Monday, December 31, 2012

Marvin Rosen's 21st century marathon

I appeared on Marvin's Rosen's 21st century music marathon on Classical Discoveries Saturday morning. The mp3s of the entire 24 hour-show may be heard here. I show up in the 10:00 - 11:00 hour at about 42:00 minutes, right after a beautiful piece for contrabass flute and recorded whale song by Alex Shapiro. I talk too fast, and too high, and I repeat myself and say "kind of" too often, but at least I make all of the points I intended to make when I walked into the studio.

It was a beautiful winter day in Princeton, with snow falling and outlining the branches of the trees. After leaving WPRB I spent some time at the Princeton Record Exchange and the Labyrinth Bookstore (resisting the temptation to spend money at each). Then I returned to the station, where I met up with Marvin, his wife, Beate, and his other guests, the composers Christanne Lane and Daniel Dorff, and Daniel's significant other, Cindy Broz a flutist. We were all in the booth when Marvin signed off with a public service announcement about the dangers of sleep deprivation. At this point, he has been awake for about 34 hours.

He was more hungry than sleepy, however, and he wanted pasta. At his invitation, the six of us met up again at the Olive Garden on Route 1. I had the minestrone and the linguini marinara, and the portion was so large that I didn't have to eat again until noon the next day. Beate and Cindy carried the converstation while Marvin slowly collapsed into himself like an inflatable lawn ornament. For reasond known only to her, Beate insisted on intermittently taking photos of his deterioration. Perhaps she intends to embarrass him with them later.

In any case, I thank Marvin for having me on his show once again, and for agreeing to play Alisa Weilerstein's recording of the Cello Concerto.

Oh, and Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Another Concord

For reasons I won’t go into, the Italian pianist Roberto Ramadori found me online and sent me his recording of Ives's "Concord Sonata." It's an exciting, thoughtful performance, and it was especially refreshing coming after my disappointment in Jeremy Denk's clotted, overpraised version. Where Denk bangs away as though Ives were an American Liszt, Roberto approaches the "Concord" almost like Bach — not in a way that dries it out, but in way that clarifies the textures and equalizes the independent voices. I was especially impressed with his treatment of the Hawthorne movement, which has in general been my least favorite of the four.

The timings are longer than on most other recordings. Roberto brings in the piece at just 12 seconds shy of any hour &# an almost epic duration — and the music only accumulates power as it goes on. I have at least a dozen recordings of the "Concord," and I can see myself spending more and more time with this one.

It is not available in the US, but it can be found at Amazon Italy. At 13 euros, it’s a steal.

The little yellow stripe in the upper corner of the booklet touts this CD as the "first Italian recording." I don't know why that should make any difference. When the first Latvian recording appears, I'll know we've arrived.

Don't forget to tune in to Marvin's Rosen's Classical Discoveries 21st century marathon at 10:30 a.m. EST on Saturday, Dec. 29, when I'll be introducing Carter's Cello Concerto. WPRB is at 103.3 on the FM dial in the Princeton area. The show may also be heard online at

Monday, December 24, 2012

Sleigh Ride Watch

It isn't Christmas until I hear Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," and the season came a little later this year than it usually does. I heard the piece for the first time this year only last week. It was the Carpenters' cover — who knew there was such a thing? — with a treacly background chorus. Yucky, but it counted. I was in the car, driving home from my new job in Norristown, where I work the evening shift. It was after 11 p.m., dark and cold.

I have heard it only once again since then. This time, I was on Route 76, on my way to work. It was the real thing — the original, classic orchestral version with the jazz inflections and the horse neighing at the end. It made me very happy, and anything that can make me happy while I'm driving on Route 76 qualifies as a Christmas miracle.

I had one other holiday treat on the hideous commute yesterday: Beginning at 2 p.m., WRTI broadcast an hour-long program of Anderson's Christmas music, hosted by his son, Kurt, and featuring interviews with the composer (Anderson died in 1975). The playlist included the "Christmas festival," a concert overture, and the suites of carols. It also included Sleigh Ride, but I was parked and in the office before we got to that.

Some interesting parallels between Anderson and Elliot Carter: They were born the same year (1908). They attended Harvard at the same time, though there is no indication they knew each other (Anderson was Class of 1929, Carter Class of 1930). They lived for years within a few miles of each other (Anderson in Woodbury, Conn., Carter in Waccabuc, N.Y.). And each was an accomplished linguist: Carter spoke French and Italian fluently, while Anderson, whose parents were Swedish, was an expert in Scandinavian languages. (During WWII, he was posted in Iceland, where he wrote an Icelandic grammar for US military personnel.) The only real difference is, Anderson has a website. Carter does not.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Word from Conecticut

Of course, when I heard of the shootings in Newtown Friday morning, my first thougyt was, "How far is that from Danbury?" — the only town up there I know or care anything about. Only 12 miles, I learned later. I sent a quick note to Nancy Sudik, the executive director of the Danbury Music Centre, a fellow Ivesian and friend. The note said only, "You're in my thoughts on this terrible day."

"Thank you Joe," she replied. "We're getting through one day at a time. It is horrible beyond words."

Life in Hiding

Saturday I finished reading Salman Rushdie’s Memoir, Joseph Anton, about his life under state protection after the Iranian fatwa of 1989. Zoe Heller has a deliciously mean-spirited review in the New York Review of Books. (It’s been called the hatchet job of the year.) I don’t care to take her on point by point. I’ll just say I found the book much more valuable than she did. Indeed, I found it more valuable than most reviewers have. Yes, he comes off as selfish and short-sighted, but the issues he deals with — the right of an author, or of anyone, to say what’s on his or her mind — are larger than the personal failings of a star-struck hound-dog who likes to drop names. (And boy, does he like to drop names.)

The reviews I’ve read barely mention what is for me the most interesting part of the book — the day-to-day workings of "prot," as the police protecton effort was called. The cops who kept Rushdie alive for ten years are, as a group, much more fun to read about than the author’s big-deal pals from the worlds of literature and entertainment, at least as he presents them here. Almost as interesting are the arguments with the higher-ups in the Metropolitan Police and the intelligence service. Invariably, they want him to stay put, and just as invariably, he wants to lead as normal life as possible — and for a prominent author, “normal” means very public. In these sections, Joseph Anton provides a window into a profession and an existence that most of us, luckily, will never see.

As soon as I put down Rushdie’s book, I picked up John Le Carré’s Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which I intend to follow with The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. by George Steiner. I mention them only because Rushdie singles out Steiner and especially Le Carré as two of the so-called liberal authors who gave him a hard time in print during the years of the fatwa.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Once more into the breach

Hi, there: It looks as though I'll be appearing again on Marvin Rosen's radio show on Saturday, Dec. 29. Marvin will be doing a 24-hour marathon on 21st-century music Dec. 28 and 29, and he's invited me on to introduce Alisa Weilerstein's wonderful new recording of Elliott Carter's Cello Concerto - written in 2001, so it qualifies as 21st-century. He is planning to play the piece about 10:30 a.m. I'll only be on for a few minutes. I'm told that during these marathons - scheduled to take advantage of the Christmas break, when all the student DJs are on vacation - Marvin invites previous guests of the show to drop by the studio to keep him company, and to keep him awake. His devotion to the cause of new music is boundless.

