Friday, December 31, 2010

Donna Coleman

Spent a half hour yesterday interviewing Donna Coleman, a pianist from Ambler, Pa., who now lives in Australia. She is back for the holidays (it's summer vacation down under), and she'll be giving a couple of recitals in the area this month, one of them Jan. 18 in Flourtown. Program will consist of Bach, Chopin, some classic and modern rags, and the Cuban dances of Ignacio Cervantes, and Donna will be speaking on the similarities between them and the development of one to the other.

I was excited for the chance to speak with her because she has recorded the two piano sonatas of Charles Ives, as well as several of the shorter pieces. She sounded impressed on the phone when I told her I had about dozen recordings of the Concord, though not hers. (It's now on my wish list.) Unfortunately, she had so much to say in our time together, we never mentioned Ives at all.

The article will be out in about a week.

A Happy New Year to all seven or eight of you.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Happy birthday, Elliott Carter

Elliott Carter as he would appear on South Park.

Elliott Carter turned 102 today, and I just can't let the occasion pass. He's my favorite living composer, as anyone who has ever met me is aware, and he stands high among my favorite dead ones as well.

I'm guessing Mr. Carter celebrated his birthday the way he celebrates every new day of his life — by getting out of bed and writing music. He is still sharp, still vital, and while it is likely his greatest work is behind him, each new piece is still a welcome adventure. Every so often, one of them, such as the excellent Nine by Five for wind quintet, premiered just last February, will recapture the power of the music from Carter's peak years, the 1960s and '70s. One never knows, does one?

If I live to his age, I'll be happy if I can feed myself.

I celebrated the way I always do — with an in-home concert. Given the richness of Carter's output, selecting the program is always a challenge. I settled on a few favorites: the Oboe Concerto and the Second String Quartet, in performances recorded for me from BBC broadcasts by e-pal and fellow Carterphile Colin Green, and for the finale, the great Concerto for Orchestra (1969) in the rip-snorting reading by Pierre Boulez and the NY Philharmonic. (The recording is available only through the orchestra, in a six-CD box set of American music. The full set cost $90 and was worth every penny for those 21 minutes alone.)

For the past couple of months, I've been listening to Bach almost exclusively, and so I returned to Carter's music "with quite fresh ears for an old man," as Stravinsky wrote in a similar context. It was an invigorating experience. And the night is still young. I might return to the stereo before it's over.

Finally, I'd like to send Carter-Day greetings to the other bloggers and chatroom lurkers around the net who have wished the composer many happy returns of the day (and how many more of those can there be?): Doundou Tchil, Mark Berry, Steve Hicken, Bruce Hodges, Karl Henning, and Paul Yin, to name a few. You are all my friends in spirit.

Addendum: Here is a photo of Mr. Carter with Pierre Boulez (I'll leave it to you to guess which is which) taken Dec. 6 at an 85th-birthday concert for Boulez in NYC. Thanks to Bruce Hodges. When this was taken, Mr. Carter was five days shy of his 102d birthday.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Just hear those sleigh bells ring-a-ling ...

Say what you want about Messiah or the Christmas Oratorio. For me, the season doesn’t start until I hear LeRoy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” And it has to be the original orchestral version, with the clip-clopping and the whip snapping and the neighing at the end — none this Johnny-Mathis-coffee-and-pumpkin-pie-by-the-fire bullshit. This year I was fortunate to hear it early — the day after Thanksgiving over a car radio. So now I’m in the holiday mood. It won’t last, so I’ll take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy (insert your holiday here).

Anderson (1908-75) was my favorite composer for a little while when I was a teenager. (Am I square or what?) I don’t listen to him much anymore, but I’ve always been grateful to him for teaching me how to listen to an orchestra at a time when no one I know was listening to orchestras. His music still occupies a little soft spot in my heart. It’s wonderful, light stuff, very catchy and tuneful — the equal, in its bouncy American way, of Johann Strauss the younger, imho.

I once had the pleasure of speaking to Anderson’s widow. I had to double check a title or something for an article, and I went to the LeRoy Anderson website and found a phone number to call for information. I called the number and left a message, and within an hour or so Mrs. Anderson herself called me back. I was stunned. We spoke for a long while, as I recall. She seemed genuinely happy anyone would take an interest in her husband’s music, and I was surprised to learn that the Andersons knew the Elliott Carters. Carter and Anderson were born the same year, both attended Harvard at the same time, and for a while they lived “right down the road” from one another, as Mrs. Anderson put it — the Carters in Waccabuc, New York, the Andersons just over the line in Connecticut.

Besides being classmates and composers, Carter and Anderson shared a talent for languages. Carter speaks French and Italian and reads German and Greek and Latin and heaven knows what else. Anderson, the son of Swedish immigrants, mastered all of the Scandinavian tongues.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Steve Martin is right

Not much to say about this, except that I appreciate the thought.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A local treasure dies

Yvonne Patterson, who had a long career as a dancer, died last week at the age of 100. She lived in Flourtown, the heart of Springfield Sun country, and I had the privilege of interviewing her on the occasion of what turned out to be her final birthday, when her friends at the Springfield Township High School swimming pool threw her a modest party.

Yvonne was a very big deal, a breathing bit of cultural history in a small suburb that has little use for culture. She danced for Balanchine beginning in the 1930s, and — most exciting as far as I was concerned — she took part in the 1937 premiere of Stravinsky's ballet Jeu de Cartes, which the composer conducted. (The program, presented at the Metropolitan Opera House, also included Fairy's Kiss and Apollo.) I was eager to hear her recollections of Stravinsky, but after seventy years, she had none to give. She remembered being introduced to him briefly at a rehearsal, and that he was short and not very impressive. Then she suddenly stopped herself.

"Oh, don't write that," she said. "If you write that I won't talk to you."

