WDAV Blog

Playlist: Celebrating Native American Heritage Month

By Connie Kim

Observed every November in the United States, National Native American Heritage Month celebrates the diverse histories, cultures, and traditions of Native American and Indigenous populations and promotes awareness of the unique challenges Native people have experienced and continue to face today. This selection of works from Connor Chee, Barbara Croall, R. Carlos Nakai, and more celebrates the myriad contributions Native American and Indigenous artists have made to classical music and showcases the beauty of blended and traditional musical forms. 

  1. “Lowak Shoppala’, Act I” (Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate) –  Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate: Lowak Shoppala’
  2. “Navajo Vocable for Piano No. 1″ (Connor Chee) – The Navajo Piano (Revisited)
  3. “Giishkaapkag (Where the Rock is Cut Through)” (Barabara Croall) – This Love Between us: Prayers for Unity
  4. “Nbiidaasamishkaamin” (Barbara Croall) – Mosaïque
  5. “Song For the Morning Star” (R. Carlos Nakai) – Canyon Trilogy
  6. “4 American Indian Piano Preludes: No. 2, Tabideh” (Louis W. Ballardi) – Walk in Beauty
  7. “Monsoon” (Gabriel Ayala) – Passion, Fire & Grace
  8. “Testament of Atom” (Brent Michael Davids) – Walk in Beauty
  9. “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (Ian Cusson) – Ecology of Being
  10. “Stars” (Connor Chee) – Scenes from Dinétah
  11. “Ambe (Live)” (Andrew Balfour) – 2020 Texas Music Education Association
  12. “Ancestral Home” (R. Carlos Nakai) – Canyon Trilogy
  13. “Orange Shirt Day” (Melody McKiver) – Returning Home (Original Motion Pucture Soundtrack)
  14. “Corn Grinding Song No. 2” (Connor Chee) – The Navajo Piano (Revisited)
  15. “Awakening of The Beauty Within” (Kelvin Mockingbird) – Sacred Fire
  16. “Native American Suite: Zuni Sunrise Song” (Brent Michael Davids) – The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass
  17. “Round Dance” (Cris Derksen) – Cris Derksen: Orchestral Powwow
     

     

Charlotte Symphony Fantastique in Berlioz Under Yashima

By Lawrence Toppman

Oscar-winning actor Walter Huston said, “I ain’t paid to make good lines sound good. I’m paid to make bad lines sound good.” That might be the true test of a conductor: Taking a 35-minute chunk of elevated salon music such as Beethoven’s Triple Concerto – not bad, but nowhere near a masterpiece – and making it seem more intriguing, even beautiful, than it actually is.

Erina Yashima did exactly that with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Belk Theater, abetted by a well-matched trio of soloists who were sensitive to the score and one another. Then she led us through a great piece of music, Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique,” with passion and sound judgment.

She had already asked the CSO to play above their collective heads in the curtain-raiser, the fastest rendition of the overture to “Ruslan and Lyudmila” I’ve ever heard. Now she asked them to sustain the same kind of energy not for five minutes but for 50, and they responded. I have no idea whether she’s applying for the music director’s job here, but she shot into my top three candidates by the end of the concert.

Yashima literally bounded onto the podium and turned a megawatt smile first on us, then on the orchestra; if that smile ever dimmed, I couldn’t tell. She hurled them into Glinka’s whimsical-lyrical overture, getting the kind of rapid-fire precision – especially from the strings – I hear only when the musicians play at their best. (If you recognized the piece, perhaps you know it as the theme to the American TV sitcom “Mom” or the video game “Tetris Classic.”)

Fears that we might be racing through the night ended as soon as she carried us gently into the Beethoven. It’s probably worth noting – I wish it were not – that all three soloists were also female. The piece can turn into a more-or-less piano concerto with strings somewhere in the background, if the keyboard soloist pays no heed to the others. But Anne-Marie McDermott, who has given some bravura performances at Spoleto Festival USA over the years, stayed perfectly attuned to violinist Tai Murray and cellist Julie Albers. At one moment in the finale, they stopped time with a series of hushed notes that pulled you into the piece irresistibly.

