Monday, November 25, 2013

More live music

Between one thing and another, I have fallen far behind on my blogging, but I didn’t want too much time to go by without mentioning a pair of memorable concerts I attended in the weeks before the Carter tribute at Carnegie Hall. The concerts took place on consecutive Sundays. On November 3, I drove out to Swarthmore (may the builders of I-95 roast in eternal perdition) to hear Orchestra 2001 and the Daedalus Quartet perform music by Walton, Joan Tower, and Schoenberg. The quartet played Joan Tower’s String Quartet No. 5, titled White Water, and, with baritone Randall Scarlata and pianist Charles Abramovic, Arnold Schoenberg’s 1942 “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte.” The afternoon began and ended with orchestra itself, dressed in red and black, playing William Walton’s early, sprawling “Façade,” split into two big sections, with Scarlata and the sublime Suzanne DuPlantis as narrators. Performances were uniformly excellent. The Tower was easy to follow, with broad lines and open textures, but it seemed to me more well-crafted than inspired, somewhat like the music of Walter Piston.

The greatest piece on the program was the Schoenberg, but for its sheer playfulness, the Walton made the strongest impression. It’s an eclectic piece, a sort of mixture of Pierrot Lunaire and A Soldier’s Tale, with a bit of Three-Penny Opera thrown in. Like The Rite of Spring ten years earlier, it caused a scandal at its premiere. Before the performance, James Freeman, 2001’s conductor, said the poet Edith Sitwell, who provided texts, had to sneak out of the theater, because, it was warned, she might come to some harm. Freeman said he had always envied Walton and Stravinsky for the violence and passion of those first responses, and he encouraged us to boo, if we felt like it. A few of us did, just to be polite, but we were all in much too good a mood to make a serious show of it. The performance was great fun. I told both James and Suzanne I wished the group would record it.

A week later, I had a lovely afternoon in the genial company of Mozart and Beethoven, courtesy of the Independence Sinfonia, which is fast becoming the best of Philadelphia’s small suburban orchestras. The concert was held at Or Hadash synagogue in Whitemarsh, in a boxy, wood-paneled sanctuary that conductor Jerome Rosen said was built as a music hall. The orchestra has about forty musicians, more enough to create a thrilling, knockout sound in such intimate surroundings. There was a tangibility to the music, a sense of envelopment you don’t get in the big halls,. Even with the biggest and best orchestras.

Charles Salinger was the Apollonian soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A. Rosen told me afterward he was especially proud of the job the musicians did in this piece, but after the concert, my head remained full of Beethoven, if only because his music is less subtle. The concert began with the Overture to “the “Creatures of Prometheus” and ended with the Fourth Symphony. The group was tight and fluent in both. Special mention should be made of bassoonist Judy Frank, who nailed the little cadenza in the last movement of the symphony. (The conductor gave her a congratulatory OK sign from the podium.) The passage is as challenging as a fifty-two yard field goal, Rosen said. Even the most experienced player can muff it, but when it works, it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

There. I am now caught up. It is cold tonight. Time to curl up under the covers with tea and Updike’s Couples.

Monday, November 18, 2013

All Carter, all the time

Yesterday I took the Jersey Transit to New York for the 2 p.m. all-Elliott Carter program at Carnegie Hall. Leon Botstein conducted the American Symphony Orchestra with guest artists Anthony McGill, clarinet; Mary MacKenzie, soprano; and Teresa Buchholz, mezzo. The hall was less than half full. Up in the dress circle, where I was sitting, everyone would have fit into one of the five searing sections. As with all Carter concerts, however, the crowd, such as it was, was knowledgeable and enthusiastic. It was rewarded with a good concert that fell several steps short of great.

The bad news first: The program ended with the extraordinary Concerto for Orchestra from 1969, the piece I was most eager to hear, and the afternoon’s big disappointment. The reading was note perfect, but it lacked definition. The climactic moments didn’t stand out, and individual incidents did not emerge from the surrounding texture so much as they sat on top of it. In short, the music didn’t flow. The pieces were all there, but they did not come together. I missed the energy, the grandeur and the spaciousness I find in my several recordings of the work. A friend said afterwards that if he were feeling generous, he would describe the performance as subdued and lyrical. I’ll forego generosity and call it weak. The musicians found it rough going, I suspect, but the failure was ultimately Botstein’s. Back in 2008, Oliver Knussen proved just how exciting the piece can be when he led a pickup orchestra of young musicians in a well-shaped, thrilling performance at the Tanglewood Music Festival. (Anyone curious about why I love this music should watch the performance video on YouTube.)

On the plus side (and it was a big plus), Anthony McGill was dazzling in the 1996 Clarinet Concerto, and Botstein was wise enough not to stand in his way. His tempos were brisk, and if he wasn’t especially nuanced, he was exciting. From the very opening riffs, he swung. It was the most memorable performance of the day.

The concert opened with a solid reading of Pocahontas, Carter attractive and underplayed ballet from the late 1930s (though the Suite was composed 1960). This is early Carter, written in the rangy, relatively populist style he was devoted to at the time, and while it has been described as derivative of several other composers, it has a feeling of its own, marked by the composer’s way with counterpoint and a love of percussion that became increasingly important in his later work. It was a pleasure to hear.

In the second half, just before the Concerto for Orchestra, MacKenzie and Buchholz joined Botstein and the crew for two early songs. MacKenzie was touching in “A Warble for Lilac Time,” though from where I was sitting, it was hard to judge Buchholz’s handling of “Voyage,” since she was swamped several times by the orchestra.

The program also included an oddly energetic performance of the supposedly contemplative “Sound Fields” for strings.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The home of Mozart and Beethoven

The Independence Sinfonia, a good group that is getting better, will present a concert Nov. 10 at Or Hadash in Fort Washington. On the program will be Beethoven's Creatures of Prometheus Overture and Fourth Symphony and Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Soloist in the Mozart will be Charly Salinger. You can read my interview with him here.

Charlie called me on my cell this afternoon and asked when the article and in what paper the piece would  run.  He also said if there was anything he could ever do for me, I had only to ask.

I told him the Mozart would be enough.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Police alarms and ear worms: Make it stop!

Here at the paper, we leave the police scanner on 24 hours a day. Recently the cops instituted a little, two-note electronic alarm a little "buh-BOOP" to draw officers' attention to some particular form of announcement. The tones, both in pitch and duration, sound to me exactly like the rising motif contained in the opening clarinet solo of Sibelius's First Symphony. As a result, the first movement of that work has been stuck in my head for weeks.

What is the longest-lasting ear worm anyone here has ever experienced? I think I am going for some kind of record, though I suppose I'm fortunate: I like Sibelius. The two tones could have reminded me of the theme to Bewitched.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Weird Piano Music

My second Spotify playlist has been posted on the homepage of the Times Herald. This one is titled “Weird Piano Music,” for reasons that need no elaboration.

Schoenberg, Walton, Tower

Click here to read my article on the upcoming concert by Orchestra 2001 scheduled for November 3 in Swarthmore. The Daedalus Quartet will be on the program, performing Joan Tower's String Quartet No. 5 and Schoenberg's “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte,” and the orchestra, conducted by James Freeman, will present William Walton's “Façade.”

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ives Updates

Yesterday was Charles Ives's bithday, which is always a special occasion for me, even if I do nothing to observe it. I didn't get to listen to post or listen to any music yesterday, but I wa pleased to receive the following e-newletter from James Sinclair and the Charles Ives Society: 

Happy 139th Birthday to Charles Ives!!

Ives’s West Redding house sold
Ives’s 101-year old house in West Redding, Connecticut sold to a family from New York City. The new owners are doing restorations and carefully considered renovations which are scheduled to be completed by May 2014. They express a strong interest in having Ives’s music performed inside the house and on the grounds.

Findings in the West Redding barn
Several Ives scholars did a carefully combing of the dusty old red barn (wherein Rocket the horse once lived) and found interesting and important items which have been transferred to the Yale Music Library. A decade of personal checks now documents the Ives’s daily expenses in 1933–43 and two marked up copies of 114 Songs (one labeled “Master Copy”) hold otherwise unknown editing by Ives. A doctoral dissertation is in the works at Indiana University about these editorial revelations.

Ives’s West Redding music room
One of the important necessities of closing down the Ives house in West Redding was to save Ives’s music room for posterity. The American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City accepted the donation of the full contents of the room and is building an exact replica of Ives’s study, complete with the views out the windows. The room will become available in later November 2013 for viewing and scholarly pursuits. The AAAL is located at W. 155th St. and Broadway in New York.

Complete Organ Works edition
Published this last fall by Theodore Presser Co.: The Complete Organ Works (62 pp. of music plus 16 pp. of historical and critical notes); William Osborne wrote the preface.

