Tuesday, April 11, 2017

London's dystopia

My librarian tells me there has been a run on dystopian novels of late. The most popular is, of course, 1984, with Margaret Attwood's Handmaid's Tale also high in demand. The reason isn't hard to discern, unless you've been on an interstellar flight for the past year, and I won't befoul this site by mentioning any names. For my most recent foray into the genre, however,  I went back a little further in time to The Iron Heel, by Jack London, which seemed to me more pertinent to our current situation than Orwell's projections regarding Stalinism or Atwood's world of sexual slavery.

For The Iron Heel imagines life under the Oligarchy -- what we today would call the "1 percent." London writes from an unapologetically Marxist perspective, complete with a long chapter on the theory of surplus value, and what he describes is the last stage of capitalism, a state of affairs that begins in the early 20th century (the book was published in 1906) and lasts for three hundred years. In his telling, wealth has flowed to the top, just as it is doing now. The industrial trusts, which were real enough in London's day, achieve maximum efficiency through the "combination" of production and distribution, driving small manufacturers and independent farmers out of business, until nothing is left except the big corporations and the wage slaves who toil for them. Order is maintained through control of the courts and legislatures, as well as a private army known as the Mercenaries.

The story is told by a bourgeois-turned-revolutionary named Avis Everhard, who is writing in the early 1930s (15 years after London died), but whose manuscript is being published 700 years in the future, about 400 years after the successful socialist revolution that establishes the worldwide Brotherhood of Man, This dual time frame allows London to insert retrospective editorial footnotes that comment on contemporary working conditions, pass judgment on historical figures or explain slang that readers in the far future would find archaic.

It's a promising conceit, but the execution doesn't quite come together. The hero of the book is Avis' husband, the gabby socialist leader Ernest Everhard (what a wonderfully phallic name), who in the early going is an expository know-it-all, but who drops out of sight in the climax of the book, only to take a bow in the penultimate chapter. (When he's not talking, London can't think of anything for him to do.) For me the most appealing character was old Bishop Moorehouse, who is committed to an insane asylum for daring to follow Jesus's example and minister to the poor. He too pops up again near the end, but only for a line, and to no real purpose.

In keeping with London's attempt at verisimilitude, the "Everhard manuscript" is incomplete. It cuts off in midsentence, as if Avis had to run out of the room to avoid arrest, leaving the editor to comment, in the last footnote, that we might never know how, exactly, Ernest met his fate.

Damn you, Jack, You couldn't add another fifty pages?

On the other hand, the climax of the story, the revolt in Chicago, is probably the most exciting thing I'll read all year.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Brahms and friends

The crew of the fine Art Music Company 

performs Brahms'  Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor 

Op. 25 Sunday at the Ethical Society in Philadelphia. 

Playing are, from left, Jonathan Moser, violin;  Kasia 

Marzec-Salwinski, piano; Adelya Shagidullina, viola; 
and Michal Schmidt, cello. Rollin Wilber does 
a yeoman's service turning pages. 
I can't let too much time go by before I post something about the music I heard over the weekend. On Sunday, my friends at the Fine Art Music Company presented yet another well-thought-out and captivating program of chamber music -- this one consisting of works by Robert and Clara Schumann and their discovery Johannes Brahms. Then, on Monday night, I was invited to Opus Piano, on Ridge Pike, Philadelphia, where violist Adelya Shagidullina, who also appeared in Sunday's program, and pianist Kasia Marzec-Salwinski (whose husband, Piotr, owns the piano store) ran through a program they'll be playing Wednesday at the Rutgers campus in Camden.    
I don't want to get bogged down "reviewing" either event. I want to say only that I feel musically sated at the moment, as well as grateful, and that it's been only in the past few years that I've learned to appreciate early Brahms. Over the years, whenever I've been on the mood for Uncle Johannes -- which I am, frequently -- I usually choose something middle to late, say from the symphonies onward. Over the weekend, I was reminded just why that is. Fine Art wrapped  up its concert Sunday with a fiery performance of the early Piano Quartet in G Minor Op. 25, and on Monday, Kasia and Adelya played his E-flat Viola Sonata Op. 120 No. 2. Now, Brahms is always recognizably Brahms. He's one of those composers who, like Bach, did not radically alter their language in the course of their careers, but as a young man, he stuffed his scores like sausages. There's so much going on, and the textures are so thick, I often feel the need to come up for air. Sunday's Piano Quartet was certainly exciting, and it brought the sizable audience to its feet, but the sonata Monday evening let me breathe.