For those of you in the Princeton broadcast area, WPRB is at 103.3 on the FM dial. The rest of you may tune in at Marvin also archives his shows temporarily at

Or better yet, just buy the damned CD.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Beethoven is keeping me alive

I started a new job Monday in Norristown. The hours are 3 to 11 p.m., the commute is twice as long as I am used to, and I am still not sure what exactly it is I am supposed to be doing. This week I've been going to be late and sleep late. I have a couple of free hours before heading off to the office, time I spend fluctuating between anxiety and read. It doesn't really feel like leisure time if you're counting the minutes before the long drive. For the past couple of mornings (early afternoons, really), I have been listening to Charles Rosen's recording of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas Op. 31. The second CD of this two-CD set — “The Great Middle Period Sonatas” — will follow tomorrow.

This music has been the only thing that has prevented me from either a) resigning or b) throwing myself under a truck. My gratitude to both of these immortal artists for saving my life. The sonatas and the performance together are an extraordinary affirmation.

And remember, only three more shopping days until Beethoven’s birthday.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mr. Carter at 104

Today is the 104th anniversary of the borth of Elliott Carter. Note the change in phrasing. Last year, we observed Mr. Carter's 103rd birthday. He was still celebrating birthdays then, and he would have celebrated another today if he had lives just one more month.

To mark the anniversary, as well as the passing on Sunday of Charles Rosen, I listened to Rosen's recordings of 90+ and the wonderful Piano Sonata from 1945. (Also listened to Rosen's excellent recordings of the Beethoven Sonata Op. 111 and Webern's Variations Op. 27.)

There are several works Mr. Carter wrote in the last few years of his life — some quite significant — that still cry out for commercial recordings, among them In the Distances of Sleep, a Sunbeam's Architecture, the Three Illusions, the Flute Concerto and Nine by Five. Now that the catalog is closed, I am hoping we may all see (or hear) all of it on CD. Bridge, that indispensable label, has already issued eight volumes in its Carter series. Vol. 9 is due, and I'm sure it is being planed, but money, of course, is always a consideration.

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Charles Rosen anecdote

In my previous post, I neglected to mention the little story about Charles Rosen that David Carter, Elliott's son, told me when I spoke with him at Tanglewood in 2008. Like me, David has been an avid fan of the Marx Brothers ever since he was a teenager. Once, in the 1950s, not long after Rosen and Elliott Carter had made each other's acquaintance, Carter brought Rosen home and, for some reason, left him alone with David for a little while. An awkward silence ensued, and, to break it, David asked Rosen if he could play stunt piano like Chico Marx.

It turned out Rosen could, and he kept David entertained, shooting the keys, etc., until Elliott came back into the room.

Davis said he was 13 or 14 when this occurred, but Rosen himself has said that he did not meet Elliott Carter until 1956, which would have made David 15 or 16.

First Elliott, now Charles

I have just learned that the pianist Charles Rosen has died in New York City, just one month after the composer he had championed for most of his career, Elliott Carter. He was 85. I last saw him play at Tanglewood in 20008, performing the piano in Carter's Double Concerto opposite Ursula Oppens.

Mr. Rosen was not only a great pianist. He was also one of my favorite writers on music. I have learned more on the subject from The Classical Style than from any comparable text. His short monograph on Arnold Schoenberg is indispensable, and his essays in the New York Review of Books — especially those that followed the header "Charles Rosen responds" — were enlightening and wickedly entertaining.

Lordy, who will save us from Richard Taruskin now?

Marja Kaisla performs at Woodmere

Marja Kaisla played an engaging if lightweight recital yesterday at the Woodmere Art Museum, Chestnut Hill. It was a cozy way to spend a dark, rainy afternoon. The program was split between Rachmaninov and Gershwin. The former was represented by the famous C# minor Prelude and the Corelli Variations, the latter by a selection of songs arrangements and the solo piano version of "Rhapsody in Blue." In her opening remarks, Marja drew a comparison between the two men, who were friends in the 20s, and played sections of the Rhapsody and Rachmaninov's Concerto No. 2 to illustrate the similarities in harmony and melodic treatment. Based on juxtaposition, one would guess there was no difference between the two except the one used jazz rhythms. Marja is an engaging personality and a sensitive interpreter with a mighty technique. I saw her perform the "Emperor" Concerto a couple of years ago, and last night's recital made me wish I could hear her in more substantive repertoire again very soon.

Just to catch up: I neglected to mention the wonderful American program at Arcadia University on Nov. 17. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Symphony Orchestra played music of Copland (the Clarinet Concerto), Ives (The Third Symphony), and Barber (Adagio for Strings, Knoxville: Summer 1915). The orchestra, under the direction of Allan Scott, seemed rather under-rehearsed in the Ives (and I didn't care for the synthesized church bells at the end), but it shined in "Knoxville" behind soprano Elizabeth Ann Murphy. The Copland was well-played by clarinetist Beth Vilsmeire, but again, the strings seemed a ragged. The concductor, Allan Scott, told me afterward the string writing is quite difficult, requiring a great deal of fast bowing off .

I was also told by the PR that Scott became rather nervous, knowing I would be in the audience. Apparently, he was afraid of what I'd find fault with the Ives Third. The musicians tried to reassure him, saying that most people don't know what to expect when it comes to Ives, but he said something like, "No, this guy knows things normal people don't know."

That pretty much says it all.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Alisa Weilerstein interview

Alisa Weilerstein, who performs Elliott Carter's Cello Concerto on her new CD, will play the other big piece on the disk, the Elgar Concerto, next week with the Philadelphia Orchestra. As a last-minute thing, I got to interview her last Thursday. She spoke to me by phone from Ireland. The article may be seen here. As a bonus, I have included the Carter video at youtube, although Mr. Carter is not really the focus of the piece. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Another Carter tribute

This poem has been taking up space on my hard drive since about 2000. Now seems like an approporiate time to share:

Three Dreams About Elliott Carter

My aunt sets out the cookies, and we wait.
The sunlight crawls across the floor. The chair—
The green one near the door— is empty. Late,
A ticking fills the room, then BANG! he’s there
And starts in right away: “I loathe your town.
A worthless, wasted effort getting here.
What music are you playing? Turn it down,
And while you’re on your feet, get me a beer.”
I let him know the composition’s mine —
Encomium for brass and children’s choir.
He doesn’t flinch. “I sacrifice my time,
And that’s the best I’m able to inspire?”
Apollo sniffed, and Orpheus went mad.
I tell my sister, “This guy’s worse than dad.”

the crowd
has left,
he sits
on a
chair. The
rain drips
through a
hole in
the big
tent and
bursts like
on his
“Do you
want to
come with
me?” I
say. “Some-
place dry?
Do you
want … ?” He
at my
touch and
a help-
less and
old man.

