Sunday, November 15, 2015


I've long loved Madeline Kahn, and so I was pleased to come across a copy of William Madison's new biography during a recent trip to the Montgomery County-Norristown Library. It's a quick, easy read, and while the prose is no better than serviceable, and Madison goes in a bit too much for dime-store psychology -- must  all of Kahn's notorious insecurities result from her being abandoned  by her father and stepfather? -- he presents a thorough overview and balanced assessment of her career. We won't to better for a while.

The verdict must be, sadly, that Kahn was a major talent who left a pitifully small legacy, due primarily, it seems, to being saddled with inferior material. Her heyday lasted a few short years in the '70s, and it ended with her association with Mel Brooks.   

I remember becoming aware of Kahn through Young Frankenstein (I didn't see Blazing Saddles until later), I must have seen her much earlier. I was surprised to learn she was a regular on a short-lived series called Comedy Tonight, which I watched as a kid almost 50 years ago.  The cast also included Robert Klein, Peter Boyle and Jerry Lacey, who went on to imitate Bogart in Play It Again, Sam.  I remember all of them, and even a couple of the skits they appeared in, but I cannot for the life of me remember any of the female players.

I shall always remember Madeline Kahn as the Bride of Frankenstein, but she also lives on in short videos on You Tube. Madison calls Kahn's performance of Irving Berlin's early ditty "You'd Be Surprised," sung in honor of the composer's 100th birthday, "one of the finest musical performances she ever recorded, a mini-masterpiece of comic timing and lyric poise, grounded in specific characterizations of of gesture and accent."

Of course, Kahn, fearful of being pigeonholed as a comic (as if that were a bad thing), had to be talked into it. 

On the other hand, Madison minimizes "Ain't Got No Home" as one of Kahn's "party tricks" (p. 278), but it's how I prefer to remember her:

The guy in the fez reminds me of B. Kliban's Turk. 

Kile Smith's Vespers

Kile Smith
The Choristers, under the direction of David Spitko, will perform Kile Smith's "Vespers" in Lansdale Nov. 21. I'm hoping to attend, though I'll have to switch a shift at the paper with one of the other editors. 

In the meantime, here is my preview article on the concert. I've known Kile for over a decade, having first interviewed him for the now-defunct WRTI Magazine when he was still curator of the Fleisher Collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia. He is, as Bertram Wooster would say, a topping cove.  

Monday, September 14, 2015

Nerd Night Out with The Doubleclicks

Every few years, I fall in love with a female vocal act. First it was Janis Joplin, whose brassy blues and childlike vulnerability on The Dick Cavett Show broke my thirteen-year-old heart. Then, over the decades, there came Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Jane Siberry, and Brittany Howard. My current crushes are Angela Webber and her sister, Aubrey  ― aka The Doubleclicks ― who stopped by Melodies CafĂ© in Ardmore Friday night on their Nerd Night Out Tour. (The joke is, it's a night out for people who never leave the house.)

Angela, left, and Aubrey Webber --
aka The Doubleclicks --
after their show Friday in Ardmore.
I caught The Doubleclicks live  for the first time almost exactly one year ago at the same venue. Their set last week was shorter, because shared the bill with singer-songwriter Molly Lewis, best known, perhaps, for wanting to bear Stephen Fry's child, and the nautically appellated standup comic Joseph Scrimshaw. It was a fun night ― made more so by the company of my first cousin once removed, whom I had not seen in a couple of years.

Angela insists Molly Lewis a genius, and it’s hard to argue. Her lyrics are devilishly clever, and she plays the ukulele as though it were a real instrument. If I had to compare the acts, however ― and this is a wholly superficial impression ― I’d say that while Molly has the sharper, bluer wit, the Doubleclicks have a greater expressive range, as well as more pleasing voices. “Wonder Woman,” which ended their solo set Friday before the finale, is a small miracle of sincerity that wrings a touching ballad from the silliest topic without a trace of camp. When I complimented Angela on the song, she said, “Well, we’re great.”

Darn. I thought she needed me to tell her that. 

Read my review of The Doublclicks' latest album, President Snakes.

Here is a highlight of Friday's show, a Mad Libs-style song composed of words shouted by the audience at random:

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Music for Tourists

Allan Krantz, Robyn Novello and Steve Kramer
perform Handel's Cantata Spagnuola Sunday in Norristown.
The cellist Steve Kramer and friends presented a program in Norristown Sunday titled, somewhat misleadingly, “Sounds of the Symphony."  There was nothing symphonic about it. It was, rather, an eclectic afternoon of short chamber and vocal pieces and Latin dance music. (I wrote the preview a few weeks back, which may be seen here.)  

