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 New Yorker, 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 jusic 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. 


Monday, March 30, 2015

A window on the infinite

Time stopped briefly yesterday at St. Katherine of Siena Church in Wayne, where the 40 voices and 30 instrumentalists of the Ama Deus Ensemble presented Bach’s Mass in B Minor. If the performance wasn’t exactly thrilling – a word I wouldn’t use to describe this score in any case – it induced a feeling of otherworldly stasis that may be the closest we nonbelievers ever come to heaven.  (And it’s not even my favorite Bach. That award goes to the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin.)

I don’t mean to imply the performance lagged. Conductor Valentin Radu possessed a sure sense of the score’s momentum, which is essential for this long piece to retain interest. The two hours-plus performance time slipped past without a single longeur that I can recall. Sometimes, no matter how much I enjoy a concert, I am happy to get to the end. This was not one of those times.  

The chorus was consistently good, and on occasion, ravishing. In my program, I circled the “Gratius agimus tibi” of the Gloria, indicating the point at which everything seemed to come together.  The final cadence of the Dona Nobis Pacem seemed a risk. Radu held it for almost too long a time – any longer and it would have verged on parody. But in the event, the effect was beautiful and poignant.

Of the vocal soloists, the standout was easily bass-baritone André Courville. The spotty acoustics in the church favored the lower registers, and his voice came through most forcefully. The wind players were also excellent. I was especially taken with David Ross on wooden flute (this was an original-instrument performance), Sara Davol and David Ross on oboe, and R.J. Kelly on the valveless, curlicue horn.

The performance will be repeated Friday at the Kimmel Center.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Interview with Valentin Radu about the Mass in B Minor

Valentin Radu will conduct the Ama Deus Ensemble in performances of the Mass in B Minor on March 29 and April 3. Herewith a link to the interview I did with him.

It occurs to me that the Mass is B Minor is probably performed more frequently than Beethoven's Ninth, given the number of small professional or semi-professional or community groups that have it in their repertoire. The forces, both instrumental and vocal, are modest, though the music is mostly likely just as complex and involved much more tome from the singers. Next Sunday will be at least third time I've heard the piece live, and each time has been in a church.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Carter reviews

Here is a link to a real review of Sunday's concert. Of course, I disagree with the first person who left a comment.

And here is another.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Elliott Carter's farewell

A musical century ended yesterday when the MET Orchestra, conducted (from a wheelchair) by James Levine, presented the first performance of The American Sublime, a cycle of five songs by Elliott Carter. The composer died in 2012, and the music, from 2011, while not the last he wrote, is the last of his that will ever be premiered. For forty years I looked forward to every new work Mr. Carter composed. Now the long run is over, and with it, a large chapter of my life.

All the more wonderful to report, then, that Mr. Carter went out strong.  The American Sublime, a setting of poems by Wallace Stevens (Carter’s second) for baritone, wind ensemble, piano and percussion is a beautiful piece, brief but haunting. I was particularly delighted by the choice of text for the last song, “This is the thesis …,”which ends thus:  

And out of what one sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur,
Merely living in living as and where we live.

In his book Music in a New Found Land  (1964), Wilfred Mellers prefaced his chapter on Carter with just these lines, and Carter himself,  in his program notes for the Nonesuch recording of his cello and harpsichord sonatas, quoted them and agreed they captured some of the “main aims” of his work.

“It is quite true,” Carter wrote, “that I have been concerned with contrasts of many kinds of musical characters ‘many selves’; with forming these into poetically evocative combinations ‘many sensuous worlds’; with filling musical time and space by a web of continually varying cross-references – ‘the air … swarming with ... changes.’ And to me at least, my music grows ‘out of what on sees and hears and out/Of what one feels,’ out of what occurs ‘Merely in living as and where we live.’”

I think of the song as Carter’s artistic testament an impression strengthened by the final measures, when the instruments drop out and the baritone finishes alone, as though the composer is addressing us directly. In context, the words “in living as and where we live” were also especially poignant: Carter is out of the game, and it is up to us, the living, to continue the task of inhabiting the sensuous world. 

It was a beautiful moment. Even more beautiful was the second song, “The Woman in Sunshine,” which compares the feeling of sun and air to the “warmth and movement” of a woman who cannot be seen, only felt. (It’s a very erotic image. In setting the words, did Carter, a widower since 2003, feel the presence of his late wife, Helen?) The scoring is spare: piano, vibraphone, and oboe, which contributes a long, lovely line a gesture both Bach-like and typically Carterian.

The baritone, Evan Hughes, reminded me a little of old photographs of Rasputin rail-thin, dressed in black, with dark lank hair and a few days’ growth of beard but he proved an extroverted and sensitive guide to this small region of Mr. Carter’s world.

The rest of the concert, at Zankel Hall, NYC, was equally memorable, beginning with the refined wit of Stravinsky’s Octet and continuing with the raucous wit of Charles Ives’s Scherzo: Over the Pavements. The second half consisted of John Cage’s Atlas eclipticalis and Charles Wuorinen’s It Happens Like This, a cantata for four voices and chamber orchestra to the oddball verses of James Tate. The last was perhaps overlong, with little real inspiration in the instrumental writing, but the vocal lines, which included spoken narration, were inventive, and they brought out the humor and the deadpan absurdities of the texts. There was a lot of laughter in the auditorium. 