In the pipeline at Peermusic:
Robert Browning Overture, String Quartet No. 1, and a volume of the complete Ives marches for piano.

New biography Stephen Budiansky has written a new biography of Charles Ives. Release is expected in March 2014.

New children’s book on Ives
“The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives”, written and illustrated by Joanne Stanbridge [Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, ISBN 978-0-547-23866-1]

All-Ives concert
Orchestra New England will celebrate its 40th birthday with an all-Ives concert, on Saturday, March 8, 2014 in New Haven, Connecticut. James Sinclair will conduct. The orchestra began with an all-Ives concert in March 1974 which immediately lead to a recording for CBS Masterworks.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Spotify Adagios

Here at the Norristown Times Herald, our online editor has set up something called the Spotify Music Corner, and she'd asked our editors and reporters to create playlists that will be available to our viewers for a week at a time. My turn was this week. I'm the only classical person in the office, and for my first effort, I put together some of my favorite pieces of slow and/or achingly lovely music. The list is called, simply, Adagio, and it will be available through Sunday.

So, if you are an online sophisticate, have a listen. It might not be what you would expect from an advocate of the avant-garde, but I didn't want to scare anyone off this first time out.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Vive Napoleon

I emailed Napoleon Murphy Brock the link to my impressions of the Grandmothers (see below) and received the following reply, which I present unaltered, with permission:

Hello Joe,

Thank you so much for your energy inspired comments. I'm sure that all members of the band will enjoy your critique, and well as the fans who did not get to see and experience what we do, "TOTAL MUSIC THEATER". FRANK ZAPPA STYLE. Just remember, what you experienced was a group effort. "All for one, and all for Frank and the fans of this incredibly unique music. Timeless!!!!! And it only gets better!!!!

Peace and God Bless,


Monday, September 30, 2013

They're Not Only in It for The Money

The current lineup of Grandmothers of Invention is, from left,
Napoleon Murphy Brock, Max Kutner, Chris Garcia,
Dave Johnsen, and Don Preston.
Photo courtesy of Max Kutner.

Well, I tried. I had two passes to last night’s performance by the Grandmothers of Invention at the Sellersville Theater, and despite my best efforts ― emails to friends, and, when they received no response, a posting on Faceboook ―I found no takers for the second one. If you haven’t guessed, yes, my feelings are hurt, but it was my friends’ loss, because the group put on a lively, satisfying (if very loud) show.

The band had members, only two of whom actually played with Frank ― 81-year-old Don Preston on synthesizer and iPhone, and the irrepressible Napoleon Murphy Brock, who acted as master of ceremonies, plays tenor sax and flute, and got a good aerobic workout with his high-stepping choreography. (He’s more audience-friendly than Frank ever was.) Chris Garcia hidden in his fortress of percussion, channeled the voice of Captain Beefheart, and Dave Johnsen, formerly of Project/Object, had a few shining moments on bass, but it was the young Max Kutner who stole the show, standing in for Zappa on guitar. If his solos lacked Frank’s fierce intelligence, they surpassed his virtuosity, and nearly every one was greeted with a standing ovation. Much of the time, Napoleon seemed content to stand aside and let him go.

The band played all of One Size Fits All (minus “Sofa II” in German), and a suite from Burnt Weeny Sandwich, along with a few random selections. In the twenty years since Zappa’s death (has it really been that long?), his heirs have boiled away his obsessions and his anger, distilling the silliness and the razor-sharp music making that have become his legacy.

Long live the Grandmothers.

Oh, and fellows, if you’re looking for someone who can do the German lyrics to “Sofa,” I’m available. Ich bin Eier aller Arten, after all.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Why do we like sad music?

The Sunday New York Times has an interesting article by Professor Ai Kawakami describing a study on listeners' reactions to music the author characterizes as sad. The conclusion — that there is a disconnect between the emotion we feel while listening and the emotional content we think a piece music expresses — may have a certain plausibility, but I can't believe these researchers have ever listened to music. Consider the methodology:

A participant would listen to an excerpt and then answer a question about his felt emotions: “How did you feel when listening to this music?” Then he would listen to a “happy” version of the excerpt — i.e., transposed into the major key — and answer the same question. Next he would listen to the excerpt, again in both sad and happy versions, each time answering a question about other listeners that was designed to elicit perceived emotion: “How would normal people feel when listening to this music?”

Our participants answered each question by rating 62 emotion-related descriptive words and phrases — from happy to sad, from bouncy to solemn, from heroic to wistful — on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 4 (very much).

Who ever listens to music in this way? I rarely talk about my own reactions to music in emotional terms, but my response, especially with longer pieces, depends long-term direction. In other words, the one moment of ecstasy (no jokes, please) grows out of everything that has come before it, as well as the mood I bring to it. I don’t see how much emotion I could experience listening to one excerpt after another in a clinical setting. It would be too much like taking a test, and nothing like an aesthetic encounter. After a while, and not a very long while, I’d stop feeling anything at all.

And how unstable would a listener have to be to shift mood every few minutes just because the music changed? "Now I feel happy! Now I feel sad!" The music used in the study — Glinka’s “La Séparation” (F minor), Felix Blumenfeld’s “Sur Mer” (G minor) and Enrique Granados’s “Allegro de Concierto” (in C sharp major and G major versions — must have been extraordinary if it could flip emotions on and off like a light switch. I've got to get me some of that.

Interview with Don Preston

The Grandmothers of Invention will appear at the Sellersville Theater September 29, and I had the pleasure of writing a preview, based on a phone interview with Don Preston. He spoke to me from his home in LA, and evidently and evidently had just gotten out of bed. You can read the article here.

Preston played keyboards for Frank Zappa in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He appears on Uncle Meat and 200 Motels, among other recordings. His last gig with Frank, he said, was the set that produced Mothers at the Roxy and Elsewhere.

The Grandmothers has five members, only two of whom played with Frank. Besides, Don, there is Napoleon Murphy Brock, who also played on Roxy. The other three are relative newcomers, and two of them — guitarist Max Kutner and bassist Dave Johnsen — are quite young.

Don said they will perform the complete One Size Fits All album. We discussed, briefly, the difficulty of Frank's music, which, of course, as with Carter, is not the point. The difficulty arises from the desire to say something other than what is commonly being said (nor it is the only possible response to such a desire), but it strikes me that Frank didn't care for rock musicians. When he put his bands together, he tended to hire instrumentalists who were either classically trained or had a background in jazz. (The original Mothers were the exception, since they played together as the Soul Giants before Frank joined and took over the group.) He and Don Preston originally bonded over Stockhausen, and it was only later than Don came to appreciate the pop and doo wop elements in Frank's work.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

More coments on my Carter talk

These two comments from members of the Philadelhoa Friends of Classical Music:

"Wonderful lecture given by Joe Barron, well thought out, and capturing the tenor of Carter's compositional life. I had not realized the extent of his personal relationship with Charles Ives, and I especially enjoyed some of the compare and contrast examples of both of their work."

"I knew nothing of Elliott Carter beyond his name, and Joe's presentation gave me a running start for future listening. He gave a solid overview of Carter & his music's development along with musical examples, but, as usual, there wasn't enough time for enough music! And as a result, I plan on listening to more of this composer's music."

"I suspect that exploring Carter's music on one's own could be much like entering a dark, thorny woods, but the journey was made far easier and more productive with Joe as our expert guide."

Seriously, I'm available for your next corporate event.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Speaking of Carter

After decades of listening, study, and concertgoing, I gave my first real lecture on Elliott Carter last night. I spoke to the Philadelphia Fans of Classical Music at a beautiful private apartment (co-op, really) in Melrose Park, about a fifteen-minute drive from where I live. About 18 people showed up, and they all stayed to the end.

It was Carter 101. I covered the basics of his life and goals and played about twenty or so musical examples, which I burned onto a single CD a week ago. I spoke off the cuff, with a few notes, and had to edit myself as I went along. I had only two ours to speak, with a ten-minute snack break. That wasn’t nearly enough time to impart all of the information I could have. (I never mentioned the Congress for Cultural Freedom.) I therefore focused on Carter’s on Carter’s relationship to Charles Ives and his music, and his appreciation for poetry, which helped me organize my thoughts. I felt I stammered, faltered, repeated myself too often, but no one seemed to notice. I was tired and hungry when it was over, as I am after an afternoon of cycling.

Reaction has been uniformly positive. The comments left on the group’s website have been complimentary. One person even said she’d be interested in a second, more detailed presentation focused on a single time period or a few pieces. Another said he was particularly impressed that “18 people came and listened to music by one of the most difficult composers of modern times, stayed through the whole presentation, and came away (in large part) loving it.”

