Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The real joy of music

As I wrote in my previous post, I spent all day Sunday at one musical salon or another. One of the nicest things about it was that, for a full afternoon and evening, I was able to forget about the presidential race. It started much too early, it's been going on much too long, and none of the constant barrage of information is of any lasting interest. All of the minute-by-minute polling and the commentary, as urgent as it is made to seem, is instantly forgotten. A year from now, no one will care to remember that Jeb! or Ben Carson ever ran. It will all be as interesting as last week's traffic reports, the only difference being that traffic reports are at least useful at the time. For one day, it was a pleasure to leave the hype behind and create a lasting memory.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Riches from a very long day

A large number of short pieces led yesterday to a musical experience of Wagnerian proportions. For the first time in my life that I remember, I attended two concerts in one day. No single work on either program lasted more than fifteen minutes, but together they added up to more than five hours of music. At 3 p.m. the Fine Art Music Company presented a concert of music for violin, saxophone and piano at Ivy Hall (in the Georgian mansion known as the International Institute for Culture) on Lancaster Avenue. Then, at 7, Andrea Clearfield hosted her monthly salon at her home downtown.

Maybe I was just fresher in the afternoon, but I would have to say that, while both programs were memorable, for musical satisfaction, the Ivy Hall program had the edge. (It also had chairs. In Andrea’s living room, most guests sit on the floor.) Jonathan Moser played the Debussy Violin Sonata with just the right combination of lightness and grit, accompanied with expert deference by Katarzyna Marzec-Salwinski, and Jeremy Juteson introduced me to the sound world of Joan Tower with Wings for solo saxophone, a tour de force of tone color and rapid mood shifts. (The piece depicts a falcon in flight, Justseon said, and both the score and the performance certainly made the inspiration clear.)

The program also included Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 31, No. 2, and two attractive if slighter works, the Trio for Violin, Alto Saxophone and Piano by Jeffrey Quick, and Cantilene et Danse, for the same three instruments, by Marc Eychennne. The middle movement of the Quick was titled “The Answered Question,” a shout-out to Charles Ives, though the composer took too big a chance by inviting a comparison. The music came nowhere near capturing Ives’s sense of wonder. As an expression of faith, it struck me as a little too self-satisfied.

I was going to skip Andrea’s Salon this month until I learned it would include music by my longtime acquaintance Sheridan Seyfried, whom I first interviewed for his hometown newspaper more than a decade ago, on the occasion of his acceptance to the Curtis Institute of Music. Sheridan and three of his Curtis friends performed a short, exuberant work for piano quartet that deconstructs a well-known patriotic air. I refrain from naming it, since, in accordance with the composer’s intention, no one outside a circle of initiates is ever supposed to guess what it is.  

The music at Andrea’s salons is always diverse, and last night’s program gave me my first glimpse of a wholesome young folk group called Sunday Muse, and the singer-songwriter Alexandra Day, who had some funny patter. The five-star discovery of the night, however, was Karolina Syrovatkova, a wafer-thin Czech pianist with a delicate jaw like the limb of a crescent moon. She played a dance and a folk-song arrangement by Smetana, and her touch seemed a miracle of weightlessness.  

I did not get home until  close to midnight, and falling asleep was not an issue.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Salon of Russian Music and Poetry

From left, mezzo-soprano Tatyana Rashkovsky,
pianist Katarzyna Marzec-Salwinski, and reader
and all-around good egg Inna Lobanova-Heasely. 
It's always an exciting challenge to find something to do on Super Bowl Sunday other than watch the game. This year, my Facebook (and real life) friend Inna Lobanova-Heasley invited me to a salon f Russian poetry and music held at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia on Rittenhouse Square. It was a lovely afternoon out that was also educational. Russian anything is a gaping lacuna in my cultural education.

The salon was dedicated to the memory of Alexander Pushkin. Inna read his poems (in Russian) and mezzo-soprano Tatyana Rashkovsky, accompanied by either Kasha Marzec-Salwinski or Rollin Wilber on piano, sang settings of his verses. The program also included solo piano pieces big and small, with Kasha and Rollin switching off.

I've never been a fan of Russian music, and the outer movements of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Sonata, with which Kasha ended the program, reminded me why. The score is stuffed with fat and carbohydrates  ― yummy, but not really good for you. (The fingering is so ostentatiously furious Kasha broke one of the black keys. Bravely, she kept whaling away.) Scriabin's Fifth Piano Sonata, however, which Rollin played at the end of the first half, was a wild ride. I especially liked the way it ended, suddenly breaking off as though the composer, or the performer, got sick of the effort and said, "To hell with it." The smaller piano pieces were lovely, too, even those by Rachmaninoff, and the songs were a revelation. The discovery of the afternoon had to be Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951), and who was represented by his songs "I Have Outlived My Aspirations," "Winter Evening," and "To the Dreamer," and whom I had never heard of. There was something old-fashioned and painfully nostalgic about the whole enterprise ― the youngest composer on the bill was Shostakovich ― but it was a memorable afternoon.

This morning, I found the Puppy Monkey Baby on YouTube. The commercial proves that combining one good thing with another good thing does not necessarily result in a third good thing. The Greeks understood this.

So, those of you claim to watch the Big Game for the commercials,tell me, which of us made the healthier choice?

Saturday, February 6, 2016

... ly Ballou here in Times Square

Bob, left, and Ray, right.
I note, with great sadness, the passing Feb. 2 of Bob Elliott, one half of the great Bob and Ray, one of my two favorite comedy teams (the other being, of course, the Marx Brothers). I bought the soundtrack album to Bob and Ray: The Two and Only with paperboy money when I was 12, and a year later, I saw the touring company (which consisted of the same cast) at the now-defunct Locust Theater in Philadelphia. A few years later I followed Bob and Ray on WOR in New York (which I could pick up in Southeastern Pa.) and then on National Public Radio.

I never missed a chance to hear them, if I could help it.  They were clean, subtle to the vanishing point, and at their best, hilarious. I was such a fan that in the early 1990s, while I was active in community theater in the Washington, D.C., area, I strung together several of my favorite bits into a one-act play I called "The Bob and Ray Suite," which I directed and appeared in and which turned out to be a great hit.

Having no no idea how to get the performance rights to the  material, I wrote to the Museum of TV and Radio in New York, asking that my request be forwarded to Bob, wherever he might be. Weeks later, I was surprised delighted to find a typewritten response from Bob Elliott in my mailbox. (The return address on the envelope was Cundy's Harbor, Maine, where Bob was reported to have died.) Bob granted me permission to perform the skits without payment. He asked only that the program give proper credit. I still have the letter.