Sunday, November 30, 2014

All on the plains of Mexico, and "Sleigh Ride" watch begins

I came across this CD this afternoon quite unexpectedly at the Plymouth Meeting Mall and decided I had to have it. (It was a struggle with my conscience, believe me.) I have the same release on an old pre-recorded cassette (remember those?), but I had not listened to it in a long time, and I thought for the sale price, I was due an upgrade. I'd forgotten just how beautiful it is. "Lowlands," "Shenandoah" and "Santy Anna" still give me chills. I remember years ago, when I bought the cassette, the clerk at the store in Greenbelt, Md., with whom I was friendly, gibed me a bit for what seemed to her like a silly purchase. This was in the mid-1980s, but I swear, this recording holds up much better than any of the big hits released at the time.

In other news, while I was making up my mind about the CD, I heard LeRoy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" for the first time this holiday season, played over the store's audio system. It is now officially Christmastime, This was a version I hadn't heard before -- a straight up rock instrumental. I wish I knew who did it. (A search of YouTube turned up nothing.) Then, after Glenn Miller's "String of Pearls" with some added holiday lyrics, "Sleigh Ride" came on again, this time in a more traditional vocal performance.  I did't recognize the singer, but let's face it: there are too many versions to keep track of them all. A double dose in one afternoon was almost too rich. I'll be fixed for the next few days.    

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A word to the wise

One other anecdote from Tuesday's recital, before I  forget: A cellphone went off in the audience just as Dawn Upshaw was preparing to sing "Ann Street." She handled it with good humor, saying it would work with the song. For my part,  I was suddenly struck by how much the default iPhone ring tone resembles the the rhythmic pattern of "The Se'er."

Then, after intermission, Gilbert Kalish walked onstage carrying a slat of wood that is called for in the score of the Concord Sonata. (It's used to produce a number of high-pitched, delicate-sounding tone clusters in the "Hawthorne" movement.)  Just before he began his remarks about the piece, he held the wood in front of him, at about belt level, and said, "This  is for the people with their cellphones."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Boy, was my face red

An old friend of mine, when I told him I was going to see Dawn Upshaw, emailed to say she sings his    favorite Strauss Four Last Songs. "My heart melts when I hear her," he wrote.

So, when I spoke to Miss Upshaw after last night's performance, I passed along the compliment, figuring it would be a nice way to break the ice. She said she has never, ever sung the Four Last Songs.

Maybe she should, though. I'm told she does a great job with them.

Hear the trombones!

The divine Miss Upshaw
Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish made a persuasive case last night for the off-kilter genius of Charles Ives. Upshaw sang a generous selection of fourteen songs – twice as many as I expected from the program online – and, after an intermission that featured a free ice cream tasting, Kalish returned for a masterful performance of Ives’s labyrinthine Concord Sonata.  

Kalish seems to respond best to Ives’s modernist side, and he was especially effective in the first half of the sonata. The “Emerson” movement was magnificent, and “Hawthorne” was a wild rush of a storm. The last two sections – the homely “Alcotts” and the contemplative “Thoreau” – fared less well. They could have been softer, and the entrance of Edward Schultz’s flute in “Thoreau” could have been more clearly articulated, but these are minor complaints.  

In the first half, Upshaw was a delightfully spunky guide to the Ives universe, which is alternately corny, exuberant, wry, angry and reverent. After the recital, she said she was apprehensive about singing “Like a Sick Eagle” back  to back with “Memories,” as Kalish had insisted, but, she said, in art as in in life, the tragic and the funny get mixed up. “Eagle” was the one spot where she faltered, forgetting a line and ad libbing one of her own. It was distracting, though she still managed to give me chills by the end. At other moments her voice seemed strained, but she was a witty interpreter, using her face and body to turn the lyrics into stories. In “The Circus Band,” the last song in the set, she become an excited little boy, craning her neck and going up on her toes to see over the heads of an imaginary crowd in the street. And her “Housatonic at Stockbridge,” when she simply planted herself on the stage and sang, was perfection.

