July 28, 2007


The sound of music creeped in my ears this morning, as I was sorting through the Times. I whistled for a bit before recognizing what I was whistling as Brahms's Violin Concerto. Suddenly mad to hear it (this is why I have a lot of CDs - I never know what I'm going to be mad to hear), I put on Itzhak Perlman's recording for EMI. And although I knew every note, the concerto was entirely new. I had never heard this before. How voluptuous, how art nouveau the music sounded! Could this really be Mr Last Classicist? Was it possible that Brahms was all about nothing but pleasure?

Moments like this, when a familiar thing re-presents itself in an almost shatteringly new light, don't happen often anymore, and I'm treasuring it.

July 12, 2007

Così XI

The other day, at Barnes & Noble in Union Square, following another great brunch at Blue Water Grill with Ms G and her Beau, I found a recording of Così fan tutte that I didn't know existed. (Or, if I knew, once upon a time, it was long ago, and I'd completely forgotten it.) Recorded in Berlin in 1962, it features a great cast under the direction of Eugen Jochum, who in my opinion didn't record nearly enough of the Viennese classics. (Or, if he did, they weren't released here.) Here's the cast:

Fiordiligi Irmgard Seefried
Dorabella Nan Merriman
Despina Erika Köth
Ferrando Ernst Haefliger
Guglielmo Hermann Prey
Don Alfonso Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

I've only listened to the recording once, so I won't characterize it, but it struck me as musical, as if Jochum had set out to make the most beautiful recording of the opera. Così is generally regarded as one of Mozart's very best scores, and the arias are indeed wonderfully colored by instrumental flashes. But Così is above all a sublimely funny opera, and in comedy timing is everything.

How would I rank this recording alongside the ten others in my library? (Yes, ten - I counted.) Ranking will have to wait - maybe forever. I don't have a favorite Così. I grew up thinking that the Schwarzkopf/Böhm recording was the apex, even though I knew that most music lovers preferred Schwarzkopf/Karajan. My first recording was the very heavily cut della Casa/Böhm. Until Sunday, my most recent acquisition was the surprisingly satisfying Fleming/Solti live recording.

What will I listen to next? I think it's time to haul out the 1952 Metropolitan Opera recording, Steber/Stiedry - in English. The translation by Ruth and Thomas P Martin is spry enough to be bearable. The great Richard Tucker sings Ferrando. 

June 17, 2007

Ear Worm

For years, Kathleen has had a compilation CD called Fire Island Classics/DJ Michael Fierman. She puts it on sometimes when she's organizing her closet. I've always liked the first cut, "The Whistle Song," by Frankie Knuckles, and the penultimate one, Sunscreen's "Looking at You." Yesterday morning, while we were both doing stuff in the bedroom, I noticed that Kathleen went to the machine to skip through one cut; I didn't know which. Later, I listened to the CD while I was tidying the room, as I do on Saturdays, and I heard the song that Kathleen cut through. It was "Hold On To My Love," by Jimmy Ruffin. In the album notes, it is described as an "anthem," and I can see why. It's a simplified, disco-fied version of "Unchained Melody." I listened to it about twenty times. Now it's an ear worm.

What a good, Twenty years after the rest of the world is so over a song, I get it. 

June 06, 2007

Notes on the New Rufus 1.01

A friend has pointed out me that the ending of "Between My Legs" quotes that of the title song from The Phantom of the Opera. A little more research digs up an entry on a Rufus message board that helpfully points out that the Phantom recites lines much like the ones that I've copied. Of course: the river underneath the town that only I know all about is the sewer of Paris.

What is Rufus up to?

June 05, 2007

Notes on the New Rufus 1.0

"Between My Legs," the fifth entry on Release the Stars, starts out as a driving rock song with a motif rather than a tune, and the sardonic iteration of its title. The thrust of the verse seems to be that the singer and the person whom he is addressing are out of sorts, mismatched, never in the same place at the right time. Rufus's tone is world-weary but his singing is fairly straight.

Then comes the puzzling chorus, which promises that, when the world comes to an end, all the addressee has to do is to call Rufus, who will arrange an "exit as it all is happening." The language of the chorus is far more poetic than is that of the verse, and it is set to a series of rising phrases that also suggest a hymn, even though the insistent rock beat continues unimpeded. Arpeggiated chords suggest a playful halo, and backup singers contribute a gospel note.

There is a second verse, and a second chorus, and then the song opens up into something completely different. Rufus describes his exit strategy thus:

'Cause there's a river

Running underground.

Underneath the town towards the sea,

That only I know all about.

On which from this city we can flee.

The music to which this is set is exalted and anthemic, even though the first three lines are accompanied only be noodling guitars and reverberation. On the word "sea," the driving rhythm recurs, utterly transformed by the new atmosphere. In the background, trumpets and horns flourish regally. As if all of this weren't far enough away from the song's beginnings. the actress Sîan Phillips - Reverend Mother in David Lynch's Dune - recites the exit lines with unabashed staginess, as if to faux-scare little children. When she gets to the last line, Rufus sings it overhead. The ending, scored to sound something like a carousel organ, and swinging majestically and uncomplicatedly between tonic and the augmented fifth, is as massive, in its way, as the finale of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony.

What it all means, I have no idea. But what interests me is the way that Rufus has of transforming songs by taking them off in unforeseen but absolutely convincing directions. The most brilliant of such songs is "Memphis Skyline," from Want Two: when the main part of the song is over, a dissonant note on the piano heralds the shimmering apotheosis of the Orphic lyrics. Here in "Between My Legs" as well, the songwriter strikes the note of apocalyptic metamorphosis.

May 23, 2007


The new Rufus Wainwright album, Release the Stars, arrived yesterday. I listened to it while I was tidying up the blue room. I liked it, but nothing really grabbed me, until the penultimate song, "Sanssouci," which I listened to no fewer than thirty-three times. I even got the yodel down.

The words are somewhat kinky (this is, after all, Rufus), but the tune is primo pop. I just want to be where this song is.

May 22, 2007

Barcelona, at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium

The music season is nearly over, which means that it's time to order tickets for next year. Last year, owing to the general unsteadiness of domestic affairs (Kathleen was looking for a new job), I didn't get round to ordering tickets until the fall, and so I didn't get everything that I wanted, and when I did get tickets, they weren't always the good seats that I prefer. I aim to do better this year; why, only yesterday, I renewed our Orpheus at Carnegie subscription. We've had seats T1 and T3 in the "prime parquet" - the orchestra - for years, except for two seasons when we were exiled to T5 and T7, as a penalty for having renewed very late. I'd like to move up a few rows, but I think that some sort of charitable donation will be required. T is fine, though, and we're on the left-hand side of the auditorium, which is always very important, as you can't see a pianist's hands if you're sitting on the right side.

My system, as it were, is to start with what I most want to hear and work my way down the list. I like to have one evening in Avery Fisher Hall - that's enough. I'm very fond of Zankel Hall; this past season, I attended baroque concerts there; next year, I'll be looking for something different. And then there's the Met, which has the advantage of being in the neighborhood. If there's something compelling at City Opera, I'll get a pair of tickets. I've only been to Alice Tully Hall once in my life, or maybe twice. It ought to be clear from this that, while I like to hear music in concert or recital, I don't want to do so too often, because overexposure is a terrible danger. I want every concert to be special in some way - special for me - and by and large that's what they are.

Ordering tickets last season, I decided that it was time to encounter the Jordi Savall phenomenon. Mr Savall is a Catalonian viola da gambist, which means he plays a cello-like instrument (only slightly smaller) that he supports on his legs. Most Europeans abandoned the instrument in the Seventeenth Century, but the French remained attached to it well into the following century. Mr Savall sometimes brings his early-music ensemble, Hesperion XXI, to town when he comes, but this year his brought only two colleagues, under the banner "Barcelona." I got a pair of tickets to the second of his two concerts at the Met, which finally came round the week before last.

Kathleen, busy as ever, was in no mood for a concert, but she decided to go anyway, just for the sane-making break; she has learned, moreover, that I don't get tickets for her if I doubt that she'd really enjoy the evening. (For this reason, I enjoy a lot of German chamber music by myself.) And she really did enjoy the evening - more than I did, in fact. I'm not sure why. I could tell that something quietly extraordinary was happening on stage, but I couldn't feel it. I'd love to say that I'm open to a wide variety of musical experiences, but it wouldn't be true. When I don't get something, though, I just leave it. There is no point in trying to figure out why you don't get something - because you don't get it! You might as well ask why you don't find a given popular movie star truly attractive. There's nothing wrong with the star and there's nothing wrong with you. Everybody can't like everything. I'm hammering at this because it's so obvious, and yet so hard to learn, and to accept.  

Barcelona, at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium.

May 08, 2007

Orpheus at Carnegie: The End of the Season

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra presses onward with its demonstration that conductors are perhaps unnecessary. Listening to the orchestra play Schumann's Second Symphony, a serious if idiosyncratic entry in the catalogue of Important German Symphonies, was about as exciting an experience as I could stand in a concert hall - or anywhere else, for that matter. It was odd, odd, odd, to hear the music and not to see a conductor. How was it happening? What if someone went astray? What if someone led a whole section astray?

I wanted Kathleen to attempt a description of violinist Janine Jansen's gown, but she's not here, so I'll have to essay one myself. Ms Jansen is a pretty, fit, medium-tall young woman, and she plays with her knees (so to speak). Her gusto brought the hem of her voluminous tulle skirt to the floor fairly regularly; ordinarily, it hovered at her instep (she was wearing highish heels). The bodice of the gown was like nothing so much as a Roman breastplate, but without the shoulders. A serious fashion statement, and definitely not your standard concert-artist couture. Oh, and she played the Mendelssohn e-minor really well, too. 

Orpheus at Carnegie Hall.

May 07, 2007


Beyond what I've read in the Times over the past ten years or so, I don't know anything about Gérard Mortier, but I know that I don't like what he stands for. The incoming head of New York City Opera represents everything that makes me sorry I'm alive today, when theatre directors don't trust composers and librettists to have been sufficiently "creative." There is nothing to do with, say, Così fan tutte other than to follow the notes and the stage directions. City Opera's current production of this Mozart opera succeeds not because of the sophomoric staging and set design but because the singers are gifted and fit. For the most part, they look and sound like lovers. (The opera's subtitle is "La scuola degli amanti" - the school for lovers.)

I was off M Mortier the moment I heard that he did not intend to fight for a new home for City Opera. The New York State Theatre, like the other buildings in Lincoln Center, ought to be torn down. Why do Americans not only make but insist upon denying having made such terrible mistakes? Vietnam! Iraq! Lincoln Center! I could go on... If City Opera is to complement the Metropolitan Opera, it ought to be small - or smallish. A house of fifteen hundred seats, say. With a thrust stage for the singers and the orchestra backstage. Minimal props - nothing to get in the way of fine singing. No conductors, no directors, no lighting designers - none of that crapage! Just opera.

Some days, I am very tired of life.

May 01, 2007

MMArtists at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium


The Metropolitan Museum of Art's MMArtists - Metropolitan Museum Artists in Concert - closed their spring season with an interesting program of music by Schubert, Schoenberg, and Brahms. I wish I could get tickets for their next season, which will feature Beethoven, right now, because I know which seats to ask for.

April 24, 2007

Orpheus at Carnegie, with Gil Shaham

For a few more weeks, WNYC will make it possible to listen to last week's Orpheus concert. I hope that you'll find the time to hear it. It certainly doesn't sound like Carnegie Hall on the computer, but you'll get some idea of what I've been raving about for years. I wish I knew how to make a permanent recording!

Here's what I thought.


April 16, 2007


Joshua Bell's bout of busking in the Washington Metro is old news by now, but a friend sent me the link to the WaPo story by Gene Weingarten, and I thought back to Mr Bell's Mostly Mozart concert last summer, and how thrilling it was to hear him and his friends play Mendelssohn's Octet.

Somewhat more to the point, however, I remembered the cellist who was playing one of Bach's cello suites - every bit as demanding, I should think, as the Chaconne that Joshua Bell played in the Metro - in a passageway in the West Fourth Street IND station. I was on my way to lunch with Édouard, the week before last. I heard the cellist long before I saw him, and by the time I saw him I recognized that he was playing very, very well. I walked past him but stopped at about ten paces. I doubled back. I grabbed all of the singles that were in my pocket and dumped them in his instrument case. I walked away hurriedly; I'd be just on time if I didn't dawdle. So far as I could tell (what with my immovable neck), the cellist never looked up. I didn't look at him, either. I have no way of knowing whether he regretted having to play in the subway as much as I did.

I'm not a fan of music in the subway. The acoustics are all wrong; in tiled expanses, music reverberates painfully. And then there is the (sad) fact that most of the musicians, all of whom have auditioned before some sort of MTA panel, are usually okay at best. All right: they're good. But good isn't good enough, not in this town. I always feel like the Penelope Wilton character in Woody Allen's Match Point. How long do you keep trying at something before you accept that you're not cut out for it?

The cellist at West Fourth was definitely good enough. I'd have paid to hear him perform. So I did pay to hear him perform. Maybe someday I'll get to enjoy his music-making in a more congenial setting.

March 27, 2007

Orpheus at the Temple of Dendur

Bach and still more Bach: this time, played by Orpheus at the Temple of Dristan. That's what visitors to the museum used to ask to see - perhaps they still do. Another mass solecism: "Where are the Oscar Mayer Galleries?" (It's André Meyer.)

I feared that the adamantine surfaces of Dendurland would make hash of Bach's counterpoint, but the music sounded lovely. I happened to pick a seat on the aisle that the musicians used to come and go - one of the neatest things about Orpheus is that the musicians walk on all at once, like a wave of commuters at Grand Central, only carrying instruments. I got to take a good look at many half-familiar faces.

Orpheus at the Temple of Dendur.

March 20, 2007

New York Collegium at St Vincent Ferrer

As I was taking a break during the interval at last week's New York Collegium concert, I overheard someone complain that a program consisting of three Bach cantatas was "a bit much." Not for me, it wasn't. These works have a bottomless appeal for me. I don't like them equally - I don't even know most of them at all, or well - but their relentless transformation of liturgical utility and formal complexity into the most seriously delightful music ever written never ceases to amaze me.

When I got home, I thought I'd check out the library to see if I had any recordings of the the three works, BWV 22, 23, and 75. And what do you suppose I found? I found that these three connected cantatas have all been recorded together as Volume 8 of the impressive Bach Collegium Japan series on BIS. I bought a lot of these back in the late Nineties, all at once, so it's no wonder that I never got round to knowing this recording. I have to wonder if it inspired Mr Parrott's programming.

Sadly, the program announced that the Collegium, which has been somewhat strapped for funding recently, will not offer a subscription series next season. That's an awful blow. Where are all those hedge fund zillionaires?

March 06, 2007

MMArtists at Grace Rainey Rogers

There was plenty of whooping and hollering at last Friday's chamber recital at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Met. The occasion was the second of the MMArtists' three programs this season. The ensemble consisted of four men and one woman, and they had not quite worked out the dress code. Jennifer Frautschi wore a dressy dress and heels to match. She looked ready for a deluxe cocktail party, minus the jewelry. The men wore jackets but not ties, and, while they weren't quite scruffy, they were taking casualness to the point beyond which it slips into carelessness. I'm not sure whether we're in a transitional era or whether people are in a mood to experiment. There is a liberated, Sixties air. But there weren't any thirtysomethings playing Brahms at this level in the Sixties, I never heard them.

February 27, 2007

Vivaldi at Zankel

On balance, last Thursday's two hours of baroque music, most of it by Antonio Vivaldi, was just a tad excessive. It didn't help that I couldn't see. No more seats on the side of the mezzanine for me! (The boxes on the main level are great.)

The good thing about the length of the concert was that Ms NOLA and I didn't get to the Brooklyn Diner until minutes before ten o'clock, which is when the restaurant begins offering late-night Eggs Benedict. That's always just what I want.

When dinner was over, we walked to the subway station alongside Carnegie Hall, Ms NOLA to board the Q and I to wait for the first train to come along on the other track. I got home minutes before Kathleen did. 