The first half was more or less classical, starting with Steve playing a single Sarabande from Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, and ending with Handel’s Cantata Spagnuola and Villa Lobos’ Bachiana Brasilero No. 5, sung by the lovely, soft-voiced young soprano Robyn Novello. (Steve and guitarist Allan Krantz provided the understated accompaniment.)

In between, we heard bass-baritone Alan Rosenbaum, whom I remember from Delaware Valley Opera Company production of “La Traviata,” in a Ladino folksong and a Donizetti aria, and, in the company of tenor Adam Gilbert, two Hebrew songs by Benjamin Steinberg.  Steve also joined violinist Elina Kalendarova of the Philadelphia Orchestra and her father, pianist and composer Edward Kalendar, in Kalendar’s slight but attractive Elegie and Scherzo, followed by “A Little Jewish Life,” also by Kalendar, for violin and piano. Kalendar received a standing ovation for a piano medley, titled “A Musical Journey Around the World,” that mashed up Gershwin, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven with jazz and pop tunes.  Impressively played, and quickly forgotten.

The mood shifted seismically after intermission, when the group Latin Fiesta took the stage for an extroverted set of music from (or about) Mexico, Brazil, Cuba and Spain. Some of it was strictly for tourists ―the set included “La Bamba,” “Guantanamera,” and Sergio Mendes’ “Mas que Nada ” ― but the accommodations were first-rate, and vocalist Vania Taylor-Watson made a congenial guide. This was music for dancing, rather than listening, and indeed, at one point, the group’s resident dancer, Liliana Ruiz, invited the audience up to the stage for a samba. After a costume change, she ended the set with a stunning demonstration of flamenco, pitting her heels in a duel against the percussion of Cuco Aponte. (He finally left the stage in mock defeat.) 

I should mention the young flutist, Elijah Thomas, and the drummer Tom Lowery, who were all but invisible behind the speakers and the grand piano, but who nonetheless managed to make themselves indispensable. A bravo, too, to 8-year-old Aaron Liu, one of Steve’s pupils, who was brave enough to tackle the Courante from Bach’s Suite No. in G in front of a room full of strangers.

Performances were consistently good , but Steve had the session recorded, and the stage was a tangle of wires constantly got in the performers’ way. Allan Rosenbaum kicked one off his foot as he was trying to sing, and Edward Kalendar bumped his head on a boom mic more than once.  The equipment became a bigger issue in the second half, when the Latin set was marred by over-amplification and, at one point, a dead microphone. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Nielsen Sesquicentenial

Today, June 9, is Carl Nielsen's 150th birthday, an important anniversary, to my mind, that is going unnoticed in this country. (I wonder if there's anything planned at Tivoli.) Nielsen is an underrated composer -- Bernard Holland of the Times once described him as something like "north of good, but south of great," but we all know what a wheezy old mossback Bernard Holland was -- and he tends to get overlooked in favor of Sibelius, as if one great composer from Scandinavia is all the traffic will bear. (And Finland isn't even really technically Scandinavia.)

Be that as it may, his music has meant a great deal to me ever since I first caught his Fourth Symphony, "The Inextinguishable," on the radio when I was in high school.

Nielsen is best known for his six symphonies and his three concertos, of course, but he wrote much else, including two full-length operas -- Hey, Philadelphia Opera Company, how about staging Maskarade? -- a beautiful Wind Quintet, and some extraordinary piano music. His memoir, My Childhood, is vivid, delightful, touching, and very hard to find. I stumbled across a copy once at a chain bookstore in White Oak, Maryland. It was much too expensive, but I snapped it up nonetheless. I haven't seen another copy since.

Today is a major musical occasion, and in a just world, it would be worth a day off from work.

Monday, June 8, 2015

'Any jackass can see that'

Sometimes, late on Sunday nights when I can't sleep, I tune in The Outer Limits on This TV (broadcast channel 17.3 in Philadelphia. Last night I caught the tail end of "Demon With a Glass Hand," the classic episode written by Harlan Ellison and starring Robert Culp and Arlene Martel (who would later appear as Spock's betrothed in the Star Trek episode "Amok Time"). Sitting through the end credits, I had a small realization. The series' second season theme, composed by Harry Lubin, is really the third movement, Poco Allegretto, of Brahms' Third Symphony, which I also listened to yesterday. Lubin disguises it well, and of course, Brahms didn't use that high electronic whine until the Clarinet Quintet, but you could play the two pieces simultaneously, and they would fit together seamlessly.

