Saturday, December 31, 2011

Got $123.14?

This just in from the Charles Ives Society Newsletter:

The Ives Society Critical Edition of Ives。ッs Symphony No. 4 was published today by Associated Music Publishers (subsidiary of G. Schirmer). This is a landmark publication, among the most important accomplishments of the Ives Society, and made possible by the support of the Maxwell Foundation.

Mvts. 1&2 were premiered in 1927, mvt. 3 in 1933. The whole work was heard for the first time in April 1965. Since then the symphony has been performed hundreds of times, and recorded by at least nine conductors (Stokowski, Farberman, Serebrier, Ozawa, Dohnanyi, Thomas, Karabtchevsky, Adams, Litton, all using problematic performance materials. Under the guidance of Ives Society executive editor James Sinclair, four editors contributed to the new edition. A new performing edition, based on the Critical Edition, is now available for performances. This monumental work will now seem rather easier to rehearse!

You may now pre-order the cloth-bound score (with its attendant CD-ROM) from various locations including where the publication shows a list price of $195.00 and a selling price of $123.14 (shipping starting January 8th).

The hell with that holiday contribution to the SPCA. This is much, much more important.

Musicale for Three

I had a nice afternoon, and it had nothing to do with New Year’s Eve. The young pianist William McNally, a student of Jacob Lateiner and Ursula Oppens, is in Philadelphia this week to audition for Astral Artists. He needed a place to practice, and Renee Goldman lent him her living room and her piano. She also invited me over to listen to him, because one of his audition pieces is Elliott Carter’s rapid-fire “Caténaires.” He played it for us from memory, while I leaned against the far end of the piano and followed the score — or, rather, I tried to follow it. Bill faltered a few times and said he was unhappy with the effort, although he was confident he could work the piece back up before the audition. I on the other hand, was quite happy. It’s a rare day you hear a Carter piece up close in a small room, with the notes thrumming through the instrument and into your hands.

I paid for the treat by going to the market with Renee and carrying the groceries in from her car. It was a small price. As we were leaving through the basement, Bill started up the “Caténaires” again, this time with the metronome on. Speed is 96 to the quarter note, and it doesn’t change throughout the piece, which is unusual for Carter.

Best of luck to you, Bill. And thanks again.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

More on Carter's 103rd

The pianist Charles Rosen has posted his impressions of Elliott Carter's 103rd birthday concert on the New York Review of Book website. The post includes some nifty audio clips recorded at the concert, so you can hear what all the fuss was about. A clip from another new work, Three Explorations, appears at the bottom. The piece, on poems of T.S. Eliot, were premiered at Alice Tully Hall the week after the concert at the 92nd Street Y.

I was happy to see Mr. Rosen expressed reservations about Retracings III for solo trumpet, much as I did. I'm not a critic or a very well-trained musician, but the convergence of our opinions almost makes me think I heard the music as well as he did.

I must say, however, that I found his opening paragraph puzzling. The principal attraction of Mr. Carter's music, for me, has never really been the time issue, and when Mr. Rosen states that it captures perfectly our experience of time in the modern world, I have no idea what he means.

"We do not measure time regularly, like clocks do, but with many differing rates of speed," Mr. Rosen says. "In the complexity of today’s experience, it often seems as if simultaneous events were unfolding with different measures."

It does? I honestly cannot remember ever experiencing time in this way. None of my friends has ever mentioned it, either. The theory of relativity does describe time as elastic, depending on speed and mass, but it's unlikely you will ever witness the effects of relativity firsthand unless you have access to a particle accelerator. If, today, our experience of time differs from that of medieval peasants, it's because we are ruled by it more rigorously and more minutely. Our employers break the workday into fifteen-minute intervals, and we are expected to account for every second. It's the pressure and the tedium that get me, not the complexity.

"These different measures coexist and often blend but are not always rationalized in experience under one central system," Mr. Rosen continues. "We might call this a system of irreconcilable regularities."

We might, but I doubt it.

I had a similar problem with the theorizing in James Wierzbicki's little study of Carter, which reminded me that while the composer's music is often extraordinarily exciting, his musings on the nature of time are much, much less so.

And oh — thanks to my good friend (an occasional commenter here on the blog) EH, who sent me the Nonesuch Carter anthology as a Christmas present. He must have found it on my wish list at Amazon. I was holding off on buying it, since I already have most of the music on individual CDs, but now that it's here, I'll give it up when you pry my cold,dead fingers.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Elliott Carter's vocal music

Soprano Tony Arnold has written an informative blog post on the challenges inherent in singing the vocal music of Elliott Carter. Brief as it is, it has implications beyond the ostensible topic and says a lot about Carter's aesthetic in general.

On a side note, I have difficulty reading musicological articles. They can be so technical as to be either confusing or soporific, and frequently they are more about other musicology than about the music itself. Tony's post, written from the standpoint of a teacher and working musician, avoids both pitfalls.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sleigh Ride watch - IV

This from a friend this morning, via email:

Heard on KYW this morning that the most popular Christmas song this year is "Sleighride," the Leroy Anderson classic. They even credited Anderson by name.

The Kinks' "Father Christmas" wasn't even in the top 5.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sleigh Ride watch - III

Thanks to John Baron (no relation) for recommending this version:

This doesn't really count, since I didn't come across it accidentally on radio or int the stores.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sleigh Ride Watch II

Heard the ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding version of Sleigh Ride again last week, this time on WRDV, Hatboro — which, incidentally, plays terrific big-band music during the day — and I did hear the announcer name the group. It was the Ronettes, which I think was lurking somewhere in my subconscious. The number appears on an album called "A Christmas Gift for You," released in 1963 and produced by Phil Spector, about whom the less said the better.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Barron centenary

My father, Adam T. Baranowski, was born 100 years ago today, on Dec. 18, 1911. That same year, Stravinsky finished Petrushka and began work on The Rite of Spring, Schoenberg composed Herzgewächse, Nielsen his Third Symphony and Violin Concerto, and Charles Ives had a number of projects in various stages of completion, including the Second String Quartet and the Robert Browning Overture.

Dad would never be aware of any of this. His own musical tastes ran to the Lawrence Welk Show, which to this day I regard as a form of child abuse. Of course, he felt assaulted by my preferences, too, and so the most meaningful way I can remember him today, I think, is to put on a Beatles album, or a Mahler Symphony, and imagine him yelling at me to turn it down.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What is a journalist?

From the great Harry Shearer, who once performed it on his radio program Le Show and emailed it to me on request. It's been sitting in my inbox for six years, and I thought I'd post it because (a) I want to get it out of my inbox and (b) it sums up my chosen profession better than anything I've ever read. For maximum impact, imagine the words are being spoken by Casey Kasem over some sappy inspirational background music. (That's the way Harry did it.)

what is a journalist?

he’s a hard drinking, soft spoken, burn up some shoe leather, sit on
his hiney sort of son of a gun who’s seen it all before, and can’t wait
to see it all again.

a journalist is someone who gets shot at in a war zone so he report
back material that can’t be broadcast because it might be too

a journalist is someone who reads teleprompter better than anybody, and
writes better than the guy who just won the pulitzer.

Journalists like:
a bigger news hole.
free food.

journalists don’t like:
cramped press facilities at major news events.
media whores.

journalists like to know how does it feel, and what’s the mood here
now. journalists don’t like to know how
the social security system really works.

a journalist is often found at news conferences,
presidential visits, crime scenes, hospice vigils, and the sites of
snowfalls. a journalist is seldom found advertising his
services on a website for gay escorts.

journalists sometimes make too much money getting out of the studio too
seldom so they can mingle with other journalists who are resentful
because they never get into the studio at all.

journalists can be anchors, but never
sails. they can be reporters, or just repeaters. a journalist looks
down on celebrities until the day he
becomes one.

a journalist spends too much time covering a story that gets too little
space so it can be skimmed by a reader who has too little time.

journalists can’t resist: miracle puppies. children trapped in wells.
killer bees.
journalists almost always resist: stories with three
or more sides , computer terminals without a nexus
account, angles that might make their colleagues
think they were flaky.
a journalist will fly halfway around the world to
stand where a tsunami took place, and he’ll stand
in freezing rain for two hours to point out that it’s

journalists are more curious than anybody, attacked
by everybody, and lent money by nobody.

a journalist will share a quote, but won’t reveal a source. a
journalist thinks the first amendment is the
only one the founders really meant.

what is a journalist? a journalist is someone who earned pretty good
money telling us what was really going on in the world, until he
realizes he could earn better money by telling us about the social
lives of the people who earn really great money telling us fairy tales
about the world.

a journalist knows: who’s got the best rolodex.
who’s got the best satellite phone circuits.
how much backlight he needs.
a journalist doesn’t know: where to find krygystan in
on a map. where to find the smart people in a small
town. how you’re supposed to fit a five minute story into a 90 second hole.

a journalist is just like the rest of us...except he’s
more tenacious, lazier, sloppier, got better hair,
and does his best work in the comfort of the herd.

what is a journalist? next time you see one, just ask him: how does it

(c) 2005, Century of Progress Productions. All rights reserved

Thursday, December 15, 2011

By golly, that's me!