One thing about the performance space at the American Philosophical Society. Or two: The acoustics were better than I had hoped for, and it was fitting – inspiring, really  that the music of an American giant should be performed beneath portraits of Jefferson, Franklin and Washington. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Happy Ives Day

Gilbert Kalish will play the Concord Sonata Tuesday in Philadelphia.
Today is the 140th birthday of Charles Ives. In just world, it would be a national holiday. I've done nothing yet to mark the occasion. My observance will come  tomorrow, at I attend an all-Ives recital at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Dawn Upshaw will sing a handful of songs accompanied by Gilbert Kalish, who will then play the Concord Sonata. I wangled and interview with Mr. Kalish back in September, and the article went online on the tenth. You can read it here. Not that it matters. The concert has been sold for at least two weeks. Philadelphia is not a big Ives town, and I assume the sellout was due to Upshaw's name recognition  power -- which is kind a pity, because the program incoudes only about seven songs. She'll be onstage for all of twenty minutes.

She apparently doesn't do interviews, by the way. I tried several times to get in touch with her for  the article, and her management's publicist was sweet about trying to track her down, but she never returned any of their calls. The publicist told me she even passed on talking to Gramophone. Gramophone, people. So what chance does a dinky entertainment insert in suburban Philadelphia have? The publicist also said Miss Upshaw is a lovely person,  just press-shy. It was just as well. Mr. Kalish gave me so much material and such great quotes, that even if I had spoken with her, I doubt I could have given her more than a paragraph. Space is tight in the weekend tabs.

On another topic, today I received my CD of Klaus Stock's original-instrument performance of Schubert's wonderful Arpeggione Sonata. I don't  need to tell my followers the arpeggione was a sort of bowed guitar, and Schubert wrote his sonata for the inventor. The instrument never caught on, and it's not hard  to understand why. It's  a  thin, reedy sound compared with the modern cello, the instrument  on which the sonata is usually performed today. (It's also done on the viola, which gives a better idea of the original timbre.)  Still, it's a   fine performance of a delightful work. I love Schubert in his Biedermeier moments. Puts me in the mood for potato soup and beer.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

And parking is free on Sundays

Angela and Aubrey Webber, aka the
 Doubleclicks, tonight at Melodies Cafe, Ardmore.
A few minutes ago, I arrived by home from Ardmore, where I saw Angela and Aubrey Webber, aka the Doubleclicks, perform a set at Melodies Café, and I want to get my impressions down while the glow is still warm. Suffice it to say I haven’t been this happy in months. I was prepared for clever lyrics and a high cuteness quotient. What I was not prepared for was the strength and professionalism of the vocals. YouTube and iPhones don’t do these young women justice.

The surprise of the evening was Aubrey, who doesn’t do interviews and, during most of tonight’s show, sat out of the spotlight while her sister schmoozed the crowd. She has a big, Broadway-style voice that would sound at home in Chicago, but isn’t quite right for the most of the light, folk-inspired comedy numbers her sister writes. She sang only two songs on her own (backed by instrumental recordings), plus the four-word word refrain to “The Final Countdown,” a tango about the last day on a dead-end job. The rest of the time, she was relegated to vocal harmonies and playing the cello.

“I know what you’re going to say,” Angela said from the stage. “You’re going to tell me I should let her song more. And I know what I’m going to say: No. It’s just the rules. It’s a legal thing."

And maybe it’s better she doesn’t. It makes her few solos all the more memorable.

Angela’s lyrics are for the most part topical ― not inspired by politics or the news, but full of references to TV shows, movies, role-playing games and comic book heroes. I wonder how well they’ll age, but then, I wonder that about myself. And I felt my age during the first song, when I fully understood only two of the references: the one about Romeo and Juliet, and the one about Scully and Mulder. The rest of them flew over my head. It was like listening to a native speaker of German. I caught the sense, but the nuances escaped me.

