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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 29, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


White Collar, Advent, Home-made Music

I remember when I first started making the rounds of Hollywood, pitching movies and TV series (none got made; everyone was holding out for Ender's Game), word went out that USA Network was going to bet the farm on creating original series instead of just rerunning what others have done.

In an era when everybody and his duck was doing reality tv because it's so unbelievably cheap, USA bucked the trend.

It's a smart move to do half-hour comedy and hour-long drama, if you can get high quality writing and acting. While reality tv generates more immediate profits, it also has very little afterlife. Maybe there are people who buy DVDs of old seasons of Survivor, but I can't see the point.

But a successful drama or comedy series can live on in reruns, generating more advertising revenue; a cable network like USA can run new episodes several times a day, several days a week, so the audience can grow and you can generate even more ad revenue; and when a series really hits, fans will buy them on DVD, share them with friends, and build up even more audience for later seasons of first-run episodes.

The trouble is, there is nothing more expensive on television than to create hour-long dramas. That's one of the reasons why the major networks are so quick to abandon series that don't get immediate high ratings. Hour-long dramas bleed money.

So whenever somebody mentioned that USA was going to create all kinds of original drama and comedy, they always ended by saying, "Of course, they're budgeting nothing." The implication was that the series would all be awful because quality costs money.

Well, quality does cost money -- but not as much as you think. Because there are far more excellent writers than there are slots for writers on the big network shows, and even if they're writing for union minimum, if you have the freedom to create excellent TV you'll build your reputation and create your career.

Most writers will trade money for the power to create according to their own vision, as long as they are making enough to live on -- and sometimes even when they're not!

As for actors -- come on, let's get real here. There are big stars on TV, but most of them are made by the series they're known for. If the writing is good enough, the show will make the star.

The key is to cast brilliantly. To find exactly the right actor for the extremely well-written roles your writers are creating.

USA Network also pioneered the short season -- eight or so episodes, and then you have a hiatus in which you rerun that season. It keeps your upfront investment lower; it gives you time to build an audience.

The result is that USA has run some of the very best new series -- most notably the beloved comedy-mystery Monk and the best action-adventure on television, Burn Notice.

USA also had the brains to pick up Law & Order: Criminal Intent when it was dropped by a major network. It's quite possible that everybody involved with the show took a pay cut -- maybe even a steep one -- when the series moved to USA. But they were still working! And the residual income might be all the higher if USA kept the old episodes in regular rerun rotation they way they do with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Here's the cool news: USA has just matched its own previous achievements with a brand new series, White Collar.

Like Burn Notice, it has a terrific cast and witty, funny, smart writing. The camera work is quirky only between the scenes, during the transitions, where it's not annoying, it's just cool. The rest of the time, the cameras let the actors do their job.

And they do it! The two main characters are Neil Caffrey, a convicted forger, counterfeiter, con man, and art thief, and FBI agent Peter Burke, the man who put him in jail in the first place, and now makes use of his talents on a kind of work-release program where Caffrey helps Burke arrest other forgers and counterfeiters and art thieves.

Caffrey is smooth and smart and funny and deliciously dishonest, but we love him because he is a broken-hearted lover trying to find out what happened to the girl he left behind him when he went off to jail. And it doesn't hurt that actor Matthew Bomer is so good-looking he turns straight men gay and straight women into quivering masses of whimpered longing.

I'm especially happy, though, with Tim DeKay in the role of Agent Burke. His character is not written to be suave. In fact, he's a strange mixture of naivete and smart authority; in his own way, without any of the coolness, he manages to show us in every episode why he was the one who was able to take Caffrey down.

Plus ... he's married. And it's a good marriage. He's trying to make it better, but his wife, Elizabeth ("El"), played by Tiffani Thiessen (a graduate of Saved by the Bell, now without the "Amber" middle name), is both independent and supportive, trusting and worldly wise. They're good people making a good life together.

But USA Network's executives make sure that all their series maintain the balance: Only little dabs of the overall story and the longterm relationships, with every episode devoted primarily to a single excellent caper or puzzle.

Remember how Moonlighting self-destructed because they forgot to make each episode good, and instead got lost in the story of the main characters? They aren't doing that with any of the USA Network series.

