Monday, November 7, 2016

Shall we gather at the river?

Congratulations and thank you to the Fine Art Music Company for its exhilarating program of American music this weekend in Philadelphia. The performances, held Saturday evening at Ivy Hall and Sunday afternoon at the Ethical Society, were timed -- intentionally, I am told -- to correspond with Tuesday's general election. I joked, ruefully, that it might be the last time I feel good about being an American for a long time to come.

But feel good I did. The program was well-chosen and lovingly presented. I was familiar with most of the music, but two pieces -- Paul Bowles's Six Preludes for Piano and William Grant Still's Suite for Violin and Piano -- were new to me.

Bowles's Preludes are short, finely etched studies that the pianist, Kasia Marzec-Salwinski, compared to the character pieces of Schumann. Still's Suite shoehorns elements of jazz and spirituals into rather a conventional framework.

By contrast, Charles Ives's Fourth Violin Sonata, which opened the second half of the program, does away with frameworks altogether. Subtitled "Children's Day at the Camp Meeting," it is not one of Ives's more avant-garde works, but it bristles with mischief, and Jonathan Moser, the afternoon's violinist, navigated the mood swings with remarkable clarity of tone, while Kasia, on piano, more than held her own in a piece that mocks the very notion of holding your own.

The Ives was one of two high points of the afternoon for me. The other was the finale, Gershwin's ubiquitous "Rhapsody in Blue," in Henry Levine's arrangement for piano four hands. This is not a piece I need to listen to a lot, though I certainly don't avoid it. Gershwin's concert music is often better remembered than heard -- that is, the melodies are so good they stick in the mind long after you've forgotten just how clunky the structures are. But any doubts as to the music's ultimate value were banished here. Kasia and Rollin Wilber breezed through it with an enthusiasm that proved infectious. It was obvious they were having a high old time.

I don't want to leave out flutist Elivi Varga, who performed Copland's Duo for Flute and Piano and Samuel Barber's Canzone (with  Rollin on piano in the former, Kasia in the latter). These are relatively minor works, but they are pretty, and Varga gave a radiant luster to both of them. She was especially effective in the Barber.  

I also want to thank the musicians for inviting me to join them onstage for the Q&A session after the concert, when I was asked to say a few words about Charles Ives. In gratitude, I kept my comments short.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Another mystery solved

In an earlier post, I mentioned that the director of Choral Arts Philadelphia was at a loss to explain the presence of the sopranino recorder  in Bach's Cantata BWV 96, Christ her einige Gottessohn. Bach always assigned extra-musical meanings to his instrumentation, of course, and the director couldn't determine just what the recorder was supposed to symbolize.

Well, inspired by Choral Arts' performance, I purchased a CD of the piece (Bach-Ensemble, cond. by Helmuth Rilling), and found the following in the booklet: "This cantata is one of those compositions, starting with BWV 94, where Bach accorded the modern flute a major role. In aria no. 3 it provides the 'bonds of affection' by which Jesus should draw the spirit. Inn the opening chirus the same player probably had to  use a sopranino recorder to convey the light of the morning star mentioned in the text in a suitably high register."

The complete text of the chorus is as follows:
Lord Christ, the only son of God,
Father's eternally,
From his own heart descended,
Just a scripture saith;
He is the star of morning.   

People try to make this stuff hard.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Meine Lieblingsmusik

Wer sagt, die Deutschen haben keinen Sinn für Humor?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"Like a complete unknown ..."

I suppose I'm going to have to weigh on on this whole Bob Dylan-Nobel Prize thing, but since Dylan himself hasn't acknowledged  it yet, I haven't felt too much pressure. According to Adam Kirsch, our latest laureate isn't even returning the Swedish Academy's phone calls, and now the Lords of Literature are getting all huffy, accusing their newest poster boy of being "impolite and arrogant."

They're surprised? The guy has made a career of being impolite and arrogant.

