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. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

'Two seniors for Zappa'

Yesterday afternoon I went to the movies for the movies for the first time in years. The feature that, at long last, lured me out of my apartment on a weekend was Eat the Question: FrankZappa in His Own Words, a documentary by Thorsten Schütte. (Leave it to a European ― in this case, a German ― to remind Americans of their own musical heritage. It took a Dutchman, Frank Scheffer, to film Elliott Carter. )


The film consists of snippets of TV interviews Zappa gave over the years, interspersed with performance footage, presented more or less in chronological order. There is no narration, no subtitles identifying the interviewers or band members. Viewers are left to navigate the timeline on their own ― you can estimate when a scene was shot by the personnel, the repertoire, and the length and color of Frank’s hair ― and it seemed to me that the more you bring to the film, the more you’ll get out of it. I wondered if anyone who had never heard of Zappa would have any idea what was going on, but then, anyone who had never heard of Zappa would never pay the teen-dollar admission price.

Frank says at the top of the film that an interview is an unnatural situation ― “two steps removed from the Inquisition,” as he puts it ― and what we get here is very much the public Zappa, who was, in many ways, an admirable, if paradoxical, figure: One minute, he's inveighing against an educational system that leaves children unprepared to make informed aesthetic judgments. The next, he's singing about anal sex.

(The private Zappa, as we are learning from his daughter Moon, was not such a bastion of integrity. For one thing, he was an open, serial adulterer who once gave his wife the clap. In the film, he has a few things to say about groupies, as well as the clap, but his wife and children are never shown on camera.) 

Over the years, interviewers are constantly struggling to reconcile Zappa’s outrageousness with what they call his “serious” side, though he insists he approaches all of his music seriously. A piffle like “Valley Girl” and long-form compositions with the London Symphony Orchestra, he says, both present problems in musical form. In an early interview, we see him in his studio, editing a score with a razor blade, and talking about his ambition to become the missing link between Varese, Stravinsky and Webern. (Carter attempted much the same synthesis, with more success.) Years later (as indicated by the hair), he defines his aesthetic, a favorite word, as “anything, anywhere, anytime, for no reason at all.” His music, he says, embraces all styles. It contains both complex and simple rhythms, both dissonances and triads ― an openness that puts him more in the tradition of Charles Ives, if Ives can be said to belong to a tradition.

The portrait that finally emerges, almost incidentally, from the nonstop polemics is of a man who loved music for its own sake, and I think Schütte deliberately chose the last shot in the film to reinforce the point. Frank, grizzled, dying of cancer, stands lighted against the darkness and, with c
concise, weak strokes, conducts an unseen percussion ensemble in “Ionisation” by his beloved Edgard Varese. His eyes are closed. For the only time in the film, perhaps the only time in his life, he looks to be on the verge of tears. He didn’t believe in heaven, and neither do I, but here he is as close to it as he ever expected to come.

Music is the best.


Note: The title of this post was overheard in line at the box office at the Ritz Theater. The words were spoken by the white-haired woman standing in front of me. She was in the company of a man who, downstairs as the concession stand, asked for a pair of headphones so he would hear the movie better. What starker reminder of  the passage of time? Zappa has been dead for more than 20 years, his first album was released 50 years ago this month, and the youth who rebelled in the ’60s are now collecting Social Security.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Brothers Vonnegut

One of the few nonfiction books I’ve bothered to read this year is The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic by Ginger Strand. Not quite a full dual biography, it's more an examination of the parallel careers of Kurt Vonnegut and his older brother, Bernard, in the years following WWII, when they both worked at General Electric in Schenectady, New York -- the House of Magic of the title, Here Kurt wrote copy for  the publicity department (known pretentiously as the News Division) while Bernard conducted experiments in cloud seeding. In this period, as in their childhood, Bernard was the star of the family, a bona fide scientist who followed the path set for him by his father and uncles. Kurt was the overlooked kid brother, a college dropout, the family clown who sent story after story to slick magazines and amassed stacks of rejections slips.