Yashima’s version of Berlioz contained one interesting choice after another, many of them subtle. The scene at the ball hinted at mental distress without descending into a swirl of madness. The march to the scaffold had a deliberate dignity, as if the man dreaming about dying went proudly rather than despairingly to his end. The witches’ sabbath, which exploited all the resources of the augmented orchestra, was consistently spooky but also tremendously exhilarating; we soared into the sky on our broomsticks and had a hell of a good time.

On paper, this concert looked like the narrowest range of music this season: three works, all composed within 38 years (1804-42), all by Central and Eastern Europeans from the first half of the Romantic Era. But the soloists and especially Yashima revealed so many colors that we ended up traveling across a whole universe of moods and ideas.

Pictured: Erina Yashima; Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography/courtesy of Askonas Holt

Q&A: Get to Know Keenan Harmon, WDAV’s Newest Announcer

This Sunday, November 20, at 10 p.m., professional trumpeter Keenan Harmon will make his announcing debut on WDAV. Well known to classical and jazz audiences in the Carolinas, Harmon performs in a wide range of areas including theatre shows, recitals, and chamber music and jazz concerts. His discipline also includes composition, having written many works for ensembles, and brass pedagogy, working with young musicians to gain their footing in the business.

WDAV first met Keenan through our NoteWorthy concert series when he collaborated with gospel artist Karen Poole in June 2021. Fast forward 18 months and he’s ready to add “radio announcer” to his already impressive resume. We caught up with Keenan this week for a fun Q&A ahead of his debut. 

You’ve been an active musician for many years. When did you fall in love with the trumpet, and what drew you to that particular instrument?  

I always loved the sound of the trumpet and also the sound of brass. I love that trumpet can fit into many different styles. It can be commanding as much as it can be intimate. It can be exciting as well as mellow and sultry. Love the versatility.

How about a list of your top three favorite works to play for an audience? 

Top three? Such a challenge. I would say the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, the Telemann Concerto (or anything on piccolo trumpet), and currently I am doing a deep dive on the Sonata for Trumpet by Eric Ewazen. I will be performing it at an upcoming recital in a few months and am trying to get a fresh take on it. Ask me tomorrow and it will change!

What has been the most challenging aspect of learning to host a radio show?

Getting used to the sound of your own voice. How often do folks ask, “do I really sound like that?” And if you worry about sounding funny or the way you may say things in English, add the widespread and diverse pool of conductors, performers, and composers from all over the world you need to pronounce. You hope to make it sound natural and effortless.  It certainly keeps you on your toes!

Have there been any surprises along the way? 

The amount of leg work announcers do for content. WDAV has a friendly and conversational style, and that comes from the personality of the announcers. It’s easy not to think about that as a listener, but trying to emulate what the station has done so effortlessly for such a long time is a big challenge. But a fun one too!

Give us the name of a composer who we should all give more attention to? Why?   

Dmitri Shostakovich. He composed in nearly every medium in his time, from symphonies to opera to film music. He lived through Stalinist Russia and long after until his death in 1975, and his music captures a crazy time in human history while also being very timeless.

What should listeners expect to hear when they tune in?

Friendly, conversational, and passionately knowledgeable (hopefully)!

Favorite Charlotte area restaurant, past or present? 

Kabob-Je all the way!  Best Eastern Mediterranean in the area.

Do you have a desert island recording to share with our readers?  

That’s tough. Really tough, but I would have to say Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ Miles Ahead album. Gil’s arrangements for Miles shook my world as a child. I didn’t know music could sound like that, and Miles’ playing is so unique within that texture. One of the many reasons I fell in love with music and play trumpet today.


When he’s not performing around the Carolinas or grabbing a bite at Kabob-Je, you can catch Keenan hosting WDAV’s Sunday Night Music program each week from 10 p.m. – 12 a.m.

