Monday, December 28, 2015

Spenser's frame of reference

Ace Atkins has written a fourth novel in his continuation of Robert B. Parker's Spenser franchise. This one is called Kickback , and it's based directly on the kids-for-cash scandal that played out a few years ago in Luzerne County, Pa., my proud home state.

(About that title: toward the end of his life, Parker skimped on his prose. The page count stayed the same, but the type got bigger, the margins wider, the leading deeper, and the titles were mostly reduced to one word. He seemed to be a race against time. The hireling author has filled out the pages again, but he has turned bi-syllabic titles into a tradition.)

Of  Atkins' attempts to inhabit the Spenser universe so far, this is the first  one that doesn't fall apart at the end, although he does feel the need to introduce organized crime into the story, the one element not drawn from real life,  just to he can set up an obligatory bloodbath. Just once, I'd like to read a Spenser novel in which goons are not sent sent to scare the hero off. The crime bosses never seem to realize that if they just left him alone, he'd have no leads to track down.
As with the last Spenser book, I couldn't help thinking about Spenser's age, which is never nailed down numerically, but which has to be over 80. Parker, who used element his own life in fashioning the character, was born in 1932, and Spenser was already in his forties when he was introduced in 1973. Do the math. Our urban knight errant is now dealing with a reconstructed knee, and he's gone on a diet, cutting out his beloved donuts (though he'd lose weight faster if he stopped drinking). Barring a complete reboot a la Star Trek, he'll soon be breaking down doors with a walker.

What drove the age issue home most forcefully, however, wasn't Spenser's physical condition, but his cultural references, which seem stuck in a time warp. Parker had a lazy way of describing characters, especially women, by comparing them to celebrities of the day, but at least the names he used were of the day. Atkins reaches back into the pop culture past, as though he knows he's writing for an aging demographic.

But to be fair, he's writing about a character who still listens to Artie Shaw and wears a Brooklyn Dodgers cap.

Here are a few examples, with page references. See how many you recognize.

A haggard woman missing two front teeth got up to slow dance with a man in a flannel shirt and unlaced boots. They could have taken a lesson from Arthur Murray. (44) Is that even around anymore?

The hood lay loose around his neck, making him look like Nanook of the North. (44)

All this sleuthing was exciting as hell. If only Bulldog Drummond had the Internet. (75)

Only myself an Warner Oland could sleuth over a plate of scallion pancakes. (78)

"I know you," I said, snapping my fingers at the old guy. "You were in the Mickey Mouse Club. You, Chubby and Annette. Wow. Brings back some real memories." (121)

"Enough," I said. "Not that I don't enjoy the Lux Radio Theatre ..." (134)

He looked about as menacing as Howdy Doody on a buckboard. (186)

His thick, curly hair had been cut shorter than Daddy Warbucks's. (232)

I waited for the purse to clock me with all the ferocity of Ruth Buzzi. (245)

He looked like a young James Caan without the looks. (290)

There was also a reference to Madonna in there someplace.


Monday, December 14, 2015

A lovely Sunday afternoon in the wilds of suburbia

Taking part in the Salon Extraordinaire in Gladwynne Sunday are, from left, Qin Qian, erhu; Rollin Wilber, piano; Tom Kozumplik, perciussion; Anndrea Clearfield, emcee; Karthryn Woodard, piano; Michele Cann, piano; Joe Soprani, accordion; and John Byrne, leader of the John Byrne Band.

Yesterday I attended my first (and I hope not my last) Salon Extraordinaire, a free concert organized by the composer Andrea Clearfield and held in the comfortable confines of the Main Line Reform Temple in Gladwynne.  Eclecticism was the order of the day as the performers, each of whom got about ten or so minutes to perform, comprised two classical pianists, a Celtic band, a Chinese violinist (that is, a woman who played the Chinese violin, though she also happened to be Chinese), an Italian accordionist (that is, an Italian-American who played the accordion, though on this occasion he happened to play Italian music), and a percussionist-composer who in performance also uses electronic effects, such a voice loops and digital echoes.

Everyone was a standout, and I sat grinning dippily through the whole affair, but the performers who made the deepest impression on me at the time were Qin Qian (pronounced Chin Chan), the erhu player  who was accomanied deferentially by pianist Kathryn Woodard;  and the percussionist, Tom Kozumplik. Not that they were any better than anyone else. It’s just that something about my mood or the novelty of the sounds provoked a stronger response.  Qian played three selections, all composed in the 1960s, but all employing traditional Chinese materials. The first mimicked the galloping of Mongolian horse racing, the last bird song, and the one in the middle, while not specifically imitative, evoked moonlight on a stream as only pentatonic scales can.  Together, they made a small sonata in three movements – fast, slow, fast – and Qian was great fun to watch, grinning slyly as she tore into the rapid figurations. The erhu has a rough sound to match its rough look, and Qian’s facial expressions made it clear that what seemed to Western ears like screeches and wrong notes are all part of the tradition.

The afternoon closed with the young piano virtuoso Michele Cann playing Adolf Schulz-Elver’s  “Arabesques on ‘An der schönen blauen Donau.’” The music itself is either dazzling or hilarious, depending on your definition of taste, but Cann was a marvel, and a great audience favorite. It should be mentioned that the piano at the temple was used by Samuel Barber during his days at the Curtis Institute, purchased and donated by a pair of congregants.    