February 20, 2007

Angela Hewitt at Grace Rainey Rogers

At Angela Hewitt's recital last Thursday, Ms NOLA stayed in her seat during the interval, and when I came back from my customary errand she told me that people had been walking up and staring at the piano as if they'd never seen one before. Well, I told her, they haven't. I certainly hadn't. Emblazoned on the side of the box, instead of the usual lyre and "Steinway," was FAZIOLI. I've read about this magnificent upstart piano manufacturer, located north of Venice, but I've never heard one of its instruments.

In a word, Wow.

Angela Hewitt was no slouch, either.

February 14, 2007

Let It Snow

Finally, it's snowing. Since I don't have to leave the house, shovel a sidewalk, or drive a car, I'm quite content. I can enjoy snow the way children do. What I love most about snowfall is the deep quiet. Even in Manhattan, noises are hushed. Only the occasional gust of wind makes a sound.

Continue reading "Let It Snow" »

February 12, 2007

Music at the Met

After Friday night's concert at the Met (our Met, the museum), Kathleen and I skittered in the cold to a trattoria on 84th near Madison, the Caffe Grazie. After a while, I realized that the couple of the next table had been to the same performance, and I ventured a remark. We were soon in deep conversation about the evening. I was assured that Edward Arron, the Artistic Coordinator of MMArtists (whom we'd just heard), is the son of the late Judith Arron, the great director of Carnegie Hall before her untimely death of cancer. I'd been hoping that he was just a nephew; what a load it must be to know that there's a beautiful performing space in Manhattan that was your mother's idea, and that that was supposed to be named after her - until a couple of richnicks came along and bought the naming rights to Zankel Hall.

Here's my report. Op. 34 is worth your time!

January 16, 2007

Out & About: At the Blue Note

On Saturday night, Kathleen and I went down to the Blue Note, on West Third Street, to hear The Crusaders. Kathleen was already a big fan of The Crusaders when I met her nearly thirty years ago, and she was eager to catch them in their first appearance at the club since 1986. She made reservations for the second set, which was scheduled to begin at ten-thirty but which, in the event, started much closer to eleven. By then, we were wedged into tight seats in the corner nearest the bar. We'd thought that getting to the club at 9:30 or so would net us a good spot in the first-come-first-served line that's the unavoidable downside of an outing to the Blue Note. The sidewalk is less than capacious, and the weather is usually unpleasant. It wasn't too bad on Saturday night, but we arrived at 9:40, and were well back in the last quarter, perhaps the last fifth, of the line. (We had never been to the Blue Note on a Saturday before.) Hence the lousy seats. We both ended up standing alongside our chairs.

Only two of the original Crusaders are still in the band, pianist Joe Sample and sax player Wilton Felder. Nils Lundgren has come on board to play the trombone, along with drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Nicklas Sample (the pianist's son). So far, so good. These capable musicians were all very evidently on the same page. The surprise was the appearance of Ray Parker, Jr, on the guitar.

Some other time, I'll tell you why I think that "Jack and Jill" is the greatest pop song of the Seventies. It initially appeared on Raydio, Mr Parker's first album, along with the amazingly transgressive "Let's Go All The Way" (every teenaged girl's father's worst nightmare). A very gifted blues guitarist, Mr Parker wasn't an obvious fit, and he didn't get to do much, either. I wondered, in fact, if this might be the Ray Parker, Jr Rehabilitation Tour, with the musician being grateful just for the chance to appear on stage. He wasn't given a solo until the penultimate number, "X Marks The Spot," and by then I was pretty impatient to hear him let it rip. Let it rip he did, however, and for the first time that evening I found that I had simply fallen into the music.

The houseful of serious Crusaders fans got what it came for, an hour or so of bluesy jazz that pulled off the neat trick of being brightly assertive and laid-back at the same time. Wilt Felder and Nils Lundgren turned in a series of bravura solos that drew enthusiastic applause, while Joe Sample attacked his keyboards with untiring vigor. I think I might have had a better time without the distraction of waiting to hear Ray Parker, Jr.

I know that I'd have had a better time, as would almost everyone in our quarter of the room, without the distraction of a couple of dateless young women, one of them a willowy blonde, who lost interest in the music early and required a massive hushing from the surrounding tables to remember where they were. I wish I could say that such bad behavior at the Blue Note came as a surprise.

January 11, 2007


Fossil Darling (né PPOQ) just called from the desk with the following "question."

Johann Sebastian,

How long is your passion?

This was followed up by the brilliant, music-lover's query, "Is the St Matthew Passion long?"

Did I ever tell you that Fossil is deaf? Yes, he is.

January 02, 2007

Così fan tutte at City Opera

In the middle of November, just before flying off to St Croix for Thanksgiving, Kathleen and I took in a performance of Mozart's Così fan tutte, which, as everyone must know by now, is my favorite opera. I don't see it often, though, because it's so easy to screw up. The plot still makes people uncomfortable - which just shows you how prim and pious Americans can be about romantic comedy. Here is my take on the story: vacationing in Naples, two ladies from Ferrara meet two young officers and, in somewhat creaky but more recent parlance, start going steady. They don't fall in love at all; they're like middle-school students going through motions they don't entirely understand. All of this happens before the opera begins, but it is implied by every detail of the opening scenes. The young lovers are shown to be silly kids, now florid about their "perfect" mate, now necromantic. Their cynical old friend, Don Alfonso, decides to show them how just how silly they are. He makes a wager with the officers that, if they pretend to go off to war, and then show up in exotic costumes, they'll have no trouble each winning the other's girl's heart. The officers accept the bet with alacrity, to show the old misery just how wrong he is.

But of course he's not wrong. The boys come back in their Albanian (Turkish) outfits, and throw themselves into love-making with great vigor. It is unlikely that this was how they won the ladies originally. Their overtures are initially repulsed, of course, but this only redoubles their zeal. The long and the short of it is that the girls eventually fall in love, genuinely this time, in response to such ardor. And eventually the boys stop acting. Why do people overlook this? Why do the boys appear to forget which side of the bet they're on? When Ferrando makes his last-ditch effort to conquer Fiordiligi, he's in earnest. Winning a bet is the last thing on his mind, and, if you can't hear that, you're deaf.

So there is no real confusion at the end. Even though the libretto does not specify who ends up with whom, the music, if only people would listen, is unambiguous. Even Guglielmo, who claims to wish that he were toasting his friends with poison, is more genuinely engaged by the final arrangement than he was at the start, when all he could do was make preposterous claims about his lady-love's fortitude. Even though the final-scene marriages are a sham (officiated by a housemaid in drag), they represent the ultimate couplings.

Continue reading about Così fan tutte at Portico.

December 26, 2006

Chamber Music At Two Venues

Two weeks ago, during a busy week, I had back to back chamber concerts, first at Zankel Hall and then at the 92nd Street Y. They were very different evenings, but almost equally enjoyable.

On the Tuesday, I heard Ton Koopman lead the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra in two works by JS Bach, the Musical Offering and the Coffee Cantata. Something, in short, for everybody. The cantata is a sort of chamber opera in which a grumpy old papa tries to get his fetching daughter to abandon the (then burgeoning) coffee craze. After numerous threats, she at last concedes - but it's a sham concession, since her new husband is going to have to allow her to drink all the coffee she wants. As such, it's a domesticated version of the very popular buffa plot exemplified by La serva padrona, and about the only instance I can think of of Bach's following fashion. Klaus Mertens sang the part of the father in a heroic basso, while Bettini Pahn as the daughter showed a lovely soubrette voice. Tenor Otto Bouwknegt, as the fiancé, sang with a strong but pleasant voice.

As for the Musical Offering...

Continue reading about chamber music at Portico.

December 05, 2006

Jeremy Denk and Orpheus at Carnegie Hall

The second concert of Orpheus's season at Carnegie Hall, on Saturday night, featured pianist Jeremy Denk, a musician whose Web log I have followed for some time. At the last Orpheus concert, I buttonholed Mr Denk and introduced myself. So I was hoping to be very impressed by his performance. Good intentions, however, were swept away by the excitement of hearing him play the most substantial of JS Bach's solo concertos, The Concerto in d, BWV 1052. I listen to this work every day, it seems, but on the CD that is parked my carousel, Anton Heiller plays the harpsichord. Mr Denk's fingers spun the twanging glaze of the solo part into beautifully etched phrases that tumbled sometimes with, and sometimes against, the string orchestra. The pianist commanded his instrument with something like the nonchalance of a great jazz pianist. He can't have been unaware of playing in Carnegie Hall, but he appeared to be as comfortable as if he were playing for friends at home. And, again like a jazz musician, he made it all look easy. Jeremy Denk's playing is about the music, not about the difficulty of the music.

One is easily inclined to think of jazz when listening to Bach's keyboard music, and vice versa. Where pleasing listeners is supposed to be important, Bach substitutes an obsession with the possibilities of inversion and variation. To play the music well, a pianist must share some of Bach's curiosity. Mr Denk went so far as to create the illusion of extemporization - quite a feat, considering the familiarity of this chestnut. My mind never wandered for even a moment.

The program opened with the first of Bach's Brandenburg Concerti, and closed with the second. I seem to be hearing the Brandenburgs with some frequency these days, but I'm pleased to note that they are no longer baroque bon-bons suitable for aural wallpaper. Last year, I heard all six, played on one-voice-per-part lines. Orpheus's approach may have been more conventional, but the results were completely fresh. The horn players were so brilliant in the first movement of the First Concerto that I joined in the applause that burst out when the movement was over, a no-no that triggered pained and querulous glances from the ancient couple sitting in front of me. Ordinarily, I have to hope that the custom of waiting until a work is completely over to applaud is in good health, but the horn players' bravura was extraordinary. (The little variation for horns and oboes in the fourth movement wasn't quite so perfect.) The soloists in the Second Concerto were members of the orchestra, so of course they were terrific. I wish I knew their names. (I wish that Orpheus would publish a facebook at its Web site.)

Composer Stephen Hartke was on hand to receive the ovation that me the world premiere of his Brandenburg Afternoons - a work written for the same unusual forces that Bach calls for in the First Brandenburg. It may have helped that Melissa Mell, a cellist, indulged us with a bit of music appreciation in advance. I'm not sure how important it is to know that the violas and the cello in the first movement of this engaging piece represent boats bobbing in a marina, but if such tone-painting get people to pay attention, then it can't do any harm. I have no hesitation about describing the work's concluding saraband as darkly romantic. Mr Hartke's music may be tonally modern, but it remembers where it has been and known where it is going. I hope that Orpheus will record Brandenburg Afternoons.

November 22, 2006

Steven Katz

Like any good resort, the Buccaneer Beach Hotel retains a rota of musicians to provide nightly entertainment. During our short visit, the music has never been too loud, and the performances have always been good of their kind - very good, really. But nothing prepared us for Steven Katz, the guitarist who took the stage (such as it is) on Tuesday evening. We could hear him from our front door before we walked up hill to dinner, but we didn't really pay attention until we'd been seated and served. Then we noticed that he was extremely gifted. In the middle of the second set that we heard, he tossed out a feeler to see if anyone would mind some "classical" music. I didn't hear anybody's else's response because I was too loudly shouting that I wouldn't mind. Whereupon Mr Katz launched a sequence that began with Dowland and ended with Villa Lobos. I can't claim to be an aficionado of the guitar, but I know a virtuoso when I hear one, and Steven Katz could play anything, anywhere, and thrill his audience. What he is doing in St Croix, or the Virgin Islands, or the Antilles Greater and Lesser, is, from a personal standpoint, none of my business, but the question is not musically impertinent.

Mr Katz has produced a CD on which he plays his own compositions, and if you have any interest in great guitar, visit this site and get yourself a copy.

November 16, 2006

At First Sight

The other day, I came across the lyrics to a Cole Porter song that I'd never heard of, and still haven't heard.* The song is called "The Physician," and it was written for Nymph Errant, a show of 1933. Here's the final refrain.

He said my vertebrae were "sehr schöne,"

And called my coccyx "plus que gentil,"

He murmured "molto bella"

When I sat on his patella,

But he never said he loved me.

He took a fleeting look at my thorax,

And started singing slightly off key.

He cried "May Heaven strike us,"

When I played my umbilicus,

But he never said he loved me.


As it was dark,

I suggested we walk about

Before he returned to his post.

Once in the park,

I induced him to talk about

The thing I wanted the most.

He lingered with me until morning,

Yet when I tried to pay him his fee,

He said, "Why, don't be funny,

It is I who owe you money,"

But he never said he loved me.

I've been stewing over this cleverness for a couple of days, and I've concluded that, once again, Cole Porter has nailed a truth about romantic love. It is always sparked by aspects of the beloved - usually aspects a lot more superficial than patellae and umbilici. A physician, of course, is trained to size up all the evident aspects of a patient without allowing them to form the image of a desirable person, but the rest of us, when we encounter an attractive detail, are more likely than not to see what other attractive details might be on offer. Given enough attractive details - unlike Porter's doctor - we eventually fall in love

Even love at first sight is not as immediate as it seems. I like to say that I fell in love with Kathleen before the first sight. The sound of her laughter, coming from the row of desks behind me, made me turn around pronto. "Wow," I felt when I saw her. "I've got to get to know her better!"

Does anyone know the song? Can anyone hum a few bars?

*In Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics, edited by Robert Kimball (Library of America, 2006).

November 14, 2006

Musica Antiqua Köln at Zankel Hall

Owing to the poor health of its founder and leader, Reinhard Goebel, Musica Antiqua Köln is on its farewell tour. The band, which specializes in the German Baroque, made a number of fine discs for Deutsche Gramophon Archiv, and I've enjoyed a few of them for years. Better late than never, however, I caught the band at Zankel Hall earlier this month. Ilia Korol was the dashing guest leader, and contralto Marijana Mijanovic sang three of the items on the program.

Continue reading about Musica Antiqua Kön at Portico.

October 27, 2006

Soft Shoe Gentle Sway

The other day, I made fun of Kathleen for trying to get dressed while dancing to "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'," the Scissors Sisters hit that, now that I've read the fine print, appears to be an Elton John anthem. Yes, that's Sir E at the piano. I don't mean to take anything away from the Scissors Sisters. On the contrary, I think that Elton John has finally found a band.

Anyway, "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'" may be a difficult song for getting dressed, but it's almost ideal for making the bed. Making the bed, with its constant crossings from side to side, always reminds me of the altar boy that I never was. And, lke so much British pop, "Dancin'" is haunted by the memory of rousing hymns. My music theory is totally kaputt, but I'm reckless enough to venture that musicians from the Moody Blues to Sting to the Alan Parsons Project have infiltrated pop music with the holy subdominant. You can hear it in "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'," especially if you're making the bed.

October 19, 2006


Kathleen left for the office a few minutes ago, and silence descended upon the apartment. We had listened to the Scissors Sisters sing "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'" at least seven times. Kathleen certainly felt like dancing. She could hardly get dressed, she was so busy shooting her arms into the air.

The CD, Ta-Dah, has arrived, so now we can sing along, because we know what the words are. But what do they mean? Who is "old Joanna"? After living with me for far too long for her own good, Kathleen actually proposed Johann Sebastian Bach. What I want to know - salacious beast that I am - is whether, rather than dancin', the singer would prefer to engage in a three-way:

I'd rather be home with the one in the bed till dawn with you.

(Not the most tripping of lines, except when sung.) But, as Kathleen said, this is a dancin' song, not a thinking song.

October 16, 2006

No dance-ing today

It was only a matter of time. My first YouTube link. The Scissors Sisters sing "I Don't Feel Like Dancing," while doing nothing but.

Having run into this fantastic video at two sites (Meanwhile, Marginalia), and having discovered that Kathleen is a fan, and having ordered both SS albums from Amazon, I found that I still had to do more. Chalkenteros rightly points to the BeeGees and to Roxy Music as influences, but Kathleen and I hear a lot of George Michael as well.

And you thought I was an old fart.

(Thanks, Aaron!)

October 13, 2006

I Musici

Afterward, I couldn't believe that I'd done it. We were at Carnegie Hall last night, at the first concert of the new Orpheus season. 