The truth is, I'm neither outraged  by the prize, nor am I raising huzzahs, as some have. I'm just not that into Dylan, and the Nobel is not a ticket to immortality. Every year when the prize is announced, we recall the greats who were never named -- Proust, Tolstoy, Conrad, Joyce, Nabokov, Auden -- and we overlook, yet again, the many mediocrities who were. Every Novel, every Pulitzer, every Oscar, every Grammy is a reminder, as if we needed reminding, that life is unfair.

And then there's the question, is what Dylan does literature? I'd say yeah, sure, why not?, but that admission doesn't make me prouder to be an American living at this particular time.

In the New York Review of Books, Luc Sante argues that while Dylan's lyrics, on their own, might not scan as well as those of Cole Porter or Smokey Robiinson, he added a new dimension to song: "As great a Porter and Robinson were as songwriters,  they were working in -- and profiting from -- the air of frivolity that attended lyric-writing by the mid-twentieth century, an era that prized verbal dexterity and rapid evaporation. Dylan, through his ambiguity, his ability to throw down puzzles that continue to echo and to generate interpretations, almost singehandedly created a climate inn which lyrics were taken seriously."

In other words, Dylan is more pretentious. What, one may ask, is un-literary about lightness and frivolity? And I hardly think Porter's lyrics have evaporated.

But Dylan was not awarded the Nobel Prize for his lyrics. He was given the ward for his songs: the combination of lyrics and music. Anyone who recalls "Like a Rolling Stone" or "When I paint My Masterpiece"  doesn't recite the words.  They sing them to themselves, and it is this mutual dependence of words and music that led Alex Ross to compare Dylan to Wagner.

I don't think the comparison quite holds, since Wagner is regarded primarily as a composer. The music, without the words, is still ravishing. Gershwin's melodies, too, stand on their own and have become standards of the instrumental jazz repertoire. Dylan's have not.

Give him his due, though: There may be  better lyricists, better guitar players, better tune smiths -- heaven knows there are better singers, but few others have combined their talents into something so memorable. He  is one of the few cases where the overused word "synergy" is appropriate.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The holes are very small

Conductor Matthew Glandorf gestures for a soloist to take a bow 

after The Choral Arts Society's performance of J.S. Bach's 
Cantata BWV 80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.

I didn't need an excuse to blow off Wednesday night's debate between the presidential candidates, but if I had, I couldn't have asked for a better one than the hourlong "Bach at 7" concert by Choral Arts Philadelphia. This season, the choir is working though the cycle of 18 of J.S. Bach's cantatas from 1734-35. Wednesday, it presented BWV 80, the familiar Ein feste Burg isst under Gott, and BWV 96, Herr Christ, der einige Gottesohn, which I had not known, despite my great affection for Bach's cantatas. Of late, they have absorbed me more than any other aspect of his work, but there are 260 of the things. There are only so many hours in a life. 

Herr Christ charmed me with its prominent part for sopranino recorder, played in this performance by Rainer Beckmann, who must be at least 6-foot-2. (It's always the biggest guys who play the tiniest instruments. In every bluegrass band I've ever seen, the mandolin player is a giant.) The sopranino is the dog-whistle of the recorder family. Its lowest pitch is fˊˊ, and the holes are quite close together. Modern instruments, like my little plastic job, are tuned at A=440, but Choral Arts uses the Baroque tuning of A=415. (The string players also use old-style, convex bows, which produce a softer sound than modern, convex bows.) Because of the lower tuning, Rainer explained, the finger holes are very small (though he didn't say why). Then he took his instrument out of its case and showed it to me: The holes were like pinpricks.

One mystery of the cantata concerned the symbolism of the recorder part.  In Bach's religious music the instrumentation always carries extra-musical connotations, Matthew Glandorf, the Choral Arts conductor, told me, but he has been unable to turn up any information on just what the recorder is supposed to stand for in this work.

"The Holy Spirit," I offered. "Flutes are always the Holy Spirit."