I enjoyed meeting the accordionist Joe Soprani, whom I interviewed for my preview piece on the salon, but he was rather difficult to hear in performance. He played two pieces ― Julie Giroux’s “Italian Rhapsody” and Rachmaninoff’s “Italian Polka” ― and was, in each case, accompanied by recordings of the US Air Force Band. It was an unwise decision, in my view. On the one hand, the sound system didn’t really convey the kick of big band, and on the other, it seemed at times Soprani was holding back, afraid he would drown it out. He’s a great musician who's had the most remarkable and varied career of anyone onstage yesterday. Next time, I’d like to hear him go it alone and find out just how much volume he can squeeze out of that box.     

One word on the notion of salons: Andrea Clearfield likes to say her own salons were inspired by the salon culture of the 17th and 18th centuries in Italy and France, which themselves, she said, trace their roots all the way back to ancient Greece. She also asked if me if I could recommend any books or research on the subject. It might be grist for an interesting historical discussion, but it seems to me all the justification is unnecessary. How much precedent, really, do you need to bring musicians together for an afternoon?  

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Andrea Clearfield's Salon Extraordinaire

Andrea Clearfield
Here is a link to my article on the Salon Extrordinaire, a public but informal get-together organized on occasion by the composer Andrea Clearfield. The Salon will be held this Sunday, and it's free.

I had not heard of the Salon, and I had not heard of Andrea, but after interviewing her, I was glad my editor threw the story my way. She is currently working on an opera, she tells me, with a libretto by the playwright Jean Claude van Itallie, author of America Hurrah and Mystery Play, which I acted in a few years ago..  

Another 'Sleigh Ride' Watch

I've said in the past that Christmas isn't Christmas until I've heard Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," and on the condition that hearing it must be as close to accidental as possible - such as over a store's loudspeaker, or in a TV commercial. Radio does count, even though one Philadelphia station plays Christmas music for a month, and hearing "Sleigh Ride" is inevitable if you tune in for any length of time.

Today, I was pleased to discover that the tunes means as much to the young musicians of Plymouth Whitemarsh High School, in Whitemarsh, Pa., as it does to me. The concert band plays the piece ever years at its winter concert, and the band members apparently regard it as a rite of passage. Digital first's own  M. English has written an lively, informative article on the students and their relationship to the music, and I must say I'm jealous she beat me to the story. You can read it here, and I suggest you do.

By the way, my first exposure to "Sleigh Ride" this year a couple of weeks ago, before Thanksgiving, when it was broadcast over the TV in the newsroom. I forget which station. It might have been CNN, which would prove that even a network as fatuous as CNN is good for something.

The New Colossus - a footnote

With apologies to Emma Lazarus:

The Woman with the torch looks out to sea
And tells the world, "I'm changing my criteria.
Send all your homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
Unless they come from Mexico or Syria."

Sunday, November 15, 2015


I've long loved Madeline Kahn, and so I was pleased to come across a copy of William Madison's new biography during a recent trip to the Montgomery County-Norristown Library. It's a quick, easy read, and while the prose is no better than serviceable, and Madison goes in a bit too much for dime-store psychology -- must  all of Kahn's notorious insecurities result from her being abandoned  by her father and stepfather? -- he presents a thorough overview and balanced assessment of her career. We won't to better for a while.

The verdict must be, sadly, that Kahn was a major talent who left a pitifully small legacy, due primarily, it seems, to being saddled with inferior material. Her heyday lasted a few short years in the '70s, and it ended with her association with Mel Brooks.   

I remember becoming aware of Kahn through Young Frankenstein (I didn't see Blazing Saddles until later), I must have seen her much earlier. I was surprised to learn she was a regular on a short-lived series called Comedy Tonight, which I watched as a kid almost 50 years ago.  The cast also included Robert Klein, Peter Boyle and Jerry Lacey, who went on to imitate Bogart in Play It Again, Sam.  I remember all of them, and even a couple of the skits they appeared in, but I cannot for the life of me remember any of the female players.

I shall always remember Madeline Kahn as the Bride of Frankenstein, but she also lives on in short videos on You Tube. Madison calls Kahn's performance of Irving Berlin's early ditty "You'd Be Surprised," sung in honor of the composer's 100th birthday, "one of the finest musical performances she ever recorded, a mini-masterpiece of comic timing and lyric poise, grounded in specific characterizations of of gesture and accent."

Of course, Kahn, fearful of being pigeonholed as a comic (as if that were a bad thing), had to be talked into it. 

On the other hand, Madison minimizes "Ain't Got No Home" as one of Kahn's "party tricks" (p. 278), but it's how I prefer to remember her:

The guy in the fez reminds me of B. Kliban's Turk. 

Kile Smith's Vespers

Kile Smith
The Choristers, under the direction of David Spitko, will perform Kile Smith's "Vespers" in Lansdale Nov. 21. I'm hoping to attend, though I'll have to switch a shift at the paper with one of the other editors. 

In the meantime, here is my preview article on the concert. I've known Kile for over a decade, having first interviewed him for the now-defunct WRTI Magazine when he was still curator of the Fleisher Collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia. He is, as Bertram Wooster would say, a topping cove.  

