Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lenape chamber season ends

Wow: I just realized how long it's been since I lasted posted. Life does get in the way, and I haven't been too energetic with the summer heat. Last Saturday, when I stepped into the night following the Lenape Chamber Ensemble's final concert of the summer, I felt as though I had entered a furnace room.

The concert was half a success. The first half was only so-so. The performance of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, which should be a highlight of any evening, seemed lethargic. Maybe it was only the sound of the hall (which is actually a college cafeteria with a stage up front), but it wasn't as bubbly as I imagine a clarinet piece should be. The second piece on the first half, the Three Nocturnes by Bloch, was pleasant but forgettable.

The playing caught fire only in the second half with a performance of the Brahms Piano Quintet Op. 35 by Marcantonio Barone and the Wister Quartet. I wasn't too optimistic during the intermission, given what had come before, but piece was everything I could have wanted, which was a relief, since Brahms is one of my favorite composers, and his Piano Quintet is one of my favorite works.

One thing I noticed Saturday was that the Lenape caters to a largely geriatric audience, though that may be true of most classical ensembles these days. I was drowning in a sea of gray hair, and it made me wonder about the future of classical music. Since I’m also entering that demographic (my barber mentioned the gray during my last haircut), I can hardly think of myself as the future of classical music.

Then again, you’d probably see a lot of the same faces at a performance by the surviving members of the Grateful Dead. There were many parents and some grandparents at the Sellersville Theater a couple of months ago when I saw Object/Project, Andre Cholmondeley’s Frank Zappa tribute band, but at least they brought their offspring.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Mere Coincidence?

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed the Grateful Dead's Ripple is essentially the same tune as the Horst Wessel Song?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Bach for Bucks

Here's a creative fundraising idea. Just received this press release in my inbox:

In the year which commemorates the 325th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, and in a campaign to raise money for new choir chairs at Grace Lutheran Church, 801 E Willow Grove Ave. in Wyndmoor, PA 19038. Dr. Dennis Schmidt is offering to play any of the organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach in what will be a "Live Ipod of the Complete Organ Works of Bach Concert."

To help you choose, Dr. Scmhidt provides a detailed price menu:

Chorale preludes- $10

BWV 000-000b, 599-644, 646-691, 694-705, 706a-706b, 709-715, 717-720, 722-722a, 724-739, 741-762, 766-769, 957, 1090-1120

Individual free pieces - $25

BWV 562-564, 566, 568-570, 574-575, 578-579, 583, 586--588, 598, 802-805,

Preludes and Fugues - $50

BWV 531. 533-541, 543-552, 565, 582,

Sonatas, Concertos, Pastorale, Chorale Partitas - $75

BWV 525-530, 590, 592-597

Anybody interested in attending or donating can write to Dr. Schmidt at Dr. Schmidt, btw, was Dr. Schmidt was executive director of the Bach Festival of Philadelphia from 1993 to 2000, so I'm thinking he's be pretty good. Oct. 31 is my b-day, btw. This recital might be my present to myself.

Now I have to go through my record and CD collection and figure out just what I'd want to pay to hear.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

NYP performs Ionisation

I don't generally like to use the blog just to link to other sites, but Steve Smith has an eye-opening article on Edgard Varese's percussion piece Ionisation in today's Times. I don't know Slonimsky's recording. I have Craft's and Chailly's. Sorry I can't make the performance, either.

Back when I was studying acting in college, we were given an assignment to improvise a monologue over a piece of music. The piece I chose was Ionisation, which was a little different from the pop stuff the rest of the kids selected.

Crossing season ends

Attended the third and final concert in the Crossing's Month of Moderns series at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian. The choir sang works by Lansing McLoskey, Frank Havroy, Paul Fowler, Thomas Jennefelt, David Shapiro and Kile Smith. Nice stuff, all of it, but it all kind of ran together for me. Maybe the heat has been making me stupid, but I couldn't tell much differnce between one piece and the next, with the exception of Jennefelt's Villarosa Sarialdi, an exercise in Reichian minimalism for voices written in 1997. There wasn't much to it, but it stood out from the pack by virtue of a few jaunty rhythms that at least got me nodding my head.

Throughout the evening, I found myself longing for a bitonal dissonance, a clash of meters, anything to pierce the reverent, sleepy-time atmosphere. I kept thinking what a great job these singers could do with something gritty, like Ives's psalm settings or the Harvest Home Chorales. The Crossing specializes in brand-new music, and Ives would be too old for its program director, I guess, but compared to some of the young composers I've heard on Crossing programs, he's a Turk. Too much new music seems to me timid and backward-looking compared to what was being written a century go - or even two centuries ago. I got more of a charge from a performance of the B Minor Mass a couple of months ago.