So I didn't write it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Never visit a sausage factory

The link to my piece on David Hobbs is at right. The only thing I have to add is that I did interview David Spitko about the program as a whole, and none of it got into the article. After a couple of false starts about Haydn and Mozart and the problems that, historically, have faced composers of religious music, I decided Mr. Hobbs was the only real story here — a young, local composer with a brand new work going up against a pair of heavyweights.

Then again, the problems that, historically, have faced composers of religious music are interesting in themselves. The church wants the music to do no more or less than enforce a feeling of reverence, and a setting of the words that is too elaborate, or too dramatic, or even too beautiful, gets in the way. The conflict goes back to Palestrina and continues to this day. (For a full discussion, I refer you to the chapter "Church Music," in Charles Rosen's Classical Style.)

"It’s very typical for an organist or choir director to have to struggle with the congregation," David Spitko told me in the interview I didn't use.

I remember in 1999, when my mother died, I wanted the soprano we hired to sing Charles Ives's setting of the spiritual "In the Mornin'" at her funeral Mass. I thought it was appropriate, since it was all about Jesus, in addition to being lovely, but the pastor would not allow it. To this day, I don't know why. Maybe it was too black, or too Protestant. It's hard to figure out, though I'm sure there was a theological explanation that satisfied the pastor.

I am not religious at all, and except for the occasional organ recital, wedding, or funeral (and at my age, the funerals are more frequent than the weddings), I haven't set foot in a church for more than thirty years. So, for me, the music always matters more than the message.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Bach in Wyndmoor

Happy to report that Dennis Schmidt's recital October 31 at Grace Lutheran Church was well-attended. I got a thank-you in the program for the publicity I provided in the Springfield Sun and Ticket, but in truth, I doubt it helped. I think the people who filled the pews would have been there regardless. (I've been questioning the reach of my articles for a while and am thinking of giving them up. I have no way of measuring readership, of course, but to judge from the faces I see at the events I preview, it seems few people see them, and even fewer are swayed by them.)

The music was beautiful, on the whole. There were times when the rhythms seemed off, as though Dennis's hands were not quite in sync, but at other times, such as in the memorable G Minor Fugue, BWV 542, when the music roilled on with a seamless momentum. I had requested Wachet Auf, BWV 645, which was the second piece on the program, and there were tears in my eyes when it was over. (Dennis not only thanked me again when he introduced the piece, but he also wished me a happy birthday.)

After the recital, the audience was invited into the church gathering room for refreshment and "fellowship," which is apparently the Lutheran word for schmoozing. Someone contributed a pan of delightful pumpkin-walnut bars, and Renee hinted that at some point she might want to me call the church and track down the recipe.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bach in Wyndmoor

How often do you get to hear an afternoon of Bach in a small suburban church, and for free? See my preview article at left. I was one of the sponsors: I contributed $10 and asked Dr. Schmidt to play "Wachet Auf," BWV 645, or whatever the number is. I'm excited about this one. It's going to be my birthday present to myself.

Yes, my birthday falls on Halloween, which was the best possible day for a kid. You got the presents, the cake, ice cream, the candy, and the dress-up, and, if you went to Catholic school, Nov. 1 was a holiday — All Saints Day — which gave you time to nurse the chocolate hangover.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Barber in Philadelphia

Lyric Fest and The Crossing will present an all-Barber program in Philadelphia this weekend. The program will be given twice, once in Chestnut Hill and again in Center City, and it will consist entirely of songs and choral music. I'll be going to the Chestnut Hill concert Saturday evening. This is exciting. Good choral concerts are rare, particularly when they're devoted to a single composer who I always felt has been somewhat underrated. Barber is known primarily for his Adagio for Strings, of course, and his piano and violin concertos are very fine, but his vocal music, some of his best work, seems to get overlooked. Or maybe I just haven't been looking in the right places.

See my preview article, linked over to the left.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Leonard Bernstein, 1917-1989

Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas in Danbury, Conn., 1974. I was there, too, though you can't see me in this picture.

Leonard Bernstein died twenty years ago today, Oct. 14. Bernstein's son Alexander wrote this tribute to commemorate the anniversary. The link was sent to me by Elliot Tomaeno of, a website designed, in Elliot's words, "specifically designed to help lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender professionals connect with other LGBT professionals." Thanks, Elliot. Always glad to help.

I appreciated Bernstein more as a conductor than as a composer. (West Side Story is a great score, but oh, it's a bad movie.) I particularly value his recordings of Nielsen, which I still have on vinyl. For all of his public exposure, however, I saw his conduct only once, at the Danbury, Conn., State Fair Grounds in 1974, at a concert celebrating the Ives centenary. I was sixteen years old. Bernstein led the American Symphony Orchestra (I think), in Ives's Second Symphony. Unfortunately, he was not at his best that night. It was a pretty ragged performance, as I recall, and I don’t think it was the musicians' fault, since Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the second half of the program, and for him, they were spot on. Lenny seemed more interested in dancing round the podium than in actually leading the orchestra. At one point, he actually jumped into the air. The motion seemed particularly inappropriate, since nothing much seemed to be happening in the score at the moment. The spectacle left rather a sour taste in my mouth.

But everyone is entitled to an off night, I suppose, and Bernstein's recordings of Ives's music are quite fine. Elliott Carter also has expressed approval of Bernstein's recording of his (Carter's) Concerto for Orchestra, a score he (Bernstein) did not particularly like, or so I understand. A pity, since it's a great piece of music. Perhaps if he had gone back to it, rather than leaving it to Boulez, he might have developed a greater appreciation for it.

Today, the Danbury Fair Grounds are a shopping mall, like every other piece of open land in America.

Friday, October 8, 2010

But what is 'English' about them?

I've been listening to Peter Watchorn's beautiful recordings of Bach's English Suites (Ti-254) for the past few days. The suites are early Bach, dating from the Weimar period (like dates of composition 1709-1717, according to the booklet), but they're not nearly as flashy as some of the organ music he was writing around the same time. As collections of dances — sarabandes, gavottes, bourees, etc. — they prefigure the suites for solo cello cello and the partitias for solo violin. Some like their Bach "white hot," to use a favorite expression of one DJ who has made a specialty of Bach, but what I like about these performances is how intimate and, well, comforting they are. Watchorn's harpsichord sounds like rain pattering against the window on a gray afternoon.

