers went toe-to-toe with them. I feel so very proud of each and every one of them! - Heather Johnson, Cantilon's Artistic Director


But it was good to see that our young people could keep their spirits up under trying conditions and hold their own against such august contenders:

Now please allow me a to sidetrack a little here. Something that perhaps not many of you know about me is that it takes a lot to impress me. And I mean a lot. Part of this is simply in my nature, and I attribute some of this to growing up in a perfectly normal family, complete with playing sports, tons of activities and traveling (hence my fondness of adventure). And both my parents just happen to be blind. But most everything in my life is perfectly normal otherwise, but I have to admit, my parents have set a VERY high bar for feats that I find impressive. The way these choristers behave on tour, some tired more than they have ever experienced, or arriving at an almost empty venue and STILL putting on their "game faces" and performing admirably, impresses me. You have heard it before from Heather I’m sure, but this is one remarkable group of teens and young adults. From the way they behave, to their interactions and care for one another is, simply put, impressive. I’ve mentioned a few times to Heather that her choristers are not typical teens, but rather great human beings (I can say this as I have taught and interacted with my fair share of young adults in various settings). - Steven Turgeon, Tour Director (and Heather's husband)


In the end, though, there can only be one winner, and this was not Cantilon's year; despite their illnesses (one lad actually had to be told to sit onstage during a performance, and still managed to stand and join in the final number) and other challenges, they ended up earning second place to a Hungarian choir.

(FYI, a first place finish requires a minimum of 85 points, which you can see they missed my only 0.3!)


An impressive result, but even more impressive was the fact that they immediately came to their feet in a standing ovation for the victorious choir when they were announced; I would like to believe I had that sort of composure and sportsmanship at that age, but I sincerely doubt it.


In the end, I am just as proud (albeit a little sad!) at this group's ability to contend with courage and accept second place with dignity and grace as I would have been with a gold medal finish. Fenya returned safe and sound, disappointed with the results but pleased with their efforts, and enriched by the experience; a tremendous success by any reasonable measure.

Cantilon has their own YouTube channel, but I am including two selections here: their Musical Sacra component and their performance from the finals. Between the two, I think they showcase not only the determination of these talented and dedicated young people, but also the tremendous quality of singing that results from it, duly amplified by the acoustics of an ancient European church.




Monday, August 4, 2014

Faithful Irreverence - Guardians of the Galaxy Reviewed

Many people were incredulous when Marvel Studios announced their tenth comic book adaptation. Titles like Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Black Panther and Captain Marvel had been bandied about, Kevin Feige and company opted for a far more unconventional choice: a 'cosmic' (i.e. space-based) third-tier team book rebooted in 2008 called Guardians of the Galaxy. Led by Peter 'Star Lord' Quill, a character who has himself been rebooted on two separate occasions, the team featured a number of lesser known creations, including Drax The Destroyer (also rebooted), Gamora, the daughter of Thanos, Rocket Raccoon (who actually had his own mini-series back in the 80s), and Groot, a sentient, mobile tree-being with an extremely limited vocabulary.

Many thought Marvel had lost the plot with this choice, especially with so many conventional superheroes yet to be brought to the silver screen. Myself, having read and greatly enjoyed the entirety of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning's Cosmic run from about 2008-2011,which includes 24 issues of Guardians of the Galaxy, thought I saw what the studio was shooting for: shatter everyone's expectations by moving away from terrestrial 'tights and fights' to the limitless canvas of the stars, and in so doing, prove that Marvel Studios is capable of making whatever film they want. With a new Star Wars film still a couple of years away, the movie-going public could respond very favourably to a fun, colourful space adventure, if it was done properly.

Which, for my money, it most certainly does; Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the most fun I have had at a space opera since I was nine years old and saw Star Wars for the first time.

The story is remarkably straightforward, centering around a looted Macguffin found by Earth-born but space-raised Quill at the start of the movie, and after having to defend himself against an assassin trying to recover it, two bounty hunters and the Xandarian Nova Corps (sadly, just space cops in this film, none of the gravimetric super powers from the comics!), even he admits this Orb has a 'Maltese Falcon/Ark of the Covenant sort of vibe about it.'

