A Late Quartet — a Review

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven

It’s not often that I see a movie on subject matter that I think I know something about. But A Late Quartet in some respects touches very close to home.

The story is about a famous string quartet struggling to stay together after its cellist, played by Christopher Walken, announces he’s in the early stages of Parkinson’s and will not be able to play much longer — in fact is already barely play at the level of consummate perfection required of a world class chamber musician. In that world there is utterly no faking it.

The very idea of small ensembles in music has been one of my very biggest driving interests in life since youth — not just string quartets, and not just classical chamber groups in general. I’ve long believed that in small ensemble playing the end result can be far greater than the sum of its parts, and that the best groups are those who stay with it a very long time to the point that the players become like family to one another, virtually living together — disfunctionally perhaps, but family nonetheless. When I think of great groups I think not only of the Juilliard, Amadeus, Takacs, and Emerson string quartets, but also of the Beatles, Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and yes (some will shudder), even the Rolling Stones. By coincidence I happen to be reading Philip Norman’s biography about Mick Jagger right now, and previously read Keith Richards’s autobiography wherein I have come to appreciate that although the Stones are a different category of musicians from the others I’ve mentioned, in terms of their commitment to music making, they fit right in.

With any great ensemble, it’s not about who has the best assemblage of solo concert artists (though most great classical chamber musicians can knock off a concerto any day of the week), but above all about the chemistry between precisely the right people. Change even one person, and the whole sound becomes different. For instance, rock and roll drumnmers abound, and half or more of them are as good as or better than Ringo Starr. But the Beatles would not have been at all the same without Ringo, even at the beginning, and even though he was clearly the fourth man. But what a fourth man he was! In the world of classical chamber music it’s not hard to find a musician who can walk onto the stage and sightread all the written notes right, or who has played everything in the standard repertoire many times before, but the end result is never the same thing when a substitute is required. It takes months to work a single new musician into a tight group — and the quartet in A Late Quartet is acutely aware of that reality. My own frustrated efforts to create a long-lasting ensemble back in the late sixties, thwarted largely by non-stop personnel changes, taught me that lesson on a personal level.

The story line of A Late Quartet is built around the group’s preparation for a concert on which they will play Beethoven’s Quartet Opus 131, one of the composer’s latest works, which the group’s cellist hopes will be his farewell performance. (With consequences that explain what happens at the end.)

Each one of Beethoven’s late quartets is among the greatest examples of music ever written. There are six of them, known by their opus numbers in the range 127 to 135, and of these not a few musicians regard Opus 131 as their personal favorite, including me. While I was an undergraduate music student, I went on a Beethoven quartet kick (which followed my Beethoven piano sonata kick), during which almost all I did for a week or so was play recordings of all the quartets with the scores in front of me. And when I got to Opus 131, which somehow at that point I had never yet heard (there’s a first time for everything), it was a revelation, moving me to exude a tiresome stream of superlatives about it that my friends surely tired of hearing. It took me a while to get down off of that particular cloud. (Today I still rank Opus 131 as my third all-time favorite piece of music, with the Bach Chaconne at the top, followed by the second movement of Beethoven’s Opus 111 piano sonata.)

But the story of A Late Quartet is not just about the music. It’s about the people who make it, and about how the disturbance of inevitably losing their senior member was the butterfly effect-like tremor that presaged a tsunami of difficulties and misbehavior to follow — some of which events are frankly cheaply melodramatic, even stupid, reducing the merit of this film from being a great film to merely a very good film.

Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in by far the best acting performance as the brilliant but oppressed second violinist, married to the violist. (They have a beautiful violinist daughter who also figures importantly into the plot.) He confesses that he sees his role in the ensemble as having being that of an accompanist to the younger first violinist for twenty-five years. He’s as dead wrong as if John Lennon had told George Harrison that he was going to take over the lead guitar role — which never happened. (I’m reminded of one day when Mick Jagger was fooling around on a guitar, Keith Richards said to him, “There are two guitarists in this band, and you’re not one of them.”)

There are conflicts between particularly the younger three members of the quartet that have little to do with the music itself (and which are extremely important to the plot — no spoilers here), but from which Walken remains quietly insulated as he begins to adjust to a new life with Parkinson’s.

What Hoffman’s character goes through, as self-centered as it all is for a period, seems very real to me; and it affects the ensemble and therefore the music.

Christopher Walken, who would seem to be an unlikely actor to choose to play the role of an aging, wise, and mature classical musician, handles his part well, but despite a great deal of coaching, handles the cello awkwardly, and is not convincing with an instrument in his hands.

Making an actor who is not a musician look like a musician (or an athlete who is not an athlete) is always a difficult trick to pull off in moviemaking. There is no group of musical instruments harder for a non-playing actor to fake on stage by going through the motions in front of a camera while someone else plays on the soundtrack than the instruments of a string quartet. Almost anyone can be made to look like a competent pianist. The actor can hide behind the instrument and just emote, if necessary, so you never even see their hands. And a woodwind or brass player just has to put the thing to his mouth and wiggle his fingers. But a string instrument involves the player much more completely. Of these, the violin and viola are almost impossible to get right. It takes a couple of years for a beginning player who is taking lessons and practicing daily just to learn to hold a violin or viola properly and not look like a dork. There’s absolutely nothing easy about it, as a player must twist his arm and shoulder into an unnatural position so as to bring his hands into a position so that his fingers strike the stings vertically — and somehow also play vibrato. I don’t know how they do it, and I’ve tried myself. And then there is the bow to deal with, which must be held and drawn exactly a certain way. It’s as hard as juggling even to fake it.

A cello is, in my opinion, somewhat easier, mostly because of an approximately ninety-degree shift in left-arm position to one that is absolutely natural. I’ve messed around myself just a little bit on violins, violas, and even many years ago on my brother’s cello. (The sum total of my string playing experience amounts to hours, not years.) I think if I wanted to try and fool someone on camera, I’d go for the cello part first because I’ve played guitar and electric bass, so can handle the appearance of left-hand dexterity, and would have to concentrate mainly on the bow.

That said, I think that all three of the other actors who were quartet members look more natural than Walken, who appears to be in pain (maybe he was supposed to because of the Parkinson’s, which is allegedly not painful), and more than stereotypically frowny-faced and serious, in harmony with Hollywood’s conception of the typical classical musicians as being nothing but stuffed shirts all the time, never having a moment of “fun,” especially when performing.

The other nit I have with this film is that the name of the ensemble is The Fugue (always spoken with reverence so you’ll know it’s supposed to be a great group, one that fills concert halls). It’s a silly name for a classical quartet, given that the fugue is primarily a baroque musical form, whereas the string quartet, both as an ensemble combination and a musical form, is something that emerged in the early classical era — Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all wrote many — remained strong throughout the romantic era, and is still a respected combination today, written for by many composers. And yes, plenty of post-baroque composers have written fugues, even in string quatets. In fact Beethoven’s Opus 131 starts with a slow fugue, one factor among many that makes this work utterly unique in the repertoire. But starting in the classical era, fugues are the exception rather than the rule. So why call your string quartet ensemble The Fugue?

But regarding the group’s discussion about music — comments about string crossings, fingerings, matching vibrato speeds, arguments about hairpins (how many non-musicians will know they’re talking about crescendos and diminuendos, not bobby pins?), personal markings on the music, the problem of keeping the instruments in tune for the non-stop duration of the seven-movement Opus 131, and all the rest — a declamatory Yes! Those are exactly the sort of things real musicians talk about and work on when preparing for a performance. All that makes the movie more real. And in this case, verisimilitude is good, and a welcome relief from the usual Hollywood dreck thrown at audiences as representing the world of classical music. (For the very worst of that in comparison, see the dreadful film Mr. Holland’s Opus. Check that — don’t bother.)

In the end, all the conflicts — musical, mechanical, and personal — revolve around the question of whether being able to play the music is important enough that those four fragile, vulnerable, and imperfect human beings who comprise The Fugue are able to resolve their differences in a way that will allow there to be a quartet that will continue. The answer is supplied with great dignity, but not until the movie’s final scene.

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Chronicles: Volume 1 — Bob Dylan

Cover of
Cover of Chronicles, Volume 1

Contrary to implications from the title, and also to the customary method of presenting biography, Bob Dylan’s book Chronicles: Volume 1 is not a traditional “Born on a mountaintop in …” chronologically-told tale. We learn bits of the back story throughout the book, enough to be satisfied that Dylan, famous for his penchant for privacy, has not withheld anything important. Is it any business of we the curious to expect more? In any case, the sort of trivia that obsessive star-stalkers seek is not hard to uncover from other sources; some of it is even true. (Apparently, but what do I know?)

I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan since early times. I used to hear him regularly in the early sixties on The Midnight Special, a Saturday night radio program dedicated to American roots music, broadcast on Chicago’s great FM radio station WFMT. The show has been running continuously since 1953, though I haven’t heard it myself since college days. I don’t know how often they continued to play Dylan after he became a breakaway star. For all I know, they still do. For all he has done in his life, he remains first and foremost a folksinger.

Chronicles: Volume 1 opens and closes around Dylan’s signing first a publishing deal with Leeds Music, which he soon got out of (he was technically underage when he signed it without the co-signature of a parent or guardian), then a recording deal with Columbia Records, having been acquired by John Hammond, one of the greatest talent discoverers in music history — all before Dylan had begun to write much at all. In comparison, imagine being the record company that signed the Beatles before John and Paul had written Please Please Me — which actually happened.

To be invited to record with Columbia on the basis of Dylan’s prior experience was a happening equivalent in order of magnitude to an aspiring classical pianist being asked to present his world premiere performance as a concerto soloist with the New York Philharmonic. In those days (late 1961) you couldn’t get a better deal, although Columbia also had a reputation that if your first record didn’t sell well, they would bury you and your career would be over.

A few years later, my band was also invited to cut a demo for Columbia. They didn’t take us on. It was probably not a good match for either of us at the time. My band never went much of anywhere, and today nobody has heard of it. Obviously, it went better for Dylan.

Following the signings in October 1961, we are shifted back in time to February of that year, when nascent but already experienced folk singer Bob Zimmerman, not yet Dylan, arrived in New York City. We learn of his successful efforts to find venues in the West Village basket houses and clubs, another experience we shared with Dylan, ours about seven years later. Dylan’s repertoire was already substantial, but for a while he would do nothing but Woody Guthrie songs. He seems to be a sponge for memorizing words. He hadn’t yet begun writing songs of his own. And we are told of the friends he’d acquired who were happy to let him stay on their living room couches for weeks at a time.

Dylan had a feeling he was going places, but even he could not possibly have anticipated what actually happened.

It should come as no surprise that Dylan, revered even more for his poetic lyrics than for the music that accompanies them (although I like the music and lyrics equally myself), is capable of writing engaging passages of prose, interrupted occasionally by quirkily casual colloquialisms, such as “Me and Clayton went [somewhere],” which a friend postulates is just “Dylan going from Proust mode, say, to Woodie Guthrie mode, just because he is able to do so. Think Mark Twain.” Surely Bob Dylan knows how to use pronouns properly, so I’ll grant credence to my friend’s theory. There are nonetheless a few minor passages in the book that could have used closer attention by a copyeditor. But that’s a subject I’m prejudiced about.

There are some extraordinary passages in which Dylan describes his influences. He’s always been surrounded by music and books. Although he was determined to pursue folk music, he liked and absorbed everything: classical music, modern jazz, even a great deal of pop music, including commercial performers like Rick Nelson and the Kingston Trio. He’s always been more focused on the songs, particularly their stories and words, than the artifice used to put them across.

Dylan relates an experience where he woke up in the apartment of friends he was staying with, and explored their vast library, everything from the Greek, Latin, and old English classics to modern times, also history, art, and philosophy. Dylan devoured such things during his hours alone. Although Dylan was apparently a mediocre student back in Hibbing, Minnesota, it’s apparent he had by this time acquired a substantial storehouse of knowledge about many subjects. He made special effort to memorize longer and longer passages of difficult poetry, mostly because he liked it, but also for practice. Dylan thereby demonstrated something I’ve long believed, that being a good student and getting an education does not mean getting top grades in school, but actually learning something.

His tale is suffused with enough back references that it’s not necessary for him to devote a whole chapter, section, or other discrete part to his being born, his family, growing up, school, friends, and the like. He doesn’t try to hide any of it as though he disowned his past, which he manifestly has never done. But most of these details are not important to telling the story that people who are interested in Bob Dylan the self-invented character need to hear about.

Another segment, similar to the bookshelf exploration sequence, is his telling of going regularly to the New York Public Library and reading newspapers from 1855–65 on microfilm in order to absorb the flavor of their language, and to become more familiar firsthand with what the real stories and issues were in those days, which included far more than just states’ rights and slavery. The nation was a powder keg at the time, and the conflict that came was unstoppable, a cancer that the nation had to battle to get rid of. Those times generated a lot of good music that few people today have ever heard.