Postscript to my remarks about Marja Kaisla's performance of the Emperor Concerto last Sunday: It struck me sometime this week that the best word to describe her playing is "creamy."

Monday, October 4, 2010

Some people don't know what they're missing

I know, I know, it's a losing game to lament the small attendance and classical concerts, but I'm going to do it anyway. Last night I attended an unexpectedly wonderful concert: I say unexpectedly because it was a fundraiser, held in a church hall in Abington, Pa., with a volunteer pickup orchestra and two local pianists. The program consisted of a short Schubert overture and two, count 'em, of Beethoven's piano concertos -- the Third and the Fifth. Claire Belkovsky, the soloist in the the Third was fine, but Marja Kaisla, the soloist in the Fifth, was astonishing, and while the orchestra was small and had only one short rehearsal, it played beautifully and crisply, especially in the Emperor, and the sound was more than big enough to fill the modest performance space. (Winds and brass were up on the stage, strings and soloists down on the floor.) It was a night to remember, a night to write home about, if you were away from home, a night to blog about, but the attendance was only about 75, and I recognized most of the people there. They were the same ones who always come to these fundraisers, which are held to benefit the Sheldon Harris Ginsberg Memorial Scholarship Fund at Philadelphia's Settlement Music School.

I understand it was a Sunday night, and the Eagles were playing the Redskins, but I'm going to be up from this concert for the next couple of days. I just wish other music lovers in the area could understand what they missed. My thanks and congratulations to Claire, Marja, conductor Blair Bollinger, all the folks in the orchestra, and as always, to Renee Goldman (that's pronounced REE-nee), friend and former piano teacher, who organizes these things every year, in the face of public indifference, to keep her brother's memory alive.

So the next time I write an article telling you you to come to a concert, for heaven's sake, come. I feel sorry for everyone in the world who wasn't there. And I especially feel sorry for the people in Abington who could have walked over.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Full disclosure

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that my other favorite Bible verse is Deut. 23:1: No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.

I try to apply it to some aspect of my life every day.

Atheists rule

In a recent Pew survey, self-identified atheists scores better than any subgroup on a quiz of religious knowledge. Jewish people scores almost as well, and Catholics ranked near the bottom. (Ah, my people!) At first, I thought this might be function of education — that skeptics and and Jews would tend to be better educated than the general population — but according to the times article, the difference obtains even after that factor is controlled for.
So the question is, Why? I've always been interested in religion, largely, I think, because I was devout as a child and became anti-devout later on. (And I aced the quiz.) I can't speak for all nonbelievers, but I think our relatively elevated religious awareness may be due to the fact that we are constantly called upon to defend ourselves. Being an atheist is like being a vegetarian: The first thing anyone does when you declare yourself is to try to talk you out of it. Keeping up with the competition becomes a good survival strategy. We also take the position that no one religion can claim a monopoly on truth — as opposed to the Catholic hierarchy, which does claim such a monopoly — and learning about other religions helps one make the case.
Catholics not only new less about other religions, they knew less about their own than other groups. And in all fairness, though, I should point out that there’s a lot to know about Catholicism. Dogmas have been collecting for thousands of years, and Catholics aren’t sending their kids to parochial schools in the same numbers that they used to. That’s where we had all that stuff drilled into us. Who would suspect, for example, that Cosmas and Damian are the patron saints of doctors, pharmacists and hairdressers? Transubstantiation, anyone? Pop quiz: Explain the distinction between the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth.
On a side note, I have to say I rather resented the reporter asking the head of American Atheists (O’Hare’s group) for a quote. I suppose they have to go to the most obvious organization, much as they automatically go to Catholic bishops for anything having to do with religion, but for the record, these people do not speak for me. They always struck me as a too angry, and true to form, the guy said something predictably snarky. I’ve read the Bible. There are parts I like. Here, to close, is my favorite verse, Isaiah 1:13-17 (NRSV):

Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

I have hitched my wagon to the Titanic

True story from a coworker (or at least she says it's true): She was having her gas pumped (that's not a euphemism for anything) and somehow got into a conversation with the young station attendent. She asked him what kind of music he liked and he said he liked everything, from C&W to hip hop. She asked him, "What about classical?" and he furrowed his brow and said, "You mean like Lynyrd Skynyrd?"

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

More on Cal

The link to my interview with Cal Schenkel, the artist who designed many of Frank Zappa's best-known album covers, appears at left. As always, I had more material than I could put in the article.

Schenkel included R. Crumb in his list of influences, which brought up the subject of drugs as a source of inspiration. Zappa famously did not use drugs himself, through Schenkel said that, as a believer in personal freedom, he did not object to anyone else ingesting recreational chemicals. Still, Schenkel told me he never dropped acid, as Crumb did, and he doesn't regard his own art as psychedelic, surreal though it might be. His work is hard-edged and rough-textures, he said, where true psychedelia is "smooth and swirly."

One other thing he told me that I didn't mention was that he became acquainted with Zappa while was bumming around out in California the year after he graduated from high school. He got to sit in on the recording sessions for "Freak Out," which is sort of like being present at the signing of the Constitution.

Schenkel lives in Willow Grove, Pa., which Forbes magazine has named one of the 10 most unhip places in the country. He has occupied the house in which he grew up since around 2000, when his dad died. Now he wants to sell the house and move to Florida.

Asked which of his album covers are his favorites, he named Cruising with Reuben and the Jets and One Size Fits All, although, he said, they are all his children.

By the way, there is a Philadelphia reference in the one Size Fits All star chart. Three of the stars are names Wyoming, Olney and Hunting Park, which are stops on the Broad Street subway. (Ben Watson, in his analysis of the album cover, mentions New York, London and Los Angeles, but like everyone else on the planet, he overlooks Philly.)