Unfortunately, the Paraclete is not mentioned anywhere in the libretto.  

I also asked if there might have been practical reason for the scoring: The sopranino's piercing sound should guarantee that it can be heard over the chorus and the orchestra -- although in the cavernous nave of St. Clement's Church, that was not always the case. No, Matthew replied, mere practicality was not an issue for Bach. There is always a spiritual justification for the choice of instruments. If anyone has any ideas, now's your chance to show off.

Rainer also said Wednesday night was his first professional gig as a sopranino player. In that, I have him beat by 20 years. I played the instrument back in the late 80s in a production of Jean-Claude Van Italie's Mystery Play. It drove the other actors crazy.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Summer of Lovecraft

Autumn begins Thursday, and as the weather gets cooler, I will have the energy to return to more serious, or at least more difficult, reading. In the hottest part of the summer, however, I entertained myself with a few potboilers and, in a project that started small but expanded as the time went on, the so-called horror fiction of H.P Lovecraft. I say “so-called” not because the tales were bad ― most of were quite enjoyable ― but because I didn’t find much horror in them, despite the use of the word the titles of “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Horror at Red Hook.”

In his most mature fiction, Lovecraft is obsessed by the idea that human beings are only the latest, and not even the most important, civilizing force in the planet.  Both “In the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time” present the ruins of long-dead cultures that rose and fell millions of years before the extinction of the dinosaurs. His most famous creation, the monster Chtulu, lives in another dimension but can break through at any time if someone utters the right incantation.
The sickly scion of a New England family, Lovecraft was preoccupied with inbreeding among the white population ― “The Dunwich Horror” distinguishes between the decayed and undecayed branches of the Whateley Family ― and, on the flip side, with the rise of what used to be called the “colored races.” His work is sometimes marred by crude and cliched bigotry, as in the description, in “Herbert West ― Reanimator,” of an African American boxer who has been killed in the ring: “He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon.”

Where a more sympathetic writer might see a beautiful, well-muscled athlete struck down too, Lovecraft resorts to jungle metaphors.

Spawn of Chtulu
My two favorite stories are among the least known, and the shortest. “In The Walls of Venus,” an effort at straightforward science fiction that, unaccountably, didn’t make it into the Library of America’s handy Lovecraft edition. It’s a well-told tale that builds gradually and inevitably, without sensationalism, and by the end grows into a parable on the evils of colonialism ― surprisingly, given the author’s racial attitudes.  

The other story that stood out for me, “The Color Out of Space,” was Lovecraft’s own favorite. Here, he imagines what the astronomer Neil De Grasse Tyson has described as “different ways of being alive”: the alien force that destroys a New England family is not humanoid, or animal, or even material. It is, rather, “a shapeless stream of unplaceable color.”

But as I’ve said, while Lovecraft’s alternative realities can be absorbing and even exciting, I find little horror in them ― not because of any lack of skill, but simply because the horror that monsters may inflict on human beings is nothing compared to the horrors we inflict on each other.  

Poe, Lovecraft’s hero, understood this.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins and Charles Ives

In an earlier post, I referred to Florence Foster Jenkins, portrayed my Meryl Streep in the eponymous film, as a horror. Now,  however, the blog Voice Science Works has defended her, or at least her right to sing, because of her enthusiasm and her love of music. "Do we want a world where only a few will sing due to social  pressures," the blogger asks, "or one where we all understand that our voices have enormous potential should we seek to find it?"

Personally, I'd go with the social pressures. Ara longa, perhaps, but vita is too damned brevis to put up with incompetence, let alone encourage it. I wouldn't want to waste my time on an execrable singer any more than I would on a juggler who keeps dropping his clubs. Performance might benefit from passion, but it also demands skill.