Pictured: Keenan Harmon in WDAV studio. Photo by Will Keible.

Culinary Masterminds: Legendary Composers’ Favorite Foods

By Connie Kim and Mary Lathem

Composers: they’re just like us! If you’re skeptical, consider the fact that Ludwig van Beethoven’s favorite food was essentially macaroni and cheese… and he’s certainly not the classical music world’s only foodie. Just in time for Thanksgiving, we’re serving up a feast of delicious dishes loved by (and named after) famous composers. Bon Appétit!

     

  1. Rossini This, Rossini That
Gioachino Rossini

19th century Italian composer Gioachino Rossini is well known for his comic operas, but did you know his passion for food rivaled his passion for music? Tournedos Rossini, Chicken alla Rossini, and Eggs Rossini are just a few of the many dishes named for the composer, all proof of his “gastronomic virtuosity” and penchant for experimentation. Rossini himself once claimed he had only cried three times in his life: once when his earliest opera turned into a fiasco, second when he first heard Niccolò Paganini play the violin, and third when his truffle-stuffed turkey accidentally fell into Lake Como.

     

 

  1. Hildegard’s Healthy Living Tips

When studying 12th century polymath Hildegard von Bingen, you’d be hard pressed to find a subject area she wasn’t heavily involved in. Aside from her status as one of the most famous composers of sacred monophony (and the most recorded in modern history), Hildegard was an abbess, writer, medical practitioner, mystic, visionary, and theologian believed by many to be the founder of scientific natural history… and, in her free time, a nutritionist. Compiled in 2019, her guidelines for healthy living called for a balance of acidic and alkaline foods to prevent disease. Her go-to dishes? Spelt, beans, and chestnuts.

 

     

  1. Chopin’s Polish Pride

Composer Frederic Chopin often drew on Polish themes in his work, and it seems he had a great appreciation for the food of his home country as well! Zrazy, a Polish dish made of thin slices of chopped beef stuffed with vegetables and eggs, was one of his personal favorites. Chopin, who often longed for home, was once overjoyed to discover zrazy was on the menu at a dinner party and wrote, “This rare man, Dr. Malfatti, is so considerate of everyone. If we come to dine with him, he searches out Polish food for us!”

     

  1. Risotto for a Virtuoso

Born to a family of grocers and restaurateurs, it makes sense that opera composer Giuseppe Verdi had refined taste buds – and as a self-proclaimed connoisseur, Verdi had a particular love set aside for risotto! Described by his wife as “divine,” Verdi’s own risotto recipe may be lost to time, but his passion for the dish did lead to the naming of a popular risotto dish in his honor.

     

  1. Igor Stravinsky’s Sweet Side

Although he wasn’t known for his sweet personality, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s adoration for honey was well documented. Specifically, Stravinsky always had royal jelly honey on hand, even going so far as to bring his own jar of honey to restaurants. Looking for a new way to make friends? Here’s an idea from a fellow composer: when he heard about Stravinsky’s enthusiasm for honey, Sergei Rachmaninoff came knocking on Stravinsky’s door one night with a massive jar of honey!

     

  1. Marillenknödel alla Mahler 

No one can deny Gustav Mahler’s devotion to music, but you may have never heard of one of his other great loves: traditional Viennese apricot dumplings called Marillenknödel. Mahler’s sister Justine had perfected an amazing recipe – so amazing that when Mahler found out his friend Ludwig Karpath didn’t like Marillenknödel, he insisted that Karpath come over immediately to sample Justine’s “heavenly” cooking. Karpath was an instant fan (and you can use Justine’s original recipe to find out if you are, too).

 

     

  1. Paganini Ravioli 
Niccolò Paganini

Imagine a ravioli dish loaded with sausage, veal, beef, and butter… yea or nay? Ravioli was one of Niccolò Paganini’s favorite foods, and there wasn’t a hint of green in his own meat-loving recipe (though it did contain calf brain). The original handwritten recipe is now housed in the Library of Congress.