Monday, September 14, 2015

Nerd Night Out with The Doubleclicks

Every few years, I fall in love with a female vocal act. First it was Janis Joplin, whose brassy blues and childlike vulnerability on The Dick Cavett Show broke my thirteen-year-old heart. Then, over the decades, there came Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Jane Siberry, and Brittany Howard. My current crushes are Angela Webber and her sister, Aubrey  ― aka The Doubleclicks ― who stopped by Melodies Café in Ardmore Friday night on their Nerd Night Out Tour. (The joke is, it's a night out for people who never leave the house.)

Angela, left, and Aubrey Webber --
aka The Doubleclicks --
after their show Friday in Ardmore.
I caught The Doubleclicks live  for the first time almost exactly one year ago at the same venue. Their set last week was shorter, because shared the bill with singer-songwriter Molly Lewis, best known, perhaps, for wanting to bear Stephen Fry's child, and the nautically appellated standup comic Joseph Scrimshaw. It was a fun night ― made more so by the company of my first cousin once removed, whom I had not seen in a couple of years.

Angela insists Molly Lewis a genius, and it’s hard to argue. Her lyrics are devilishly clever, and she plays the ukulele as though it were a real instrument. If I had to compare the acts, however ― and this is a wholly superficial impression ― I’d say that while Molly has the sharper, bluer wit, the Doubleclicks have a greater expressive range, as well as more pleasing voices. “Wonder Woman,” which ended their solo set Friday before the finale, is a small miracle of sincerity that wrings a touching ballad from the silliest topic without a trace of camp. When I complimented Angela on the song, she said, “Well, we’re great.”

Darn. I thought she needed me to tell her that. 

Read my review of The Doublclicks' latest album, President Snakes.

Here is a highlight of Friday's show, a Mad Libs-style song composed of words shouted by the audience at random:

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Music for Tourists

Allan Krantz, Robyn Novello and Steve Kramer
perform Handel's Cantata Spagnuola Sunday in Norristown.
The cellist Steve Kramer and friends presented a program in Norristown Sunday titled, somewhat misleadingly, “Sounds of the Symphony."  There was nothing symphonic about it. It was, rather, an eclectic afternoon of short chamber and vocal pieces and Latin dance music. (I wrote the preview a few weeks back, which may be seen here.)  

The first half was more or less classical, starting with Steve playing a single Sarabande from Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, and ending with Handel’s Cantata Spagnuola and Villa Lobos’ Bachiana Brasilero No. 5, sung by the lovely, soft-voiced young soprano Robyn Novello. (Steve and guitarist Allan Krantz provided the understated accompaniment.)

In between, we heard bass-baritone Alan Rosenbaum, whom I remember from Delaware Valley Opera Company production of “La Traviata,” in a Ladino folksong and a Donizetti aria, and, in the company of tenor Adam Gilbert, two Hebrew songs by Benjamin Steinberg.  Steve also joined violinist Elina Kalendarova of the Philadelphia Orchestra and her father, pianist and composer Edward Kalendar, in Kalendar’s slight but attractive Elegie and Scherzo, followed by “A Little Jewish Life,” also by Kalendar, for violin and piano. Kalendar received a standing ovation for a piano medley, titled “A Musical Journey Around the World,” that mashed up Gershwin, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven with jazz and pop tunes.  Impressively played, and quickly forgotten.

The mood shifted seismically after intermission, when the group Latin Fiesta took the stage for an extroverted set of music from (or about) Mexico, Brazil, Cuba and Spain. Some of it was strictly for tourists ―the set included “La Bamba,” “Guantanamera,” and Sergio Mendes’ “Mas que Nada ” ― but the accommodations were first-rate, and vocalist Vania Taylor-Watson made a congenial guide. This was music for dancing, rather than listening, and indeed, at one point, the group’s resident dancer, Liliana Ruiz, invited the audience up to the stage for a samba. After a costume change, she ended the set with a stunning demonstration of flamenco, pitting her heels in a duel against the percussion of Cuco Aponte. (He finally left the stage in mock defeat.) 

I should mention the young flutist, Elijah Thomas, and the drummer Tom Lowery, who were all but invisible behind the speakers and the grand piano, but who nonetheless managed to make themselves indispensable. A bravo, too, to 8-year-old Aaron Liu, one of Steve’s pupils, who was brave enough to tackle the Courante from Bach’s Suite No. in G in front of a room full of strangers.

Performances were consistently good , but Steve had the session recorded, and the stage was a tangle of wires constantly got in the performers’ way. Allan Rosenbaum kicked one off his foot as he was trying to sing, and Edward Kalendar bumped his head on a boom mic more than once.  The equipment became a bigger issue in the second half, when the Latin set was marred by over-amplification and, at one point, a dead microphone. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Nielsen Sesquicentenial

Today, June 9, is Carl Nielsen's 150th birthday, an important anniversary, to my mind, that is going unnoticed in this country. (I wonder if there's anything planned at Tivoli.) Nielsen is an underrated composer -- Bernard Holland of the Times once described him as something like "north of good, but south of great," but we all know what a wheezy old mossback Bernard Holland was -- and he tends to get overlooked in favor of Sibelius, as if one great composer from Scandinavia is all the traffic will bear. (And Finland isn't even really technically Scandinavia.)