As I was typiing this, I was inpired to put on the SWR Vokalensemble's CD of Ives' psalm settings. Hair-raising, fiendishly stuff that and at the same time so wonderfully alive. I do believe I'm waking up.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Two days, two concerts

I’m getting out more these days, hearing more live music than even just a year ago. Two very different but satisfying concerts back to back this weekend. I previewed both for Ticket. (See the links to your left.) Friday night, The Crossing performed contemporary choral works at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian. Last night, at Delaware Valley College, the Lenape Chamber ensemble presented more standard fare ― Prokofiev's Sonata for Two Violins, Chopin's G minor Cello Sonata, and Beethoven's first Razumovsky Quartet. The Beethoven was a fortuitous, since I've been listening to the string quartets on recordings quite a bit recently. It was wonderful to hear it live.

The concerts at Delaware Valley College take place in the school cafeteria, an unpromising location. Listeners sit in rows of plastic, molded seats set up for the occasion, and the noise of the air conditioning gets in the way during the quiet moments, but once you get over it, the acoustics are actually very good. The Beethoven, especially, was clear as a bell, and beautifully played. I was most impressed with the precision and the clean intonations in the feather-light second movement.

The Crossing concert included the world premiere of Lansing McCloskey’s “Memory of Rain,” on a Philip Levine. I was fortunate enough to sit next to the composer during the performance. He drew into himself as he listened — eyes closed, head bowed, arms folded, legs crossed. His only criticism of the performance was that the chorus was about a quartertone off from the organ, making the piece “microtonal” where it wasn’t intended to be. It didn’t matter. I liked it either way. I also liked it, I guess, because it was the one secular piece on a program swimming in Christian sadomasochism. (“I am worthless, Lord. Love me.”) Another composer, who I know is devout and whose music will be performed by the Crossing next week, told me during the reception, jocularly, that if religious isn’t annoying and offensive, then it isn’t doing its job. Well, it did its job Friday.

The other highlight of the evening, Francis Pott’s “My Song is Love Unknown” (on another religious text), stood out for its refreshing return to counterpoint. The same composer I spoke to at the reception tells me it’s a lost art among contemporary composers. Too much modern music, even the most aggressively "accessible," walks in lockstep, content to make one, single pretty sound after another. Interweaving contrapuntal lines re-introduce the element of story. They're like an argument, he said.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Good Night, Vienna

Today, July 7, is both the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gustav Mahler and the 70th birthday of Ringo Starr. Hard to say what they have in common, other than the day and the fact that both are quite important to me. Ringo was my favorite Beatle when I was a kid, though largely by default: I have a brother and two sisters, and they got to the other three Beatles first. The group's appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 is one of my earliest memories, and for the next couple of years, they were everywhere ― on the radio, on TV, in magazines and in all the souvenir shops on the Atlantic City boardwalk, where you could buy buttons and beach towels with their likenesses. (I want to say T-shirts, too, but I can't recall at just what point in my life the T-shirt craze took off.) It is difficult to recreate the total mental saturation we experienced to anyone who hasn't gone through it, but it makes the Michael Jackson phenomenon look like an afterthought.

The Beatles broke up when I was 12. I lost interest in them, moving on to classical music in high school. I rediscovered them through a friend in college, however, interestingly around the time I discovered Mahler, through other friends. In the long run, Mahler has been more important, though I must confess at first he left me rather cold: the extreme length, the heavy introspection and the constant shifts in tone bored me, until one night, as a college freshman, I forced myself to listen to Bernstein's recording of the Resurrection Symphony twice in one night ― and I mean really listen. I've been a convert ever since.

Haven't been listening to much music at home since this last big heat wave struck, but when I have a moment I'll have to go back to Songs of a Wayfarer, with "Matchbox" as an appetizer. (Ringo on vocals, which was rare, but always a treat.) You’d think they couldn’t be more different, but they draw from the same bottomless well of inspiration; men, women, unfulfilled love, pain. Two twenty-three year olds, born 80 years apart, were singing the blues.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Reaction to July 1 column

Has been somewhat negative. People seem to think either it was sad or I was too hard on myself. No self-pity was intended, though perhaps one has to work in this business to realize what a dead end it can be. I just thought it was funny that the implied question whenever I run into an old schoolmate is, "Why aren't you doing better?" And in truth, I'm not doing too badly. I least I get to write for a living, and I get to interview some excellent musicians, which is something I couldn't say when I was working as a project manager for a mom and pop publishing subcontractor-type operation --- I don't even know what to call the place. (Sometime I'll explain statistical abstracting, another job that would make people's eyes glaze over when I tried to talk about it.)

The following is the e-mail I received from the police chief in Montgomery County, Pa., whom I mentioned in the column. The names have been deleted to protect the innocent:

Hey Joe,

I read your article in the Sun last night. I honestly don't remember making the MIT comment to Randy, but if he said it, it must be true. Either way, it was not meant as a slight, and if it was taken that way, I apologize. I actually have very fond memories of grade school, and even a few from [our old high school]. I'm pretty sure that you and I did a NASA presentation at [our grammar school] as a group project [this was the year after the first moon landing], but I know how you hate these trips down memory lane.

ps Some years ago, I crossed paths with D-----, another guy [from our high school]. Turns out he was an Abington police officer for many years and we never knew we were in the same profession.

