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.