The Orb is coveted by Marvel uber-villain Thanos, and ends up tying itself fairly neatly into the storyline from the preceding Marvel movies, and leaving a loose thread that could potentially run through most of the Marvel 'Phase 2' movies and be woven into the third Avengers movie. Despite this though, the story still has more than enough internal consistency even if you don't give a hang about any of the larger continuity.

Meanwhile, Quill's estranged adoptive alien dad Yondu and his gang of Ravagers also wants the Orb. Played with casual, humorous and red-neck tinged menace by the ever-reliable Michael Rooker, he also brings an amoral, piratical charm to the proceedings as a colourful wild card.

Having a decent plot to hang the movie on is good, but great characters are even better. As a gorgeous, lethal assassin, Zoe Saldana has the hardest time differentiating Gamora from the femmes fatale that have preceded her, but does so in some of the quieter moments with Chris Pratt's Star Lord. Pratt himself has a reputation for great comedic chops and fantastic timing, but wears the role of roguish hero with a tragic past surprisingly well. The biggest surprise for me was how much I enjoyed the performance of former cage fighter Dave Bautista as Drax, an extra-strong, super tough creature bent solely on revenge. Big, green, muscular and enraged, it would have been all too easy to set him up as a compact Hulk, but giving him some wonderful straight lines as an alien literalist makes for some amusing exchanges:
Rocket: Metaphors go right over his head.
Drax: NOTHING goes over my head! My reflexes are much too fast. I would catch it.

Let's be clear, here: Bautista is no Olivier, but he does extremely well with what he is given to work with.

Meanwhile, two of my favourite characters from the ensemble are actually computer generated (ah, how far we've come from Jar-Jar!), but backed up by very capable voice acting. Vin Diesel essentially reprises his voice as The Iron Giant as tree-man Groot, but has to work almost exclusively within the constraints of a single line: "I am Groot." Bradley Cooper (recently seen earning an Oscar nomination in American Hustle) plays Rocket Raccoon with a quite a bit bigger chip on his shoulder than you see in the comics, but suits the overall theme of damaged people (er, and animals and plants) slowly coming together to help one another. The CGI is of phenomenal quality, with an extreme close up of Rocket not only showing his individual hairs and whiskers, but also tears welling up in his eyes.

Yes, you read that correctly; this $170M, special effects laden, virtually unknown comic book flick has a tremendous amount of heart, and handles emotional themes like Drax's single-mindedness, and Quill's parental issues, and Rocket's feelings of inadequacy with surprising deftness and sincerity. Director James Gunn has fulfilled the Marvel Studios remit that viewers must care about how much their heroes can hurt before seeing how hard they can hit.

Best of all though, Gunn has made space adventure fun again. Sure, there is an evil villain bent on destroying a world of innocents (Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser), and there are some darker elements like the mining colony built in a Celestial's giant head and the dangers of prison life, but there are also nimble spaceships and colourful aliens and the planet Xandar which finally brings a bright, Technicolor palette back to sci-fi pictures. But most importantly, there's a reluctant hero and a gorgeous killer and a maniac with a lesson to learn and a dangerous raccoon and a compassionate tree-man, all showing different kinds of courage and heroism, and making us laugh uproariously a bunch of times while doing it.

The dialogue is crisp, smart and fast-flowing, the visual gags are well done, and the film basks in its inherent silliness, but never resorts to spoofing itself. The action is clearly filmed and imaginative, and like all the Marvel films to date, is tremendously well paced,so there is not a lot of time for a bathroom visit if you drank a large soda while waiting to get in. There is not too much in terms of gore or terribly frightening scenes for younger viewers, but the language is a bit saltier than most of the other Marvel features, although It is fairly mild, extremely funny and I don't think I heard any f-bombs.
Rocket: That's the first thing you've said that isn't batshit crazy!