Be that as it may, his music has meant a great deal to me ever since I first caught his Fourth Symphony, "The Inextinguishable," on the radio when I was in high school.

Nielsen is best known for his six symphonies and his three concertos, of course, but he wrote much else, including two full-length operas -- Hey, Philadelphia Opera Company, how about staging Maskarade? -- a beautiful Wind Quintet, and some extraordinary piano music. His memoir, My Childhood, is vivid, delightful, touching, and very hard to find. I stumbled across a copy once at a chain bookstore in White Oak, Maryland. It was much too expensive, but I snapped it up nonetheless. I haven't seen another copy since.

Today is a major musical occasion, and in a just world, it would be worth a day off from work.

Monday, June 8, 2015

'Any jackass can see that'

Sometimes, late on Sunday nights when I can't sleep, I tune in The Outer Limits on This TV (broadcast channel 17.3 in Philadelphia. Last night I caught the tail end of "Demon With a Glass Hand," the classic episode written by Harlan Ellison and starring Robert Culp and Arlene Martel (who would later appear as Spock's betrothed in the Star Trek episode "Amok Time"). Sitting through the end credits, I had a small realization. The series' second season theme, composed by Harry Lubin, is really the third movement, Poco Allegretto, of Brahms' Third Symphony, which I also listened to yesterday. Lubin disguises it well, and of course, Brahms didn't use that high electronic whine until the Clarinet Quintet, but you could play the two pieces simultaneously, and they would fit together seamlessly.

Judge for yourself here and here.

This is the kind of thing that occurs to you at one in the morning.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Great young musicians

Composer Sheridan Seyfried, right, with conductor
Louis  Scaglione at the Kimmel Center after Sunday's 
concert by the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra.
Yesterday I caught the train downtown for a concert by the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, an extraordinary ensemble of close to one hundred high school–age musicians. The program began with Across the Sky, an eight-minute overture by the 31-year-old composer Sheridan Seyfried for the orchestra’s 75th anniversary.  Sheridan grew up in Oreland, Pa. I interviewed back in the early aughts when he was 19 and had just been accepted to Curtis. I was there at Verizon Hall yesterday at his invitation.

Across the Sky was written, as Sheridan told me after the performance, with one foot firmly in the 19th century. It’s an open-hearted, colorfully scored holiday for orchestra time that could, I thought, have been penned by Dvorak. The second subject sounded, to my ear, somewhat Slavic. (Sheridan described it as a Turkish march, though we might not have been talking about the same thing.) The title and what there is of a program ― “a ride across the sky (perhaps on a chariot, or perhaps a magic carpet)” ― came after the piece was completed and were suggested by the principal rhythm, a sort of gallop in 12/8.  The young musicians, conducted by Louis Scaglione, gave it a polished, energetic reading. It was a fun few minutes.

The program ended ― astonishingly ― with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Astonishing that they would attempt such a long, sprawling work, and even more astonishing that they would come through with such a memorable performance. The level of playing was consistently high in every section, and if the climaxes in the second and third movements lacked the punch I have come to expect, my overall impression was one of well-balanced, well-integrated, well-rehearsed professionalism. Congratulations to everyone involved.

The middle of the program was occupied by Tchaikovsky’s shameless, flamboyant Violin Concerto, performed with the requisite shameless flamboyance by Michael Ludwig. It’s hard to assess the orchestra’s accompaniment, since the orchestra isn’t asked to do anything very interesting in this piece. There is not a single beautiful moment in it. Of course, it got a standing ovation.

One small mercy: The opening bars always bring a smile to my face, because they appear in Monty Python’s “Royal Festival Hall” bit.  

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mendelssohn's Elijah in Lansdale

In Lansdale, for heaven's sake. Here is my  preview article for the upcoming performance by the Choristers. I must say David Spitko is an extraordinarily ambitious choral director, and, as far as I have seen, his ambition has paid off in successful performances.

This didn't make it into the article, David told me he pays his performers scale, which results in a budget in the tens of thousands of dollars. Still, he says, he feels he must do it out of respect for their professionalism and their long training.

He should  talk to my employers.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Abandon Hope

This week I finished reading Richard Zoglin’s dogged biography of Bob Hope, titled simply, Hope.
I’d been eager to get my hands on it ever since the reviews started appearing in the press, though it’s hard to explain why. I’m not a fan of Hope’s comedy (apparently no one is anymore, a state of affairs Zoglin hopes to rectify), but I do enjoy show-biz biographies, specifically those dealing with old timers from the last century. I’ve read books on Sinatra and Bing Crosby, for example, though I almost never listen to their music. I’m also a student of comedy, a holdover from my youth, when I thought I was funny.  Learning that I’m not was a long, painful lesson, but I figure if someone like  Bob Hope can be succeed trough sheer determination, the rest of us hacks  have a chance.

Zoglin tries mightily to clear a place for Hope in the front rank of the great comedians. He doesn't quite succeed. None of the material he quotes stands out, and the chapters on Hope’s peak years, which Zoglin says lasted from about 1940 to 1960, are the least interesting part of the book. Mostly, they rely on a barrage of data, primarily box office grosses, Hooper ratings, and Bob’s growing personal fortune. Far more absorbing are the early chapters on Hope’s hardscrabble childhood and vaudeville career, and the later descriptions of his protracted and very public decline. Paradoxically, Hope's greatest legacy might be that he inspired Johnny Carson and David Letterman to retire gracefully. 