     

  1. Duke Ellington’s Culinary Travels
Duke Ellington (center) having his dinner at the Hurricane with his wife, Bea Ellington (right), and a friend.

Best known as a jazz legend, Duke Ellington is also celebrated for his contributions to the classical and film music spheres. As it turns out, he might have made a pretty excellent food blogger, too. In an interview, Ellington spoke at length about the list of favorite foods he keeps from his travels, from chicken liver omelets in Los Angeles to octopus soup in Paris and everything in between. Ellington was no stranger to fine dining – one of his favorite restaurants in the Netherlands offered 85 different hors d’oeuvres, all of which he sampled – but for the best fried fish in the world, Ellington knew a spot in St. Petersburg, Florida: “It’s just a little shack, but they can sure fry fish.”

Pictured: Duke Ellington (center) having his dinner at the Hurricane with his wife, Bea Ellington (right), and a friend.

     

Sources and Further Reading

Composers In The Kitchen: Gioachino Rossini’s Haute Cuisine (NPR)

Six Curious Facts About Gioachino Rossini (CMUSE)

HISTORY: Hildegard of Bingen (Bioregulatory Medical Institute)

15 Composers who loved their food (BBC Music Magazine)

Composers In The Kitchen: Risotto Giuseppe Verdi Style (NPR)

Risotto Giuseppe Verdi Style (Academia Barilla)

Sweet-toothed composers (BBC Music Magazine)

Composers In The Kitchen: Gustav Mahler’s Just Dessert (NPR)

“Marillenknoedel” from Classical Cooks: A Gastrohistory of Western Music (New York Philharmonic)

Cooking Up History: Niccolò Paganini’s Ravioli (Library of Congress)

Playlist: A Few of Duke Ellington’s Favorite Things (Lapham’s Quarterly)

Will Long, Layered ‘Tár’ Satisfy Non-Classical Fans?

By Lawrence Toppman

“Tár” plays like a brilliant doctoral thesis, assembled over many years to analyze abuse of power in the classical music world: long, complicated, intelligent, packed with inside jokes and obscure references that require footnotes so you can keep up. I loved it but would have predicted only a few people would share my passion, until I visited its page at the Internet Movie Database and saw a cumulative rating of 8.2 from nearly 3,000 viewers.

Even the title requires explanation. It’s an old Norse name, usually given to boys, that means tough, resistant, enduring. Lydia Tár (played by Cate Blanchett) begins as all those things but slowly crumbles after social media attacks, the suicide of a woman who died blaming Tár for short-circuiting a conducting career, and her own use-and-toss-aside attitudes toward co-workers and lovers.

Two factors make her a sacred monster, as the French say, rather than simply a monster: her tremendous talent on the podium and her enormous knowledge and overwhelming love of classical music. When she rightly takes down a Juilliard student who has no time for Bach – or, by extension, other straight white male composers before his own lifetime – she’s astonished that he can write off the Baroque master. She plays a Bach prelude to try to win him over, revealing the theme’s beauties musically and verbally, but he stays deaf to it.

Writer-director-producer Todd Field got Oscar nominations for two screenplays in the ’00s, “In the Bedroom” and “Little Children,” but he hasn’t finished a project in the 16 years since the latter. You get the feeling, watching “Tár,” that he spent the time boning up on every aspect of the classical music business, from boardroom conferences to orchestra auditions to score analysis. Whether you want to explore these things in such detail will determine whether you feel the 158-minute running time is justified.

To fully appreciate the minutiae, for example, you need to know that the late Gilbert Kaplan was a wealthy American businessman who fell so much in love with Mahler that he trained himself to conduct and became an expert on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Here he’s mocked as “Eliot Kaplan,” played by Mark Strong with the real Kaplan’s pudding-bowl haircut.

When the Berlin Philharmonic plays the adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 with soupy strings in rehearsal, Tár orders them to “forget Visconti,” with no further explanation. You’re meant to know – as surely none of the players would – that Luchino Visconti used the movement in his 1971 movie “Death in Venice.”