Viewers of a certain age will also find this film flush with nostalgia, from the 70s tracks on Quill's Sony Walkman, (used to great effect more than once in the movie) to other period references:
Gamora: I'm a warrior, an assassin. I don't dance.
Peter Quill: Really? Well, on my planet, we have a legend about people like you. It's called Footloose. And in it, a great hero, named Kevin Bacon, teaches an entire city full of people with sticks up their butts that, dancing, well, is the greatest thing there is.
With a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a $94 million dollar opening weekend in North America, Guardians of the Galaxy is not only going to be a tremendously successful film for Marvel, but is likely to take a number of unknown and lesser known characters and turn them into cultural touchstones.

That's the Marvel fan (studios and comics) talking. As a movie fan, I encourage everyone looking for an out of this world adventure to go and see something with more heart, more scale and more enjoyment than the last three Star Wars movies combined, and the start of a franchise that may give that other galaxy (i.e. the far, far away one) a real run for its money!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Venues and Veneration

Fenya and the rest of the Cantilon Chamber Choir are currently in Debrecen, Hungary, at the Bela Bartok Choir Competition.  They've been in Europe for over a week now, having arrived in Venice and toured through Krakow and Prague. They've performed at churches, chapels, castles, and other places along the way, including a moving streetcar in Debrecen itself, but the most intriguing venue thus far has probably been The Attic Theater in Terezin, in the Czech Republic. There, they performed a children's opera by Hans Krasa called Brundibar.

The story of Brundibar is a simple one, like most folk tales or fairy stories.  As described by Wikipedia:
Aninka [in English Annette] and Pepíček (Little Joe) are a fatherless sister and brother. Their mother is ill, and the doctor tells them she needs milk to recover. But they have no money. They decide to sing in the marketplace to raise the needed money. But the evil organ grinder Brundibár [who represents Hitler] chases them away. However, with the help of a fearless sparrow, keen cat, and wise dog, and the children of the town, they are able to chase Brundibár away, and sing in the market square.

We got to see the Cantilon performance of Brundibar just prior to their leaving on tour, and it's a lively little piece, even if Fenya feels the English translation leaves quite a bit to be desired.  Knowing ahead of time that there is an allegorical element adds quite a bit of depth to the experience, but not as much as learning about its performance history.

You see, Brundibar was first performed in 1942, at the Jewish Children's Orphanage in Prague, where many children separated from their parents by the tumult of World War II had ended up.   It was not long, however, before most of that city's Jewish inhabitants were transferred to a concentration camp and ghetto.  The opera's composer and set designer were already there when the children arrived, so he recreated the score from memory and adapted it to the few instruments on hand.  In lieu of costumes, a painted backdrop featuring the animal characters had holes cut out through which the performers could stick their heads.

The play was performed in its improvised venue 55 times over 1943 and 1944, including a special performance for an inspection group from the Red Cross.  The Nazis duped them into thinking the ghetto was a livable space because so many inhabitants had been hurriedly shipped off to the extermination camp in Auschwitz just prior to their arrival.

Hitler sent a film crew to film the final performance of Brundibar, so it could be included in the propaganda film 'The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a City'.

As soon as the applause was finished, all the performers, children aged 8-16, were taken directly from The Attic Theater in Theresienstadt (the German name for Terezin) and loaded onto cattle trucks.

They were driven to Auschwitz, and there, most of them were gassed upon arrival, including the composer and all the musicians.

Performing in a space with so much history and emotional resonance would have to be a trying experience for anyone, and yet Fenya and most of the other choristers were grateful for the opportunity.  I can only imagine what a powerful experience it must have been, and what a precious memory it will make.

Cantilon has uploaded a video of their performance of Brundibar at the Attic Theater to their YouTube channel, but I haven't the heart to watch all of it yet.  Seeing children of the same age as the victims of that atrocity, my daughter among them, in the same space, singing the same joyful tunes, is almost too much for me to bear.  Knowing that their tour bus broke down en route and that arranging a replacement cost them their rehearsal time, makes their jet-lagged, European-heat-wave-wilted, but determined performance all the more impressive.

I can see the toll it takes on Fenya from the way she wipes her eyes at the end of their encore piece, but her seeing it through is a victory that, for me at least, will overshadow whatever else happens at the Bartok Competition.