Zoglin’s insistence that today’s comedians owe Hope a debt for essentially inventing the modern topical monologue isn't convincing, either. Hope may have been the form’s earliest practitioner, but who would ever return to his Pepsodent or Chrysler shows for a tutorial?  

I can’t add too much too the reviews that have already been published (see especially Frank Rich in the New York Review of Books), except to point out one of Zoglin's more bothersome stylistic tics. In his attempt to be even-handed – both to acknowledge Hope’s shortcomings and insist on his achievement – he writes sentences whose structure may be abstracted as “It wasn't … but,” as in “It wasn’t a very good movie (or TV special, or live performance), but it made a lot money (or got high ratings, or was well- attended, or Bob was good in it).”  In symbolic logic, this would be expressed as Not P, but Hey, C'mon, Q.

It begins unobtrusively, in the chapters on Hope’s early success:

The gag lines had more snap than wit, but Hope delivered them with crisp self-assurance, and faster than anyone else on the air.

Then, as the litany of movies and TV specials and USO tours expands, one more and more frequently comes across constructions like this:

In truth, Hope got away with plenty of old jokes – tired, knee-jerk gags about Gleason’s weight and Benny’s cheapness and Crosby’s many kids – and his material was often second-class. But throughout the 1950s his TV popularity never flagged.

And, in its late, epic form:

The shows themselves were growing increasingly leaden: tired gags, corny sketches, with Hope looking more disengaged and cue-card-dependent than ever. Variety, reviewing his 1989 special from the Bahamas, chided Hope for “permitting his team of writers to throw together such a generally dismal  collection of excuses for gags and uniformly horrible skits which could have been bettered by a reasonably talented high school sophomore.”

At this point I was actually steeling myself for what I would find after the paragraph break:

Yet the shows were big moneymakers for Hope.

Reading Hope, the question I kept asking myself was, if Bob Hope employed so many first-rate writers, as even the least sympathetic reviewers acknowledge, why are the jokes so forgettable?

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Andrew Porter, 1928-2015

I want to take a few moments  to note the passing of Andrew Porter, the music critic for The New Yorker magazine from 1972 to 1992. The dates are important for me, since Porter began writing for American readers at the same time that I, as a teenager, was discovering serious music. I grew up on him. His lucid, poetic explanations of how compositions worked, as well as his vast erudition – noted in all the appreciations published this week – helped me to understand and verbalize what it was I found so exciting in those years.

Consider, for example, his extended description of the opening of Elliott Carter’s Symphony of Three Orchestras:

High on the violins, as one thin, shining, open-textured chord is laid upon another, in sifting aeolian strains, it seems as if the cradle of wires overhead may be sounding: “Sibylline voices flicker, wavering stream, As though a god were issue of the strings.” [The quotation is from The Bridge, by Hart Crane.] The violins span the stage from side to side. Between them,  three piccolos then break in with keen, bright bird cries, given added sharpness by high, sharp hammer beats from piano and xylophone;  clarinets and oboes swell the shrill chorus to a brief tumult … And then a single trumpet wings out in a long solo flight. Wheeling through the faint, ethereal  violin chords, it mounts, hovers, circles down, soars again, swiftly plummets, stays for a moment poised low, traces a final, sudden ascent and fall before coming to rest … A series of emphatic descending figures from the orchestra in turn ends the introduction …, and the symphonic argument begins in earnest with a huge span of sixths softly sustained by the strings of one orchestra and giocoso chattering of two bassoons from another.

That is as evocative and accurate a description of that music – or any music – as you will ever encounter. Reading it, only a few weeks after I attended the premiere of the symphony in New York, was like hearing the piece again, and for the three years before the recording was finally released, it was as close as I could get to a second hearing. 

For his entire tenure at the New Yorker, Porter was the only friend Carter had in the New York press (the Times critics famously hated him), and when he finally left the magazine,  he wrote that he did so with a sense of optimism, since the Times had finally hired a critic – Edward Rothstein – who kept an open mind. Rothstein, unfortunately, didn't stay long at the music desk, and Porter’s ultimate successor at The New Yorker carried on the Times’ lamentable tradition. The more the years went by, the more I missed him, and not just for his championship of modernism.

(He wasn't a blind enthusiast, either. He could be scathing about Charles Wuorinen, and Charles Ives remained a blind spot. His essay on Ives, written for the composer’s centenary in 1974, was lukewarm and relied rather too heavily on Frank Rossiter’s critical biography. It’s odd: despite the biographical and philosophical connection between the two composers, few critics seem to like them both.)  

I was lucky enough to meet Porter a couple brief times. The first was in 1988 in College Park, where he moderated a panel at the University of Maryland’s Handel Festival. (At that time, I was living just down the road in Hyattsville.)  He signed my copy of Music of Three Seasons, the source of excerpt above. My wife at the time, who had studied Russian, complimented him on his opera translations, and I thanked him for his writings about Carter. When I said I was one of the few musical laymen who admired Carter’s music, he replied, “I am very glad to hear it.”

To quote Auden on Yeats: 
O, all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Doesn't matter what the temperature in London was, or whether the sun was shining. 