Dylan seems to have been conscious from an early age of what he wanted to do in life: to be a folk singer, and to make a mark in the world that way. Fame and wealth were not objectives; in fact, he anticipated working in relative obscurity while recording for some minor folk music label, rather than becoming a mainstream artist. He never expected to become as big as his idol Woodie Guthrie.

Suddenly readers are shifted forward in time ten years. Imagine an autobiography by John Lennon, in which he skips covering most of what happened to him between ages twenty and thirty. It’s kind of an important period in his life, don’tcha think?

Still, the stories Dylan tells of events that are highlights from his own perspective, particularly of recording sessions for certain key albums, are remarkably cogent and informative.

Finally, readers are time-shifted once again back to the signing of his record deal, to his discovery on the very same day of blues man Robert Johnson by means of an unreleased acetate John Hammond gave him, as Columbia had bought all Johnson’s recordings and intended to release them, and to a scene of Dylan, who had worked hard recently to manufacture himself, feeling a sense of destiny, that something big was about to happen — as indeed it did.

Will there be a Chronicles: Volume 2? I certainly hope so.

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About Legacy Posts

As of July 25, 2011, I have migrated over 130 articles from my Neologistics blog, where since August 2005 I have posted many unsorted articles, including items unrelated to editing, writing, or literature. The articles copied from the old site have all been labeled with the category LEGACY.

It has been a longstanding shortcoming of Google’s otherwise excellent blog service that authors cannot order the display in any way except chronologically, with the newest material on top. In contrast, WordPress allows assigning any number of categories to any post, allowing visitors variety in sifting and sorting.

In addition, it also makes sense to me not to have to support two blogs at once. This morning I posted my last article to the old site, announcing my intention to use this one exclusively from now on.

The job of migration is done. Each older article’s publication date has been revised to show the date of its original publication on the other site.

Readers may find some of these articles enjoyable. I invite you to explore and by all means provide feedback if you would like.

Keith Richards and Eric Clapton Autobiographies

Cover of "Life"
Cover via Amazon
Cover of "Clapton: The Autobiography"
Cover via Amazon

In January 2011 I read Life by Keith Richards. In April I followed that with Eric Clapton’s earlier book: Clapton: The Autobiography. It was inevitable that readers who read both will see comparisons between these two icons of rock and roll. I doubt I’m the first to do so.

I’ve never been one of Eric Clapton’s ardent fans. I’ll admit to liking his album Unplugged very much, and to playing some Cream covers when I played in bars many years ago. The main reason I consumed his biography was because I stumbled across it shortly after reading Richards’s.

Although I had a rock band myself in the late sixties and greatly admire the creativity and musicianship of both the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, I’m no longer sufficiently obsessed by rock and roll that I follow the lives of performers — with the notable exception of the Beatles. Therefore, my purpose here is to compare what I know about these two men on the basis of what they told me themselves in the pages of their books. If you want to read reviews of the books you can try the New York Times articles Stray Cat Blues by Liz Phair, about the Richards biography, and for Clapton’s book, Slowhand by Stephen King — yes that Stephen King, who is allegedly a capable amateur rock and roll guitarist himself. I’ll disclaim any inaccuracies herein that are attributable to lies, exaggerations, or misrepresentations by the authors. Are there any? In all probability, yes.

The Writing

Keith Richards’s tale is downright entertaining. Life is indisputably a page-turner, a thoroughly fun read, if you wear hip boots and don’t drag your feet through the vulgar parts. He made me laugh out loud often. James Fox is credited as co-author, but throughout it is the voice of Keith Richards that we hear, including his edgy sense of humor.

Eric Clapton’s prose, presumably fussed over by skilled but anonymous editors, delivers straightforward, “brutally” honest, and unmodulating narrative, with far less digression and color than Keith Richards injects in his own account. Honesty is always a good thing. Brutality never is, and sometimes the blows come hard and fast.

We suffer hearing about it anyhow, because Clapton relates the firsthand account of someone talented, popular, rich, and famous, someone whose life provides vicarious fulfillment of fantasies for not a few readers; but some of the details regarding Clapton’s difficulties with heroin and then alcohol become a little tiresome, even if these must be told in order to render a complete story.

The Backgrounds

To begin with the obvious: Both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton are Englishmen from the same era. Richards was born on December 18, 1943, Clapton on March 30, 1945. Both were from lower-middle-class families in an overtly class-conscious nation. Neither cared much about school. Richards had legitimate parents, but an unusual relationship with them. Clapton was illegitimate, and until he was nine believed that his grandparents were his parents, his uncle was his older brother, and his mother was his aunt. Eric Clapton is an unusually good-looking chick magnet, though recent pictures suggest he’s acquired a bit of a gut; today Keith Richards is outright scary to behold, but I think he likes the impression his ugliness makes.

The Music

As very young fellows both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton discovered and became enchanted by Chicago blues music. This was not a common interest among English boys. And of course, both became obsessively interested in playing the guitar in an attempt to learn to play this music themselves. Richards would sometimes even sleep with his guitar, cuddling it like a woman. But despite their similar roots, the two men became radically different guitarists.

Both Richards and Clapton have been deeply dedicated to quality music-making their whole careers; but their methods have found expression in different ways.

Richards has shown tenacity in his determination to keep his band together, with as few personnel changes as possible, and notwithstanding a history of feuds with Mick Jagger. For this I sincerely commend him, because of my own longstanding belief that the best music is made not by star soloists in front of a mediocre band of hirelings, but by small ensembles of performers who grow while working together for many years.

The longevity of the Rolling Stones is legendary. They formed a few years after John Lennon and Paul McCartney first met, have continued working together for forty years since the Beatles broke up, and the party is by no means over. No one will be surprised if they make yet another album and go out on tour again, when all of the core players are now old men pushing seventy years of age.

While the role of Mick Jagger in this must not be underestimated, Jagger was almost the one to put an end to it. I’m convinced that it has been Richards, more than any other member, who has been the most passionate about the Rolling Stones’ music, and the primary driving force in keeping the band together, continuing to create, record, and tour. Still, it’s clear that if either Jagger or Richards were to bail out, the Rolling Stones would be over.

In their earliest years the Rolling Stones were deeply interested in Chicago blues. For years their repertoire consisted almost entirely of covers of songs from that genre. But when they began recording, Richards and Jagger started writing songs together — after being locked in a room and forced to do it the first time. Their collaboration has been more productive in quantity than that of Lennon and McCartney, and the quality has not been too shabby either.

They developed their own distinctive style of rock and roll built upon an inimitable lead singer; raucous backup vocal harmonies laid over a bedrock of simple, physically imposing riffs, and what Richards calls “guitar weaving;” the rock solid drumming of Charlie Watts; and the better than adequate bass playing of Bill Wyman (until he retired a few years ago). It’s been good stuff for listeners who like that kind of thing.

In contrast, Clapton has proclaimed himself to be an idealistic purist about his music-making, and left several bands in succession at the peak of their popularity (much of the acclaim attributable to him) when the musical environment didn’t suit him, particularly whenever it seemed to veer away from pure blues and into commercial and overtly money-making pop and rock pursuits. Heaven knows he’s made a jillion dollars despite this finickiness, and has been in demand as a guitarist, singer, and composer, both as leader and as a featured sideman, his entire career.

Keith Richards does on occasion appear in contexts outside the Rolling Stones, but he does so rarely and seems not to fit in easily anywhere outside the domain he has created for his own unique talents. Clapton can do it because frankly he is a more skilled guitarist and general musician than Richards in that he can sit in with a group of similarly experienced musicians and play a million songs with little or no rehearsal. If he had not become a star, he would still be making an excellent living as a studio musician.

Keith Richards is not a flashy guitar hero type of virtuoso that Clapton has allowed himself to be, and never has been. To his credit, this has been at least in part according to his personal choice, as he is more concerned with the sound of his guitar: the rawness, the uniqueness of the riffs he invents, the texture, and especially the voicings of chords that are made possible by his playing on five-string instruments using an open G tuning (G–D–G–B–D) that give songs such as the popular rock anthem Start Me Up a sound that is often imitated but never duplicated except by players who take the trouble to learn how to play in open G tuning.

The reason I know about this is because Richards devotes quite a bit of space in his book to discussing musical techniques, and in doing so, also reveals much about his own dedication to the music he makes. But Clapton, other than expressing his like or dislike for certain songs, styles, and bands, and sometimes for special instruments, rarely discusses in his book the music he has played at even a simple technical level.

The Lives

Both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton have led lives of pitiful self-indulgence, free from much sense of obligation to follow common standards of accountability for what they do. Both were heroin addicts who took years to get off the junk. Thereafter, Clapton had a nightmarish time with alcohol, and almost killed himself with drinking, but has been sober for years. In 1997 he founded the Crossroads Centre in Antigua, a facility for the treatment of addictive disorders, including drugs and alcohol.

Richards has nurtured his outlaw image. When he suffered a severe head injury that resulted in brain surgery, he received good wishes from Tony Blair, who told him, “You’ve always been one of my heroes,” to which Richards quipped, “England’s in the hands of somebody who I’m a hero of? It’s frightening.”

How is it that we as a society have come to condone and even endorse aberrant behavior of people just because they are rich and famous in the world of popular music? (The same could be asked of sports and movie personalities.) It seems automatic that a part of the compensation package for success in those pursuits is a license to live irresponsibly, because stars can do it and get away with it. No one other than a series of wronged spouses is likely to hold them accountable; their popularity will barely diminish, and even increase. They’ll still be famous, usually rich, and successful in their chosen careers.

Today, both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton are by their own accounts happy family men rapidly approaching geezerhood. Clapton even married a much younger woman named Melia from here in Columbus, Ohio, has four daughters, and owns a home in nearby Dublin, though I understand he still spends more time at Hurtwood Edge, his home in Surrey, which he has owned since shortly after Cream disbanded.

Interestingly, Keith Richards has become a dedicated reader, with a beautiful library in his home in Connecticut. He even claims to read the Bible regularly. I don’t think Eric Clapton reads much more than the average person. (Which these days is not much.)

Although their pace has slowed, both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton continue to make music. I myself am a bit older than both of them. When we were all in our youth, rock and roll and popular music was exclusively the domain of young stars, their even younger fans, and a few older and more experienced but relatively anonymous professional backup musicians. All that has changed, as now former presidents of the United States and future monarchs of England, themselves in the same age bracket as the most venerable stars, enthusiastically attend the performances of the likes of Richards and Clapton. It will no doubt be interesting to see what sorts of things these guys produce in their dotage.

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Fry Street Quartet, Southern Theater

On Saturday night we had the pleasure of attending a concert by the Fry Street String Quartet at the Southern Theater in downtown Columbus, which we had not yet visited in our three-plus years of living in Ohio.

The Southern Theater, built originally in 1896, has a distinguished history of presenting theater productions featuring world-renowned performers. After closing for many years, it was refurbished, and reopened in 1998, now with 995 seats, a good size for the presentation of chamber music. It retains its late nineteenth century decor and character.

When we entered the theater’s auditorium we were surprised and delighted to encounter something I’ve never heard — an accomplished all-female string quartet of high-schoolers playing Debussy’s string quartet (quite a difficult piece to negotiate, with its constant ebb and flow) as people entered and found their seats. Part of Fry Street Quartet‘s trip to Ohio was devoted to meeting with and teaching young students. It seemed like an excellent opportunity for these young players to get some exposure of a type they would be unlikely to get otherwise, and I’m sure they were glad to do it, despite the many people in the audience who continued to socialize while they played. I called them the warm-up band.

The audience was about eighty-five percent people of retirement age. Okay — I’ll admit I’m a gray-hair myself, but I’ve been going to these things since I was old enough to sit still and behave, surely no older than four, and I never thought of myself as unusual for being at concerts as a kid. Some of the remaining audience members appeared to be music students, in training to entertain the next generation of gray-hairs.

I did not see even one black person at the concert, but saw one at the reception later.

Both of these observations bother me because they are constants, characteristic of the state of classical music in the twenty-first century; I have opinions about the whys and wherefores, but must save them for another post.

The Fry Street Quartet’s program was a heavyweight: Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 3, actually the first quartet Beethoven ever wrote; Bartok’s first string quartet; and Schubert’s best-known quartet, titled Death and the Maiden. They topped it off with a cleverly staged encore, a virtuosic rendition of the country fiddler’s tune Orange Blossom Special, performed with style and pizzazz, a treat which some people too anxious to get out the door missed.

