Thursday, February 23, 2012

Everything sucks

Thanks to my sister, I scored a free ticket to the Philadelphia Opera Company's Wednesday evening performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio, presented at the Academy of Music. I had a very good time, but, then, I had a very good time at the Met's HD broadcast of Götterdämmerung a couple weekends ago, and I am informed by a reliable source that the production was a mess, with hasty conducting and an embarrassing, "pitchy" Brünnhilde in the person of Deborah Voigt.

OK, America, now you know: my reactions to opera are unreliable. I never claimed to be an expert, but, since experts never seem to have a good time at the opera, I can't understand why anyone would aspire to expertise. In this case, ingorance is indeed bliss. Or maybe complaining is part of the fun. Who knows?

I am also informed by this same source that there is, in fact, no ideal recording of the Ring cycle. She didn't say so in so many words, but that appears to be the subtext of her comments online. To be sure, each one has its strengths. Some are well-sung, some are well-recorded in sumptuous stereo-sound, some have fine orchestral playing, and some are "well-conducted" (though I'm having trouble imaging just why the conducting would make a difference if the singers, the orchestra, and the sound quality are no good), but none combines all of these qualities in a single package. The trick to purchasing complete Ring, she informs me, is to figure out which of these qualities means the most to you, and make your decision accordingly. The bottom line is that you spend $150 to $175 on a set of 15 CDs, and it's essentially a crap shoot. The real Ring snobs spend thousands to get them all, which earns them the right to tell you which ones to avoid.

One thing is for certain, and that is the recording I have decided upon — based largely on reputation and price — is not to be borne. Fair enough. But I figure if it doesn't have outstanding singing, conducting, or playing, it has all of them to at least a middling degree, and for something I'm going to listen to at most once every five years, that's probably enough.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mitt Romney could never do this

Socialism and phony theology aside, the man is cool:

If the election goes south, he could always host the reboot of Soul Train.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Brahms recordings, my two cents

To follow up on my previous post — my favorite recording of the Brahms Symphonies is by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic. Not the one Walter did with the Columbia Symphony, which followed by about the decade. It's good, but no better than a dozen others by big-name conductors and orchestras. The NYPO disks were released in the early fifties. They're monaural, but electronically recorded. The sound quality is perfectly acceptable, and the readings are superb — brisk, tight, energetic. The approach is especially telling in the first two movements of the Symphony No. 2, which are faster here than in most other recordings. The music is often played as a pastoral daydream, but in Walter's interpretation, it sounds like Bach, with an emphasis on counterpoint and movement. Just thrilling. And the rest of the symphonies are of the same caliber. You know how with some pieces, especially the most familiar ones, you like to collect many different versions to compare them. Well, as regards the Brahms symphonies, once I acquired the Walter-NYPO disks, that urge went away.

I feel the same way about my recording of the two piano concertos, with Leon Fleisher and Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. That's it for me. No others required. Desirable, perhaps, but not required.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Brahms in Bryn Athyn

... now ain’t that alliterative?

Got home about an hour and a half ago from a Sunday afternoon concert by the Bryn Athyn Orchestra. (The link to my preview article is at left.) Highlight for me was the finale, the Brahms Third Symphony, which Burnett James calls the most “echt-Brahms’ of the four, and “in many respects the most characteristic and illuminating of all his major compositions,” and, measure for measure, one of my favorite pieces of music. Even a passable performance is enough to put me in a great mood, and the Bryn Athyn performance was a good sight better than passable. One of course has to allow for glitches and intonation problems with any community orchestra, but all things considered, this was a taut, effective reading. One of the musicians afterward told me that Dan Kujala, the orchestra’s music director, “knows how to rehearse a group,” and the effort was well in evidence. The problems occurred more or less where I expected them to — viz., in the rapid string passages in the last movement — and the brasses squawked in one or two places, but none of the mistakes was enough to ruin my enjoyment, or even interfere with it. The woodwinds deserve special mention: they were quite warm.