She’s the smartest person in every room, musicologically and intellectually speaking. And her emotions come through in tremendous snatches of performances, mostly of Mahler’s Fifth and Elgar’s Cello Concerto. But in her personal life, she’s a case of arrested development: Her wife (Nina Hoss), her overworked assistant (Noémie Merlant) and her assistant conductor (Allan Corduner) all eventually face her scorn or acts of betrayal. Like so many tragic heroes, she can grow – if she’s going to grow – only after a fall.

On some levels, the movie remains a fantasy: Lydia Tár has become an international celebrity as a conductor, composer, teacher and author – in other words, a female Leonard Bernstein – but no one in the Internet age has dug up her roots. The real Berlin Philharmonic has never had a female music director nor, as far as I can ascertain, a female concertmaster, let alone a married couple in those jobs. I suppose Field chose Berlin, often called the world’s greatest orchestra, so Tár can plummet from the highest peak.

Yet Blanchett, who’s in virtually every scene, grounds each moment in reality. Tár’s self-importance and self-deceit appall us, but we respect and admire her, too. Critics have tried to guess the women on whom Field based the character, often finding parallels with Marin Alsop, but she seems to me most like the autocratic Herbert Von Karajan in his later years. (He died at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989.)

As with classical music, the success of an ambitious movie lies in the details. The cast is uniformly good, down to Mila Bogojevic as the adopted daughter who may be the only person Tár can love unconditionally. Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister makes the wooden concert hall seem warmly appealing and every other locale forbidding or barren, providing visual equivalents for Tár’s internal turbulence.

Pictured: Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár in the movie Tár © Focus Features/MovieStillsDB.

Charlotte Symphony nowhere near its best in “Pastoral” concert

by Lawrence Toppman

Gather all the adjectives you know that connote speed, and you can write your own review of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concert Marcelo Lehninger conducted Friday night.

The positive ones might be bracing, vigorous, keen, energetic, zestful. The negative might include rushed, restless, brusque, hard-driven and superficial. You needn’t find synonyms for poetic, introspective or subtle. Those characteristics seldom came into play until the final movement of the final piece, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, where Lehninger showed how much might have been brought to the entire program at Knight Theater.

Pianist Gabriela Martinez did have moments of delicacy and gentleness in Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.” Yet even there, the conductor’s extroverted accompaniment gave her too little opportunity to express herself fully. (The watery horn section, suggestive of the bad old days before Christopher Warren-Green, didn’t help there or in the Beethoven.)

Things started well enough with the opening piece, Lili Boulanger’s “D’un matin de printemps.” Boulanger, who had the most tragically shortened career of any 20th-century composer – she died at 24 of tuberculosis – can stand the energized treatment Lehninger gave her. She became a more muscular Debussy, depicting a spring morning where bees hummed busily and Parisians strode toward their destinations. The orchestra peaked here, playing with a unity it too rarely displayed afterward.

De Falla followed. His piece needn’t be languid or perfumed in Spanish exoticism; the best recording I know among half a dozen comes from a Pole, Artur Rubinstein. But this jaunty trip through Spanish gardens felt more like a brisk walk across the English countryside in nippy air, despite Martinez’ welcome attempts to add touches of mystery.

Any conductor auditioning for the CSO’s music directorship will have to prove himself or herself in core repertoire. Lehninger impressed me greatly five years ago in a concert of music from Spain and the two Americas, but I didn’t hear anything memorable in the Beethoven until the last five minutes.

Repeated phrases came at us squarely, without much variation in tempo or color. The first-movement “arrival in the country” tripped blandly along, followed by a “scene by the brook” whose charm soon wore thin. The “merry gathering” of the third movement quickly became restless and was dispersed by a blustery storm that blew up and blew down too soon.

Then the sun shone, musically and metaphorically. Lehninger found warmth and spacious joy in a beautifully structured final movement, where the peasants expressed relaxed happiness at deliverance from the tempest. Where had this kind of insight and inspiration been for the previous 90 minutes?