Being disinclined to write descriptive reviews of musical performances (heaven save us from the ignorance and idiocy of the typical newspaper critic, particularly the dolt who wrote the Columbus Dispatch review of this concert), I’ll say only that the whole program was played with enormous enthusiasm and that the ensemble is tight as a Swiss watch, with a sound that’s warm, balanced, and transparent.

What more dare I say? They got all the notes right, and in tune to boot, no mean feat! They’ve won a bunch of prestigious awards and have played in numerous foreign countries. Isaac Stern loved and promoted them shortly before he died, and sponsored their Carnegie Hall debut that received rave reviews. I’ve been listening to string quartets my whole life, and have known all of the works they played at this concert, including the Bartok rarity, since childhood. They sparkle.

And while I’m at it — they’re all really good-looking, too. It helps with the presentation. I’d rather see attractive musicians than ugly ones, wouldn’t you? ‘Nuff said.

I must single out first violinist Will Fedkenheuer; he’s a force of nature. In addition to being a standout player, he’s animated, and is an articulate and humorous spokesman who even speaks loud enough to be heard in an auditorium without a microphone. He presented a fascinating analysis of the thematic material from the Bartok quartet before they played it, supplemented by his comical narration of the Orange Blossom Special.

Until I was well into adulthood it was almost unheard of for classical musicians to address an audience. Today it’s done frequently, almost routinely. Unfortunately, sometimes the chat is mumbled and badly prepared, and seems to be an obligation forced upon the performer who would rather just play. Also unfortunate is that sometimes the words are offered as a form of apologia prior to the performance of a contemporary work most people in today’s ultraconservative audiences will otherwise automatically hate before they have even heard it.

It’s likely that audiences today are less familiar with the music, so need a little coaching. They seem to enjoy it, so far be it from me to think I’m above that sort of thing.

One On One

For us, by far the most interesting aspect of this concert experience came from the one-off connection I have had with the Fry Street Quartet. I’ve been following their career since about 2001.

Co-founding violinist Rebecca McFaul is the niece of Tom McFaul, my musical partner from our mad rock and roll days of so many years ago, and still a good friend. Tom produced the Fry Street Quartet’s first CD, and also composed a five-movement quartet for them to play, which has now had several performances, including a live rendition on the air at WFMT studios in Chicago. Tom has kept me apprised of all the Fry Street Quartet news as it’s happened, which I’ve followed with enthusiasm, because they really are quite good.

I’ve communicated in e-mail with Rebecca on occasion, and she is in my Facebook friends list, but until Saturday I had never met any of the group in person.

A significant problem the ensemble has had to overcome has been adjusting to two personnel changes. This is no trivial matter for a chamber music group.

Artistic musical ensembles aren’t merely players who get together to play some concerts. Well, sometimes they are, but even so-called supergroups often fall short of what an ensemble that has played together for many years is able to accomplish.

The factor that above all makes a group click, the source of the magic, is the chemistry between individual players. And because no two people are the same, no two musical groups are the same, even if they play the same instruments and perform the same music. This principle holds true whether the organization being considered is the Beatles, Keith Jarrett’s Standards trio, Simon and Garfunkle, or a string quartet. Replace one person and you’ve got an entirely different entity, whatever name you attach to it.

Several years ago, Fry Street Quartet’s original first violinist decided to move on. This is the most difficult position to fill. That they found Will Fedkenheuer, a whole echelon better than the player he replaced, is little short of miraculous. But it does take a great deal of time and accompanying anguish concerning the probabilities of a group’s survival in the interim to find just the right person and fully integrate that one.

More recently, the quartet’s co-founding violist also left. The new violist, Bradley Ottesen, has now been with the group about fifteen months — still the new boy by the standards of classical music ensembles. Happily, he too is a superb player with a golden sound. It’s the nature of the viola’s timbre that many instruments sound tubby, resulting sometimes in a quality that can uglify a group’s sound. Not so in this case.

After the concert we rushed backstage to finally be able to meet everyone. They kindly invited us to a reception at the home of some people who live in Hilliard, on the upscale west bank of the Scioto river. There I was able to connect with individual players better, especially Rebecca. And I was also able to enjoy some quality face time with Bradley Ottesen, finding myself able to negotiate a bit of viola talk, primed by my family experience, in that that my father was himself a prominent and respected professional violist.

Our move to Ohio a few years ago has resulted in an enforced dearth of cultural experiences of the type we enjoyed constantly when we lived in Arizona. Saturday’s concert by the Fry Street Quartet was immensely enjoyable in itself, because it was so darn good, and served at the same time as a tonic to refresh our dominant gloom.

Soft Pedal vs. Soft Peddle

Piano pedals on a Grand Piano.
Image via Wikipedia

Once I used the phrase soft pedal in e-mail to an erudite friend, in a form like this: “I intend to soft pedal my idea so as not to stir up controversy and resistance.” The friend corrected me, claiming that the preferred phrase is soft peddle.

A bit of Google research indicates that although my version is far more common, my friend’s usage is conceivable.

As a pianist I know that the left pedal of three on a piano is most often called the soft pedal. Its function on a grand piano is to move the whole action slightly to the side so that the hammers that normally strike three strings strike only two, and those that strike two only one. On an upright it moves the whole set of hammers closer to the strings. The result is similar, a softening of the sound that is different from merely playing with a lighter touch. The traditional instruction found in music to use the soft pedal is una corda (Italian for one string), and to release it is tre corde (three strings). (In practice, neither is often very encountered.)

Therefore, to metaphorically soft pedal an idea or a request, would be to offer it unassertively.

The verb to peddle means to sell. To soft peddle an idea, an instruction, or a physical object would certainly be understood to mean promoting its acceptance without attempting to hard sell it as by direct confrontation amounting to a commercial, preferring instead to employ suggestion, gentle persuasion, or incidental reference.

Whether soft pedal or soft peddle, although the mental imagery triggered is slightly different, the intended meaning would be close to the same for either one and therefore either expression would work, depending on the intended metaphor.

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Keith Jarrett — Paris / London: Testament

Cover of "Paris / London: Testament"
Cover of Paris / London: Testament

Music reviews are typically descriptive, but because words never adequately describe music, I rarely review music recordings. Nonetheless, for Keith Jarrett’s 2008 album Paris / London: Testament I’ve made this exception.

But first some background …

People who know me are aware that I have long regarded Keith Jarrett to be my favorite musician of any genre currently walking around on planet Earth. I’ve heard most of his recorded output since the time he worked with Charles Lloyd in the late sixties. It’s not my habit to make a big deal of this in front of others, but I own thirty-eight of Keith Jarrett’s albums on CD, and another twenty on vinyl. That count is in titles; half or more are multi-disk combinations. Among these are work from almost every genre he has worked in, including small group and trio jazz, classical composition, and many of his excellent classical music recordings.

It’s not difficult to argue that the form of expression in which Keith Jarrett has made his lasting mark is in solo piano improvisation, in studio albums, and moreso in live concerts, where he subjects himself to walking on a musical high-wire without a net, creating everything new the moment he sits down at the piano. Could even Bach or Mozart improvise as well in their own days and in their own ways? Perhaps they could, but even if so, as an improviser Keith Jarrett surely belongs in the same echelon.

Today we enjoy the luxury of being able to record Jarrett’s improvisations, after which we can listen to them as often as we wish. Personally, I listen to a vast range of music, but never tire of hearing Keith Jarrett’s solo recordings.

In 1994 I wrote a longish biographical sketch of Keith Jarrett for my nascent website. It contained little personal research, and consisted largely of a combination of points I had picked up from personal experience, plus what I had learned from Ian Carr’s 1992 biography of Jarrett (now greatly out of date). For two or three years this article attracted enough readers that it was a rare week when I did not receive a half dozen e-mail comments and questions about the subject matter.

Because of that biography, for about three years I had the pleasure of carrying on a regular correspondence with Keith Jarrett’s mother, Irma Jarrett. She wrote to me herself, first to compliment me on the article (aw, shucks!), saying it was “mostly correct,” except for a few details regarding Keith’s early life, and to express her relief that the tone of what I had written was not “over the top,” in the manner that some sycophantically worshipful admirers have been inclined to pen about Jarrett, and to whom he is viewed as a godlike hero. Irma (who invited me to address her by her first name) also promised to correct some misstatements and fill in some missing details, but in the time we corresponded she never got around to doing that, and I did not feel it was appropriate to press her on the matter.

Delighted to hear from her, I assured her at the time that I would never abuse the fact that I’d made her acquaintance to probe her for information that was none of my business, nor would I share publicly anything she told me in confidence, a promise that I stuck to. As any good mother would, she refused to say that she thinks any more highly of her most famous son than she does of any of his less well-known younger brothers; she is very proud of each one, and would write enthusiastically about each one.

One day I was delighted to receive from Irma Jarrett a self-printed book of poems she had written. It remained visible in my home office for the rest of the years I lived in Phoenix.

Eventually our discourse tapered and I lost track of Irma Jarrett. I have not heard from her since October 2003, nor attempted to contact her since then, and do not know if she is even still living. If so, she would be in her mid-eighties by now.

I’ve included the previous information as background in order to impress upon readers that my acquaintance with Keith Jarrett’s music is more than a passing fancy, and is something that has played a meaningful role during most of my adult life. Despite this, I have never yet been able to hear Keith Jarrett perform live. Thank goodness we have his recordings to revel in.

Jarrett began his solo career in 1971 with the landmark solo studio album on ECM Facing you, still one of my favorite albums of recorded music of all time, in the same league with the best Beatles work.

In 1973 Keith Jarrett began performing and recording solo concerts. the first one to be released was the Bremen/Lausane set — a three-disk collection that astounded critics and listeners alike. Since then there have been many more, with a break in the 1990s during which Jarrett stopped performing entirely while he battled chronic fatigue syndrome, which Jarrett claimed may have been brought on in part by the extreme stress of playing solo concerts.

Happily, Jarrett has been back to playing a more reasonable schedule of concerts for well over a decade, most with his so-called Standards Trio, now nearly thirty years in existence, along with the occasional solo concert, and continues to grow as a musician and a pianist.

When Keith Jarrett first began playing solo concerts, his approach was to play two forty-five-minute sets, each one an uninterrupted excursion, allowing himself to noodle around wherever his muse led him. Any given segment could cover a great deal of musical ground: foot-stomping gospel, be-bop, lyrical ballads, one-chord vamps, quiet meditations, and wild atonality (never in Jarrett’s case mere hand-flailing), including picking and beating around inside the piano. He would conclude each concert with a short encore or two, often of a standard song. One of my favorites is his rendition of Over the Rainbow from his 1995 concert at La Scala in Milan, Italy. I learned a written transcription of this myself, which I play with the care of a Chopin Nocturne.

In recent years Jarrett has begun to rethink his approach to solo playing. Now he will let the music stop when it seems appropriate, accept applause, and then start with something new, as if he were performing a series of compositions (or tunes in jazz parlance).

In 2008, Keith Jarrett released a three-CD set of concert recordings under the title Paris / London: Testament, which showcases him in new levels of musical maturity and pianistic ability.

Jarrett provided a poignantly personal set of liner notes for these recordings. What he writes therein is unquestionably touching. But I wonder if it is fair to read them in advance, thereby letting knowledge of his emotional state at the time influence our impressions? Might it be better to let the music speak for itself first? I’ll say no more about that part of the package so that you as a listener, forewarned, can make your own decision about whether to read the liner notes before or after listening to the music — or to skip them entirely. But the notes do shed some interesting light on the experience.

And now, at last, it’s about time to discuss some bits of the music itself.

The first thing I notice is how extraordinarily rich the recording of the piano is. Historically, recording a piano, particularly solo, is one of the most difficult feats for sound engineers to accomplish. But Jarrett has teamed up with Manfred Eicher and ECM’s engineers since 1971; in fact, as their primary recording artist, Jarrett has put ECM on the map. Eicher has given Jarrett the freedom to grow as an artist, doing virtually whatever he wants, usually to their mutual benefit. It has been a happy partnership, as in forty years ECM has learned how to record piano, and Jarrett in particular.

I can’t detect whether Jarrett uses the same piano in Paris and London, but Jarrett is fanatically fussy about instruments, and given his status and artistic success, it would not surprise me if he is able to move a preferred piano around from place to place. To my ears, the recorded sound in the two concert halls is the same, and it is as good a recording of piano sound as I have ever heard.

For this discussion I’ll assume that Jarrett played the same instrument in both concerts. And I know pianos well enough to recognize that it’s a real beauty. It sounds magnificent, thanks in part to its spectacularly bright, and clear tuning.

No small part of the sound is Jarrett’s ability to play with all the technique and finesse of the fine classical musician he is, which means not merely his ability to play cascades of notes correctly, but also the depth and shading of the sounds, his dynamic and pedaling control, and ability to balance chords, while playing almost continuously in counterpoint, keeping the individual lines clear.

