or, Valparaiso Tolkien conference, continued.
The prospect of a scholarly conference with two concerts included is a large part of its appeal for me. On Friday evening, Eileen Moore, who also presented a paper, performs her song-cycle "Maidens of Middle-earth." She's commissioned original poems about or in the personae of Tolkien's female characters, set them to music, and sings them herself. The composition style sits somewhere between the lighter end of classical art song and the more ruminative of contemporary singer-songwriter, finally settling on the latter because, though Moore writes for piano rather than guitar, she accompanies herself, and no lieder recitalist would do that. Her voice is rounded but not very carrying in the acoustically unforgiving recital hall, and the lyrics, which are not printed in the program book, are hard to make out. Comic songs are distinguishable from the others by vampingly straightforward accompaniment and by a nasal tone in the singer's voice.
On Saturday, a large amalgamated concert wind band plays the Lord of the Rings Symphony by Johan de Meij, with the composer conducting. That's the whole program, but fortunately it's a big work, some 45 minutes. It's apparently a staple of the concert band repertoire, a body that exists in complete isolation from the classical symphonic one, and which is absorbingly eager for performer- and listener-friendly modern works, as the concert band world lacks both the entire 19th century sitting on its back and a cadre of academicians demanding sterile aridity. None of that here. I know this work well from a couple of recordings I have, and I described it fondly in my article on Tolkien and music, but I'd only heard it live once before, an occasion best forgotten about. This is a much better performance, starting with sloppy roughness but gathering itself together quite well after a movement or two. De Meij demands, and receives, rough growls from the soprano sax in the role of Gollum and gruff sounds from some other soloists in appropriate spots. He conducts, left-handed, in even tempos, fairly fast, with a fine balance to the peroration of the Big Tune in the finale, just barely not too slow. His interpretation emphasizes the dramatic recalls of earlier material that litter the score, with a particular vividness to the trombones in the exciting transition moment in the "Journey in the Dark" movement.
What the concert struggles to overcome is the acoustics of the college chapel. As soon as I see the inside of this cavernous brick and wood building, which is like a museum of every cliché of 50s Scandinavian modernist architecture you ever dreamed of, I know we're in for trouble. In many of the fortes the massive sound is drowned out by its own reverberations, a ridiculous state of affairs. Fortunately de Meij's clean scoring in quieter passages makes its impact. The percussion in particular is on point throughout.
At the conference banquet afterwards I get to meet de Meij, which for me is a bit like meeting a favorite novelist, and burble my compliments. He gives me his card. I forget where in my travel wallet I've stuffed mine, so I fail to reciprocate, dammit. I learn - actually, he discussed this in his pre-concert talk - that he hadn't been a Tolkien fan before beginning this work in the mid 1980s, but he read The Lord of the Rings then in hopes that it would inspire him to a big composition for concert band. And so it did.
The banquet, by the way, is rich, abundant, varied, and prolonged (to borrow a phrase). Excellent food, served buffet style, all dishes supposedly hobbit-inspired, though the only ones obviously so on sight are the English meat pies and the huge bowl of sautéed mushrooms, plus the dragon-decorated cake. Baked fish is labeled as Gollum's special, but, come on, Gollum actually says in the book that he won't touch cooked fish, and what he'd think of the bacon on top I can't imagine.
The banquet is the highlight of Valparaiso cuisine. For intra-conference snacks we are pointed at the café in the student union, which serves only the kind of fast food I'd rather go hungry than eat. Off-campus, a couple of locally prestigious old-line joints out on the highway prove more prestigious than good. Turkey schnitzel, the house specialty at Strongbow Inn, is unlike any schnitzel I've had before, with the consistency and flavor (and size: very small for the price) of a home-made latke. Kelsey's Steakhouse has a big statue of a steer out front, but the prime rib is dull and unmarbled, and the shrimp that come with it on the surf-and-turf plate are small, undercooked, and just terrible. I'm happier at the stylishly retro burger joint just off campus, which serves me a quick cup of really good, hearty chili when I ask for something I can finish up in half an hour so as to get back to the conference sessions.
Infinitely the best food locally is a dozen miles to the north at Wagner's Ribs, an old favorite which I won't visit this part of the world without stopping at. It's inscrutably located in an out-of-the-way village somewhere off I-94, but I can find it because I read maps, and I finally get there for lunch on my drive back to Chicago on Monday. It's as good as ever. Half a slab of baby backs is crispy crunchy on the outside and tender tender on the inside, and the chicken noodle soup is homemade down to its depths.
In Chicago itself, beforehand, I make ritualistic stops at Giordano's pizza (yes, I know Gino's East is supposed to be superior, but it's only on the North Side, and I don't have time to get up there on this visit) and at a Chicago institution I'd only recently heard of for the first time, Harold's Chicken Shack, which I have to say tastes better without the sauce, I don't care what they tell you.
As for what else I did in Indiana, and the fraught tale of how I got there, one more post ...