At intermission, two thirtysomethings who had been sitting four rows ahead of us were joined by a friend. He stood leaning on the back of the seat behind him, facing the rear of the hall, as he chatted. I was standing in the aisle, beside my seat, waiting for the other people in the row take their seats before sitting down myself. From snippets overheard, I hypothesized that the visitor might be pianist Jeremy Denk, who will be performing at Orpheus's next concert, and who also keeps a very intriguing Web log, Think Denk. Mr Denk has posted a snapshot of himself at the blog, something that hastened the identification process.

Qua pianist, he was safe from my attentions. Qua blogger, however - quite another matter. Still, I had to work up the nerve. When he left his friends, appearing to my mistaken ears to decline their offer to join them in an adjacent, empty seat, I let him pass right by. When I turned to see where he'd gone, I'd lost him. But, lo, suddenly there he was again, returning to his friends. I caught his eye, tried to look as harmless as possible, and asked him if he might be who I thought he was. He very affably said that he was, and he shook my outstretched hand as I told him that I was "R J Keefe, Daily Blague," effectively taking it for granted that he would know what that meant. He registered recognition, although it may have been simple politeness. I made a remark to show that I'd read his latest entry (indeed, I'd been thinking about it while hypothesizing), said that I was looking forward to hearing him in December, and then let him go. He couldn't have been nicer.

The encounter firmed up my resolve to make some additions to the main-page list of links to other sites. A recent exchange with Steve Smith, author of Night After Night, inspired me to make an exception to my general rule, which is that I don't link to monothematic blogs. Blogs exclusively devoted to music and concertgoing would seem to fall under the ban, but in fact it's impossible to write at any length about music without being very person, however inadvertently. If you're at all interested in serious music, I'm sure that you'll find the sites that I've listed under the rubric "I Musici" interesting.

As for the concert....

September 29, 2006

Idomeneo Fallout

The news from the Deutsche Oper Berlin will make everybody crazy for a while, but I hope that something can be learned from the episode. Two things, actually.

First: it's time for opera directors to stop fooling around with operas, to refrain from changing the period of their settings and adding gratuitous (silent) bits just to make some sort of "point." The only point that opera has is beautiful singing that is also psychologically true, and the visual aspects of the experience are distinctly subordinate to the auditory. Every now and then, there's a true spectacle, but for the most part operas speak vividly to the blind - as thousands of opera lovers who have never actually seen an opera can attest. Larding a production of Mozart's Idomeneo - which tells a story related to the Homeric epics - with the severed heads of major religious figures (Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, and the opera's own deus, Poseidon) is simply flabbifying.

Second, and much more important: it's time for a time-out on Western-Muslim critiques. Notice that I do not say "Christian-Muslim," for this is very definitely a post-religious argument on one side. Or, better, an argument about whether there can be a post-religious discussion at all. There is indeed a clash of cultures going on, even if it's not quite the one that Samuel Huntington writes about.

What's at issue is the right of an individual to determine his or her own sexual life. The sooner we all come to see this, the quicker we'll get to where we need to be next. Muslims deny the right, as human beings have done for most of their existence. The Western recognition of the right remains provisional: many in the West - many in the United States - do not recognize it. We need to consolidate our side of the argument, coming to terms with Westerners who persist in patriarchy. Until the West works out a deal with patriarchalists, whether by granting them a geographical territory in which to practice their beliefs, or, as sometimes seems likely, by simply reverting to patriarchy itself, we have no business spreading "democracy," which, currently in the West, necessarily means equal rights in most secular matters for women.

A good place to start would be convincing Europe's Muslim leaders that members of their flocks have the right to reject Islam, while at the same time allowing behaviors, such as the wearing of head scarves, that are obviously more cultural than religious in nature. The hard but more essential place to start is finding jobs for all those North African kids.

September 28, 2006

Current Reading

At the moment, I'm reading, mostly, two very different books - although perhaps they're not as different as I might think. Both involve headstrong charmers, people who can't keep their feelings to themselves. They walked the earth together for a few years, and they both had international careers.

Firstly, I am reading Jane Eyre, for the first time. Aside from Shirley, I haven't read Charlotte Brontë. I read her sister Emily's Wuthering Heights when I was a teenager, and I didn't like it very much. I regarded Jane Eyre as a novel for girls, by which I mean: not a novel for adults. And indeed I have yet to encounter a passage that a mature person might construe differently from an adolescent. (And reconstruction is what Jane Austen is all about in the end - her novels are always age-appropriate because they have the knack of growing up with you, taking on shades of meaning that would be utterly lost on a high-school student, or even on a thirty-something.) But Jane Eyre is so basic a novel in the experience of literate women that I thought I really must have it for myself. It is not bad, and it is not boring. The injustices to which Jane is subjected at the start, and at the Lowood Institution until it is reformed after the typhus outbreak, seem cartoonish, not because they're absolutely implausible but because they seem designed to rouse the indignation of good-hearted girls. But the narrative voice, as in Shirley, is anything but predictable. Brontë does nothing to hide her cosmopolitan character. That's enough to hold my interest. At the moment, I've just reached Thornfield and Miss Fairfax and Jane's nice little room. I'd have to have lived under a rock all my life not to know what is going to happen, but for once I'm letting Jane herself tell me.

The other book that I am reading is Rodney Bolt's The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte: Mozart's Poet, Casanova's Friend, and Italian Opera's Impresario in America. And it is a remarkable life. Even without the Mozart connection (Da Ponte's principal claim to fame), Da Ponte's story would be incontournable. As Mr Bolt quite rightly points out, Da Ponte was born in the twilight of a medieval empire (Venice) and died in the dawn of the hyperpower (the United States). He is buried in Queens probably not five miles from where I write. Who'd a thunk it?

The most amazing little fact that I've swallowed in The Librettist of Venice is that Pietro Metastasio (né Trapassi; the pseudonym is a hellenicization), the doyen of eighteenth-century opera librettists, composed music for each of the arias that he penned. He never showed the music to anyone, though; the exercise was only for making sure that the text was singable. Imagine!

And there's one other really remarkable thing about Mr Bolt's book. He includes a color reproduction of a portrait of Mozart, by Johann Georg Edlinger, that was discovered in "late 2004." How this picture has stayed out of the papers during the bisesquicentennial of Mozart's birth (250 years) is amazing to me. It shows what Mr Bolt describes as "the effects of high living," and as an image its power to smash the Meissen idea of Mozart is unsurpassed. The wonder of Mozart is that he was a male human being just like me - and yet! He was not some angel-made-flesh. He liked to party. He was much worse at cash flow than I am. And when the picture was painted, in 1790, he was probably clinically depressed.

Are you ready?

Continue reading "Current Reading" »

September 17, 2006

Spontaneous Ring

What a loser I am. It's Saturday night, and I'm home - finishing up a Ring cycle. As though it were some sort of casserole, I suppose. I had no intention of listening to important music two weeks ago when I put on Das Rheingold. I love the sound of Das Rheingold, and one thing leads to another. So I did listen to the Ring, all of it, on the impromptu, pretty much as if it were pulp fiction, which is really the only way to hear this incredible drama. "Greatness" needs to scraped away from it - but then who will listen?

Kathleen came home at the end of Act II of Götterdämmerung- the moment when Verdi and Wagner, what's the phrase, get close, as planets - and she said to me, as though I were having my teeth extracted, "What are you listening to!?"  Only the greatest act of opera that there is.

Is there anybody else out there for whom the "Immolation Scene" - as the last bit of the Ring used to be known - is a cleansing bar of soap? Something that makes you feel really pure afterward - the opposite of what Tristan und Isolde does.

August 24, 2006

Joshua Bell and Friends

The burnish deepens with time. A year from now, this will be the souvenir of a beautifully polished chamber concert that I attended last Sunday, something that will perhaps make readers feel a stab of regret for having unaccountably seen fit to do something else.

"Joshua Bell and Friends" - that's what the Mostly Mozart mailer said. And it was correct, as long as you understand that Mozart and Mendelssohn are posthumously numbered among the friends. Along with composer/bassist Edgar Meyer, who unlike the other names in the program was able to stand up for a bit of applause.

Performers are always saying that X - the work that they're about to play - is one of their favorite compositions. They mean it, at least at the time. But when Joshua Bell sang atop seven colleagues in Mendelssohn's Octet, I knew that he has loved this music for a long time. He would play it more often if it were easier to conjoin two string quartets.*

The program was very simple. A Mozart piano quartet (there are two; tonight's was the first, in g, K 478), then a work commissioned for Joshua Bell and written by his choice of composer, Edgar Meyer. After an intermission, the Octet. The Mozart, which I thought I knew very well until this evening's performance, was played by Mr Bell with violist John Largess and cellist Edward Arron, forming a piano trio that played as such against Frederick Chiu's piano. I've been listening to this work for more than forty years, but until this evening it was a chamber piece for four players. Tonight, I heard it as a piece for two groups.

I'm not going to say anything about Concert Piece for Violin until I've heard it again - except that the second of the four movements made me think of hummingbirds. That's how fast Mr Bell was playing, and how softly and easily. Mr Meyer seems to have digested Debussy, Ravel, and other French masters.

Mendelssohn's Octet is the most astonishing example of precociousness that the West has to offer. Nobody, but nobody, has ever produced its aesthetic equal at the age of sixteen - certainly not Mozart, by the way. The opening Allegro moderato, ma con fuoco begins in hushed syncopation that almost at once leaps with irrepressible glee. There is a gravely sweet second subject - as grave as a teenager could be, that is - but the opening theme keeps pushing it aside, like boys on their way to a playground. The exposition closes in a glorious cadence, and if the players are worth their salt, you get to hear the entire thing over again. The development, similarly, concludes with a pile-up of syncopations that jumps into a thrilling unison. As for the movement's finish, there is nothing to compare with its youthful exaltation. This is the uncomplicated joy of being young and (musically speaking) hot.

Mr Bell and his colleagues played the three remaining movements with undiminished élan. The Andante was a coffer of burnished sonorities, its pausing chords impossibly melted into the sense of a single note. The Scherzo, whose only semblable is the Midsummer Night's Dream arabesque that Mendelssohn wrote a year or so later, and it skittered to its finish before it seemed to have introduced itself. The Presto went out with a great roar. And then the best thing happened: the audience, especially the kids in the cheap seats, burst into applause with something like the satisfying violence of an enormous exploding water balloon. Avery Fisher Hall was flooded with delight.

* As it happens, I have actually copied out the entire first movement of the Octet. I had access to the parts (who knows how) and I spent hours copying them into a spiral notebook that, oops, was open to the last page when I began my work, not the first. I ought to run a poll. Since I now have a lovely Eulenberg miniature of the score, I really don't need my laborious backward copy. D'you think I ought to throw it out? Or ought I to keep it, as a precious labor of love - even if I never look at it again. Too bad I don't have an adoring relation to do this for me. 

August 13, 2006

At the Allen Room


This weekend has been something of a comble. I do not really understand this French noun, outside of the Racinian lament - "comble de misères" ("heap of troubles"). But we have had a heap of fun. I wish I could tell you that we had a fascinating dinner at some new restaurant - perhaps one of the "TimeWarner Collection" restaurants - before our Allen Room venture. In fact we had a pizza at home, at 8:30 - plenty of time to dress for a crosstown trip to a hitherto unknown venue. When we got there, we overheard a lot of other people saying that they'd never been to the Allen Room before, either. We were a Mostly Mozart crowd in temporary occupation of Jazz at Lincoln Center facilities. 

Once upon a time, I programmed music for all of Harris County, but now I concentrate on surprising my wife. Did I know what the interaction between Concerto Köln and Sarband - a group of Turkish musicians determined to bridge gaps between east and west and Muslim and Jew - would be like? Not at all. The evening could have been awful. Even if the music hadn't been worth hearing, I reasoned when ordering what turned out to be second-row seats, I'd find out what the Allen Room was like. On the eve of its third season, I still don't know anyone who has been to it. It turns out to be the dream-come-true of a thousand black-and-white Thirties and Forties movies about New York: a modest amphitheatre, its levels generous enough for nightclub tables, sloping toward a performance area backed by an enormous window beyond which stretches Columbus Circle, West 57th Street, and, well, New York, New York. There are no famous skyscrapers in the view, but if the good people at the Pierre and the Sherry-Netherlands would light up their tops, the Allen Room would be an exciting place to sit still in.   

The music was not awful, as, indeed, I'd had enough faith in Mostly Mozart's programmers to expect, and when it was over I got my favorite confession: Kathleen's saying that she really hadn't been looking forward to the concert at all but that she'd really, really, really loved it. The program, which was designed to show the impact of Viennese music on at least one early nineteenth-century effendi, might have seemed daring to some, but in fact it's all captured on a CD, of which this cut, which was reprised as an encore, had everybody whistling on the way out. (It could have been wild-West music, don't you think?) It was the opposite of difficult and demanding music. Everyone loved it.

I think I'll wait until the CD arrives to talk about Sarband. For the moment it's enough to note that, by a breathtaking coincidence, the Turkish bankers who summoned Kathleen to Istanbul at the beginning of 2005 are in town, and we're taking them to our favorite brunch spot at noon. Happily, there's one phrase of Turkish that I haven't forgotten: hoş geldiniz!

August 05, 2006

Elisabeth Schwarkopf, requiescat in pace


Betty Blackhead, as opera queens used to call her, died the other day, at the age of ninety. I never heard her sing in person, but her recordings were, for quite a long time, sacred to me. They were sacred partly because hers were the only ones - most notably, of Der Rosenkavalier and The Four Last Songs (Vier Letzte Lieder), both by Richard Strauss (a composer whose brief complicities with the Nazi regime seemed to stem new recordings of all but his most popular tone poems when I was young). Inevitably, there came a time when I preferred to hear other voices sing this music, and I noticed that Schwarzkopf's voice wasn't always beautiful. But I always respected her very deeply, and I have a lot of her CDs.

Why I feel the need to recommend a must-have recording, I can't really say - except, of course, that the urge to give advice is always massaging my ego. Some would say that the recording that you must own is the Rosenkavalier recording - and then they'll argue about whether you ought to seek out the carefully restored monaural original, or whether it's all right to go with what was one of the first stereophonic opera sets to be offered. But I say, buy the album pictured here, which I've linked to Tower Records. Again, there will be argument. You can get an earlier recording of the Four Last Songs that a lot of listeners prefer. I see their point, but I prefer the warmth of the later recording's sound. Equally important as the late masterwork, however, is the suite of twelve Strauss songs with orchestral backup. Given Strauss's magical way with orchestration, I have a hard time preferring the original, piano-accompanied versions of these songs. My favorites of the ones offered here are "Die heiligen drei Könige" (my birthday is 6 January, which only makes this Epiphany song more special) and another baby song, "Wiegenlied." But everything is good, and I can't tell you how much I enjoyed listening to the album after hearing of Schwarzkopf's death.

It is true that nobody has ever sung the line that, for me, is the beating heart of Der Rosenkavalier with as much oomph as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: "Heut’ oder morgen oder den übernächsten Tag… " (Thanks to Édouard for typing it out!)

At the other end of the spectrum, high kitsch doesn't get any more delicious than it does on Schwarzkopf's operetta-aria album. The "Nun's Chorus," from Casanova, alone...! Oh, hell; lets hear it. (An operetta with an organ solo?)


While you're listening to that, I've got more entertainment to offer. The foregoing was written two days ago, in a spate of prolificness. I decided to save the piece for a dry patch. Which was most frustrating when the Times screwed up royally, running very much the wrong photograph in Schwarzkopf's obituary. (Anthony Tommasini, author of the obit, is currently in festival mode, bouncing between Salzburg and Bayreuth. If he'd been in town, the flub would probably not have occurred - or so I like to think.

Like everyone, I first thought that it wasn't a good picture of the late singer - it didn't really look like her (for good reason!). But I didn't really focus in until later, when, mysteriously, looking at the picture seemed more interesting than reading the obituary, which predictably belabored Schwarzkopf for her Nazi affiliations, as indeed any mention of her in the Times simply must. The first clue that something was wrong with the shot was the hussar in the background, holding a mace in ceremonial fashion. This would be unlikely to be a detail in either of the two acts of Der Rosenkavalier in which the Marschallin actually appears. Then I noticed that the lady in the big dress was holding the rose in a rapturous manner. And then the memory of a thousand  LP jackets kicked in (okay, twenty), and I recognized Anneliese Rothenberger, a Bavarian soubrette who is still with us. The photograph is of the "Presentation of the Rose," a wondrously magical moment musically, at the beginning of Act II. The figure on the right - Octavian (Sena Jurinac) - has just had his heart captured by Sophie, a girl right out of a convent. He is not thinking about Elisabeth Schwarkopf's character, even though he spent much of the preceding act in bed with her. Men are like that.