Judge for yourself here and here.

This is the kind of thing that occurs to you at one in the morning.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Great young musicians

Composer Sheridan Seyfried, right, with conductor
Louis  Scaglione at the Kimmel Center after Sunday's 
concert by the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra.
Yesterday I caught the train downtown for a concert by the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, an extraordinary ensemble of close to one hundred high school–age musicians. The program began with Across the Sky, an eight-minute overture by the 31-year-old composer Sheridan Seyfried for the orchestra’s 75th anniversary.  Sheridan grew up in Oreland, Pa. I interviewed back in the early aughts when he was 19 and had just been accepted to Curtis. I was there at Verizon Hall yesterday at his invitation.

Across the Sky was written, as Sheridan told me after the performance, with one foot firmly in the 19th century. It’s an open-hearted, colorfully scored holiday for orchestra time that could, I thought, have been penned by Dvorak. The second subject sounded, to my ear, somewhat Slavic. (Sheridan described it as a Turkish march, though we might not have been talking about the same thing.) The title and what there is of a program ― “a ride across the sky (perhaps on a chariot, or perhaps a magic carpet)” ― came after the piece was completed and were suggested by the principal rhythm, a sort of gallop in 12/8.  The young musicians, conducted by Louis Scaglione, gave it a polished, energetic reading. It was a fun few minutes.

The program ended ― astonishingly ― with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Astonishing that they would attempt such a long, sprawling work, and even more astonishing that they would come through with such a memorable performance. The level of playing was consistently high in every section, and if the climaxes in the second and third movements lacked the punch I have come to expect, my overall impression was one of well-balanced, well-integrated, well-rehearsed professionalism. Congratulations to everyone involved.

The middle of the program was occupied by Tchaikovsky’s shameless, flamboyant Violin Concerto, performed with the requisite shameless flamboyance by Michael Ludwig. It’s hard to assess the orchestra’s accompaniment, since the orchestra isn’t asked to do anything very interesting in this piece. There is not a single beautiful moment in it. Of course, it got a standing ovation.

One small mercy: The opening bars always bring a smile to my face, because they appear in Monty Python’s “Royal Festival Hall” bit.  

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mendelssohn's Elijah in Lansdale

In Lansdale, for heaven's sake. Here is my  preview article for the upcoming performance by the Choristers. I must say David Spitko is an extraordinarily ambitious choral director, and, as far as I have seen, his ambition has paid off in successful performances.

This didn't make it into the article, David told me he pays his performers scale, which results in a budget in the tens of thousands of dollars. Still, he says, he feels he must do it out of respect for their professionalism and their long training.

He should  talk to my employers.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Abandon Hope

This week I finished reading Richard Zoglin’s dogged biography of Bob Hope, titled simply, Hope.
I’d been eager to get my hands on it ever since the reviews started appearing in the press, though it’s hard to explain why. I’m not a fan of Hope’s comedy (apparently no one is anymore, a state of affairs Zoglin hopes to rectify), but I do enjoy show-biz biographies, specifically those dealing with old timers from the last century. I’ve read books on Sinatra and Bing Crosby, for example, though I almost never listen to their music. I’m also a student of comedy, a holdover from my youth, when I thought I was funny.  Learning that I’m not was a long, painful lesson, but I figure if someone like  Bob Hope can be succeed trough sheer determination, the rest of us hacks  have a chance.

Zoglin tries mightily to clear a place for Hope in the front rank of the great comedians. He doesn't quite succeed. None of the material he quotes stands out, and the chapters on Hope’s peak years, which Zoglin says lasted from about 1940 to 1960, are the least interesting part of the book. Mostly, they rely on a barrage of data, primarily box office grosses, Hooper ratings, and Bob’s growing personal fortune. Far more absorbing are the early chapters on Hope’s hardscrabble childhood and vaudeville career, and the later descriptions of his protracted and very public decline. Paradoxically, Hope's greatest legacy might be that he inspired Johnny Carson and David Letterman to retire gracefully. 

Zoglin’s insistence that today’s comedians owe Hope a debt for essentially inventing the modern topical monologue isn't convincing, either. Hope may have been the form’s earliest practitioner, but who would ever return to his Pepsodent or Chrysler shows for a tutorial?  

I can’t add too much too the reviews that have already been published (see especially Frank Rich in the New York Review of Books), except to point out one of Zoglin's more bothersome stylistic tics. In his attempt to be even-handed – both to acknowledge Hope’s shortcomings and insist on his achievement – he writes sentences whose structure may be abstracted as “It wasn't … but,” as in “It wasn’t a very good movie (or TV special, or live performance), but it made a lot money (or got high ratings, or was well- attended, or Bob was good in it).”  In symbolic logic, this would be expressed as Not P, but Hey, C'mon, Q.