Now that I know I can do this, I’m thinking of hiring myself out for weddings and graduation parties.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Voyager I crosses into interstellar space

NASA has confirmed that Voyager I, now more than 11 billion miles from earth, crossed the heliopause in August 2012, thus becoming the first manmade object to enter interstellar space.

Americans are now littering on a cosmic scale.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

EC PC: Lateiner v. Oppens

Over the past week, two of my most knowledgeable correspondents have written stating their preference for the premiere recording of Elliott Carter's Piano Concerto — Jacob Lateiner, soloist, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf — over all subsequent versions. They were so articulate, and so sure of themselves, that I began to doubt my own judgment in favor of Ursula Oppens’ recording with Michael Gielen and the Cincinnati Symphony. So this afternoon, while nursing my usual headache after the Saturday end to my work week, I went back and listened to both recordings, back to back.

I can see the attraction for Lateiner. My friends were right about the sensitivity and comparative luxuriance of his playing, as reflected in the longer track times. (The difference in the total timing between the two versions is three and a half minutes.) The approach yields many memorable and beautiful moments.

If forced to choose, however (and let’s be thankful we never are), I still have to go with Oppens/Gielen as my preferred version. Considered as a whole, the performance is stunning. “Gripping” was the word I used in my Amazon review, and I meant that almost literally: It grabs me from the first and doesn’t let go. I can’t sit still while listening to it. Oppens’ headlong rush has great cumulative power, as if she is becoming more desperate to escape the orchestra as the piece evolves. The Cincinnati Symphony, as an ensemble, gives the concerto a greater unity and direction than the BSO does, with a surer grasp of phrasing and dynamics and a great burst of fury at the end. It just sounds, well, better rehearsed.

I knew there was a reason I found the recording so compelling the first time I heard it. Now I remember.

Where my e-pals and I agree is that the concerto is one of the great works of the past century.

There are three other commercial recordings of the work, including a second with Oppens and Gielen, this time with the SWF Symphony. I’ll be getting back to them soon.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Another vote for Lateiner

Another of my correspondents also prefers the Lateiner/Leinsdorf recording of Carter's Piano Concerto to the competition. He writes:

I have to admit the Lateiner/Leinsdorf recording of Carter's Piano Concerto is still my favorite despite whatever momentary insecurities are audible in the orchestral playing. Compared to the extraordinarily sensitive Lateiner, Oppens strikes me as expressively blank, and Leinsdorf is an ideal partner for Lateiner's intensity and expressivity. (Oppens' clangorous technique doesn't exactly result in the most ravishing sounds, either.) And what a tour de force giving the premiere was: the Boston Symphony Orchestra had never performed a Carter piece before or virtually any other post-war music of comparable difficulty. It's thanks to Leinsdorf that they got through it all, let alone with the degree of comprehension that they did.

I have a similar reaction to the Rosen-Jacobs-Prausnitz recording of the Double Concerto, minus any reservations about the security of the ensemble playing. With the Kalish-Jacobs-Weisberg recording of the Double Concerto made a few years later, we enter the era of technically impeccable but expressively faceless performances of modernist repertory. Magnificently musical, Prausnitz and Rosen still had one foot in an older and more expressive performance tradition, like Carter's music itself.

I agree about Prausnitz, Rosen, and Jacobs, but I still disagree about Ursula Oppens. What my correspondent hears as clangorous, I hear as strength, a quality the soloist needs as she contends against the orchestra. And if it's an expressive, faceful rendering of the Piano Concerto you want, try Rosen/Smirnoff.

An all-Carter-Piano-Concerto weekend may be called for here.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Carter News

John G. writes:

I thought you might like to know that the first (LP) recording of the Carter Piano Concerto (Lateiner / Leinsdorf / BSO) was released last May by Sony, as part of a five disk set titled Prophets of the New. The set is already unavailable, but each of the disks can now be had, individually, from ArchivMusic. And the Carter CD is well worth having. It features the Prausnitz recordings (originally Columbia; 1968?) of the Variations for Orchestra and the Double Concerto, together with the inaugural Lateiner performance of the Piano Concerto (originally RCA). All three of these performances are worthwhile, but for my money it is the Piano Concerto that steals the show. As I remembered, this account is slower than all of the recorded competition, and it pays off. The Boston winds and solo strings are stunningly eloquent; the byplay among them and the piano is much more telling here than in any other recording. And Lateiner! He makes every note expressive, and the whole comes vividly, tremblingly to life (for me) as in no other performance to date, including the Rosen one. His account of the "poetic musing" of the opening phrases is just right, and sets the tone for what follows.

Have a listen. I'd be curious to know whether or not you agree with me.

If only some gifted pianist with a sufficiently high profile would champion this score, surely one of the greatest of the last century. Like so many of the Carter's orchestral pieces (even now), it is not performed remotely as often as it should be. Oh well.

I was not aware of this release, but I've had the original LPs for more than 30 years, and I ordered my copy of the CD immediately. I must say I've never shared John's admiration of the Lateiner/Leinsdorf/BSO recording of the Piano Concerto — I never really turned on to the piece until I heard Ursula Oppens' recording with Michael Gielen and the Cincinnati Symphony — but I promise to give it my full attention again once the CD arrives. The Columbia LP of the Variations and Double Concerto, with Prausnitz conducting, was the first Carter recording I ever owned, and it is still a favorite. There are no better recordings of either piece (and I love the photo of the composer on the cover). I urge any of you who have not heard them to grab the CD while you can.

In other news, I have just learned that Leon Botstein will conduct the American Symphony Orchestra in an all-Carter program at Carnegie Hall on Sunday, November 17. I am already counting the days. The program will include the early Pocahontas and the great Concerto for Orchestra. There is some question out here in blogsville over whether Botstein is up to the task. He's an ambitious, knowledgeable follow, but not an especially inspired interpreter. Still, it's the Concerto for Orchestra, for heaven's sake. John G. writes that he heard Botstein conduct the piece about ten years ago, and, in his words, it wasn't half bad.

That's recommendation enough.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Which bios d'ya read?

These days I’ve been breezing through Alan Pryce-Jones slim little study of Beethoven. The book repeats my favorite anecdote about the composer, which ends with his stunningly arrogant -- and accurate -- assertion of his own historical importance. I quote Pryce-Jones’ version in full (pp. 61-62):

In 1805, while Beethoven was staying at the Schloß Grätz with one of his earliest and kindest benefactors, Prince Lichnowsky, a French officer, among other French officers also staying at the house, was rash enough to ask Beethoven if he “also understood the violin.” This question so annoyed him that he flatly refused to play for the party, quarreled with the host, and left the house on foot, there and then, carrying the manuscript of the Appassionata sonata under his arm through heavy rain. On his arrival in Vienna he wrote to the Prince:

“What you are, you are through accident and birth. What I am, I am through my own efforts. There are princes and there will be thousands of princes more, but there is only one Beethoven.”

Yet, though this is only one example of his churlishness to Lichnowsky, their friendship was eventually restored. This particular piece of bad manners is sometimes excused by the picture of a patriot outraged by the presence of his conquerors; but since in the same year Beethoven played Gluck to a gathering of French generals who sang to his accompaniment, it does not seem a reasonable excuse

This account is contradicted on several points by Philippe A. Autexier, who also relates the incident in own slim (and beautifully illustrated) biography, Beethoven: The Composer as Hero. Again, I quote in full (p. 61):

One evening in October 1806, when Beethoven was staying at Prince Lichnowsky’s castle in Ostrava, his host promised his French guests the opportunity to hear Beethoven play piano. But Beethoven disappeared. He did not want to perform -- above all, not before officers in Napoleon’s army. The prince insisted. Beethoven became angry and fled the castle on foot, in the pouring rain. The next day, before returning to Vienna, he wrote Lichnowsky: “Prince! What you are, you are by chance and by birth. What I am, I am by myself. There have been, there will be, thousands of Princes. There is only one Beethoven.” Unhappily for Beethoven, however, there were few princes like Lichnowsky. The dispute that fall caused a total break. For the composer, it meant the loss of his 600 florins yearly and, most serious, of his most reliable friend, whose devotion never faltered in any circumstance.

The two versions agree on some particulars: Beethoven was staying with Prince Lichnowsky, there were French officers present, and it was raining. Everything else is open to question or interpretation: The year was 1805 or 1806. Beethoven’s departure was a patriotic act or a fit of pique over an unintended insult. The composer wrote his letter after his return to Vienna or just before, and the break it caused was either total or eventually repaired.

The letter is essentially the same in both instances, allowing for variations in translation, and for me, it has always been the best part of the story. There is only one Beethoven, and he is worth more than all the nobility combined. To say something so outrageous to a friend and a patron -- and to be right -- shows an awareness of one’s gifts and achievements few of us will ever experience, princes or not. Beethoven, whose personal and emotional life was a mess, must have felt a godlike sense of power and control while he was composing. He knew what he was, and what he was capable of.