Whatever their future might be, however, I can affirm that, at the present time, the songs are very funny. Come back soon, girls. You’ve left for the next stop on your tour, and I can already feel the air going out of the room.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Zappa in sonnet form

There's a blogger with too much time on his hands who likes to rewrite pop lyrics in the style of Shakespearean sonnets.  (See I thought I'd give the form a try on my own:

I dreamt I was a lad in Arctic climes,
Where bitter cold the tundra wind doth blow,
And there my weeping mother cried betimes:
“O be thou not a naughty Esquimaux.
“Keepest thou thy money in thy purse,
And ever be a good and trusty fellow.
Beware the spots that huskies may immerse,
And never eat the snow if it be yellow.”
As prudence be the stuff of common weal,
My mother’s wise enjoinings did I heed,
Until a trapper whapped my baby seal
And spurred me to a base and violent deed:
Life’s Authoress, do not your son chastise
For rubbing golden crystals in his eyes.
― Frank Zappa: Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Poem for Robin

Thinking about Robin Williams led me back to Edward Arlington Robinson's "Richard Cory":

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Last thoughts about Robin Williams

Saddened as I am by the suicide of Robin Williams, I have to admit I lost interest in his work early in his career. He first caught my attention as Mork, not in his own series, but in the fantasy episode of "Happy Days.” I forget when I first saw it. I was studying abroad in February 1978, when, according to Wiki, it first aired, but I was home by the end of August, and I must have caught in a rerun. I remember thinking, who is this guy? I had no idea, but he was hilarious.

I was an instant fan when “Mork and Mindy” premiered. I don’t recall ever laughing as hard as I did during the show’s first hour. The bits that come easily to mind thirty years later were Mork’s attempt to free the eggs, and his imitation of Spencer Tracy in “Inherit the Wind.” These were the days when I harbored the pipedream, like on of O’Neill’s drunks, of being a comic, and Williams quickly became a hero, a model that could never be successfully copied.

The novelty of a show like Mork and Mindy wears off quickly, however, and the series faded rapidly after its first season. Even Jonathan Winters couldn't save it. After the show was canceled, Williams never reached those early heights again. The albums were a disappointment, They contained some brilliant bits (Elmer Fudd sings Bruce Springsteen), but those were few and far between, and separated by uninspired hyperactivity (Shake Hands with Mr. Happy). The jokes that lay beneath the mania were often no better than the kind of one-liners Bob Hope put out, and as with any performer who relies on improvisation, Williams seemed to spin his wheels for long periods while inspiration to strike. The comedy didn't build. Instead, he went from peak to peak, slogging through some pretty deep troughs. He wasn't as consistently funny as those comedians, like Steve Martin, George Carlin, or Woody Allen, who wrote and structured their routines.

It was Williams who made me realize that even the greatest comedians are truly funny only about half the time. The Marx Brothers, long my favorites, peaked with “A Night at the Opera” and limped along repeating themselves for another fifteen years. Woody Allen and Steve Martin abandoned standup for the movies, and Martin finally gave up the movies for music. Even Jonathan Winters, Williams’ own hero, was often more clever than funny. He never made a great movie, or even gave a great performance in one. Williams had a better record on that score, at least, since he was willing to branch out into serious acting. He kept working, and by most standards, enjoyed the kind of success that makes his suicide all the more puzzling.

But depression is not a rational process. Robin Williams didn’t sit up on the last night of his life weighing the pros and cons of his existence. At that point the pain was too much, and he knew only one way to make it stop.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunday afternoon

Cycled out to Valley Forge,
Where Friedrich breakfasted with George,
Relishing, with Prussian zest,
The Continental sausage fest.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The worst advice ever given to a creative artist

Thinking of Charles Ives and the hostile reaction his music has weathered from so many professional musicians,  I'm reminded of his confrontation with Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the great music patron, as recounted in Jan Swafford's Chareles Ives: A Life With Music (p. 220). As Swafford tells it, Coolidge visited the Iveses in at their summer home in Redding in 1915, and Charlie tried out "Saint-Gaudens" and "Washington's Birthday" on her.

"Mrs. Coolidge listened sourly," Swafford goes on, "deplored the awful sounds, and finally walked out of the house. As she got into her motorcar she fired a parting shot: 'Well, I must say your music makes no sense to me. It is not, to my mind, music. How is I that -- studying as you have with Parker -- you never came to write like that?  You ought to know the music of Daniel Gregory Mason. He has a real message.' "

Thanks, Liz.