In the liner notes notes Jarrett makes it known that he was seeking to take his solo playing to a higher level, reaching for something new. The results suggest that this means he is now aiming well beyond the mere ability to play and improvise continuously, into the realm of producing what amount to complete compositions on the spot, with the structure of introductions, melodies with chord changes, bridge sections, verses, variations, and endings that make up a cogent whole.

The twenty segments that make up the two concerts vary in length from 3:56 to 13:48. They have no titles. Why would they? Created in the moment, they are what they are, therefore without preconceived verbal associations, so they are identified only by the concert location and sequence number.

The only parts I will comment on specifically are the last two pieces in London (the second concert), which contrast greatly and make a fitting conclusion to the set.

The next-to-last (Part XI: Royal Festival Hall, London) is a highly chromatic but not at all atonal free-form excursion in continuously winding melody accompanied by startlingly original coloristic harmonies. And I particularly delight over the delicious little four-chord flourish that ends it, starting at 7:21.

To finish things off (Part XII: Royal Festival Hall, London), Jarrett returns to a type of music he has played before, but that I haven’t heard from him for a long while. He begins with an achingly beautiful tune, not complicated either melodically or harmonically, and develops this into an artfully restrained but full-bodied gospel-style romp. It was a perfect way to end the concert, and doubtless must have brought the crowd in London to their feet. Who could possibly dislike such music?

Persons who know little or nothing about Keith Jarrett are often urged to start by listening to his 1975 mega-hit, The Köln Concert, the best-selling jazz album of all time. It was recorded under great duress on a grossly substandard piano. This performance is famous for driving ostinatos and transcendentally pyrotechnical right hand passage work. I’m sure that many fans of Jarrett come to concerts hoping to hear more like that.

But Keith Jarrett left that kind of playing behind many years ago. As his ultra-simple albums The Melody at Night, With You (1998) and the recent Jasmine (2010), with bassist Charlie Hayden indicate, Jarrett is utterly unafraid to create albums consisting of simple and familiar songs, with simple chords in quiet and untechnical versions, and releasing them to the world, because to Keith Jarrett the depth of expression always takes precedence over technical artifice.

Keith Jarrett is twenty-two months younger than me, and has been a part of my life since I was a young adult. He is playing as well as he ever has. It is my fond hope that he continues to make music of the highest quality for many years to come.

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The Creative Habit — Twyla Tharp

Cover of
Cover via Amazon

As a sometime composer and writer, I have always been fascinated by listening to creative people of all types discuss their work, especially how they go about doing it.  Therefore, when I recently bumped up against the title The Creative Habit, a 2001 book by master choreographer Twyla Tharp, I checked it out from the library to have some airplane reading on a trip to Arizona.

Ms. Tharp’s intention is to present a how-to book, replete with exercises, because she believes that (contrary to popular romantic notions about artistic inspiration) creativity is largely a matter of cultivating and practicing good work habits that allow creativity to sprout. This belief sounds like Thomas Edison’s famous saying: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Routine

She writes first about the value of a regular daily routine, which for her begins with stepping into a cab early each morning to head to the gym for a workout. This is followed by blocks of time devoted to various categories of activity, such that by the end of day, all the most important tasks — workout, business, dancing, correspondence, and personal reading — have all been covered, whereupon she can retire, satisfied and ready to rest up and begin a new cycle the next day.

Forty years ago a close friend told me he had discovered that the more he repeated things — referring to the normal cycles of daily activities — the more good things happened in his life. His statement has stuck with me ever since, and I have learned it to be true.

The Box

Tharp says that before you can think outside a box, you have to have a box. To organize her projects, she uses literal, inexpensive file boxes from Office Depot to store all manner of physical materials she accumulates in the process of researching for and creating a new dance.

My boxes take the form of notebooks — many of them — paper notebooks that I carry around with me, and an array of computer-based notebooks any of which I may call up in a keystroke to prepend dated and labeled items of any length at the top. I’m presently composing this review using one of them, in which I have over 17,000 lines of text fragments that may someday see light of day in a blog article or other form of publication.

Where Ideas Come From

One of my most creative times of the day is that brief period in bed when I know I will be falling asleep momentarily, but am sufficiently conscious to enjoy the free associations running wild in my mind. Many is the time I’ve thought about getting out of bed to write down ideas that seemed worth preserving at the time, but I’ve never actually done it.

Ms. Tharp reports that Thomas Edison, famous for eschewing sleep, would sit in a chair when sleepy, palms up, with a ball bearing in each hand. When one ball bearing fell to the floor, it would wake him, and he would immediately write down what he was thinking in that idea-rich neverland between sleep and wakefulness.

Reading

Tharp tells us: “Like an athlete in training, the more you read, the more mentally fit you feel.” Rather than merely reading for pleasure, she devours the material, studying it, annotating the margins, and researching related topics.

Me too. That’s how one thing leads to another and ultimately to good ideas. I certainly read a great deal of lighter material for pure pleasure — popular fiction, cartoon books, even occasional children’s books — but whenever I read I hope to obtain something beneficial from the experience, even if it’s intangible and hard to identify. I almost never read just to pass the time.

Skills

Ms. Tharp places a premium on the value of developing skills of every kind to the ultimate degree possible, illustrating: “A successful entrepreneur can do everything and anything — stock the warehouse, negotiate with vendors, develop a product, design an ad campaign, close a deal, placate an unhappy customer — as well as, if not better than, anyone working for him.” She quotes golfer Gary Player as having said, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get,” and applies the principle to skills beyond what are most essential for her art form. As a choreographer and dancer, of course she devotes great energy to dancing itself, especially to improvisation. But she also works to understand music, literature, theater, costume design, business, and a host of other disciplines that enable her to keep a company of full-time dancers employed.

A Boo-Boo

On being in a groove, Tharp commits a minor error of musical fact, saying: “When I think of a groove, I imagine Bach bounding out of bed to compose his preludes and fugues, knowing that he had twenty-four keys to work with. ‘Let’s see,’ he must have thought, ‘today I’ll tackle G-sharp major and A-flat minor.'”

Bzzzt! Wrong!

Speaking with my musical editor’s hat on: the pitches we call G-sharp and A-flat are enharmonically equivalent in the equal tempered tuning system that Bach explored in Das Wohltemperierte Clavier that she alludes to; simply put, to play either one you press the same key, the middle of any of those sets of three adjacent black keys on a piano keyboard.

The key of A-flat minor is plausible but unlikely, because it would require seven flats in the key signature, so that every one of the seven scale pitches is flatted. That’s a lot of flats, so Bach instead wrote the minor prelude and fugue on that pitch in G-sharp minor, which has five sharps — still a lot to remember, and not often encountered, but a bit easier to read.

But G-sharp major exists only theoretically, in that the key signature would have not merely seven, but eight sharps in it, meaning that the F would be a double sharp, raised two half tones. It’s possible to go on adding as many sharps and flats as desired, but there is no point to it, because once every scale pitch has been flatted or sharped, there is an enharmonic equivalent that is simpler and a whole lot easier to read, and is why Bach stopped with twenty-four of each — the twelve major and minor keys on each of the twelve degrees in the equal tempered system that has been the standard tuning in Western music for centuries. In this case, Bach wrote the prelude and fugue not in G-sharp major, but in A-flat major, with its key signature of only four flats.

If Ms. Tharp had proposed Bach might have thought, “Today I’ll tackle A-flat major and G-sharp minor,” there would have been no problem. For this minor booboo we can easily forgive her, a proven genius at her art, and knowledgeable about many subjects including music, but not necessarily expert in music theory.

Thank you, Twyla Tharp, for providing these tools by means of which I may keep my own creative skills percolating.

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My Buddy Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

A friend approached me one evening, an older (but not ancient) woman, wanting to know if she correctly understood what she had heard — that I had at one time been a professional photographer in New York City.

Having no idea where she might have acquired such misinformation, I assured her that like most persons who own a digital camera I’m an enthusiastic taker of snapshots, but among the thousands, aside from a few cases when the subject, lighting, and the spasm of my trigger finger coincided serendipitously, there are no masterpieces among them; that my ignorance of the technicalities of photography approaches the profound; and that no one has ever paid me a nickel for taking a photograph, nor have I ever attempted or hoped to receive compensation for doing so. In short: No, I am not now, and never was a professional photographer in any sense of the word.

To keep the conversation rolling, and because I intuited to some degree what she may have heard inklings about, I added that my artistic career was limited to curtailed attempts to compose music, during part of which efforts I did indeed live in New York, but that was a very long time ago—the late sixties and early seventies. I added that it was not utter failure to be any good at it that brought that phase of my life to an end, but the need to remove myself from an unhealthy and destructive environment. Most people of my age and older are well aware or can imagine that the popular music scene in New York City in the sixties was eminently life threatening — physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually — to anyone who got caught up in the thinking and conduct of that mad era. Having no reasonable alternative that would allow me to stay in the business, I simply got out.

The friend, who seemingly understood what I said, then added the question: “Was Mozart around there at that time, too?”

Mozart? Working in New York in the sixties? She thought perhaps I might have known him? Briefly words failed me. Finally, I was able to choke out the reply: “No, my dear. Mozart died in 1791. He was a contemporary of George Washington and the other Founding Fathers of the United States. That was two hundred years before my time. I’m a contemporary of Bob Dylan, not Mozart.” “Oh!” she replied, apparently unfazed by the time gaffe, probably unfamiliar with the name Bob Dylan, but disappointed to realize that I had not rubbed shoulders with the particular celebrity I had named.

I love this dear lady, who was only trying to be friendly, and attribute her parochial naïvety to a deliberately self-inflicted withdrawal from contact with worldly society to a degree and for reasons that seem appropriate to her. Still, I have to wonder how one’s Weltanschauung can become so discombobulated that a person’s recognition of essential historical figures is skewed by centuries. The episode constitutes yet another demonstration of how easily a fundamentally ignorant person, by a simple misstatement can lead others to think, “If you don’t know that, what do you know?”

Lemme see … did the apostle Paul ever appear before Bill Clinton? Maybe I’ll check that out on Wikipedia.

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Elliott Carter at One Hundred

Elliott Carter
Cover of Elliott Carter

On December 8, 2008 Elliott Carter celebrated his one-hundredth birthday, in good health and spirits. He still works several hours and goes for walks daily.

This milestone was observed along with a flurry of accolades and honorary concerts, including a world premiere in New York performed by Daniel Barenboim and James Levine, both Carter champions from the musical establishment. Amidst the celebrations, Carter performances are given standing ovations, but for decades most people have found Carter’s uncompromisingly modern music baffling, and most flat out dislike it. Carter himself does not care, and is unwaveringly dedicated to writing the music he believes in and hears. In an interview with Carter, Levine and Barenboim, given the day before the big occasion, Carter expressed his longing to get back home soon to the apartment in Greenwich Village he has lived in since the forties, so he could get back to work on his latest composition project. I’m certain that his dedication to a regular routine, and leading a fairly simple live, despite being wealthy since birth, have contributed to his longevity.

Being a Carter fan is sort of like being a Cubs fan. It’s fashionable to love the Cubbies if you’re from somewhere else and hop on the bandwagon when they’re doing well. But if you’ve been following the team’s travails since 1948 and even lived in Chicago for a long time back then like I did, you can lay a legitimate claim to being a fan.

Similarly, if you bought the Walden Quartet recording of Carter’s monumental first String Quartet, listened to it a couple hundred times, often with the score, knew and were even friends with members of the Walden Quartet, have a record and CD collection glutted with Carter recordings, have even had a composition lesson with the great man himself, and have been a relentless admirer since about 1958—like me—then you can lay a legitimate claim to being a Carter fan.

Soon Mr. Carter will slide into relative obscurity again, and doubtless will die not too long afterward, as he can’t have much time left actuarially speaking, while most new converts who have recently started listening to Elliott Carter’s music will realize it ain’t easy sledding, will slow down, and then stop, or go back to the mind-numbing execrations of Phillip Glass, and will eventually return to hating Carter’s music again.

Color me cynical.

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Famous Last Words

Dad conducting
Dad
conducting

On the morning my father died, he woke up and told my mother that he didn’t feel well and needed to get to the hospital right away. It did not take long to get him to where he could be made comfortable, but there was nothing that could be done. His life systems were shutting down. People were called, and a couple of friends managed to get by in time. According to my mother, the last words she remembers him saying, acknowledging the presence of some who had arrived, were: “I love it when pretty women come to visit me.” Moments later he lapsed into a coma, and died shortly thereafter.

Note: The picture is an oil painting of my father made in the 1950s, taken from a professional black and white photograph. The likeness is excellent. It hung above the fireplace in our home for many years.

