‘Such Sweet Thunder’: Duke Ellington does Shakespeare
03:14 pm


Duke Ellington

The great Duke Ellington, a giant even among the most gigantic giants of 20th century music—I mean seriously, who deserves to be included in his rarified company? Lennon and McCartney? Stravinsky? Miles? Louis Armstrong?—was born on this day in 1899. The man was a force of nature, gaining recognition for jazz as an important American art form, financially keeping an orchestra together for decades (that wasn’t easy!) and composing, playing and conducting some of the greatest music ever made.

Every few years I go on a Duke Ellington kick. I tend to like the recordings from the mid-fifties onward mostly because they sound better. One absolute gem in Ellington’s later years catalog is Such Sweet Thunder, a longform twelve part suite that he and Billy Strayhorn wrote in 1957 based on the work of William Shakespeare. The name comes from a line of Puck’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder.” Ellington said of the work, that it was his “attempt to parallel the vignettes of some of the Shakespearean characters in miniature—sometimes to the point of caricature.” Such Sweet Thunder premiered at the “Music for Moderns” concert at New York’s Town Hall in April of 1957, but without the suite’s final number, which had not even been written yet.

Such Sweet Thunder was an early stereo recording, but due to problems with the production, was only issued in mono when it came out in 1957. It wasn’t until Sony started to look into their vaults during the 1999 Ellington Centennial that a stereo Such Sweet Thunder was issued.

Below, the CBS radio premiere of Such Sweet Thunder with introductions from Ellington, at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois, July 1, 1957:

“Such Sweet Thunder” and “Sonnet to Hank Cinq,” live in Switzerland, 1959:

A wild avant garde ballet choreographed by Maurice Béjart to Ellington and Strayhorn’s score, directed in 1960 by Joachim-Ernst Berendt for Belgian and German TV:

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Ian McKellen gives a Master Class on acting Shakespeare, 1982
09:00 am


Ian McKellen

These days, Sir Ian McKellen is best known for playing characters in big-budget CGI films such as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, or Magneto in The X-Men, but once, not so long ago, when he was just a plain “Mister,” McKellen was to be found giving incredible performances on TV in the likes of Tom Stoppard’s play Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, where he played an imprisoned dissident; or, his unforgettable, ambitious and murderous Thane of Glamis in Trevor Nunn’s adaptation of Macbeth; or, an increasingly paranoid commuter in Armchair Thriller; or, just as himself reading children’s stories on Jackanory.

All of the above was my introduction to the talented Mr. McKellen, and these productions have remained lodged in my memory long after some of the things he has done with CGI, no matter how compelling and brilliant his performances. (This has little to do with the quality of his acting, rather my own aversion to the bloody awful world of CGI movies.)

One of my favorite McKellen productions from way back then was his “entertainment” Acting Shakespeare, in 1982.

You don’t have to be a fan of Shakespeare to enjoy this brilliant one-man show, in which McKellen interweaves key moments of his life—from childhood productions of Hamlet, to his beginnings as an actor at school, university and beyond—with stunning performances of the Bard’s best known works. McKellen performs on stage without props or costume in front of an audience, and his talent to almost shape-shift from one character-to-another is something to behold.

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Shakespeare & Russell Brand: Guantánamo Bay’s banned books are pretty random…

“Alas, poor Yorick!”

While right-wingers clamor on about the insidiousness of Sharia Law and the threat of imminent Islamofascism, our own government is pretty set on keeping certain books away from certain people. Last week, The Guardian published a seemingly random list of books that have been banned from Guantánamo Bay. The incomplete list was supplied by Clive Stafford Smith, who directs Reprieve, a legal charity the provides free legal support to particularly disenfranchised prisoners.

Now actual journalists have done an amazing job exposing Guantánamo, so I won’t go into the multitude of illegal procedures they regularly execute, much less point out the countless absurd incarcerations (okay, maybe that 15 year old Canadian kid). I would, however, like to go over this list and attempt to divine exactly what is so objectionable about each book, leaving out the explicitly anti-Guantánamo non-fiction.

Let’s take a crack at it, shall we?