"Elliott Carter and guests."

Pete Matthews has posted a review and several photos of the Dec. 8 concert at the blog Feast of Music. His camera caught me just at the moment I describe in my own blog post when I bent over and said hello to Mr. Carter.

Thanks for the memento, Pete.

Monday, December 12, 2011

So sue me

From this week's New Yorker:

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Overlooked concerts

Performers in the Oct. 29 program of Russian music and poetry, from left: Katarzyna, Tatyana, Inna, and Rollin.

I let my blogging lapse for a while, and I’ve neglected to mention two memorable performances I attended earlier in the fall, both in Philadelphia.

The first was a Russian salon at the Institute for International Culture out on Lancaster Avenue. It took place Oct. 29, on the evening of the first snowfall we’ve had this season, which was appropriate, I think. Tatyana Rashkovsky sang, and Katarzyna Marzec-Salwinski and Rollin Wilber played piano. The music was by a bunch of Russians, including Rimsky, Rachmaninoff, Borodin, Scriabin and a young Boris Pasternak. My friend Inna Lobova-Heasley read Russian poetry from the early 20th century. The room was intimate, the performances committed, but Russian music is Russian music, and there’s only so much of it I can take. Intermission lasted almost an hour as guests consumed potatoes, blini with chives sour cream, caviar (which I avoided), and vodka punch (which I also avoided). I asked Inna how long these Russian soirees were supposed to last.

“Until the vodka runs out,” she said.

The other program was held Nov. 12 at Ravenhill Chapel on the campus of Philadelphia University - another concert Inna did the publicity for. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon. Lyric Fest presented premieres by Maurice Wright, Curt Cacioppo and Allen Krantz. Performers were soprano Elizabeth Weigle, baritone William Sotne, and the Ravenhill String Quartet, which consists of young musicias from the Philadelphia orchestra. The centerpiece of the program was Wright’s “To Kiss the Earth” for baritone and string quartet. The words were taken from the diaries of the Bauhaus potter Marguerite Wildenhain, translated into English by Stone, who was a student of Wildenhain and the motivating force behind setting the diaries to music. All three pieces on the program were well-crafted and attractive, though I can’t say much more about them so long after first hearing.

Wright remembered my earlier blog post criticizing his percussion piece “Movement in Time,” and he graciously gave me a recording of it.

After the concert, Inna, Krantz and I walked over to Suzanne DuPlantis’ home for a reception and buffet dinner. (The spread was as memorable as the concert.) Suzanne, accompanied by Laura Ward at the piano, sang La Vie en Rose and a song by Michael Tilson Thomas about the simple joys of life. The first stanza offered thanks for a wonderful plate of herring, and it made me uncomfortable. I know we should be grateful for our sustenance, but do we really need to rub in our status at the top of the food chain? I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the poor fish.

So we sat, we talked, we had a nice schmeer.

It’s a clear, cold afternoon, and I’m inside. My bicycle chain broke last Sunday afternoon while I was out riding, forcing me two walk several miles home, and I haven’t bothered to have take it to the shop for repair.

One dead spot

I don't want the enthusastic review I posed yesterday to create the impression I'm completely, imbecilically uncritical when it comes to Elliott Carter's music. There was one piece on Thurday's program that puzzled me: Retracing III, for trumpet. This little fantasy is a transcription of the opening solo from "A Symphony of Three Orchestras" of 1976, with a few pauses added to make it less taxing on the lungs and lips. The original music was written for Gerard Schwartz, who was principal trumpet player of the New York Philharmonic at the time, and on the recording of the Symphony (with Boulez conducting), Schwartz plays with a stunning definition: every note, every phrase is crystal clear. I don't know if the problem Thursday night was with the original piece, the transcription, or Peter Evans's preformance, but the piece seemed, well, blurred. In any event, I was excited before it started, but somewhat deflated when it was over. It was a rare letdown in an exciting evening. (When he was through, Evans sat down to join the ensemble for the Double Trio, and from what I could hear, he was flawless.)

By contrast, Peter Kolkay's performance of Retracing, for bassoon, was a delight. Something about the acoustics of the Kaufmann Hall enhanced the instrument's inherent warmth. And it's a funny, intimate little piece that doesn't try for soaring grandeur.

I can Carter's brief solos becoming favorites of music students everywhere.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Elliott Carter at the 92d Street Y

Elliott Carter with Carol Archer at the Dec. 8 concert. (Richard Termine for the New York Times.)

I met Elliott Carter for the first time thirty-five years ago after a concert of his music at a YMHA in Philadelphia. The musicians onstage included Fred Sherry and Rolfe Schulte.

My most recent meeting with Mr. Carter place Thursday evening after a concert of his music at a YMHA in New York. The musicians onstage included Fred Sherry and Rolfe Schulte.

I’m afraid I’ve fallen into a rut.

But I can’t say Mr. Carter has. Thursday evening’s concert at 92ndStreet Y, presented in celebration of the composer’s 103rd birthday on December 11, was far from a rehash of the his greatest hits. None of the 13 pieces on the bill existed back in 1976, and eight of them have appeared since 2008, when Mr. Carter turned 100. Two world premieres were listed in the printed program, and two more were announced from the stage: “Mnemosyne” for solo violin (named for the mother of the Muses) and “Rigmarole,” a witty little argument for the unlikely combination of cello and bass clarinet, were both completed just last month.

The oldest work on Thursday’s program was the beautiful harp solo “Bariolage,” from 1992, a favorite of mine, played with ravishing intensity by the young Bridget Kibbey.

OK, so he’s told. So what? Longevity is a statistical glitch, a spot on the actuarial bell curve. Mr. Carter’s age and productivity wouldn’t be so remarkable if his recent music wasn’t so good. Now, the sense of celebration and the warm acoustics of the Kaufmann Concert Hall are probably influencing my reaction, but some of the short works at played Thursday’s concert — none was longer than 12 minutes — felt like major statements. “Mnemosyne” sounded to me like a hyperdistillation of the Bach Chaconne, and all during the last piece — “A Sunbeam’s Architecture,” for tenor and chamber orchestra, on poems by E.E. Cummings — I kept thinking of Mahler.

After the performance, audience members and musicians crowded into the little art gallery beside the hall. Mr. Carter sat in a wheelchair, and while a young man in a suit and tie tried to arrange the players around him for a picture, I bent over him and an took his hand.

“I just wanted to say congratulations, and thank you so much,” I said.

“Well, thank you!” he replied with that big smile of his and empahasis on the "you."

And that was all.

Anthony Tomassini has a nice review in today’s New York Times. He calls Mnemosyne “sometimes agitated, sometimes mercurial,” which is odd, because I remember it as meditative. The difference in impression just shows you how we’re all just coming to terms with Mr. Carter’s music.

A shout out and thank you to Karen Yager, who sat next to me in the hall. I had never met her, but she was a knowledgeable and warm-hearted concert companion.

And, in the New York Is Not for Sissies Department: Due to construction, the E train, which I had planned to ride back to Penn Station, was not running after the performance. I didn’t know that until I tried to transfer from the 6 train at 51st Street, and no one I asked had any idea of an alternative route. After peering at the map (which had been scraped white just over the 51st Street interchange), I took the 6 back to 59th Street, transferred to the N, which took me to Times Square, where I caught the 3 back to Penn. My Jersey Transit train was scheduled to leave at 11:06. I got to the station at 11:01. My legs and back were stiff all day Friday from running up and down the steps in Gotham’s underground caverns.

Finally, to the woman I met on the E train platform: if you see this, email me.

Monday, November 28, 2011

"Sleigh Ride" watch - I

As I've said in the past, it isn't Christmastime until I've heard Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," preferably over the loudspeakers at a mall.This year, I am happy to report that I found it even before the season officially began, on the night before Thanksgiving. While driving home from work the night before Thanksgiving, I came across it on an oldies station that switches to Xmas music every year. It put me in a good mood after a long, grueling and pointless day, and it probably saved from Black Friday shoppers from being pepper-sprayed.

I've since heard it a second time, on the same station, with lyrics, sung in the familiar rock version by a girl group I can't name. You know the one, with the girls singing "ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding" in the background. Not my favorite arrangement, but it counts.

Here is a nice performance with John Williams conducting the Boston Pops:

I am also happy to announce that WGBH Boston will broadcast "A Leroy Anderson Christmas" at 6 p.m. Dec. 3 and noon Dec. 4. Leonard Slatkin will conduct, but you can't have everything.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Bil Keane dies

Bil Keane, creator of the daily comic "The Family Circus," died Nov. 8 at age 89. I was not a fan of his work, but his passing has a nostalgic significance for me, because he provided the occasion for my first appearance in print. In the 1960s, when "The Family Circus" was still new, the Sunday panel included a feature called "Sideshow." The idea was that readers (mostly kids)would send in ideas for puns, and Keane would draw a small picture to illustrate them. Three of them appeared each week. Dreaming of immortality, I sent in a suggestion, and the drawing Keane based on it (it was nothing like the one I sent) appeared in the Philadelphia Bulletin on July 23, 1967.

I still have the letter Keane sent me, which included his autograph and a printer's proof of the comic:

Well, come on. I was only nine.

I haven't followed the strip in many years. I came to dislike "The Family Circus" for all same the reasons most urban sophisticates do: it was insipid, obvious and not very funny. But there was more to it than that. As a former child, I also believe it failed as a depiction of childhood, or at least of any sort of childhood I was familiar with. For me, the best comics about kids — "Calvin and Hobbes," "Peanuts" in its early years, Gahan Wilson's "Nuts," and a handful of episodes of "The Simpsons" and "South Park" — depict their experience from the inside, with all the fear, cruelty, mishchief, disappointment and humiliation intact. Keane's view was resolutely external. He saw children as a particularly dense parent or grandparent would — as adorable ignoramuses whose feelings can't be taken seriously. For anyone who remembers what it was like to be a child, "The Family Circus" rang consistently false.

It was also ripe for parody, and to his credit, Keane was tolerant of the attempts to make his ridiculous little comic look even more ridiculous. I confess I was one of the culprits, for a brief. In another life, some of the people in my office would cut out the daily comic and changed the captions, usually to something involving sex, drugs, or child abuse. I saved a complete file of the desecrations. Here are a few the less offensive. As you can see, my sense of humor has darkened over the years:

For a more inspired use of Keane's art, visit The Nietzsche Family Circus, which pairs random cartoons with random quotations from the philosopher. The weird thing is, it works. I mean, let's face it. Nietzsche was a lot funnier than Bil Keane ever was.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Third Symphony of Charles Ives

My experience in Danbury back weekend sent me back to my CDs of Charles Ives’s Third Symphony this week. It turns out I have accumulated more recordings of the work in the past few years than I realized — six in all, to wit:

Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbruecken, Michael Stern, cond. (Col legno 20225)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, no conductor (DGG 439 869-2)
Northern Sinfonia, James Sinclair (Naxos 8.5559087)
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner (Decca 289 466 745-2)
Concertgebouw Orch., Michael Tilson Thomas (CBS Masterworks MK37823)
New Philharmonia Orch., Harold Farberman (Everyman 08 6154 71)

I’ve listened to them all in the past few days, and the winner is — well, I must confess I prefer the larger ensembles. Tilson Thomas has the greatest sensitivity to line, Marriner gets a beautiful tone out of the Academy musicians, and Farberman draws the most organlike feeling from the New Philharmonia, which to me is a plus, since the symphony is derived from earlier organ pieces. Farberman’s recording is also the only one that does not use the so-called shadow lines or the optional chimes at the close. I don’t miss either. I also like his slower tempos, esp. in the central “Children’s Day” movement. These three were my favorites, this time around.

The others are fine, too, in their ways, but the smaller groups — the Orpheus and the Northern Sinfonia — sound somewhat shrill at the climaxes, and perhaps Stern’s pacing isn’t as smooth as it could be.

Ives scholarship seems to be perpetually in flux, and, the dates of the symphony change, depending on which liner notes you read. The older CDs say the piece was “assembled” in 1904 and revised in 1909. The later recordings say it was written between 1908 and 1911. Take your choice.

Regardless of the forces used, it’s a beautiful piece. It’s not necessary to identify all of the borrowed hymn tunes to appreciate the music, and, indeed, I’ve been listening to the piece for decades without making the effort, but thanks to Nancy Sudik’s tutelage, I can now name them all.

On to Three Places in New England.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ives Day 2011 ("There Is a Happy Land")

I don’t often use the phrase “perfect day," but Sunday nearly qualified — sunny fall weather, congenial company, and the music of Charles Ives. It doesn’t get much better than that. I was in Danbury, Conn., for Ives Day 2011. This year’s observance was devoted to the Third Symphony, subtitled “The Camp Meeting,” a jewel of a piece that may be thought of as Ives’s pastoral.

The day adhered to the standard template: a hike up Pine Mountain, where Ives spent a great deal of time as a boy and a young man, followed by visits to the Ives birthplace and gravesite, and wrapping up with music — this time, the Third Symphony, as rendered by the Danbury Symphony Orchestra. Albert Montecalvo conducted a chamber-sized complement of 23 musicians, which is really all the piece needs.

What made the concert unique was the venue. The performance took place on the upper level of a parking garage in downtown Danbury. (It has a name, too: the Charles Bardo Parking Garage behind the Danbury Music Center. Just what does a man have to accomplish in life to have a parking garage named after him — other than, say, owning a parking garage?) Chairs were set up on the sloping concrete, giving us in the audience a view, over the heads of the musicians, of St. James Episcopal Church a block or so away. At the end of the third movement, Ives calls for bells to be played softly, as if heard in the distance. Tubular chimes are generally in concert halls, but in Danbury, the part was given to the St. James carillon, cued by cell phone. It might have been the first performance anywhere in which the church bells used in the Ives Third were real, and perhaps the first to accurately convey the sense of space Ives had in mind when he wrote the piece.

I have heard better performances of the work as a whole, but no studio recording or concert-hall performance will ever recapture, for me, the moment when the St. James chimes began to ring. I know this music like my own home, and I still wasn’t prepared for the effect, which was stunning. I expect to remember it for the rest of my life.

My thanks to Nancy Sudik, the indefatigable director of the Danbury Music Center — and first horn of the Danbury Symphony — for conceiving the performance and making it happen. Nancy also leads the Ives Day tours every year.

In much of his music Ives famously “borrowed” existing tunes, reworking them into contrapuntal fantasies. He based the Third Symphony on a half dozen hymns he’d heard as a boy and played professionally as a church organist, and Nancy, bless her heart, made sure we knew what we were hearing when the orchestra began to play. She had us sing the hymns at the top of Pine Mountain. She had us sing them at the birth house. She had us sing them on the roof of the garage. It got to be too much for me — I’d strained my throat on the first go-round, trying to hit the high E’s in “There Is a Fountain” — but the crowd kept growing throughout the day, and there were always fresh voices for the chorus.

A group of young composition students from the Hartt School of Music, Hartford, joined us at the birth house and stayed with us the rest of the day. Johnny “Guitar” Provo, who is just discovering Ives’s music, drove in from Rhode Island with a couple of friends. He took the hike up the mountain, and later left a pick on the composer’s gravestone. And there was a man I know only as Allan, who drives up from New Jersey every year and who might be the one person in America who can rival me for the title of No. 1 Ivesian. These are my people. It was good to spend a day with them.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Bawdy Bard

Just posted a link to my article on Lyric Fest's upcoming program of medieval and renaissance music. The title "The Bawdy Bard" is unfortunate, because it suggests the program is built around off-color passages from Shakespeare, which it isn't. It also suggests a more tongue-in-cheek approach than is probably the case. I'm looking forward to this one, however, since a few years ago I spent a great deal of time playing medieval and Renaissance tunes on the recorder. The program will include a song by Bernhart de Ventadorn (fl. 12th century), titled "Can vei la lauzeta mover," that I've tried to play several times — I even went back to it last weekend while I was contemplating the article — but that I have never been able to make sound like a real melody. I can't figure the tempo, and the flow indicated by the 3/4 meter, as written on the page, doesn't seem to fit the notes. Actually hearing is going to be an education.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Tranquility Comics

Today I have added Tranquility Comics to my blogs list. The drawings are the work of Thomas Hinterberg, son of a friend and fellow survivor of an unpleasant job I used to have. For years he was developing this talent while growing up under my nose, and I had no idea.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Indian Classical music

At left, you'll find a link to an article I just wrote on an upcoming pair of Indian classical concerts. Every so often, journalist has to write an article in which he has no idea what he's talking about, and this one is mine. I felt completely at sea. I had to look up most of the information, and the research sticks out, I think. If anyone out there can explain to me clearly just what a raga is, I would be most grateful. I tried reading the section on ragas in the Grove dictionary, but it was so detailed and technical it only confused me further, and it contained nothing I could translate clearly into a brief paragraph for the general reader.

Sorry, too, that I have been neglecting this blog. Things do seem to grind to a halt over the summer. I attended a couple of enjoyable events in July that I keep neglecting to mention. But there have only one week of August left, which is a relief, and I hope to be back on track soon.

Marvin Rosen dedicated two hours of his radio show to Frank Zappa this morning, and I, stuck in my office, missed it. The computer at my desk doesn't support the webstream from WPRB, either.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Late night thoughts on listening to Charles Ives

I thought, "Ives Lives."

But then I thought,


"Ives Lives" should rhyme.