Yet even the letter is doubtful. Wanting the original, definitive story --how naïve is that? -- I looked it up in Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, your one-stop shop for all things Ludwig, and found yet another version (p. 403), which differs in detail from both Pryce-Jones and Autexier. In this one, quoted verbatim from a mere appendix in Seyfried’s Studien, the French officers (not the prince) pestered Beethoven to play, which he refused to do because he regarded it as “menial labor,” and he stormed out only when one of them, in jest, threatened to have him arrested.

Thayer relegates the letter to a footnote with the following comment: “Authentic or not, it may well have come from the lips of Beethoven in a fit of anger.” In this telling, the titan’s manifesto is reduced to something he might have said.

Moreover, according to the footnote, the earliest mention of the letter dates from the Aug. 31, 1873, edition of the Wiener Deutscher Zeitung, which printed the recollections of a grandson of Dr. Weiser, Prince Lichnowsky’s house physician. It is therefore a second-hand recollection, told nearly seventy years after the event. Nor does the letter itself appear in my copy of Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations.

Surely, something happened that October night in 1806 (the year is confirmed by Thayer and Seyfried), but that wonderful, Nietzschean assertion of the will to power, which for me had become something of a creative ideal, remains at best a conjecture. It seems biographies are never definitive. They are rarely ever stable. I should remember that when I read any new study of Ives.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Russian program

I’ve gotten behind on this site, mostly I’ve been reading a book I intend to mail away today as a birthday present. Most people get behind on their blogs at one time or another. It is the human condition.

I want to take time today to mention the all-Russian program the Philadelphia Orchestra played July 31 at the Mann Center. The young Ukrainian Kirill Karabits conducted, using only a few basic gestures, and the musicians delivered a wonderfully big sound for him. They seemed freer and more relaxed than they do under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. (Granted, the Russian music was livelier and more colorful than the Brahms and Bach I’ve seen Nézet-Séguin conduct, but to my ear, the music sounded unnecessarily stiff — chiseled in granite — with him on the podium. I’m not quite sold on him yet.)

Di Wu was the soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. At age 28, she’s the real thing. Her playing was fluid and graceful, with a wonderfully light touch, especially in what I like to call the piano-bar sections. Rachmaninoff has never been one of my favorites, and the finale of the Variations is a cheesy, if successful, attempt to bring the audience to its feet, but the playing was gorgeous.

The concert started with a bright reading Rimsky-Korsakonv’s “Russian Easter Overture,” which is a favorite of mine. This is picture-postcard music, a sonic tour of the Motherland. You can just picture the troikas, the onion domes, Edward Snowden sitting at the airport ...

Of course, the highlight of the evening for me was the capper — a centenary performance of The Rite of Spring, the fastest thirty-five minutes in all of music. The performance was spot-on. I’m tempted to say it was maybe a little too pretty, too sensuous for the depiction of a primitive ritual, but that’s a quibble. The Rite is sturdy enough to bear it. The lovely, all-too-brief solos of associate concert master Juliette Kang deserve to be singled out, both in the Stravinsky and the Rimsky-Korsakov.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Another perspective

As I might have expected, my favorite blogger has the pithiest response to Daniel Asia's takedown piece on Elliott Carter. The rest of us felt we needed to be polite, reserved, scholarly. This gentleman has no such compunctions, and he's right. The only appropriate response to this kind of crticism is essentially two words. Bravo.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Persistence of Memory

I spent yesterday evening in the company of nine attractive, sympathetic, and chatty women whom I had not seen in at least twenty-seven years. They were all classmates of mine in elementary school. One of them, the most well-organized and motivated of the lot, maintains a Facebook page dedicated to Resurrection of Our Lord School’s Class of 1971, and every so often she schedules an informal get-together for those of us still in the area. Everyone is invited, of course, but the groups end up consisting of women, with the occasional token male. Last night, it was my turn.

We met for dinner at the Rhawnhurst Café, a bar and grille near my apartment that I was told has been there forever, but which I had never set foot in before. (I’d been missing out. The portobello sandwich was excellent.) Three of us Lisa, Susan, and I  sat at one end of the tables rehashing memories of nuns, lay teachers, games of spin the bottle (which I was never privileged to attend), and the trouble we inevitably got into simply by being children in a harshly disciplined environment.

It felt as though we were piecing together a single, collective memory out of fragments each of us has carried for years. Lisa claimed to remember very little, but what few memories she did have were vivid  like the time she and a girl named Maria made a dash for the school roof, only to be caught on the stairs by the principal. I would expect something like this from Maria, the principal told her, but not from a straight-A student like you.

Yes, we must beware of the company we keep  one of the endless life lessons drilled into us by Catholic education. Maria died of cancer a few years ago, and it hurt to learn that. Lisa has a Ph.D. in psychology, so I guess the adventure on the stairs didn’t undermine her character too much.

I was the only one who remembered the time we were herded in the gymnasium/auditorium for a performance by a pair of opera singers. Neither Susan nor Lisa even believed it had occurred until Diane, sitting nearby, confirmed my story. Lisa insisted she there had never been had never been introduced to an sort of culture in her entire eight years at Resurrection. (The music we were forced to sing at children’s Mass was insipid.) Diane didn’t remember the opera itself, but I did: it was the one about the marriage proposal that keeps being interrupted by phone calls. It was only years later that I put a title to the performance The Telephone, by Gian Carlo Menotti. A better first exposure for kids, I suppose, than Götterdämmerung.

All these years later, what I don’t remember is the accompaniment. Was it a recording or a live piano?

The talk went on from six-thirty until after nine. I stopped at Rita’s for a vanilla cone, which I enjoyed slowly as I walked home. It was the most beautiful, most comfortable night of the summer.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Frank Zappa plays the bicycle

FZ's classic appearance on the old "Steve Allen Show," offered here as filler between real posts. I do wish, however, that Allen had resisted the urge to make lame jokes. It was fun enough without the commentary, and Steve Allen was never funny, anyway. Gary Moore was much more respectful to John Cage.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Time to break with tradition

The poor little Windsor born the other day will most likely be named something safe, dull, and Anglo-Saxon. Oddsmakers in the UK are taking bets on the usual monickers like George, Henry, Edward and Charles.

They should name the kid Trayvon.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Howard Kaylan's memoir, "Shell Shocked"

Cover art by Cal Schenkel
A few nights ago I finished reading Shell Shocked by Howard Kaylan, front man of the '60s pop group The Turtles and later a member of one of the many incarnations of Frank Zappa's Mothers. The book is a breezy, swift read, but it left me feeling rather sad and deflated. Kaylan and his singing partner, Mark Volman, turned their talent for close harmonies into a few No. 1 singles, and they've spent the past 40 years trying unsuccessfully to recapture that early success.

Kaylan blew through his Turtles money quickly. An indifference to the business end of things and trust in the wrong people led to the band's early demise. The Zappa period lasted less than two years and ended abruptly on December 10, 1971, the night Frank was pushed off a stage in London.

At the age of 25, it seemed, Kaylan was washed up. He and Volman worked their way back, touring state fairs, providing background vocals to any number of big-name artists, churning out instantly forgotten albums, and writing songs for "Strawberry Shortcake," but it feels like The Death of a Salesman, the laborious journey of a modestly talented man whose achievements don’t justify his optimism. And through it all, there are the affairs, the failed marriages, and lots and lots of drugs.

The book is valuable as window on the workaday underbelly of the music business, and a cautionary reminder that not everybody can be the Beatles.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

George Carlin on political language

Carlin gave this speech to the National Press Club in 1999:

CD Sales benefit Friends of Fox Chase Cancer Center

David Cohen is a Philadelphia guitar player whom I once interviewed for Ticket and with who once accompanied me to a set by Rickie Lee Jones in Sellersville. I haven't seen him since that night, but he got in touch not long ago and told me his wife had died. He also said he has recorded a CD of original music and is donating a portion of the profits to the Friends of Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia. Here is a portion of the press release he sent:

The music recorded for the release DAVID COHEN: GUITAR was composed during the first year after the loss of David's wife Tatyana to ovarian cancer. The CD contains eleven tracks the first ten of which came from the emotional journey of living and coping in the fog of grieving. The CD is not mournful in scope or approach and is actually quite the opposite. The music is an intimate celebration of love, life and the brave battle that Tatyana put up in the face of fear, horror, pain and the torture that encompasses ovarian cancer.

CD available through CD Baby and iTunes.