I popped off an email to the Times - not the sort of thing that I go in for, but this was really gross sloppiness. What I wanted desperately to do, however, was to be the first to tell my old roommate, who lives across the street from Lincoln Center just to make it easy to attend fifty performances a year (not that he does that anymore). Not knowing many other opera lovers, I had no one else with whom to share - hmm, that's not the word, is it? - this breathtaking example of the newspaper's stumbling. But my old roommate was in a meeting - all day long. I was practically wetting my pants when I finally got hold of him in the early evening. I woke him from a nap, and he did not sound particularly interested. How deflating! But he did call back, five minutes later, properly roused and rancid.

The Times published a correction notice in this morning's paper, and, on the obituary page, a photograph of Elisabeth Scharzkopf as the Marshallin - very definitely the right picture. I'd give anything to know how many emails the paper received from "helpful" readers such as myself.

July 27, 2006

Great Coverage

What a pleasant surprise, to turn the page of the Times and find a super write-up, by Steve Smith, of Thomas Meglioranza's Monday night recital at Pace. With a picture!

A free concert on a Monday evening, an auditorium off the beaten path — it was a perfect opportunity for the bright young baritone Thomas Meglioranza to shake off the conventional solemnity of the lieder recital, and simply indulge in a few of his favorites from the repertory he has performed with the pianist Reiko Uchida during the last few years.

Sitting in the audience during the performance, I simply enjoyed Tom's beautiful singing. I didn't think much about the recital until yesterday, when it occurred me that Tom is reinventing the art-song recital. Not content to show off a great gift, he has put a lot of thought into constructing programs that I must regretfully - being a pious devotee of classical music - call "entertaining." Serious singers are not supposed to be entertainers. I can think of a few musicians whom I would dismiss as entertainers - mere entertainers. With Tom, it's just the opposite: he makes serious music entertaining on its own ground.

But don't take my word for it. Scroll down through Tom's schedule - he'll be touring with Marlboro musicians in the Midwest, with two recitals in California, in the fall.

July 07, 2006

"Ah, then..."

Johannes Brahms was a very witty man. He could be nasty, but he always made people laugh - the ones who weren't his victim. The anecdote that I like best has a self-deprecating surface that hardly conceals the man's cunning. Quite the oenophile, Brahms was delighted to be given a pre-concert dinner, one evening in Koblenz (in 1876), at the home of one Stadrat Wegeler, a noted wine-merchant. Here is how Georg Henschel, a singer and friend of Brahms who was also at the dinner, captured Brahms's rapier thrust:

Towards the end of the repast, which turned out to be rather a sumptuous affair, relished by Brahms as much as by any of us, a bottle of old Rauenthaler of the year '65 was opened, with due ceremony, by our host. It proved indeed to be a rare drop, and we all sat in almost reverential silence, bent over the high, light-green goblets, which we held in close proximity to our respective noses. Wegeler at last broke the silence with the solemn words: "Yes, gentlemen, what Brahms is among composers, this Rauenthaler is among the wines." Quick as lightning Brahms explained: "Ah, then let's have a bottle of the Bach now!"

G Henschel, Musings and Memories of a Musician (Macmillan 1918), quoted in Ivor Keys, Johannes Brahms (Christopher Helm, 1989)

July 02, 2006


Some cosmologists speak of multiple universes. I speak of two universes - musical universes. On the one hand, there is the universe of Berlioz. Then there is the universe of everything else, from Bach to the Bee Gees, from klezmer to koto. I mark the distinction not because I regard Berlioz as the greatest composer ever. That would contradict my point. Rather, Berlioz is the only composer that you can think of when you're listening to Berlioz, and when you're listening to anything else, the music of Berlioz seems impossible.

Listening to Berlioz, I am gripped by the passionate conviction that only Berlioz understands what music is for. Only he opens the lid all the way; he alone knows how to flood the scene with exciting brilliance. Sometimes the tone is angelically serene. Sometimes the laboratory seems about to explode. Sometimes, the laboratory has exploded. And sometimes Berlioz is just plain cheesy. Certainly not even Mozart conserved more of his noise-loving inner little boy.

Perhaps that's what it is: Berlioz gives voice to the infantile, to the raw disorderly and contradictory cravings of infants and toddlers. Like so many small children, Berlioz doesn't seem to know his own strength. He measures it unerringly, of course; that's why its impact is so focused. I'm listening, as I write this, to the "Choeur des ombres" from Lélio, and noting the offbeat drum thuds that only Berlioz would have written in - not to mention the tam-tam. The music is more generally known in its La Mort de Cléopatre version, but why listen to a sole soprano sing it when you can have an entire chorus singing it in unison? More is better, better, better!

And what wild little boy doesn't want to run off and join the pirates? Lélio is a recycling of miscellaneous compositions - a chanson for tenor and piano, another for tenor and orchestra, several choruses, and an orchestral piece - strung together by narration. The narrator is Berlioz himself, come back to life after the hanging at the end of the Symphonie Fantastique. (Lélio is a pendant to that far more famous work, with which it shares an opus number.) The wonderfully tacky "Chanson des brigands" is preceded by this bit of tantrum (which must be difficult for a sane actor to do well):

J'ai envie d'aller dans le Royaume de Naples ou dans la Calabrie demander au service à quelque chef de Bravi, dussé-je n'être que simple brigand... J'y ai souvent songé. Oui! de poétiques superstitions, une madone protectrice, de riches dépouilles amoncelées dans les cavernes, des femmes échevelées, palpitantes d'effroi, un concert de cris d'horreur accompagné d'un orchestre de carabines, sabres et poignards, du sang et du lacryma-christi, un lit de lave bercé par les tremblements de terre, allons donc, voilà la vie!

No adult on earth dreams of sleeping on a bed of lava rocked by earthquakes. It is a pleasure that only a mind long on fevered imagination and short on actual experience could envision. You have to leave the adult universe to enter the into spirit of the proceedings. The succeeding number is the chanson for tenor and orchestra, a "Chant de bonheur."

The final piece is an epithalamium to Miranda, of The Tempest, a " Choeur d'esprits de l'air." The text is in Italian, of all things. There's a sparkling piano obbligato, Miranda is told that she will know love, and Caliban is warned about Ariel's anger. The music is preceded by instructions to the performers! "Que SHAKESPEARE me protège!" It's as though a three year-old had been given a college education. The nakedness of Berlioz's fantasies, which he realizes perfectly in music, ought to be embarrassing, but if you are truly in the universe of Berlioz, it is all quite simply comme il faut. The music winds up to a tremendous swirl, drums bursting and trumpets blazing and the world generally seeming to come to an end in an ecstatic tarantella - in time for dinner.

I don't rule out the possibility of travel between the universes. There are several luminous passages in Verdi's operas that suggest that the Italian composer made the trip.

June 23, 2006


Thomas Meglioranza has been writing for a while about his arduous preparation for the role of Prior Walter, in Peter Eötvös's operatic adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. The work, mounted by the Boston Modern Orchestra and Opera Boston, received its American premiere last Friday. The critics came on Saturday night (I'm told), and they seem to have liked the work. They are quite unanimous about Tom: everybody liked his performance very much. It was from the reviews, and not from the baritone, that I gathered that his role was something like the lead. Congratulations, Mr Meglioranza!

I had not thought of writing about the event, however, because I didn't see it myself. I have never seen the play, and I have no idea what Mr Eötvös's music sounds like. But as a fan of Tom's I was eager to read the reviews, and one of them, which appears on the writer's Web log in advance of publication in MusicalAmerica, set me on a line of thought that at first seems quite depressing. The blog in question is Steve Smith's Night After Night.

Scrolling down through Mr Smith's recent entries, I was of course aware that I was visiting a journalist's site. It is in the nature of journalism to track the new, and I'm not surprised that, when Mr Smith lists the classical music that he's listening to, the recordings are all new, or, at least, out-of-the-way. Music critics don't have to go back; fresh performances are always welling up about them. What did strike me as incongruous, however, was the jumble of genres. For someone of my age, there is something decidedly transgressive about talking about both Jordi Savall and Ornette Coleman with much the same kind of admiration. What I realized, finally, was that the transgressiveness has entirely disappeared.

Steve Smith's wide-ranging taste is beginning to look like a certain kind of norm for listeners half my age. It's a much bolder taste, but it's also, I think, somewhat less reflective. It mirrors the voracious appetite for any food but mom's that seems to be required of today's hip New Yorkers. Sometimes I don't quite believe that the enthusiasm is real - it can't be! - but then I recollect what a very different musical world today's thirtysomethings grew up in. First, music became less political after 1970 - does anyone remember Ellen Willis proclaiming the "death of rock"? - and correspondingly less grimly embraced. Second, recordings poured in from everywhere to the racks of Tower Records. (I suspect that computerized inventories made the swelling possible.) When I was young, there was always a handful of guys who admired Beethoven's Late Quartets and Miles Davis equally, but, for the most part, they were showoffs of understatement. Genres were ghettos; they had a lot to do with what sort of friends one made.

Of course, I've also become an old person who finds it increasingly difficult to keep up with lots of new names. And knowing that I will never have an iPod is sobering. I can't imagine listening to music anywhere but in my rooms. Yet no one was a more passionate user of the Walkman when it first appeared. In other words, I haven't got anything against iPods. I just wouldn't use one now. I hate to say it, but it's something that I've outgrown, like the taste for swimming.

I prefer, that is, to think of it as a matter of outgrowing - as opposed to senescing. I'm no longer driven to listen to recordings all day long, partly because all this Daily Blague-related reading and writing requires my undivided attention, but partly too because my head is already stuffed with wisps of lovely music. They're muffled and unobtrusive, but very pleasant nevertheless. Sometimes, I have to play recordings just to impose some law and order.

I ought to get out more. Last spring, Ms NOLA made a compilation for me that, when I got round to listening to it, I was tempted to turn off in the middle of every cut. But I hung on, and was wowed at the end, by what turned out to be the first two cuts of Rufus Wainwright's Want One. I got the album pronto, but not before being lured into buying Want Two by the promise of an enclosed DVD - in which Mr Wainwright sings most of Want One's songs at the Fillmore. The first song on the DVD, however, is not one of Rufus's. He never says whose it is, and I always wonder what different things the members of the audience made of it. I knew just what to make of it: the marvel of Rufus Wainwright's turning Absence, by Hector Berlioz (from Les nuits d'été) into a contemporary torch song.

Welcome to the present.

May 18, 2006

Charles Rosen on Mozart

Charles Rosen takes the opportunity, in the current New York Review of Books, to make his review of several new books about Mozart into a blithely magisterial assessment of Mozart's achievement for our times. He makes many interesting points - for example, that Mozart was writing music at a time when the the very idea of the history of music was born - but the heart of the piece seems to me to be this:

In spite of his radical experiments, Mozart could be one of the most conventional composers of his time—except that no one ever handled the basic conventions with such skill and such ease, and he must have gloried not only in his ability to shock, but also in his facility at producing the conventional with such purity and grace.

Long phrases of absolutely conventional figuration and banal motifs articulate his works at the end of short sections, and give the structure its clarity. (Beethoven imitated Mozart closely in this respect, but he had the knack—already to be found in Mozart, but with less panache—of making one think that he had invented the most conventional motif expressly for each piece.) Writing about Mozart, we are always tempted to dwell on the extraordinary purple passages without noticing that in every case they are followed or preceded by the most conventional devices. They complement and support each other.

Mozart may not have been the first composer to make the sublime out of the familiar, but I doubt that any composer has approached his ability to work such magic as a matter of course, over and over again in almost every mature composition. Because the material is familiar - and also because it lacks the dramatic significance of motifs, such as "doom" and "destiny," that would shape music from Beethoven to Mahler and beyond - the sublimity is easily missed by inexperienced listeners, as well as by people whose primary interest in music is "emotional."

I thought about this while listening to the Linz Symphony the other day. It is interesting music only if you are an active listener, capable of bearing what you have heard in mind even as the music is being performed. This means paying attention to the little conventional bits that, as Mr Rosen writes, "give the structure its clarity," and hearing them for what they are. And wondering at the magic. But not too intently, because Mozart will be working another transformation presently. 

May 16, 2006

The MET Orchestra sans Levine

A good time was had by all at the last of this season's MET Orchestra concerts. The afternoon's program consisted of a mini opera gala bracketed by two pleasing orchestral works. The singers were soprano Erika Sunnegårdh, tenor Ben Heppner, and bass René Pape. Ms Sunnegårdh stepped in for an ailing Karita Mattila last month in performances of Fidelio at the Met, but it took another illness to bring her to Carnegie Hall on Sunday: James Levine's. When James Conlon took over the direction of the concert, he scrapped Mr Levine's program, which was to have followed Charles Wuorinen's Theologoumenon with Brahms's First. Mr Conlon kept Mozart's Linz Symphony as an opener, ended the program with Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, and filled the middle with an unusual but thoroughly satisfying assortment of vocal showstoppers.

Continue reading about the MET Orchestra at Portico.

May 09, 2006


Friday night saw the last of this season's New York Collegium Concerts, at the Church of St Vincent Ferrer. We had the first two Brandenburg Concertos and two of Bach's "Lutheran" Masses. In other words, music familiar and obscure. The prevailing note all evening long was good humor, or perhaps jollity.

Continue reading about the New York Collegium at Portico.

On Saturday, Orpheus followed with the last of its Carnegie Hall concerts for the season. The big noise on the program was Leon Fleisher, whose recordings of the Schumann and Grieg piano concertos, made with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, were the ones I grew up to. By the time I was listening, however, Mr Fleisher had developed dystonia in his right hand, and was down to playing the left-hand repertoire. According to an entry at Wikipedia, Botox came to Mr Fleisher's rescue. I remember his initial comeback; he played Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 at Tanglewood. That's hardly a work of comparable difficulty to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73, the "Emperor."

Continue reading about Orpheus at Portico.

April 27, 2006

I'm not complaining

Ich grolle nicht that I haven't known Robert Schumann's famous song of the same name until now. I'm sure I've heard it. I know that I've looked up grollen in the dictionary - having seen the title of the song dozens of times. (Our "growl" and "grumble" may be relatives.) But for one reason or another the music was never at hand. Until yesterday. Yesterday, I found myself playing it over and over again, alarmingly glued to Matthias Goerne's way with the music. (And to pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy's.) 

I am an instant convert to the church of this beautifully urgent song, "Ich grolle nicht."

Update: wondering if I just might have another recording of this song, I quickly found an EMI issue with tenor Ian Bostridge covering the same material as Mr Goerne (plus a few more songs). I admire Mr Bostridge, or I shouldn't have bought the CD. And I know that I listened to it. But the song just didn't register. This may be a song that I have to hear from a bass-baritone.

April 11, 2006

Thomas Meglioranza at the Italian Academy

Ever since I heard him sing for the first time, a little over a year ago, I've been a big fan of baritone Thomas Meglioranza. If you're a regular reader of the Daily Blague, you already know that. By nature a stay-at-home slug, I will do my best to show up where- and whenever Tom sings.