And yet ... the blogger's defense reminds me of a passage from the Memos of Charles Ives, whose music I have loved since I was a kid and whose ideas have been an ever-present challenge:

Once a nice young man (his musical sense having been limited by three years' intensive study at the Boston Conservatory) said to Father, "How can you stand to hear old John Bell (the best stone-mason in town) sing?" as he used to at Camp Meetings). Father said, "He is a supreme musician." The young man (nice and educated) was horrified -- "Why, he sings off key, the wrong notes and everything -- and that horrible, raucous voice -- and he bellows out at hits notes no one else does -- it's awful!" Father said, "Watch him closely and reverently, look into his  face and hear to music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds -- for if you do, you may miss the music."

Uh oh.

Ives spent much of his creative energy trying to capture the spirit behind the sounds, and, looking at the joy in Streep's face as she butchered "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen," I had to ask myself, have I been missing the music? Is Florence Forster Jenkins the embodiment of the Ivesian ideal of substance over manner?

On this occasion, I'm going to comfort myself by saying no. In the first place, Florence would have hated Charlie's music, as well as his idea that dissonance can lead to higher truth. At the end of the film, we hear her as she heard herself, and in her own mind, she sang like an angel. Earlier, when pianists are auditioning to be her accompanist, we find she can't bear loud, aggressive playing, though her sensitivity was likely a symptom of  her lifelong syphilitic condition. Volume and aggressiveness were, of course, staples of Ives's repertoire  -- as was humor, and while Jenkins's listeners might feel free to laugh, she took herself seriously.

Ives also would have despised Jenkins's choice of material, which for him typified the easy, spiritually bankrupt world he was rebelling against. For Ives, a man singing a hymn off key is channeling God. A woman singing Mozart, no matter how well, is just singing Mozart.

(Zappa, I think, would have loved her, just as he loved the Shaggs, who he insisted were better than the Beatles. But for Frank, wrong notes weren't about the music of the ages. They were about the subversion of information.)

Over the years, hostile or condescending critics have leveled the same charges against Ives that some reviewers leveled against Jenkins -- amateurism, sloppy technique, and the use of wealth as a buffer against reality -- but right or wrong, Ives was an artist, and a skilled one. His dissonances have purpose, often to wonderful effect, and whatever spiritual vision his scores possess comes though more clearly and forcefully through -- dare I say it? -- a good performance.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

I read a lot of trash in the summer

Spenser is back, busting the bad guys and overeating, in Slow Burn, Ace Atkins' fifth attempt to extend Robert Parker's deathless franchise. It's his best effort so far, though it can't avoid some of the series' more glaring cliches. In one twist, Spenser, who is gradually showing his age more and more, gets the worst of it in a fistfight with a young thug in the employ  of the mob. Atkins plants the seeds for the next book, leaving open the question of a rematch, and just when the mob boss Spenser has ticked off will try to bump him off, but I left wondering why the mob boss would wait until Hawk comes back from France to make his move.

The novel is apparently based on a real-life series of arsons that took place in Boston in the 1980s. In Atkins' telling, the arsonists are a trio of pathetic firefighting wannabes who think causing a crisis will create more support for the fire department. Atkins resorts to Parker's old technique of inserting italic chapters told from the perps' point of view, which gets the miscreants into the story long before our knight errant catches up with  them in the last couple chapters. I've never liked this device. The books are supposed to be told from Spenser's point of view, and the shift in perspective has always struck as an authorial intrusion.

Spenser gets into the case, of course, because an angry, loudmouth firefighter doesn't think the higher ups are doing enough to solve the case. He asks Spenser to go through the back door, tracking down underworld contacts the arson squad wouldn't know about. Strangely, this approach is nothing but a a red herring: Spenser's initial theory of the case turns out to be wrong, and all he manages to do, at first, is get the mob boss mad at him.

Parker was an efficient writer, not a great one. He didn't have Chandler's style or Hammett's way with a plot. His prose is never memorable. But he was often diverting, and sometimes funny, and he excelled at gunplay (which is why his best books are his westerns). Atkins falls comfortably into the formula. It seems he'll be able to churn out a novel every year until Spenser turns 100.