Monday, March 30, 2015

A window on the infinite

Time stopped briefly yesterday at St. Katherine of Siena Church in Wayne, where the 40 voices and 30 instrumentalists of the Ama Deus Ensemble presented Bach’s Mass in B Minor. If the performance wasn’t exactly thrilling – a word I wouldn’t use to describe this score in any case – it induced a feeling of otherworldly stasis that may be the closest we nonbelievers ever come to heaven.  (And it’s not even my favorite Bach. That award goes to the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin.)

I don’t mean to imply the performance lagged. Conductor Valentin Radu possessed a sure sense of the score’s momentum, which is essential for this long piece to retain interest. The two hours-plus performance time slipped past without a single longeur that I can recall. Sometimes, no matter how much I enjoy a concert, I am happy to get to the end. This was not one of those times.  

The chorus was consistently good, and on occasion, ravishing. In my program, I circled the “Gratius agimus tibi” of the Gloria, indicating the point at which everything seemed to come together.  The final cadence of the Dona Nobis Pacem seemed a risk. Radu held it for almost too long a time – any longer and it would have verged on parody. But in the event, the effect was beautiful and poignant.

Of the vocal soloists, the standout was easily bass-baritone André Courville. The spotty acoustics in the church favored the lower registers, and his voice came through most forcefully. The wind players were also excellent. I was especially taken with David Ross on wooden flute (this was an original-instrument performance), Sara Davol and David Ross on oboe, and R.J. Kelly on the valveless, curlicue horn.

The performance will be repeated Friday at the Kimmel Center.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Interview with Valentin Radu about the Mass in B Minor

Valentin Radu will conduct the Ama Deus Ensemble in performances of the Mass in B Minor on March 29 and April 3. Herewith a link to the interview I did with him.

It occurs to me that the Mass is B Minor is probably performed more frequently than Beethoven's Ninth, given the number of small professional or semi-professional or community groups that have it in their repertoire. The forces, both instrumental and vocal, are modest, though the music is mostly likely just as complex and involved much more tome from the singers. Next Sunday will be at least third time I've heard the piece live, and each time has been in a church.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Carter reviews

Here is a link to a real review of Sunday's concert. Of course, I disagree with the first person who left a comment.

And here is another.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Elliott Carter's farewell

A musical century ended yesterday when the MET Orchestra, conducted (from a wheelchair) by James Levine, presented the first performance of The American Sublime, a cycle of five songs by Elliott Carter. The composer died in 2012, and the music, from 2011, while not the last he wrote, is the last of his that will ever be premiered. For forty years I looked forward to every new work Mr. Carter composed. Now the long run is over, and with it, a large chapter of my life.

All the more wonderful to report, then, that Mr. Carter went out strong.  The American Sublime, a setting of poems by Wallace Stevens (Carter’s second) for baritone, wind ensemble, piano and percussion is a beautiful piece, brief but haunting. I was particularly delighted by the choice of text for the last song, “This is the thesis …,”which ends thus:  

And out of what one sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur,
Merely living in living as and where we live.

In his book Music in a New Found Land  (1964), Wilfred Mellers prefaced his chapter on Carter with just these lines, and Carter himself,  in his program notes for the Nonesuch recording of his cello and harpsichord sonatas, quoted them and agreed they captured some of the “main aims” of his work.

“It is quite true,” Carter wrote, “that I have been concerned with contrasts of many kinds of musical characters ‘many selves’; with forming these into poetically evocative combinations ‘many sensuous worlds’; with filling musical time and space by a web of continually varying cross-references – ‘the air … swarming with ... changes.’ And to me at least, my music grows ‘out of what on sees and hears and out/Of what one feels,’ out of what occurs ‘Merely in living as and where we live.’”

I think of the song as Carter’s artistic testament an impression strengthened by the final measures, when the instruments drop out and the baritone finishes alone, as though the composer is addressing us directly. In context, the words “in living as and where we live” were also especially poignant: Carter is out of the game, and it is up to us, the living, to continue the task of inhabiting the sensuous world. 

It was a beautiful moment. Even more beautiful was the second song, “The Woman in Sunshine,” which compares the feeling of sun and air to the “warmth and movement” of a woman who cannot be seen, only felt. (It’s a very erotic image. In setting the words, did Carter, a widower since 2003, feel the presence of his late wife, Helen?) The scoring is spare: piano, vibraphone, and oboe, which contributes a long, lovely line a gesture both Bach-like and typically Carterian.

The baritone, Evan Hughes, reminded me a little of old photographs of Rasputin rail-thin, dressed in black, with dark lank hair and a few days’ growth of beard but he proved an extroverted and sensitive guide to this small region of Mr. Carter’s world.

The rest of the concert, at Zankel Hall, NYC, was equally memorable, beginning with the refined wit of Stravinsky’s Octet and continuing with the raucous wit of Charles Ives’s Scherzo: Over the Pavements. The second half consisted of John Cage’s Atlas eclipticalis and Charles Wuorinen’s It Happens Like This, a cantata for four voices and chamber orchestra to the oddball verses of James Tate. The last was perhaps overlong, with little real inspiration in the instrumental writing, but the vocal lines, which included spoken narration, were inventive, and they brought out the humor and the deadpan absurdities of the texts. There was a lot of laughter in the auditorium. 