Lately I've been obsessed (in a healthy way, I think) with Mozart's E flat Piano Concerto K. 271, and this morning I received in the mail my third recording of it, which cost one cent at Amazon, to the benefit of Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee. It is Alfred Brendel's last recording, of three, with Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. I am listening to it at this moment. Ladies and gentlemen, this is The One.

This is the sort of music -- and performance -- that almost succeeds in making life bearable.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The slug on my wall

Sunday I biked to the Morris Arboretum where Martha Knox was selling her woodcuts at an art show. Just to show my support, I purchased a copy of "Leopard Slug," a small, hand-painted piece I believe is from her series "In My Yard." Today I put it in a two-dollar Ikea frame and  hung it on the wall above my desk. For such a small picture, it adds a surprising and wonderful dash of color to my living room. I thought I was being quirky when I picked it out, but Martha tells me it's actually one of her more popular works. I can see why. Everyone loves slimy invasive species.

The bike trip to the arboretum was a killer. I was fine when I stuck to the Schuylkill Trail, but Harts Lane in Whitemarsh was a steep  climb on the order of "the wall"  Manayunk. At one point I had to get off the bike and walk, and at several others I had to stop and catch my breath. When I returned home, I lay down on my bed and didn't move for close to  two hours.

Bramwell Tovey conducts Beethoven

Bramwell Tovey will conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Mann Center on June 27. I won't be able to attend, because my work schedule won't allow it, but I did manage to score a brief phone interview. The resulting article may be read here. I'm not responsible for the headline, by the way, which should say he will conduct Beethoven and Britten, not perform them.

Tovey was born and raised in Britain, and he resides mostly in British Columbia, where he is the music director of the Vancouver Symphony. I must confess I had not heard his name before I accepted the assignment to write the article, but I found him to be a genial interviewee with plenty to say. He also had a good sense of humor, which I rarely expect from a jet-set conductor and composer. He chuckled when I asked, in regard to his opera The Inventor, whether Ottawa enforces the same Canadian content regulations for music as it does for TV and radio. It doesn't, apparently. No one in the government contacted him about the work, although part of it does take place in Halifax.

Jeremy Denk on Ives

Jeremy Denk has written a sympathetic and characteristically chatty review in the the New York Review of Books of Stephen Budiansky's new biography of Charles Ives, which I've read. I'm not sure who this Ransom Wilson is. I don't remember him from the book, he doesn't appear in the index, and it was the critic Tim Page, not Wilson, who, according to Budiansky, dismissed Ives as a "basement tinkerer" who knocked out "ditties" on Sundays (p. 15). (So, the Fourth Symphony and the Robert Browning Overture are "ditties." In thinking of those pieces, and so many more, the word never would have occurred to me.)  I suppose Denk went back to the article in the New York Times Budiansky cites in his notes and found Wilson's name there. In any event, I have never heard of him, and I imagine Ives will be remembered and argued about long after he and Tim Page are forgotten.

I'm also puzzled by Denk's statement that "Ives's music often falls flat in performance." I have heard many performances of Ives that were far from flat -- among them Denk's own, with Soovin Kim, of the four violin sonatas. It was such a wonderful evening I recall it easily after seven years -- though I am still not sold on Jeremy's recording of the Concord Sonata.

I'm note sure, either, how high the Concord towers over Elliott Carter's Piano Sonata. My own feeling in comparing the two (since you asked) is that Carter, overall, is the more accomplished, but there are moments in Ives -- for example, "Hanover Square North" -- that take me places no other composer since Beethoven has ever taken me. (Jeremy also has an irritating habit, somewhat common among Ives partisans, of making the case for Ives's greatness while at the same time backhandedly slighting  the music.)

