Sunday, November 30, 2014

All on the plains of Mexico, and "Sleigh Ride" watch begins

I came across this CD this afternoon quite unexpectedly at the Plymouth Meeting Mall and decided I had to have it. (It was a struggle with my conscience, believe me.) I have the same release on an old pre-recorded cassette (remember those?), but I had not listened to it in a long time, and I thought for the sale price, I was due an upgrade. I'd forgotten just how beautiful it is. "Lowlands," "Shenandoah" and "Santy Anna" still give me chills. I remember years ago, when I bought the cassette, the clerk at the store in Greenbelt, Md., with whom I was friendly, gibed me a bit for what seemed to her like a silly purchase. This was in the mid-1980s, but I swear, this recording holds up much better than any of the big hits released at the time.

In other news, while I was making up my mind about the CD, I heard LeRoy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" for the first time this holiday season, played over the store's audio system. It is now officially Christmastime, This was a version I hadn't heard before -- a straight up rock instrumental. I wish I knew who did it. (A search of YouTube turned up nothing.) Then, after Glenn Miller's "String of Pearls" with some added holiday lyrics, "Sleigh Ride" came on again, this time in a more traditional vocal performance.  I did't recognize the singer, but let's face it: there are too many versions to keep track of them all. A double dose in one afternoon was almost too rich. I'll be fixed for the next few days.    

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A word to the wise

One other anecdote from Tuesday's recital, before I  forget: A cellphone went off in the audience just as Dawn Upshaw was preparing to sing "Ann Street." She handled it with good humor, saying it would work with the song. For my part,  I was suddenly struck by how much the default iPhone ring tone resembles the the rhythmic pattern of "The Se'er."

Then, after intermission, Gilbert Kalish walked onstage carrying a slat of wood that is called for in the score of the Concord Sonata. (It's used to produce a number of high-pitched, delicate-sounding tone clusters in the "Hawthorne" movement.)  Just before he began his remarks about the piece, he held the wood in front of him, at about belt level, and said, "This  is for the people with their cellphones."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Boy, was my face red

An old friend of mine, when I told him I was going to see Dawn Upshaw, emailed to say she sings his    favorite Strauss Four Last Songs. "My heart melts when I hear her," he wrote.

So, when I spoke to Miss Upshaw after last night's performance, I passed along the compliment, figuring it would be a nice way to break the ice. She said she has never, ever sung the Four Last Songs.

Maybe she should, though. I'm told she does a great job with them.

Hear the trombones!

The divine Miss Upshaw
Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish made a persuasive case last night for the off-kilter genius of Charles Ives. Upshaw sang a generous selection of fourteen songs – twice as many as I expected from the program online – and, after an intermission that featured a free ice cream tasting, Kalish returned for a masterful performance of Ives’s labyrinthine Concord Sonata.  

Kalish seems to respond best to Ives’s modernist side, and he was especially effective in the first half of the sonata. The “Emerson” movement was magnificent, and “Hawthorne” was a wild rush of a storm. The last two sections – the homely “Alcotts” and the contemplative “Thoreau” – fared less well. They could have been softer, and the entrance of Edward Schultz’s flute in “Thoreau” could have been more clearly articulated, but these are minor complaints.  

In the first half, Upshaw was a delightfully spunky guide to the Ives universe, which is alternately corny, exuberant, wry, angry and reverent. After the recital, she said she was apprehensive about singing “Like a Sick Eagle” back  to back with “Memories,” as Kalish had insisted, but, she said, in art as in in life, the tragic and the funny get mixed up. “Eagle” was the one spot where she faltered, forgetting a line and ad libbing one of her own. It was distracting, though she still managed to give me chills by the end. At other moments her voice seemed strained, but she was a witty interpreter, using her face and body to turn the lyrics into stories. In “The Circus Band,” the last song in the set, she become an excited little boy, craning her neck and going up on her toes to see over the heads of an imaginary crowd in the street. And her “Housatonic at Stockbridge,” when she simply planted herself on the stage and sang, was perfection.


One thing about the performance space at the American Philosophical Society. Or two: The acoustics were better than I had hoped for, and it was fitting – inspiring, really  that the music of an American giant should be performed beneath portraits of Jefferson, Franklin and Washington. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Happy Ives Day

Gilbert Kalish will play the Concord Sonata Tuesday in Philadelphia.
Today is the 140th birthday of Charles Ives. In just world, it would be a national holiday. I've done nothing yet to mark the occasion. My observance will come  tomorrow, at I attend an all-Ives recital at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Dawn Upshaw will sing a handful of songs accompanied by Gilbert Kalish, who will then play the Concord Sonata. I wangled and interview with Mr. Kalish back in September, and the article went online on the tenth. You can read it here. Not that it matters. The concert has been sold for at least two weeks. Philadelphia is not a big Ives town, and I assume the sellout was due to Upshaw's name recognition  power -- which is kind a pity, because the program incoudes only about seven songs. She'll be onstage for all of twenty minutes.

She apparently doesn't do interviews, by the way. I tried several times to get in touch with her for  the article, and her management's publicist was sweet about trying to track her down, but she never returned any of their calls. The publicist told me she even passed on talking to Gramophone. Gramophone, people. So what chance does a dinky entertainment insert in suburban Philadelphia have? The publicist also said Miss Upshaw is a lovely person,  just press-shy. It was just as well. Mr. Kalish gave me so much material and such great quotes, that even if I had spoken with her, I doubt I could have given her more than a paragraph. Space is tight in the weekend tabs.

