Friday, April 30, 2010

Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals

As I prepared for our Spring Break Adventure, I couldn't help but think of those twenty-some hours in the car that would be perfect listening!  Knowing that my idea might not be received with equal amounts of enthusiasm, I tried to think of something fun - something that would let the kids close their eyes for a moment and use their imagination.  So in between videos of Night at the Museum:  The Smithsonian and High School Musical 3, I slipped in The Carnival of the Animals (Le carnaval des animaux) by the French Romantic composer, Saint-Saens.

Camille Saint-Saens
1835 - 1921

Saint-Saens was a serious French composer.  As I imagined him, I thought of my grandfather who looked old to me for the entire 33 years that I knew him.  As we listened to the piece, and the analysis of it by Leonard Bernstein,  it became clear that, just like my grandfather, the very serious Saint-Saens had an intelligent sense of humor!  

The Carnival of the Animals was composed in February 1886 while Saint-Saens was vacationing in a small Austrian village.  Saint-Saens was apparently concerned that the piece was too frivolous and might harm his reputation as a serious composer.  He suppressed performances of it and only allowed one movement, The Swan, to be published in his lifetime.  Only small, private performances were given for close friends like Franz Liszt.  He did, however, include a provision which allowed the suite to be published after his death and it has since become one of his most popular works.

The Carnival of the Animals is a musical suite with fourteen movements:
  1. Introduction and Royal March of the Lion - a stately March with strings and two pianos.
  2. Hens and Roosters - Strings, two pianos and clarinet.  The movement is centered around a pecking theme reminiscent of chickens pecking at grain.
  3. Wild Asses - Two pianos running feverishly with up and down scales and octaves.
  4. Tortoises - Strings and piano.  A satirical movement in which Saint-Saens slows down Offenbach's fast-paced "Can-Can" to a crawl.
  5. The Elephant - Double-bass and piano:  Another musical joke - The piano plays a waltz-like triplet while the bass trudges through themes taken from Mendelssohn's Incidental Musical to a Midsummer Night's Dream and Berlioz's Dance of the Sylphs.  These themes were originally intended for lighter-toned instruments.  The Joke is that Saint-Saens moves this to the lowest and heaviest-sounding instrument in the orchestra - the double bass.
  6. Kangaroos - Two pianos with plenty of hopping.
  7. Aquarium - Strings, two pianos, flute and glass harmonica (or glockenspiel).  This movement was my personal favorite.  The beautiful glissandos reminded me of the peaceful, mysterious, dimly lit viewing room at the Georgia Aquarium.  Listen closely and you can hear the fish splashing!
  8. Persons with Long Ears - Two violins Hee-Haw.  Was this based on an animal, or some people that he knew? (Some music critics, perhaps?)
  9. The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods - Two pianos and clarinet.  The pianos play large, soft chords while the clarinet "cuckoos" offstage.
  10. Aviary - Strings, piano and flute.  Can you guess which instrument is the bird?  You're right, the flute!
  11. Pianists - Strings and two pianos.  Not really an animal, per se, but sometimes my little pianists practicing their scales can act like animals!
  12. Fossils - Strings, two pianos, clarinet and xylophone.  Saint-Saens plays a double musical joke.  First, he mimics his own composition, the Danse Macabre, and uses the xylophone to sound like old bones.  Next he alludes to old french folk tunes.  The musical pieces themselves are fossils of his time!
  13. The Swan - Two pianos and cello.  By far the most famous music of the suite.  The romantic cello solo, which evokes the swan elegantly gliding over the water, is played over rippling sixteenths in one piano and rolled chords in the other.
  14. Finale - Full Ensemble:  We hear quotes from many of the earlier movement with a strong finale.
Kid Critique:

Samuel:  I liked the Royal March of the Lion best.  It had power.
Anna:  I like The Swan because it sounded graceful.
Arielle:  I liked the Royal March of the Lion because it sounded like the lion was king of the jungle and it really sounded like a lion!
Ella:  I liked the elephant farting sounds! (Influenced by males in the car.)   I also like the Grand Finale - it sounded like all the animals were getting along together.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Welcome Home!

At last our jouney ends.  We say good-bye to our big adventure.

A friendly bellhop hauls five suitcases, two coolers, sleeping bags and blankies to our SUV.

Three grown men decide how to pack it all in!

As vacations go, all good things must come to an end.....

...but laundry never does!!!!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Washington, D.C. - These Keds Were Made For Walking

For our final day in D.C., I suggested to my husband that we take a double decker bus tour of the city. His response?  Why should we pay for a tour when we can go everywhere we want by foot or train!  (Did I mention that it was a record-breaking ninety-some degree day?)

Our first stop by train and by foot was Arlington National Cemetery.

It's a place both somber and breathtaking.,

We paid tribute to the unknown soldier,

and counted the price

of our freedom.