Hoping to meet Schenkel Sunday at the art show in Chestnut Hill. He promises there will be affordable art for sale.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I like this one

How many Julliard students does it take to change a light bulb?
Two. One to change the bulb, and the other one to kick over the ladder.

Thanks to secondwind at

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Exciting season forthcoming from PCMS

I've been looking over the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society's prospectus for next season, and I'm finding a lot of can't-miss and shouldn't-miss programs. It's an inviting mix of the modern and the traditional: Martino beside Beethoven, Webern and Kurtag sandwiched between two Mozart quartets, Ligeti beside Britten, Bach next to Crumb. I won't have the time or the money to hear everything, but the temptations are great. Three of Bartok's string quartets are planned, and even some Stravinsky, and you don't hear much of Stravinsky's chamber music anymore.

I was especially happy to that see Elliott Carter's two wind quintets, written sixty years apart, are scheduled for performance next April by the New York Wind Quintet. (The second, titled Nine by Five, was premiered in New York last February. I dug my car out of the snow in Philadelphia just to be able to attend.)

Also listed are premieres of works by David Finko, Richard Wernick, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Bernard Rands and others. There's plenty of Schubert and Brahms, too, but I still wonder how Philadelphia audiences will react. They are inclined to grumble at any inclusion of new music, even if they're offered some chestnuts at the same time as a sweetener. (And by new, I mean a lot of stuff written after 1900.) Listening to modern music live in Philadelphia is rather like seducing a woman in front of her parents. You get what you want, and you might even have a good time, but only if you can endure the withering, accusatory stares.

Monday, September 6, 2010


I don't want to be one of those overbearing scolds who correct other people's grammar in public, but I was startled the other day by this sentence on page 68 of James Shapiro's informative book, Contested Will, which discusses a lawsuit filed in 1600 by one William Shakespeare: "Scholars still can't agree whether this was our Shakespeare or another who sued Clayton; whomever it was, it fit the pattern of a tight-fisted Shylock all too well."

Whomever? I realize that there are times when the who/whom distinction can be tricky, but this isn't one of those times. "Whom" should appear only as the object of a verb or preposition, and this sentence contains no verb or preposition of which whom could possibly be the object. The only verb is the vicinity is "was," which is a linking verb and doesn't take the objective case anyway. No matter how you parse it, "whomever" is out of place. And if you want to make the case for "fit," then whomever is being used incorrectly as the subject — drop the comma and the second it, and you get, "Whomever it was fit the pattern ... all too well," and the incorrect use of "whomever" stands naked before the world.

I do hope this was a copy-editing mistake and was not done at Shapiro's insistence. The guy is an English professor at Columbia, for heaven's sake. A slip like that makes me wonder about the value of higher education. (And so the grammar scold in me, so long suppressed, rises to the surface once more.)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Rereading Gatsby

Summer heat interferes badly with my ability to concentrate. It’s hard to pick up a new book and absorb new information, so last month I re-read Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, which I first read at age thirteen. (I was my first grown-up piece of literature.) Enjoyed it so much that I went through it twice. Hadn’t intended to do that when I started out, but the book is like a great string quartet, something I can listen to again and again with pleasure. You can open to any page at random and find a memorable phrase or sentence, often more than one. It strikes me very much as a writer’s book — that is, a book everyone who cares about words wishes he or she could write. I know the rap on FSF is that he left behind only a small body of enduring work, but damn, if I had written Gatsby, I would have been comfortable taking the next decade off, too.

The only other news is that I am enjoying this new computer keyboard I purchased this afternoon at Radio Shack. My old one (which was actually the second one I’ve used on this computer) was gradually losing its key functions. First the directions keys went, though I was able to compensate for that by using the redundant keys on the number pad. Then a couple of days ago I couldn’t get the w’s to print without hitting the key hard. Then, this morning, the w was gone completely, and so was the k. It’s one of those petty annoyances that, for me, at least, require immediate rectification, especially since I wanted to do some writing and blogging over the holiday — and what would this very clause look like without w’s or k’s? (I tell you what: and hat ould this very clause loo lie ithout ‘s or ‘s?) So I drove right out to Roosevelt Mall in NE Philadelphia and got a new one before doing anything else. So I learned something about myself today: I learned there is one thing I cannot force myself to live without. (And look at this W. Just look at it.)

Roosevelt Mall is a sad place these days, by the way. The best old stores are gone, and are a lot of vacancies.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Download a new clarinet sextet

Sheridan Seyfried has sent me a link to a performance of his new Sextet for clarinet, string quartet and piano. It's an attractive, extroverted piece with a lovely middle movement and a jazzy, Latin-tinged finale that reminds me of the sort of stuff Copland and Bernstein were doing back in the 40s. Sheridan is still in his 20s — I'm guessing he'd be 26 now — and still has a long career ahead of him, but it's evident in this music that he is finding his voice.

His bio says he's from Philadelphia, but he grew up in a suburb called Upper Dublin, or, more minutely, a neighborhood known as East Oreland. I interviewed him several years ago for the Springfield Sun after he was accepted to Curtis at age 19. (He lived in our coverage area, and making it to Curtis is sort of a big deal.) I'm friendly with his mom, Elyse, who is the director of spiritual conformation at Christ's Lutheran Church, also in East Oreland. I see her once a year on Martin Luther King Day, when she organizes the activities for the area children.

Like every composer in the world except Elliott Carter, Sheridan also has his own website.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dennis Schmidt performs

My interview with Dennis Schmidt has been posted. The link is at right, titled "Bach by Popular demand." (Clever, eh? Remember, you're dealing with a small-town newspaper here.) The online article includes a video of Dr. Schmidt performing the first 38, self-contained, measures of Bach's E-Flat Prelude, "St. Anne," BWV 552. The organ is located at Grace Lutheran Church, Wyndmoor, PA, where Dr. Schmidt will perform an all-Bach program Oct. 31, which is both Halloween and Reformation Day. (Take your choice of celebrations. I generally go with Halloween, which is also my birthday.) As I said in an earlier post, Dr. Schmidt is offering to play and of the organ works of JS Bach for a fee. Prices are predetermined, from the chorale prelude at $10 each to trio sonata and other more elaborate works priced at $75.