Before the break, Bill Myers, whom I interviewed for Ticket, was the soloist in Alexander Arutiunian’s 1950 Trumpet Concerto, which I had never heard before. It’s not great music, but Bill was a confident soloist, and the firm, bright timbre of a trumpet out in front of the orchestra is an arresting experience. One of the string players told me later that the orchestra nearly came apart at one point, but still managed to pull through. I didn’t notice it. The soloist soaked up most of my attention, and he covered a multitude of sins.

The elation will probably last until I get to work tomorrow. I’d say the music was better than sex, but I don’t remember sex well enough to compare.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Milton Babbitt's Music for the Mass

The International Orange Chorale is raising money to record Milton Babbitt's Music for the Mass. Read all about it at Iron Tongue of Midnight, the blog of the great Lisa Hirsch.

I'm curious about the piece. If it was written, as Lisa says, 74 years ago — i.e., 1938 — it is likely not in Babbitt's familiar, complex, serialist style. Babbitt started out writing for Broadway, you know.

I'd contribute, but I can't afford to be generous on my measly salary.


I spent the afternoon of Feb. at the AMC theater at Neshaminy Mall watching the Met’s HD broadcast of Götterdämmerung in the company of my brother and three friends. What can one say? The production, directed by Robert Lapage and played on a 45-ton set that has become known derisively “the machine,” has been reviewed in detail and ad nauseam by critics and bloggers everywhere. Rather than duplicate their efforts, I offer only a few personal impressions:

The singers and the MET orchestra were superb, although the sound quality in the theater left much to be desired. I was expecting some kind of vibrant, stereophonic surround sound effect — which I seem to recall was what we got last May for Die Walküre — but the broadcast sound seemed flattened and unidirectional, like a monaural recording. It wasn’t nearly loud enough, either. We were sitting close to the screen, and at first I thought we were in an acoustic dead zone, but a quick sprint to the back of the theater did not result in any improvement. The camerawork, too, was occasionally jerky, and I would have liked more long views of the whole stage, as opposed to close-ups.

It was the best looking operatic cast I’ve ever seen. Everyone seemed to fit his or her role, which, I am led to understand, is rather rare in the world of opera. Jay Hunter Morris made a strapping Siegfried, and he played the part like a big kid out on a swell adventure. (I was reminded of Anna Russell’s immortal observation that Siegfried was a regular Li’l Abner type.) Iain Paterson was suitably effete as Gunther, with his thin face, pale skin, and high, balding forehead. (One of our company said he looked like a Nazi functionary.) Hans-Peter König did nothing out of the ordinary as Hagen, but he was the most imposing presence in every scene he was in. Only Eric Owens as Alberich disappointed me. Despite a commanding voice, he seemed a bit too much like a community-theater Quasimodo, at least in closeup. Maybe he was mugging for the folks at the back of the hall.

The combination of the machine and video projections did produce some excellent effects — I was especially taken with the wood paneling in the Gibichung Hall and the mountain stream in Act III — but, as other bloggers have observed, the immolation scene was a something of a dud. If I didn’t know Valhalla was supposed to burn down, I never would have guessed it was happening. There was some orange light and a trio of crumbling statues, and the planks of the machine just stood there upright like a picket fence. Part of the fault is Wagner’s, I think: he relies too much on the music and the stage effects to get his point across. No one ever says, “Oh, hey, look, Valhalla’s on fire!” They couldn’t, really. It would be too comical, and just about everyone is dead at that point, anyway. Still, the production had a budget of $16 million, and for that amount of money, you'd expect the apocalypse to be a bit more apocalyptic.

And then there were the Rhine Maidens:

WTF are they wearing?

Goodbye Again - Brahms

Caught a fun little movie last Sunday on THIS, a subordinate digital station that piggybacks on WPHL-17, Philadelphia. Goodbye Again, released in 1961, concerns a middle-aged woman living in Paris who, taken for granted by her philandering boyfriend, gets involved with a young American lawyer. The woman is played by Ingrid Bergman, the boyfriend by Yves Montand, and the lawyer by Anthony Perkins. Euro-decadence is slathered on a bit thick, but the soundtrack relies heavily on Brahms, particularly the Third Symphony. (The film is based on the novel Aimez-vous Brahms? By François Sagan.) There's even a scene in a jazz club in which the Perkins character is being hit on by a singer (a very young, very delectable Diahann Carroll) while, in the background, the saxophonist plays a bluesy version of the Poco Allegretto.

