Apple TV Gets A YouTube Boost

apple.jpgApple Inc. has had its share of miscues of late. The deafening hype surrounding the as-yet unreleased iPhone hasn’t quieted misgivings about the company’s first foray into mobile communications: inflated price, closed architecture, single source carrier (AT&T) and questions about whether it will even ship this month as promised.

The recent announcement of iTunes Plus, which promised music playable on any and all devices, is now mired in controversy. The industry blog ARS Technica reported that supposedly unprotected songs sold on the iTunes Music Store had customer information embedded in them, a move that in theory made it much easier for anti-piracy organizations like the RIAA to track them on file-trading sites.

That, coupled with the fact that customers who upgraded their software to purchase premium ($1.29 each) music were no longer able to buy cheaper versions of the same songs, turned what should have been a defining Apple moment into a nasty public relations headache.

Then there’s the little box that CEO Steve Jobs hoped would finally get Apple into consumer living rooms. Apple TV looked good on paper – a network device that can grab a video from any computer in the house, and stream it to a television in state-of-the-art widescreen format.

There was just one problem – it didn’t work with web sites, only iTunes, where episodes of most popular shows sell for $1.99 each. With no chance to watch Grey’s Anatomy on ABC.com or check out NBC’s Heroes with the occasional commercial break, Apple TV didn’t look like such a great deal. Jobs’ much-vaunted “Reality Distortion Field” was dissolving in a wave of bad press and bothered bloggers.

Perhaps Apple TV’s biggest omission was failing to tap into the zeitgeist of the web’s most popular video site, YouTube. Stranger still, it seemed a perfect match. Google CEO Eric Schmidt sits on Apple’s board of directors, and Google owns YouTube.

Last week, Apple TV’s prospects began to improve when the company unveiled a planned software upgrade, due later this month, which would provide the ability to play YouTube clips on the set top box. Along with that announcement, Apple’s web site began selling a 160 GB Apple TV – a model with four times the storage capacity of the original – presumably to hold all the newly available (and free) content

The Apple/YouTube deal is important for a couple of reasons. First, YouTube is fast becoming the preferred hub for the legal distribution of music videos. Last week, the company struck a deal with EMI, home to David Bowie, Coldplay and Norah Jones. This means that all four of the major labels are on board. Though MTV/VH1 owner Viacom’s intellectual property suit is still unresolved, Schmidt termed the action “a negotiating tactic” at the recent All Things Digital conference, hinting that an agreement wasn’t far off.

Secondly, a deal with Apple means the QuickTime H.264 codec, which maintains picture resolution regardless of screen size, will become YouTube’s streaming video standard. That’s the reason Apple executive David Moody only promised “thousands of videos designed for Apple TV” at launch, not the entire YouTube library. That conversion effort will take a lot more time, though all new videos will be offered in the new format. QuickTime videos are, of course, fully compatible with both the iPhone and iPod. However, no announcements were made about making YouTube content available on those devices.

The move affirms that Apple, for all its recent stumbles, still intends to be a revolutionary force in the entertainment world. As the iPod smashed the music paradigm, YouTube has re-shaped the television landscape. What started as a hybrid of low-rent “MTV Jackass” and alienated teen vanity vehicle has fast become the first on-demand video network of the Internet.

Google is, of course, the most popular web site in history. These elements, combined with Apple’s well-known hardware and design capabilities, could produce a recipe that does for television what the iPod did for music.

Local Rhythms – Alumni Weekend

Since I grew up in a California city with four different high schools, the idea of Alumni Weekend seemed quaint when I came to Claremont in 1980.

I’ve come to realize just how important it is to the local community: a chance to renew old ties and catch up on life’s changes. Every June, regardless of time or distance, Claremont is once again home.

The focal point is, of course, Saturday’s annual Alumni Day parade. Graduates from as far back as 1930 ride in vintage cars and often astounding floats – this year’s theme is “Our Beautiful Parks” – that represent weeks, even months of planning and preparation.

Adding to the pomp and circumstance is a new VIP viewing stand, stationed in front of Hullabaloo, that allows past teachers and honored guests to watch as marching bands and reveler-filled flatbed trucks pass in review.

Rain or shine, it’s an event not to be missed.

One of my favorite moments happens Friday night at the Stevens High School Band’s annual Pops Concert, when past members are invited to join in and jam at the end of the show. This year’s music includes songs from the Beatles and Elton John catalog, a bit of Broadway music, and selections from recent school productions of “Grease” and “Bye Bye Birdie.”

On Saturday, there’s dancing in the streets as well, with local rockers the Rhythm Junkies holding forth downtown from noon until three. Pleasant Street will be bustling with food booths, while Broad Street Park will have plenty of activities for kids, including a clown and a giant slide.

Later that night there’s a banquet at the Stevens gym, and then a Moose Lodge performance by Stan Jr., a Derry, New Hampshire singer with a knack for stringing together several decades’ worth of tunes, punctuated with a Las Vegas showman’s gift for gab.

Stan Jr. charmed the crowd at the Alumni Association’s “Super Legends” benefit last fall. So, says association secretary Pauline Pelletier, “he’s back by popular demand.”
As is Alumni Weekend, without fail; Stevens, it’s been noted many times, has the longest-running, continuously active high school alumni effort in the country. That’s due to hard work and a durable community fabric – and, of course, Cardinal Pride.

Now, on to the rest of the entertainment calendar:

Thursday: Farmer’s Market, Claremont – A TV nutritionist recently explained that French people stay skinny and live longer lives because they eat real food. Whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, not the kind of stuff you pick up at the drive-through window. This weekly merchant gathering provides a bevy of locally grown produce, along with crafts and yes, music. The Sugar River String Band performs, with different talent promised through autumn.