The only drawback I see to this approach is that Bach wrote so much music for the organ — 243 individual pieces — that potential patrons like me with an extra ten dollars to spend might not know what to ask for other than a few favorite works. I know little of Bach's organ music well, and if everyone else is at or above my level of ignorance, there's a good chance we'll end up with a program of greatest hits, rather than hearing anything new, though "new" may be an odd word to apply to music nearly 300 years old. So far, two works hae been purchased, Dr. Schmidt said: The Trio Sonata in E flat, BWV 525 (a favorite of mine), and the Concerto in G BWV 592, an arrangement of a concerto by Duke Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimer, which I don't know at all. So there's at least one thing new to me. (And I hear that in his day, the duke was considered a real mf.)

If anyone reading this is within driving distance of Wyndmoor, I hope to see you there. Grace is lucky to have Dr. Schmidt as its "music minister," his is official title. He is, after all, the former director of the Philadelphia Bach festival, and the church is the only place where he perfroms at all anymore. He does not concertize. He does not arrange performances. During the week, he fulfills orders at JW Pepper in Paoli, and on Sundays he plays a two-manual organ in a Philadelphia suburb.

Current listening: Mozart Rondo in a, K., 511, Rubinstein; Elliott Carter, Four Lauds for violin, Jennifer Koh.

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

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why we blog

David Patrick Stearns reviews Sunday's Crossing concert in today's Philadelphia Inquirer. His impressions are diametrically opposed to mine. He liked what I didn't like and didn't like what I did. Without this blog page to lend my own opinions a veneer of legitimacy, I'd be stuck fuming in impotent rage, smacking the page of the paper, or pointing to the computer screen and grumbling, "Did you see this? Did you see this? Where does he get off?"

Actually, I generally like David's reviews, and my feelings about Sunday's music aren't so strong that I'd get upset one way or another. But the potential is there: someday this little safety valve might just prevent me from egging some poor critic's car.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Crossing

Attended the first of three scheduled concerts in the Crossing's Month of Moderns series yesterday. The Crossing is a 20-odd person contemporary music chorus, founded and conducted by Donald Nally. Programs usually take place at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, whose air conditioned sanctuary was a great draw for me yesterday. usually, the choir sings a capella or with the church organ. Yesterday, however, they were accompanied by a 12-piece string orchestra.

Program as follows:

Arvo Part: Wahlfahrtslied, 1984/2001
Benjamin CS Boyle, Cantata: To One in Paradise, 2005
Bo Holton: Tallis Variations, 1976
David Lang, Statement to the Court, 2010 (World premiere, Crossing commission)
John Tavener, The Bridegroom, 1999

Won't give a detailed review (see June 25 post about my deficiencies in that area), but I will say that I have never heard the chorus sound richer or more full. I counted 23 singers, but I thought was more than I have seen before, though I was assured afterward it was about the usual number.

Still, the concert was something a letdown. Despite my best efforts, my mind wanders during anything by Tavener or Part, which deletes two-fifths of the program from my memory right off the bat. The minimalist vocal writing in Statement to the Court line sounded like a rehash of Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Little Match Girl, which the Crossing performed last year (and which I liked), but with an insistent, regular, one-thump beat of a bass drum that raised it nearly to the level of torture. I was afraid I would be hearing that drum in my sleep. Fortunately, I haven’t. (At the post-concert reception, one of the performers suggested that perhaps the Crossing should forego singing any more of Lang’s music until he works through his current obsessions.)

Boyle's cantata, on one of Poe's lesser poems, and the Holton were more successful. I particularly liked the contrast in the Tallis Variations between the Renaissance-inspired vocalizing and the angular, modernist-sounding business in the strings. It might sound like pastiche, but the parts came together well. The string writing reminded me at different times of Ives's Tone Roads No. 1, or the climax of Carter's Variations, or William Schuman’s Third Symphony. I'd welcome hearing the piece again.

Next performances are July 9 and 17, and I plan to attend both. The programs sound more promising. There will be premieres of settings of the poetry of Philip Levine by Lansing McLoskey and Paul Fowler, and a reprise of Kile Smith’s Where Flames a Word, on poems of Paul Celan.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Recent blog post at Monotonous Forest by my good buddy Bruce Hodges:

Last night at Miller Theatre, the Orchestra of the League of Composers gave the long-delayed New York premiere of Milton Babbitt's Transfigured Notes (1986), originally commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The piece received widespread press when it emerged, after a parade of conductors studied the score and later begged off. Erich Leinsdorf was to conduct the premiere, an honor then passed to Dennis Russell Davies, who left after a single rehearsal. The final attempt was made by Hans Vonk (with the support of Richard Wernick and Bernard Rands), who eventually threw in the towel as well.

My take, after the single hearing last night (and I have not heard the single recording), is that the difficulty lies in the need for absolute, razor-sharp precision in the playing to bring Babbitt's spare tapestry to life. Buzzing with movement, the score uses a thicket of motifs to create a wash of sound, with the ensemble (especially the violins) often playing high above the stave. In his notes, the composer encourages listeners to immerse themselves in the whole, without focusing too much on the details. Last night's musicians were some of the best in the city, yet the performance, led by the intrepid Louis Karchin, seemed hesitant and under-rehearsed. In the best of all possible worlds, they'd work on it another week or two, and bring it back.

And my response:

Transfigured Notes has some significance for me, since I live in Philadelphia, where the ruckus occurred. The orchestra's rep suffered among contemporary music fans when it dropped the piece, though in fairness, I should say it probably was unplayable, given the limits on rehearsal time. (And, under Davies, the players did a creditable job with Carter's Symphony of 3 Orchs. a couple years earlier.) Not long after, Orchestra 2001, Philly's contemporary music band, took up the score and gave a masterful performance, under the direction of James Freeman, with the composer in attendance. As with most of Babbitt's music, there's not a lot of drama or differentiation in color, tempo, or dynamics. Ex-wife said it best: If it were a color, it would be taupe.