I recommend anyone with an interest in Ives to read Budiansky's book. He's particularly good on the composer's health problems, and, mercifully, he avoids the imbroglio over the dating of Ives's compositions. (Maynard Solomon is never mentioned.) If I had a complaint, it would be that perhaps he spends too much time on the insurance industry and the  treatment of diabetes. Biographers seem to feel obligated to put all their background research on the page. If it stands out more in this book than it might in some others, however, it does so because the book is so admirably concise.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Happy Birthday, Martha Knox

My humanist friend Martha Knox, a mother and woodcut artist who recently spent some time in the  the hospital for a gallstone, celebrated her 36th birthday yesterday. The day before, on her Facebook page, she specifically asked her friends not to give her the standard saccharine greetings. She wanted edgy, she wanted cynical, she wanted insulting. I couldn't quite make myself insult her, but I did come up with this.

We celebrate, for what it's worth,
The day of Martha Knox's birth,
And raise a song, in dulcet tones,
Of purple hair and bladder stones,
Of butterflies on blocks of wood
And humanistic motherhood,
With healthy snacks and wholesome games
For daughters with outrageous names,
Knowing as we do full well
Her soul headed straight to hell.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Little Shrine

Charles Ives's studio, with his piano, seen from outside a small set of windows. The view out the window at the far end is a photographs of the view in West Redding.

On Thursday I took a day trip to New York to see the studio from Charles Ives’s home in West Redding, Conn. The home was sold last year, but the studio – or rather, the furnishings and artifacts from the studio – are on permanent display at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, donated by Ives’s grandson, Charles Ives Tyler. It’s a small exhibit, but a compelling one. Everything is arranged just as it was in the composer’s his lifetime, though perhaps a little neater – his piano, his books, his photographs, the double doors he used as a bulletin board, even his bottles of bitters. His infamous felt hat, the one he wore in many late-life photographs, sits on top of the bookcase, near the cornet that belonged to his father, George Ives.
Ives's desk, with the end of his cot at left. The studio was not added to the West Redding house until 1922, as Ives's health was failing. He probably did little actual composing here. 

It’s no surprise, but the little room, particularly the bulletin board, reminded me of Ives’s music. Both are slightly disheveled but welcoming collages built from random scraps of memory, and both are windows into the mind of the man who made them. The surrounding exhibition includes photographs, letters written by Ives to his daughter in his nearly indecipherable scribble, concert programs, early editions of scores, and the inevitable narrative decaled on the walls. Some of the information presented has been rendered obsolete by recent books on the composer, and some of it is simply wrong. Ives did not stop composing entirely in 1920, for example, and his breakdown in 1918 was most likely not a heart attack. A photo of George White Ives, the composer’s grandfather, is misidentified as his father, George Edward, but the portrait of a young Harmony in her nurse’s uniform is a heartbreaker. Adam Budiansky, in his new biography of Ives, Mad Music, refers to Harmony as a plain girl. She was anything but.
Ives's bookcase, with his felt hat, his father's cornet.

One could go through the entire exhibition in about twenty minutes, but I stayed upwards of two hours, until closing time at 4 p.m. I spent much of that time chatting with the docents and couple of the visitors, one of whom turned out to be the clarinetist Mark Simon, an old acquaintance from my days posting at the Classical Music Guide discussion board. I also had the good fortune to be there at the same time as Kyle Werner, a young composer who is also Robert Mann’s archivist.

The American Academy is way uptown on Broadway at 155th Street, a part of Manhattan I had never visited. One hears a lot of Spanish on the streets. The galleries, home to a large collection of contemporary art, occupy two of a set of hulking neoclassical buildings, set back from the street, that collectively used to be the Numismatic Society. (All that ostentation for a bunch of coin collectors?) Now, the Academy shares the central piazza with Boricua College and the New York Hispanic Society.
The bulletin board made from the double doors that led to the rest of the house.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Another memorable afternoon

Sarah Shafer
The Independence Sinfonia group keeps raising the bar for itself. Usually, I attend concerts by small, semi-professional orchestras with modest hopes. I’m content with the passable reading of a familiar piece, and I’m willing to forgive the occasional the whining intonations and the ragged tuttis in return for an enthusiastic performance in an intimate venue. But the Independence Sinfonia, under Jerome Rosen, no longer has the cushion of low expectations. Yesterday’s performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 was as good as any concert in recent memory -- or long-term memory, for that matter. The orchestra played wonderfully, which was all the more impressive since the musicians told me afterward that they had not read through the pieces in their entirety during rehearsals. They had spent all of their time polishing up individual sections, they said. Special mention goes to concertmaster William Phillips, who had meaty solos in both works, and first trumpet Rick Yiensgt, whose fanfares in the first movement of the Mahler nearly reduced me to tears.