Last Wednesday night, Tom gave a recital, accompanied by the wizardry of Reiko Uchida's fingers, at the Italian Institute at Columbia University. The theme was Italian song, and Tom, who is very good with themes, took this one in daring directions. Of the eight composers, only Busoni (three songs) and Rossini (one) were Italian, and of the lyrics, only only three songs, all by Schubert, were in Italian. Three songs by Gabriel Fauré, listed as "Mélodies de Venise," were setting of poems by Paul Verlaine, two of them, "En sourdine" and "Mandoline" from Fêtes Galantes, one of the most musically fertile collections in the history of literature. Also anchored to La Serenissima were Schumann's Zwei Venetianische Lieder. These six songs constituted the beauty part of the recital; the only word for Tom's interpretation of "En sourdine" is "dreamy." Earlier, Tom sang three songs from Charles Ives's From Early Italian Poets, which Tom rendered painless and almost interesting (as distinct from crazy). "Look, ma, I got my yearly shot of Ives and it didn't even hurt!" The only Italian thing about Busoni's Goethe-Lieder was the composer's last name. Toward the end of the program, Tom almost crumpled up the theme and threw it away, with excerpts from Cathy Berberian's Stripsody and Derek Bermel's Nature Calls. As with John Cage's Arioso, part of which Tom sang at his Café Sabarsky gig last month, Stripsody's score is a matter of pictures, not notes, and it involves very little singing. As for the lovely Bermel songs, Tom sang them in February at his Symphony Space recital, the theme of which was songs by living American composers. What's Italian about them? It seems that Mr Bermel spends a lot of time in Italy, and that this set of three songs has been performed there: Tom sang the last one, "Dog," in an Italian translation. The program began and ended, however, on a genuinely Italian note. Schubert's Drei Gesänge für Bass-Stimme mit Klavier are settings of Italian lyrics, two of them by opera-meister Metastasio, and they are first-class Rossini counterfeits. (Schubert tried very hard to emulate Rossini's enormous success in Vienna.) Rossini's "Le chanson du bébé" finished things off in a truly delightful way, with a little boy cavatining "pipi, maman, papa, ca-CAAAAA!" I've loved this song for decades, but I never thought I'd hear it in person.

One shudders to imagine what a singer less gifted than Thomas Meglioranza would have made of this program. But if Tom is doing what the critics are always clamoring for - bringing forward new and unfamiliar music - he is doing it properly, by making it as beautiful and interesting as it can be. Aside from the twinkling of the "Lied des Mephistopheles," for example, nothing about the Busoni songs found a place in my memory, but while I was listening to them I was not impatient for them to end, and if I ever do come to understand this music it will because Tom laid the groundwork. The unearthly fact about Tom's performances is that he has mastered the art of singing in a past life, and can concentrate now upon presentation. He doesn't sing; he sings to you. And he does this not by sexing up the emotions or resorting to other manipulative devices, but by believing totally that the music that he's singing ought to be sung. He may not convince you of its worth, but you will never want him to stop making the case. You will instead want to know the date of the next event. The next event here in New York is, I believe, on 10 May, at Weill Recital Hall, with the MET Chamber Orchestra directed by James Levine. The program, as intimidating as a roller-coaster, will consist exclusively of music by Milton Babbitt. I've got my ticket, and I can't wait to tell you what it was like.

Update: Actually, Tom will be singing at the next New York Collegium concert on 5 May, at St Vincent Ferrer. (I'll be there.) He sang in Escondido the other day and will perform in Indianapolis at the end of the month. Consult for complete listings.

March 30, 2006

The New York Collegium at St Vincent Ferrer

For its fourth concert of the season (I missed the third, devoted to Clérambault), the Collegium offered a very interesting contrast between Handel and Telemann. I myself am crazy about Telemann, because he carries on the élan of Vivaldi. Vivaldi's effect upon Bach was momentous, but Bach completely transmuted Vivaldi's style into something serious and Saxon. Telemann, although his music never demonstrates the primacy of The Tune that Bach learned from Vivaldi, is the only one of the trio to display Vivaldi's exuberance.

Handel doesn't come into this discussion, because he learned about tunes, I suspect, later on in life, and from the English - certainly not from the composer he idolized as a young man, Arcangelo Corelli. That may be why I found the portion of Alexander's Feast (1736) that closed the concert...

Continue reading about the New York Collegium at Portico.

March 23, 2006

Karl Zéro

Wednesday is the day for refreshing the "Tune de la Semaine" feature of the Daily Blague (under the thumbnail to the right), but I didn't get round to it yesterday. I don't call attention to the Tunes as a rule, but I'm making an exception this week because I'm hoping that someone will tell me just who Karl Zéro is. His cheeky retro album, Songs for Cabriolets and Otros Tipos de Vehiculos is one of my favorites: beautifully produced but totally preposterous.

March 22, 2006


The other night, while Kathleen was having a long nap, I went surfing. I seem to spend most of my days surfing the Blogosphere, but at that moment on Sunday, I was very relaxed. Dinner was as good as made.

I opened the bookmark folder marked "AAA." The blogs linked from here are the ones that, at the moment, interest me - and the ones that I've already listed on my blog roster. Lots of sites look interesting but don't hold my attention, or lose it altogether with infrequent entries. It's much easier and less embarrassing to remove them from the privacy of the AAA folder than it is to delete them from the published roster.

Conversational Reading is a service blog that I don't know enough about yet to list it among the Utilities, but I check it often and usually get something out of what Scott Esposito has to say. On Sunday, I scrolled down to this very brief entry and bit. I read the piece about William H Gass's The Temple of Texts, and was convinced that this was a book that I'd have to read. I kept reading down the blog, taking time out to learn something about Michael Smith, the owner of CultureSpace. Eventually, I reached the entry about a cut from Herbie Hancock's Inventions and Dimensions (1963). Mr Smith heard the number at a record store and was immediately taken by it.

The tune that caught my ears was "Succotash"; it begins with a 6/8 melody that makes you feel as if you're standing on a precipice. The sense of abandon, especially in the song's structure, is the result of Hancock's eager, if somewhat conservative, foray into the jazz avant garde. He assembled the great bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Willie Bobo, and percussionist Osvaldo Martinez and told them they could play whatever they wanted within the very basic boundaries he set for each song, none of which, save one, were written beforehand. "I didn't tell Paul what chords to use," Hancock said of "Succotash" (in the original liner notes), "because I didn't know what they were to be myself. All he and the musicians knew was the time signature. The melody and the form of the piece developed spontaneously." Hancock employed this off-the-cuff approach to music after working with free-jazz experimentalist Eric Dolphy just a year before. And like the playing, listening itself becomes an exploratory experience. "There's no telling what's going to happen," Hancock said. "In music, all things are possible."

Several years ago, I was standing by the stereo at a cocktail party. Prominent among the litter of jewel boxes was a boxed set: Herbie Hancock: The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions. (It appears to be out of print.) Lust and ignorance convinced me that I must own this six-disc set, even though I only knew of only one of the albums therein collected, Maiden Voyage. One of Kathleen's LPs, and not one that I'd listened to much. But the Blue Note package was exactly what a magisterial jazz album would look like if such an article were wanted. I had to have it.

It was much more Hancock than I could chew. I listened to one of the discs in the set for a while and then put the set aside. It was never hidden away, and it often reproached me. In vain. Until Sunday.

It occurred to me that "Succotash" might be on Sixties Sessions, and indeed it is. It's the seventh of nine cuts on Disc 2. I prepared to stand on a precipice.

But instead, I wondered if I'd lost my left speaker. The racket coming out of it sounded somewhere between typing in another room and mashing up plastic wrap. It is produced by Mr Martinez's guiro. It was so novel that I really didn't pay much attention to the rest of the performance. I found the piece interesting, but not interesting enough to play again. I let the disc play on while I continued with FreeCell.

FreeCell is an ideal device for capturing interesting music, because it lets me continue to hear what's playinig without paying attention. Good hooks will reach out and recapture that attention. Somewhere in the middle of "Triangle," the eighth cut on Disc 2 of Sixties Sessions, my ears perked up enough to note that Mr Hancock was really rolling, displaying enormous and well-honed technique. "Triangle" comes in three parts, and the beat of the second and third parts obsessively highlights the piano virtuosity. Happily, I can play FreeCell without paying attention. "Triangle" mesmerized me.

And "Mimosa," the final cut on the disc, came through as a deluxe bonbon of Latin jazz, svelte and cut on the bias.

I was immensely grateful to Mr Smith for the prodding me to listen to this music, even though I assessed "Succotash" rather differently and even though I preferred the two following songs. And, for once, the narcissism of small differences wasn't working. I had no desire to say anything but "thank you" to Mr Smith. There was no pressure to launch a super-persuasive version of my response in an attempt to convert Mr Smith to my point of view. Was I really that relaxed?

Talking about the experience after dinner last night, I hit on what underlies my relaxation. The Blogosphere has begun to teach me that I don't have to fight to have certain discussions. I've known very few people, in person, who share my interests (I've known very few people, period), and the effort to turn a conversation in my direction used to be so much trouble that on the few occasions when I succeeded I'd be talking, by the time I had the floor, at full throttle, a boiler of self-assertion no matter how politely masked. I genuinely wanted to know what other people thought, but I was too worked up to listen, and any discord triggered debate. I still get worked up from time to time, but the occasions are becoming rarer. Blogging has taught me, I think, to listen. I don't have to fight to get interesting discussions going. I can listen in on others'.

Thank you, CultureSpace. 

March 21, 2006


For weeks, I've been listening to ancient recordings of Bach's Keyboard Concerti. They're not as old as I tend to think they are, but they completely antedate modern performance practices. And yet they sound great.

They were made in Vienna, in 1958 (the solo concerti) and 1964 (the multiples). I Solisti di Zagreb, led by Antonio Janigro, with Anton Heiller and others at the keys. How exotic that name sounds - "I Solisti di Zagreb." I can't tell if they're still going, because their site is in Croatian. I see that I have to do some research: were these Yugoslavian exiles working in Vienna, or did they travel to the West to make their recordings?

The recordings have a driven, dramatic quality that I like in this music. When the music's in the minor, I'm reminded of horror films. There was a time when I thought that the Concerto for Four Harpsichords in a, BWV 1065 would make the perfect score for a Dracula movie. (It's a transcription of the last concerto from Vivaldi's L'estro armonico.) There is a spooky quality that one doesn't ordinarily associate with Bach. Perhaps it's worth mentioning that I first heard these works at a time when harpsichords were beginning to be used by soundtrack composers.

I was crazy about harpsichords in those days, so much so that I built my own clavichord from a kit (harpsichord kits were too expensive). But I take the view nowadays that everyone from Bach to Mozart would have killed to play on Beethoven's Broadwood. Get this dinky tinkly thing out of here! Wanda Landowska, the pioneer of harpsichord revival, used to say, "You play Bach your way, and I'll play Bach his way." I think she's mistaken about what Bach's way would have been if he had been given the choice. The keyboard concerti, in any case, are the only works by Bach that I can bear to listen to on the harpsichord; conversely, I can't stand to hear them played on pianos. Clunk-eeee. But the piano is the only instrument for the solo keyboard music. I'd give anything to have Keith Jarrett's recording of the Goldberg Variations on a piano - if he would make it. (He has recorded the work on the harpsichord.) His piano recording of several of Handel's keyboard suites is, to my mind, the gold standard of Taste.

Ah, here's the movement that's playing when Michael Caine rams Barbara Hershey up against the record player, making a frightful scratch (Hannah and Her Sisters).

As I think I've mentioned elsewhere, MHS has made these recordings available

March 06, 2006

Cabaret at Café Sabarsky

Last Thursday night, at the Neue Galerie - just down the street, at 86th and Fifth - Kathleen and I were among the rapt listeners as baritone Thomas Meglioranza (hereinafter "Tom"), accompanied by Thomas Sauer, performed a program of songs that I didn't expect to like. Arnold Schoenberg - charming? John Cage - even bearable?

This was the second time in three weeks that Tom surprised me. His recital at Symphony Space featured a great deal of genuinely lyrical music. The beauty of Tom's voice, the strength of his commitment to the music, and the fact that I'd never heard any of it before combined to produce the illusion that the music was being born right before me - an illusion only strengthened the other night at Café Sabarsky by the absence of sheet music. Tom stood in the corner of Mrs Astor's dining room, the piano tucked behind him, and filled the space with truly glorious sound. For an evening of variations on a Weimar theme, it was an unbeatable setting.

The Schoenberg songs turned out to be saucy numbers that may have been written to help the composer secure a position in Berlin - at a cabaret. Unearthed in 1975, they were all totally tonal and, in comparison with Kurt Weill's music of the period, genuinely sweet. This sweetness was also on display in a few of the short Hans Eisler songs that Tom sang in a suite - souvenirs of an unhappy exile in Los Angeles. Marc Blitzstein, like Eisler a pupil of Schoenberg, was represented by songs both tender and rousing - including "The Cradle Will Rock." As for John Cage, the third Schoenberg student on the bill, Tom delighted us with a section of his very satirical Arioso. We got to see the score afterward: it looks like a children's book, with figures and colored lines here and there on each page, and no printed music. It is more of a suggestion than a score, and Tom had a lot of fun with it, screeching in a whispery falsetto and stamping his foot. It sounds ridiculous, but nothing that Tom does is ridiculous. He delivers his interpretation of Arioso with the deftness of a juggler.

Woven among the Schoenberg & Co were several delicious songs by William Bolcom, among them a wry piece entitled "At the Last Lousy Moments of Love." At the end, Tom delivered a wonderful number by Cole Porter that I'd never heard, about an oyster's foray into High Society. A propos of this amusing song, it seems fitting to mention that when he sings a high, sustained impassioned note, Tom sounds almost exactly like the late Bobby Short, which is marvelous.

It was clear throughout the performance, which lasted a little over an hour, that every detail had been carefully considered. Tom contrived to balance moods and tones in a way that kept our ears fresh for each rich offering. Actually, he did the contriving when he planned the program, not when he sang it.

Tom will repeat the program this Thursday night (9 March), and you'll thank me if you manage to go. The details can't be directly linked, but they'll be found under "Programs" at the Neue Galerie's site. Our dinner, preceding the cabaret, was prepared under the direction of Kurt Gutenbrunner, of Wallsé, and it was superb. The bottle of Zweigelt made a nice change, and the service was perfect. In short, an extraordinary night out.

February 17, 2006

Mahler Note

Although it's interfering with my writing, I'm listening to a new recording of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado and, for the final movement, soprano Renée Fleming. I still think of the Fourth as one of Mahler's two single-LP symphonies. the other being his first, the "Titan." As you can imagine - or perhaps you can't, because you're too young to remember LPs as a fact of life - the fact that these symphonies fit onto one LP meant that there were far more recordings of them in the old days than there were of the others. It also meant that they were far more often performed at concerts. Delightful as the Fourth is, it nonetheless carries the weight of having been done too often. The upshot of all this is that I'm never much inclined to play it, except when it's actually coming out of the speakers. Then I forget all about overexposure and just listen to it.

Mahler's first four symphonies are usually grouped together as the "Wunderhorn" symphonies, because they work out motifs that first appeared in Des Knaben Wunderhorn - The Youth's Magic Horn - a collection of folk poems that Mahler set to music between 1888 and 1896 (with later additions). Although the music is not at all naive, it breathes the memory of unsophisticated innocence. And because there was a time, in the bleak postgraduate years in Houston, when I-forget-whose recording of the Fourth Symphony was one of the few records that I owned, the music tends to take me back to a very different life.

My favorite Mahler symphony will probably always be the Third, just in case you're curious. At a slightly later point during the bleak time, I bought a recording of the Third by mistake, confusing it with the then much-better known Second. I didn't have the money to buy the Second, so I adopted the Third with a certain fierceness. The symphony's third movement is extraordinarily dear to me. I have a new recording of the Third, too, but it's about two years old. I'm slowly acquiring Riccardo Chailly's cycle, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Here, he is joined by mezzo-soprano Petra Lang, the Prague Philharmonic Choir, and the Netherlands Children's Choir.

February 13, 2006

Thomas Meglioranza at the Thalia


Last Thursday night, Thomas Meglioranza gave a recital at the Thalia at Symphony Space. When I got there, I wished I'd brought a camera, because Tom's name was running around in lights on the marquee ribbon. The recital, sponsored by the Concert Artists Guild together with Symphony Space, featured pianist Reiko Uchida and violinist Jessica Lee.

As the intriguing postcard announcing the recital made clear, the program would consist of works by living American composers. Not too long ago, it would have taken several earth movers to get me to show up for such an event. Most of the contemporary American music that I've heard is either jazz-inflected, which is agreeable but something of a cop-out, or blandly aimless and anodyne. On top of that, it is so often in English! Which, when it comes to full-throated singing, is a language that I grasp only with difficulty; German and Italian are so much more intelligible, even if I don't know what the words mean. But if I was happy to go to Tom's recital, it wasn't because I'd be doing him any favors by padding out the audience. I've learned, in the past year, that Tom Meglioranza is an exceptional singer with a very strong gift for performing (among other things!) music by living American composers.