Pictured: Marcelo Lehninger; photo by Andy Terzes / marcelolehninger.com

WDAV Staff Members Share On-Air (and Onstage) Nightmares

What wakes you up in a cold sweat? For radio hosts and performing artists, a piece of faulty equipment or a missed cue is all it takes to send a normal dream into a tailspin. This Halloween, WDAV staff members share the terrifying radio and performance dreams that have haunted their midnights (plus a few real-life nightmares). 

     


     

“Years ago, I was in a college production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Though I have a lot of good memories from the show, I was a bucket of nerves for most of the run – we staged it at a local opera house, and I was absolutely terrified to sing in front of such a large crowd. My entire family, several of my professors, dozens of my classmates, and even a high school teacher of mine ended up coming to see it, which added to the overall sense of dread. To this day, I have a recurring nightmare every few months, and it always plays out the same way: my college voice professor calls me in a panic and says, ‘We’re doing Oklahoma! again, tonight, and the whole cast is waiting for you to drive down so rehearsals can start.’ It sounds silly, but I wake up in a cold sweat every time!”

Mary Lathem
Marketing & Digital Communications Specialist
     


     

“Any person coming into a new job in a new field will most likely be nervous about messing something up. I came to WDAV in late 1986 from a theatre background, never before having worked in radio, even though I had dreamt of a radio career since I was a teenager. So, I was lucky enough to be hired at WDAV as a paid part-time community announcer, mainly on the weekends or late at night. Back then, WDAV signed off at 1 a.m. every night and signed on at 6 a.m. After my first couple of weeks, I felt I had the hang of things. I was sleeping well at night. One morning, I thought I had overslept, so I hurriedly put on my clothes, hopped in my car and zipped up I-77. I feared I was really running it close to the scheduled 6 a.m. sign-on time, and I began to get nervous as I had to get to the station, flip the switches that turned on the transmitter, pull the pre-scheduled LPs for that morning’s shift, cue up the needles on the turntables and be ready to speak in a calm and clear voice right at 6 a.m. Could I pull it off? I was confident that I could.

Well, I got inside the building at 5:55 a.m. and I opened the door to the on-air studio and all I saw were loads of wires and cables hanging from the ceiling with no equipment there to do my radio stuff. It was like a bomb went off in there. It was a horror scene as I went into a sheer panic and ran around the building screaming like a banshee not knowing what to do. I was hyperventilating and crying as I knew I was going to get fired even though I knew I did nothing wrong. Suddenly, I woke up breathing heavily not knowing where I was. I looked around the darkened room and in a few breathless seconds I realized I had just experienced a nightmare!”

Ted Weiner
Music Director
     


     

“Back in early 2020, before COVID hit, The Davidson College Choral Arts Society was performing a Britten concert, and I had a solo part in one of the pieces, Rejoice in the Lamb. I was so nervous about this performance as it’d been a while since I was on stage that I began to have nightmares about it. The night before the concert, I had a terrible yet hilarious one where I completely forgot what piece I was supposed to be singing and just stared at the audience in front of me. Out of fear of the silence, I just began singing Sure on this Shining Night. Everybody was staring—the organist, the choir, audience, conductor, everybody. No one knew what was going on. I finished the piece to a smattering of confused applause and the conductor just gave me a look that said ‘Ooook, well, thanks for that?’”

Heidi North
Administrative Assistant
     


     

“It’s common for actors to have nightmares involving being in the wrong play, where the lines you learned and the costume you’re wearing make no sense in the play you happen to be in. I certainly had my share of those when I studied for and pursued a career in live theater as an actor and director. When I made the transition to radio, I began to have a similar nightmare in a new setting. I’d be in a radio studio, but it would be completely unfamiliar to me, so I wouldn’t know how to operate the turntable or start the mic or any basic things (which is kind of a silly dream, considering how similar the equipment is in most studios). Another variation on that nightmare was one in which the recording I was playing would end without me having time to find or ‘cue up’ the next musical selection. What would ensue was the dreaded ‘dead air,’ which is anathema in radio, and it would last interminably in the nightmare while I searched frantically for the next music on the playlist.