The young firebrand impresses me more and more, but it's the bearded, portly and dirty old man who warms my heart.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Bach in Norristown

Steve Kramer performs J.S Bach's
Suite No.1 for Unaccompanied
Cello Sunday in Norristown.
Yes, it was everything I thought it would be. The gifted young cellist Steve Kramer played three of J.S. Bach's six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello -- Nos. 1, 3, and 6 -- Sunday afternoon at the Centre Theater in Norristown. It was the first of a series of chamber concerts planned for the first Sunday of each month, and the project couldn’t have gotten off to a more auspicious start.

Only about a dozen people turned out, but they were enthusiastic, and most were knowledgeable. The group included a music teacher, a family with a small daughter, and a young volunteer firefighter who said he was taking a course in classical music at Montgomery County Community College. I was flattered to speak to three people who said they learned about the concert from my preview article, which appeared on the front page of last Friday's Times Herald.

But enough about me. The music was thrilling. Steve seems to favor extreme tempi: The fast movements were very fast, and the slow movements, especially in the minor-key Suite No. 5, were lingered over, caressed. As you can see from the photo, I was sitting close enough to see the strings vibrate on the cello. In an intimate setting like this, the low growl of the instrument seems to flow through your bones.

In such an informal setting, ordinary concert protocols were dispensed with. There was no printed program, so Steve named each movement before he played it. The audience also applauded lightly between movements. The effect was a break in the continuity of the music, but that was easily forgotten during the actual playing.

Since the Suite No. 5 ends somberly, Steve sent everyone home with for a brisk encore -- "The Star-Spangled Banner," in honor of his adopted homeland, or perhaps Phillies spring training. It was the loveliest arrangement of that overly familiar tune that I can recall.

One personal note: During some extemporaneous remarks about his role at the Centre Theater Music School, Steve used the expression "don't paint the devil on the wall." He is only the second person in my life I have heard say that -- the first being my mother, who died in 1999. When I was a kid, she often said it as a way of warning not to invite bad luck by talking about it. I so taken aback when I heard again it again yesterday that I actually clapped my hands to my face. Steve is from Denmark, and my mother's mother's family was from what used to be known as the Sudetenland (the region Hitler and Chamberlain haggled over in Munich). I'm sure now that there's a linguistic connection. Mom never told me where she hear it first (or if she did, I have forgotten), but I'm sure now she must have picked it up her mother.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Steve Kramer to play Bach

The cellist Steve Kramer will perform three of Bach's cello suites Sunday in Norristown. Here's a link to my article previewing the event. It was written for a general readership, so there isn't too much about the music. Yes, the guy on the theater board is really hoping one day to bring a symphony orchestra to the county seat. That's an expensive proposition, and I doubt it'll happen, given the theater's limited resources, but a series of chamber concerts is exciting enough.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Ives Uncaged

The microtonalist composer and theorist Johnny Reinhard invited me to his New York apartment Sunday to hear a new recording, which he is producing, of Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata. There must be dozens of recordings of the piece. What makes this one unique is that it involves two pianists ― the young powerhouses Gabriel Zucker and Erika Dohi ― playing separate instruments tuned according to what Johnny calls an “extended Pythagorean” system, or “the spiral of fifths.”

The tuning creates 24 tones per octave and, Johnny says, comes closer to what the composer must have had in mind when he wrote the sonata. In this score, as in others, Ives distinguishes between tones that in equal temperament are enharmonic ― placing, for example, an F sharp beside a G flat in the same measure. To his copyists, this was just bad notation, and it drove them batty. In the Pythagorean system, however, the tones are distinct, and Johnny insists that with his version, he is merely taking Ives at his word.