I like Babbitt. I really do. His music is elegant, and he's a terrific speaker. But the elegance comes at a price. He sets the musical parameters up at the beginning of each piece, and from then on it's largely a question of watching (or hearing) the various possible permutations play themselves out. There are few surprises, as there are in Carter. I also notice a lack of what could be called (and is called) "directionality." You can start at any point in any piece and work your way around again, and the experience is essentially the same. Beginning, middle and end have no meaning, as they do, again, in Carter. This is not a criticism, merely an observation, since I am told this aspect of Mr. Babbitt's music is intentional, as it is in Boulez.

I do have the recording of Transfigured Notes and will have to get back to it soon.

Maurice Wright's Movement in Time

One of the reasons I want the Philadelphia Orchestra to go on living is that it keeps about a hundred stellar musicians in town. Several times a year, a few of the players break off from the herd and present chamber concerts at the Perelman Theater. Last Sunday (June 20, the last day of spring), I was treated to one of these programs when a friend e-mailed me about a spare ticket. The bill included Glazunov's String Quintet Op. 39 (scored for two cellos, according to the program notes, but with one of the parts given to a bass player this time out for some reason), and Brahms’s Second Piano Quartet, both very well played. The Brahms was particularly memorable.

The afternoon began with Movement in Time, for two percussionists and tape, by Maurice Wright, a professor at Temple University. Kind of an uninspired title (all music is movement in time), but it was a lively, almost spritely piece that gave Don Liuzzi and Anthony Orlando an excuse to run around the stage and wallop a large number of very loud instruments. I don't ordinarily think of music for multiple percussion instruments as "light" — the one piece that comes to mind immediately, Varese's Ionisation, is a violent, dark-cloud case in point — but that is what Movement in Time was. It was playful music, with an occasional burst of wit, as when, for example, the performers are required to beat a single snare drum simultaneously, and they suddenly cut the music short by raising their sticks and crossing them with a click. Cute, and it got a laugh.

Wright isn't one of those heart-on-his-sleeve, look-at-how-brave-I-am-for-writing-commercial-pap composers I despise, at least not in this piece, but he seems to be after the fun kind of modernism that Alexander Calder achieved in sculpture. Unfortunately, the music was so slight that most of it, except for that click, evaporated in the memory almost at once.

The tape accompaniment was a distraction, too. The sounds generated weren't so much electronic music as recordings or synthesized imitations of a chorus and orchestra. A friend of mine who attended with me wondered why, if Wright was going to take that route, he didn't just put a few more musicians on the stage.

A perfectly pleasant, digestible piece, but it hardly opens up new vistas the way Ionisation did.

Why I can't be a music critic

Excellent review by Matthew Guerrieri of the Charles Ives Trio, an underappreciated work, IMHO. Not fully mature Ives, but a great transitional piece, full of promise for the music to come. I don't think I could ever do what Matt does, or Steve Smith of the Times, or the great Andrew Porter, or any of the other big-time music critics. I can't generally tell a good performance from a bad one unless there are glaring mistakes. Everything goes by much too fast for me. My ear isn't sensitive enough to pick apart a live performance while it's happening, and I could never describe what I'm hearing with a phrase like "steering the debate toward sonorous verities." Sonorous verities? How do they come up with this stuff?

Anyway, I wish I had been there. I saw the America's Dream chamber group perform the work at Montgomery County (Pa.) Community College last April, with similarly impressive results, though we didn't have the ocean and the sky and the blue-gray wash.

Ives often gets ripped for his use of quotation, as though it somehow calls his originality into question. (The composer of Hanover Square North takes a backseat to no one in terms of originality.) I remember years ago a reviewer whose name I forget snarkily described the Trio as the "name-that-tune Trio." It was an ignorant thing to say, since the quotation in this work is concentrated almost entirely in the second movement, which may be thought of as a quodlibet — a form so respectable it has a name - and is mighty funny. The first movement uses no quotation at all, and there is none in the third until Toplady (aka Rock of Ages) shows up in the last minute or so.

Matthew has also posted an classic exchange with Elliott Carter on his blog, Soho the Dog. The bit about Reagan is priceless.

Speaking of ignorance, I also remember back in the '80s a reviewer for the Washington Post writing that Carter's Cello Sonata still sounds, after 40 years or so, like a sterile exercise in serialism, which struck me as weird, since the piece is not at all serial, and the second movement is the last thing he ever wrote with a key signature. It hardly sounds sterile to my ear, either, but that's a matter of taste.

Then there was the reviewer in the Philadelphia Inquirer who wrote about the time Robert Mann got lost during a performance Elliott Carter's Fourth String Quartet. He said something to the effect that restarting such a complex piece the middle raised questions fundamental to the continuity and perception of the music. Fair enough, I suppose, though it would have been helpful if he had articulated just what those questions were. More to the point, he seemed wholly unaware that the players had started the quartet over from the beginning.

Maybe I could be a reviewer, after all. I couldn't do worse than some people.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Kim, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven

The link to my interview with David Kim appears at left. One of the quotations I edited out of the article (it was slightly off topic), concerned his opinion of the Beethoven Violin Concerto Op. 61, which for him occupies, by itself, the top tier of great violin concertos, with maybe some room left over for the Brahms op. 77. He ranks the Tchaikovsky at a lower level, even though, as he said, it is the concerto he loves best, and the one that most suits his personality and performance style.