What I didn't expect (aside from Tom's name in lights) was a brilliantly composed program. I don't mean that it was perfect. But it was built to grow, to cultivate over what I hope will be a long and fruitful career. I have never heard another singer (no, not even Dawn Upshaw) with Tom's ability to render art songs the respect that is their due while making them not only thoroughly approachable but really great to hear. You can check your sense of duty at the door and trust that Tom will entertain you. How does he do it? The short answer is that his commitment to the music is total. The beautiful voice, the skilful execution, the personal charm - these are all very well, and Tom has them in spades. But he believes in what he is singing. Perhaps it would be more helpful to say that his voice believes.

The program began with "The Pregnant Dream," by Aaron Jay Kernis, who also composed the last work on the program, "A Song on the End of the World." "The Pregnant Dream," which I'd heard Tom sing at the Naumburg competition last spring, sets a droll poem by May Swenson.

I had a dream in which I had a dream,

and in my dream I told you,

"Listen, I will tell you my dream,"

And I begin to tell you. And

you told me, "I haven't time to listen while you tell your dream."

Mr Kernis's setting turns the much-repeated word "dream" into a humorously maddening ostinato - humorous because, in the dream, the dreamer couldn't remember the dream. This a capella number hides its virtuosity with a smile, and it was the perfect opener to the recital that followed.

David Liptak's Under the Resurrection Palm is a set of three songs to verse by two poets, Linda Pastan and Rita Dove, for voice and violin. Unsupported by a piano, the voice sounds vulnerable next to the violin, and that suits the poetry very well. "The Bookstall," a bibliophile's fancy run loose, but finding a serene climax in the line, "every book its own receding horizon, was my favorite here. Next on the program - Ms Uchida, the gifted accompanist with whom Tom works when he can, made her first appearance here - was Russell Platt's The Muldoon Songs, setting four poems by Irish poet Paul Muldoon. Once again, I was treated to the second performance of something that I'd heard at the Naumburgs (the cycle's first song, "Cuba"). The Muldoon Songs and Into the Still Hollow, by John Rommereim - the music that followed - were the only items in the program that seemed ordinary to me. Mr Rommereim's setting of WS Merwin's poem is a set of seven linked monologues, delivered by archetypal characters ("King," "Scholar," and so on), each one ending in the Latin tag, "Et ecce nunc in pulvere dormio." I did not find enough distinction between these characters, and if it hadn't been for the Latin, I wouldn't have known where one stopped and the next began. But I suspect that I was alone here; the audience clearly liked both the Platt and the Rommereim.

After a brief pause. Tom sang a bitter song by Milton Babbitt, "The Widow's Lament in Springtime." Its text, by William Carlos Williams, compresses a widow's grief into an inability to delight in the blossoming of her beloved fruit trees. Love and death are not mentioned, making the sense of loss as stark as Mr Babbitt's music, which is sore beyond regret. Arresting on its own, "Lament" prepared the audience for The Plundered Heart, a set of two songs written by Jorge Martín and commissioned expressly for Tom. This was the dramatic high point of the evening. The poems, by JD McClatchy - "Fado" and "Pibroch" (Portuguese and Scottish folk forms, respectively) - follow the anguish of jealousy with the numbness of loss. The piano writing never shakes off the beating heart that constitutes the startling image of "Fado"; in "Pibroch," a low-throbbing pulse alternates with chords of Celtic placidity - a placidity that, having nothing to do with the sentiment of the text, powerfully underscores the lover's hopelessness. (It shouldn't work, but it does.) I was as wrapped up in all of this as I've ever been in any opera, and deeply shaken when it was over.

Derek Bermel's Nature Calls is a set of three delightful songs, to verse by Wendy S Walters, Sylvia Plath, and Naomi Shihab Nye. "Spider Love" is a wicked vamp on an ancient theme (don't say you weren't warned about romance). "Mushrooms" rather fearfully announces the conquest of the earth by stealth: "Our foot's in the door." The final song,  "Dog," is a barcarolle that compares the sky to the belly of a sleeping canine; it couldn't be gentler. Mr Bermel's vocal line was perhaps the most dynamic of any of the songs; it had something of the spunk of Ned Rorem's jauntier pieces.

Aaron Jay Kermis's "A Song on the End of the World," for voice, violin, and piano, sets a poem written by Czeslaw Milosz in 1944. A hauntingly arched phrase violin phrase brackets the song's decidedly unapocalyptic meditation on final things that, musically at least, has it two ways - beautiful music for an ominous proposition. It was the perfect formal close to the recital. As an encore, Tom sang Stephen Foster's "I Dream of Jeanie," to accompaniment written by Ned Rorem. Oh, what a difference Mr Rorem's accompaniment makes! Instead of the sugary chords and curlicues that nineteenth-century practice would dictate, the piano sets the voice free with a string of loose, wide-ranging arpeggios.

The recital absolutely at an end, all I could think of was a line from Wallace Stevens's "Credences of Summer":

                             This is the barrenness

Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.

The barrenness was in my ears; I could hear no more music that night.

January 27, 2006

Mozart 250

It's not only Mozart's birthday, it's Mozart's 250th birthday. Do you think they're going to remember yours?

Here's how we ought to say "Happy Birthday." No singing, just listening.

The composer himself, I am almost certain, would have been surprised that this is the piece by which I think we ought to remember him on this big day. It's the second movement of the String Trio, or Divertimento, in E-Flat, K 563, supposedly a party piece, but still the work that I put at the top of the list of Great Mozart Works. If listening isn't enough, you can always read.

January 25, 2006

Reissued Reissues

A small box arrived from The Musical Heritage Society, containing two CD albums of Bach, and I'm finding this extremely quaint. Extremely. My membership in the MHS can be divided between three distinct periods: three years of high school, about four years ca 1988, and since 2000. At all times, of course the MHS has been a redistributor of other labels' recordings; the difference between now and the 1960s is that now it reissues recordings that have already been released here on major labels. In the 1960s, it was the American (North American?) licensee for minor European labels.

Yesterday's arrivals add another layer. Both albums were recorded in Vienna by an undisclosed label and released in the United States on the Bach Guild label, which, while not quite premium in those days, was certainly not a budget line, either. The Bach Guild was targeted to the growing body of listeners, largely professional people I expect, who found in Bach an intellectual tonic and who preferred a lean, "original instruments" sound, preferably performed by a small chamber orchestra, to the lush arrangements by Leopold Stokowski and others that one encountered in the concert hall. There weren't many professional chamber orchestras in the United States in those days; there were plenty of academic and amateur groups, but they didn't travel. I remember the New York Pro Musica coming to Notre Dame - and I remember how exceptional that sort of thing was. Chamber orchestras would begin to appear in the Seventies. By then, the repertoire - Vivaldi through, say, KPhE Bach - had been made more or less familiar by imported recordings. The notable performances appeared on labels such as The Bach Guild, while people you never heard of played on LPs released to MHS subscribers. Now, today, 24 January 2006, I have on my desk two albums that, having been redistributed decades ago by the Bach Guild, have been reissued by the MHS.

Bach is the only composer to whose music I can listen when I work - if I can listen to anything at all. I can guess why this is so, but my surmises probably wouldn't make much sense to anyone who hadn't experienced the same thing. Almost everything that I can think of makes Bach sound trivial and very limited. In fact, Bach limits himself. Every piece - and it's worth noting that very few approach ten minutes in length, much less surpass it - sets a very specific goal, such as working out the possibilities of casting a given musical fragment in a certain canonical structure. (If you don't know what that means, just think "puzzle.") And that's that. There are no distractions and few surprises. Bach writes with a beautiful craftsmanship that accords with and soothes the working brain.

If Mozart makes you smarter (temporarily, by making paying attention more interesting than it usually is), Bach actually makes you think. 

The reissues in question are: Gustav Leonhardt's 1953 recording of the Goldberg Variations and a complete set of the keyboard concerti (single and multiple), played by I Solisti di Zagreb under (who else?) Antonio Janigro. Anton and Erna Heiller, Kurt Rapf and Christa Landon are the soloists. I haven't listened to the Leonhardt yet, but the concerti are clear and lively. 

January 11, 2006


What a grey day! The cupola of St Joseph's Church is damp-dark down to its waist, but no further, so the wet can't be very heavy. But the white glare of the fogged light is almost deathly. It looks as though the idea of a future, any future, has been retired. This is it.

News has reached us of Birgit Nilsson's death. Born in 1918, the singer had long since retired, but she remains a dear presence on recordings, and an even more lively one in the memory of our correspondent PPOQ, to whom she was and perhaps now more than ever is "The Goddess." By a curious circumstance, I was just listening to the sleepwalking scene from Verdi's Macbeth the other night. I wish that Nilsson had sung more Verdi. She sang German music with transcendental aplomb, but I never felt that she believed in it. Here she is as the guilt-haunted Lady, singing "Una macchia è qui tuttora."

January 09, 2006

Renée Fleming with the MET Orchestra

8 January 2006 Never have I seen the lobby of Carnegie Hall in such a tumult. At 2:45, there were people streaming through in almost alarming volume. The spacious pavement outside the doors was also packed. Lots of people were trying to buy tickets, which wasn't a surprise, because this year's MET Orchestra series was going to feature soprano Renée Fleming. But the sheer crowdedness was unnerving. Happily, there weren't quite so many people pushing through the doors when Ms NOLA (taking Kathleen's place yesterday afternoon) arrived at last.

I still can't explain the excitement. I'll have to think about it for a while.

It was, as these things always are, a curious program. It sort of made sense if you squinted and looked at it sideways, but that was the printed program. The music itself...

Continue reading about Renée Fleming and the MET Orchestra at Portico.

January 06, 2006

Proverbs 4:7

There's nothing like a pleasant surprise, and I had one yesterday when I found, in my mailbox, a small package bearing baritone Tom Meglioranza's return address. Now, Tom and I had had an exchange of email during the day, but there had been no mention of this! Inside the envelope was a card and a CD.

The CD is entitled Because: Choral Music by Mark Zuckerman, performed by The Goldene Keyt Singers. Tom's card explained that it was recorded a few years ago, as a demonstration of Mr Zuckerman's work. Instead of rounding up a chorus, he hired four singers and gave them plenty of time to rehearse. What he got was not your ordinary demo but a highly finished product. Soprano Mary Ellen Callahan, alto Hsi-Ling Chang, and tenor Michael Steinberger join Tom in a capella performances of Mr Zuckerman's intricate music. I've got permission to make it possible for you to hear one or two of the cuts, and I've chosen "Reyshit Khakhmah" for starters. This is the final number of Proverbs for Four at Fifty, a suite of Biblical settings in Hebrew. Turn to Proverbs 4:7 for the text. The setting is joyous and even playful, as the acquisition of wisdom ought to be. I'll bet you can't listen to it just once.

In the event, a dandy birthday present.

December 17, 2005

The Village Vanguard

Last night, Kathleen and I got to do something new: we went to the Village Vanguard. We'd never been! We've been to the Blue Note often enough, but never to its venerable downtown rival. It turned out that, all unknowing, we'd been playing Jack Sprat with Miss G. She sounds an habitué of the Vanguard, but has never been to the Blue Note. We'll have to take her there soon, now that she has taken us to the Vanguard.

The Blue Note is basically a storefront operation with a stage in the back - only it's not placed where a stage ought to be. It ought to have its back to the rear wall, but it doesn't; instead, the stage backs on to the rear end of one of the long west wall. It's an odd configuration, and because the tables are set perpendicular to the stage, getting yourself into a good position to see the musicians while watching them is tricky. It's very easy to be much too close or much too far. The Vanguard, in contrast, is an agreeably fan-shaped room, and although all the banquette seats face the middle of the room, and not the stage, the end result, when everybody's seated, is that of an irregular auditorium. I don't know what it's like in the back, but I don't think that sitting too close is a problem.

Pianist Cedar Walton led a trio, with David Williams on the bass and Lewis Nash on the drums, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove appeared as a "special guest." All the musicians were new to me, but they were all gifted pros who knew their way blindfolded through the labyrinths of coherent improvisation. Mr Walton sounded a bit like Keith Jarrett at the start, but with his second number, a commemoration of his mother, he pursued Ellingtonian leads. In short, he is a versatile virtuoso. Mr Williams seemed to have more to say than there were bars to say it in, and he even contrived to command a virtual solo even though Mr Walton and Mr Nash were playing at the time. Mr Nash is a young but masterful drummer, and his big solo, when it finally came, brought down the house.

Roy Hargrove, who warmed up with "The Very Thought of You" on the flugelhorn, and who gradually convinced the audience to wait until he was finished with his beautifully dynamic closes before applauding, is a minimalist who likes to keep his solos short and to the point and then to sit on the sidelines. Such self-effacement is not common among trumpeters (or so Miss G assured us). His warm tone could be bright and snappy when called for, but his musicianship is touched by a sacred beauty that certainly made me want to hear more. As indeed I shall, Tower willing.

The most interesting note of the evening was struck by Miss G herself. She seemed genuinely surprised that Kathleen and I would have a great time listening to great jazz. I don't think that Miss G understands that, as she said at breakfast this morning, Kathleen likes nothing so much as to sit in a small room while people play jazz. I wish we had more time. But one things for certain: Miss G, Kathleen and I have hit upon something that we all like to do.

December 11, 2005

Souvenir of Tristan und Isolde

Here it is, the middle of Sunday afternoon, and I haven't even begun to write my Book Review review. I'm still shaking the music out of my ears. Yesterday's round of housecleaning was accompanied by a recording of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde that I didn't know well. On it, Daniel Barneboim leads the Berlin Philharmonic, with Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier in the title roles. The recording was made in 1994, when Mr Jerusalem could still sing the part. Ms Meier is still singing Isolde, and as far as I'm concerned she owns the role. When she and Mr Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra took part in a concert performance in Carnegie Hall a few years ago, I was blasted off to a new plane of music appreciation. If I hadn't listened to the Barenboim recording, it was because I preferred to watch the DVD from Munich (in a regrettably whimsical staging by Peter Konwitschny), with Jon Fredric West, Kurt Moll, and Marjana Lipovšek. Ms Lipovšek, another favorite voice, also appears on the Teldec CD.

I heard all sorts of things that I'd never heard before. Such as the hurricane of violas behind Isolde's mounting ecstasy in the first scene of Act II,

Die im Busen mir die Glut entfacht,

die mir das Herze brennen macht,

die mir als Tag der Seele lacht...

And I kept hearing Rufus Wainwright's "Memphis Skyline," the scoring of which now strikes me as patently adapted from this opera.

Ordinarily, I write up the operas that I listen to on Saturday afternoons as operas, at Good For You, and not as experiences, as I'm doing here, but Tristan still overpowers my critical faculties. It remains the most surprising work of art in Western history, almost unimaginable before its creation and still mighty startling. The better I know it, the less I understand it; the more simply miraculous it becomes. Richard Wagner seems so unlikely a character to have created Tristan that I am tempted to attribute it to divine intervention. It is both the supreme product of its age and the antidote to its repressions. As a work for the stage, it is hieratic rather than dramatic; all the excitement has been sealed into the score, which thrills as it unwinds no matter what's going on onstage. Even more than the great Ring cycle, Tristan has the force and heft and even the menace of myth.

I haven't yet figured out how to make Tristan und Isolde sound appealing and accessible to the uninitiated. From the outside, it is long and dark. The action is glacial. The singers sound melancholy, distressed, or angry - never was an opera so free of genuine good humor. Why on earth, you might ask, spend time in such depressing company? And I think that the opera will strike most listeners as depressing at first. It takes a while to sense that, just beyond the brown scrim of "opera," Wagner has seized every romantic yearning ever conceived, drained it of all thoughtlessness and frivolity, and fused it into a shimmering, iridescent rainbow that from time to time bursts open, like a cosmic nova, in a sublime ecstasy that has nothing to do with potions and lovers and everything to do with concentrated musical pleasure. 

