Sep 30, 2019

Captain Nemo Meets Igor Stravinsky


First – mea culpa!  I wish to apologize for my two-month hiatus from posting.  Preparations during July and August for the production we just recorded for American Public Television – right up to shoot day on September 22nd – cannibalized all normal sense of time’s passing.  Our staff and I feel like we just re-emerged from The Twilight Zone…

In 1950 Philadelphia’s NBC affiliate, WCAU, launched a show for actor Walter Barnes.  Barnes would later be best known for his roles in the film genre known as spaghetti westerns. These were cowboy movies produced in Italy for consumption in America.  For those interested, there is a fascinating book: Actors of The Spaghetti Westerns by James Prickette.

You may be rightly wondering by now: “What has this to do with music listening, The Discovery Orchestra or anything GMM usually concerns himself with?”  It is the showthat WCAU created for Walter Barnes that holds the answer.  As an impressionable child of the 1950’s living in Philadelphia, I watched this show.  Quoting James Prickette, “It was called The Adventurer, a half-hour show with Barnes as the main character, Captain Nemo, an adventurer who traveled to exotic areas of the globe, fishing, hunting, and exploring. He (Barnes) said: ‘They (the public) believed everything. I never left Philadelphia!’  It seems they took stock footage of Barnes in and around Philly and spliced in out-of-the-way worldwide segments so it seemed he was in a remote area of the world.”

I’ll never forget the cold open.  It was a filmed segment of a riverbank somewhere in Africa, shot in grainy black and white.  From the banks of the river, giant hippos dashed into the water, wiggling their ears and spouting.  This segment actually scared four-year-old George Marriner Maull half to death.  But why?  Was it just the images?  No it was not!  It was the music soundtrack…Kastchei’s Infernal Dance from Igor Stravinsky’s ballet score Firebird. 

Did I know the name of this music or its composer as a four-year-old?  No, I would not learn that until Dr. Saul Feinberg introduced me to Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite when I was in 8th grade.   This was a giant ‘Aha’ for me:  “So that’s the source of that terrifying music.” Not long after, I learned that Barnes’s TV name, Captain Nemo, had its roots in Jules Verne’s character by the same name in his novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

But, if you were present on September 22nd for the recording of our fifth show for American Public Television, Discover The Firebird, and perchance you looked back at the teleprompter and saw the words Captain Nemo as a stage direction to myself, I was once again acknowledging my childhood and connecting it to my 72-year-old present self.

And speaking of past connections, I cannot tell you how gratifying it was for me to have playing in The Discovery Orchestra for Discover The Firebird no less than six former members of the New Jersey Youth Symphony. Harpists Merynda Adams and Frances Duffy; violist William Hakim; bassist Marc Schmied; and violinists Denise Stillwell and Robin Zeh all played under me during their high school years, and are now accomplished professional musicians!  And a seventh NJYS grad, violinist and conductor Michael Avagliano, was in the production truck performing the absolutely essential role of score reader.  And let me conclude by mentioning that since 1992 I have had the privilege of working with clarinetist, composer, conductor and Executive Director par excellence, Virginia Johnston. Ginny was principal clarinetist of the New Jersey Youth Symphony when she was in high school!

So many interconnecting threads…it was overwhelming!