Or you can visit David's website.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Russian program, Van Cliburn Tribute

For Ticket this week, I've written a single preview of two concerts — an all-Russian program, and a tribute to Van Cliburn. I was somewhat out of my element here. It's no secret that the Russian romantics annoy me. I like only a few of Tchaikovsky's small-scale works, and I have no Rachmaninoff in my record collection. None. Not a single prelude. Van Cliburn's career never really penetrated my consciousness, either. He was retreating from the concert life by the time I came along, and his choice of repertoire could be questionable. (The Yellow River Concerto? Seriously?) Fortunately, the Russian program includes Rimsky's Russian Easter Overture and The Rite of Spring, and there is some Wagner and Strauss in the Cliburn concert.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Voice of the Eagles

Merrill Reese, who has been calling the games of the Philadelphia Eagels on radio since 1977, will appear with the Philadelphia Orchestra July 24 at the Mann Center. He will be the emcee for a program titled "Symphonic Sports-tacular!" — complete with the exclamation point. There will be music from the Olympics and Monday Night Football, filmed highlights from great moments in Philadelphia sports history (such as they are), and a fireworks display. It's a flagrant attempt by the orchestra to broaden its appeal and get more people into the seats, and that is all to the good.

I interviewed Reese, as well as Peter Schickele, for a preview in Ticket. Talking to Schickele was a lifelong dream, of course, but the talk with Reese was more enlightening, probably because each of us was taking a step outside his comfort zone. I've been a fair-weather football fan at best, and I haven't been able to make myself watch it since the news of players' head injuries came out. Reese was open and congenial, however, and he kept the conversation moving. When I was at a loss for questions, he told me about his children. His son Nolan is a visual effects editor who worked on Iron Man II and The Lone Ranger — though I would think he’d rather cross that one off his résumé

One thing I didn’t know — and the sports fans in the newsroom didn’t know, either — is that Reese keeps track of the chaos on the field with the help of a spotter. While he’s watching the ball, another guy in the booth is looking elsewhere, at the blockers and linebackers and the secondaries. This guy never speaks, but if a player does something worthy of comment, he will point to the player’s number on a chart and describe the action to Reese using one of thirty-five hand signals. The play-by-play men may sound omniscient, but they have an extra set of eyes.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Where have all the scandals gone?

Two months ago, you couldn't turn on the TV or read a paper (if you still read papers) without tripping over the latest scandal inside the Obama Administration. There was talk of impeachment, the curse of the second term, and, most outrageously, of Nixon. Now, they have all gone away. The reporting on Benghazi emails turned out to be flawed, and the IRS, we learn, was scrutinizing left- and right-wing groups more or less equally. What was sold as an ideological vendetta seems, as some cooler heads predicted, to be nothing more than a case of an overworked, underfunded bureaucracy looking for a shortcut. (If you want to blame the stampede on the herd mentality of the news industry, you have my blessing.) There is still the problem with the NSA, but Republicans who can usually be relied upon to savage Obama over every little contretemps have backed off for fear of looking weak on national security.

Over at New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait has a helpful summary of how the air went out of the balloon.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A chat with Prof. Peter Schickele

Yesterday, I interviewed, by phone, Peter Schickele, creator of the unfortunately immortal P.D.Q. Bach, about his scheduled appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra on July 24. (He’ll perform “New Horizons in Music Appreciation,” his play-by-play analysis of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with sportscaster Merrill Reese, the Voice of the Eagles, as his color man.) Much of what we talked about will find no place in the article I still have to write, and I’d like to throw some of it down here, as chips from the workshop.

I asked Schickele what drives a serious musician to comedy (thanks to Renee for the suggestion), and he said that in his case, it was the other way around. He was funny as a kid, and he began studying music seriously only in his teens, when he picked up his mother’s old clarinet.

“My mother once told me I was entertaining people since I was a year and a half old,” he said. “That came first with me. What happened during my teenage years was I got more and more interested in music for its own sake. All my life I’ve done both the serious and the funny things.”

His catalog of so-called serious works is larger than his P.D.Q. Bach catalog, he said, and the latter contains more than a hundred pieces.

It seems perfectly in character that Schickele’s earliest musical hero would be Spike Jones, and when he was 13, he formed his own band, called Jerky Jems and his Balmy Brothers, which was a direct imitation of Jones and his City Slickers. The band consisted of two clarinets, a violin (played by Schickele’s brother), and tom-toms.

“I still have the first piece I ever wrote, which for some reason is called ‘The Sheik of Kalamazoo,’” Schickele said. “It sounds vaguely exotic. When I wrote it, I was not only writing an original piece of music, but I was also learning how to write music down.”

At the time Schickele began playing clarinet, his family was living near Fargo, North Dakota, in the sprawling if underpopulated metropolitan area known as Fargo-Moorhead. (Moorhead is over the state line in Minnesota.) When he eventually went for lessons, his teacher told him that he had developed so many bad habits that he should start over with another instrument. The teacher recommended the bassoon. Schickele took the suggestion, but he suspected an ulterior motive: there were no bassoonists in Fargo-Moorhead, and the local orchestra needed one. Schickele, along with another boy who had been talked into lessons, became the bassoon section.

“I never harbored any illusions of wanting to be a professional bassoonist,” he said. “The great thing about being a bassoonist is that that are needed. There’s always a shortage of bassoonists, whereas clarinetists are a dime a dozen.”

Of all the pieces he has written as P.D.Q. Bach, Schickele said, he holds a special place in his affections for P.D.Q.’s only full-length opera, The Abduction of Figaro.

“My own favorite P.D.Q. Bach pieces are sort of love letters to the composers they sound like,” he said. “That one is definitely a love letter to the big five operas of Mozart.”

For the record, my own favorite Schickele gag may be found at the beginning of The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach. It’s a reproduction of the manuscript of a song that consists of the words “front is” repeated over and over. The name of the song, of course, is “Front Is Piece,” a fragment from the Songs Without Points.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Robert Suderburg, 1936-2013

Somehow I missed the news that the composer Robert Suderburg died April 3. (Even Wikipedia still doesn't know.)

I remember Dr. Suderburg as the occasional guest of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which played his Orchestra Music I back in the 1970s when I was a kid and just discovering modern music. Michael Bookspan, the orchestra’s longtime percussionist, also commissioned Suderburg's Percussion Concerto, an attractive and memorable piece that, miraculously, the orchestra revived several years after its premiere. I heard the work both times and was impressed, on the second occasion, by just how much of it had stuck with me. The composer seemed pleased when I told him afterward. He was an approachable, soft-spoken gentleman, and one to the few one of the few tall composers I have ever met.

Mr. Suderburg is an unjustly under-recorded composer, but some outstanding performances of his music did once find their way onto vinyl, particularly the wonderful Piano Concerto In the Mirror of Time, with Bela Siki and the Seattle Symphony conducted by Milton Katims; and Voyage de nuit (Concerto d'après Baudelaire), with his wife, the soprano Elizabeth Suderburg, as soloist; and the Piedmont Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Harsanyi. Both are out of print, but they are worth tracking down. There are also some fine recordings of his chamber music on CD..

Mr. Suderburg was a member of the diverse but accomplished generation of composers born in the late 1930s, a class that includes Steve Reich and Charles Wuorinien. He had no truck with either serialism or minimalism, but neither was he a neoromantic pastiche-artist desperate for audience approval. His music can be angular (as in the Piano Concerto), or it can be smooth (as in Voyage), but it is always inventive, well-constructed, stylistically unified and recognizably a product of its time. I have long wished that it were better known.

The time has come to revisit my recordings.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Composition in the 21st Century

On June 8 I attended an informal presentation, organized by th Philadelphia Fans of Classical Music, on the wide range of concert music that is being written today. Neil Sussman played snippets of 28 compositions by 27 composers (the American Arlene Sierra was the one repeat), whom he organized into eight categories: neoromanticism, neoclassicism, minimalism, modalism, drone music, atonality, serialism, electronic music, world music, and high energy pop elements. I have long feared younger, contemporary composers are essentially out of ideas, doomed to repeat the formulas and the techniques of the past. While I heard nothing to challenge that opinion significantly, I was impressed by the occasional display of freshness and energy — by the personality of this or that composer — and I came away more optimistic about the state of contemporary composition than I was when I went in.

If Neil had a thesis, it was that today, "anything goes." Words like "dissonant," "atonal," and "serial" were thrown around a little too freely, without much regard for precision, and "high energy pop" is not a wave I care to ride (the music of Hartke and Kernis, entertaining as it was, seemed content to be shallow), but I was struck at how much overlap there was among the categories. Many of the compositions resisted easy pigeon-holing. I heard traces of minimalism and romanticism in the so-called atonal music, and polytonalities in the neoclassicism. Perhaps someday soon, a unique voice will emerge from a synthesis of styles, even if, indeed, “anything goes” and rhythmic and harmonic innovations might no longer be possible.