On another topic, today I received my CD of Klaus Stock's original-instrument performance of Schubert's wonderful Arpeggione Sonata. I don't  need to tell my followers the arpeggione was a sort of bowed guitar, and Schubert wrote his sonata for the inventor. The instrument never caught on, and it's not hard  to understand why. It's  a  thin, reedy sound compared with the modern cello, the instrument  on which the sonata is usually performed today. (It's also done on the viola, which gives a better idea of the original timbre.)  Still, it's a   fine performance of a delightful work. I love Schubert in his Biedermeier moments. Puts me in the mood for potato soup and beer.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

And parking is free on Sundays

Angela and Aubrey Webber, aka the
 Doubleclicks, tonight at Melodies Cafe, Ardmore.
A few minutes ago, I arrived by home from Ardmore, where I saw Angela and Aubrey Webber, aka the Doubleclicks, perform a set at Melodies CafĂ©, and I want to get my impressions down while the glow is still warm. Suffice it to say I haven’t been this happy in months. I was prepared for clever lyrics and a high cuteness quotient. What I was not prepared for was the strength and professionalism of the vocals. YouTube and iPhones don’t do these young women justice.

The surprise of the evening was Aubrey, who doesn’t do interviews and, during most of tonight’s show, sat out of the spotlight while her sister schmoozed the crowd. She has a big, Broadway-style voice that would sound at home in Chicago, but isn’t quite right for the most of the light, folk-inspired comedy numbers her sister writes. She sang only two songs on her own (backed by instrumental recordings), plus the four-word word refrain to “The Final Countdown,” a tango about the last day on a dead-end job. The rest of the time, she was relegated to vocal harmonies and playing the cello.

“I know what you’re going to say,” Angela said from the stage. “You’re going to tell me I should let her song more. And I know what I’m going to say: No. It’s just the rules. It’s a legal thing."

And maybe it’s better she doesn’t. It makes her few solos all the more memorable.

Angela’s lyrics are for the most part topical ― not inspired by politics or the news, but full of references to TV shows, movies, role-playing games and comic book heroes. I wonder how well they’ll age, but then, I wonder that about myself. And I felt my age during the first song, when I fully understood only two of the references: the one about Romeo and Juliet, and the one about Scully and Mulder. The rest of them flew over my head. It was like listening to a native speaker of German. I caught the sense, but the nuances escaped me.

Whatever their future might be, however, I can affirm that, at the present time, the songs are very funny. Come back soon, girls. You’ve left for the next stop on your tour, and I can already feel the air going out of the room.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Zappa in sonnet form

There's a blogger with too much time on his hands who likes to rewrite pop lyrics in the style of Shakespearean sonnets.  (See popsonnet.tumblr.com.) I thought I'd give the form a try on my own:

I dreamt I was a lad in Arctic climes,
Where bitter cold the tundra wind doth blow,
And there my weeping mother cried betimes:
“O be thou not a naughty Esquimaux.
“Keepest thou thy money in thy purse,
And ever be a good and trusty fellow.
Beware the spots that huskies may immerse,
And never eat the snow if it be yellow.”
As prudence be the stuff of common weal,
My mother’s wise enjoinings did I heed,
Until a trapper whapped my baby seal
And spurred me to a base and violent deed:
Life’s Authoress, do not your son chastise
For rubbing golden crystals in his eyes.
― Frank Zappa: Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Poem for Robin

Thinking about Robin Williams led me back to Edward Arlington Robinson's "Richard Cory":

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Last thoughts about Robin Williams

Saddened as I am by the suicide of Robin Williams, I have to admit I lost interest in his work early in his career. He first caught my attention as Mork, not in his own series, but in the fantasy episode of "Happy Days.” I forget when I first saw it. I was studying abroad in February 1978, when, according to Wiki, it first aired, but I was home by the end of August, and I must have caught in a rerun. I remember thinking, who is this guy? I had no idea, but he was hilarious.

I was an instant fan when “Mork and Mindy” premiered. I don’t recall ever laughing as hard as I did during the show’s first hour. The bits that come easily to mind thirty years later were Mork’s attempt to free the eggs, and his imitation of Spencer Tracy in “Inherit the Wind.” These were the days when I harbored the pipedream, like on of O’Neill’s drunks, of being a comic, and Williams quickly became a hero, a model that could never be successfully copied.

The novelty of a show like Mork and Mindy wears off quickly, however, and the series faded rapidly after its first season. Even Jonathan Winters couldn't save it. After the show was canceled, Williams never reached those early heights again. The albums were a disappointment, They contained some brilliant bits (Elmer Fudd sings Bruce Springsteen), but those were few and far between, and separated by uninspired hyperactivity (Shake Hands with Mr. Happy). The jokes that lay beneath the mania were often no better than the kind of one-liners Bob Hope put out, and as with any performer who relies on improvisation, Williams seemed to spin his wheels for long periods while inspiration to strike. The comedy didn't build. Instead, he went from peak to peak, slogging through some pretty deep troughs. He wasn't as consistently funny as those comedians, like Steve Martin, George Carlin, or Woody Allen, who wrote and structured their routines.

It was Williams who made me realize that even the greatest comedians are truly funny only about half the time. The Marx Brothers, long my favorites, peaked with “A Night at the Opera” and limped along repeating themselves for another fifteen years. Woody Allen and Steve Martin abandoned standup for the movies, and Martin finally gave up the movies for music. Even Jonathan Winters, Williams’ own hero, was often more clever than funny. He never made a great movie, or even gave a great performance in one. Williams had a better record on that score, at least, since he was willing to branch out into serious acting. He kept working, and by most standards, enjoyed the kind of success that makes his suicide all the more puzzling.

But depression is not a rational process. Robin Williams didn’t sit up on the last night of his life weighing the pros and cons of his existence. At that point the pain was too much, and he knew only one way to make it stop.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunday afternoon

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