The central section of the book flips back and forth between the brothers’ working lives in the late forties and into the fifties, and Bernard’s story is far more absorbing. The descriptions of Kurt sitting at his desk and pounding out prose become repetitive. Bernie, meanwhile, flies off in B-17s and makes rain with silver iodide (maybe). It isn’t until the last fifteen pages of the book that the roles are reversed, and Kurt becomes the dominant figure.

In Strand’s telling, the years in Schenectady bore most directly on two of Kurt’s novels: Player Piano (which disappointed me) and Cat’s Cradle (which didn't). The description of Ice-9 in the latter is taken directly from Bernie’s explanation to his brother about the different ways in which water may crystallize:

He told Kurt to imagine cannonballs stacked on a courthouse lawn. Just as the balls could be piled up into different shapes, ice crystals could be stacked into different configurations. In fact, [Percy] Bridgeman had described a whole series of ice phase variants, ice-1 through ice-6. And who knew—there might be more to come. (95)

Indeed there was.


Strand’s book also provides a valuable portrait of the GE corporate culture in those years. The company was then, as now, a central cog in the military-industrial complex, and it demanded not only the time and talents of its employees, but their political sympathies as well. And the sympathies were decidedly right-wing. (It was GE, she reminds us, that launched the political career of Ronald Reagan.) Kurt loathed the atmosphere, and got out soon after selling his first couple of stories. Bernard grew disillusioned over time – rather too much time, it seems – and escaped into academia.

Last aside: In Person of Interest, the sci-fi/action series that concluded its five-year run on CBS this month, the virus that finally destroys the evil computer is called Ice-9. I was tickled to hear that. 

Now I’m itching to reread some Vonnegut, when I’m finished (please, God) with Lovecraft.  

Monday, June 27, 2016

Final thoughts about the Doubleclicks

Aubrey and Angela Webber, with Max, the cat keyboard.
This will in all likelihood be my last post about Aubrey and Angela Webber, the maddeningly talented sisters from Portland, Ore., who tour and record under the name of Doubleclicks. For two years I’ve been trying to sell my friends on their music, and with one exception, I have failed.  The fault may lie not in our stars, but in our demographic. Most people my age, I guess, aren’t interested in geeky songs about dinosaurs, TV shows and tabletop games – never mind the appealing musicality or the memorable, singalong lyrics. This duo isn’t too young for me, because I never stopped being a geek, but it seems to be for my pals.

I give up.

Bitterness aside: Angela and Aubrey performed Sunday night at the newly reopened Steel City café in Phoenixville. It was their third appearance in the Philadelphia area in as many years, and it made up in energy and wit what it lacked in new material. Despite some problems the sound system, and Angela’s trouble with the tuning on her guitar (she hates summer, apparently), a splendid time was guaranteed for all. The sisters were in top form vocally, most memorably in the bouncy “Unstoppable Force.”  

They’ve been touring the country for the past week, and the long-distance driving seemed to have taken a toll. They didn’t appear weary so much as punchy: Angela would launch into rambling intros, only to have her sister pull her back from the brink. At one point, a song came to a dead stop as Angela retuned and asked for the sound to be brought down.  Like all real pros, however, they turned the trying circumstances to their advantage, milking them for laughs.  

Afterward, Laura Vernola, one of Steel City’s new owners, told me that of all the acts booked there since the coffeehouse reopened, the Doubleclicks were the most sheerly entertaining.
Still, as funny as they are, though, they always manage to put a lump in my throat. Sunday, the lump was planted by “Wonder,” “I’ve Got Nothing to Prove,” and their touching cover of Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle,” a song its creators never intended to be touching.  