Friday: Oneside, Salt Hill Pub – This Boston-based band makes stops at Charlestown’s Heritage Tavern (the next is July 14), but I caught them first at Lebanon’s pub on the green. They combine elements of Dave Matthews Band with Bela Fleck’s spirited musical flights, along with a few southern accents. Check out “Got To Go” on their MySpace site. Ian Knox redefines that banjo as an electric instrument. Plus, you can dance to it.

Saturday: Shana Morrison, Ascutney Resort – The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as Van’s daughter returns for a brief (two date) Eastern tour. She played the Crow’s Nest last winter to a sold-out crowd. The sight lines left a lot to be desired, so with any luck they’ll relocate the music to a bigger room. Shana mixes her dad’s gems (she sat in during Van the Man’s 2006 tour) with some fine originals. The dreamy, Worcester-based Curtain Society backed her last time out.
Sunday: Pete Merrigan, Murphy’s – Pete’s back and he’s everywhere – Sophie & Zeke’s tomorrow, New London’s Snyder’s College Cafe on Saturday and Sunday at this Sunapee eatery, a favorite Merrigan haunt for years. It’s been gussied up, with a new chef and menu. Bleu cheese crusted filet and a Mont Blanc white chocolate raspberry pyramid are among the new items on the menu. But you can stick with margaritas, chips and salsa – nobody will mind.

Monday: Molly Venter, Canoe Club – After Marko the Magician goes from table to table like most Monday nights, this New Haven-born singer/songwriter debuts at the Canoe. Judging from the songs on her MySpace page, she has the lyrical sensibilities of Ani DiFranco (“I have trouble relating/when I’m self-medicating”) and a soaring voice that reminds me a bit of Jann Arden.
Wednesday: Albert Hammond Jr., Pearl Street – The force behind indie darlings the Strokes made a solo album that shows he learned a thing or two from his father, who wrote “It Never Rains In Southern California.” Junior’s “Yours To Keep” isn’t bubble gum pop, but it’s got more sheen than most post-punk.

Claremont Middle School’s Impressive Concert

The clouds parted for Claremont Middle School’s year-ending “Spring of Music” concert Tuesday night. Chorus Director Ginny Formidoni joked that she’d orchestrated the weather outside, but the wonderful music she coaxed from her 50-plus charges was no less magical than making the rain disappear.

Mrs. Formidoni set the bar high at the outset, with the spiritual “Climbin’ Up the Mountain” and the traditional “On The Railroad” each going through several complex musical changes. The baritone section was particularly good, a rare achievement for a group whose oldest members are just 13.

An emotional “Pie Jesu,” originally composed by Mary Lynn Lightfoot to honor the victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was dedicated to the memory of former teacher and friend of music Kathy Jobin, who passed away last year.

Under the direction of Seth Moore, the sixth grade band showed talent beyond their years, with a raucous rendition of Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” – “because what concert is complete without classic rock?” quipped Moore – and the majestic “Sunday Song.” They followed this with a bit of musical muscle flexing, first with “Clarinets on the Run” and then “Flute Street”.

The evening’s string orchestra performance provided several high points, beginning with the buoyant Yiddish piece “Lo Yisa Goy (A Song of Peace). “Fiddler’s Frolic” combined bits of southern and Appalachian music in a piece with multiple movements and both familiar and eclectic elements, ending with a “shave and a haircut/two bits” exclamation point.

What was most apparent during this interlude was how joyous the students seemed. The feeling was contagious, with much toe tapping and head swaying evident throughout the building. Mrs. Formidoni conducted the group through four pieces, ending with the Irish jig “Blackberry Blossom.” At that point, Formidoni handed the baton to Moore, picking up a violin to join in for “Themes From ‘The Moldau’”.

The extended piece contained some of the most demanding music of the night. At points quiet, delicate, intricate and sweeping, it caused one audience member to jump to his feet at the end; the crowd’s sustained applause made it clear the rest of the house agreed with him.

The CMS Jazz Band played the big band “Basie-Cally: The Blues,” along with tightly performed versions of “Pink Panther” and the Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town.”

Five choir members selected for this year’s prestigious Southwest District Festival sang a rousing rendition, complete with hand jive, of “This Little Light of Mine.” Each girl took a solo, and at evening’s end the five – Alicia Dale, Amber Brooks, Monique LaFreniere, Stephanie Aldrich and Elizabeth Goodwin – received medals for their selection in the statewide singing group.

The combined Middle School chorus were inspirational as they sang, “we are the future/help us believe/give us hope and we’ll show you the way.” It was easy to take them at their word. Finally, the 7th and 8th grade band performed the very demanding “Russian Sailor’s Dance” and “Mystic Garden.” Following the presentation of awards, they closed the night out with a note-perfect performance of “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

The number of multi-instrumentalists performing in this music program is quite impressive, with several students contributing to string, chorus and band performances during the evening.

The combined band, which includes members from all three grades, didn’t perform Tuesday, but Formidoni noted that they did earn a silver medal during the recent Great East competition, held at Six Flags Park in Agawam, Massachusetts. On Friday, the chorus will journey to Great Escape in Lake George, New York for the “Trills & Thrills” event, which isn’t a competition per se. It’s a judged performance, where choirs are measured against a set of criteria. Participation is at the discretion of the choir director.

Tuesday’s performance was a culmination of sorts for a few 8th grade band members, who will set down their instruments to concentrate on college level honors courses when they enter Stevens High School next year. In that respect, it was a little bittersweet, but still rousing end to Claremont Middle School’s musical year.