Kim had this to say about the Beethoven: “For us [i.e., violinists in his league] it’s the greatest thing ever written - so pure and so full of wisdom and integrity. It’s so hard. I play it very infrequently. Working it up is such a huge thing for me."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

I keep missing birthdays

Thursday, June 17, was the birthday - 128th, I believe - of Igor Stravinsky, another of my favorites. Unfortunately, I have not had time to listen to any of his music, though WPRB Princeton, my classical station of choice, played his second suite for small orchestra that morning, which is what reminded me. Over the next couple of years, we'll celebrate the centenaries of the three big ballets, so there will be plenty of time for listening.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, my hometown band, announced this week it has selected Yannick Nézet-Séguin as its new music director. This makes only eight, I believe,in the past 110 years. But the tenures are getting shorter. The days are gone when a Stowkowski would stay for twenty years or an Ormandy for forty. Jet aircraft simply make it too easy to fly off to other gigs, and anyway, who really wants to live in Philadelphia if he doesn't have to? I suppose this kid will be a bright young presence, but don't expect him to stick around very long. He doesn't even start full-time until 2012.

Gone, too, are the days when the orchestra was a source of civic pride supported by private fortunes. Industry in this city has declined, educated listeners have fled to the suburbs, and subscribers are dying off. The orchestra's very days may be numbered.

In any event, I must confess I'm one of those indifferent listeners who have given up their subscriptions. Some have stopped coming because they say there's too much modern music. I stopped because there's too little. After 40 years of waiting for them to toss me a bone and program some Ives or Elliott Carter, I have gone elsewhere for my fixes.

In fairness, I should say that Ingo Metzmacher conducted the orchestra in a terrific performance of Ives' Second Orchestral Set a few years ago, before Verizon Hall opened. I mentioned to him then that the Philadelphians have never pplayed Ives' Fourth Symphony, and he could be the first to conduct it here. Nothing has come of the suggestion.

Friday, June 11, 2010

And I never sent him a card

Wednesday, June 9, was the 145th birthday of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), who has been a favorite of mine ever since heard his Fourth Symphony on radio as a teenager. Nielsen is something of a cult figure - and by that I mean he has deeply devoted fans who constantly complain that he isn't more widely appreciated. As far as we're concerned, his six symphonies are the equal to those of his friend (and exact contemporary) Sibelius,* but they don't command the same amount of airtime on the dwindling number of classical radio stations in this country, and they don't appear as frequently on orchestral programs, at least outside of Scandinavia.

No big deal, I suppose. We still have our recordings, and to hell with everyone else. But music is like religion: We can't just be happy in our beliefs. We feel compelled to convert the world.

Nielsen is one of the few composers whose birthdays I actually observe by going back and listening to their music again. His most famous and frequently performed symphonies are the Third, Fourth and Fifth, but I've devoted the past couple of days to the other three, particularly the Sixth, which I've listened to twice. It's less organic, if that's the proper word, than the big middle symphonies, but it is altogether extraordinary. The second movement, the Humoresque - scored only for piccolo, two clarinets, two bassoons and percussion - comments on the modernist trends of the 1920s. I have read that it anticipates the grotesqueries of Shostakovich, though to me it has always sounded like a parody of Varese. But the passage I keep returning to is the end of the third movement, the Proposta seria, with its repeated, two-note falling exhalation in the winds and horns.

Then there’s also the chamber music to go back to, the two operas, and the songs, with their evocations of Danish folk melodies, which, I understand, are what made him a household presence in his native country.

*Driving to work the other morning, I heard Sibelius' Pohjola's Daughter on the radio, and the difference between these two hyperborean composers suddenly became clear: Nielsen is Brahms. Sibelius is Wagner. - Not in any derivative way, but rather in their handling of the orchestra and their musical materials.

Monday, June 7, 2010

An interview with David Kim

I just got off the phone with David Kim, concert master of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who will be the soloist in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with the Kennett Symphony, Mary Woodmansee conducting. The article isn’t due until June 18, but I've started early because I have another one due at the same time.

Mr. Kim is one of the friendliest, most personable musicians I have interviewed. He said the Tchaikovsky Concerto is his favorite to play, in part because of the many good memories he has of it. One of those memories was his sixth-place finish in the 1986 Tchaikovsky Competition. The concerto is required all the contestants, of course, but each of the finalists has to perform another concerto of his or her own choice, their own choice. Kim’s optional concerto was Stravinsky’s. I said it was a brave choice, since it is so different from the Tchaikovsky, but Kim put it down to sheer stupidity on his part. He put the Stravinsky on his application almost as a joke, he said, because he never expected to make the finals. It’s a hard piece on the orchestra and conductor, and the orchestra at the Tchaikovsky competition gets only one rehearsal with each soloist. It is so tough, in fact, that when Kim defied his own expectations and advanced to the finals, the conductor arranged a second, surreptitious rehearsal in a warehouse outside Moscow to give him — and the orchestra — a fighting chance.

I wasn’t sure if the extra constituted cheating, but since his job in Philadelphia is secure, he wasn't afraid to let the ghost out of the closet. It’s doubtful anyone in the Russian intelligence service will see his confession and overturn his victory.
On the topic of Mary Woodmansee: she also conducts the Hilton Head Orchestra in South Carolina. A couple of years ago she led that group in a performance of Charles Ives’ Three Place in New England — another brave programing decision, as far as I'm concerned. Mary told me later that she actually received hate mail because of it. Hate mail. Because of Charles Ives.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ives v. Pythagoras II

I asked for more detailed information regarding the tuning of Charles Ives’ Second Sting Quartet, and I got it: last Friday, Johnny Reinhard, the man behind the Flux Quartet’s recording, send me an e-mail with a link to his essay on the validity of Extended Pythagorean tuning in Ives’ music. You can read it here.

It’s a long argument, rather dense and technical. It might even be right, as far as any extrapolations from a man’s Nachlass can be, but I caught myself wondering just what it’s all for. Some of the discrepancies in pitch between equal temperament and Pythagorean tuning amount to no more than two one hundredths of a half step, a difference no listener could possibly pick up on. In a letter to a copyist, which Johnny quotes, Ives offers an observation we would do well to heed: “Either way won't 'make or break' the listener's ear.”