Martin Amis, Money: Actually, the complete title of this 1984 novel, with the post-script, is Money: A Suicide Note. The protagonist is a vulgar British hedonist who comes to America and embraces it fully. He eventually has a psychotic break and loses everything, and thought the “suicide” in the book is metaphorical, the book pretty clearly condemns Western decadence and warns of its pitfalls. Not too much of a a stretch to imagine why they’d ban this one.

R. Beckett, The New Dinkum Aussie Dictionary: This is a humor book on Australian colloquialisms. No fuckin’ clue. Anybody know? Does it have a “Death to America” entry? 
Russell Brand, Booky Wook Two: I know Brand’s a leftist, but seriously?

Professor Alan Dershowitz, Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking the Declaration of Independence: A weird choice, since Dershowitz is speaking out against religious extremism, and he’s probably now most famous as an Israeli apologist and Islamophobe. Isn’t that what the US government wants prisoners to internalize? Perhaps it’s the denouncement of Christian extremism they wish to censor?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime & Punishment: On the surface, it’s about a man who kills people, but it’s not really a pro-murder book. My only guess is that they read the title and panicked. 

Frederick Douglass, The African American Slave: Books about liberation probably raise a red flag. But seriously, if anti-slavery politics are too potentially subversive, you might not be running a wholesome operation.

Frederick Forsyth, The Kill List : This is a shitty suspense novel about top secret agents killing Muslim terrorists. It’s by a guy whose books are advertised on the subway. Again, don’t see why they don’ want to give them right-wing, Islamophobic propaganda.

John Grisham,The Innocent Man:Grisham’s first non-fiction book, about a man on death row for rape and murder, who was exonerated by DNA evidence after 11 years in prison. Grisham actually wrote an article in the New York Times and got this unbanned. I rarely have a chance to say this, but… hey, good job, John Grisham.

EM Naguib, Puss in Boots,  Cinderella, Jack & the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast: Can’t even find this, but Naguid is an Arabic name. Maybe they’re Arab interpretations of fairy tales?

Wilfred Owen, Futility: This is a 1918 poem about the death of a British soldier, and his fellow soldiers’ futile attempts to revive him. No idea on this one. If anything, this is a very “don’t get yourself killed for war” kind of poem. Is “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” banned on Guantánamo Bay’s in-house AM radio station?

Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice: Maybe because of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender? Not sure exactly where they’re going with this one.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago : A book about a Soviet forced labor camp, by a guy who was interned in a forced labor camp. Decidedly anti-forced labor camp. Maybe that’s it.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Again, the abolition of slavery was apparently too risky a political concept for the prisoners.

Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent: A novel about a man accused of killing his lover. It’s a crime thriller/courtroom drama. It was made into a movie with Harrison Ford. I have no damned idea why it would be banned.

So there you have it. What counts as potentially incendiary literature in Guantánamo Bay? Apparently absolutely fucking anything.

Posted by Amber Frost | Leave a comment
David Tennant As Hamlet, Tomorrow Night On PBS

As a fan of Shakespeare, David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, I’ll definitely be recording this one.  And while I doubt this RSC production will end on a note as unconventional as the actual shooting of Horatio, I don’t think a TARDIS is gonna come along to soften it much, either.

Shakespeare’s immortal “To be, or not to be” takes on a whole new meaning (and medium) as classical stage and screen actors David Tennant and (recently-knighted) Sir Patrick Stewart reprise their roles for a modern-dress, film-for-television adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) 2008 stage production of Hamlet. 

The production will be presented on PBS by the Great Performances series on Wednesday, April 28, 2010, at 8 p.m. EST (check local listings).  Immediately following the broadcast, the film will be available online in its entirety here on the Great Performances Web site.

Best known for his performance in the title role of the popular British TV series Doctor Who since 2005, Tennant made his debut in October as the host of MASTERPIECE CONTEMPORARY on PBS.  His many other credits include his recent portrayal of Barty Crouch Junior in the big-screen blockbuster Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

KCET Los Angeles


Posted by Bradley Novicoff | Leave a comment