He also finds justification for his approach in this paragraph from the Epilogue of Ives’s Essays Before a Sonata:

In some century to come, when the school children will whistle popular tunes in quarter-tones ― when the diatonic scale will be as obsolete as the pentatonic is now ― perhaps then these borderland experiences may be both easily expressed and readily recognized. But maybe the music is not intended to satisfy the curious definiteness of man. Maybe it is better to hope that music may be a transcendental language in the most extravagant sense. Possibly the power of literally distinguishing these “shades of abstraction” ― these attributes paralleled by “artistic intuitions” (call them what you will) ― is ever to be denied man for the same reason that the beginning and end of a circle are to be denied.

The century Ives predicted, Johnny said, is now. The circle has been broken, swept up into a spiral of fifths.

Of course, the proof of any theory is in the listening, and I have to say, there are many stunning, ear-stretching moments in this recording. The word that kept recurring to me throughout the 40-minute running time was “liberated.” The dense, complex “Emerson” movement, in particular, gains a new power and resonance. The music seems propelled by a long-pent-up energy, like a tiger suddenly let loose  from a cage. The fresh charge comes at a cost, however, as the last two movements, in which Ives progressively thins out the textures, lose some of their accustomed flavor. “The Alcotts” sounds less naive, “Thoreau” less transparent, with the flute solo at the end (performed sensitively enough by Erin Keppner) struggling to break through the haze. But these are initial impressions, derived perhaps from a lifetime of familiarity with standard performances ― if any performance of the Concord may be called “standard.”  With repeated listening, I expect I might find new values to replace the old.

The two-piano version did not require any form of re-arrangement, Johnny said. All he did was take two copies of the score, black out some of the notes in each, and highlight others. The problems of coordination for the two musicians must have been staggering, but Zucker and Dohi rise to the challenge with astonishing precision. The performance is seamless.


Tuning for the two-piano, microtonal Concord Sonata:

Piano I (Zucker)
  C#   D#         F#    G#   A#
C    D     E     F     G      A     B

Piano II (Dohi)
   Db   Eb            Gb    Ab    Bb

B#   Cx    Fb    E#    Fx    Gx   Cb

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Thought for the Day

The most redundant phrase I know
Would have to be "the winds that blow."
For if the wind's just standing there,
Then what you're looking at is "air."

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The New New Colossus

The Lady with the Lamp looks out to sea
And tells the world, "I'm changing my criteria.
Send all your homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
Unless the little bastards come from Syria."

Monday, January 23, 2017

Oh, how these people have suffered

Russia went through hell in the 20th century (at present it appears to have graduated into purgatory), and its many great artists bore witness to its suffering, either by confronting it directly; or by dreaming, like the early Christians, of the peace beyond the apocalypse; or by simply getting out and moving on. The Fine Art Music Company, a too-well-kept secret in Philadelphia, presented a taste of that survivalist spirit over the weekend with perhaps the strongest program we’ve had from it -- two hours music and poetry that was rooted in Russia’s so-called Silver Age and carried over into the Stalinist era and beyond. 

The composers on the bill were Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Pärt and Schnittke. The poetry, read sometimes in Russian, sometimes in translation, by mezzo-soprano Tatyana Rashkovsky, included the work of Osip Mandelstam, Alexander Blok, and, most prominently, Anna Akhmatova, whose biography  reads like a summary of what befell the country at large.

Performances at the Ethical Society Sunday were uniformly excellent. Rollin Wilber was in top form in three of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes from Op. 32, as was Kasia Marzec-Salwinski in Scriabin’s Sonata-Fantasy Op. 19 and four early Preludes by Schnittke, which have been discovered published only recently. (For all we know, Wilber said during the Q and A, it might have been a US premiere.)

Cellist Yoni Draiblate added sensitive readings of Schnittke’s Musica Nostalgica and Pärt’s Fratres, though I found the pieces themselves unremarkable. Rashkovsky, in songs by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff, was thrilling.

It was a heavy afternoon, but Draiblate and Wilber ended it on a hopeful note with Rachmaninoff’s touching Vocalise, which, in context, felt like a pale ray of sunshine breaking through the gloom. 