The soprano Sarah Shafer, in a royal -blue gown, was touching, wide-eyed presence in “The Heavenly Life,” although, based on what I heard, I can’t judge if she’s destined for the brilliant future Jerry predicted for her. For the performance, she stood back among the woodwinds, which was a mistake, I think, even in the small room at Or Hadesh. But it’s a minor complaint. I could hear every word.

One player summed up the experience afterward by saying, in reference to Jerry Rosen, "It helps to have a retired genius in charge." Then again, I don't think genius every really retires.

On the strength of my preview in the paper, I was invited to the post-concert party. Thanks, Faith, for all the orange juice. Compliments, too, to third trumpet Mark Handler, who provided the chocolate cookies.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Sarah Shafer sings Mahler

The 25-year-old soprano Sarah Shafer, who has a few weeks left as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, will perform Sunday with the Independence Sinfonia in Fort Washington. Shafer will appear as soloist in the last movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, and Jerry Rosen, the Sinfonia's music director, tells me she is destined for great things. You can read my preview here.

The Independence Sinfonia is, in my opinion, the best of Philadelphia's several suburban orchestras, largely because of the work Rosen has done with the string section in the past few years.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Totes Florio

I spent an enjoyable hour yesterday afternoon at Ursinus College, where I attended a performance of Carmina Burana, surely the most famous cantata ever written about drinking and horniness. It’s by no means a great work, but it went down well on a sunny spring afternoon when the trees were blooming and the young women on campus were parading about in their gym shorts. The version I heard yesterday was for reduced forces – chorus, soloists, two pianos and percussion -- which emphasized Orff’s debt to Stravinsky’s Les Noces, but which I preferred to my overblown orchestral recording.

John French conducted, wearing an academic robe and a tasseled beret. He said afterward he wore it as a joke a joke on the singers. He called it his medieval costume, and indeed, he did somewhat resemble the statue of Zacharias Ursinus that stands on the lawn between the concert hall and the art museum.

The instrumentalists were from the University of Delaware Percussion Ensemble, directed by Harvey Price, whom I came to know in 2012 when a group of Delawareans performed Pierrot Lunaire at the German Society of Pennsylvania. Standouts for me were the lovely, light tone of the women’s chorus in “Chume, chum, geselle min” and tenor Robert O’Neill’s cracked falsetto in “Olim lacus colueram,” the song of the swan as it is roasted slowly on a spit. O’Neill was very funny, fanning himself with his score, though it didn’t seem most of the audience picked up on the joke. (Strangely, that was all he had to do.)

Oh, and I didn’t mention the concert was free. Ursinus has a great music program with many free concerts during the year. Next Sunday, the Independence Sinfonia will play Haydn’s 103rd and Mahler’s 4th in Fort Washington.

Monday, February 10, 2014

It was fifty years ago today

The Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show fifty years ago last night. I was six years old in February 1964, and their performance is my second earliest memory of an event of public importance. (The first was the assassination of John Kennedy.) As with all early memories, this one is sketchy, consisting of only a few vivid impressions that can be summarized briefly: I remember the sense of anticipation before the broadcast, which emanated from my older sisters, the ghostly image of four long-haired boys on our black-and-white Zenith TV, and my mother’s reaction, which was, simply, that their faces were dirty and needed to be washed. (Mom had a knack for seizing on insignificant details, usually on the basis of bad information. It didn’t occur to her that the dirt thought she saw was actually shadows. )

In the days that followed, however, the Beatles became a large part of our lives. Their music, names and images were everywhere, especially at the Jersey shore, were we spent a week every summer. (My brother had a John Lennon beach towel.) Beatlemania was a real phenomenon, one that is difficult to convey to younger people. You couldn’t escape it. Not that you wanted to, since everyone agreed that the Beatles were, in fact, fab.