I also experienced a real life nightmare in radio many years ago, when we first experimented with using the Internet to transmit the signal of a live broadcast from the venue to the station, and from there to listeners using our broadcast signal. I was very nervous about this and argued that we should still rent a phone line as a backup in case anything went wrong with the then notoriously unstable Internet connection. But the phone line was expensive, so the GM at the time shot down that idea. The day of the broadcast came, and the program, which was a Christmas holiday concert from a church in Charlotte’s Center City, was underway when suddenly we became aware that the signal was breaking up on its way to the station, and on air, of course. We scrambled to work around the faulty connection, but it continued to be unreliable, so we had to abandon the live broadcast. Instead, we played the recording of the concert we were making simultaneously later that afternoon. We were all embarrassed, not least the GM who had insisted we use only the Internet. And we were alternately annoyed and amused when we learned that the cause of the disruption was that someone in the church office had been using up the available bandwidth of the Internet connection during the concert by streaming an episode of The Daily Show on their computer!”

Frank Dominguez
General Manager

Interview with the Vampire’s Hand Double

by Mary Lathem

If you’re anything like me, AMC’s new Interview with the Vampire series has been on your “must watch” list for quite some time, especially with Halloween just around the corner. Despite some fans’ worries that the story would be difficult to resurrect, rave reviews have poured in for the series since its release earlier this month (it even has a rare 99% critical score on Rotten Tomatoes). You can imagine my excitement when I logged into Facebook recently to see a post from Ethan Uslan – an acclaimed local ragtime pianist and longtime friend to WDAV – announcing he’d been tapped to appear in the series as the Vampire Lestat’s hand double!

Ethan Uslan

I had a chance to sit down with Ethan during his visit to the station for Public Radio Music Day this past Wednesday to learn more about his role (and, if I’m being honest, to satisfy my own curiosity about the process). Enjoy! 

     

You recently had a special opportunity involving vampires, ragtime, and some very fierce-looking nails. Tell us what it was and how it came to be.

This past January, when I wasn’t the busiest person because of COVID, I got a phone call out of the blue from AMC. They said they were doing an Interview with the Vampire TV series [based on the novel by Anne Rice], and they wanted my piano music to be part of the show! It turned out that the series’ creator, Rolin Jones, came across one of my YouTube videos and thought that it would fit perfectly in one particular scene. That’s how it all started. 

Video: Bach’s Minuet in G – Jazz/ragtime/stride version
     

Ethan Uslan's shows hand with a vampire manicure - pointy fingernails.
Ethan Uslan’s vampire manicure

They flew me down to New Orleans and we filmed in the French Quarter. The shoot was in the middle of the night because, you know, vampires and darkness. [Laughs] We filmed everything in a courtyard outdoors. It was freezing cold – there were flappers everywhere with bare arms, and everyone was shivering. When they finally called for me, I played my song for the cameras, and it really didn’t sound good [because of] the vampire manicure they gave me. The next day, they sent me to a recording studio, and I was able to use my natural cuticles, which sounded much better. 

     

I bet it did. When do you appear on the show, and what do you play? 

I’m in Episode 3, and I play Bach’s Minuet in G. In the scene, Lestat’s at a jazz club, and he starts heckling the piano player, who’s supposed to be Jelly Roll Morton. They have a back and forth (actually quite an R-rated back and forth!) and Jelly Roll basically says, “Let’s see what you can do.” Lestat gets up there and starts playing classical music, and everyone’s kind of groaning, like “We don’t want to hear this stuff in a jazz club.” And then, of course, he jazzes it up. 

And it’s your own arrangement!

Yes! And I’ll say that I’m really happy it’s used as foreground music, not background music. 

That’s a great point. So often when we see pianists in film and television, other characters are talking over the music. And in this case, the music is the action. 