One last observation: As I was driving home, nervously watching the temperature gauge on my dashboard, I had to wonder how the act will change in the next few years.  Aubrey turned thirty last year, and Angela will in 2018, I believe.  In the near future, I thought, they will have to stop writing songs about growing up and begin to write about what it is like actually to be grown up. They might need time off to reassess, as Garry Trudeau did, before they were born, when he went on sabbatical and brought his Doonesbury characters into their post-collegiate lives.  But they are inventive musicians and observant lyricists, and I have no doubt they’ll handle the transition without letting the seams show

Maybe them my friends will pay attention.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The depths of the sea to the depths of space

The chamber recital this weekend by The Fine Art Music Company demonstrated just how fruitful thematic programming can be. Take a simple concept ― in this case, “A Musical Ode to Earth” ― and in a little while, pieces that otherwise might never share the same hour begin to present themselves. As the performances rolled by yesterday at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia, I could almost taste the excitement the Rollin Wilber and company must have felt in making their selections.
It was an eclectic list, certainly, though grounded firmly in the 20th and 21st centuries. The first half began with Henry Cowell’s “Tides of Manaunan,” one of the composer’s early experiments in tone clustering (written in 1914 when he was, incredibly, just 17), and ended with George Crumb’s exquisite Vox Balaenae, performed, as the score requests, in deep blue light with the performers wearing masks. It was an inspired juxtaposition, since Cowell pioneered the expansion of piano technique that Crumb later used to much more expressive effect. The low lighting and Lone Ranger-style facial gear must have interfered with the musicians’ ability to follow the score, but flutist Elivi Varga, cellist Julia Morelli, and pianist Katarzyna Marzec-Salwinski brought it off flawlessly. The finale achieved a genuine feeling of timelessness and otherworldliness, despite the intrusion of a police siren outside.

The other highlight of the first half, for me, was Katarzyna’s crisp rendition of Debussy’s prelude “The Terrace of Moonlight Audiences.”  In the second half, too, Rollin was as good as I’ve ever heard him in Ernest Bloch’s “Poems of the Sea” for piano.

The brief afternoon ended with the famous video of Carl Sagan speaking about the “pale blue dot” of Earth as photographed from the far reaches of the solar system by the Voyager spacecraft, followed by the music it inspired, David Ludwig’s Pale Blue Dot for string quartet. For me, the Ludwig was not as evocative as the Crumb, but I loved the soft, haunting way it ended, with the players tapping on their strings with small stones.

The program also included a pair of short works by the tragically short-lived Lili Boulanger, and, as a short break from the afternoon’s theme, Jacques Ibert’s Two Interludes for piano, violin and voice.

  

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The real joy of music

As I wrote in my previous post, I spent all day Sunday at one musical salon or another. One of the nicest things about it was that, for a full afternoon and evening, I was able to forget about the presidential race. It started much too early, it's been going on much too long, and none of the constant barrage of information is of any lasting interest. All of the minute-by-minute polling and the commentary, as urgent as it is made to seem, is instantly forgotten. A year from now, no one will care to remember that Jeb! or Ben Carson ever ran. It will all be as interesting as last week's traffic reports, the only difference being that traffic reports are at least useful at the time. For one day, it was a pleasure to leave the hype behind and create a lasting memory.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Riches from a very long day

A large number of short pieces led yesterday to a musical experience of Wagnerian proportions. For the first time in my life that I remember, I attended two concerts in one day. No single work on either program lasted more than fifteen minutes, but together they added up to more than five hours of music. At 3 p.m. the Fine Art Music Company presented a concert of music for violin, saxophone and piano at Ivy Hall (in the Georgian mansion known as the International Institute for Culture) on Lancaster Avenue. Then, at 7, Andrea Clearfield hosted her monthly salon at her home downtown.