Folks, White Collar is a Christmas present you can give yourself. You can start watching with any episode and you'll have a good time; but you can also pick up on the occasional "season-to-date" marathon. There's one that started this morning (Thursday, 3 December) -- too late, alas, for you to catch them now -- but just set your DVR or TiVo to record new and old episodes whenever they come on, and you'll eventually pick up all of them.

*

I love good advent calendars; I hate the bad ones.

There's something wonderful about those single sheets depicting a Christmas scene, with little perforated windows scattered about. You open one window a day for the first twenty-five days of December, and inside the window you'll see a little scene that has something to do with Christmas.

Now there are all kinds of advent calendars. A three-dimensional house with doors and windows you open, revealing ornaments you can take out and hang on the tree. Others in which you put little presents or treats, one for each day of December leading to Christmas.

But the pictures with windows are, for me, a special delight.

When they're not awful.

Here's what makes an advent calendar awful, in my opinion: laziness and cheapness.

To do an advent calendar correctly, you have to take the time and care to exercise the printer's art at a superb level. Every perforated window lines up exactly with a feature on the main picture.

If there's a door or window in the picture, it will open; other objects are exactly matched by perforation so that we know we're seeing what's inside or behind that exact spot on the picture.

This means that the main picture, the perforations, and the back sheet that contains all the hidden pictures must be perfectly calibrated in the printing and lined up exactly in the cutting and gluing. It takes so much more time to do it right -- especially if you have aesthetically pleasing art in the first place -- that a good advent calendar will cost more.

So most advent calendars are done in a way that requires almost no care at all. The perforated openings are scattered randomly around the calendar, with no relation at all to the main picture. And the art behind the windows is made extra large, so that it won't matter if the perforations line up perfectly with the art behind.

Usually the artwork is also created with the same utter unconcern about quality.

The result is, in a word, junk. If the perforated windows can be anywhere, then you're not seeing "inside" the main painting or photograph. What's the point, then?

In my opinion, the cheap advent calendars are vastly overpriced, since they are worth nothing. While a good advent calendar is so beautiful that it is worth opening each window with such care that you can reuse it year after year and ir remains a pleasure every time.

So let me tell you about a great website with terrific advent calendars. (And it's not too late -- if you get an advent calendar on the 10th or 15th of December, you can have the fun of opening all the windows to date, or opening two a day until you catch up.)

The buying club is called Bas Bleu -- an allusion to the old term "bluestocking," a semi-derisory but also rather admiring term for intellectual women in the era before co-education. If you just type "Bas Bleu" into Google, you'll get there with no problem.

Even though the site is ostensibly for women, I defied them and joined the club anyway, for the excellent reason that (a) I'm the kind of guy who likes chick-flicks better than action movies, and (b) most of their selection is not gender specific anyway.

Their selection of books is outstanding. They know their niche of "odd little books," and therefore they are likely to survive in competition with Amazon.com, because Amazon isn't going to lead you through such a wonderfully well-thought-out selection.

From Hercule Poirot's Christmas to Sam Savage's quirky Firmin, about a rat born in a bookstore, from a treasury of Ogden Nash verse to Muriel Spark's A Far Cry from Kensington, it's hard to think of a reader that could not be shopped for with happy results at Bas Bleu.

In fact, I ended up buying a dozen books for myself while shopping for others!

Above all, though, their "seasonal" section had the best selection of truly fine advent calendars I've ever seen.

Imported from Germany, where the advent calendar was invented in 1903, these calendars to everything right. If you're a fanatic like me, you'll buy them all and either save them for successive years or give them to people you think will appreciate them.

Admittedly, though, advent calendars are most fun in families where there are children (ages four or above) who will enjoy the magic of each revelation. Though there are plenty of adults like my wife and me who get as much fun out of a good advent calendar as any kid.

*

One of the pleasures of reading 19th century novels or watching Jane Austen movies is the reminder of music before compact discs.

Even high fidelity LPs, with their grooves for the needle, got scratchy over time, and you could always make the needle bounce. And recording technology has improved vastly since the era of the Beatles.

Before hi-fi, recorded music sounded thin; before electrical amplification, there was just the bell over the Victrola, taking the sound directly from the needle and spreading it, more or less, through a room.

Instruments sounded tinny, voices were mere warbles. So yes, you could hear something like a symphony; you could listen to the voice of Caruso -- but no recording compared to a live performance. Even a second-rate live performance sounded better and more satisfying than a recording of the greatest performers in the world.