But it doesn't.

That's so freaky.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Chaplin with organ

Went down to St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh, after work July 12 for one of the summer carillon concerts. (St. Thomas' has one of only nine carillons in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties.) Amy Johansen, from Australia, played a vaeried, hourlong program that included some Gershwin songs; the horpipe from Handel's Water Music, minuets by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven; and even "Bridge Over Troubled Water," which I liked in her arrangement, despite feeling that I outgrew Paul Simon years ago. It was hot, but not overly so, and it was pleasant to sit out on the church grounds, read a book, watch the sun set over the suburban trees, and listen to the bells.

After the recital, everyone moved into the church for a showing of two silent Charlie Chaplin shorts — "Twenty Minutes of Love" and "The Immigrant" — accompanied by Kevin O'Malia on the organ. He brought out a wondeful sound from teh instrumetn that had me wishing he would perform there in recital. (We talked about it afterwards, and he seemed open to the idea. I suggested Nielsen's "Commotio.") I was tickled when he interjected snippets of Charles Ives' "Variations on America" into "The Immigrant," especially at the moment when the ship enters New York Harbor.

I was also happy to see Brother Gerry Molyneaux in attendance. I had took his film course whan I was a spohomore at La Salle, and I hadn't seen him in thirty-five years. Brother Gerry is a Chaplin expert — he wrote his doctoral dissertaion on City Lights — and when I learned about the films, I imformed him by email. He's a little plumper than I remembered, but he looked wonderful for a man who must be approaching eighty. (I was never sure of his age, but he was already celebrating his twenty-fifth anniversary in the brotherhood when I was in school. He's still teaching, too, and has no plans to retire.) He seemed delighted by the entire evening, including the carillon recital and the church setting. He called the organ platying seamless, and he liked O'Malia's get-up — Chaplin-like bowler hat, dark coat, bowtie, and Bermuda shorts. He said it captured Chaplin's comedy dynamic — dignity above the belt, strange things going on below — that I remmeber him talking about years ago. Now that I think about it, I realize he must have been a great teacher, because I remember much of what he said.

Good to see you again, Brother.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

New column, at last

Today I posted my first column for the paper since April - a gap of nearly three months. (The link is at left.) The dry spell began after the previous reporter for The Springfield Sun resigned, and I spent close to two months writing news and features. After our new writer came on board about a month ago, I just didn't feel like it, which is always a viable excuse. I wish it had been an option in grade school.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Patriotic pap

Classical music stations go in for playing American music on the Fourth of July, just as they can't resist playing Messiah at Christmas or the Easter Oratorio at Easter. Unfortunately, much of the American music they play is not of the first rank, since most American music that would appeal to the classical radio demographic is not of the first rank. They subject us to a lot of stuff they wouldn't be caught dead broadcasting the rest of the year, such as the overblown symphonies of John Knowles Paine or William Henry Fry. Or they go in for the better, lighter fare from Gershwin and Copland, which is all very well, except there isn't very much of it, at least not enough to fill a whole day of programing.

Or they play a lot of Sousa. Now, I like Sousa, but while he's classic, he's not exactly classical, and the militarism bothers me. As I've noted elewhere, Sousa wrote great tunes that make up the soundtrack of American imperialism. I remember a few years ago, Bernard Holland, writing about Elliott Carter's Double Concerto for Harspichord and Piano, referred to what he called the "gray militancy" of the percussion parts. When I read that, I thought, you've got it all wrong: militancy is never gray. It's always cheerful, upbeat, happy. It's important that the boys are humming while they march to their deaths. Otherwise their heads would be too clear, and they might start thinking about why they don't want to go.

We do have one great piece of American classical music that pertains specifically to the Fourth of July holiday — Charles Ives's Fourth of July. It's so good you don't need the holiday as an excuse to listen to it, and yet I can't remember the last time I heard it on the radio. Brief as it is, it's much too raucous to show up on a wussy station like WRTI. And you'll never, ever hear it on the TV special from the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. So I took it upon myself to play it at home — my own sonic fireworks display, the louder the better. The only other American piece I listened to last Monday day was Elliott Carter's snappy little ASKO Concerto. Not really Americana, I grant you, but then, a lot of great American music isn't. It doesn't feel the need to be.

What did Bruckner want?

Oh, what to any of us want?

Benjamin Korstvedt has a clear and interesting article in The New York Times regarding the various editions of Bruckner's symphonies. It was helpful to me, since I've long found talk about Bruckner editions only slightly less confusing than the hubbub surrounding the chronology of the music of Charles Ives. The liner notes of every Bruckner album you buy have something to say the version used in the performance, and they all say the same thing: that the first published editions of the symphonies contain revisions and cuts that the naive, insecure Bruckner accepted on the advice of well-meaning but misguided friends, and only the editions based on his original manuscripts give us an clear idea of his real intentions.

Korstvedt says this is all hooey. Simply put, his contention is that Bruckner wanted and approved of the revisions that appear in the first published editions, and that the idea that he was somehow pressured into them against his better judgment is based on unprovable cliches about his character. This makes sense to me. I have the same problem, even at my lowly level. Whenever I go back over something I've written, I always find things that could be shortened, more felicitously phrased, or cut entirely. It's possible Bruckner felt the same way.

As a music consumer, though, I'm almost hoping Korstvedt is wrong, because my set of the complete Bruckner symphonies, with Eugen Jochum conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle, proudly avails itself of the Urtext versions edited by Richard Haas and Leopold Nowak — the very editions Krostvedt calls into question. So now, I ask myself, where do I go for my authentic Bruckner fix? And given the rage for the Urtexte that has ruled Bruckner performance since at least the 1960s, are there any recordings of the earlier published editions left in the catolog? Just how much more shopping and expense will Korstvedt's new scholarly fashion require?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Still More Carter

Last week, I recounted my impressions of Elliott Carter's new Concertino for bass clarinet and chamber orchestra, which received its US premiere June 18 in New York City. It seems, however, I'm still not quite up to date. An even newer work by Mr. Carter, a double concerto for piano, percussion, and chamber orchestra, titled "Conversations" and written when the composer was a spry 101, has just been performed for the the first time in the UK, and if reviews from the Telegraph, The Financial Times, The Guardian, and the Arts Desk can be believed, its an exiting, major new piece.They're using words like witty, dazzling, pungent and beautifully engineered, zip, and zest to describe it.(But, seriously, who trusts the judgment of mere Brits when it comes to modern American music? We must wait until our neo-con populist American critics weigh in before we may express an informed opinion.)

So when is it coming to the States? The Boosey website gives no indication.

The title, Conversations, by the way, is in keeping with Mr. Carter's penchant, more pronounced in recent years, for describing his music in ways that evoke people talking — what Andrew Clark calls his "succinct musical metaphors for social interchange." In a sense, he is continuing a pattern established by Charles Ives, who called the first two movements of his Second String Quartet "Discussions" and "Arguments." That example appears to have stuck with Mr. Carter. But if he wants to continue, I'd like to suggest a few less cerebral, more intimate forms of discourse: How about "Flirtations," for clarinet and percussion?

"Seductions," for piano and strings?

"Phone Sex," for trombone and orchestra?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Dreary Sunday

I had intended to hear the The Crossing in Chestnut Hill this afternoon, but I'm home nursing what feels like a sprained foot. I have no idea how this happened. I woke up fine yesterday, but by mid-afternoon it hurt like the the dickens, and it was even worse this morning. I don't remember hitting it or twisting it. I've been chomping acetominophen like M&Ms, and that's helped somewhat, but I think the best strategy would be to stay off it for a day.

So, I read some more the The Plague while listening to Eugen Jochum's recording of Bruckner's Eighth and Haitink's recording of Images and Jeux by Debussy. Fortunately, it's not very hot this afternoon, or I'd really be laid out. It's clouding up now, and there's a cool breeze coming in the bedroom window. It's beginning to feel like rain.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Totally worth the trip

Last night I took the train to New York, where I attended the US premiere of Elliott Carter’s Concertino for Bass Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra. I almost didn’t go. It’s only a nine-minute piece, and I figured with the cost of the ticket, train fare from and parking in Trenton, and subway fare from Penn Station to the Miller Theater, it worked out to about $7.50 per minute. Plus I had been invited to a good concert in Philadelphia I could have attended for free.

But I made the right choice. The Concertino, though brief, was substantial and memorable. (And let’s face it, nine minutes is about as long as Carter writes anymore. If any new piece of his is going to be substantial, it’s going to be substantial in under ten.)