In any event, I stand by my assessment of the Flux Quartet’s performance. It is not my go-to recording. Johnny does address my criticisms in his e-mail, a little defensively. “One thing further to consider,” he says, “is that Flux was playing a live concert performance, while I suspect the other performances were studio. It is a testament to their playing that they could achieve this ‘experiment’ in their initial performance of the piece, and may also account somewhat to the length of the performance.”

I don’t want to sound harsh, because I am grateful than Johnny took the trouble to write, but I don’t see why the conditions of a live performance should make much of a difference. There are many wonderful live recordings. If the performers weren’t on top of the music, they could have spent more time in rehearsal. The mere fact they were able to make it through the piece is hardly a five-star recommendation.

And what’s with the name “Flux”? It sounds like some kind of discharge.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The power of the press

The concert by the Elysian Camerata that I previewed for Ticket (see left column) was not well attended. I counted about 40 people in the audience, mostly friends of the concert organizer, Renee pronounced Renee) Goldman, who is also my former piano teacher. A pity, since performance was excellent. The sight lines in the church prevented me from looking any of the performers in the face most of the time, but nothing impeded the sound. Two of the three pieces on the program, by Mozart and Dvorak, were first rate. The third — the Dumka of Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) — wasn’t quite on that level, but it was attractive. I had never heard of it before, and an educational experience is part of what I hope for when someone else is choosing my music for me.

Renee is the founder and director of Regol Concerts, which you can read about here. Her programs generally alternate between mainstream classical and mainstream jazz, which are her two major interests. She said she was happy with the coverage, which will at least get her brand name out in front of the public, but still, I was disappointed in the turnout. And it wasn’t even a modern music program — something I doubt Renee would even consider. I'd give her a huge write up, and since the odds are good no one would show up anyway, she'd have nothign to lose.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Ives v. Pythagoras

Charles Ives wrote his String Quartet No. 2 between 1907 and 1913 in reaction to what he called the “weak, trite, and effeminate” quartet playing to which he had been subjected in the concert halls of his time. “After one of those Kniesel Quartet concerts in the old Mendelssoll,” he wrote in his autobiographical Memos, “I started a string quartet score, half mad, half in fun, and half to try out, practice, and have some fun with making these men fiddlers get up and do something like men.” That makes three halves, but there’s also a fourth: the composer’s drive toward spirituality, which emerges in an unforgettable finale. (In time, Ives reworked this section into the last movement of his Fourth Symphony, his definitive answer to the question of existence.) The quartet’s three movement are titled “Discussion,” “Arguments,” and “The Call of Mountains,” and the program Ives scrawled on the manuscript refers to “four men — who converse, argue … fight, shake hands, shut up — then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament.” He called the quartet “one of the best things I have,” and so it is.

It has been recorded several times by the likes of the Juilliard, Cleveland, Concord, Leipzig, Emerson and Kohon quartets. While most of the performances are excellent, they all have one thing in common: they rely on equal temperament, the system of tuning that has dominated Western music since at least the middle of the 19th century. It never occurred to me that Ives might have had another system of tuning in mind when he composed his Second Quartet, but this week, I finally acquired a recording that proceeds precisely from this heretical idea. The CD, entitled simply Chamber, was issued in 2004 by the American Festival of Microtonal Music is still available online. It also includes microtonal works by Xanakis, Harry Partch, and Lou Harrison.

The booklet notes on the Ives quartet are brief and deserve to be quoted nearly in full:

While Ives’ music can be very dissonant in equal temperament, it was discovered by Johnny Reinhard that there was a different intent by the composer, ideally, in producing the intonation. This performance by the flux quartet makes use of extended Pythagorean tuning, giving 21 specific notes [per octave?]. The intonation change dramatically increases the powerful impact the music has on a listener …”

I would have liked some more detail — much more detail, really— on Johnny Reinhard’s discovery. Ives’s notes on the quartet are sketchy, consisting of the few sentences in his Memos quoted above and some manuscript marginalia. As for the observation that Ives’ music “can be very dissonant in equal temperament,” that’s sort of the point of much of it. And, as things turn out, the music is no less dissonant with the Pythagorean tuning, and in some places quite a bit more.

As the notes promise, the impact on the listener — on this listener, at least — does indeed increase the power of the music, especially in the first movement, which in performance can be the weakest of the three. The change in tuning results in a deliciously dense sound, but the playing, by the dreadfully named Flux Quartet, lacks the attention to phrasing and articulation that makes the more conventional recordings so memorable. The middle movement, “Arguments,” retains all of Ives’s aggressiveness — and then some — but none of his wit. The music just isn’t funny anymore. And the finale is transformed from a testament of inner peace into an extended mad scene. The high, squeaking violins are hard to listen to. They hurt my teeth.

As a comparison, I listened again to the fine recording by the Blair Quartet on the Naxos label. I often think of Naxos recordings as the ones you buy when you’re low on funds and nothing better is available, but Blair gives a beautifully thought out performance that captures all anger, fun and the grandeur Ives put into the score. (Compare the timings, too: The Blair plays the last movement in 11 minutes and 49 seconds. The Flux takes just 9:27. Performers need to let this music breathe.)

Who knows but that Ives would have approved of and enjoyed the Flux Quartet recording? He very well might have. It was a worthwhile experiment, but hardly definitive, and I do hope it doesn’t become the norm.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Links to articles, columns

I am slowly getting the hang of this site. To your left, you will see lists titled "Articles" and "Columns." The articles are, for the most part, concert previews I wrote for Ticket, Montgomery Newspapers' entertainment insert. The columns are just that: my weekly column for The Springfield Sun, which runs under the collective title "Ad Infinitum." They can deal with any topic, and so not all of them will appeal to the culturally minded among you, whoever "you" might be.

From now on I won't have to link to articles in the blog posts themselves.

Beautiful, sunny day here in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Summer is definitely on its way.

I hate summer.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

My little world, and welcome to it

The most appropriate post with which to pop my blog, as it were, is to link to a column I wrote recently for the Springfield Sun. It will give you a good idea of the kind of assignments I get to cover, and the caliber of performances I get to attend.