Wuorinen himself conduct after Levine bowed out, explaining from the stage that stage health issues and other commitment had prevented him from giving the music the time it deserved. At 76, five years older than Levine, the composer looked quite spry.  

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

An occasional piece

The background to this one is rather bizarre. The immortal Pat Robertson recently called marijuana use slavery to vegetables and added that God can help us beat our addiction, since he gave us dominion over all the earth, including vegetables. A group called Poetry Cafe, which I'd never heard of, issued a challenge for verses on the topic. Herewith my contribution. The title, unfortunately, was chosen for me.

By Joe Barron

Of all the evils in the world,
From witchery to wedgies,
The greatest evil I have known
Is slavery to veggies.

I live in thrall to celery,
To broccoli and beets,
To endive and arugula,
To lettuce and to leeks.

I take commands from red tomatoes
Stewing in the pot.
They're veggies, too. I'll kill the man
Who tells me that they're not.

And what of carrots, what of corn,
Asparagus and peas?
The USDA pyramid
Has brought me to my knees.

But one day I know I’ll be free
To eat some cheesy fries,
Some donuts and some minty shakes
And lemon custard pies.

For God hath given us dominion
Over everything
That creeps or crawls upon the Earth
Or soars upon the wing.

And since He’s put His whole creation
At our beck and call,
The Bastard’s simply got to watch
My damned cholesterol.

Monday, March 2, 2015

He lived long. He prospered.

Leonard Nimoy as Spock and Arlene Martel
as T'pring in the Vulcan sex-ed episode "Amok
Time." Spock's betrothed proved one can
be flawlessly logical and still be a heartless C.
Still, I'd divert a starship light years for her. 
Leonard Nimoy died last Friday, and with him a part of my childhood. The obituaries dutifully ran through his long and varied career, but let’s face it, if it wasn’t for the role of Mr. Spock, he would have died in semi-obscurity, another TV character actor whose resume consisted of one-off guest appearances on Wagon Train and Marcus Welby. Spock made him immortal, and in the afterglow of that one gig, we could tolerate the awful singing and the goopy poetry. But Spock is nothing to be ashamed of. He’s one of the great TV characters, a humanized alien and alienated human who touches the nerd in all of us. When I was nine years old, I wanted to badly to be him that one weekend afternoon, I took my father’s barber kit down from the tin closet in the basement and cut my hair straight across my forehead. My hair is much thicker and curlier than Spock’s. It was not a good look for me.
I often think that in creating Spock, Roddenberry and Nimoy misread the zeitgeist of the 1960s. They put forth rationality as an ideal at precisely the time when rationality had become suspect. The counterculture wasn’t interested in logic, which could justify the pitiless violence in Vietnam, or in science, which had created the weapons for it. No, what was wanted in the Age of Aquarius were authenticity, free love and feel-good spirituality, and as Star Trek dragged on into seasons two and three, Spock changed with the times. He became less of an organic supercomputer and more of a space-going maharishi, with his meditation and his quest for truth beyond science. (At the beginning of the first movie, he was actually living as a monk.) I also recall, in the late, bad episode Savage Curtain, one character (Abraham Lincoln, no joke) mentioning the Vulcan philosophy of the One. There’s empiricism for you.

Then there the questions of whether we will ever find humanoid life off the earth (the answer is no), and how in heaven’s name races that evolve on separate planets ever manage to interbreed. Throughout the various incarnations of the franchise, humans have mated with Vulcans, Romulans, Klingons and Beta Zeds, and some of these races have mated with each other. As Carl Sagan said, you would have more luck crossing a human being with an avocado, because they, at least, share a common ancestry and some DNA. A Spock could never exist in reality, any more than warp drive or the teleportation of matter, but in TV, as in religion, reality is not the point. To find Spock, you must look within. 

The Philadelphia Orchestra publishes its 2015-2016 seaon

I rarely attend performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra anymore. Concerts are usually scheduled for Thursday and Saturday evenings and Friday afternoons, and I work the 3 to 11 shift at the paper those days.  And it hurts to admit it, but too often, year after year, the programing has been unimaginative. I find I can hear more inspired concert-making by looking around at smaller, less famous or even amateur groups.

I was pleased, though, when I looked through the program guide for 2015-2016 (they’ve tracked me down in Norristown) and found a few programs that will be worth taking a night off for. To be sure, next season has its share of seat-filling pap anyone up for Yo -Yo Ma in John Williams’ Cello Concerto?   as well as chestnuts, such as the November performance Appalachian Spring. (You know, Copland did write other stuff. I’d like to hear Statements sometime.)  And yet there are some Easter eggs hidden under the straw.

In February, just a little under a year from now, James Levine will lead the orchestra in Ives’s Three Places in New England, which it played under Ormandy years ago and hasn’t programmed since. Levine conducted a memorable performance of the piece at Juilliard a while back, and I’m excited to hear what he can do with the Philadelphians. The program also includes the Brahms Second (yay), and the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, which I guess is the price we pay for Ives.

Then, in April, Cristian Macelaru will conduct Stravinsky’s complete Soldier’s Tale, with actors, dancers and a narrator.  You don’t get to see that very often. The program also includes The Rite of Spring, which is overplayed, but never gets old.
There will also be four performances of Mahler’s Symphony of A Thousand in March and the fourth is even a Sunday matinee. This work has not been performed in Philadelphia since the mid-1970s.

I should also mention the premiere of a new Timpani Concerto by the fine Philadelphia composer Maurice (pronounced Morris) Wright.