I’ve got it now. I know it cold —
The harmonies,
The tempo modulations,
The braided orchestrations.
Outside my bedroom, in the hall,
The newel at his hip,
I tell him everything he’s ever done.

And when I’m through, a silence hits
Like rests beyond a twelve-tone chord.
He looks me in the eye without expression,
Takes one step forward, shakes my hand.
“Goodbye,” he says
And turns and stumps off
         The stairs.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Classical Discoveries, Choristers

To mark the passing of Elliott Carter, Marvin Rosen has reposted the show he and I did on his "Classical Discoveries" radio program July 25. Those of you who missed it first time around can listen here. Those of you who didn't may want to listen again as a sort of memorial.

I hate that photograph, but the music is great, and I didn't embarrass myself too badly druing the interview.

The Chorister will present a wonderful concert of German romantic music this weekend in Upper Dublin, which I have written about. The program includes Brahms's of Liebeslieder Waltzes and three early songs of Richard Strauss sung by tenor David Hobbs. I attended the tryout performance last week in King of Prussia, of all places, and it was well worth the predictably hideous drive up Route 76. It even sustained me when, on the way home, my car broke down on the Roosevelt Expressway. First the radio died, then the headlights, then the engine. I rolled a stop not far from the Old York Road underpass, walked to the Walgreens on North Broad Street (I do not own a cell phone), and called for a tow at about 11:45 p.m. The truck, driven by Craig, my newest hero, arrived at about 12:35 a.m.

Problem was the alternator. Six days and hundreds of dollars in repairs later, my little red car is peppy again. Tomorrow it will, I hope, take me to hear Ives's Third Symphony at Arcadia University.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

More on Elliott's passing

One of the nice things about having a blog is that I get to argue with the New York Times. In the yesterday's obituary of Elliott Carter, Allan Kozinn quotes Harold C. Schonberg's review of the Concerto for Orchestra in 1970: "It may be a tour de force of its kind," Schonberg wrote, " but to me it is essentially uncommunicative, dry and a triumph of technique over spirit."

Because I have this blog, see, I finally get to call the guy an asshole. He's wrong, too. No piece of music in the past 40 years has shown as much spirit as Mr. Carter's Concerto. Yes, it's complex, and daunting, and [insert your cliché here], but it kicks neoromantic ass.

Anthony Tommasini has an appreciation in today's edition. He's much more understanding and insightful than Schonberg (who wouldn’t be?), although still drags out the usual shopworn stuff about “astringent” harmonies. And I disagree with him about the String Quartet No. 3. OK, so the music "unfolds in dizzying thickets of overlapping lines and jittery rhythmic explosions," but, you know, that's what I like about it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Oh, what the heck

My article about the Southeaster Pennsyvania Symphony Orhcestra's upcming American program may be read here. For the print version, we obtained permission from the Yale Music Library to reprint this wonderful photo of Charles and Harmony Ives at Elk Lake, N.Y., c. 1909, and I thought, since I now have the hi-res jpeg on my desktop, I would share it with all of you:

I offer this bit of history as a way to take our minds off the day's sad news, if only for a few moments.

Double click on it an download it for yourselves. There's no copyright.

Elliott Carter dies at 103

At last, this little life could no longer contain him. He required the larger space of history.

Carter's was one of the great lives of our time, longer and more productive than most. He truly used all of the time he was given, which was both an inspiration and a rebuke, and he left a body of work that will nourish me for the rest of my life. There is more here to celebrate than mourn, I suppose, but still, I can't help feeling a little cheated today. When a man lives long enough, I somehow expect him to live forever.

I'll miss Mr. Carter's preconcert talks, the interviews, the birthday festivals. Most of all, I'll miss looking forward to each new composition, and to the surprise and delight each one afforded. The store is now closed. The work is finite.

I'll always be grateful that the last time I spoke with him, at his 103rd birthday concert, was the one time it seemed we really connected. He was smiling and outgoing and seemed genuinely tickled with all the attention he was getting.

By happy coincidence, I recived Alisa Weilerstin's beautiful new recording of Mr. Carter's Cello Concerto the very day he died. I listened to it this morning as I was sending out emails, and I will get basck to it just as soon as I can.

Thanks to Colin Green for sharing this link:

Friday, November 2, 2012

Power Has Been Restored

The last cultural event I attended before sandy blew through town was the Philadelphia Singers’ all-American concert, which was held last Sunday, Oct. 28, at trinity Church, Philadelphia. Conductor was David Hayes. The program included Carter’s two Dickinson settings and Copland’s In the Beginning, as well as Persichetti’s Winter Cantata, which I had not heard before but hope to hear again. I’ve never much cared for Persichetti’s symphonies, but this piece, scored for chorus, flute and marimba, was attractive, in an icy sort of way.

I found the second half of the program somewhat weaker than the first (or maybe, I was just getting tired): Randall Thompson’s Odes of Horace and Morten Lauridsen’s Firesongs struck me as somewhat generic and anonymous, at least compared with the more personal statements of the other composers on the program. It’s hard to stand up to Carter and Copland in the best of times.

The performances were uniformly strong. Alyson Harvey, the soloist in the Copland, was angelic, standing up there in the pulpit, above the rest of the singers. I was most familiar with the Carter (naturally), and I used his music as my benchmark: Hayes & Co. did well by him, and I figured they must have done equally well with the others. Illogical, I know, but we tell ourselves such things to make sense of the world. In any event, I noticed no glitches. “Heart Not So Heavy as Mine” was beautifully done, and the fade out in “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere” made time stand still.

When the concert let out, the storm was on its way, but it wasn’t raining very hard, I walked over to FYI music, which was having a 75-percent-off sale on some classical overstock. Picked up some Schumann lieder (Matthias Goerne and Eric Schneider) and a complete Don Giovanni for twelve dollars all together. I should have listened to the Don Giovanni in the aftermath of the storm, but somehow I never got around to it. My apartment never lost power, but my office did, and I was home for three days.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Upcoming concerts in and around Philadelphia

The Philadelphia Singers will present a program of Amiercan choral music in Paoli and Philadelphia the weekend of Oct. 27. Highlight for me will be Carter's two Dickinson settings from the 1930s and '40s. Read my interview with choral director David Hayes.

In another (for me) exciting development, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Symphony Orchestra will present an American program Nov. 17, which I will also write about in due course. The concert will include Barber's Adagio for Strings, which is a bit of a snooze at this point, but the other works on tap more than make up for it: Barber's Knoxville, Copland's Clarinet Concerto, and Ives's little Third Symphony.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Ives Fourth in Berlin

I read in a blog post that Charles Ives's Fourth Symphony was recently performed in Berlin with an all-star cast that included Ingo Metzmacher, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the whole gleaming Berlin Philharmonic. Berlin, for heaven's sake. Hitlerville.

Still no word on when, if ever, it will be played in the birthplace of America.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Firebirds

Saturday I covered a robotics exhibition at Mount St. Joseph Academy, a girls' school in Flourtown. The name of the student's robotics team is the Firebirds. I had to ask, of course, and no, none of the girls had ever heard or heard of the ballet. I wrote down the information and handed it to one or two of the students, suggesting they look it up on youtube, but it made me uncomfortable. I didn't want them to think of me as one of those creepy old guys who hang out in schoolyards and talk to underage girls about Stravinsky.

In case you're wondering, the team name has nothing to do with the ballet. A Mount sophomore told me it was inspired by an incident in the late 90s when a robot caught fire. The team then rose from the ashes, she said, which suggested to me that the name should have been the Phoenixes. I am happy they made the wrong connection.

You want to know what ticks me off about the Philadelphia Orchestra?

I can sum it up in two words: Alisa Weilerstein.

Alisa Weilerstein is a cellist (and one of those classical string babes) who is about to release this CD:

As you can see, the CD will contain the concertos of Edward Elgar and Elliott Carter. It will be the third recording of recording of Carter's wonderful concerto. I have preordered it at Amazon. It is scheduled to be released at the end of the month and will be my 55th birthday present to myself.

Now, Alisa Weilerstein is slated to appear with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the end of December. She will be playing one of these two concertos. Guess which one. Go ahead. Guess.

Now, after 35 years of following the orchestra, waiting and hoping to be thrown the occasional bone, I have managed to make other arrangements other arrangements to satisfy my modernist jones. You have to, really. Once in a while, though, the frustration of missed opportunities returns to slap me in the face.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The greatest music blog in existence

Thanks to John Schott for sending the link. As he says, the postings have fallen off, but Mr. Carter is a busy man, and as old as — !

And I had to speak French

Last Thursday, Oct. 4, I interviewed both Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the incoming music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and soprano superstar Renée Fleming for a preview of the season opener coming up next week. You can read all about it here. I will add only that both Yannick and Fleming were relaxed and chatty, which went a long way toward making me feel the same way.

At the end of my 25 minutes or so with Yannick, I told him I could not let the opportunity pass without making a request. He chuckled and told me to go ahead. I told him my favorite composer is Charles Ives — “Oh!” I heard him say — and the one symphony by Ives the Philadelphia Orchestra has never played is the Fourth. (It has played the first three, plus the two orchestral sets and the Holidays, but never the Fourth. It also has never played the Robert Browning Overture, but one step at time.)

He seemed surprised by the fact, and he said he would take the suggestion seriously. He has already met with management to discuss major works that do not yet belong to the orchestra’s repertoire, he said, and the Ives should be added to the list. So who knows? Maybe in another couple of years. I told him that if he does schedule the piece, I would attend every performance, which also seemed to amuse him.

In my first attempt to phone Yannick — at home in Montreal — I got the wrong number. A woman answered, and since Fleming, whom I spoke to earlier, had screened my call (someone named Paul answered), I assumed the maestro was doing the same thing. The woman sounded elderly, and for a second I thought maybe it was his mom.

I asked to speak with him, and she said, “Comment?

So, reaching back to my high school French, I said something like, “Je voudrais parler avec Monsieur Nézet-Séguin.” She mumbled something I didn’t understand, and the line went dead.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

1984 Revisited







Friday, September 28, 2012

Congratulations, Elliott Carter

My man Elliott Carter was inducted into the French Legion of Honor Sept. 21, joining such notables as the immortal Jerry Lewis. Read the French ambassador's speech here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Presidential polls

Apparently, pollsters have added a new category of respondent in compiling data on the presidential race. The good news is that in Pennsylvania, Obama is leading not only among "likely voters," but also among "people Republicans might allow to vote."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cage on original instruments

So much went on at Sunday's John Cage happening that I wasn't able to mention everything in yesterday's post. To follow up: I was told by one of the performers that Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (the one for 12 radios and 24 performers) is getting harder to present as written, because it calls for radios that have dials, which most don't anymore (at least not for tuning), and because the numbers on the score refer to AM settings, and there are fewer AM stations than there used to be. (The piece was written in 1951.) The guy I spoke to admitted to using FM. Most of the radios on stage, however, were older varieties with dials (or knobs) for both volume and tuning, which led the guy to say we had just witnessed an original-instrument perfromance.

A lot of the postmortem conversations were like that, which, I guess, goes a long way to explaining my happy mood on the way home.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Orchestra 2001 performs (and doesn't) John Cage

Yesterday I attended the third of Orchestra 2001's three "happenings" celebrating John cage's centenary (which fell on April 5). It was held at Swarthmore College, SW of Philadelphia. I rushed in late, missing the first piece on the program (Inlets for conch shells), after spending an hour driving on Route 1 and another half hour wandering around campus looking for the hall. Needless to say, I was in an angry, rotten mood when I sat down, and it is a testament to both the composer and the performers that I was so happy, elated, and hungry when I left.

The program included selections from the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (including Sonata XII, my favorite), performed variously by James Freeman, Mark Loria (who played No. XII) and Andrew Hauze. Those in the audience who were unfamiliar with Cage were surprised and impressed by just beautiful the music was. This was the first time I had heard a prepared piano live, and I must say the sound is much more striking and resonant than it is on recordings. It was a treat, as was the opportunity to inspect the instrument up close during intermission.

Soprano Delea Shand, who came in from New York to sub for the ailing Ann Crumb, sang (and otherwise vocalized) the brief, funny “Aria.” She was a real trouper who gave the piece everything she had, and Freeman and company had the inspiration to project the graphic score on a screen during the performance, which let us see exactly was Shand handled Cage’s open-ended recipe.

I also liked the Imaginary Landscape No. 4, for 12 radios and 24 players, which is like walking down a long, empty corridor and hearing sounds spilling out of the open door as you pass. Believe it or not, this was the second time I’d ever heard it, and I don’t own a recording. The piece has to be experienced live. Otherwise you don’t get the little frissons that come from hearing own, local radio stations. During yesterday’s realization, for example, I heard the name Jimmy Rollins, and also the voice of Merrill Reese calling the Eagles game.

The afternoon ended with a (non)performance of Freeman’s own large-scale arrangement of 4ʹ33ʺ, which included audience (non)participation. I enjoyed it, but as I told James afterward, his tempi were a little brisk for my taste. I feel piece should have a stately, Brucknerian grandeur.

One word of criticism: Somebody switched on the speaker system just as Mark sat down to play the Sonatas. It was unnecessary, and the incessant background buzz throughout the performance was distraction to say the least, annoying to say the most.

One other word of criticism: Cage was an amateur mycologist, and in a tribute to his obsession, mushroom pizza was served at the post-concert reception. Unfortunately, only six pies were ordered, and, at eight slices a pie, that comes to only 48 slices for a crowd that numbered over 100. It was gone by the time I got out there. Oh, well. On the way home I stopped at a Mexican takeout in Bala Cynwyd and had a veggie burrito. Before intermission, this slip was shown on a screen above the stage.

Now, I ask you, what TV show today, on a commercial network, would dare have an artist like Cage as a guest?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Der Wein den man mit Ohren trinkt ...

My congratulations and thanks go to the faculty of the University of Delaware music department for the terrific performances of Pierrot Lunaire Friday and Sunday at the German Society of Pennsylvania. I attended both, because I figured, hey, how often do you get to hear Pierrot live? It was worth the extra trip, too, because, for whatever reason, I enjoyed the Sunday performance more. Maybe I was more alive to the sound, or maybe I was paying more attention to the performance than the words in the program, or maybe the ensemble was looser.

The music is like super-concentrated Wagner — extended recitative (and most of Wagner’s vocal music is extended recit) over a sensitive and arresting instrumental accompaniment.

Noel Archambeault, the soprano, was outstanding and expressive, despite a few balance problems. On Friday evening, she stood at behind the flutist and clarinetist on the German Society's shallow stage, and there were times I couldn't hear her at all. On Sunday, she stood further forward and off to the side, which helped — as did her tendency to hit the notes more strongly — through the problem persisted in some spots. (She also seemed to be tiring in the later sections.) I don't mean to cavil: the performance was too good to be ruined by an acoustic inconvenience.

Harvey Price conducted, ably and unobtrusively. Instrumentalists were Eileen Grycky, flute/piccolo; Marianne Gythfedlt, clarinet/bass clarinet; Timothy Swartz, violin/viola; Larry Stromberg, cello; and Julia Nishimura, piano. Cheers all around.

Only about 20 people showed up Friday evening, but the musicians put the best face on it. Tim Swartz said afterward he was happy there were more people in the audience than on stage. Sunday's attendance was better. I estimated the audience at fifty or more. The audiences may have been small, but they were knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Usually, in my experience, when a concert is devoted entirely to modern music and listeners arrive knowing what they are going to hear, they go home happy. The problem starts when the program is mixed, and half the audience is there to hear the Brahms. That's when the walk-outs occur.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Assemble your own Cage

Two nights ago I took my own advice from an earlier blog post. Lying awake at about 4 a.m., I began paying close attention to the sounds outside my bedroom window, and I turned them into a Cagean composition I call the "Stridulation Serenade."

The music — and I'll call it that — consisted of three layers: a chirruping pulse of crickets (which reminded me somewhat of Steve Reich), the underlying pedal point of an air-conditioner from another apartment, and occasional early-morning traffic noises, generally either the whoosh of tires or the revving of a motorcycle engine.

The piece lasted twenty-five minutes and was followed by an audio-visual event I titled “Dream Sequence.”

Thinking of Cage, I'm reminded of what Elliott Carter once said about aleatory music: "Play anything you want, just put my name in the program."

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Normal is boring

After my preview of the Schoenberg concert was published last week, a young woman in the office asked me, "Joe, do you like any normal music?"

She didn't say exactly what she meant by normal, but I sort of knew what she meant, and she wasn't talking about Brahms.

The short answer to her question, then, is "no."

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

In the Cage

John Cage, innovator or charlatan, the man who taught us anything can be music, would have been 100 years old today. So listen to some Cage. It takes no effort. If you have no recordings or access to YouTube, you can take a moment to pay attention to the sounds in your home, your office, or on the street, and then say to yourself, "This is a John Cage composition."

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Schoenberg preview

Sometimes I am so erudite, I could just pee.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Exciting news

Pierrot Lunaire (or part of it) will be performed in Philadelphia (of all places) on Sept. 7 and 9. I'm hoping to do a preview article. I heard the pice in it's entirety at the Philadelphia Art Museum (of all places) back in the early 90s (before my second, disastrous marriage). James Freeman condcuted the indispensible Orchestra 2001. Program also included Milton Babbitt's "Transfigured Notes," with the composer on hand.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Oh yeah, now I remember

The United States has produced the following:

Charles Ives
Elliott Carter
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Hermann Melville
Henry David Thoreau
Abraham Lincoln
King Oliver
Martin Luther King Jr.
Frank Zappa
Ira Segall
Lynn Kendall
Linda Bernier
and me.

And it gave safe haven to Arnold Schoenberg, Albert Einstein, Stefan Wolpe and Ronnie Breslow.

Something went right somewhere.

What's not to like?

On the way home from Sellersville last Thurday, we drove past a dakened home with a big American flag hanging from the porch. The flag had a spotlight on it, enriching the red and blue and putting deep shadows into the folds. I remarked how pretty it was.

"You're not a patriot, are you?" my companion asked.

"Well, I do like this country," she replied.

"Why?" she asked.

And damned if I could come up with an answer. I've been thinking about it for the past week, and all I have is an endless list of negatives: the love affair with guns, the occasional mass killings, the religiosity, the anti-intellectualism, the international adventurism, the greed, the poverty, the hatred of the poor, the corporate rape of the environment, and now that Paul Ryan is back in the news, the emphasis on heartless libertarianism. There are the founding ideals, of course, of equality and such, but they were the ideals of slave owners, and they left us with a constitution whose oversights led directly to Dred Scott, the Civil War, and Citizens United.

One good thing about that last, though: now that the super pacs are running anti-Obama ads every 10 minutes, I have a real incentive to give up TV for the next three months. Thank you, Americans for Prosperity.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Bend sinister

At the Sellersville Theater last Thursday, bassist Tom Fowler autographed my copy of the Roxy CD, and, in return, I autographed for him a copy of the article I about the Grandmothers. While I was signing, he said to me, "Do girls think you're weird because you're left-handed?"

"No," I said, "they think I'm weird for countless other reasons."

I hope everyone in the Northeastern U.S. got outside yestasrday. It was too beautiful a day to be cooped up in the apartment for any lenght of time. Philadelphia in August can be brutal, but at the moment we are enjoying the false fall. Yesterday was sunny but not too warm, and the humidity was low — the perfect day for a bike ride. I went through Pennypack Park, out Torresdale Avenue to Glenn Foerd, and then back past Northeast Philadelphia Airport, and for a brief time, I was happy.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Grandmothers of Invention are, from left, Miroslav Tadic, Tom Fowler, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Chris Garcia, and Don Preston. For last night's Sellersville perfomance, Tadic was replaced by Robert Mangano.

The Grandmothers of Invention played a terrific set last night at the Sellersville Theater. The band consisted of members of the 60s and 70s versions of the Mothers of Invention — Don Preston, who will be 80 next month, Tom Fowler, and Napoleon Murphy Brock — plus relative newcomers Chris Garcia on drums and Robert Mangano in Frank Zappa, on guitar. The group performed the Roxy album almost in its entirety (minus “Be-Bop Tango") plus several other favorites including "Oh, No," "San Ber'dino," "Debra Cadabra" and a medley from Burnt Weeny Sandwich. (The repertoire did not extend beyond the mid-1970s.)

Napoleon served as ringmaster, and was, in general, a more genial host than I remember Frank ever being.

The little theater was only about a third full, though the people who did attend, including some in their teens, were obviously fans. I could see their lips moving in the dark as they sang along to most of the numbers. Knowledge of the lyrics was a plus, since the amplification made them to understand. My companion for the evening, who did not know Zappa’s work, said that while the music put her in a good mood after a very bad day, she had a hard time following the words. A pity, since one can't fully appreciate "Penguin in Bondage" without a grasp of the subject matter. .