Neglected Pianos

Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes I hear about neglected pianos, upon which I go on a bit of a rampage. As the owner of a Steinway model K, which I bought brand new from the dealer, an instrument I have always tuned and cared for myself, the idea of a piano sitting in a garage for longer than a couple of days, essentially outdoors and subject to the elements, eventually becoming a storage unit, rankles my sensibilities.

I long ago lost track of the number of times, upon being told by someone: “We have a piano! Of course it hasn’t been tuned in ten years” (or maybe never), responding without hesitation: “You used to have a piano. You now have a Gesinch.” For those who don’t know, which is everyone, because I made the word up myself over thirty years ago, a Gesinch is a pseudo-German word meaning roughly: “A large, clutzy, useless item that gets in your way.” The prototypical example was an enormous recliner I bought in about 1973 to put in our tiny apartment’s living room in Riverdale Bronx, New York, where there was not enough room to fully recline it without dragging it out from the wall (it took two people to move it), upon which the foot end would stick out well past the middle of the room. Buying it was one of my Worst Ideas Ever.

A neglected piano is a Gesinch. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who acquire pianos, often with the intent of learning how to use them (or for their children to do so), an enthusiasm that dies down in a few weeks as persons soon discover: “Say — this piano playing stuff is a Really Hard Thing!” Upon which the piano becomes an indoor storage unit. A piano must be maintained whether it is played or not, or it quickly falls into a state of disrepair beyond which it can no longer be recovered to full functionality. It’s not sufficient to strip and refinish the surface of an instrument that is old or has been neglected. If the soundboard is cracked (usually because of temperature and humidity changes), the instrument will be beyond restoration to its optimum condition and may be worthless. The odds that a piano stored in a garage for a full year will not have a cracked soundboard are infinitesimal. The piano action — the internal mechanism that starts with the surface of the keys the player presses and ends with the tip of the hammer that strikes the strings — is a complicated mechanical device, with between 80-120 pieces per key, depending on the maker. Think of it as being like an automobile with 88 carburetors. The entire 88-key mechanism slides out as a unit. (I’ve done it several times; it makes my heart go pit-a-pat when I do so.) This mechanism needs periodic maintenance, too, though most people simply neglect their pianos when they are new until entropy causes them to rot and no longer be worthy of anything more than finding some hapless friends or relatives to help load it into a truck so it can be hauled off to a dump. Imagine buying a new car and never once changing the oil or doing any of the standard maintenance tasks to keep it in running condition. It’s an apt comparison, but that’s what people do with pianos.

It’s true that pianos can be “restored”, but only to a certain degree. I’ve played on vintage Steinways at the local dealer’s store and elsewhere — instruments said to be 100 years or more old. The cabinetry on these display instruments is invariably superb, but every one I’ve ever touched frankly feels and sounds crummy. These instruments make fine parlor pianos for those who have the space and want to display a piano in their home more than actually use it, and if continuously maintained, they’re quite adequate instruments for most modestly skilled players, but for the expense involved, anyone who wants a good piano would be better off to get something newer and maybe a little plainer, and be resolved to take proper care of it.

For some persons an electric keyboard of some sort might be a preferable option. The sound is not as good, any more than a CD recording is as good as a live band, and neither is the feel. Their longevity is nowhere near that of a well-maintained good quality piano, but they never go out of tune, and they require little or no maintenance until they just flat out break. By comparison: My Steinway is now 22 years old, in near perfect condition, and should serve me the rest of my natural life. My Korg 76-key electric keyboard is 1988 vintage, does not conform to the most recent MIDI standard, has keys that stick, with their internal mechanism inaccessible by me, has a lousy sound, is close to useless, and needs to be replaced.

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Streisand Does Phoenix

Barbra Streisand
Cover of Barbra Streisand

When Suzy and I have told people we went to hear Barbra Streisand in concert Thursday night (November 16th) the almost universal reaction has been a discreet, “Well, Barbra Streisand is not my cup of tea, but I’m glad you had fun.” Internally their reaction is roughly the same as if we had said we’d attended a public hanging.

Fortunately for Babs’ career, there are quite a few people for whom she still is their cup of tea, even their choice of thirty-year-old single-malt, judging from the number of people willing to pay between $150 and $500 (and more) per ticket to experience the occasion. Given that Barbra Streisand concerts have become sufficiently rare that they have taken on the status of historical occasions, we opted to splurge and go. To heck with the mortgage payment.

The venue was the US Airways Center basketball arena — not the best setting for musical enjoyment, unless that music is electronically amplified to perversely unnatural proportions. You wouldn’t want to go there to hear Gustav Leonhardt play a concert of Frescobaldi Canzonas on the clavichord. And if you happen to be sitting in one of those seats of a width appropriate for a high school cheerleader but are between two great big fatsos, your concert experience will not be an entirely pleasant one. But for music that consists of mostly amplified noise, the arena works passably well.

From where we sat — in the next to last row of the upper level, as far away as possible, but in the dead center, such that if a perpendicular were extended from the front plane of the stage it would split the seats between me and the lady on my left — Barbra was recognizable only with the aid of binoculars. This was compensated for by showing her closeups on enormous video monitors on either side of the stage, which meant that we paid $300 to fight unbelievable traffic to get to uncomfortable seats where we heard electronic renditions of Barbara Streisand singing while watching her on TV. Knowing that she was really down there in person, that speck walking back and forth on the stage, made it all worth it, I suppose.

It’s an honored tradition for popular music concerts to start late, so no one bothers to come to them on time. The scheduled start time was 7:30, but not a note of music was heard until shortly after 8:00, which is unforgivable. Some people made sacrifices to be there, and had to get up early to go to work the next day. Despite this, the last two people to arrive in our row did not arrive until 8:20, requiring everyone to stand up and let them squeeze by in the dark while the music was playing, because, of course, their seats were in the very middle of the row. Thanks.

As I looked around I noted the constituency of the audience: almost no young people at all, and an average age of around fifty, but not quite the white-haired set. I guess that would mean it’s mainly baby boomers. In the world of live music performances the rule tends to be: the older the music, the older the audience. Dress was strictly informal without being gross, of the type worn by sports crowds. To my surprise, the house was only about 80% sold out by my estimation.

Our section was graced with what were inarguably the two single loudest hooters in the joint, fans who waited on the edge of their chairs for the slightest sign of recognition of a newly started song to make a scene at the top of their lungs. If I’d been performing, I would have appreciated the devotion, but hated the rude interruptions.

“Meeeeem — ‘rieeees …”

WHOOOOOOO! YEAAAAAAH! WOOO HOOOOO!
CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP
YEAH, YEAH, YEAH!

So we’d paid $300 to witness a recreation of Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour? Sorry, but my classical music background simply cannot accept that low level of vociferous hick culture.

The concert itself was good and undeniably enjoyable, but far from the greatest I’ve ever heard. It was merely Barbra singing — which is exactly what one would hope for, and certainly what I came to hear — mostly songs everyone present had heard many times before as long as forty years ago. My personal concert-going preference is to hear new work from artists I respect, given that we have the much better original recordings of most of this material, but I suppose that was a bit much to expect, as superstar comeback tours are almost by definition hit parade revues.

Barbra still looks great for a woman who was discouraged by her mother from going into show business because she’s “not pretty.” (Jewish mother syndrome noted.) Her hair is quite long and dyed light these days, and she wore attractive and ungaudy but somewhat low cut evening dresses. She complained just before intermission about the high heels hurting her feet, so in the second half she just kicked them off and did the rest of the show without them. It’s her show, so nobody could blame her. High heels should be outlawed for women anyhow. But that’s another rant. (They should be outlawed for men, too, for somewhat different reasons. Yet another rant.)

A full size orchestra was present, playing from a sunken split pit (or more precisely on the floor surrounded by a raised stage), strings and piano on the left, everyone else on the right, with a runway separating them. The vigorous conductor stood on the left, so could be seen by musicians on both sides. There were at least eighty musicians, and I am told that they constitute a touring orchestra rather than a pick-up group able to play the show in one or two rehearsals. (There is nothing particularly difficult about the arrangements.) It is commendable that the same group travels with the show. It’s extraordinarily expensive to carry that many musicians, with their travel expenses rather than hiring locals, but it adds to the quality of the performance when players who know the music from having played it night after night for a period of time are utilized. Usually when such things are done, corners are cut by reducing the number of string players, to their credit, they didn’t compromise the budget with a reduced string section, which I was happy to see. Having a large orchestra, including full strings, not only improves and balances the sound, but lends additional opulence to the show. If I pay $150, I wanna hear strings, dang it!

The only visual effects to enhance the performance were done with an enormous number of colored spotlights, always acceptably tasteful to the degree that Broadway and Hollywood art can be described that way.

One regrettable feature of the show was Barbara’s accompanying act, a male quartet called Il Divo, which I think is Italian for Four Tenors on Tranquilizers. In my opinion, they totally suck. There, I said it, even though suck is not a very nice term when used in this way. Despite their obvious technical credentials and polish, their overall artistic impact rings false. This group is thoroughly worth making a special effort to avoid hearing.

I would say that I’m surprised that Barbra would even perform with a group like them, given that she exercises absolute control over her shows, but she has not been beyond sinking to the lowest depths in collaboration with other so-called musicians. The utterly execrable movie A Star Is Born, with Kris Kristofferson, is a notable case in point. When I saw this movie on video I had to leave the room halfway through it in order to avoid throwing a beer can at my TV screen.

I’m sure I could find several other examples. Remarkably, this movie soundtrack earned eight Grammy nominations, which says a lot more about the Grammys than about Streisand’s choice of colleagues. “Stupid is as stupid does,” as Gump’s mama liked to say.

I’m sure Il Divo buzzes the drawers of a lot of middle-aged ladies (including possibly even Barbara herself), with their dashing good looks, tuxedos, and accents (a Swissman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, and a Coloradan). Their mismatched bellowing voices and accents singing unexciting and overwrought arrangements left me unpositively moved.

The climax of Il Divo’s performance was a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s egomaniacal chest-thumper “My Way.” Frankly speaking, I prefer Sinatra’s way way better. Later they joined Streisand for a version of “Somewhere” from West Side Story, which although again highly Hollywoodized, was somewhat better, thanks partly to Barbra, not to mention that West Side Story is arguably the greatest American musical ever, with every single song a memorable masterpiece.

Whatever people think of Barbra Streisand personally, she remains an outstanding singer and showperson, a person gifted with a great and unique voice, one she has used magnificently at times. Her style is unique among singers. She does subtle technical things with her voice that no one else does, probably because no one else can. I’m not aware of many Streisand imitators — except among certain men who dress up and perform as women; even among them the imitation is more of her persona than her singing.

Barbra has been one of the greatest superstars for over forty years. We’ve all heard her recordings and seen her often horrible movies, so there’s no need to describe here the way Barbra Streisand sings. Everyone in America who does not live under a rock knows the voice, recognizable in an instant.

Streisand’s singing is difficult to classify. Although technically masterful, she is by no means a classical singer. Her carefully sculpted and undeviating lines prevent her from being labeled a jazz singer, nor has she ever claimed to be one. She’s way too good to be lumped with most pop singers, and is no rock and roller either. The closest category that can be assigned is that of American musical theater — a good thing, because it’s in that arena that Streisand has had her greatest artistic success. Her 1992 album Back to Broadway is a masterpiece, one of her best ever — preceded by plenty of mediocre offerings.

Barbra’s voice has mellowed now that she’s over 64 years old. She can still soar with surprising power, but the sound has lost a bit of its sleek, De Lorean stainless steel edge; her intonation, while essentially razor sharp, now suffers slightly along with spontaneous efforts at phrasing and pulling away from the beat; particularly when reaching some high notes, she had to strain a few times, barely making it up to pitch, while in previous years she could have shattered plate glass with a vocal climax. Streisand is not a notably rhythmic singer, but on her recordings her phrasing is usually impeccable. Her diction is without equal among singers, and was in full glory at Thursday’s concert.

Another strong point from Barbra’s days gone by is her phenomenal breath control — her ability to shape long phrases in a broad pitch and dynamic range with utter control in a single breath, not unlike a figure skater slowly working through perfect basic figures. She still has that, but less so, as I caught her taking occasional breaths in awkward places I wouldn’t have expected. The funny thing about it is you notice these differences only when you’ve heard perfection in comparison. A lesser singer could virtually gasp, gag, and growl all the way through a performance, and if that’s what you are used to hearing from that performer, you’ll take it for granted as a part of that person’s “style,” which word is sometimes used as an excuse for a lack of vocal technique.

The show included a bit of labored patter, some of it contrived, obviously created that day for local use (jokes about Camelback mountain and Scottsdale eateries), sounding sometimes overscripted, stiff, and unrehearsed — possibly read for the first time off the teleprompter.