Our next stop on the Metro - 

lunch at Union Station.

An active train depot, Union Station is another example of beautiful architecture.  Filled with shops and restaurants, we recharged for our next stop.

Two train stops and three walking blocks later, we arrived at the Kids' much anticipated attraction, the International Spy museum.

Here, the kids assumed a different identity, crawled through heating vents to spy on us (the parents), learned the tricks to unlocking doors without keys and other such useful information.  I even had a chance to revisit the cooking icon, Julia Child in her pre-french cooking days when she worked for the CIA.

Another ride on the Metro and we are back to Union Square for Dinner.

After dinner, we took the Metro back to the stop closest to our hotel.  We were now only 1/2 mile from our walking night tour of The White House.

Truly an amazing residence, we stopped and prayed for our President and his family.

At 8:30 at night, after having logged twenty-some thousand steps on Samuel's pedometer, my husband finally broke down and found us a cab.  He rode shotgun while the four kids and I crammed into the back seat of a Mercury Marquis.  The back car door only opened from the outside.  The Ethiopian cab driver, however, played some awesome jazz on the radio!  All this trouble, just so I could snap these two pictures of the Lincoln Memorial.

God Bless America!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Washington, D.C. - A-LOT-A History

The Smithsonian Museum of 
Natural History

Our second day touring D.C., we visited The Museum of Natural History and The Museum of American History.  The amazing architecture of the buildings was worth the trip in and of itself!

Our first stop at the Natural History museum was the infamous Hope Diamond.  The Hope Diamond is a large, 45.52 carats deep-blue diamond.  Not only is it famous for being big and beautiful, it is famous for its illustrious and sordid past. According to legends, the original form of the Hope Diamond was stolen from an eye of a sculpted statue of the goddess, Sita, the wife of Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu.  Because it was believed to have been stolen, it was also believed to have been cursed!  While this tale is believed to be the invention of the Victorian era to add mystique to the stone and increase its sales appeal, I could imagine it would make a pretty good statue eye.  The stone actually glows in the dark! After exposure to short-wave ultraviolet light, the diamond produces a brilliant red phospherescence "glow in the dark" effect that persists for some time after the light source has been switched off.  I think it would make a great Indiana Jones movie! 

Here's the diamond's sultry history in a nutshell.  The Hope Diamond is believed to have been cut from the Tavernier Blue diamond which was brought to Europe from India in the mid-1600's.  In 1678, Louis XIV commission the court jeweler to recut the diamond and it was thereafter known as the Blue Diamond of the Crown.  Later historians simply called it the French Blue.

In 1749, King Louis XV had the French Blue set into a more elaborate pendant.  Marie Antoinette is often cited as a victim of the diamond's "curse", but she never wore the pendant, which was reserved for the use of the king.  In 1792, during the reign of Louis XVI, a group of thieves broke into the Royal Storehouse and stole most of the Crown Jewels.  The French Blue was among the missing.  The Hope Diamond was believed to have been cut from the French Blue as  means to disguise it.  A similar diamond was recorded in the possession of the London diamond merchant Daniel Eliason in September 1812, the earliest point in which the history of the Hope Diamond can be definitively fixed.

At some pointe, the Hope Diamond is believed to have been possessed by King George IV of the United Kingdom.  After his death in 1830, it was allegedly stolen by his mistress, Lady Conyngham, and the diamond was no longer retained by the British Royal family.  Serves him right.   In 1839, the Hope Diamond appeared in a published catalog of the gem collection of Henry Philip Hope, a prominent Anglo-Dutch banking family.  After his death, his nephews fought over his inheritance.  Ultimately, the oldest nephew, Henry Thomas Hope won the jackpot.  When Henry Thomas Hope died, it went to his wife, Anne Adele.  When she died, the entire estate went to her grandson who had to change his name to Lord Francis Hope.  He was not allowed to sell the diamond, except by permission of the court.

Lord Francis married his mistress (I'm seeing a trend here), American actress, May Yohe.  She may have been more in love with the diamond that with Lord Francis, because May ran off with Putnam Strong, son of former New York City Mayor, William L. Strong.  Francis dumped her.  Lord Francis finally sold the diamond.  It went to a London Jewel Merchant,  a U.S. diamond dealer, a Sultan from Turkey, to a Parisian jewel merchant and was finally bought, in 1920 by famed jeweler, Peirre Cartier.  He reset the diamond and sold it to socialite, Evalyn McLean.  When she died, the trustees used the diamond to settle her debt.  (Another theme - it's owners living the high life beyond their means!)  In 1949 it was sold to another famous diamond merchant, Harry Winston.  Harry Winston donated it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1958 where it can still be viewed today.

As for the diamond curse?  The only curse at the Smithsonian was having a man design only two teeny tiny remote bathrooms for this entire enormous museum!