Thanks, guys. And thanks, too, for autographing my copy of the Roxy CD. Cal Schenkel was also introduced from the audience, but he slipped out while I was still standing in line waiting to meet the band.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Monday, August 6, 2012


Ives's Fouth Symphony and Carter's Concerto for Orcehstra

As I said in my previous post, the time I spent of the air with Marvin Rosen July 25 went by very quickly — so quickly, indeed, that I did not have the opportunity to play all of the music I wanted. One of the pieces I cut before I even got to the studio was the second movement, the so-called "comedy," of Charles Ives's Symphony No. 4, which I wanted to contrast with Elliott Carter's Concerto for Orchestra. I have long thought that the latter would not have been feasible without the example of the former, even though Carter never mentions it in his list of inspirations for the piece.

To my ear, both pieces have a similar expressive arc, and they end in much the same way: all hell breaks loose and then things get very quiet, quickly in the case of the Ives, more gradually in the case of Carter. Although Ives completed his Fourth Symphony by the mid-1920s, more or less, and Eugene Goosens conducted the first two movements as early as 1927, a performance of the full work had to wait until 1965, when Stokowski led the premiere at Carnegie Hall. The famous first recording, still considered definitive, followed in a few months.

This was just a couple of years before Carter began to plan his Concerto for Orchestra. He certainly was familiar with the Ives, having attempted to edit the manuscript at one point, and with the Stokowski LP, and I insist that it was lurking somewhere in the back of his mind as he fulfilled his commission from the New York Philharmonic. To me, it is almost as though he set out to re-write Ives's symphony while eliminating what he always thought to be its flaws — first, the use of musical quotations, and, second, the muddied orchestrations in which some instruments are impossible to hear. One thing about Carter's music: as complex and multi-layered as it is, everything is audible. I floated my theory past one Carter expert who responded with what felt like an e-mailed shrug, but I stand by it. Not that it matters. The Concerto for Orchestra stands very much on its own.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Self-promotion department

There's still time to listen to my appearance on Marvin Rosen's program Classical Discoveries Goes Avant-Garde. The mp3 files will remain on Marvin's website until August 12.

Response to our all-Carter program has been limited, but uniformly positive. Some of my friends didn't care for the music, but they thought I did pretty well, which was a relief. I felt I stammered and repeated myself, and I had these visions of listeners sitting in their cars thinking, "Who is this goofball?"

Marvin said it had been a "great show," and, more inportant, so did his wife, Beata, who, I am told, is his most outspoken critic, one who would never say anything just to be nice. I want to her, too, for driving me from the Rosen house to the studio and back. Without her, I mostly likely would have been at least a half hour late to the show. I left my house in plenty of time, but, driving up Route 1, I missed my turn off and ended up a couple of townships away. Finally, when the trip odometer hit 40 miles — after Google Maps had assured me the journey from my home to the Rosens' was only 33 — I decided the time had come to turn around.

I walked into the studio with about eight minutes to spare. I was feeling frazzled and very foolish, but Marvin assured me we had plenty of time, and he was right. He loaded the first CD, and there was nothing left to do but sit and chat and load up on bottled water.

The WPRB studio is a seedy, poorly ventilated, trapezoidal room in the basement of Princeton's Bloomberg Hall. The window in front of the board looks out onto an empty elevator well and, beyond, a meandering white corridor. (During On Conversing With Paradise, I went out to use the men's room and followed the corridor to its dead end before going back. I'd missed the turn, as I had on Route 1. A pattern was developing.)

The board was compact, with a pair of turntables on one side and a stack of CD players on the other. There were two foam-shrouded microphones, mounted on swivel booms. I sat at the one on the right as we faced out the studio window. Marvin told me to speak up and keep my lips close to the mike. I actually didn't hear much of the music I had brought. Marvin and I spent much of the time going over what we would talk about during our next segment. He had a list of questions prepared, and he told me in advance what he was going to ask so there would be no unpleasant surprises. Near the end of the show, he said he wanted to ask what Carter was working on these days, and when I told him I didn't know, he said he would skip it. This was not gotcha journalism. He wanted me to be at ease.

The time on-air went by quickly — so quickly, indeed, that we didn't have time for all of the music I had wanted to play. I had hoped to finish up with Carter's Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord, but by the time the Concerto for Orchestra was finished, we had only about eight or so minutes left. Fortunately, I had brought a couple of alternates. Marvin asked me a few parting questions, and we played the "Bariolage," a six-minute piece for solo harp, which took us right up to the end of the show.

The DJ with the time slot after Marvin's cut it even closer that I had. He arrived a minute or so late, while the station ID was still playing. For a while, Marvin thought he was going to have to stay on the air.

Marvin, Beata and I had a post-mortem lunch at a family-owned Mexican restaurant in Princeton. Then Marvin went to work at Westminster Choir College, and Beata gave me a tour of their house and garden. I thought I was a compulsive collector, but Marvin owns more than 15,000 CDs. They are everywhere, except for two small rooms — the kitchen and an upstairs office — where Beata forbids them. In the living, they are actually a theme of the interior decor, covering an entire wall. The place smelled pleasantly of fresh-cut wood, a symptom of the endless rows of IKEA shelves.

I haven't listened to the broadcas, by the way. If I want to hear it again, I can just replay the CDs on my home stereo and avoid all the commentary.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

OK, now I get it

Finished reading Lullaby last night, and this morning I suddenly realized why the pliot seemed to work for me: it's an urban retelling of True Grit, with Spenser in the role of Rooster Cogburn. If confirmation is needed, consider that the name of the girl — Mattie — is the same in both books. The only iteration of True Grit I know is the John Wayne - Kim Darby film, but now I want to get to the novel, while I'm thinking of it. Springfield Township Library has a copy. I'll check it out when I return Lullaby tomorrow.

The confrontation at the T station made me think the real world is better off without Spenser, Hawk, Vinnie Morris and their ilk. Fortunately, we will not have to find out. The sort of Western shoot-'em-ups depicted in the book — good guys on one side, bad guys on the other, and a hostage in the middle — rarely if ever occurs in our major cities. After the Aurora massacre, does anyone actually believe we'd be safer if well-intentioned citizens armed themselves and were willing to open fire at a moment's notice?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Spenser at 80

I've always liked Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser and Virgil Cole novels. While I never throught he was in the same league with Hammett or Chandler, he was always a fun, easy read, and I consumed his books one after another, like potato chips, barely pausing to savor one before picking up the next. After he died in 2010, his estate farmed out his characters to writers who were charged with peretuating the several franchises. The first of the new Spenser books, Lullaby by Ace Atkins, came out a couple months ago, and I'm reading it now. It is better than Sixkill, the last Spenser novel Parker wrote, but that's not saying much. Sixkill was, I think, Parker's weakest story (Catskill Eagle was his most preposterous), and at the time, it made me think that, perhaps, the author did his character a favor by dying.

The plot of Lullaby plot is absorbing enough (I'm about 100 pages from the end), but Spenser himself is much more smug, pedantic and judgmental than I remember him. I also keep asking myself, just how old are these people? Parker would have been 80 next month, and given that the Spenser was in his early forties when Godwulf Manuscript appeared in 1973, and no attempt has been made to telescope his history, he has got to be up there as well. It's hard to buy him as a tough guy anymore. (Imagine Groucho Marx, circa 1970, beating people up.) His sidekick, Hawk, is even sadder, since he tries so hard to be stylish.