December 08, 2005

Orpheus at Carnegie

3 December 2005: The principal work on this Saturday-night program was Bach's Magnificat, BWV 243. In many ways the ideal introduction to Bach's choral music, the Magnificat combines the festive, trumpet-brightened tone of the Christmas music, the urgency of the Passions, and the instrumental delights of the larger cantatas in a chorale-free setting of the Latin text. The more you get to know of Bach, the more you'll find that the Magnificat hits all the bases.

The words of this prayer are taken from Luke 1:47-55. I've always associated it with the Annunciation scene, but in fact it is Mary's response to her cousin Elizabeth's rejoicing. Bach treats every line of Scripture (except for the first two, which he breaks into four) as a separate number, and tacks the liturgical "Gloria" onto the end. The twelve-movement result takes slightly less than a half-hour to perform. (Listen!)

Orpheus was joined by the Bach Choir of New York, a body drawn from the Choir of St Ignatius Loyola, under the direction of Kent Tritle. The evening's soloists, in turn, were drawn from the choir.

Continue reading about Orpheus at Carnegie at Portico.

December 07, 2005

Man Overboard!

Oh dearie. Something went terribly wrong at a recent performance of Messiah. You can hear it coming, even if you don't realize it; perhaps you'll think that there's other music playing in the house somewhere. I'd been listening to a CD, which I kept pausing for no reason. Pop quiz: what instrument misfires in this quote? (Thanks, Felsenmusik)

December 06, 2005

The Music of my private Bon Voyage

One of the things that makes Jean-Paul Rappeneau's Bon Voyage a huge favorite of mine is that, while Virginie Ledoyen plays the woman of whom I want to be worthy - and happily, in the form of my dear Kathleen, I am married to her - Isabelle Adjani plays the woman whom I want to take advantage of me. I've been lucky enough to have Adjani types exploit me once or twice; the compensation is knowing that they don't take advantage of "just anybody."

But there is the setting, too: that awful spring and summer of 1940, when, fortunately for everybody, Americans were faced with two presidential candidates who pledged war against the fascist menace. Well, one finds one's silver lining where one can. Bon Voyage reminds us that 1940 would have been a high point in French life if it hadn't been for the Germans; never has style so completely inflected high popular culture. That's made beautifully clear in the film's opening scene, as a posh audience in a grand theatre watches the finale of a farce and applauds at the end. The lights go up, and everything is glamor, chic. Even Gérard Depardieu is polished and debonair! And I hear music. It is, however, not music on the sound track. It is Jacque Ibert's Ouverture de fête. (Give this huge file a moment to load.)

The sound track of Bon Voyage is terrific. Gabriel Yared has written an exceptionally fine two-part score, one part for the tense parts and one for the lyric. But it remains, however unobtrusively,music of today. When I listen to the Ibert, it reminds me of everything in Bon Voyage. The crowds milling about the hotel in Bordeaux, the fun and irresponsibility of Vivian Denvers's escapades. the importance of safeguarding the professor's heavy-water bottles, the heartbeats of the hero's divided affections, and the knowledge, finally, that France will come out all right - the impudent belief that failing in high style is not failure. Puritans will have none of this, I know, but I am no puritan.

No puritan could possibly like the gloriously bluesy theme that punctures the carefully if exuberantly crafted crescendo at - miracle of technology - two minutes and fifty-two seconds (2:52) into the Ouverture. Although obviously inspired by American jazz, it has a French polish and peculiarity that makes it altogether new. This is precisely what was tops about French art in the late Thirties, a taste for enjambing low-life onto the high- that still seems sound. It is somehow, at the same time, chrome and sterling.

Five minutes into the overture, a sort of melancholy seems to take over, but the appearance is deceiving, a strategy for new triumph. But note, at 6:23, the American tonality - this could, for a moment, be Ives, or, more easily, Copland. What if I told you that this overture was commissioned by the imperial Japanese court. to mark some utterly incredibly polymillennial anniversary? Events, shall we say, intervened, and the work never did become the "Japanese Overture" that it would have become without war. Of course, there's nothing remotely Japanese about it. Except, just maybe, a very high style.

In the ninth minute, this reflective part begins to gird its loins for an assault on the summit. At 11:12, the foundations of triumph begin to be laid. At 12:22, the blues theme announces victory. A few minutes later, the Ouverture ends with the kind of racket that marks V-Days. Everything elides. And I feel that I've just watched Bon Voyage again. The real Bon Voyage.


November 21, 2005

Marie-Claire Alain at Holy Trinity

Thursday night, I walked a couple of blocks to Holy Trinity Church, the bold quasi-Gothic spire of which is part of the view from the window to my right. In 1987, the church inaugurated a new Rieger pipe organ, situated at ground level in the right transept, with a console visible to about half the nave and all of the left transept. Being able to see the organist makes organ recitals a good deal more interesting, if less mystical.

And what I learned, or figured out, or finally realized, on Thursday night, was that you can be a petite ginger-haired septuagenarian and make the instrument roar without breaking a sweat. I have never seen so relaxed a performing musician as Dr Alain. Her hands played with the same feathery motions regardless of the sounds they were called upon to produce. A similarly disengaged-seeming pianist would probably be hospitalized for observation.

I must confess to the surprise of discovering that Dr Alain is still alive, much less ...

Continue reading about Marie-Claire Alain at Portico.

November 16, 2005

Tune de la semaine

Let's hope that there are few instances of a singer gifted with a voice as beautiful as Bing Crosby's yet as prone to sing rubbish! For all of his hit recordings, Crosby sang very few songs from the American Standards canon, and most of what he did sing he alone sang. Every once in a while, thank heaven, he bumps into something that shows off his voice so well that you don't really assess the song. "Goodnight, Lovely Little Lady," from the 1934 film, We're Not Dressing.

(See right)

November 14, 2005

The New York Collegium at St Vincent Ferrer

The Church of St Vincent Ferrer is a beautiful venue for evening concerts. Shadows cast by stone tracery draw the imagination into an idle play that doesn't distract from the music. But it is important to remember to bring some sort of cushion to sit on. The pews are excessively Benedictine.

Last Friday night, the Collegium presented some very familiar music in relatively unfamiliar terms. Four of Bach's six Brandenburg Concerti were played, along with ...

Continue reading about The New York Collegium at Portico.

October 25, 2005

Explication de texte

Even if your grasp of musicology is slim, even if you can't read music, take a a few minutes to read concert pianist Jeremy Denk's exploration, at Think Denk, of "Memphis Skyline," a song from Rufus Wainwright's Want Two. I don't know the album very well (yet), but I have certainly gotten to know "Memphis Skyline" a lot better in the past twenty-four hours. Mr Denk renews my faith in serious writing about music: while it never reproduces the magic, it shows you where to look.


Friday night's Parthenia recital brought a clutch of firsts: Parthenia itself, the ensemble of viole da gamba; Corpus Christi Church - the most New Englandy Catholic church that I've ever set foot in; lutenist Andy Rutherford; the music of Tobias Hume (1569-1645); and, not least, the sound of baritone Thomas Meglioranza's speaking voice. Overcoming my ingrained reluctance to horn in on performers after concerts, I stood at the edge of a small crowd until Tom directed his attention at me. We shook hands. "Hi, Tom, I'm RJ," said I. "I know," said he. Now I can say that I have met a fellow blogger.

So much for "disinterested observer" status.

Tobias Hume, as you can see from his dates, might be considered Elizabethan, but I root him in the seventeenth century. He published two books of music, in 1605 and 1607, in furtherance of his enthusiasm for the viola da gamba. This instrument, which at first glance resembles a miniature cello, is also played upright, but its base is nestled between the players thighs. There are three registers: treble, tenor, and bass. The instrument's sound is warm and not quite as focused as that of a modern stringed instrument. Perhaps because of its deep chest, the viola da gamba not only looks like a little cello but sound like one, too. It does not sound like the instrument that Ms G used to play.

Continue reading about Parthenia at Portico.

October 05, 2005

Gabrieli at St Bart's


St Bartholomew's Church is a jewel of midtown-Manhattan architecture, providing a vibrant counterpoint to a neighborhood of modern towers. It makes no assault on height, but rather sits in the squat manner of the Byzantine churches upon which it is modeled. Because San Marco in Venice is also a Byzantine church, I thought that St Bart's would make a perfect venue for the music of Giovanni Gabrieli (1554-1612), even more than Vivaldi the composer of Venetian music.

Well, I thought wrong. Or maybe it was the vulgarity of my ideas about Gabrieli that needed adjustment. Reading the notes confirms that the concert was designed to counter received unwisdom, which, come to think of it, is what Andrew Parrott is famous for doing. Jeffrey Nussbaum writes in the program,

However, Giovanni Gabrieli did not write his music for trumpets, horns and tuba, and the modern sensibilities of many brass ensembles can leave the listener with an inaccurate idea of his music.

That's what must have happened to me. When I was in college, Gabrieli was the composer par excellence of densely majestic fanfares that showed off stereo systems to great effect. Each of his canzoni appeared to be written for two mighty brass choirs, to be performed from opposite balconies high above the ground floor, and to be played with a highly competitive swagger. No, WE can play this louder than YOU can! It was rousing stuff, and we were having none of that last Friday at the opening concert of the New York Collegium season.

The building itself worked against the music's power, literally. Played in the chancel, in a sort of rainbow arc, the music blew up into the dome and, for the most part, stayed there, producing an underwhelming tone and giving the tricky trombone parts - er, sackbuts - a sound that one neighbor called "tentative." (My hunch is that the right church for this kind of music is...

Continue reading about Gabrieli at St Barts at Portico.

September 29, 2005

Rufus Wainwright at Satalla


I discovered Rufus Wainwright on a compilation that Ms NOLA burned for me earlier this year. I was listening to it while surfing the Blogosphere, and everything sounded okay until I was quite suddenly gripped. And I was even more gripped by the song that followed. Somehow none of text information had made it onto the disc, so I had to wait for Ms NOLA could tell me that the songs that I'd fallen so hard for were "Oh What A World" and "I Don't Know What It Is," from Mr Wainwright's CD Want One.  

At the beginning of the summer, I put Want One and Want Two away. Not literally; I just needed some time away from the overwhelming phenomenon of Rufus Wainwright. I didn't know which to fear more, intoxication or overexposure. And I had two problems. The first was his flamboyance. I couldn't decide how to take this. If it was just gay spectacle, I would inevitably tire of it and wind up embarrassed by my poor taste. The second problem was his eccentric enunciation. Most of his songs turn out to be incomprehensible to me until I've seen the lyrics in print. On the hunch that, after a sufficient break, these questions would be cleared up the moment I heard Mr Wainwright's work again, I gave it a rest.

The hunch turned out to be correct. The next time that I heard Rufus Wainwright was last Saturday night, and I was in the same room, along with a few hundred other New Yorker Festival goers, at the world-music club Satalla, near Madison Square Park. With his song, "The Art Teacher," he convinced me that his flamboyance is far more musical than sexual (if that makes any sense), and that his decadent way with words is not a problem, because his voice is pure gold.

Maybe I was helped along to these conclusions by the conversation that Mr Wainwright had with Andy Young before he moved to the piano. The event had been billed as a "conversation," coyly offering no assurance that music would be played, and I was prepared not to be disappointed if it wasn't. (Of course, I knew from the moment that I walked into the club and saw the piano that there would be music. And now I would know to anticipate it just on the strength of the artist's zest for performing.) The topic that kept coming up, again and again, in the interview and in the Q&A alike was - opera. I was ready for this, having read a recent Anthony Tommasini story about Mr Wainwright in the Times. Mr Tommasini does not write about popular music. The point of his piece was to report that Rufus Wainwright not only loves opera but knows about it. I'd had an earlier tip from the DVD, Rufus Wainwright Live at the Fillmore, a fantastic freebie thrown in to the Want Two jewel box. How does this open? With, of all things, "Absence," the third of Hector Berlioz's six songs, Les nuits d'été. It is likely that most of the audience at the Fillmore took "Absence" to be a Wainwright composition, larkily tossed off in French. There was not a touch of "classical" in the performance, but unlike other refittings of classical music for popular venues, this one was utterly true to the spirit of the original. I was breathtaken.

"Opera needs me," Mr Wainwright said more than once on Saturday night. We'll see. The possibility of operatic innovation seems as immured in stone as Excalibur, and in "Gay Messiah," the singer proposes himself as John the Baptist, not Arthur. But there is something about his great big voice and his great big "temperament" that bodes well for something both new and satisfying. (Country music might also in danger of upheaval; Mr Wainwright scampishly observed that it's in need of "gay dust." For my part, I think that a new opera is more likely.) To tell the truth, Rufus Wainwright is a "popular" singer only insofar as he makes use of pop instruments and pop tropes. His compositional rigor, his eagerness to bend forms to suit his material, and his fearless commentary are all more characteristic of composers like Philip Glass than they are of Mr Wainwright's great admirer, Elton John. I ought to add that his senses of harmony and melodic invention are like no one else's. That can also be said of Elvis Costello, but I think that Rufus Wainwright is more powerfully drawn to that suspect article, beauty. So am I.

Rufus Wainwright is a very handsome young and talented gay man who, thanks, perhaps, to all of that, combined with some family history, has already been through a couple of personal hells. There is no denying a muted but persistent bitterness in his work, although it is more a flavor than an emotion. For the time being, he carries himself with a reckless swagger that seems to invite catastrophe - but the act is so finished that it's more ironic than worrisome. He is a great entertainer who may someday become a real legend, simply for having survived. If he hasn't done so already, I hope that he finds a nice boyfriend who will take good care of him. Rufus Wainwright is dangerously gifted.  

Cleaning out my bag on Monday, I came across the flier that was handed out as we trooped into Satalla. And acted on it pronto. The best seats available by the time I interacted with an excluvely robotic Ticketmaster were in Row P. I grabbed.

September 02, 2005

You Could Say That He Made An Impression

Having learned of a CD that contained a recording of "Nachthelle," possibly my favorite piece of choral music, I ordered the Hyperion album entitled An 1826 Schubertiad. The first cut on the CD is "Der Einsame" ("The Solitary"), which, despite its shall-we-say introspective title, is all about crickets, and, but for one isolated outburst, quite jolly. I pricked my ears at the piano introduction, and the moment the singing began, I saw baritone Thomas Meglioranza singing it.

At Tomness, Mr Meglioranza has written about a favorite Schubert song that I didn't happen to know, and I wondered if "Der Einsame" was the one. So I wrote to Tom and asked. And Tom was kind enough to remind me that I have seen him singing it, at the Naumburg competition last spring. (Because there were no programs, my recollection of the competition is somewhat inarticulate.)

You could say that Tom made an impression.

The song that Tom was talking about that I didn't think I knew is "Das Lied im Grünen" ("The Song in the Verdure"). A bit of Googling showed me that I not only know the song but love it. I've got the old Elisabeth Schwarzkopf-Edwin Fischer recording, once part of a precious and unavailable LP. I see now the error of going on a Winterreise diet for six years. Winterreise (Travels in Winter) got me through a terrible time in 1999, by sublimating a daily output of anxiety into great beauty and not trying to cheer me up. But there's more to Schubert than Winterreise, and I've lost track of a lot of beautiful songs. 

An 1826 Schubertiad is an album that I've lived without since it was released in 1996 but that I'll nonetheless pronounce "indispensable." Soloists Christine Schäfer, John Mark Ainslie, and Richard Jackson are joined by the London Schubert Chorale under Stephen Layton. Graham Johnson, the mastermind of Hyperion's "Complete Songs of Schubert" program, plays the piano.

July 22, 2005

Tom on Marlboro

Baritone Thomas Meglioranza is back at Marlboro for the summer, and he has just posted an eloquent entry that captures what I have always thought the Marlboro Music Festival to be like, and what makes it so special. Let the masses descend upon Tanglewood. At Tomness.

July 13, 2005

Dave Brubeck and John Pizzarelli at Carnegie Hall

As noted at the time, I thought I would wait to write up the JVC Jazz Festival 2005 Dave Brubeck/John Pizzarelli at Carnegie Hall ON 24 June until I'd had a chance to listen to related CDs. There were, after all, no programs, and I'm not enough of a journalist to write down announcements from the stage. The CDs were in my hands within days, and I lost no time playing Mr Pizzarelli's, Knowing You, and not just to hear him sing "Quality Time" with his wife, Jessica Molaskey - possibly the high moment of the concert for me, not least because Ms Molaskey is a knockout. But I took my time about listening to Mr Brubeck's London Sharp, London Flat, and now that I'm listening to it, the title song is the only one that sounds familiar.