All of the music was new to me, if some of the names were not. My favorite piece of the afternoon was Sierra's sextet Surrounding Ground, which reminded me, in spirit, of Carter's Triple Duo. I would never have mistaken it for Carter — there were too many repeated figures and a more regular beat — but I found the lively interplay of the instruments and polyrhythms decidedly Carterian.

The little seminar was held at the Wyncote at the home of Dr. Sydney Kahn, who assured me his was one of only two private houses in Montgomery County to achieve Leed Platinum certification.

Kennett Symphony to present program for brass and percussion

In a piece in this week's Ticket magazine, I interview Tim Soberick, the principal trombonist of the Kennett Symphony. Tim put together a program for brass and percussion that will be performed next week at Longwood Gardens. Like most interviews, however, this one includes some additional information and insights that go beyond the matter at hand.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Grim Statistics

We interrupt our regularly scheduled music discussion to present a few statisics on gun violence in the United States, nicely summarized by David Cole in The New York Review of Books:

Gun violence in the United States continues to far outpace that in other developed nations. Since 1960, more than 1.3 million Americans have died from firearms, either in suicides, homicides, or accidents. By this grim metric, we are unquestionably a world leader. The US firearms homicide rate is twenty times higher than the combined rate of the next twenty-two high-income developed nations. Between 2000 and 2008, there were more than 30,000 gun deaths a year in the US, for an average of more than eighty every single day. And in 2010 alone, emergency rooms treated more than 73,000 people for nonfatal gunshot injuries.

We read with horror of terrorist attacks around the world, mostly in far-flung places that regularly endure suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, and the like. We breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have to live with such violence, while we spend billions of dollars annually to prevent such attacks occurring here. But every year, about twice as many people are killed in the United States by guns than die of terrorist attacks worldwide. Americans face a one in 3.5 million chance of being killed in a terrorist attack, but a one in 22,000 chance of being murdered.

A friend once asked if I liked America, and if so, why. When I read things like this, I genuinely hate this country.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Found the Quote

In taking the hacksaw to Elliott Carter, Daniel Asia says of the rehearsals for the Concerto for Orchestra, under Leonard Bernstein:

It should be noted that Bernstein wasn't impressed by the fact that Carter wasn't aware that the clarinetist was playing in the wrong transposition for much of the piece ... why, when certain pitch relations were important to Carter, and he apparently couldn't detect errant pitches, shouldn't this suggest serious reservations about the composer and his music?

As I noted earlier, one of my correspondents wondered where Asia got this story, since he did not attend the rehearsals, and another suggested it was an urban legend, since he had heard the same thing about Schoenberg. I, too, thought I recalled something of the sort, and, rereading Charles Rosen's indispensable monograph Arnold Schoenberg (1975), I found this (pp. 49-50):

From time to time there appear malicious stories of eminent conductors who have not realized that, in a piece of Webern or Schoenberg, the clarinetist, for example, picked up an A instead of a B-flat clarinet and played his part a semitone off. These recurrent tales, often true, do not have the significance given them by the critics who believe that music should have stopped at Debussy, as each individual line in Schoenberg's music and even in Webern's later pointillist style defines a harmonic sense that, even when transposed, can fit into the general harmony of the work as a whole. (Here we must remember that harmony is conveyed as powerfully along a musical line as it is by a simultaneous chord.) The attenuation of the traditional concept of dissonance gives a considerable freedom to the movement of the individual instrumental voices, and for this to take place the central position in the hierarchy of musical elements can no longer be given to pitch. What is clear, indeed, is that the simple linear hierarchy must give way to a new and more complex set of relationships in which pitch is only one element among others, and not by any means always the most important.

So there you are — Mr. Asia’s little gotcha moment has been addressed, and 35 years in advance.

And how stupid are clarinetists anyway?

Mr. Carter once said that while he could not, like Boulez, pick apart every detail of a performance, his music, when played correctly, sounded just as he imagined it. I will add only that for me, the reason Asia's story, true or not, doesn't suggest "serious reservations" about Mr. Carter's music is that the Concerto for Orchestra kicks neoromantic ass.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Actually, it won't

To follow up on my previous post: My column will not appear in the Sunday edition after all. I had to bump it to make room for another story. Sometime in the near future, perhaps - but that appears doubtful.

My column on the Rite of Spring

The following column will appear in the Norristown Times Herald on Sunday, June 2:

The day music changed: The 100th anniversary of ‘The Rite of Spring’
By Joe Barron

One hundred years ago this week, on May 29, 1913, a riot took place in Paris. The trigger was not the price of bread, or the arms race in Europe, or the constitutional right of citizens to carry concealed weapons.

It was the premiere of a ballet.

The hissing began at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées during the first few notes of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” as the bassoon softly wailed a Russian folk melody in an unnaturally high register.
“Then, when the curtain opened, a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down, the storm broke,” the composer recalled almost 50 years later. “Cries of ‘ta geule’ (shut up) came from behind me. I left the hall in a rage.”

Stravinsky’s driving score and Vaslav Nijinsky’s spastic choreography (which even Stravinsky didn’t like) turned everything patrons thought they knew about ballet on its head. Fistfights broke out, and, as Stephen Walsh says in his biography of the composer, “if the music was heard at all, it can only have been as a component of the general uproar.”

Controversy has continued for a century about just what the audience was reacting to, and what that reaction says about the relationship of the artist to his or her public. Certainly, Stravinsky meant no offense. If he had, he would have been delighted by the scandal, but, he continued in his memoir, “I have never again been that angry. The music was so familiar to me, I loved it, and I could not understand why people who had not yet heard it wanted to protest in advance.”

What is equally certain is that the music, if not the dancing, became the touchstone for everything that followed. It appears at the top of everyone’s list of most important works of the 20th century, at least everyone who still cares about that sort of thing. Nothing like it had ever been heard before — and this at a time when a lot of other people were writing the sort of stuff that had never been heard before — and nothing exactly like it has been heard since. Even Stravinsky himself couldn’t top it.
Within 10 years, he moved on to cooler, more elegant forms of expression, and none of the music he wrote afterward, great as much of it is, is performed nearly as frequently today.

In a point of local pride, the U.S. premiere took place in 1922, when Leopold Stokowski led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a concert performance. Ever since, American musicians have spoken of their first experience with the piece as a revelation: Men as different in age and outlook as Elliott Carter and Frank Zappa have said that hearing it made them want to become composers. Kids in conservatories are still imitating it, if only unconsciously.

For me, appreciation came only gradually. I first heard the “Rite” in high school, and I did not like it for a long time. In retrospect, I understand my aversion had less to do with the music than with my recording of it. It was Stravinsky’s own, a performance he conducted in his late 70s. It’s not bad, but it lacks fire, and it lags badly toward the end.

Then, one glorious evening listening to the radio, I heard the recording by George Solti and the Chicago Symphony, and I said, “OK, I get it now.” It remains my favorite version, and it is the one I listened to on the anniversary of the premiere.

This music has become a part of me, as it has for so many others, and friends have heard bits of it escape from me at odd moments, either as humming or as whistling. It’s an embarrassment, but embarrassment is the price I’m willing to pay for having my life enriched in such a profound way.

A lot has happened in the past hundred years to make a riot over a piece of music seem quaint. Yet the undiminished vitality of “The Rite of Spring” keeps a piece of that remote world alive like nothing else, and reminds us of the power of art to throw the world off its axis. The experience of that first night must have been overwhelming. Had I been there, I would have been frightened, too.

Friday, May 31, 2013

My review of the latest Carter release

Herewith the review I just posted at Amazon (I just love saying "herewith"):

Bridge Records continues its extraordinary survey of the music of Elliott Carter with a selection that covers entire career, from 1938 (when he was just turning 30) to his 101st birthday. The centerpiece of the program is the Piano Concerto of 1964-65, a complex masterpiece from Carter’s heroic period.  The concerto has been recorded four times previously, and one might be tempted to react to yet another one with a shrug. But one would be wrong. Soloist Charles Rosen and former Juilliard Quartet violinist Joel Smirnoff, here conducting the Basel Sinfonietta, deliver a surprisingly intimate, even romantic account that reveals another side to a piece that David Schiff  described as an exploration of “the tragic possibilities of alienation on a visionary scale.” Bridge producer David Starobin said to me not long ago, “This is not a modern music performance,” which I think sums it up. It’s exquisite.

For the rest, Steve Beck completes the recorded catalog of Carter’s piano music with five of the composer’s late miniatures. (I especially liked his account of the rapid-fire Catenaires, which strikes me as fleeter and less punchy than Ursula Oppens’.) Tony Arnold sings two early songs in Carter’s own masterful orchestrations from 1979, and, in a rare treat, Rosalind Rees, soprano, and David Starobin, guitar, start off the proceedings with “Tell Me Where is Fancy Bred,” a faux-Elizabethan setting of Shakespeare that Carter wrote in 1938 for Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre of the Air.