Then there's Susan, Spenser's love interest. She must be in her mid-70s at least, and she’s no longer believable as the svelte goddess who turns heads every time she enters a room. There is a scene in Lullaby where she is sitting on a sofa in nothing but a sweatshirt and panties, with her feet tucked under her. It's meant to be a turn-on, but ewwww. I kept thinking of my mother. I’ve known a lot of elderly women, and they possess many stellar qualities, but kittenish sexuality is not one of them. Nor should it be.

Parker once said he dealt with Spenser's age by not dealing with it, but the time for denial is long past. The series should be either rebooted or retired.

Oh, and it there's ever another TV adaptation, may suggest Hugh Laurie and Lisa Edelstein for the leads? Loved them on House, though the series itself quickly fell to pieces.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The greatest compliment I've ever been paid

Last Friday afternoon I interviewed (to drop a name) Don Preston, the original keyboardist with the Mothers of Invention, who will appear in Sellersville Aug. 9 with a couple of Frank Zappa's other old bandmates. (The act is billed as the Grandmothers. Clever, eh?) I felt the chat went well, but I didn't know how just well until today, when, before writing the article, I called Rob Duffey, the group's manager, to verify a couple of names. Rob told me that soon after we spoke, Preston called him to say he enjoyed talking with me, and that it was "not a stupid interview." Apparently, Don has has suffered through a lot of of stupid interviews, and, therefore, when he says an interview was "not stupid," it counts as genuinely high praise. It made my day.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Minor celebrity

We like to push the extracurricular activities of the editors here at Montgomery Newspapers, and so my upcoming guest shot on Marvin Rosen's radio show is now the subject of a preview article in Ticket, our entertainment insert.

We figured if our executive editor rated an article when he signed copies of his new book, a two-hour program on EC was just as newsworthy.

In the interest of objectivity, Frank Quattrone, the Ticket editor, assigned Mary Cantell to do the story, instead of letting me write it myself. I must say it was a little disorienting to be on the recieving end of an interview, though Mary made it quick and painless, much like lethal injection. When my sister saw the article, she said she was surprised to learn that I didn't like Lawrence Welk. To be fair, my father didn't like Elliott Carter.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Evelyn Lear 1926-2012

I learn from Lisa Hirsch that the soporano Evelyn Lear died July 1. Of course, I remember her first and foremost for American Scenes, American Poets, an album of songs by Charles Ives she recorded with her husband, the late baritone Thomas Stewart. It was my first exposure to the songs of Ives and remains both a favorite recording and another one of those Columbia classics Sony has never seen fit to release on CD.

Strange, though — Lear was an American (born Evelyn Shulman in Brooklyn), but for a long time I assumed she was ... well, I know not what. My confusion was due to a minspronunciation on the Ives recording. The song "The Light That Is Felt," with text by Whitter, contains the lines "And only when our hands we lay / In thine, Oh God! the night is day." Maybe she was distracted, maybe she was uptight, maybe she wasn't making sense of the lyric, but for some reason, Lear pronounces "lay" as "lee."

And only when our hands we lee ...

Regardless, it is a wonderful rendition of a wonderful piece. When my mother died in 1999, I hired a soprano to sing it at her funeral — in large measure because of the impression Lear had made on me 25 years earlier.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Radio Date

On Wednesday, July 25, I will appear as the guest on Marvin Rosen's radio program "Classical Discoveries Goes Avant-Garde" on WPRB Princeton. We will be playing and discussing the music of Elliott Carter. Airtime time is 11 a.m. - 1 p.m. EDT. For those of you in the broadcast area (including Philadelphia), WPRB is at 103.3 on the FM dial. The show may also be heard around the world at, and Marvin saves his programs as mp3 files for two weeks or so (server space is limited) at his own Classical Discoveries website.
The playlist will include Carter's String Quartet No. 4 with the Composer's Quartet and the the Concerto for Orchestra with Boulez and the New York Philharmonic, as well as some shorter pieces and historic recordings.
I want you all to blow off work and listen.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Two Controversies and a Conversation

Many thanks to BH to scoring me a ticket for the premiere of Elliott Carter's Two Controversies and a Conversation June 9 at Symphony Space in New York City. The piece is an expansion of Carter's Conversations, a small double concerto for piano, percussion and chamber orchestra first played in June 2011 at the Aldeburgh Festival. The two brief "controversies" were added at the suggestion of Oliver Knussen, who conducted the premiere of Conversations. On first hearing, I'm not sure what they added to the work, since they went by rather fast. They're both fairly brief and declamatory, and I liked Conversations well enough on its own. Still, the performance was memorable. Colin Currie was the percussion soloist, as he was at Aldeburgh, and the young pianist Huebner was more than an adequate substitute for Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the other soloist for whom Conversations was written. I got to speak to Huebner at intermission. (BH seemed to know absolutely everyone in the hall that night, and he introduced me to at least half of them.) He said the piece was fun to play and not nearly so hairy as the piano music from Carter's heroic period.

Mr. Carter was there, too, in a wheelchair, and was interviewed before the performance by Magnus Lindberg. He (Carter) was pretty funny about the practical problems of writing for percussion, which he said was largely a matter of having "the poor guy" run around too much. Ultimately, he said, he just had to stop thinking about it.

The rest of the program was also very strong. My mind began to wander during Boulez' ...explosante-fixe..., but I was quite taken with Nachlese Vb: Liederzyklus, for soprano and chamber orchestra, by the Swiss composer Michael Jarrell, whom I had not heard of before.

Read Steve Smith’s review.

Then listen to the concert, courtesy of WQXR.

I've tried embedding it, but it doesn't seem to want to play. Maybe you'll have better luck:

Sorry I've been offline so long. Been rather overwhelmed at work, and haven't had much focus the rest of the time. I'm leading exactly the kind of life my parents' envisioned for me, I think — long hours, low pay, no recognition, the kind of Darwinian struggle that teaches you that life is unfair and you had better dammed well pull yourself up by your bootstraps because if you don't no one else is going to and there's nothing to look forward to once the honeymoon is over and the only available comforts are religion and drink.

Yes, Adam and Betty, you were right. Happy now?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

EC dreams

Had the oddest dream this morning. I was giving a lecture on Elliott Carter to a group of senior citizens. What made it strange is that what I was saying actually made sense: usually in my dreams, the talk is gibberish, but I can remember everything I said in this one - all about EC's birth, education, study with Boulanger, relationship with Charles Ives, etc. But there was a DVD playing on a flat-screen TV in the front of the room, and as the lecture went on, it got louder and louder, playing a bombastic symphony that  sounded to me a lot like  Shostakovich. Meanwhile, workmen were filling the classroom with folding chairs and other

furniture. Finally, they brought in a long armoire that blocked my view of the old people entirely. I couldn't be heard over the TV, the scraping of the chairs and all the talking, and I gave up. I stopped shouting, and, leaning back against the window sill, I said, "I'm not going to waste my voice."