It's not Casablanca, and it's not Psycho, but it contains two of the great joys of my life: Brahms and Ingrid Bergman - who was 45 when the picture was made and was never more beautiful. If I had been Anthony Perkins, I would have fallen for her, too, but then, I'm 54, so age is not a problem.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Jury Duty

I was summoned to the Philadelphia court of common pleas yesterday to do my bit for the American system of justice. I've decided I actually like jury duty: It's a day off from work and a chance to read for a couple of hours and have lunch in town. What makes it especially pleasant is that I never get empaneled. I've made it to the voir dire stage three times, and I've been dismissed each time as soon as they learn that a) I work for a newspaper and b) my father was a Pennsylvania State Trooper. I've also grown fond of the court workers, esp. the women in Room 101 who line us up and assign us our juror numbers. They're friendly, funny and outgoing, they know how to work a crowd, and they try to make experience as pleasant as possible. My compliments, always.

The book I chose to take with me was waiting is the A.T. Hatto Penguin edition of The Nibelungenlied, the reading of which was inspired by the Met's performance of Götterdämmerung Saturday. I saw HD broadcast at the movies in the comapny of Renee, ted, Ed and Bruce, and I do intend to blog about it as soon as I get caught up at work.

I also want to write about my meeting with Mervin Rosen and Jennifer Castellano on Feb. 7, but that, too, will have to wait a little while.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Random thoughts while not watching the Super Bowl

Finally, after two library renewals, I finished Knut Hamsun’s 435-page Growth of the Soil this afternoon. It was the fifth of Hamsun’s novels I’ve read since last fall, and even though it was the book that won him the Nobel Prize (in 1920), some of his most perceptive critics, including Isaac Bashevis Singer, regard it as a step down from his earlier work. Yeah, I’d go along with that. It has a direct prose style that reminded me of an Icelandic saga, and it contains some terrific set pieces, such as the early infanticide and the episode in which Axel is pinned beneath a tree. But the nostalgia for the peasant way of life wore me down, and all the ayes and ’twases drove me to distraction. (H.G. Wells thought the book “saturated with wisdom,” which any sensible person should take as a warning) Hamsun’s tragedy, according to Singer, was that he lived too long. His powers declined after the turn of the 20th century, and then, there’s his Nazi problem. He regarded Hitler as the savior of civilization, and he supported the German occupation of Norway. Had he died gracefully at 70, instead of at 93, his name might not be anathema in his native land.

Best of the Hamsun novels I’ve read — or at least my favorites — were Pan and Mysteries. If you read any, read those. Then you can feel free to blame me if you don’t like them.

On Wednesday, January 25, I visited Doug Heller and his wife, Nancy Parsons, at their home in Flourtown. Doug, a former Springfield Township commissioner, has stage IV pancreatic cancer. Unlike some patients, who refuse visitors when they realize how serious their condition is, Nancy has issued an open invitation to Doug’s friends and acquaintances. I took her up on it. I stayed for perhaps two hours. Doug is in very good spirits, and indeed, if it weren’t for the weight loss, the bathrobe and slippers, and the blanket on the living room sofa, you wouldn’t suspect he was ill. I stayed for about two hours. We watched Jeopardy, played a round of categories, and ate a little, but mostly, we listened to CDs. I brought a few of my own. Doug and Nancy especially liked the Quartet for Trumpet, Tenor Saxophone, Piano, and Percussion by Stefan Wolpe, and they introduced me to the transcendently awful music of Jonathan and Darlene and of Mrs. Miller. The former achieved badness intentionally (Darlene was the party name of Jo Stafford), and the latter was born bad. It's been a long while since I laughed to hard.

Went biking today through Pennypack Park, and then out Torresdale Avenue to Glen Foerd and Northeast Philadelphia Airport. The air was clear and deliciously cold. The real reward a ride like that is drinking something hot afterward.