Carter wrote it as a surprise for the clarinetist Virgil Blackwell, who is also his personal assistant. According John Schaefer, the evening’s emcee, the first inkling Blackwell had that the piece was in the works was when he received a fax with a few measures of music scribbled on it and from Carter that said, “Is this possible?”
The piece was receiving its US premiere. It’s very much in Carter’s recent lyrical vein, a la the Flute Concerto. It appeared to be in three sections — fast – slow – fast. The slow section was especially lovely, with the soloist playing against soft, sustained chords provided by a trio of flutes — more like a sextet, really, since each of the flutists was required to double on alto, bass or piccolo. The rest of the ensemble consisted of strings, contrabassoon (!), piano, and the usual (for Carter) array of percussion, all of which seemed to be used largely as punctuation. Louis Karchin conducted the Orchestra of the League of Composers.

Mr. Carter was in attendance, looking somewhat thinner than he did when I last saw him, a few days after his hundredth birthday. He received a warm and extended ovation after the performance. Blackwell seemed exhilarated during the intermission, when I overheard him telling friends what a great piece he thought it was. It goes without saying we need a recording.

The rest of the program was also very strong, which brought the evening's cost per minute down a bit. Fred Sherry showed up to reprise Babbitt’s More Melismata, which I heard him play in Princeton two weeks ago. I especially liked Shulamit Ran’s Silent Voices, a short chamber symphony receiving its US premiere. The work was inspired by a Holocaust poem, which was read as a preface by baritone Peter Van Derick.

The second half consisted entirely of world premieres: Sound Merger by Arthur Kreiger; Talking Points (Right Wing Echo Chamber) by David Rakowski; and Violent, Violent Sea by the young hottie Missy Mazzoli. They all had much grander, fatter sonorities than the Carter or the Ran, which made them attractive to listen to, though they didn’t seem as rich in ideas. The Kreiger included an electronic soundtrack. The Rakowski was a small concerto for cello soloist (Fred Sherry again) and string orchestra that the composer described as “apolitical music with apolitical title.”

Rakowski is something of a clown, and the classical music world can certainly use a few of those. He joked around a lot during his interview with Schaefer, and, after receiving his ovation when the piece was over, returned to his seat by jumping off the front of the stage. The voice and the delivery reminded me somewhat of Garry Shandling.

Mazzoli’s piece seemed to be built around glissandi in the marimba and vibraphone, and there were a lot of wavy figures in the string writing, as befits a piece about the sea. It was all very solid and professional, but as I remarked to another listener after the performance, I liked La Mer better the first time.

“Let’s not go there,” he said.

Friday, June 17, 2011

New book on modern music

One of the things I didn’t expect would happen when I started this blog — but which I certainly should have expected — is that I occasionally receive requests from publishers and recording companies to help their advertising by mentioning them on this site. Usually, I ignore them, but this week an announcement for a new book from the University of Rochester Press showed up in my inbox, and I thought I’d pass it along. It looks interesting enough that I’d like to pick up a copy for myself, if it ever shows up on sale anywhere for much less that the $49.95 list:

Three Questions for Sixty-five Composers
Bálint András Varga

Do today's composers draw inspiration from life experiences or from, say, the natural world?

What influences, past and present, have influenced recent composers?
How essential is it for a composer to develop a personal style, and when does this degenerate into self-repetition?

These are questions about which some of the most important composers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century often have quite strong feelings — but have seldom been asked.

In this pathbreaking book, Bálint András Varga puts these three questions to such renowned composers as Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Alberto Ginastera, Sofia Gubaidulina, Hans Werner Henze, Helmut Lachenmann, György Ligeti, Witold Lutoslawski, Luigi Nono, Krzysztof Penderecki, Wolfgang Rihm, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Toru Takemitsu, and Iannis Xenakis. Varga's sensitive English renderings capture the subtleties of their sometimes confident, sometimes hesitant, answers.

All statements from English-speaking composers — such as Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Morton Feldman, Lukas Foss, Steve Reich, Gunther Schuller, and Sir Michael Tippett — consist of the composers' own carefully chosen words.

Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers is vital reading for anybody interested in the current state of music and the arts.

So there. See it at

Loose ends

As in, “I am at …”

If there’s a Montgomery newspaper on your doorstep this weekend, thank the guys at tech support. Our computers crashed at least five times yesterday while we in the newsroom were trying to lay out our Friday editions. We had a lot of downtime, but the tech people worked tirelessly all day and night to bring us back online. Unfortunately, they could keep us running for only about an hour at a time before the system would crash again. I didn’t get out of there until about twelve-thirty a.m., which is about five hours later than normal. I worked the equivalent of two full shifts. Woke up this morning — this afternoon, actually — with a headache, but I’m home today until the time comes to go out and cover a meeting of the Delaware Valley Amateur Astronomers.

Enough about my measly little life. I learned last week from WPRB DJ Teri Noel Towe that Friday, June 10, was the 100th birthday of the harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick. Towe devoted most of his June 9 show to Kirkpatrick’s recordings, but, of course, being Teri Noel Towe, he wouldn’t play any repertory later than 1760. We heard a lot of Bach and Scarlatti, which was all very fine, but Kirkpatrick was also a great champion of 20th century music. He commissioned Elliott Carter’s wonderful Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961), and played on the premiere recording with the young Charles Rosen on piano and an unidentified orchestra conducted by Gustav Meier. The performance has never made it to CD (though two good alternatives are available), but I found the LP on eBay awhile ago, and I listened to it last weekend, in homage.

Monday, June 6, 2011

More Babbittry — with free beer

Drove to Princeton University yesterday, an 80-mile round trip, for the music department’s tribute to Milton Babbitt, who died in January. Babbitt taught at Princeton for God knows how many years, and Steven Mackey, the department’s current chairman, said that for a long time after his retirement in 1984, candidates for the composition program would write on their applications that the reason they wanted to come to Princeton is that they wanted to study with him.

First things first: the program was brief — only about an hour — but it was choice. The great Fred Sherry opened with More Melismata for solo cello. Soprano Judith Bettina followed with a charming performance of the Phonemona, accompanied by pianist James Goldsworthy. The title is an example of the kind of wordplay Babbitt enjoyed (I still have trouble pronouncing it) and it refers to the fact that the text of the song consists entirely of discrete English-language phonemes — in short, nonsense syllables. The piece has the feeling of atonal scat, and Bettina sold it with hand gestures that would make you think she was actually telling a story. (I was reminded of Charlie Chaplin singing French-sounding gibberish in Modern Times.) John Link, the Carter expert, told me afterward he would like to see Bettina perform the piece at the Café Carlysle, which did not strike me as a very far-fetched suggestion.

The only piece on the program not by Babbitt was the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 116 No. 4, a piece Babbitt is said to have loved, and which Robert Taub paired with the second of Babbitt’s early Three Compositions for Piano. (At least I think that’s what the Brahms was. I have lost my program. Correct me if I’m wrong.) The two pieces had similar moods and fit together well, and the pairing served to illustrate Babbitt’s frequent assertion, repeated to me later by one of his former students, that his music was in many ways very traditional.

Bettina and Galsworthy then returned for “Penelope’s Night Song,” one of the Three Theatrical Songs Babbitt wrote back in the 1940s for a projected Broadway musical based on the Odyssey. It was an unexpected treat, and indeed, it would not sound out of place at the Café Carlyle, or an early Streisand album. I called for an encore, but either they didn’t hear me, or they decided to ignore me.

Last, and most substantial, was the String Quartet No. 6 from 1993 performed beautifully by the Zukofsky String Quartet. It’s hard to describe exactly what goes on in this piece, but it has a rich, warm, consonant sound that I would not hesitate to call Mozartean, or maybe Handelian. Babbitt does have this quality. There is a warmth and humor in his music you don't find in a major influence like Schoenberg.

The recital was followed by a reception downstairs at Alexander Hall in a room that was much too small to accommodate the crowd comfortably — and there was a crowd. The Richardson Auditorium had been quite full. To commemorate Babbitt’s love of beer, there were free samples of some of his favorite brews, primarily Belgian brands like Chimay and Duvay, as I recall, and, to commemorate his love of food, there were hors d’oeuvres-sized won tons and ginger pancakes, in addition to the usual buffet of fruit, cheese, crackers and cookies. (Reports are he also loved baseball and horse racing. It’s surprising no one thought to get up a pepper game.)

Fans and students traveled long distances for the tribute. I chatted with the composers Stanley Jordan, who flew in from Los Angeles, and Jane O’Leary, who came over from Ireland. Both had studied with Babbitt at Princeton. Lance Morrisson, another composer, did not, but he described himself as a fan, and he flew out from Missouri just for the event.

I also met Betty Ann Babbitt, the composer’s daughter, and a woman introduced to me only as Paula, Betty Ann’s partner of 27 years. I never spoke to Milton — and everyone there called him Milton, not Babbitt — but Paula was able to give me a little insight into his work habits. She didn’t remember any sketch books, she said. It seemed Milton worked note by note, and if the way a piece was turning out didn’t satisfy, he would throw it out and start over. She also told me that after about 2006, he was unable to complete any new music. The kind of work he produced required more concentration than he was able to give it.