Which they were. I was reminded of just how fab yesterday when I played cuts from the two Past Masters CDs, a collection of singles and covers the boys put out in addition to their albums. One cover, Larry Williams’ headlong rocker “Slow Down,” sung by John, was a favorite when I was small. Back then, it appeared on a quickie LP, rushed into stores in a vain attempt to satisfy the insatiable American market, called “Something New.” I remember listening to it over and over again in our dining room, kneeling backwards on a chair, facing the speakers that stood on what we called the buffet, and shaking my seven-year-old behind.

“Something New” also contained another favorite, Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” sung by Ringo. I was the youngest of four children, and Ringo became my favorite Beatle by default. My older sisters grabbed John and George. My brother declared for Paul. Ringo was the only one left, but I embraced him gladly. It was a particular point of pride that his real name was Richard, which is my middle name.

So I was happy last night when he reprised the tune on the overproduced, badly miked “tribute” program commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Sullivan appearance. He was in fine voice. The same cannot be said of Paul McCartney, whom I could barely hear through the cavernous acoustics of the hall and the slick, anonymous instrumentals. To be fair, Paul had a much greater range than Ringo ever did, and if he’s lost more of his voice over the years, it is only because he had more to lose.

As for the rest of the program, the less said the better. It was the kind of smarmy, star-studded extravaganza that the Beatles, with their honesty and their raw energy, rendered obsolete in the Sixties. Back then, for a time at least, it was about the joy of making music. The Beatles belonged to us, to everyone. Last night, it was about the rich and famous basking in reflected glory. The covers were mostly awful. Dave Grohl’s “Hey Bulldog” landed close to the mark, though he lacked John’s growl. Most memorable was John Legend’s honeyed rendition of “Let It Be.” Alicia Keys should have gotten out of his way.

John Lennon once said that if the Beatles ever reunited, they would just be four old men trotting out their greatest hits. After last night I can see what he meant, but I wonder if it would really have been such a bad thing. Yoko gave the enterprise her blessing: She was there in the audience, rocking out. (Was she high?) Paul and Ringo looked great, and they seemed to be having a wonderful time. I like to think John would have put his grudges aside and joined his old friends onstage. George, too. The songs have aged well, and the fact two of the men who created them have died, and other two have grown old, does not diminish them. They’ll survive another hundred years of bad tributes.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Music of mourning

Last night, while surfing the web, I discovered that my ex-wife died last November of ovarian cancer. Neither she nor any member of her family had informed me she was ill. We had not spoken for several years, but needless to say, I was badly shaken, and although it was late, I went to the stereo to find some kind of relief in music.

My first choice was Ralph Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony. The second was Debussy's "Homage a Rameau" for solo piano. Both of these old favorites came into my head almost as soon as I became aware my ex was gone. Both are gentle, contemplative, and dignified, but with an undercurrent of strength. The fourth movement of the Vaughan Williams, especially, has a wonderful climactic moment in which a wave of sound rises swiftly, but with a satisfying motivation, and crashes over the rocks on shore.

This afternoon, before I walked to work in the snowstorm, the music was more about affirmation than sadness - Bach's Partita No. 2 for solo violin, and Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32. Bach's Chaconne is one of those works that instill a sense of awe over the human mind can conceive. The finale of the Beethoven breaks the bonds of earth. The performances were by Arthur Grumiaux and Alfred Brendel.

I don't know what I will need to turn to next.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Back online

To all seven of my readers: Sorry I've been silent the past few weeks, but I moved to Norristown at the end of December, and most of my time was taken up with packing, unpacking, and nursing sore muscles. At some point I'll be posting again. Thanks to my best friend in the whole world, who shall remain anonymous, and who drove in from out of state to help me carry the boxes and boxes of books and CDs. Also a shout out to his son. who said he would help, then changed his mind at the last minute. Twerp.