Maybe I was just fresher in the afternoon, but I would have to say that, while both programs were memorable, for musical satisfaction, the Ivy Hall program had the edge. (It also had chairs. In Andrea’s living room, most guests sit on the floor.) Jonathan Moser played the Debussy Violin Sonata with just the right combination of lightness and grit, accompanied with expert deference by Katarzyna Marzec-Salwinski, and Jeremy Juteson introduced me to the sound world of Joan Tower with Wings for solo saxophone, a tour de force of tone color and rapid mood shifts. (The piece depicts a falcon in flight, Justseon said, and both the score and the performance certainly made the inspiration clear.)

The program also included Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 31, No. 2, and two attractive if slighter works, the Trio for Violin, Alto Saxophone and Piano by Jeffrey Quick, and Cantilene et Danse, for the same three instruments, by Marc Eychennne. The middle movement of the Quick was titled “The Answered Question,” a shout-out to Charles Ives, though the composer took too big a chance by inviting a comparison. The music came nowhere near capturing Ives’s sense of wonder. As an expression of faith, it struck me as a little too self-satisfied.

I was going to skip Andrea’s Salon this month until I learned it would include music by my longtime acquaintance Sheridan Seyfried, whom I first interviewed for his hometown newspaper more than a decade ago, on the occasion of his acceptance to the Curtis Institute of Music. Sheridan and three of his Curtis friends performed a short, exuberant work for piano quartet that deconstructs a well-known patriotic air. I refrain from naming it, since, in accordance with the composer’s intention, no one outside a circle of initiates is ever supposed to guess what it is.  

The music at Andrea’s salons is always diverse, and last night’s program gave me my first glimpse of a wholesome young folk group called Sunday Muse, and the singer-songwriter Alexandra Day, who had some funny patter. The five-star discovery of the night, however, was Karolina Syrovatkova, a wafer-thin Czech pianist with a delicate jaw like the limb of a crescent moon. She played a dance and a folk-song arrangement by Smetana, and her touch seemed a miracle of weightlessness.  

I did not get home until  close to midnight, and falling asleep was not an issue.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Salon of Russian Music and Poetry

From left, mezzo-soprano Tatyana Rashkovsky,
pianist Katarzyna Marzec-Salwinski, and reader
and all-around good egg Inna Lobanova-Heasely. 
It's always an exciting challenge to find something to do on Super Bowl Sunday other than watch the game. This year, my Facebook (and real life) friend Inna Lobanova-Heasley invited me to a salon f Russian poetry and music held at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia on Rittenhouse Square. It was a lovely afternoon out that was also educational. Russian anything is a gaping lacuna in my cultural education.

The salon was dedicated to the memory of Alexander Pushkin. Inna read his poems (in Russian) and mezzo-soprano Tatyana Rashkovsky, accompanied by either Kasha Marzec-Salwinski or Rollin Wilber on piano, sang settings of his verses. The program also included solo piano pieces big and small, with Kasha and Rollin switching off.

I've never been a fan of Russian music, and the outer movements of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Sonata, with which Kasha ended the program, reminded me why. The score is stuffed with fat and carbohydrates  ― yummy, but not really good for you. (The fingering is so ostentatiously furious Kasha broke one of the black keys. Bravely, she kept whaling away.) Scriabin's Fifth Piano Sonata, however, which Rollin played at the end of the first half, was a wild ride. I especially liked the way it ended, suddenly breaking off as though the composer, or the performer, got sick of the effort and said, "To hell with it." The smaller piano pieces were lovely, too, even those by Rachmaninoff, and the songs were a revelation. The discovery of the afternoon had to be Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951), and who was represented by his songs "I Have Outlived My Aspirations," "Winter Evening," and "To the Dreamer," and whom I had never heard of. There was something old-fashioned and painfully nostalgic about the whole enterprise ― the youngest composer on the bill was Shostakovich ― but it was a memorable afternoon.

This morning, I found the Puppy Monkey Baby on YouTube. The commercial proves that combining one good thing with another good thing does not necessarily result in a third good thing. The Greeks understood this.

So, those of you claim to watch the Big Game for the commercials,tell me, which of us made the healthier choice?