It begins unobtrusively, in the chapters on Hope’s early success:

The gag lines had more snap than wit, but Hope delivered them with crisp self-assurance, and faster than anyone else on the air.

Then, as the litany of movies and TV specials and USO tours expands, one more and more frequently comes across constructions like this:

In truth, Hope got away with plenty of old jokes – tired, knee-jerk gags about Gleason’s weight and Benny’s cheapness and Crosby’s many kids – and his material was often second-class. But throughout the 1950s his TV popularity never flagged.

And, in its late, epic form:

The shows themselves were growing increasingly leaden: tired gags, corny sketches, with Hope looking more disengaged and cue-card-dependent than ever. Variety, reviewing his 1989 special from the Bahamas, chided Hope for “permitting his team of writers to throw together such a generally dismal  collection of excuses for gags and uniformly horrible skits which could have been bettered by a reasonably talented high school sophomore.”

At this point I was actually steeling myself for what I would find after the paragraph break:

Yet the shows were big moneymakers for Hope.

Reading Hope, the question I kept asking myself was, if Bob Hope employed so many first-rate writers, as even the least sympathetic reviewers acknowledge, why are the jokes so forgettable?

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Andrew Porter, 1928-2015

I want to take a few moments  to note the passing of Andrew Porter, the music critic for The New Yorker magazine from 1972 to 1992. The dates are important for me, since Porter began writing for American readers at the same time that I, as a teenager, was discovering serious music. I grew up on him. His lucid, poetic explanations of how compositions worked, as well as his vast erudition – noted in all the appreciations published this week – helped me to understand and verbalize what it was I found so exciting in those years.

Consider, for example, his extended description of the opening of Elliott Carter’s Symphony of Three Orchestras:

High on the violins, as one thin, shining, open-textured chord is laid upon another, in sifting aeolian strains, it seems as if the cradle of wires overhead may be sounding: “Sibylline voices flicker, wavering stream, As though a god were issue of the strings.” [The quotation is from The Bridge, by Hart Crane.] The violins span the stage from side to side. Between them,  three piccolos then break in with keen, bright bird cries, given added sharpness by high, sharp hammer beats from piano and xylophone;  clarinets and oboes swell the shrill chorus to a brief tumult … And then a single trumpet wings out in a long solo flight. Wheeling through the faint, ethereal  violin chords, it mounts, hovers, circles down, soars again, swiftly plummets, stays for a moment poised low, traces a final, sudden ascent and fall before coming to rest … A series of emphatic descending figures from the orchestra in turn ends the introduction …, and the symphonic argument begins in earnest with a huge span of sixths softly sustained by the strings of one orchestra and giocoso chattering of two bassoons from another.

That is as evocative and accurate a description of that music – or any music – as you will ever encounter. Reading it, only a few weeks after I attended the premiere of the symphony in New York, was like hearing the piece again, and for the three years before the recording was finally released, it was as close as I could get to a second hearing. 

For his entire tenure at the New Yorker, Porter was the only friend Carter had in the New York press (the Times critics famously hated him), and when he finally left the magazine,  he wrote that he did so with a sense of optimism, since the Times had finally hired a critic – Edward Rothstein – who kept an open mind. Rothstein, unfortunately, didn't stay long at the music desk, and Porter’s ultimate successor at The New Yorker carried on the Times’ lamentable tradition. The more the years went by, the more I missed him, and not just for his championship of modernism.

(He wasn't a blind enthusiast, either. He could be scathing about Charles Wuorinen, and Charles Ives remained a blind spot. His essay on Ives, written for the composer’s centenary in 1974, was lukewarm and relied rather too heavily on Frank Rossiter’s critical biography. It’s odd: despite the biographical and philosophical connection between the two composers, few critics seem to like them both.)  

I was lucky enough to meet Porter a couple brief times. The first was in 1988 in College Park, where he moderated a panel at the University of Maryland’s Handel Festival. (At that time, I was living just down the road in Hyattsville.)  He signed my copy of Music of Three Seasons, the source of excerpt above. My wife at the time, who had studied Russian, complimented him on his opera translations, and I thanked him for his writings about Carter. When I said I was one of the few musical laymen who admired Carter’s music, he replied, “I am very glad to hear it.”

To quote Auden on Yeats: 
O, all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Doesn't matter what the temperature in London was, or whether the sun was shining.