Early in the second half Streisand indulged in political proselytizing under the guise of comedy at the expense of the current American president, an admittedly easy target. This humor was received with a mixture of hoots and polite resignation. Some of the jokes were funny, but the subject matter was uncomfortably not so. It is probably largely because of such excursions that Barbra has earned herself an army of dislikers.

The concert’s play list included almost nothing unfamiliar. Several tunes from Funny Girl were presented, the vehicle that made her famous, along with “The Way We Were”, “Evergreen”, and others even the most casual pop music listener has heard for many years. I’m assuming the one or two tunes I never heard before myself are just songs from long ago that I missed.

The program was not a marathon presentation, but of an appropriate length for a 64-year-old woman. Barbara seemed completely comfortable on stage, having overcome her legendary battle with stage fright, which she explained was caused by fear of forgetting words, something she did on three songs in front of 150,000 people many years ago, but has been conquered with the help of teleprompters.

She was gracious in accepting applause and cheers, seemed genuinely glad to be performing, grateful for her fans, and made her exit before becoming tiresome, while the audience still longed for just a tiny bit more.

Her final curtain call was desecrated by a cameo appearance by none other than Kris Kristofferson, who by coincidence happened to be in town performing the same night, though nobody was quite sure where, nor even cared.

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Balanchine Festival, Ballet Arizona

Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso collaborated on P...
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Saturday night we attended a Ballet Arizona performance that was billed as part of a George Balanchine festival. While the music, the dancing, and the choreography were all exquisite, the experience was not without eyebrow-raising issues.

We bought tickets six months ago, when I learned that the program would be all ballets based on Stravinsky‘s music, a composer with whom Balanchine had a close friendship and affinity. I particularly looked forward to seeing Agon, one of my all-time favorite pieces of twentieth century music, a work that was a pivotal influence in my own composition in the year 1962, and one for which I own the score and have listened to over and over, but have never seen in a ballet production.

The Medium Is Not the Message

Imagine my disappointment when we received mail telling us that the programming had been changed substantially. While still a Balanchine festival, the music was no longer exclusively Stravinsky, but Mozart, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky. Furthermore, though Agon was presented on another program in the series, we would not be seeing it.

My reaction was to write a letter of complaint to Ballet Arizona, pointing out that some people choose their performing arts events on the basis of content rather than medium. Such has always been true for me. When I choose a Phoenix Symphony concert, it is always because of the works they are performing, not just to hear the orchestra. It’s about the Beethoven or the Ives or the Mahler, not about the Phoenix Symphony, which sometimes sounds great but is nonetheless second rank orchestra even on a good day.

Imagine in comparison going to the theater, expecting to see Hamlet, and learning that they decided to present Harvey instead; or an exhibition of Monet replaced by paintings on black velvet; photographs by Annie Leibovitz substituted by photos of Princess Diana taken by paparazzi; a solo concert by Keith Jarrett stood in for by George Winston; a contemporary music concert of Elliott Carter compositions reprogrammed with somniferous musical blathering from Philip Glass; a reading from a new novel by Thomas Pynchon changed to Jacqueline Susann; the latest Woody Allen film screening Friday the 13th — Part 227 instead.

Ahem. I’ve digressed, but you get the point. Okay, admittedly Mozart and Tchaikovsky deserve better than to be compared with the likes of Jacqueline Suzann and Philip Glass. But their music has been played over and over — far too often, in fact. When such program machinations take place, I perceive the activity of the stuffed shirts who control the money in the form of substantial donations behind the scenes. When such things happen we see proposed summer festivals go from all Stravinsky to mostly Stravinsky to some Stravinsky, to maybe Stravinsky to who’s Stravinsky? What could have been extraordinary becomes merely pleasant but not innovative.

All the Discomforts of Home

My second disappointment was to arrive and find our seats squarely in the middle of row nine — some of the best in the house — but squarely in back of The Head from Hell, bolted to the body of a tall, broad man who sat squarely. Seeing over him was as hopeless as if I had been seated directly behind a pillar, and the seat next to me was not vacant.

During the first two ballets The Head listed somewhat to the right, which helped, but during the last work I missed the right third of the stage entirely except when I bobbed back and forth to see what was going on over there, which surely was annoying to the person in back of me.

Such things are nobody’s fault. They just happen, though it could be noted that in a sports stadium people never have obstructed views because of the steeper inclines of the seating sections. Given that they just spent a jillion quadrillion dollars rebuilding Symphony Hall to make it not much better than it was less than a year ago, I wasn’t pleased to have to strain to see the program because of a Goliath in front of me.

Finally, it was uncomfortably warm in the theater. I’m not the sort of person who notices small variations in the environment. But the high temperature in Phoenix was 111.9 during the day, it was still 104 when we left the performance at 8:30, and it was flat out too danged hot in there during the performance. An attendant told Suzy that the dancers like it warm. Well whoop dee doo. What about their gasping audience, which is not leaping around the concert hall wearing tights? Word must have spread, because during the third work the temperature dropped into the reasonable range.

Applause Protocols

Something that disturbed me throughout the performance was far too easily provoked applause.

There is a social protocol regarding when to applaud that people who regularly attend performing arts events readily learn. It differs depending on the medium.

At a rock concert the background noise, which includes constant bedlam and screaming, is high, but is usually drowned out by the deafening music, so it doesn’t matter when the audience stands, dances in the aisles, and sings along. This is hardly ever done at a Schubert song cycle recital.

In a jazz performance it is usually considered acceptable to applaud following an improvised solo, even though the music continues. Even at the opera it has long been an accepted tradition to applaud a soloist at the conclusion of an aria or soliloquy. Generally the conductor will halt the performance until it subsides. But imagine the impression that would be made if the tenor hit and held his high C and the audience went into a wild frenzy before he concluded his phrase.

In contrast, in the era of my own lifetime it has been considered inappropriate to applaud during the pauses in multi-movement compositions at classical music concerts, because the entire work is considered as a single entity. Mendelssohn hated so much the lack of sophistication in this regard on the part of audiences in his day that he wrote concertos in such a way that the first movements segued directly into the slow movement without interruption, so the audience would be unable to applaud. Slow movements take care of themselves. To applaud following a serene Adagio would be like applauding a prayer in church. (Though I hear nowadays this would not be unusual.)

Imagine instead what impression would be made if the audience were to break into cheering following each technically challenging passage. The pianist, grinding out an impossibly difficult arpeggio within some tired, overplayed concerto gets to the end of it to be met by hoots of: “Ooooh baby, PLAY that thing!!” It just wouldn’t be right.

So then, what is the currently acceptable Right Thing to Do at a ballet performance? What took place on Saturday night — on the part of others, not by me — revises significantly my memories of past ballet performances, prompting me to believe that things must have changed.

I was dismayed to find the audience to be applause happy. Every time a ballerina would catapult across the stage, going bouncety-bounce, twirly-twirl, deedly-deedly, kerthump, the audience broke into wild applause. The first time it happened I was astonished, and felt mildly embarrassed to be a part of such an unsophisticated audience — sitting among a bunch of hicks in suits. But it happened throughout the evening, and I was forced to conclude that this behavior has become the norm.

I asked myself: “What is this, the roller derby? The circus? Ted Mack Amateur Hour? An Olympic skating competition, where each triple toe loop is vociferously approved?” Where was the art? What had become of the sense of decorum, of the understanding of what was actually taking place on the stage, the unfolding of poetry composed in human movement?

To acknowledge a pleasing performance is a fine gesture, but the timing must be dictated by the context, which in the case of ballet should be determined largely by the structure and flow of the music, not by the astonishing physical trickery of the dancers.

The Mozart Divertimento No. 15, performed first, is a suite of five movements, the second being a longer movement consisting of a theme and variations. In a contemporary concert performance one would applaud only after the end of all five movements. A divertimento, as the name implies, is a diversion, a less formal piece than a symphony or sonata, so perhaps in Mozart’s day it was appropriate to applaud between movements.

Used as the background for ballet, it seems somewhat acceptable to me to applaud at musical pause points — between movements, possibly even between variations in the second movement. But certainly not following every Big Jump. To do so interrupts not only the music, but also the ballet, which must go on without interruption.

Saturday there was some applause at some spectacularly inappropriate moments. In music there is what is called a I-6/4 (pronounced one-six-four) chord, a tonic (main key) chord in second inversion. In the classical era a harmonic progression into such a chord typically was the gateway to a cadenza, which means cadence, a harmonic formula that ends in a resolution back to the main key; it would be followed by an opportunity for a soloist to enjoy a truly self-indulgent moment in the spotlight. Cadenzas are invariably crowd pleasers because of their pyrotechnics, but in the hands of lesser composers, of questionable musical validity. But that’s another discussion.

My point is that it is not the I-6/4 chord introducing the cadenza that reaps audience ecstasy, but what follows. Think: “Shave and a haircut —” (Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap …) “Two bits!” (More of the same.)

Yet such is exactly the point at which the audience applauded on Saturday night — a moment that was followed by a brief violin cadenza, although the containing work was not in concerto form. I’ve belabored the point, but my conclusion is: Well, that was just really a dumb and imperceptive thing for them to do.

But it got worse: We even encountered wild, enthusiastic applause on a fermataed diminished seven chord.

If you don’t understand all the musical explanation here, never mind. Trust me — these are not proper moments to applaud a ballet performance. But that’s what they did.

More Observations

During the first intermission I noted that the audience was about three to one female, a fact that I personally enjoyed. Many of the ladies were young and trim, probably including many who had taken dance lessons themselves and therefore had cultivated a degree of appreciation for the art form.

One thing that has always puzzled me about dance is why such a disproportionate number of male dancers are gay. One would think that being a male ballet dancer would be a good way to pick up babes for someone who is inclined to do so. (Not that I’m recommending it!) Female dancers are usually gorgeous, always in fabulous shape, athletic, artistic, and highly disciplined, and soloists work together with their male counterparts in a state of constant physical contact. Yet the ladies tend to find themselves hurled through the air by leaping sweeties in tights with bulging codpieces.

I’ll add the caveat that of course there are always obvious exceptions, and that I know absolutely nothing whatever personally about any of the male dancers associated with Ballet Arizona. For all I know they all shoot pool and watch NASCAR after hours.

Oh dear, I’ve digressed again.

Say — What About Those Ballets, Anyhow?

My personal preference in dance is for modern and contemporary dance — Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailee, Twyla Tharpe, Merce Cunningham, and others — over classical ballet. George Ballanchine bridged the gap between eras, revolutionizing the world of ballet, with some of the most poetic expressions in movement I have ever seen. His work suits my taste magnificently, and to my eye Saturday’s performance was flawlessly performed by Ballet Arizona.

I have mentioned already Divertimento No. 15, set to Mozart’s music, largely an ensemble piece with relatively little solo dancing.

The concluding work was Serenade, based on the work of that name for string orchestra by Tchaikovsky, a lovely piece, particularly in its grandly dramatic opening and closing bookends.

By far the highlight of the program was Apollo, with music by Igor Stravinsky, written and choreographed in 1928, a transitional period for Stravinsky, after the big ballets that made him both famous and notorious in his earlier years, and before he found neoclassicism, but on his way there. According to a quote in the program from Balanchine himself Apollo also represented an important change for him. “Apollo I look back on as the turning point of my life …”

Apollo is a magnificently subdued work of restraint, using only seven dancers, only one male, in the title role. The introduction was danced from a seated position atop a high staircase by a lone woman. Most of the remaining sequences were performed by Apollo and three female partners representing the Muses Terpsichore, Polyhmnia, and Calliope.

To describe motion is beyond my journalistic ability, so I won’t attempt to do so. The overall effect was deeply moving, responded to with an appropriately timed standing ovation on the part of the audience, and was worth the price of admission all by itself.

My only gripe is still that I missed seeing Agon.

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Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman — Arizona Opera

The last scene of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman...
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Last night was the first time in 62 years of musical life that I ever attended a live production of a Wagner opera. At that rate I’ll be 124 before I see my next one. I can wait.

The event du jour was The Flying Dutchman, one of Wagner’s earliest works. The music was listenable, the singers were real loud — a prerequisite for singing Wagner, the orchestra played well, meaning the first horn player didn’t crack too many high notes, and the sets were fabulous.

What was the plot? I’m not really sure. Something about a sailor condemned to ride around in a boat until he could find a faithful wife, which would somehow bring him salvation. It should be noted that it doesn’t always work out that way, including in Wagner’s own case. Theoretically this was based on something that was considered akin to slapstick comedy in its day, but Wagner had a way of putting a morosely serious spin on things.

‘Nuff said.

At a performance time of three hours, Dutchman weighs in as one of Wagner’s shorter works. So what does one do in a theater seat for that long? Obviously it’s not possible to concentrate on Wagner for that long, so I whiled away the time writing Wagner jokes.