Some other interesting finds included the "Jamestown Boy" which the kids remembered from our visit to Jamestown.

A gray whale skeleton,



I'm sorry, but I live a little too far south to get excited about this one.  I have seen a "friendly" cockroach as big as this climbing up my wall!

We found a "fish" mouth skeleton big enough to hold Jonah and his entire family

And, of course, dinosaur bones.  Ella wanted to know why they were not walking around like in the movie, "Night at the Museum!'

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History

We spent most of the day at the Museum of Natural History, but I vowed I would not leave until we had gone to the Museum of American History. 

The girls had to see the First Ladies' Inaugural Gowns!

At this point, my husband feigned exhaustion and he and my son took shelter in a cool movie room with benches.  After the girls and I admired the gowns, we all stood in a 30 minute line to see the famous Ruby Slippers!   

The Ruby Slippers were the shoes worn by Dorothy in the 1939 MGM movie, The Wizard of Oz.  Because of their iconic stature, they are now considered to be among the most valuable items of film memorabilia.

Next to the Ruby Slippers I found Apollo Ohno's speedskates.  (My only reason for watching the Olympics this year!)

We saw Lincoln's silk Top Hat which he wore to Ford's Theatre the night he was assassinated.

At last, in the basement of the Museum of American History, we came every Food Bloggers Mecca:  Julia Child's Kitchen!

Loaded with every conceivable pot, pan and gadget, this kitchen changed America.

Au Revoir and Bon Appetit!

Washington, D.C. - Trains, Planes and No Automobiles

This morning we awoke to our first day as tourists in Washington, D.C..  Since there is virtually no parking in D.C., we decided to leave our car in its $33 per day hotel parking garage and ride the D.C. transortation of choice, The Metro.  Our first destination was, therefore, the Metro ticket machine.  There really should be signs above the ticket machines.  One that reads "Locals", and one that reads "Tourists".  After trying to figure out where we were, where we were going, and how much it would cost to get there, it was obvious that no local wanted to be stuck in line behind us!  Fortunately for us, Subway Mike came to our rescue.  He calculated our train ride, helped us purchase our tickets and pointed us to the right side of he tracks.

He even offered to take a picture of our family in the subway!  I have decided to include the photo in this blog because, being the sole photographer on the trip, it may be one of the only photos that I am actually in!

Our first stop off the Metro was the Smithsonian visitor's center, also called "The Palace" because of its beautiful and unique architecture.  It was here that I managed to lose my entire family when they ducked into "A Night at the Smithsonian" information film while I was held up  at security getting all the bags checked.  Luckily, I had my cell phone.

Here's a trick that I learned from school.  If the kids outnumber you, put them in a uniform!  Not only is it a lot easier to keep track of them, but other people know they are with you as well.  Obviously, I was not wearing my rainbow striped dress, or I wouldn't have gotten lost!

As we exited the visitor's center, we came upon "The Mall."  You know, that large expanse of grass between the Washington Monument and The Capitol, that place where a gazillion people gather in the freezing cold to say that they witnessed the President's inauguration - the famous spot from Forrest Gump?  

Unaware of The Mall's significance, the kids spotted a carousel.  If we had done nothing else that day but ride the carousel, the kids would have been satisfied!

On our way to the Air and Space Museum, we walked through the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden.  Here were a few of my favorites:

At last, we reached our final destination:  The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

Can we just call this place what it really is?  The Man Museum!  (No offense to all you techie girls out there.)  I don't mean to diminish this exceptional display of aeronautics, but as we entered the museum, I felt my eyes glaze over.   It was reminiscent of my trip here twenty-something years ago with my brother and parents.  Even then, my dad (a bio-medical engineer) and my brother (who would later receive an advanced engineering degree from Stanford University), knew my limits.  After a brief roundabout, they let me and my mom walk next door to view the First Ladies' inaugural gowns while they intently studied these airborne wonders.  My husband planned to spend an entire day here!

Despite my slight lack of interest, I was impressed by the kids unwavering enthusiasm.  After lunch, we took a break from the exhibits and watched a great IMAX movie - Hubble 3D.  My feet were thankful as were my eyes which took a few rests behind the 3D glasses!  Here's a tip:  If you go to the Smithsonian, get the membership.  While actually walking through the Smithsonian doors is free, nothing else is!  This membership paid for itself in one day.  We received free and discounted movie tickets, discounts at the Museum Gift Shop and discounts on food.  This is no small change.  A Smithsonian McDonald's Value Meal for six costs around $50!

On the bright side, I did find this amusing display of flight attendants' uniforms.  From the 1960's - HotPants!  In an attempt to lure weary businessmen, the sign reads,

"When a tired businessman gets on an airplane, we think he ought to be allowed to look at a pretty girl."
--Mary Wells, mastermind behind Braniff ad campaign, quoted in BusinessWeek, 1967