And he's still taking the easy way out with his character descriptions, making comparisons to minor celebrities of the past. This time out, he tells us one guy resembled Fred Gwynne without the bolts in his neck. There's an esoteric reference for you. If nothing else, Atkins knows his demographic.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The inspiring true story of a real-life horror

Smon Helberg, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant
in Florence Foster Jenkins. Helberg plays
Cosme McMoon, Florence's accompanist.
Grant is her husband and chief enabler, St. Clair Bayfield.
I don’t go to the movies much anymore, but on Sunday, with the heat index at over a hundred degrees, I forewent my usual weekend bike ride and spent the afternoon in an air-conditioned theater. I saw Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Frears’s comedy-melodrama about the heiress who became the worst singer ever to perform at Carnegie Hall, with Meryl  Streep in the title role.  This isn’t a review. There are enough of those around. Suffice it to say there weren’t as many laughs as I’d expected. Simon Helberg, my favorite cast member in The Big Bang Theory, has a few amusing moments when, as Florence’s hired accompanist, he first gets a load of her vocalizing. For the rest of the film, however, he has little to do but complain he can’t risk his reputation by appearing in public with her, then relent every time because a) the money is too good and b) he grows genuinely fond of the old dame.

My problem, when I left the theater, was that I wasn’t sure how we are supposed to feel about Florence. Are we supposed to laugh at her? Pity her? Admire her courage? Is she a trouper or a fool? But now I think there is no wrong way to respond. Derision, empathy and outrage are all valid reactions, together or separately, and  that very ambiguity may be the point of the film. Truly, Florence is a horror who makes a mockery of Joseph Campbell’s counsel to follow your bliss. Most of us overestimate our talents, but few of us have the money to rent out Carnegie Hall and inflict them on the public. The music critic who, in the film, writes a devastating review for the Post might be depicted as a meanie, but he is right to be incensed.  The drunken sailors and soldiers in the audience who think the performance is a joke, a la Jack Benny and his violin, are right to laugh. And Florence’s supporters in the audience are right to shout them down. They don’t want to see her feelings hurt.

For all her wealth, Florence had a hard life, having been infected with syphilis on her wedding night at age 18. I should be glad she enjoyed her moment in the limelight, but I couldn’t really root for her. It made no difference to me ― and certainly not to music ― whether she finally summoned the moxie to walk out onstage. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

My own little slice of heaven

Steve Kramer plays Bach
Last month, the Times Herald building in Norristown was closed, to save money, and the staff was scattered to the winds. Now, one day a week, I work from home, two days a week I work in the Reporter building in Lansdale, and two days a week I work in the lobby of Norristown’s Centre Theater, where the cellist Steve Kramer teaches on the third floor.

Friday, when Steve was finished with teaching, he brought his cello down to the lobby to practice. I was the only one of the newspaper staff who had not yet gone home, and so I was treated to a private performance, though much of it consisted of warmup scales and arpeggios. 

Last year at a benefit concert, also held at the Centre Theater, Steve played one movement of Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G. Afterward, it seems, I teased him about it, asking him why he didn’t play the whole thing. I have no recollection of the incident, but Steve remembered, and he said he I was right. He felt guilty, he said, and to pay me back, he would play the entire suite right there in the lobby.

Well, you know, I said, my favorite of the Suites is No. 3, and which point he sat down and played it. He did it in fits and starts, since he was breaking in a new bow, but he did, eventually, get through the whole thing, and the extended portions were soul-searing. There is a physicality to the cello heard in close quarters, a quality not conveyed in recordings, or even live in a concert hall. One can almost see the instrument vibrate. One can certainly feel it.  

When he was through, he asked me, with a smile, “Have I paid you back?”

I said we were square.

Fun, if squicky, fact: Bows are made from the hair of horse tails, but, Steve informed me, only the hair of males is used. Why? Because females, given the arrangement of their anatomy, stale on their own tails. The hair is impregnated with urine.