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Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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Prokofiev: A Tribute to Man's Mighty Powers

Published in Art Scene

The Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev has been in and out of fashion in Western musical circles for decades, but for now he is definitely IN. The Austin Symphony Orchestra is offering a rousing rendition of his famous Symphony No. 5 this weekend.


Prokofiev, who died in 1953, is being portrayed live on stage during the first half of the multimedia event, in a production created by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Conceived in 2005, they have now created 30 so-called 'Beyond the Score' presentations that give the audience a cultural and musical background to some of the world's most iconic scores.


Here Yevgeniy Sharlat spoke the words of Prokofiev. He was joined on stage by Robert Faires as the narrator, Barbara Chisholm as the composer's wife, and David Long who represented several composers. The symphony joined in by performing brief excerpts of his major compositions, as a chronological survey of his life was shown on a big screen. His peripatetic life as a composer and pianist, from Russia to the United States, on to France , back to the U.S. and finally returning to Russia, is given as a welcome textural background to his work.


In the dialogue, Prokofiev describes his Symphony No. 5 as a tribute to man's mighty powers, and this Promethean inspiration is expressed in music that brings to mind roiling magma. Each burst of a lava bubble is marked by the clashing of cymbals in the first movement.


The second movement is quite different, redolent of a busy metropolis filled with streetcars and pedestrians. The frenetic pace of city life may not have been what the composer intended, but it would make a good soundtrack to a silent film about New York City in the 20s.


The third movement most closely conforms to what Soviet officialdom demanded from its composers in the 1940s. It has a searching quality to it, expressing lost innocence: not surprising as the Motherland was still battling Nazi forces as Prokofiev wrote this in the winter of 1943-44. It is not a plaintive melody so much as a soul-searching attempt at redemption which seems to be fulfilled in a sweet and tender ending.


The fourth and final movement has a sprightly, almost Carnivalesque exuberance. It reminds one of music from his 1921 opera The Love for Three Oranges with its “charming capriciousness” in the words of legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht.


One of the touchstone recordings of the 5th is by Leonard Bernstein. The tempo by the Austin Symphony was too fast in comparison, thus minimising the full dramatic effect Bernstein achieved, especially in the 3rd movement. Nonetheless an excellent introduction to this great symphony for the Austin scene.


The Austin Symphony will be giving Bernstein a great birthday present next year, to celebrate his centennial. His Mass will be performed June 29 and June 30, preceded by a suite of free events for the public who can learn about this extraordinary musical extravaganza. It begins with a 100th birthday bash at the Bullock Museum on Jan. 7, 2018. Visit the website for details:

Clint Hill: Five Presidents

Published in Miami News

It took Clint Hill 46 years to come to terms with his role in the assassination of President Kennedy. Hill, who was a Secret Service agent, spoke about his career during an appearance at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin.


Hill said “I went back to Dallas, alone, in 1990. I looked out that window in the Texas School Book Depository, and I came away knowing there was nothing more I could have done that day.”


It was Hill who jumped onto the back of the limousine when the shots were fired, but he was unable to prevent the worst. The Secret Service, he said, “had a responsibility to protect the president. We failed to do so, and it haunted me for years.”


Hill on the back of the limousine as Pres. Kennedy is killedWhen asked by an audience member who he thought was responsible for the assassination that changed the course of history, Hill was matter-of-fact. “There were only 3 shots fired from the Texas School Book Depository, from one rifle. There was one assassin, he operated alone, and he was Lee Harvey Oswald.”


Even though that awful day in Nov. 1963 was the most dramatic moment of his career, Hill served five presidents, the subject of a book he wrote in 2016 with Lisa McCubbin. During the Library event, she set up questions which Hill, standing at the other end of the stage, would answer. The capacity audience included several Secret Service agents. One of these was Tom Johnson, who introduced Hill. Tom was assigned to the security detail of President Johnson, and there is a famous photo of the President at Cape Kennedy watching the launch of Apollo 11 to the Moon. Tom stands right behind him.


Hill, who will be 86 in January 2018, offered a lucid and entertaining account of the presidents he has worked for, beginning with Eisenhower. “We were not his favourite people, but we had a great deal of respect for him.”


Hill knew the dangers of a motorcade through the streets of a city as early as 1960, when Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon drove through New York City in a open car. Imagine both top elected officials in the same open car! “It was a mess and I was scared to death,” Hill explained of his feelings.


Once Kennedy was elected, the CIA chief assigned him to protect the First Lady, not the president. “I was angry, disappointed and mad,” he said. “I wanted to be where the action is,” but he came to appreciate the time spent with Mrs. Kennedy.


He relates an amusing incident while protecting Pres. Johnson. It was on a round-the-world flight, and they landed late at night in the Azores on Christmas Eve. The PX stayed open so the other Secret Service agents and staff could do some Christmas shopping. Hill was standing in front of the plane's ramp when Johnson suddenly appeared in yellow pyjamas. “Hey Clint where is everybody?” he bellowed. Clint explained, and Johnson said “Well I haven't been shopping either, let's go!” Hill said “you could have heard a pin drop when the leader of the free world showed up the PX,” with a robe over yellow pyjamas.


Hill clearly did not like Pres. Nixon, so he was relieved when assigned to protect the vice president. First Agnew and then Ford, who became the last president he was assigned to protect. As one can imagine, it was an all-consuming task. “My children pretty much grew up without a father. I was away 90% of the time.”


What did the presidents have in common? “They each had a large ego, although not as large as some egos,” he joked, making a sly reference to the current occupant of the Oval Office.


For more about the library visit the website:


Photo copyright by C. Cunningham

Rudolph Shines

Published in Theatre

Before Rudolph leads Santa's sleigh this year, he is on a 50-city tour showing off why his red nose saved Christmas. One stop on his tour was Austin, where he delighted an audience consisting mostly of pre-teens and their parents.


This is the 4th consecutive year for the theatrical tour, which is based on the 1964 television special.


Rudolph with Yukon and HermeyThe theme of misfits runs through the production. Rudolph's pal in this regard is Hermey, played to perfection by actor Nick Ley. It seems curious that the role of Rudolph was played by a female, but it behooves me to say (pun intended) Sarah Errington offered a perfectly believeable young reindeer. The message that misfits have a place in society is a powerful one, which hopefully resonates with many of the young people this production is primarily designed for.


The adventures of Rudolph and Hermey with Yukon, a hard-bitten gold and silver miner played by Ben Burch, is a major element of the production. The music during his appearances, which includes a battle with a giant snow monster, seemed a bit overpowering to me and perhaps too loud for all those young ears in the audience. His bellowing dialogue was sometimes lost in the din.


A thin Santa was ably played by James Gruessing, but changing his character from the iconic plump Santa struck me as odd. Shouldn't all those kids in the audience be shown what they expect to see?


Kudos to the puppeteers who handled everything from small, cute creatures to the 12-foot Abominable Snowman. This nod to the stop-action character of the '64 show was especially appreciated by the parents in the audience.


Quibbles aside, the production was flawless, and combined with a dazzling suite of musical tunes that concluded with audience participation in the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, this was a great way to kick off the Christmas season in Austin.


For upcoming performances in other cities, visit the website for the musical:




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