Q: What’s the difference between a Wagnerian soprano and a police siren?
A: Vibrato.

Q: What do you get when you cross a Wagnerian soprano with a Mack truck?
A: Another Wagnerian soprano.

Q: What words about Wagner will you never hear?
A: That’s the Wagner lover’s yarmulke.

Q: What do you call all the scores to the Ring Cycle at the bottom of the ocean?
A: A good start.

Q: What did the Wagner lovers do before heading off for a performance of a Wagner opera?
A: Shut off their water, gas, and electricity, canceled their magazine subscriptions, had the post office hold their mail, got their affairs in order, and left their children at an orphanage.

Q: What is Armageddon?
A: The basis for an amusing Wagner comedy.

Q: Who are Moe, Curly, and Larry?
A: Actors from whom Wagner derived an epic drama about life, death, love, salvation, and universal truth. (He called it Parsifal.)

But seriously, folks …

The production was excellent, and the singers some of the best the Arizona Opera has ever hired, particularly the soprano, who has a towering yet beautiful voice, and is not built like a weightlifter, as many Wagnerian sopranos are. In fact she’s kind of a babe.

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Music As Wallpaper

Cpasclassic2009
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Music today has become like wallpaper — part of the ambience. Hardly anyone ever just listens to it any more, unless it’s to get up and dance.

As a child I became accumstomed to simply listening to music, allowing it to take over my full attention. Even when I was little, I would sit on the floor and listen attentively as my father practiced, sometimes for long periods of time. To some people nothing is more boring than listen to a musician woodshedding, but I enjoyed it.

We didn’t have a record player during my youngest years. I no longer remember exactly when my father went out and bought a “hi fi”, but by that time 33 1/3 LPs were common, a medium that was appropriate for the distribution of classical music, and much superior to the 78 RPM records that had become popular. Meanwhile, pop music came to be distributed with one song on each side of a 45 RPM record. I never owned more then a couple of those. I remember buying “Sixteen Tons” by Tennesee Ernie Ford on a 45 single, and listening to it many times. It was the very first record I ever bought with my own money.

In those days there was always the radio. Even then classical music broadcasts were infrequent, but whenever they were on, is was an occasion for my father to sit in a chair and listen attentively, so that’s what I did, too. Before long I became a radio addict. Our radio was not portable. (They didn’t have portable radios yet.) Our family owned only one, and when it was on, I sat right next to it and listened to it, for at least a couple of hours every night. I sat so close I could touch it, and loved the warm smell of the vacuum tube circuitry burning inside of it. I knew all the popular programs, the schedule, and what stations they were on, and could slip easily from one to the other, even there was no a mechanism to preset favorite stations. I had to turn the dial and “tune it in,” adjusting it back and forth until the signal was the clearest.

When I started to learn music, it was already my habit to sit and listen attentively to it when it was playing. There was hardly anything to do that I enjoyed more. To this day my preferred mode of listening is with a score in my lap, because I don’t want to miss any details, and I’m deeply interested in knowing how composers accomplished what they did. I suppose that’s why I became a composer myself.

Today few people listen to the radio except as background noise. We listen to talk and news shows in the car when commuting because it saves what would otherwise be wasted time, enabling us to catch up on what’s going on in the world when we are held captive in traffic, making it less urgent that we do so on CNN.com or news.google.com or to read a newspaper, or God forbid, by having to watch it on the evening news, when TV news has become a joke.

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Handel’s Semele — Arizona Opera Company

Georg Friedrich Händel
Cover of Georg Friedrich Händel

On January 30th Suzy and I attended the Arizona Opera Company’s performance of Semele by Handel. Some musicologists classify it as a “secular oratorio” rather than an opera, but all presentations of it I’ve found listed by Google have been completely staged — by opera companies — so it makes little difference what label one hangs on it. Remarkably, this was the very first baroque opera ever staged by AOC in its 35-year history. I do hope they do more of it — particularly more Handel; I’d also be happy to see some Monteverdi.

Upon arriving, I brought a lifetime streak to an end: we were late! Normally we leave home about 6:30-6:35 for a 7:30 performance, which almost always gets us through the front doors at Symphony Hall at about 7:05, with plenty of time to have a coffee and cookie, chat, look at the pretty dressed-up ladies and stuffed shirts, and prepare to be put to sleep soon.

On our journey we encountered an accident snarl on the I-10. It was bumper-to-bumper from there all the way to the parking lot. When we walked in they were playing the last measures of the overture. The decrepit volunteer ushers were whispering “There’s still time to be seated!” — barely. They stuck us in the back row, which I guess is a penalty box they normally keep open for latecomers. At least it was roomy. The sound and view were naturally somewhat muffled from there, though not terrible. So it was from there that we saw the entire first act. If we had been fifteen seconds later we would have watched it on plasma TV screens in the lobby.

It was the first time in my memory of a lifetime of concertgoing that I was ever late to a performance event. (I’m not counting performances at Smith Music Hall while in music school that I may have wandered into during mid-performance, having not previously committed myself to going. I’ll add that during my six years in Urbana I attended at least eighty percent of what was presented at Smith Hall — probably more.) Added to the fact that I had a bad experience that morning which upset me, I was disappointed to break my lifetime perfect record of on-timeness, so I arrived in a somewhat foul mood.

Naturally, the musicians used modern instruments, no doubt for a lack of appropriate gear and specialist performers, because after all, this was another performance by the AOC using their standard orchestra members; but the program said the singers followed eighteenth century vocal practice rigorously. It certainly sounded so to my ears.

The producers chose to present the work, not in traditional baroque fashion, but with twentieth century pop art staging. The first set consisted of five full-color giant female eyeball paintings hung high over the stage, reminiscent of Andy Warhol, with a set of stark black and white striped furniture. (I presumed the eyeball gender because of the makeup, though in 2006 such conclusions are by no means true.)

“Say what!?” I said to myself.

When a slight guy appeared in Ivy League garb, replete with sweater draped around the shoulders, sleeves tied in front, and a tennis racquet, and began flitting around the stage while singing the countertenor (falsetto) role, which at first, not knowing the plot, I mistook as an effort to portray him as gay as can be, I rolled my eyes, sat back in my chair, and proceeded to make a concerted and successful effort to fall asleep, convinced that the producers had lost their collective mind. It turns out he was scheduled to marry the title character — in the end he fell in love with and married her sister instead.

For readers who may not be aware, a countertenor is a male singer who sings in the female range, usually in falsetto. This may be accomplished in modern times through extensive training first as a baritone or tenor, graduating to specialization in the upper voice. In previous times, when such voices were valued by the Roman Catholic Church, and before it was outlawed, potential countertenors were given surgical help in their youth by means of a procedure that did not involve the vocal chords.

I’m sorry I fell asleep, though given my tiredness after my usual Saturday afternoon long run, a few moments of shuteye was inevitable.

By the end of the first act I started to come around, by which time I began to realize — Oh, this thing is a comedy! It’s supposed to be funny. Meanwhile I’d dozed through some undoubtedly superlative music.

There were two intermissions. After the first act we moved to our much better usual seats. From the second act on, refreshed by my nap, I was able to pay proper attention.

The vocalists were by and large excellent, including the countertenor, who did not reappear until the last half of the third act. They did sound much like traditional opera singers rather than baroque specialists, other than the countertenor, who of course is a specialist, because there is virtually no other literature for countertenors, but they sang clean as a whistle.

The cast of characters numbered six. The title role went to a soprano with astonishing virtuosity. Some of the most technically demanding music ever written for singers — most fun to listen to — is to be found in the showy coloratura passages of Handel. In fact, Getting to hear singers showing off is probably what most people like to hear most in Handel’s operas and oratorios. The questions that invariably present themselves include: how fast will they go, can this singer cut it, hit most of the notes, mostly in tune, keep up with the pace of the orchestra, and not run out of breath or appear to be left gasping for breath in the next eight bars before he or she has a chance to inhale again? In this regard I’m reminded of the challenges of the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan, except that in the latter they also have to deal with mind-bogglingly complex and tongue-twisting lyrics.[1]

[1] “I am the very model of a modern major general,

I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical,
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical. …
I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s
I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous.”

Sheesh!!

The only singer I had reservations about was the bass, the father of the title character. It’s one thing for a soprano to rattle through those long melismas under a cushion of orchestral backing, but to make it sound clearly in the bass range is technically almost impossible — as was demonstrated by this night’s performer. He did perform one amusing and well-acted aria, though — a slower number, in which he was supposed to be the god of sleep trying to wake up, wherein he kept falling back over on his side, and letting his voice continue to drop another half another half-octave below what was written.

By far the best singer to my ears was the sister of the title character, a contralto by my estimation of nearly 300 pounds who shook the walls when she sang, manifested total control and freedom, breathtaking technique, acted superbly, and turned out to be quite the comic character. Upon accepting applause at the end, the enthusiastic cheers earned for her from the audience indicated that the masses in attendance agreed with my own assessment.

As I got into the performance I began to enjoy some of the humorous touches. One of the characters, the tenor who played Zeus, being a god, had the ability to make funny things happen at the wave of a hand, as couches would move into position, and needed objects would appear. The stage was tended by a group of five non-singing tuxedoed men, who brought things in and out, including cotton cloud bedecked scaffolding on wheels with a couch on top from whence various gods and goddesses sang.

In one aria Zeus sang to Semele and desired to give her some flowers, whereupon an attendant walked in with an enormous bouquet of roses, but while continuing to sing to unaware Semele, Zeus made a gesture indicating something bigger, whereupon the attendants wheeled in six 10-foot-tall ultracloseup paintings of roses filling the entire stage, making a most impressive backdrop.

In another, Semele has magically become transformed in such a way that when she looks at herself in a tiny mirror she no longer sees herself as a mere mortal, but as a goddess. She is so impressed with herself she can’t get over it, and begins singing an aria that begins with the lyrics that go

Myself I shall adore,
If I persist in gazing.
No object sure before
Was ever half so pleasing.

which goes on and on to ridiculous lengths with no other lyrics added. Each time she launches into the amusing key phrase, beginning yet another session of self-adulation, another attendant walks in with a bigger mirror than before. In the background, the silent sister, who patiently endures it for the first several times (it was she who set the whole thing up in order to make Semele think she was a goddess and suitable match for Zeus, so she could capture the attention of the countertenor for herself), eventually started rolling her eyes, and eventually prostrated herself flat on the couch in exasperation. Surely this over the top immodesty must have been viewed as hysterically funny in Handel’s day as well.

Semele, being mortal, could not really ever “unite” with Zeus, because it would destroy her, and Zeus knew it, but pursued it anyhow. He decides to go through with the unitification, but proclaims that he will use his lowest powered lightning bolt to incinerate her. At the critical time, first Semele disappears behind a screen, while making seductive gestures toward Zeus, following which Zeus shrugs his shoulders and joins her behind the screen. There is an enormous and comical flash of lightning and explosion, the screen is lifted, and Zeus is alone, but there is a large cloud of smoke where Semele supposedly had been happily uniting with Zeus. More yucks.

In another scene (I’m telling these things out of sequence), a refrigerator was wheeled out and left in the background. As each character entered, including the stage hands, he or she would go to the refrigerator and open the top compartment, which was stocked to bursting with yogurt cups. The character would take one and carry out the rest of the scene while spooning yogurt. In another scene later on, with the refrigerator still on stage, Zeus comes out to sing to Semele, and opens the bottom half to find it conveniently bursting with champagne bottles.

Other lyrics provoked titters from a 21st century audience, particularly the aria with the opening (oft-repeated) line, in anticipation of Semele’s upcoming marriage:

Hymen, haste, thy torch prepare,
Love already his has lighted!

Hmmm. I wonder how many persons are aware that Hymen was the torch-bearing god of marriage in Greek mythology, the son of Apollo and a muse? I have to wonder if Handel himself saw the saucy double entendre that was implied?

By the conclusion of the opera, I was enjoying myself enormously. As the third act was about to begin I turned and said to Suzy: “This opera needs a chorus!” Handel wrote some of the greatest choral music ever written, yet this opera consisted to that point entirely of a sequence of solo arias (with a couple of duets), separated by mercifully short recitatives. Handel was an enormously popular and successful composer in his day, and clearly knew which side of the paper his check was written on, so I surmised maybe there would be a chorus in the third act. Georgie did not disappoint, as the Finale consisted of a glorious work sung by the entire cast (sans stage hands, who were nonetheless on stage). Okay, so a sextet, not a chorus, but with six parts rather than four, just as good — and one of the best I’ve ever heard from Handel a well. It was shorter than I would have liked. In compatibility with our desire to see happy endings in comedies, the lyrics, Still saucy by their licentiously amoral implications, go:

Happy, happy shall we be,
Free from care, from sorrow free.
Guiltless pleasures we’ll enjoy,
Virtuous love will never cloy;
All that’s good and just we’ll prove,
And Bacchus crown the joys of love.