The poetry of oppression raised inevitable comparisons to current political situation in the US (the woman sitting in front of me wore a pink pussy cap), but Rashkovsky put it in perspective after the concert. She began life under the Brezhnev regime, she said, and very little can scare her now. While hardly a ringing endorsement of our new chief executive, it makes one grateful for large mercies.

One side note: Kasia and I had a disagreement over the meaning of this verse by Akhmatova, written in 1921:

Don’t torment your heart with earthly joys,
Don’t cling to your wife or your home,
Take the bread from your child
To give to a stranger.
And be the humblest servant of the one
Who was your bitterest foe,
And call the beast of the forest brother,
And don’t ask God for anything, ever.

Kasia saw it as advocating an otherwordly, Christlike ethic of selflessness and renunciation. I took it to be an ironic manifesto of the revolutionary regime, stating, in effect, that from now on life will be miserable, and one has no choice but to submit. I am strengthened in my opinion by the poem’s timing: It was written the same year Akhmatova’s former husband was executed by the Bolsheviks. One the other hand, I must admit my understanding of poetry has often been wide of the mark. I have a talent for missing the point. My college essay on Robinson’s “How Annandale Went Out,” for example, remains one of the signal embarrassments of my life.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Oh, How Do You Feel About Schoenberg?

For Marjory

Oh, how to you feel about Schoenberg?
Please tell me in ten words or less.
I'll need your opinion in writing
Before this affair can progress.

And how do you feel about Webern,
And Carter and Ives and Varèse?
Would you tolerate Boulez and Babbitt
Despite what the Times critic says?

Because if we move in together,
You're going to hear them a lot,
And the last seven women I lived with
Ran out of the house like a shot.

They took all the money and children.
They transferred the cable connection.
They took all the furniture, china, and books,
And left me my record collection.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Shall we gather at the river?

Congratulations and thank you to the Fine Art Music Company for its exhilarating program of American music this weekend in Philadelphia. The performances, held Saturday evening at Ivy Hall and Sunday afternoon at the Ethical Society, were timed -- intentionally, I am told -- to correspond with Tuesday's general election. I joked, ruefully, that it might be the last time I feel good about being an American for a long time to come.

But feel good I did. The program was well-chosen and lovingly presented. I was familiar with most of the music, but two pieces -- Paul Bowles's Six Preludes for Piano and William Grant Still's Suite for Violin and Piano -- were new to me.

Bowles's Preludes are short, finely etched studies that the pianist, Kasia Marzec-Salwinski, compared to the character pieces of Schumann. Still's Suite shoehorns elements of jazz and spirituals into rather a conventional framework.

By contrast, Charles Ives's Fourth Violin Sonata, which opened the second half of the program, does away with frameworks altogether. Subtitled "Children's Day at the Camp Meeting," it is not one of Ives's more avant-garde works, but it bristles with mischief, and Jonathan Moser, the afternoon's violinist, navigated the mood swings with remarkable clarity of tone, while Kasia, on piano, more than held her own in a piece that mocks the very notion of holding your own.

The Ives was one of two high points of the afternoon for me. The other was the finale, Gershwin's ubiquitous "Rhapsody in Blue," in Henry Levine's arrangement for piano four hands. This is not a piece I need to listen to a lot, though I certainly don't avoid it. Gershwin's concert music is often better remembered than heard -- that is, the melodies are so good they stick in the mind long after you've forgotten just how clunky the structures are. But any doubts as to the music's ultimate value were banished here. Kasia and Rollin Wilber breezed through it with an enthusiasm that proved infectious. It was obvious they were having a high old time.

I don't want to leave out flutist Elivi Varga, who performed Copland's Duo for Flute and Piano and Samuel Barber's Canzone (with  Rollin on piano in the former, Kasia in the latter). These are relatively minor works, but they are pretty, and Varga gave a radiant luster to both of them. She was especially effective in the Barber.  

I also want to thank the musicians for inviting me to join them onstage for the Q&A session after the concert, when I was asked to say a few words about Charles Ives. In gratitude, I kept my comments short.