Wuorinen himself conduct after Levine bowed out, explaining from the stage that stage health issues and other commitment had prevented him from giving the music the time it deserved. At 76, five years older than Levine, the composer looked quite spry.  

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

An occasional piece

The background to this one is rather bizarre. The immortal Pat Robertson recently called marijuana use slavery to vegetables and added that God can help us beat our addiction, since he gave us dominion over all the earth, including vegetables. A group called Poetry Cafe, which I'd never heard of, issued a challenge for verses on the topic. Herewith my contribution. The title, unfortunately, was chosen for me.

By Joe Barron

Of all the evils in the world,
From witchery to wedgies,
The greatest evil I have known
Is slavery to veggies.

I live in thrall to celery,
To broccoli and beets,
To endive and arugula,
To lettuce and to leeks.

I take commands from red tomatoes
Stewing in the pot.
They're veggies, too. I'll kill the man
Who tells me that they're not.

And what of carrots, what of corn,
Asparagus and peas?
The USDA pyramid
Has brought me to my knees.

But one day I know I’ll be free
To eat some cheesy fries,
Some donuts and some minty shakes
And lemon custard pies.

For God hath given us dominion
Over everything
That creeps or crawls upon the Earth
Or soars upon the wing.

And since He’s put His whole creation
At our beck and call,
The Bastard’s simply got to watch
My damned cholesterol.

Monday, March 2, 2015

He lived long. He prospered.

Leonard Nimoy as Spock and Arlene Martel
as T'pring in the Vulcan sex-ed episode "Amok
Time." Spock's betrothed proved one can
be flawlessly logical and still be a heartless C.
Still, I'd divert a starship light years for her. 
Leonard Nimoy died last Friday, and with him a part of my childhood. The obituaries dutifully ran through his long and varied career, but let’s face it, if it wasn’t for the role of Mr. Spock, he would have died in semi-obscurity, another TV character actor whose resume consisted of one-off guest appearances on Wagon Train and Marcus Welby. Spock made him immortal, and in the afterglow of that one gig, we could tolerate the awful singing and the goopy poetry. But Spock is nothing to be ashamed of. He’s one of the great TV characters, a humanized alien and alienated human who touches the nerd in all of us. When I was nine years old, I wanted to badly to be him that one weekend afternoon, I took my father’s barber kit down from the tin closet in the basement and cut my hair straight across my forehead. My hair is much thicker and curlier than Spock’s. It was not a good look for me.
I often think that in creating Spock, Roddenberry and Nimoy misread the zeitgeist of the 1960s. They put forth rationality as an ideal at precisely the time when rationality had become suspect. The counterculture wasn’t interested in logic, which could justify the pitiless violence in Vietnam, or in science, which had created the weapons for it. No, what was wanted in the Age of Aquarius were authenticity, free love and feel-good spirituality, and as Star Trek dragged on into seasons two and three, Spock changed with the times. He became less of an organic supercomputer and more of a space-going maharishi, with his meditation and his quest for truth beyond science. (At the beginning of the first movie, he was actually living as a monk.) I also recall, in the late, bad episode Savage Curtain, one character (Abraham Lincoln, no joke) mentioning the Vulcan philosophy of the One. There’s empiricism for you.

Then there the questions of whether we will ever find humanoid life off the earth (the answer is no), and how in heaven’s name races that evolve on separate planets ever manage to interbreed. Throughout the various incarnations of the franchise, humans have mated with Vulcans, Romulans, Klingons and Beta Zeds, and some of these races have mated with each other. As Carl Sagan said, you would have more luck crossing a human being with an avocado, because they, at least, share a common ancestry and some DNA. A Spock could never exist in reality, any more than warp drive or the teleportation of matter, but in TV, as in religion, reality is not the point. To find Spock, you must look within. 

The Philadelphia Orchestra publishes its 2015-2016 seaon

I rarely attend performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra anymore. Concerts are usually scheduled for Thursday and Saturday evenings and Friday afternoons, and I work the 3 to 11 shift at the paper those days.  And it hurts to admit it, but too often, year after year, the programing has been unimaginative. I find I can hear more inspired concert-making by looking around at smaller, less famous or even amateur groups.

I was pleased, though, when I looked through the program guide for 2015-2016 (they’ve tracked me down in Norristown) and found a few programs that will be worth taking a night off for. To be sure, next season has its share of seat-filling pap anyone up for Yo -Yo Ma in John Williams’ Cello Concerto?   as well as chestnuts, such as the November performance Appalachian Spring. (You know, Copland did write other stuff. I’d like to hear Statements sometime.)  And yet there are some Easter eggs hidden under the straw.

In February, just a little under a year from now, James Levine will lead the orchestra in Ives’s Three Places in New England, which it played under Ormandy years ago and hasn’t programmed since. Levine conducted a memorable performance of the piece at Juilliard a while back, and I’m excited to hear what he can do with the Philadelphians. The program also includes the Brahms Second (yay), and the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, which I guess is the price we pay for Ives.

Then, in April, Cristian Macelaru will conduct Stravinsky’s complete Soldier’s Tale, with actors, dancers and a narrator.  You don’t get to see that very often. The program also includes The Rite of Spring, which is overplayed, but never gets old.
There will also be four performances of Mahler’s Symphony of A Thousand in March and the fourth is even a Sunday matinee. This work has not been performed in Philadelphia since the mid-1970s.