The meaning seems pretty clear.

Yesterday I received in the mail Bridget Kibbey's CD Love Is Come Again which contains her reading of Carter's harp solo, "Bariolage." It's beautiful recording, both perfromance and sound quality.

Monday, April 30, 2012

OK, I don't like this

Anyone who knows me knows I dislike change, particularly when it is unannounced, and Google has just decided to change Blogger. There are lots of spiffy new features I will probably never use, and of course, it is no longer supported by the browser on my home computer, which means either all posting will have to be done at the office, or I have to plunk down fifteen hundred dollars or so for a new laptop. (Updating to Windows XP on my 11-year-old desktop, a prerequisite for a new browser, makes no sense and would probably overload the hard drive.) Right now, I am having trouble navigating the new set up. I found the "new post" tab pretty much by accident. I guess what I'm trying to say is, 1) it may be a while before I feel comfortable enough to get back to posting on an even half-way regular basis. And 2) damn you, Google, couldn't you leave well enough alone? Ugh. My life is horrid at the moment. The ceiling in my bathroom will not stop leaking, everything I own seems to be on its last legs, and I cannot afford to either move or replace anything. The last thing I need is more surprises.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A clerihew? We have a few ...

This winner from EH:

Richard Starkey
Lost his car key,
But Ringo Starr
Didn't need a car.

And one more from me:

Elliott Carter
Could not be smarter,
Though for many, his music
Is pretty confusic.

Please bear with us. These spells usually pass within a few days.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A couple more

This from EH in response to my first clerihew:

The wife of Johann Sebastian Bach,
possessed of only a sock
for protection,
created for orchestra a violin section.

It took me a second to get it, but I like it tons. One thing I have sworn never to do is reverse word order for the sake of a rhyme, but EH is a Latin scholar, so we can forgive the "Latinate" construction.

And one more from me:

Charles Ives
Led two lives,
Which freed him to compose
"From Hanover Square North at the End of a Tragic Day the Voice of the People Again Arose."

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A clerihew

My Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines a "clerihew" as "a form of comic verse named after its inventor, Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956). It consists of two metrically awkward couplets and usually presents a ludicrously uninformative 'biography' of some famous person whose name appears as one of the rhymed words in the first couplet."

The dictionary offers this example:

Geoffrey Chaucer
Could hardly have been coarser,
But this never harmed the sales
Of his Canterbury Tales.

Reading that, I suddenly remembered a poem W.H. Auden once recited on the old Dick Cavett Show, and at last I recognized it for the clerihew it was:

John Milton
Never slept in a Hilton
Which is just as well.

So here, now, is a clerihew of my own (actually my only one) on a musical subject.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Possessed a limitless stock
Of contrapuntal profundity
And full-frontal rotundity.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Everything sucks

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mitt Romney could never do this

Socialism and phony theology aside, the man is cool:

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

Monday, February 20, 2012

Brahms recordings, my two cents

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

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

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Brahms in Bryn Athyn

... now ain’t that alliterative?

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

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

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

Friday, February 17, 2012

Milton Babbitt's Music for the Mass

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

And then there were the Rhine Maidens:

WTF are they wearing?

Goodbye Again - Brahms

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

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

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Jury Duty

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

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

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

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Random thoughts while not watching the Super Bowl

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A good news - bad news kind of thing

The Detroit Symphony is scheudled to perfrom the four symphonies of Charles Ives at Carnegie Hall in May 2013.

I find myself on the horns of a dilemma. To go or not? On the one hand, this is an opportunity to hear some of my favorite music all in one sitting at what is, acoustically, my favorite concert hall. On the other hand, the conductor will be Leonnard Slatkin.


And I see this blog now has six followers. How did that happen?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Whoa-oh-oh-oh on the radio

Thanks to WPRB Princeton for broadcasting Nielsen's great Clarinet Concerto this morning. The beautiful, round-toned reading by the soloist, Hakan Rosengren (with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra) brightened up my commute and put me in a wonderful mood that lasted until the moment I walked into the office.

Once I sat down, nothing could save me.

The Nielsen was so good it almost made me forgive the station for the godawful prep school recording of HMS Pinafore that Teri Noel Towe subjected the region to last Friday, complete with updates on where all his fellow preppie cast members are now. (News flash, TNT: Nobody cares.) He made me want to shoot myself, or him. I can usually put up with the pedantry and the shameless namedropping because he does play some extraordinary historic recordings, but if the music sucks, too, controlling one's temper is a wasted effort.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Kinagree Smith at Flying Fish at Roller's

The folk trio with two names — Kinagree Smith — played two sets last night at Flying Fish in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. The venue is the second floor of Roller’s restaurant on Germantown Avenue. (The official name is Flying Fish at Roller’s, which can make for some awkward prose. The link to my preview article is at left.) Personnel were Jack Kinagree and Lexi Smith on guitar and vocals, and my old friend Ira Segall, whom I’ve known since I delivered the Philadelphia Bulletin to his parents’ home, on Third World finger percussion.

Ira’s a latecomer to the band, and, as Jack explains in the article, the reason the name hasn’t been expanded to Kinagree Smith and Segall is that it sounds too much like a law firm.

I don’t follow the world-folk scene, but a band this good could convince me to start. The love lyrics could be banal — of the you-complete-my-soul-and-your-kisses-give-me-life variety — but the two, four-song “suites” from the band’s forthcoming CD were genuinely touching. And boy, can Jack and Lexi sing.

My favorite number, as I think everybody knows at this point, was Jack’s “My Folk Music (Wants to Kick Your Ass),” Jack’s anti-ode to the clichéd notion that folk music is warm, fuzzy, politically committed, environmentally aware, spiritually comforting, and so … Joni. He turned it into a sing-along, which was perhaps unfortunate, because I didn’t know the lyrics well enough to join in, and the song works well enough on its own. But that’s a niggling complaint. It’s a great song.

Ira was the Harpo of the group: he didn’t join in the vocals (a good thing too, buddy), and he seemed rather aloof, sitting off to the side and keeping his body still, moving nothing but his fingers as he played. The exotic instruments — mostly chimes, Arab and Nigerian drums, Tibetan singing bowls, and those little Indian cymbals — provided an unobtrusive underpinning of thumps, clicks and pings. In the small space, they didn’t overwhelm the guitars or the vocalists, as a standard set of jazz drums would have. Lexi referred to the effect as “texturing.”

At the start of the second set, Ira also performed a short percussion solo, expanding his arsenal to include gongs, drums and a Pakistani frame drum known as the tar, which resembles an embroidery loop 30 inches in diameter. For a little while, I was back in my comfort zone — the familiar sound world of Crumb and Cage — which suited me just fine.

Attendance was small, unfortunately. Lexi says live turnout is always a problem when your fans have come to know you primarily through the Internet and they’re scattered all over the world. Then again, the little dining room wouldn’t have held too many more people.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Colleen Roult Barron

Friday, December 30, was my daughter's 25th birthday.