And, of course, before Edison's little cylinders, there was no recorded music at all.

So if, in the time of Austen or Thackeray, you wanted to hear the orchestral or choral music of Handel or Chopin or Bach or Beethoven, you had to leave your house and go to a concert. Big music simply wasn't portable.

There was no thought of listening to music while you rode in a carriage or exercised outdoors, unless you chose to sing.

Small music, however, was within the reach of anyone who had access to a piano or harpsichord -- which meant the upper and upper-middle classes, but then, that's the group that Austen and Thackeray and Trollope and Eliot wrote about almost exclusively.

When young women were called "accomplished" it meant something: when called upon, they could sit down and play pieces of serious music for the pleasure of whatever company was present in the house.

So when we hear Elizabeth Bennett demur that she plays the piano "very ill," and yet the company insists on her playing anyway and enjoys her performance, the standard by which she judges herself is not that of the beginner or student -- these young women took their music very seriously and measured themselves against the standard of technical perfection and interpretive excellence.

And when they sang, they expected themselves to be true to the note and able to express feeling.

In short, musical performance, while it had to be a do-it-yourself affair, was often quite excellent. And everybody who possibly could was expected to take part in it. You did not miss a chance to hear even a middling performance of the fine music of the day, because that middling performance might be the only one you could get.

That tradition of participation in music continued right up to the era when my parents were courting, and beyond into my own childhood. When I was growing up, it seemed that almost everyone took music lessons of one kind or another.

Any group of a dozen people probably included three who could hack their way through a piano piece, one who was very good on the instrument; and as for singing, all but one of them would be adequate and three or four would be quite good.

We still entertained each other at parties by performing music for or with each other.

Then came the easy, convenient, digitally accurate, nondegradable compact disc, along with equipment for the superb reproduction and amplification of sound, and the results have been both wonderful and devastating.

Anybody can listen to the greatest performances in the world, any time they want. In the car, while exercising, any time we want, our lives can have a soundtrack of whatever music we want. We can find music no matter how arcane our tastes.

That's the good part.

The devastating part is that fewer and fewer people can perform music at all.

Teenagers, who used to pride themselves on being able to sing in tune -- and loudly enough to be heard throughout a room -- now murmur along with the car radio and, unable to hear their own voices, think they are singing as well as the voice in the recording.

The result is soft, mumbling singers who have little concept of accuracy in pitch. Where once almost everyone enjoyed singing -- enthusiastically -- around a piano, learning together the new popular songs of the day, we now send each other mp3s and links to performances on YouTube.

Orchestras and opera companies are going out of business -- even with public support, there are fewer and fewer cities that can even produce an audience for live performance. A few orchestras are able to get a reputation for their recordings -- they stay in business, with cd income supplementing ticket sales and public subsidies. The rest disappear.

Music-making used to be a popular activity, a regular part of life. Now, we Americans are hearers of the tune only.

With exceptions. First, there's the African-American community. While some might debate the musicality of rap and hip-hop, the fact remains that in the black churches, people still care about their music, join in performing it together, and regard live music-making as part of their weekly, if not daily, lives.

So when I tell you that there is no recording you can buy that compares to attending the annual live performance of Black Nativity at North Carolina A&T here in Greensboro, you can believe me.

With a script by the great writer Langston Hughes, and terrific music by members of a community that has kept the tradition of shared performance alive, this is one of the most moving and pleasing musical experiences you can have.

Opening tonight (4 Dec.) and playing through Sunday (7 Dec.) at the Paul Robeson Theater (1601 East Market St.), general admission is $15, senior citizens and non-A&T students are $10, and children 12 and under are $5. (And don't be afraid to bring children who are old enough to hold still and watch for a couple of hours -- the spectacle as well as the music will keep their attention!)

Then, next week, there's another live performance by a group that has kept alive a tradition of personal music-making. The Greensboro Oratorio Society consists, not of professional singers, but rather dues-paying members who pay for the privilege of rehearsing together week after week in order to take part in singing the great oratorios of western tradition.

You can sing operatic arias or art songs alone; you can put together trios and quartets to perform the Alfred Burt carols or traditional church songs. But you have to have a big choir to sing an oratorio with any kind of satisfaction.

So these singers gather together, not for any reward or any individual praise or applause. Rather they simply love this music, and love the experience of performing it, and so they work hard to create it together.