I hung out a long time, almost until the reception room had cleared out completely. Finding myself in Princeton on a sunny spring afternoon, I browsed through Labyrinth Books and the Princeton Record Exchange. In an astounding feat of self-discipline, I limited myself to one purchase at each place. By coincidence, each one had something to do with Charles Ives. The book was Stuart Feder’s biography of Ives, My Father’s Song. The CD was Stokowski’s classic recording of the Orchestral Set No. 2.

My only regret is that I didn’t get to speak with “Bob,” my favorite DJ at WPRB Princeton, who told me he was going to be there. He e-mailed me a picture to make it easier for me to spot him, but spotting one middle-aged, balding white guy at a Babbitt concert is a little like playing Where’s Waldo?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Die Walkure

I've been backed up with work and some other projects, but I don't want to let too much time to pass without mentioning the Metropolitan Opera's HD broadcast of Die Walkure, which I saw May 14 at the Neshaminy Mall. The cast was top-notch, the orchestra sounded great, and when the ensemble got going, I was rarely aware of the time passing, although, as in all Wagner’s music dramas, an enormous amount of it did. I guess by now everyone knows the performance started 45 minutes late because of a computer glitch with the complex, automated set, which, unfortunately, has become the unwanted focus of much of attention paid to this production. When it works, the results can be dazzling, but when it doesn't, well, singers lose their balance and audiences sit on their hands in the theater.

You can read detailed reviews of the production elsewhere, so I’d like to take a few moments and talk about stage business. As a piece of theater, The Ring of the Nibelung consists of long conversations punctuated by demands for stage effects that are impossible to achieve with any degree of literalness. The rainbow bridge, the Ride of the Valkyries, the Magic Fire, the Dragon and Brunnhilde's immolation often inspire stage directors to great feats of imagination, but no one seems to what to do when the characters are just standing around singing to one another. That problem demands real imagination, and no one seems to have come up with a satisfactory solution. The blocking for much of the Met's Walkure was static, as it probably had to be, and as all blocking for every Wagnerian production, ever, probably has been. Since Wagner’s dialogue is sung much more slowly than people actually talk, the stage movement is much slower than people actually move. (I noticed the same tendency a few years ago in the Met's production of Tristan and Isolde.) In Act III, when Wotan explains to Brunnhilde just why he's going to strip her of her immortality and put her to sleep on a hot rock, Bryn Terfel strutted back and forth aimlessly across the stage. Leading with his stomach, he reminded me of an armor-plated Ralph Kramden. It might not be too noticeable in the Met’s cavernous hall, where performers onstage can look no bigger than mice, but on the big screen, with all the close-ups, every gesture and expression are exaggerated, noticeable, and ultimately, distracting.

And what’s with Brunnhilde’s get up? She looked like a cross between Wonder Woman and a trout.

Fortunately, there was all that great music to hold our attention.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I still note his passing

Charles Ives died on this date in 1954. It was only three and a half years before I was born, so I'm guessing that was too soon for him to be reincarnated as me. I have some random thoughts about this unique composer that I've been meaning to jot down for some time, but for now, it will suffice to note the anniversary.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

My favorite rap song

And what did you expect?

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Follow up to my post on The Rite of Spring

I get to do this, because it's my blog

Sonnet — May 29, 1913

In times like these, without a certain measure
(Grow up; a clock slows down as mass increases),
One’s self divides, as in a fractured mirror.
Repetition (only) signifies.
Silence. Breath. Deceptive bits of leisure.
Then blocks of seconds pound the earth to pieces.
Rivers break like cannon coming near
As Russia springs to life. The virgin dies.
Volcanoes! — Nah, who needs another Strauss?
“It expresses nothing but itself.”
Numbers from the pit are all you hear while
Smoking in the wings. They riot in the house,
Knowing no way back across the gulf.
You expected nothing less. Admit it. Smile.

Joe Barron

Friday, April 29, 2011

Whose 'Rite' is your favorite?

A performance can make or break one's attitude toward a piece of music. I have to confess, as much as I like Stravinsky, it took me years to warm up to The Rite of Spring. I was always excited by Par I, but I would begin to squirm and check my watch during Part I. The reason was plain enough; the only recording I knew (and I'm talking high school and college here), was Stravinsky's own, with the Columbia Symphony, which is something less than definitive. Later, I bought a cassette (so that pins us down to the early 80s) of Michael Tilson Thomas and the BSO, and when I heard that, I said to myself, "OK, I'm starting to get this." Then, on radio, I heard the version by Solti and the Chicago Symphony, and I said, "OK, I'm really starting to get this." I went right out and bought the London LP.

In the years since, I've collected and tried several versions on CD — by Gergiev, Abbado, Maazel, Boulez, Tilson Thomas again (with the San Francisco) — but none of them quite got into my blood the way Solti's did, and still does. I'm happy to report I've just supplemented the LP with an out-of-print, used CD from Amazon, and the performance is everything I remembered from the record: precise, controlled, clear, large-scale and dynamic, and it maintains its momentum right to the end. For me, it justifies the Rite's reputation as the breakthrough to the 20th century.

Anyone else in the blogosphere have any particular favorite recordings?

Christopher Hitchens on the royal wedding

Whatever your attitude toward the royal family (and it probably isn't worth the time to even have an attitude), or toward Christopher Hitchens, this piece is brilliantly written. I especially like "the morose, balding, New Age crank and licensed busybody that we flinch from today." There is nothing like a little bile to elevate the old word count.

I thought the whole point of the g.d. revolution was to free ourselves from these people. Why all the interest in watching them mate?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Selig sind die Toten

I don't intend to give a detailed review here, but I would like to acknowledge the two excellent choral concerts I attended in the past week. My compliments to John Sall and the Abington Symphony and Choir for A German Requiem April 10 and David Spitko and the Choristers for Dvorak's Stabat Mater in Upper Dublin April 16. Soloists in each were outstanding, and the choruses were glorious. I think the German Requiem is a more impressive piece of music than the Dvorak, which doesn't take longer by the clock, but seems longer. Perhaps that's only because I'm not as familiar with it. (The concert included three other pieces, too, which, though short, might have been overkill.)

My only complaint, besides some wavering tones in the strings of both orchestras, is that the Requiem was done in English. It didn't really detract from the experience for me, but as the bass soloist told me afterward, it just sounds better in German.

The Choristers are planning an evening of Americana next season to include Porgy and Bess and Copland's Old American Songs. I told David that if he programmed Ives's Harvest Home Chorales, I'd give him a thousand words in Ticket. He never got back to me.

No further concerts planned at present. All listening will be done at home, over speakers.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sing along with death

Spring is the season of passion and death. If you don't believe me, look to the concert calendar. Funerals have long been an inspiration for composers, of course, and if you sing in a choir, you're going to appear in your share of Requiems, but with Good Friday coming up, demise is uppermost on the minds of our choral directors. Two groups in suburban Philadelphia will present memorial concerts over the next two weekends. On April 10, the choir at Abington Presbyterian Church will perform Brahms' German Requiem, and on the 16th, the Choristers (formerly the more provincial Choristers of Upper Dublin) will sing Dvorak's "Stabat Mater." Both concerts are dedicated to the memory of those who have died in the past year, or earlier, if one’s grief is great enough. Names submitted by the performers, congregants or audience members will be printed in the programs. (See my previews at left.)

Of the two pieces, I guess I will find the German Requiem the more congenial. Brahms was the sort of agnostic that was becoming increasingly common in the 19th century, though he knew his Lutheran Bible well, and the verses he chose for the Requiem don't fit the standard Christian model of redemption through pain. (I have to question the thought-process of a God who cannot redeem sinners without staging an act of torture for their benefit.) Every program booklet ever published on the work points out that Jesus is never mentioned, and, despite the promise of resurrection near the end, the emphasis is squarely on comforting the living who are left behind. Before the first performance of the work — appropriately enough, on Good Friday, 1868 — K.M. Rheintaler, the rehearsal director, tried to persuade the composer to add a movement that would be more in keeping with the spirit of the day. According to the Grove Dictionary, “Brahms politely but firmly refused.” And for that we may thank him. Tacking on a conventional expression of piety would have ruined the emotional and intellectual integrity of the piece. The music is more genuine, more sincere and more effective without it. I am looking forward to the concert, even if the performance will likely be uneven, as performances by community groups usually are.

Dvorak, a devout Catholic, never understood Brahms’ decision, either, and his “Stabat Mater” does end with just such an expression of piety. To be fair, though, so does the poem he set. “When my body shall die,” it says, “grant that my soul be given the glory of paradise.” David Spitko, the Chorister’s director, described Dvorak’s music to me as progressing from darkness to triumph. Dvorak had lost three children in the years before he wrote the piece, and he was entitled to his feelings, but I have lost a child, too, and my own feelings are somewhat different. Nevertheless, I want to hear the music. Much of Dvorak’s vast output is rarely performed. Think about it. Beyond the handful of “name” pieces like the “New World” Symphony or the “American” String Quartet, how much of it do we really know well? I’ve never heard any of the operas, and I don’t know how many of them I can even name. I’m grateful, then, that David and company have chosen to revive a major but underexposed work.