The final track is the premiere recording of Nine by Five, subtitled Wind Quintet No. 2, written in 2009. It takes its title from the fact that four of the five players (the horn is the exception), double on higher and lower instruments at various points in the work. Despite its late vintage, it feels like a return to the Carter of the 1970s, with its extremes of range and dynamics, and it is one of the most attractive, colorful scores from the composer’s final years. The reading by the Slovenian group Slowind might not be as exciting or extroverted as the premiere performance I heard in New York in 2010 (or maybe I was just keyed up that night), but it’s well-balanced and taut, and it will do nicely. The piece is an instant favorite.    
P.S. The reaction to the announcement of this release was lukewarm over at Good Musicc Guide, given that most of the pieces may be thought of as minor, and there's a lot more of Carter's late work that still needs to be recorded, but I have to say this is a fine recording in terms of the performances and the sound quality. The early songs may not be up to Carter's later standards, though Schiff says "Voyage" is Carter's first real masterpiece, and I would rather have them than not, if only for the sake of completeness. And two of the piano Tributes are first recodings, though you'd never know it from the liner notes. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

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.

— J.B., 2000

Sunday, May 26, 2013

What they did with the body

Alex Ross, at his own blog, posts this photo of Elliott Carter's grave:

Mr. Carter is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Ross says. I assume, given his history, that he visited the site to reassure himself that Mr. Carter is still dead.

I shall have to go there  myself someday, but until then, there is the music.

Friday, May 24, 2013

What is a premiere?

Something called the Amphion Foundation has set up a website devoted to Elliott Carter.  It's standard stuff, though easily navigated, with a canned biography, a list of works and tributes from friends (many of which were printed in the attractively produced booklet handed out at Wednesday's memorial concert with the even more attractively produced program). Most helpful is the schedule of upcoming performances. It's encouraging to see that Mr. Carter's music is surviving him.

I am confused, however, by the notices for Epigrams. The June 22 performance in the UK is labeled the "world premiere," and the August 9 performance at Tanglewood is given as the "US premiere." I could have sworn I heard the piece two nights ago in New York City, which, as I recall, is in both the US and the world. That performance doesn't seem to have counted (and it is not listed as the premiere in the attractively produced program). I'm not up on modern music etiquette, and the only reason I can think of is that attendance at Wednesday's concert was, officially, by invitation only, and the performance was therefore a private occasion. Nevertheless, the public was admitted on a standby basis, and everyone who wanted a seat got one.  I count myself in that category. I was there as the guest of someone whose name appeared on the in-crowd list (thanks, BH), but if I hadn't been, I would have waited outside in the heat and humidity with the rest of the nonentities.

So when is a premiere not a premiere?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Carter Memorial

I attended my first all−Elliott Carter program in April 1976, when Speculum Musicae performed at the YMHA on South Broad Street in Philadelphia. I was 18 years old. Fred Sherry played the Cello Sonata. Rolf Schulte played the Duo. Both were accompanied by Ursula Oppens on piano.

Last night, I watched Schulte, Sherry, and Oppens present the world premiere of Epigrams, the last piece Elliott Carter wrote. Little has changed in 37 years (and Rolf’s hair hasn’t changed at all). The biggest difference between last night and 1976 is that last night, Mr. Carter was not present.

The premiere was the centerpiece of a memorial concert at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre in Manhattan. Just about everyone who matters in Carter’s world was there. Friends greeted one another with kisses. The men wore ties. Carter’s son, David, delivered a brief speech from his wheelchair. Several of Carter’s musical friends and associates also spoke. I felt as though I had walked into the kind of wake I used to attend as a Catholic schoolboy. The only things missing were the smell of eucalyptus and the open casket.

My sense sense loss was strongest, however, during a brief film that included old interviews with the composer. It pained me to watch him speak from the grave. I was also reminded of how much I miss Charles Rosen, who appeared in several clips.

(Rosen spoke of the way in which Carter synthesized the legacies of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. The legacy of Ives went unacknowledged.)

Besides Epigrams, the program included Mad Regales, for six voices a cappella, and What Are Years? — the song cycle on poems of Marianne More. Lucy Shelton was the vocalist. David Fulmer conducted. The performances were all excellent, if brief. (In a program lasting close to two hours, there was perhaps 40 minutes worth of music.) Mad Regales was especially memorable, thanks largely to the presence of the bass baritone Evan Hughes. Oppens introduced Epigrams as  “twelve examples of how not to write a trio” and said Carter had fun writing it.

From my perspective, it’s a small-scale tour de force, an exploration of the sonorities possible in the unwieldy combination of violin, cello, and piano. Carter enjoyed a challenge, and the challenge in this case was balance. Despite the brevity of the movements, it’s a substantial piece, and it seemed fitting that the last note of the last composition Carter would ever write was a single violin pizzicato preceded by several seconds of silence. Under the circumstances, it felt like a gesture of farewell.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Wonderful Weekend

Visited my old friend (and sometime commenter) Cal in DC over the weekend. It turned out, unexpectedly to be something of a musical time. Saturday afternoon, the two of us had lunch near Capitol Hill with a young woman I used to work with at Montgomery Newspapers. Afterward, when she and her husband went home, Cal and I made our way over to the National Gallery of Art. We weren’t sure what we wanted to look at until I spotted a poster for Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, 1909-1929: When Art Danced With Music over in the East Wing. I cooed like a chimpanzee and insisted we go. Cal, ever the gracious host, agreed.

The exhibition was a joy, with set designs, costumes, and filmed excerpts of the Ballet Russe’s major productions, including Petroushka, Prélude á l’après-midi d’une faune, Parade, and The Prodigal Son. Naturally, I spent more time in the Rite of Spring exhibit than in any other. I stood gaping, inches away from the costumes worn at the premiere. They seemed too well-preserved and colorful to be original, but assume they were, since nothing on the cards mentioned reproductions. The room also contained Picasso’s and Cocteau’s famous drawings of Stravinsky.

One complaint: The Faune and Rite rooms were close together, and looking at the video for one, I could hear the music from the other. The effect was more Charles Ives than Debussy.

Sunday, Cal and I drove around the Beltway to Virginia, where we met another old friend of mine for a free recital by the young violinist Jehshua Karunakaran. The program was mostly lightweight fiddling, despite Part’s Fratres and fourth-fifths of Bach’s Second Partita, but it was an enjoyable way to spend and afternoon, and what Mr. Karunakaran lacked in precision, he made up for in gusto. (He even managed a quick stomp during Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.”)

I lived in DC for ten years, and this weekend only reminded me how much I miss it.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

“None is musical; no, not one"

Heard a great recording of the Emperor Concerto on the car radio this afternoon during my commute to work up Route 76. Soloist was Claudio Arrau. Colin Davis conducted the Dresden Staatskapelle. My commute is long enough (unfortunately) that I was able (fortunately) to hear the whole thing.

I was pretty energized when I walked into the office, but when I said,  "I'm in a good mood because I just heard a great performance of the Emperor Concerto," no one in the office — not one — had any idea what I was talking about.

"You know — Beethoven?"


I let the anecdote stand without comment.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

I live for pedantry

Ivan Hewett over at The Telegraph has posted an introduction to the music of Charles Ives. The listening points will be helpful to the novice, and the selections are well-chosen, but I find at least three errors in the first paragraph:

“Stand up and use your ears like a man!” That was Charles Ives’s furious response to some hecklers at a performance of music by another great American radical, Henry Cowell. Ives was very hot on manliness — there’s a well-known photo of him in the garb of an American footballer, taken in his Harvard days. One detects an undercurrent of anxiety that his chosen profession was a touch “sissy”, which was reasonable enough given that classical music in the US was almost entirely run by blue-rinsed ladies of a certain age.

In the first place, Ives went to Yale, not Harvard. In the second, he did not play sports in college. The photograph of him as captain of his football team was taken when he was still in high school, a time in life when a lot of guys without psychosexual hangups try out for athletics.  Third, the music being performed during his famous outburst was by Carl Ruggles, not Henry Cowell. (It was Men and Mountains.) And, for a possible fourth, the outburst probably never happened. According to Jan Swafford's biography, Ives wrote later it was something he wished he had said. We all have moments like that.

I know. I need to get a life, but Hewett is a well-known  critic who works for a big-time paper. I expect more from a pro, even if he is English. I'd tell him about it, but you have to sign up to post comments, and I've already left my email address at too many sites around the Web.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Zappa Plays Zappa

Dweezil Zappa has just announced a national tour that will recreate his father's Roxy and Elsewhere album. This seems to be a trend. The Grandmothers of Invention brought the same program to Sellersville Theater last year, Dweezil's tour, unlike that of the Grandmothers, will not include any of the original performers. Herewith a portion of the press release:

Zappa Plays Zappa, the Grammy-winning group that has made and recreated history performing the music of Frank Zappa, is set to embark on an epic musical trek across the US, Canada and Europe celebrating the classic Frank Zappa album, Roxy & Elsewhere. In celebration of the 40th anniversary of that pivotal Zappa fan favorite, the entirety of its repertoire -- including the provocative rhythms of "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?" "Echidna's Arf (Of You)" and Be-Bop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen's Church)" will be performed Live!