Right. I’ve been watching the show, and they use a lot of ragtime music and 1920’s jazz. That makes my ears perk up, and I actually tend to tune out what’s happening in the foreground and start paying attention to the background! The music is great, but it’s really just there [to create ambience]. I love that my music is meant to be listened to. 

You just said such a beautiful thing, and here I am wanting to talk about the nails again. How much of the costume did you have to wear to be a convincing double? Those were some serious claws. 

Ethan Uslan in costume for AMC's Interview with the Vampire.
Ethan Uslan in costume for AMC’s Interview with the Vampire.

I had to wear exactly what the actor did. As far as the nails go, I was quite nervous because, you know, time is money. My nightmare was that I was going to cause a hold up on set. And of course when we did it, the nails broke halfway through the song. I stopped playing, and they said, “Oh, that’s perfect! We just needed a visual.” One of the camera operators even called me a one-take wonder. So that was a relief. 

It was tricky to get used to the feel of the nails, though. I went to the snack table and picked up one of those Babybel cheeses, and I got my hand stuck in the cheese. [Laughs] When I tried to take it off, it got stuck on the other hand. So I ended up needing help removing my fingers from a Babybel. 

Let’s talk a little more about the arrangement aspect. I’ve seen several videos of yours where you’ve arranged classical works in ragtime and jazz styles. Is there a particular type of piece that works best for that process, or do you choose your favorite pieces and work from there?

Some classical pieces are better suited than others! The Minuet in G was actually one of the trickier ones to do because the chord progression isn’t that similar to something you would hear in pop music. Usually, Romantic music is somewhat closer. Chopin, for example, is typically easier to work with. 

This version of Ethan’s Bach Minuet in G features his son, Henry Uslan!

Video: Live at St. Albans: Minuet in G Major but I like Jazz featuring Henry Uslan
     

This next question is a personal curiosity of mine, and I’m wondering if you have a take on it. In pop culture, so many vampires are shown to have a strong musical ability, especially when it comes to keyboard instruments. Even Edward Cullen plays the piano. Why do you think that trope exists? 

Well, I’m not a vampire expert. I mean, in the question, you mentioned Edward Cullen. I don’t even know who that is. 

Consider yourself lucky. 

[Laughs] I do have an answer for you. If I had to guess, it’s because lots of vampires are several hundred years old. If they were originally 18th century aristocrats or even older, you’d imagine they would have to learn to play the harpsichord or another keyboard instrument. I was also thinking about vampires as villains… do you think they’re villains?

Anti-heroes, I guess. 

Right, anti-heroes. When you have a frightening character like a vampire, they’re more interesting when they’re very cultured. I bet you Hannibal Lecter plays the piano. 

Yes! There’s a scene in Silence of the Lambs where he’s listening to a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and what’s happening on top of that is an absolute bloodbath. 

Exactly. I think there’s something dramatic about having the “bad guy” be very sophisticated on one hand and monstrous on the other. 

Well, I didn’t think it was possible, but I’m even more excited to watch the show now. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our listeners? 

Overall, I was amazed by how much work it takes to create these shows! We all watch a lot of television, and we don’t necessarily think about what goes into it. The actors take the same scene over and over again, and everyone has to be prepared to go on at any moment. That seems so stressful, because if you mess up too much, you’ll be wasting everyone’s time. Also, you can only see so much on the screen – behind the scenes, it was like a massive ant colony of people working to bring the show together.

There’s something else I’d like to share about the YouTube video Rolin Jones found. I originally posted it because I was going to play in [the festival] Bach Around the Clock in Staunton, Virginia in March of 2020. As you can imagine, that was one of the first cancellations I had when COVID hit. I’d been planning to play that piece [at the festival], so I made a YouTube video instead. It didn’t get a lot of views, and at the time, I questioned whether it was worth the effort to make it. That just goes to show you that even if a video isn’t getting a lot of attention, the right person could see it, so put it out there anyway!

You can stream Ethan’s appearance on Episode 3 of Interview with the Vampire now on AMC+! New episodes air on AMC Sundays at 10 p.m.