Fortunately, they also allow the public to hear the fruits of their labors, and on one night, Thursday, December 10th -- a week from the day this paper comes out -- the Oratorio Society will give a live performance of the most beloved and popular oratorio ever written: Handel's Messiah.

It will take place at the Greensboro Coliseum at 7:00 p.m. and lasts about two hours. Admission is free, but come prepared to make a cash donation of whatever you can afford, because, while the choir itself is paid nothing (indeed, they pay out of their own pockets for the privilege of taking part!), the Coliseum charges rent and the orchestra members and soloists must be paid.

How much should you donate? Why not be guided by the ticket prices of the Black Nativity -- five, ten, or fifteen dollars a person? If that's more than you can afford, come anyway -- you'll be welcome, and the Oratorio Society will be glad you came even if you can't pay a thing. And if you have some disposable cash, don't be afraid to donate more. It can be your anonymous gift to the community, to help keep this experience available to all.

Now let me add my own plea for keeping music in our lives. Not every kid in the world needs to play soccer. There are a lot of kids with musical ability who could use their (admittedly sparse) free time taking lessons in playing instruments or, above all, singing.

The goal is not to create professional musicians -- the goal is to help kids grow up with the skill to perform music in social and amateur and church settings.

Too many kids think that if they don't start out sounding like Josh Groban or Mariah Carey, they must not have any talent. This is nonsense. Often it takes only a few singing lessons to make a huge difference in the way a young singer produces his or her voice.

Remember, most of them only know how to produce that mumbling sing-along-with-the-radio voice. They've never heard of diaphragmatic support, of how to relax the throat, to open the mouth, incise their consonants, shape their vowel, and sing. And over time, they strengthen their vocal cords (which are muscles, after all) and learn many refinements.

The skills you learn from classical vocal training can be transferred to every other kind of singing. And being able to sing in a way that pleases an audience can transform the lives of kids.

By "kids" I mean "young people whose voices have already changed." When a boy stops being mistaken for his mother on the phone, and starts being mistaken for his father, it's time for him to start; the mellowing of young women's voices is not so dramatic, but many girls are ready to start lessons at fourteen or even earlier.

Where do you go for lessons? Our starting point is always the Music Academy of North Carolina at 1327 Beaman Place (a block or two from Battleground very near to the Carousel Theater). Their phone number is (336) 379-8748. We have watched (well, heard) the enormous progress made by many young men and women of our acquaintance while studying voice there -- including our own two daughters.

And if you have a kid who's willing to do the work to learn how to play an instrument -- especially the piano keyboard or guitar, which can accompany many other people in singing -- so much the better! Oddly enough, there are far more piano teachers than voice teachers -- perhaps because people know they have to study to learn to play piano, while singing they think of as something that talented people just do.

And don't just think of this as something for children. Adults can return to piano or study voice for the sheer joy of it. At fifty, you aren't going to train yourself into roles at the Met or become a pianist whose recordings will sell in the millions.

But you can still refine and strengthen your singing voice so you can enjoy singing carols at the Christmas party every year, or sing in church, and you can learn to play piano well enough to sit down and fiddle around on the keys for your own pleasure.

I love my cds and mp3s and I'm not giving them up for anything.

But the joy I get from singing, in groups or alone, and the pleasure of being able to please myself with a few tunes and doodles on the piano -- those bring me a different kind of pleasure, and my life would be poorer without it.

Thus I continue to enjoy the gift of musical performance that I grew up with in my family's home, with all of us gathered around the piano while my mom played and we sang with gusto, improvising harmonies, learning good songs, enjoying the way our voices blended, and appreciating each other's solos.

I have memories of riding bikes with my brothers and sisters, of playing basketball together, doing yardwork, playing Risk, setting up electric trains or vast arrays of HO scale soldiers from Airfix, or building model airplanes -- but I think my favorite memories are those times around the piano.

There was something about singing rich harmonies on "Lonesome Polecat" or "Cool Water" with my brothers, or duetting with a sister or my mother on classic love songs, or doing rousing choruses with the whole group (including my dad's basso voice, when he could be persuaded to join in), that made us feel more at one with each other than any other activity we ever did.

It's good to listen to great musical performances, but it's just as good, if not better, to create music yourself, for and with your family and friends. With only a little skill, we can share with each other at a deeper level than mere conversation.


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