Oh, by the way, the performance of the Requiem performance. You have no excuse not to go, if you are anywhere in the area.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Barron's paradox

In response to Anthony Tommasini's list of the ten greatest composers of all time, Michael Zwiebach of San Francisco Classical Voice has posted a list of the ten most underrated composers of all time. I think it's an excellent idea, and I applaud the willingness to present an alternative history, but I sense a paradox at work here: it seems to me that to be excluded from such a list gives anyone greater claim to inclusion. By definition, an unjustly neglected composer who isn't mentioned would be more unjustly neglected than a composer who is.

A corollary to the paradox states that a definitive list of the most obscure x can never be compiled.

That said, my nomination for most underrated composer of the last century would have to be Carl Nielsen, who didn't make Zwiebach's list (and hence is therefore even more deserving). CN is the equal of Sibelius, imho, but he doesn't get played nearly as often, and when he is, the critics are generally no more than respectful, and often not even that. They seem to feel that one Nordic composer should be enough for anyone. Pity: his symphonies are truly extraordinary.

I was happy to see that Lisa Hirsch agrees he should have been included.

Mea Maxima Culpa

A reader wrote to one of the editors at Montgomery Newspapers pointing out that in my Ticket article on the Old York Road Symphony, I misspelled the Leonore Overture as Leonora. I looked back at my original Word document, and yes, indeed, the name is misspelled. I regret the error. I repudiate the error. I abhor the error. And I cannot account for it. If you walked up to me on the street and asked me to spell Leonore, the odds are six in eight I would get it right. Of course, I'll never make the mistake again.

Another editor also pointed out that there appears to be someone else out there as stuffy on these matters as I am.

In any event, the concert, previewed in the article, was enjoyable, even if the orchestra did sound rather distant in the cavernous auditorium at Abington Senior High School. The three young soloists were outstanding, particularly Philip Carter, who got to set fire to his fingerboard in the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Gabriel Gordon called his Albuquerque Youth Symphony one of the best youth orchestras in the country, and the kids lived up to his opinion of them. Their precision was almost military. It was intimidating. The group was also bigger than the Old York Road Symphony. With 84 musicians, it took up more of the stage and put out a bigger, brighter sound. But I really could live without hearing the Barber Adagio again. A great piece, surely, but overplayed, and it isn't sturdy enough to bear up under all the weight that's been placed on it as our unofficial, national music of mourning.

Sunday I was back in Abington, helping out at a cabaret concert and luncheon buffet she organized at Abington Presbyterian Church. I helped carry things in from the car (my back and legs still hurt) and stood behind the food tables directing traffic. Katie Eagleson was the vocalist, and the backup band included the great Al Harrison on trumpet. Katie sang from the great American songbook, as well as a novelty song about ducks and La Vie en Rose, which was a treat. Crowd was mostly older: a gentleman who purchased one of Katie's CDs walked with a cane and told me the songs reminded him of his youth. That made me rather sad: no great music should be limited to single generation.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Elliott Carter's new double concerto

To follow up on a previous post: It appears my lament for the end of Elliott Carter's career was premature. His latest piece, a 10-minute double concerto for piano and percussion titled Conversations, is now listed at the Boosey and Hawkes website. Completion date is given as 2010, and the first performance is scheduled for June 26 of this year. Soloist will be Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Colin Currie. Oliver Knussen will conduct the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

So that's good news: A new piece, from a 102-year-old man. Or maybe he was 101 when he finished it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

He'll put someone's eye out with that stick

I don't care what anyone says. This is what music is for:

More Carter in the pipeline

Decca Records announced yesterday it has signed the young cellist Alisa Weilerstein to a recording contract. Her first release will consist of a warhorse (Elgar's Cello Concerto) designed to mover product, coupled with a contemporary work (Elliott Carter's concerto) designed to show off her range. Not a bad way to debut, from a marketing standpoint. The orchestra will be conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

Personally, I'm looking forward to it. Anyone who knows me knows I operate in a manner opposite from that of most listeners. The producers expect us to buy Weilerstein's CD for the Elgar, then explore the Carter when we're feeling adventurous. But I don't think I've ever heard the Elgar, and a new Carter CD will furnish me with the perfect excuse to acquaint myself with it.

This will make the third commercial recording of Carter's Cello Concerto, an unusually high number for an atonalist orchestral work that is only about 10 years old. (It was completed in 2000.) The usual pattern for contemporary music a premiere recording followed by dead silence. Chamber works and solo pieces have a better chance, of course, since they rely on only few dedicated performers. The record for recordings of a modernist piece must be held by Carter's own Night Fantasies for solo piano, which has been recorded commerically by:

Ursula Opppens (twice)
Paul Jacobs
Charles Rosen
Winston Choi
Stephen Drury
Aleck Karis
Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Florence Millet
Louise Bessette

On the subject of Elliott Carter: I am afraid the run of masterpieces may be coming to an end at last. Mr. Carter is 102, and he seems to have stopped composing. Boosey and Hawkes, Mr. Carter's publisher, lists no pieces completed in 2010 on its website, although a Boosey press release from last October said he was working on a double concerto for piano and percussion. I have not heard that the piece has been completed. I think A Sunbeam's Architecture, on poetry of E.E. Cummings, may have been completed last year as well, although performance has been delayed pending the resolution of copyright problems. This may truly be it: no matter how old Mr. Carter gets, the end of his long creative life may be in sight. It is a sad prospect.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why it's always a violinist

I spoke the other day with Yoon Jae Lee, the music director of the Old York Road Symphony, about the winners of the orchestra's annual youth soloist contest. (Link to the article is at left.) I made the point that winners usually seem to be either violinists or pianists, and to my surprise, he had an explanation ready. The competition is open to any instrumentalist, he said, but wind and brass players take longer to become real virtuosi, because young children lack the physical strength to produce a grownup sound from a trombone or a bassoon. They just don't have the lung power. Even smaller woodwinds like flute and clarinet require more breath and lip control than most children can muster.

This is not something I ever considered, so I can honestly say I learned something last week.

BTW, Old York Road is in Abington, Montgomery County, Pa. Look it up on Google maps.

Friday, March 4, 2011

For the Record

In this morning's New York Times, critic Anthony Tommasini — he of the top ten greatest composers of all time — expatiates on the departure of James Levine from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On the topic of Maestro Levine's championship of modern music, Mr. Tommasini has this to say:

He was criticized in many quarters for his intense devotion to complex modernist composers like Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt. Not that these giants were not deserving of advocacy. But there were so many other composers and styles of contemporary music that Boston audiences were not hearing. Still, patrons and critics were willing to indulge Mr. Levine in his intellectual passions, as long as he would be there to make his case for this music and carry out his plans.

But he was not. In 2008, as part of the orchestra’s celebration of Mr. Carter’s 100th birthday, the Tanglewood Music Center’s annual festival of contemporary music was devoted entirely to Mr. Carter, an extreme programming concept. Mr. Levine was determined to immerse the young fellowship musicians at the center and Tanglewood audiences in Mr. Carter’s compositions. But illness forced him to withdraw from the entire festival and to miss most of the Tanglewood program that summer.

The second paragraph here presents an incomplete picture of what went on at Tanglewood that summer, and I was there. First, I question whether devoting a single week to our greatest living composer on the occasion of his hundredth birthday is in any way "extreme." More to the point, Mr. Tommasini neglects to mention that Oliver Knussen and other skilled and dedicated conductors stepped in for Mr. Levine and brought the festival off without a hitch. The young performers got their immersion without his presence. Mr. Carter was delighted with the performances, and the reviews of Mr. Tommasini's colleague Allan Kozinn were quite positive. Mr. Levine was surely missed, but in some ways, he wasn't. He set the machine in motion, and it ran of itself. The BSO gave only one performance, on the final night of the festival, an all-Carter program conducted by Oliver Knussen and Shi-Yeong Sung — "to superb effect," in Mr. Kozinn's phrase.

And I'd still rather hear Carter and Babbitt than all those other kinds of contemporary music that Mr. Tommasini says Mr. Levine overlooked. A lot of them are godawful.

It's astounding to me that a critic would be so harsh and unfeeling toward a man with such serious health problems. Since when do we blame people for kidney failure? Mr. Levine should be thanked, and we should wish him well. He tried his best given his condition, and if he stayed in denial a little too long, it was the kind of failure that comes only with great ambition and accomplishment. The world hasn't come to an end.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Project/Object, the band dedicated to the music of Frank Zappa (I don't like the term "tribute band"), will play the Sellersville Theater this Sunday. It's a little late for a 70th birthday celebration, but in my mind, it will honor the occasion. Lead vocalists this time around are Ray White and Ike Willis, from Frank's '70s and '80's bands, just as they were last time around. I wanted to re-interview Ray (first time I spoke with him was in 2009), but the scheduling didn't work out. I settled for Andre Cholmondeley, Project/Object's founder, who never knew Frank, although "settle" doesn't do justice to our conversation. The link to the article appears at left.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Steven Stull, Milton Babbitt

Baritone Steven Stull will sing Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer Sunday with the Bryn Athyn, Pa., Orchestra. My interview with him is linked at left. I take no responsibility for the headline.