I should also mention the premiere of a new Timpani Concerto by the fine Philadelphia composer Maurice (pronounced Morris) Wright.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Welcome to my demographic

In the little fitness center at my apartment complex, a flat-screen TV is attached to the wall in an upper corner. It receives a large number of cable channels, including audio services that play music continuously. When I'm there by myself,  I like to tune in to the classical station while I'm plodding along on the the treadmill. Of course, this being TV, there are a few still visual features: the name of the piece that is playing, of course; close-up photos of instruments, scores and flowers; and rotating advertisement placards. The advertisers must have a very clear idea of who is listening to this station, because all of their products and services are aimed at one age group. Guess which one from the following, partial list:

Senior Life medical insurance
Life Alert
Do you suffer from back or knee pain?
 Reverse mortgages from AAG — the Fred Thompson outfit. Obviously, the Fonz would be too scary.

No acne medications, naturally. Not even Viagra.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

A great night of Copland, Gershwin and some other guy

Pianist Peter Donohoe, left, and conductor Valentin Radu
after the concert Friday night. 
The Ama Deus Ensemble, with guest soloist Peter Donohoe, served up an exciting concert Friday evening. It was a long program – more than two and a half hours, with intermission – but it sure didn’t feel like it. Donohoe joined the orchestra in performances of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F, as well as the regional premiere of Aaron Copland’s 1926 Piano Concerto. Any one of those would have made the evening feel complete, but as Peter said afterward, he had traveled a long way for this concert. He might as well try to fit everything in.

Gershwin’s third big concert piece, An American in Paris, was also thrown in for good measure at the end of the first half.

The Piano Concerto is not one of Copland’s more famous works, or even, to be honest, one of his best, though it foreshadows the aggressive symphonic jazz Leonard Bernstein would develop in West Side Story. Donohoe and company gave a convincing, confident-sounding reading that betrayed none of the trepidation they must have felt in the face of such complex and unfamiliar music. For me, it was the highlight of the program, even if the Gershwin melodies that followed stick more tenaciously in the mind. Donohoe, reading from a score, was riveting, and the orchestra snapped to attention behind him, which was a relief after the curtain raiser, a somewhat lackluster reading of some lackluster movie music by John Williams. The ensemble stayed at that higher level for the rest of the night, especially in the Rhapsody, when it achieved some moments of genuine grandeur.

I should also mention clarinetist Arne Running and trumpeter Scott McIntosh, who reveled in the solo passages provided by Gershwin. McIntosh, especially, shone in all the blues, the glissandi and the muted wah-wahs. For a few indelible moments, he transformed the Perelman into Preservation Hall.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A lovely way to spend a cold Sunday afternoon

Johannes Brahms,
before his Santa Claus phase
Yesterday, while the rest of America was glued to the NFL playoffs, I and about 500 other people crammed into the Warden Theater at the Academy of Vocal Arts for a free all-Brahms program. (I like Brahms, and I like free, so I figured it was the perfect excuse to leave the apartments.) Students, faculty and guests of the AVA performed nine vocal quartets and the two songs with viola Op. 91. The concert ended with an instrumental work — the F minor Clarinet Sonata Op. 120, performed with modest grace by 22-year-old Robert Kahn.

Not much to say about this event, except that it’s fun to see the stars of tomorrow today, and it’s always a thrill to hear big voices in an intimate setting. There is a physical jolt, a sense of being enveloped in sound, that doesn’t occur in the balcony at the Met, even when the largest of forces are trotted out. One of the reasons I love Brahms because, unlike Wagner, say, he fits into a small room. And his knowledge of Renaissance counterpoint is on full display in his vocal music.

Interesting footnote about the singers in training at the AVA: Reading the bios in the program, I noticed that not a single one was from the Philadelphia area, or even the East Coast. They were all from the Midwest, the Southwest, California, China and Mexico. Maybe the local talent likes to leave home to study. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

They love me in Norway

I'm not good at interpreting  the stats on my blogger dashboard, but apparently, I am very popular in Norway. In the latest round of page views, by country, this little blog got 281 page views in the l;and of the fjords. The next-county country on the list, the US, had 51 -- only 18 percent of the Norwegian contingent. So either someone is trying to mask their country of origin in a foreign server, or the Scandinavians have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Whoever you are over there, I want to move to your country. Would you give me a reference?

United States
United Kingdom

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Donohoe, Ama Deus Ensemble to perform Copland's Piano Concerto

Photo by Sussie Ahlburg
Peter Donohoe

The pianist Peter Donohoe will appear as soloist in Aaron Copland's Piano Concerto January 16 at the Kimmel Center, accompanied by the Ama Deus Ensemble under the direction of Valentin Radu. The piece is almost 90 year old, but as far as anyone can tell, this upcoming performance will be the Philadelphia premiere. I have mixed feelings: I'm excited, but somewhat scandalized. The century-long delay is typical of this city's attitude toward 20th-century American music. (Ives Fourth, anyone?)

In any event, I spoke with Mr. Donohoe about the concerto late last month. You may see the article that came out of the interview by clicking here.