In the end, judging by the audience’s warm applause, a good time was had by all, and we left smiling and laughing.

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Downtown Chamber Players Concert Review

Image taken from http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/...
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Friday night Suzy and I attended an all contemporary chamber music concert. (Contemporary if you count Ysaÿe.) It’s been a long time since I did that.

The venue was a huge space in downtown Phoenix called The Ice House, which is exactly what it was built to be in 1910. It’s now owned by a woman who uses it for displaying large contemporary art exhibits that are unusual and can’t be or just aren’t displayed elsewhere, and for performance art. It’s directly across the street from Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s offices. (Non-Phoenix readers of this review may be unaware that Sheriff Joe is the most colorful and probably most well-known law enforcement officer in the country. But that’s a subject for another post.)

The floors at The Ice House are concrete, the walls are brick, the ceiling is at least 20 feet high, and the lighting is inadequate for spectators who had to squint to see their programs. It was chilly in there, but not uncomfortable. We had a dip in the weather here, with rain and chill and even snow in outlying areas. Inside the venue nobody took off their coats, and two ladies were sitting with a blanket over their lap. Still, I didn’t hear anyone complaining.

The program was all string music: String Quartet #2 by Henryk Górecki (I have a recording by Kronos), a Sonata for solo cello by Ysaÿe, “Riconoscenze per Goffredo Petrassi” for solo violin by Elliott Carter, Violin Phase (played by four violinists) by Steve Reich, and a collection of tangos by Astor Piazolla, with the last couple of pieces spiced up by first a pair of dancers with big-shot credentials, and finally by three pair of dancers, all fun to watch.

I enjoy occasional verbal program notes at a concert, especially when some piece warrants some explanation or if background information somehow enhances the listening experience — but only if the comments are accurate and not silly or apologetic, as sometimes happens with contemporary music. “You’re probably gonna hate this music, but lemme explain while we’re making you listen to it before you walk out.”

No, there was none of that at Friday’s concert. The commentary was by and large okay, but I didn’t like the gross generalization of classifying all the minimalists in one lump while all the others: Carter and Stockhausen and Berio and Boulez and … well you know … as the “other” camp that can be described with another single label. Carter in particular stands apart from those others in many ways, as anyone who has really listened to or studied his music is aware. So I could have done without the description of the kind of music “Carter and his camp” compose as being done by the guys who studied hard at Julliard and wherever, while the minimalists were the guys who flunked out of music school and moved downtown. Yes, they actually said that.

Also, while the violinist who performed the Carter was fairly knowledgeable about the music, and played it beautifully, he could have stood to edit and rehearse his remarks at little better, and the violinist who came up next (actually a violist, the founder of the Downtown Chamber series, who was playing violin on the Reich) made a BIG factual booboo when contrasting Reich and the other well-known minimalists with the composers from “the other side of town” when he referred specifically to Carter as a 12-tone serialist composer — which he absolutely is NOT!

Nonetheless, the music was all well played and enthusiastically presented. It was equally enthusiastically received by the audience, which by and large did not need to have someone stand up to defend the music they were about to hear. This crowd seemed to be of the type who knew what they paid their money to hear and that’s why they were there. It was pretty much a full house. The audiences at these concerts tend not to be the stuffy older retired rich folks who sit on their hands and complain about anything that’s not Mozart.

This series is not available by subscription, which is a good thing. People buy tickets for concerts they want to hear, not more than a month or two in advance, when they get around to announcing the location and program, about five a year. At $10 a head, including wine, cheese, and crackers at intermission, it’s hard to get a better deal.

It’s good to know that there is an audience for this kind of thing in Phoenix. My biggest regret is not being part of the inner circle. There was not a single soul we know at this concert, no one to talk to about music. I’ve gotten so out of touch. I miss not being able to hear this sort of concert a couple of times a week, as in my old school days, when we would compare notes during the intermission, then leave the concert and head over to House of Chin or the Capitol restaurant and argue about the music over beers until they threw us out and shut the place down.

A splendid time was had by all.

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Job Interviews Are Like Auditions

Sir Georg Solti
Cover of Sir Georg Solti

Recently I have been looking for work once again, and in so doing have had to make myself available for job interviews, the humiliating grilling in which a person is expected to lay his life’s work experience on the line in the course of a few minutes. He is expected to know, remember, and be fluently conversant about everything he has ever done over a career that may have spanned decades. Sometimes it helps; sometimes it does not.

Mulling over the inadequacies of the process brought to mind an experience my father had years ago, one he related to me in some detail years after it happened.

My father was a prominent classical musician who made his entire living his whole working life performing as a violist, conductor, violinist, teacher of professionals, and occasional composer. He was primarily an orchestral and chamber music player, but principal (first chair) in most orchestras he ever played in except the Chicago Symphony, the best orchestra in the world, where he was assistant principal during his first of two stints there. His first tenure was in the late forties to mid-fifties, the second in the early seventies under Sir Georg Solti. Dad was Good with a capital G, and I don’t think I’ve ever known anybody who loved music more than he did.

He came up through the ranks before the days of the high-power conservatory training aspiring professionals now get. He got plenty of work because he was known all over the Chicago area by those who hired that kind of musician, whether it was for a pickup orchestra, jingle recording sessions, night club dates backing Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett, or whatever; most professional freelance work was obtained by a well-known core of solid and thoroughly competent musicians. That’s how the business works, even today, except in today’s world of MIDI-produced electronic music there are fewer jobs and lots more competition.

Today if one chair in a major symphony orchestra such as CSO opens up, management expects 250 players to show up for an audition. These will all be people who passed the initial screening, by sending resumés demonstrating they’ve already had years of professional orchestral experience, and also submitting tapes, CDs, or DVDs. Even after all that, the conductor and management might not like any of them, so will hire no one.

Around 1971, when my father was working as a freelancer, he got a call from the CSO business manager, who asked him point blank: “Would you like to play the season?” They had a vacancy in the viola section, and no one permanent had been hired. Of course, my father was thrilled to take it. He left when Fritz Reiner was about to take the reins of the orchestra, because the old man had a reputation for eating musicians alive for breakfast. Dad didn’t want that kind of stress, plus he had in mind to expand his career as a conductor and entrepreneur, creating a fine arts festival. But if you want to make a solid living in classical music, nothing beats a regular orchestra job with the best orchestra in the world. Musicians who get that job rarely leave, because it doesn’t get any better than that.

So he played the season, during which the orchestra went on a historic tour of Europe, where they recorded some Mahler Symphonies that got rave reviews and piles of awards. Dad was in heaven doing exactly what he loved and was so good at. By this time he was already pushing 65 years of age, but could definitely cut the job. The next year, and I believe one more year after that, for whatever reason, the orchestra still could not find a real permanent player for that position, so my father continued as a contractor, with somewhat less money and benefits than a full member, and he was no longer assistant principal, just another section guy. But what a gig!

The time inevitably came where the orchestra’s management decided to make an all-out effort to find a permanent player for that open position, which meant they had to have open auditions. Dad was never offered the job outright, but was told that if he’d like to take a shot at it, he could participate in an audition along with all the recent conservatory graduates who did nothing but practice difficult orchestral passages and sight reading and basically prepare for auditions like a runner training to win a marathon

Dad said: No way! He’d love the job. The conductor, his colleagues, and everyone in the CSO management knew him, his artistry, that he’d even been the featured soloist with the orchestra on at least one occasion (more if you count Bach’s Brandenburg #6), and they knew his vast experience for what it was worth. If they wanted to hire him on that basis he’d be happy to accept. But in an open audition against some young hotshot who could play the Bartok and Walton Concertos in his sleep while whistling Dixie and stomping out the high hat part to an Elvin Jones solo with his feet he wouldn’t have a prayer. Dad’s position was that anyone who plays a good audition has proven exactly one thing: that he knows how to play a good audition. It demonstrates nothing about his artistry or whether he will hold up his end in one of the greatest ensembles in the world for the next forty years, and it’s a sure thing he hasn’t already played the Brahms 4th Symphony at least fifty times in performance. So Dad declined to audition.

That was the end of his Chicago music career. He and my mother moved to Florida where he taught for several years at the university in Tampa, was principal violist and associate conductor of the Gulf Coast Symphony until he finally really did retire — but he continued to perform right up the end, playing a recital with accompaniment just a few months before his death in 1995 at age 88.

My point in all this is that some people don’t do well in put-on-the-spot interviews or tests and will screw up badly, whether out of nervousness, or whatever. And what does it prove? Nada.

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Chopin on the Banjo

Béla Fleck
Cover of Béla Fleck

You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Bela Fleck playing a Chopin Etude on the banjo. If you were to listen to it while falling over a cliff while running from a bear in Alaska, your life would be complete (and possibly over). You would never need to drink another cup of coffee as long as you lived, much less any other sort of drug.

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Where’s the Beef?

Billy Joel at the 2009 premiere of the Metropo...
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Some time ago I learned that Billy Joel has been busy composing “classical music.” What this term means to composers of popular music is generally something quite different from what it means to modern, mainstream, “serious” composers. To most pop composers it means putting on a suit and a tie, at least figuratively or mentally, and behaving like stuffed shirts.

In Billy’s case it means writing imitation Chopin — competently and agreeably, to be sure, as what I’ve heard is unquestionably pleasant listening, but is by no means innovative or challenging in any artistic sense. It also means that the millions of listeners who enjoy his superior and original songwriting are being deprived of new output in the genre in which Billy — a.k.a. “William” on the title pages of his classical works — excels in most.

Few composers of pop songs or rock and roll who have ventured into the so-called classical world have created anything of substance. The only composer I can think of who has been successful to any meaningful degree was Frank Zappa. I tend to believe, too, that if the superlative songwriter and movie composer Randy Newman were to take up writing concert music for orchestra or chamber ensembles the results would be interesting at the least and probably charming.

In contrast, in addition to Billy Joel, there has been Paul McCartney, arguably the best songwriter of the twentieth century, whose excursions into orchestral music with his Liverpool Oratorio and Standing Stone are unadventurous extended rambles, which for the most part he was able to compose only with the help of assistants with greater technical skill.

That many existing fans of these composers enjoy such work is no surprise. As one reviewer of McCartney’s work illustrated, quoting from columnist Dave Barry, there are plenty of people who are happy to exchange valid U.S. currency for bottled water.

One must not criticize any artist for attempting to reach out in a new direction, for that spark of desire is at the core of the creative process. It is only disappointing to see some who have been successful in their primary calling travel instead down old, safe, and oft-trodden paths.

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Was That a Zebra or a Giraffe?

Difference / Unterschied Violin - Viola (Alto)
Image via Wikipedia

Speaking of basic education (was I doing that?) …

Certain skills are fundamental to life. The obvious ones include ability to care for oneself and to perform basic chores, reading, writing, basic arithmetic, to which I would add secondary skills such as riding a bicycle, swimming, for most persons driving a car, reading a map, and skills such as that. For instance, even most persons who are not handymen know the difference between a hammer, a screwdriver, and a wrench, and how they are used. Almost everyone learns all of those things, but now and again we meet folks who drop through the cracks, persons who have missed one or more of the essentials. Recently I had an experience that demonstrated to me how much things have changed over the years in what so-called educated people know.

My wife and I went to a Phoenix Symphony Chamber Players concert at ASU. It was an invitational thing; certain alumni got free tickets and grub at a reception, and had only to listen to some blah-blah presented by the various deans of colleges beforehand. (Suzy got her bachelor’s at ASU and and an MBA from ASU West.) At this reception was a woman I see daily at the gym, but had never known. Suzy knows her well, though, and introduced us. The lady is dean of the school of business at ASU West.

In my mind, someone who is the dean of a school within a respected university, is viewed as an academic who one would assume to be well-rounded in education, having breadth of scope, regardless of that that person’s specialty — someone who probably knows art and history and music and science and is well-read.

During the intermission I talked with her. Knowing of my background she had a musical question to ask: “What’s the difference between a violin and a viola? And what are those bigger string instruments called?” I was happy to explain this to her in detail.

I’ll admit that having been raised by a violist-violinist-conductor father and being  a musician myself, my own musical experience is enriched over most people’s. However, I recall from when I grew up that being able to identify musical instruments was something that almost everyone learned to do where I came from, regardless of whether he or she played music. Certainly anyone regarded as well-educated could do so. Sure, maybe a few whose orientation was not toward music might have trouble identifying a bassoon or explaining the difference between an oboe and an english horn. But isn’t knowing a violin from a viola like knowing the difference between a zebra and a giraffe? Or at least between a zebra and a horse?

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