And, before too much time goes by and it is no longer news, I note with sadness the passing of composer Milton Babbitt, who died Saturday, January 29, at 94. I've been honoring his memory the way one should honor any composer's memory — by listening to his music. Over the past week I've played my CD recording the Second String Quartet, Correspondences for orchestra and tape, None but the Lonely Flute, Around the Horn, Occasional Variations, and perhaps one or two other things. The music is, I have decided, attractive and engaging, and through repeated exposure, I am learning to pick out the incidents, if not follow the story. More listening will follow.

Other bloggers have paid more personal tributes to Babbitt, and I recommend you seek them out online. I heard him speak only once, back in the 1990s, when Orchestra 2001 performed his Transfigured Notes for string orchestra at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (This was the score that, a couple of years earlier, the Philadelphia Orchestra had commissioned and then rejected as unplayable. It has been played, and recorded, quite well since by other ensembles that actually seem to care about it.) I remember only one thing from the composer’s pre-concert talk: Babbitt said he did not use folk material in his music and he drew his inspiration instead from the likes of Schoenberg and Webern because, he said, "These are my folks."

Like everyone else in the modern world, composers are living much longer than they used to. I find it a disorienting trend. In Beethoven's day, no one was even guaranteed a "late period," and if he got one, it would last at most ten years. Now it can last up to sixty. Careers are now heavily end-loaded, and the late period is the career.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Jennifer Koh

Last week I interviewed the violinist Jennifer Koh, who will give a recital Feb. 3 in Elkins park, Pa. The link to the article appears at left. I was quite excited to speak with her, since she has recorded the Four Lauds of Elliott Carter. We spoke about twenty minutes. Nothing profound came out of it, but I enjoyed the chat.

I think she's a very beautiful woman, but this same week my managing editor interviewed the singer Rachael Platten. His article also appears in this week's Ticket, and all the buzz from our layout artist and pressmen was about the Platten photos, especially the large one used in the article (as opposed to the cover), which everyone was calling the centerfold. Sorry, Jennifer, I tried to get you noticed.

Ah, and this week, I received my recordings of Andras Schiff playing the Bach English suites, and Andrew Rangel, on Bridge, performing the Ives Sonata No. 1 and the Nielsen Suite Op. 45. An unusual pairing of two of my favorite composers — to my knowledge, the first ever on CD, even though Rnagell, in the booklet, points to some interesting similarities between them. So far I've listened to the Suite. It's a strong, almost stark reading. Very effective. Also very fond of Schiff's rather romantic performance of the Bach. I didn't think I would be (see the romantic reference in teh previous sentence), but at five bucks I couldn't pass it up.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Another day, another list

Critic Anthony Tommasini publishes his list of the ten greatest classical composers of all time in today's edition of the New York Times. My friend and fellow blogger Lisa Hirsch has called this a fool's errand, and I'm afraid I must agree, although, as the long list of comments following the article shows, the process does serve a purpose in generating intelligent discussion.

My own comment is No. 338. I repost it here (slightly edited) in case you overlooked it:

Nice, safe list. Nothing to disagree with, but nothing to get excited over, either. It's the names that didn't make it - but that "get me through my days," as Mr. Tommasini says - that call the whole list-making enterprise into question. If you love something that isn't demonstrably great, or not demonstrably as great as something else, then, it seems to me, the so-called objective criteria for greatness must lack some important element. Subjectivity must be served, and it is precisely such subjective reactions I find more interesting than discussions of range or influence or historical importance.

My favorite dead composers include Charles Ives and Carl Nielsen, who have taken me places no one else ever has, but I can see why a NYT critic would not include them in a list of "the greatest." On the other hand, I dislike Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, and I doubt any list or any amount of argument is going to convert me, however much the may deserve a seat at the table.

Maybe ten slots just isn't enough. A hundred probably wouldn't be, either.

Another commenter — one after my own heart — noted that Elliott Carter wasn't included. He wasn't even included in the list of composers the Times allowed readers to vote for as their favorites, whereas Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein were, and they are much lesser figures, in my humble estimation. But Mr. Tommasini's express criteria include mortality. In his view, one must be dead to be placed among the immortals. So Mr. Carter, at 102, is being penalized for his robust good health.

May he never be included in any list, ever, if it means he goes on living.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

How memory works

Today is my Aunt Ella's birthday. Were she still alive, she'd be 107 years old. (She died in 2001 at age 98). I had forgotten the occasion was pending, and I remembered it only because Keith Olberman said on his broadcast last night, in one of those this-day-in-history" comments, that on Jan. 19, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt and King Edward VII exchanged history's first transatlantic wireless telegrams.

How did that piece of trivia remind me of Aunt Ella's ? In 1993, when my aunt turned 90, I gave her a newspaper from the day she was born, and the telegrams were the subject of a brief story on Page 1. The other news of the day was unexceptional. The big headline of the day was a fire. It was a New York paper that has long since gone out of business (I forget the title), but I do recall a large fire in one of the outer boroughs.

Now it strikes me that I don't know what happened to the paper when Aunt Ella died.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ah, now that's more like it

Received my copy of Donna Coleman's performance of the Concord Sonata in the mail today and have been listening to it for the last hour. I won't compare it favorably to other recordings — we are all involved in the common Ives project, and therefore all on the same side — but I will say I like very much the clarity of Coleman's playing, which keeps the themes in the forefront no matter how thick the textures get. I also like the way she distinguishes between passages of differing mood, sometimes simply with a long pause. There's a song-like quality to the playing, particularly in the Alcotts movement, when in a few spots Coleman seems to take on the role of Bronson Alcott's daughter Beth, idly picking out tunes for her own amusement on the "little old spinet-piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children," as Ives describes the scene in his Essays Before a Sonata.

This is an insightful performance that tells a story, as opposed to making a big noise, and it made me remember why I care about this music. If you're in the mood to acquire yet another recording of the Concord, I would recommend it.

The CD also includes fine readings of the Three Page Sonata and the rarely heard Emerson Transcriptions, brief, muscular distillations of material from the Concord Sonatas first movement. As Coleman says in the booklet, Ives couldn't leave this music alone.

Friday, January 7, 2011

No, I don't really like Denk's Ives

Jeremeny Denk's CD of Charles Ives's two piano sonatas has shown up on several end-of-the-year top-classical lists, and, being a big Ives aficionado, I am grateful to Denk for all his work on behalf of this composer, who seems to be rediscovered every few years, only to fall back into obscurity. The following is my review of the CD, which I have also posted at Amazon:

Jeremy Denk has become perhaps our most visible and articulate champion of the music of Charles Ives, which is all to the good. I very much enjoyed his performance, with Soovin Kim, of the composer's four violin sonatas in Philadelphia a few years ago, and so, when I heard he had recorded the two piano sonatas, I was excited. I asked for and received the CD for Christmas, and having listened to it, I have to say it's a disappointment. A big one. I have almost a dozen recordings of the Concord, fewer of the First Sonata, and Denk had not replaced any of them in my affections. He seems to think Ives is an American Liszt (as if we needed one), and he goes in for romantic bombast, banging away in the forte sections while smoothing over the mood shifts and jokes with lots of pedal. The result is aggressive in a way that is often mistaken for Ivesian, but it's also homogenized. The Emerson movement suffers in particular, losing much of its grandeur. The Thoreau movement, by contrast, is overly misty, like a parody of Debussy. (The flute at the end is so distant and washed out that its entrance makes hardly any impression at all.) Ives's famous wit has been suppressed, too, and his homespun elements lack flavor: the hymns aren't very hymnlike, the rags aren't very raggy, and you can't march to the marches. And for the very first time in my life, the First Sonata left me with a headache. This is Ives for people who would rather be listening to something else. (One blogger wrote of this CD, "You don't get many reminders that Ives was a contemporary of Rachmaninoff and Busoni." And this is a good thing?)
Give Denk credit, though. He managed to do something no other performer has ever done: he made me question whether I have been wrong about the value of Ives's music for so many years. Needing reassurance, I went back to Alan Mandel, Nina Deutsch and William Masselos, and gratefully, I found it in them. I don't dislike this recording, exactly — I could never really dislike any committed performance of Ives — but I disagree with it, and I disagree also with one of the other reviewers here. Definitive, as Ives himself might say, "it ain't."

To wash the taste out of my mouth, as it were, I've pushed by CD acquisition scheduled forward and ordered Donna Coleman's CD of the Concord. I listened to a couple excerpts at Amazon, and it sounds promising.