Take care, Joe, and be sure to look for me at the Wawa.

T ------

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Mr. Wagner sees the light

Most people don’t want atonal, vocal, or challenging music on the radio. . . . Why should a commercial or public radio programmer ignore extensive research and devote sizable air time to something that most listeners don’t want to hear?


Today’s owners and programmers get more sophisticated feedback about listeners: Arbitron ratings report how many are listening; Scarborough, MRI and Simmons studies offer profiles on audience income, education, occupation and behavior. And many stations have local listener panels to test new programming concepts. All this feedback gives programmers a much better idea of what works and what doesn’t.

—Two letters to the Times

The following excerpts from the diary of Cosima Wagner, wife of the composer Richard Wagner, have been made public by the couple’s descendants after more than 130 years of suppression. The entries shed new light on Wagner’s decision to abandon work on an ambitious four-opera cycle, whose working title was "The Ring of the Nibelung."

Tribschen, Feb. 27, 1872—Luncheon today with R[ichard]. and Herr Prof. [Friedrich] Nietzsche, our gloomy young philologist. R. in a rancid mood over progress of "Götterdämmerung." Prelim. surveys show Brünnhilde character a washout with women aged 18–27. Killing of Siegfried got positive feedback, but self-immolation was a definite negative. 68% of respondents said Brünnhilde is not sufficiently empowered. R. says he will need to revise the ending, having Brünnhilde live and, possibly, raise Siegfried’s child alone while pursuing a career as a lawyer.

Prof. Nietzsche skeptical. He sat thoughtfully a long while, warming his hands around his teacup, then said, “Even the most personal conscience is vanquished by the leveling of great numbers.” That boy is developing a disturbing independence of mind. R. says he will need to be watched.

March 14, 1872 — R. spoke feelingly today of the personal tragedies of Beethoven — his rage, his deafness, his incomprehension of niche marketing. “What is the message of the Ode to Joy?” he asked. “All men are brothers. Fine. But only a small percentage of them will ever earn between 75 and 100 thousand a year. The goal of art — all art — is to help us see the good without requiring we actually do anything about it. The upper classes understand this better than anyone.”

I implore him to publish his ideas, but he brushes the suggestion aside, preferring to work on his mail-order catalog.

April 2, 1872 — More trouble with Prof. Nietzsche. R. had research data naming Bayreuth as the perfect place to build our festival theater, given its large population of white German males, our key demographic. Prof. Nietzsche argued the numbers were meaningless, since Germany is, as he says, “chock-full” of white German males. The only excuse for having a Germany in the first place, he said, is to give white German males a watering hole.

While conceding the point, R. defended the study, which was prepared by the biggest anti-Semitic think-tank in Vienna. Even if the conclusions were doctored, so to speak, it was done in an effort to be helpful.

“An anti-Semite is not admirable simply because he lies as a matter of principle,” Prof. Nietzsche said.

Whereupon R. ordered him out of the house.

Oct. 31, 1872 — Tragically, the names Wagner and Wagnerism evoke no feelings of brand loyalty. This according to focus groups in Bonn and Stuttgart. On average, consumers were “only somewhat” inclined to sit through a four-part, twenty-hour music-drama on incest and deicide. Most identified “leitmotif” as a kind of low-tar cigarette.

Meanwhile, Verdi’s Q-rating is through the roof, though R. attributes this less to his music than to the fact that he’s licensed his photograph for use on packages of frozen tapioca.

“Oh, sure,” he said, “we could get those kind of numbers, too, if we wanted to sell out.”

I cringed when Prof. Nietzsche cleared his throat. Our quarrel last spring took a month to smooth over, and lately he’s been going on about something he calls “eternal recurrence,” which, as near as I can make out, has nothing to do with consumption patterns. I braced for yet another moralistic aphorism, but to my surprise, the prof. spoke quietly, in an offhand, almost distracted manner.

“Your problem,” he said, “is a simple residual-to-cost ratio. If you switched the festival to an all-polka format, you’d cut your rehearsal costs in half and gross three times as much. Add a few Irish step-dancers, and you’ll have a program you can drag out anytime for fundraisers.”

R. smiled — for the first time in weeks. He rose from his chair, lifted the score of "The Valkyrie" from the mantelpiece, and dropped it into the fire.

“All right,” he said as he reached for the poker, “let’s give them what they want.”

The diaries end here. Within a month, Cosima returned home to live with her father, the composer Franz Liszt. Friedrich Nietzsche followed his own path into philosophy. He suffered a mental collapse in 1889. Wagner himself spent the rest of his life touring North America, where he enjoyed popular acclaim as The Accordion King.

© 2000 by Joseph Richard Barron