"The Roxy & Elsewhere album has always been one of my favorites and I'm excited to play it top to bottom. It has a great balance of musical styles and showcases some of the funkiest grooves and most devilishly frenetic instrumental passages my father ever composed."

As a bonus to the tour, a 90 minute personalized guitar instruction session from Dweezil's annual musical bootcamp, Dweezilla, will be offered as a separate ticket in the afternoon before sound check in every city. Players of all skill levels are welcome to attend.
Certain to be among the tour's highlights are performances at iconic venues that resonate with Zappa history. Honoring the long-standing tradition in New York City Dweezil will stand in the same place Frank Zappa often stood on Halloween at the Beacon.

Auspiciously paying homage to Roxy & Elsewhere, Dweezil and his bandmates will perform at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood, exactly 40 years to the day of Frank Zappa's Performances at the Roxy in December, 1973.

Providence, RI Lupo's
9/4/13 Pittsburgh, PA Carnegie Music Hall
9/5/13 Columbus, OH LC Pavilion
9/6/13 Iowa City, IA Englert Theater
9/7/13 Urbana, IL Krannert PAC/ Ellnora Guitar Festival
9/8/13 Milwaukee, WI Pabst Theater
10/8/13 Lincoln, NE Rococo Theatre
10/9/13 Eau Claire, WI State Theatre
10/10/13 Chicago, IL Copernicus Center
10/11/13 Indianapolis, IN The Vogue
10/12/13 Grand Rapids, MI The Intersection
10/13/13 Kent, OH Kent Stage
10/16/13 Philadelphia, PA Keswick Theatre
10/17/13 Buffalo, NY Kleinhans Music Hall
10/18/13 Royal Oak, MI Royal Oak Music Theatre
10/19/13 Toronto, ON Queen Elizabeth Theatre
10/20/13 Ottawa, ON Algonquin Commons Theatre
10/22/13 Laval, QC Salle Andre' Matie
10/23/13 Sherbrooke, QC Theatre Granda
10/24/13 Saint Hyacinthe, QC Centre de Arts Juliette-Lassonde
10/25/13 Saint Jean sur Richelieu, QC Theatre des Deux Rives
10/26/13 L'Assomption, QC Theatre Hector Charland
10/27/13 Quebec City, QC Imperial Theatre
10/28/13 Rimouski, QC Salle Desjardins-Telus
10/31/13 New York, NY Beacon Theater
11/1/13 Portland, ME State Theater
11/2/13 Boston, MA House Of Blues
11/3/13 Ridgefield, CT Ridgefield Playhouse
12/8/13 Los Angeles, CA The Roxy
12/9/13 Los Angeles, CA The Roxy
12/10/13 Los Angeles, CA The Roxy

Monday, May 6, 2013

My own private concert

The Independence Sinfonia presented a program of Mozart and Beethoven Sunday afternoon. I was unable to attend, since I worked weekends, but I was invited to the final rehearsal at a shoebox of a church in Wyndmoor Pa. It was a thrill to hear Beethoven's Fifth in such a small space, even when the orchestra consists of only about 40 musicians. The reading was taut, and the musicians played straight through: the only distraction was the occasional shout of encouragement from the podium.

The conductor, Jerome Rosen, who played violin with the Cleveland Orchestra years ago, told me that the one lesson he learned from George Szell is that musicians do not play better when they're terrified.

"Anything positive you can say, you have to say," he said.

Rosen spent all of his time tweaking details of articulation and phrasing, something he said he can do only when the musicians have mastered the score. As an editor, I know what he means: there is a big difference between a writer who needs help with mechanics, and one who simply isn't getting it.

"It's so satisfying to be able to nitpick," he told the group.

 Besides the Beethoven Fifth, the program included Mozart's overture to The Magic Flute and his Sinfonia Concertante, with Rosen on violin and Xiao-Fu Zhou on viola. Zhou made it look easy. He was impassive through most of the run through, while Rosen, who told me he hasn't played violin in years, would grimace every time he made a mistake.

Several the musicians sat out the Mozart, but they were all up front for the Beethoven, leaving me alone in the pews. It was like attending my own, private concert.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Look at all the pretty colors

The 100-year anniversary of the premiere of Rite of Spring arrives next month, and Stephen Malinowski has just sent me a link to the "animated score" he has created and posted on Youtube. It's rather like a kaleidoscopic "follow the bouncing ball." It gives you something to look at while all that great music is going on, and it beats the hell out of Fantasia:

Here is an excerpt from the press release that arrived in my email:

The ballet The Rite of Spring with music by Stravinsky was first performed in Paris on May 29, 1913.

In celebration of the centenary of its premiere, music synthesist Jay Bacal and music animator Stephen Malinowski have collaborated to create an animated, graphical score for viewers.

The animation, which you can watch and listen to on YouTube, is a musical score that nonmusicians can understand. It's a welcoming way to appreciate the structure of the work, and heightens your listening by enlisting the visual channel, which allows one to easily follow the different lines of the orchestration.

"The animation lets your eyes lead your ears," Malinowski says. Malinowski, based in the Bay Area, has created music animations for more than 200 pieces of music. He has provided animation for Björk and provided live animation synchronized to performances by symphony orchestra, chamber music groups and soloists.

An urban legend is born

In his hatchet job at the Huffington Post, David Asia says that, during rehearsals for the first performance of the Concerto for Orchestra, Elliott Carter did not notice that a clarinetist played the wrong transposition for uch of the piece, and that Bernstein, the conductor, was unimpressed with him (Carter). Asia thinks it’s a big deal, because Carter, as we know, was all about intervals. One of my correspondents, something of a Carter expert, emailed me yesterday, in part:

I wonder where he heard the Bernstein story from since he (Asia) would not have been at the rehearsal.

He cc'd another of my correspondents (also a Carter aficion), who replied thus:

I wondered about that too. I'm beginning to think that “can't hear the wrong clarinet transposition” story is an urban legend. I heard Richard Wilson tell it about Schoenberg yesterday on a panel. (Another good one is the "learn the piece on the train and play it for the first time at the concert" story, which I've now heard about three different pianists.)

In my initial post, I had planned to say that I saw no gross misrepresentations in Asia's essay, but I am revising that estimate.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Carter Lives

Daniel Asia spits on Elliott Carter's grave this week over at the Huffington Post. In a piece titled "Carter is Dead" (evoking Boulez' famous pronouncement on the music of Schoenberg), he says, essentially, that the late Mr. Carter had no real talent and never did anything right in his whole life.

The essay is not interesting, but its timing is. Not only did Asia wait until Carter was safely out of the way. He waited until Charles Rosen was, too. At that point, he must have known the coast was clear, and he could safely to poke his nose out of his burrow. His little presumptions are exactly the sort of thing that Rosen, the Huxley to Carter’s Darwin, was so adept at skewering. He would have chewed it up before breakfast, then tossed off three thousand words on Mozart’s use of tonality.

I suspect that Mr. Asia produced his essay in a spirit of malicious glee, fully expecting a firestorm of protest and ready to declare that the anger and defensiveness of Carter’s admirers is proof that he had somehow touched a nerve. But there really isn’t much here to get upset about, and even less to argue with. The criticisms, such as they are, consist of simple assertions. One either agrees with them or one does not. I do not. Here are some counter-assertions, for the record: Carter’s piano music does not “pale” beside Copland’s; the Eight Etudes for wind quartet hold up quite nicely, thank you; and the finale of the Cello Sonata is hardly “cute.”

I have never changed anyone's mind about music through argument, and no one has ever changed mine. Sometimes, through repeated listening, I have learned to like something I initially found daunting or dull, but I've never stopped liking a piece of music simply because somebody told me to. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, of course, even Mr. Asia, but my listening habits remain unchanged. It's not a matter of "I'm right and he's wrong." It's more a matter of "I'm cool, and he's a doofus."

What I find heartening in Asia's piece, however, is that he really isn’t saying anything Donal Henahan and Harold C. Schoenberg weren’t saying forty years ago. To a man, the sages from our paper of record didn’t think Carter’s music had a future, either, and yet, here we are, forty years later, having the same discussion. If the future is anything like the past, the controversy will continue, and so will the music.

Now, to clear the air, I offer the Adagio of the 1948 Cello Sonata, one of my favorite movements in all of music: