Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunday afternoon

Cycled out to Valley Forge,
Where Friedrich breakfasted with George,
Relishing, with Prussian zest,
The Continental sausage fest.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The worst advice ever given to a creative artist

Thinking of Charles Ives and the hostile reaction his music has weathered from so many professional musicians,  I'm reminded of his confrontation with Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the great music patron, as recounted in Jan Swafford's Chareles Ives: A Life With Music (p. 220). As Swafford tells it, Coolidge visited the Iveses in at their summer home in Redding in 1915, and Charlie tried out "Saint-Gaudens" and "Washington's Birthday" on her.

"Mrs. Coolidge listened sourly," Swafford goes on, "deplored the awful sounds, and finally walked out of the house. As she got into her motorcar she fired a parting shot: 'Well, I must say your music makes no sense to me. It is not, to my mind, music. How is I that -- studying as you have with Parker -- you never came to write like that?  You ought to know the music of Daniel Gregory Mason. He has a real message.' "

Thanks, Liz.


Lately I've been obsessed (in a healthy way, I think) with Mozart's E flat Piano Concerto K. 271, and this morning I received in the mail my third recording of it, which cost one cent at Amazon, to the benefit of Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee. It is Alfred Brendel's last recording, of three, with Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. I am listening to it at this moment. Ladies and gentlemen, this is The One.

This is the sort of music -- and performance -- that almost succeeds in making life bearable.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The slug on my wall

Sunday I biked to the Morris Arboretum where Martha Knox was selling her woodcuts at an art show. Just to show my support, I purchased a copy of "Leopard Slug," a small, hand-painted piece I believe is from her series "In My Yard." Today I put it in a two-dollar Ikea frame and  hung it on the wall above my desk. For such a small picture, it adds a surprising and wonderful dash of color to my living room. I thought I was being quirky when I picked it out, but Martha tells me it's actually one of her more popular works. I can see why. Everyone loves slimy invasive species.

The bike trip to the arboretum was a killer. I was fine when I stuck to the Schuylkill Trail, but Harts Lane in Whitemarsh was a steep  climb on the order of "the wall"  Manayunk. At one point I had to get off the bike and walk, and at several others I had to stop and catch my breath. When I returned home, I lay down on my bed and didn't move for close to  two hours.

Bramwell Tovey conducts Beethoven

Bramwell Tovey will conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Mann Center on June 27. I won't be able to attend, because my work schedule won't allow it, but I did manage to score a brief phone interview. The resulting article may be read here. I'm not responsible for the headline, by the way, which should say he will conduct Beethoven and Britten, not perform them.

Tovey was born and raised in Britain, and he resides mostly in British Columbia, where he is the music director of the Vancouver Symphony. I must confess I had not heard his name before I accepted the assignment to write the article, but I found him to be a genial interviewee with plenty to say. He also had a good sense of humor, which I rarely expect from a jet-set conductor and composer. He chuckled when I asked, in regard to his opera The Inventor, whether Ottawa enforces the same Canadian content regulations for music as it does for TV and radio. It doesn't, apparently. No one in the government contacted him about the work, although part of it does take place in Halifax.

Jeremy Denk on Ives

Jeremy Denk has written a sympathetic and characteristically chatty review in the the New York Review of Books of Stephen Budiansky's new biography of Charles Ives, which I've read. I'm not sure who this Ransom Wilson is. I don't remember him from the book, he doesn't appear in the index, and it was the critic Tim Page, not Wilson, who, according to Budiansky, dismissed Ives as a "basement tinkerer" who knocked out "ditties" on Sundays (p. 15). (So, the Fourth Symphony and the Robert Browning Overture are "ditties." In thinking of those pieces, and so many more, the word never would have occurred to me.)  I suppose Denk went back to the article in the New York Times Budiansky cites in his notes and found Wilson's name there. In any event, I have never heard of him, and I imagine Ives will be remembered and argued about long after he and Tim Page are forgotten.

I'm also puzzled by Denk's statement that "Ives's music often falls flat in performance." I have heard many performances of Ives that were far from flat -- among them Denk's own, with Soovin Kim, of the four violin sonatas. It was such a wonderful evening I recall it easily after seven years -- though I am still not sold on Jeremy's recording of the Concord Sonata.

I'm note sure, either, how high the Concord towers over Elliott Carter's Piano Sonata. My own feeling in comparing the two (since you asked) is that Carter, overall, is the more accomplished, but there are moments in Ives -- for example, "Hanover Square North" -- that take me places no other composer since Beethoven has ever taken me. (Jeremy also has an irritating habit, somewhat common among Ives partisans, of making the case for Ives's greatness while at the same time backhandedly slighting  the music.)

I recommend anyone with an interest in Ives to read Budiansky's book. He's particularly good on the composer's health problems, and, mercifully, he avoids the imbroglio over the dating of Ives's compositions. (Maynard Solomon is never mentioned.) If I had a complaint, it would be that perhaps he spends too much time on the insurance industry and the  treatment of diabetes. Biographers seem to feel obligated to put all their background research on the page. If it stands out more in this book than it might in some others, however, it does so because the book is so admirably concise.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Happy Birthday, Martha Knox

My humanist friend Martha Knox, a mother and woodcut artist who recently spent some time in the  the hospital for a gallstone, celebrated her 36th birthday yesterday. The day before, on her Facebook page, she specifically asked her friends not to give her the standard saccharine greetings. She wanted edgy, she wanted cynical, she wanted insulting. I couldn't quite make myself insult her, but I did come up with this.

We celebrate, for what it's worth,
The day of Martha Knox's birth,
And raise a song, in dulcet tones,
Of purple hair and bladder stones,
Of butterflies on blocks of wood
And humanistic motherhood,
With healthy snacks and wholesome games
For daughters with outrageous names,
Knowing as we do full well
Her soul headed straight to hell.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Little Shrine

Charles Ives's studio, with his piano, seen from outside a small set of windows. The view out the window at the far end is a photographs of the view in West Redding.

On Thursday I took a day trip to New York to see the studio from Charles Ives’s home in West Redding, Conn. The home was sold last year, but the studio – or rather, the furnishings and artifacts from the studio – are on permanent display at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, donated by Ives’s grandson, Charles Ives Tyler. It’s a small exhibit, but a compelling one. Everything is arranged just as it was in the composer’s his lifetime, though perhaps a little neater – his piano, his books, his photographs, the double doors he used as a bulletin board, even his bottles of bitters. His infamous felt hat, the one he wore in many late-life photographs, sits on top of the bookcase, near the cornet that belonged to his father, George Ives.
Ives's desk, with the end of his cot at left. The studio was not added to the West Redding house until 1922, as Ives's health was failing. He probably did little actual composing here. 

It’s no surprise, but the little room, particularly the bulletin board, reminded me of Ives’s music. Both are slightly disheveled but welcoming collages built from random scraps of memory, and both are windows into the mind of the man who made them. The surrounding exhibition includes photographs, letters written by Ives to his daughter in his nearly indecipherable scribble, concert programs, early editions of scores, and the inevitable narrative decaled on the walls. Some of the information presented has been rendered obsolete by recent books on the composer, and some of it is simply wrong. Ives did not stop composing entirely in 1920, for example, and his breakdown in 1918 was most likely not a heart attack. A photo of George White Ives, the composer’s grandfather, is misidentified as his father, George Edward, but the portrait of a young Harmony in her nurse’s uniform is a heartbreaker. Adam Budiansky, in his new biography of Ives, Mad Music, refers to Harmony as a plain girl. She was anything but.
Ives's bookcase, with his felt hat, his father's cornet.

One could go through the entire exhibition in about twenty minutes, but I stayed upwards of two hours, until closing time at 4 p.m. I spent much of that time chatting with the docents and couple of the visitors, one of whom turned out to be the clarinetist Mark Simon, an old acquaintance from my days posting at the Classical Music Guide discussion board. I also had the good fortune to be there at the same time as Kyle Werner, a young composer who is also Robert Mann’s archivist.

The American Academy is way uptown on Broadway at 155th Street, a part of Manhattan I had never visited. One hears a lot of Spanish on the streets. The galleries, home to a large collection of contemporary art, occupy two of a set of hulking neoclassical buildings, set back from the street, that collectively used to be the Numismatic Society. (All that ostentation for a bunch of coin collectors?) Now, the Academy shares the central piazza with Boricua College and the New York Hispanic Society.
The bulletin board made from the double doors that led to the rest of the house.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Another memorable afternoon

Sarah Shafer
The Independence Sinfonia group keeps raising the bar for itself. Usually, I attend concerts by small, semi-professional orchestras with modest hopes. I’m content with the passable reading of a familiar piece, and I’m willing to forgive the occasional the whining intonations and the ragged tuttis in return for an enthusiastic performance in an intimate venue. But the Independence Sinfonia, under Jerome Rosen, no longer has the cushion of low expectations. Yesterday’s performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 was as good as any concert in recent memory -- or long-term memory, for that matter. The orchestra played wonderfully, which was all the more impressive since the musicians told me afterward that they had not read through the pieces in their entirety during rehearsals. They had spent all of their time polishing up individual sections, they said. Special mention goes to concertmaster William Phillips, who had meaty solos in both works, and first trumpet Rick Yiensgt, whose fanfares in the first movement of the Mahler nearly reduced me to tears.

The soprano Sarah Shafer, in a royal -blue gown, was touching, wide-eyed presence in “The Heavenly Life,” although, based on what I heard, I can’t judge if she’s destined for the brilliant future Jerry predicted for her. For the performance, she stood back among the woodwinds, which was a mistake, I think, even in the small room at Or Hadesh. But it’s a minor complaint. I could hear every word.

One player summed up the experience afterward by saying, in reference to Jerry Rosen, "It helps to have a retired genius in charge." Then again, I don't think genius every really retires.

On the strength of my preview in the paper, I was invited to the post-concert party. Thanks, Faith, for all the orange juice. Compliments, too, to third trumpet Mark Handler, who provided the chocolate cookies.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Sarah Shafer sings Mahler

The 25-year-old soprano Sarah Shafer, who has a few weeks left as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, will perform Sunday with the Independence Sinfonia in Fort Washington. Shafer will appear as soloist in the last movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, and Jerry Rosen, the Sinfonia's music director, tells me she is destined for great things. You can read my preview here.

The Independence Sinfonia is, in my opinion, the best of Philadelphia's several suburban orchestras, largely because of the work Rosen has done with the string section in the past few years.