Continue reading about Jazz at Carnegie at Portico.

July 12, 2005

Frances Langford

Frances Langford died yesterday at the age of ninety-two. If know who Frances Langford is, you're seriously into old pop culture. Ms Langford, a Floridian, was a vaudeville singer who made it big, trouping with Bob Hope during the war and pairing with Don Ameche for The Bickersons, a popular radio show whose title conveys an idea of its tone. She appeared on an episode of The Honeymooners, improbably dressed to the nines - I seem to recall a mink stole. And she appeared quite gloriously, alongside Eleanor Powell, Una Merkel, and Virginia Bruce, in Born To Dance (1936). Did I forget Jimmy Stewart?

According to the obituary, Ms Langford's second husband was Ralph Evinrude - yes, that Evinrude - and after their marriage she became more interested in boats that in singing. But she did have a great voice. Here's a novelty number that I suspect was actually recorded in Hawai'i - sounds like Alfred Apaka in the background. Listen to In Waikiki

June 25, 2005

Jazz at Carnegie

JVCJazz 001.jpg

The JVC Jazz Festival Concert at Carnegie Hall last night was a terrific blast. In the first half, Dave Brubeck led his quartet of snowy-haired musicians through a playlist that showed off a very broad repertoire of styles and moods. In the second half, the John Pizzarelli Quartet was assisted by a number of Mr P's friends, including his wife, the singer Jessica Molaskey. (Mr and Mrs P sang a very funny duet about a professional couple too busy with their resume building to have much quality time together. What I call the "default ringtone" figured in a piano riff in the middle of the number.) I am not going to write about the concert, however, until the CDs arrive, because there wasn't much information in the program.

I couldn't believe our good luck. It turned out that Mr Nerb knows someone at JVC - someone well-fixed enough to hand out four tickets in the fifth row, and on the aisle at that. That was just for starters. The evening was a flying carpet of exactly the kind of jazz that I like, built on standards or, in Mr Brubeck's case, on tunes that sound like standards but aren't. Entertaining as he is - and that would be very entertaining; Mr Pizzarelli carries around an inner stand-up comic that isn't entirely repressed - Mr Pizzarelli is running a preservation outfit to which the entire history of jazz is accessible.

All the musicians (with the exception of one guest) wore jackets and ties - suits, as a rule. This did not seem to keep them from physically losing themselves in their performances. Pizzarelli guest Grover Kemble, a genuine card, accompanied his scat singing with a two-step that suggested both of the great interwar dances, the Charleston and the Lindy.

June 17, 2005

The Naumburg Competition

The other night, I did something new. I attended a vocal competition. Anywhere else, perhaps, such an event might be more trial than pleasure, but the prestige of the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation International Vocal Competition in Concert Repertoire - not an annual event - draws very capable contestants. Aspirants submit audition CDs, and from these, this year, forty-odd were chosen. In two previous rounds, all but four singers were eliminated. These four were the finalists who sang at Alice Tully Hall on Wednesday night. The singing was excellent throughout, and even the accompanists were remarkable - I thought of them rather as pianists. More on that later. The event itself was curious.

Continue reading about the Naumburg Competition at Portico.

June 07, 2005

"Dancing The Night Away"

Joe Jervis has embarked on a series of posting disco numbers he regards as hits of the gay disco scene of the Seventies and Eighties. I listened to his first offering, Vogue's "Dancing The Night Away," which I'd never heard before, and thought that it was kind of sweet. Much, much sunnier and better-natured than most disco, and with a surprisingly relaxed tempo. While the song was playing, I thought I'd see if I could figure out how to download it, and it took nearly six minutes to do this. Then I had to check and see that the MP3 file would really play on my machine. When the song was over the second time, I got back to work. But I left the Music Match window open.

Hours later, I revisited the open window and clicked on the title, which, aside from a ghastly promo from Music Match that I got rid of right away, was the only title there. I must have been taking a little break, because I played FreeCell while the song played. Multitasking heaven: I hear pop music so much more intensely when I'm playing FreeCell. (There's a "Mozart Makes You Smarter" angle here somewhere.) I don't know how many games of FreeCell I played, nor how many times I repeated "Dancing The Night Away," but presently I became aware of a desire not to be doing anything else, ever.

Well, it's no surprise that Joe would start off with music as good-natured and generous as he is. But probably not quite as gay. I think Kathleen will really like it. Although not if this new addiction keeps me from broiling the lamb chops.

Kinky Update: It just occurred to me that these girls sound like Nicole Kidman. Presto: I can see the video, with Nicole singing right to me. I am eighteen. Jeeze.

May 30, 2005

Musical Meme

Another "meme." I'm wondering why these chain questionnaires are named after the interesting word (invented by Richard Dawkins) that denotes the essence of an idea. But we'll let that pass. I just did one of these last week, thanks to Booklust. This time, it's Mezzogregory of Counter.Point 2.0. It's about music.

Total volume of music on your computer? So far as I know, zero. Nada. I will doubtless come to mark my transition from middle-aged boomer to genuinely old man as the moment that I realized that I had no desire to own an iPod. None whatever. As it happens, today's personal music devices are so constructed that you cannot hear the quiet passages of classical music while walking on Manhattan's sidewalks. My taste is not limited to classical music, but it's centered on it, so that's a problem. Suddenly I realized that my passion for carrying a Walkman had vanished. I made a lot of MiniDiscs, and I still think that they're the way to go, but I no longer play them much. I listen to a great deal less music than I used to, largely because I'm writing so much more, and when I'm writing, I'm straining to hear a different kind of music.

There is no reason on earth for me to listen to music via my computer. If I hear something really catchy, such as the "Numa Numa" song, I order a copy from Amazon. 

The Last CD you bought? According to Tower Records, I have three CDs on order. Two are rather aged recordings of operas. I used to have the Konwitschny recording of Tannhäuser on LP; it was the first Wagner opera that I got to know. I never owned the Schippers recording of Ernani, and would be much happier with the Muti recording, but that's no longer available. I'm also expected a recent album by Christine McVie, always my favorite Fleetwood Mac.
The last CDs that I bought in the store were by the Amadeus Quartet (Mozart's quintets), The Lindsays (Beethoven's Op. 18 No. 6 and the very underplayed Quintet, Op. 29), and Music from Marlboro (the Schubert quintet, which unlike all the other calls for two cellos, and only one viola).

Song Currently Playing? See above: nothing is playing. But there's a Jean Sablon disc in the Sony Dream Machine next to the printer. The Dream Machine is one of the dumbest things I ever bought, but I fell in love with it in a Chicago hotel room and had to have my very own. I play things on it to feel young; compared with all the sophisticated speakers in this apartment (not that sophisticated, really), it sounds like a transistor radio. 

Now for the hard part: Five songs that I listen to a lot or that mean a lot to me. It is almost impossible not to throw up my hands. I shall take the question very literally and answer in terms of the American Song Book.

1. Stardust. The recording of choice is an instrumental by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, recorded at the very first college jazz concert at Oberlin in 1953. Kathleen and I quite often dance to this number in the foyer. Mr Brubeck and saxophonist Paul Desmond are unbelievably lyrical here, and the andante tempo is perfect.

2. Say It Isn't So. Sung by Bobby Short on Moments Like This. The title song is also very dear to me. The album stands apart from Short's other recordings because he has a lush orchestra behind him, playing arrangements by Dick Hazard. But "Say It Isn't So" captures the singer's unsurpassable command of utter heartbreak.

3. Find Me A Primitive Man. Sung by Lee Wiley. There is a lot of mystery about how I came to know Lee Wiley's voice. I thought that my late uncle gave me the record, Lee Wiley Sings George Gershwin and Cole Porter, but he would never admit to knowing who the singer was. I suspect that the recycling of gifts is at the heart of the matter. The song that I've chosen shows off Wiley's voice to perfection. It is of course a very naughty number, written by a gay composer. "I don't mean a man who belongs to a club but a man who has a club that belongs to him." But Wiley makes it a very creditable woman's plaint.

4. Dancing in the Dark. Sung by (a) Diana Krall, over Claus Ogerman's fabulous chart, on The Look of Love, and (b), as "Le Bal des adieux," by Julien Clerc, in a suspiciously similar and only slightly less fabulous arrangement by Benjamin Biday, on Studio. On our first day in Paris, whenever, Kathleen and I always assuage the jet lag with a trip to the Galeries Lafayette. Last time, in 1993, we went down to the basement and looked at CDs. Studio had just come out, and I couldn't believe it: a lineup of some of the best songs in the ASB performed by my favorite French pop star. It immediately became our "We'll always have Paris" CD.

5. April in Paris, sung by (a) Sarah Vaughan on her first LP, Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown, and (b) by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on their incomparable collaboration. Ella & Louis. And played by Count Basie on the album of the same name. Ideally, to hear all three in a row.

Five people to whom I'm passing the baton? Lordy, does it have to be five? Nobody picked up my "Black Star" batons - probably because I didn't write to notify them of their good luck. This time, I'll just hand them out to the first five people who ask.

April 18, 2005

Vivaldi at St Vincent Ferrer

When we hear Vivaldi's church music, we're inclined to visualize San Marco, having been directed to do so by countless record jackets and jewel box brochures. But Vivaldi was far from a fixture at the Basilica. His principal professional attachment was to the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four Venetian foundling homes. The Pietà was a home for girls, and although all four institutions raised money through concerts performed by the inmates, the Pietà was the jewel of this crown, a must-see on every grand tour. The instrumentalists, who performed behind a grille, were virtuosos, and there were many fine singers, too. But there were no men in the chorus at the Pietà, and Robert Mealy, violinist and commentator of the New York Collegium, advances the opinion of some scholars that

the women simply sang the bass and perhaps tenor parts transposed up an octave. The occasional difficulties of part-writing would be concealed by the instrumental bass-line, which plays the written pitch. If this was so, Vivaldi may have used conventional four-part notation for his choral writing in hopes that these pieces would eventually be performed outside the Pietà.

Accordingly, a concert billed as "Vivaldi at the Pietà was a concert at which the composer's celebrated Gloria, RV 589, was sung exclusively by women. It was ravishing. The Gloria was one of the first things I sang in glee club, and I found the tenor part very taxing. On recordings, it seems strangely pronounced, and not just because I know how it goes. Sung by the second sopranos, however, it melted right into the fabric.

Continue reading about the New York Collegium at Portico.

April 12, 2005

Barbara Bonney at Orpheus

If I say that Saturday night's was not one of the great evenings at Orpheus, that's only to show that I have a sense of degrees. By any standard, it was a very fine concert, worthy and interesting, and, at the end, huge fun. The dampers are two: first, the ensemble failed to ignite during Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A, K. 201. It may be that the symphony lacks combustible material, and it may be that I was inattentive, but moments of ignition with Orpheus are invariable signaled by a strange effect among the violins: their bows all appear to be pointing to the same pole. The symphony's charms, however, were all well polished and on view. The symphony dates from the period of the violin concertos, and has the same warm blush, but here, without a soloist to stand behind, Mozart pushes the four non-stringed instruments - two oboes and two horns - occasionally to the front. I used to sniff at these, at the time to me, non symphonies because they lacked all the color of Mozart's mature orchestra, and only the oboes distinguished them from the horn-backed serenades and divertimenti. I've outgrown such thinking. The symphony was most welcome.

Continue reading about Orpheus and Barbara Bonney at Portico.

April 08, 2005

Guarneri at the Met II

Rather a lot of time has elapsed since the second Guarneri Quartet concert at the Metropolitan Museum, on 19 March, and, ordinarily, I'd be inclined to let it go. As I noted somewhere in passing, it was a good concert, with unvarying true tones from first violinist Arnold Steinhardt even in the Mozart. And guest pianist Anton Kuerti was unbelievably dazzling: no spring chicken, he ought to have been heard of before by me. I'd let all this pass unrepeated, however, but for the second work on the program, Dohnányi's String Quartet No. 2, Op. 15. Thinking ahead for once, I ordered recordings of the works that I didn't have - in short, all three offerings. I never got around to listening to Dvořák's Piano Quartet, Op. 87, and I haven't heard it since the concert, so the only thing that I can say about it is that it palpably dates from before the composer's American sojourn. Mozart's Quartet in F, K. 168, struck me as rather more grown-up than expected, and I look forward to getting to know it better. My excuse for slighting these works is that I was utterly smitten by the Dohnányi.

Ernst von Dohnányi was born in Pressburg, now Bratislava, of Hungarian parents, in 1877, and between the wars, according to Bartok, he directed his new nation's musical life from Budapest. He is best known today for his glorious Variations on a Nursery Tune (eg, our "alphabet" song, which is also the theme of a magnificent set of variations by Mozart). Written for piano and orchestra, the Variations conjure up a happily grand world in which the Titanic didn't sink. I didn't know what to expect of the Quartet. I still haven't forgiving myself for missing Gidon Kremer's performance, with the Kremerata Baltica, of Georges Enescu's Octet a few years ago. That's where the Dohnányi belongs. Its opening notes seem to veer sharply from Borodin to Dvořák, but the work's presiding genius is Schubert. The finale is like the slow movement of one of Schubert's late quartets, with a craggily troubled trio; the final coda, before repeating the opening theme, brings Bruckner to mind. There is a very agreeable scherzo in between this movement and the opening Andante - Allegro. This first movement is what captured me. Its second subject - I'm not sure that that's the correct terminology - is one of the most meltingly gorgeous tunes that I've ever heard, warm and quiet and irresistible, a little homesick but not unhappy. It's the kind of beauty that made me crazy when I was a teenager; in those days, my musical passions were all concentrated upon brief, often structurally insignificant passages in works that were rarely well-known. Some friends thought that I was too clever by half, but in fact I was utterly unsophisticated, rube enough to root for music that wasn't thought to be important. Now that I'm a decaying codger, it took two or three hearings to fall in love, and I might, had I not had the recordings in advance, have missed my latest love altogether at the concert.

That's why I had to write it up. Ascoltami.

Angela Hewitt at Zankel Hall

Kathleen left the office at seven sharp yesterday, and I quitted the apartment shortly thereafter, so we both got to Carnegie Hall in plenty of time for an eight-o'clock curtain. Never mind that there are no curtains at Zankel Hall, which is tucked into Carnegie's basement. We had time to spare for a trip to the 55th Street Deli. Kathleen was feeling peckish and headachy and wanted to get some Raisinets. (Did you know about CandyDirect?). We sauntered back to the entrance to Zankel Hall, cluelessly imagining that we were there before everybody else. Not until the massive but vacant elevator doors opened on the Parterre level to resounding applause did I think to look at the tickets: make that a seven-thirty curtain. We had just missed the first work on the program, Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, and we would have missed the second work, the much longer French Overture in b, as well, if an usher hadn't taken pity on us and shepherded us to the invalids' seating section to one side.

Ask me how I discovered Angela Hewitt, and I can't tell you, but I began accumulating her Bach recordings on Hyperion some time ago. I won't say that they're my favorites, because I could never derogate András Schiff or Keith Jarrett, but they're up there, and when I worked through the schedule last fall in search of a good concert to introduce us to Zankel Hall - I deliberately....

Continue reading "Angela Hewitt at Zankel Hall" »

April 04, 2005

Record Craze

Ry Cooder's terrific 1978 album, Jazz, included three compositions by cornettist Bix Beiderbecke, the short-lived white jazz legend (from my Keefe grandmother's home town, Davenport, Iowa) who worked extensively with Paul Whiteman in the Twenties. Of the three, I fell in love with "In A Mist" right away. When I read in the Times a while back that Geoff Muldaur, of Jug Band fame, had released Private Astronomy: A Vision of the Music of Bix Beiderbecke, I ordered it right away. I wasn't ready for it, though. The songs were great, if largely unknown, but they seemed to choke off the far more "artistic" compositions that had inspired the disc. One wanted more of them, and one perhaps wanted a few old favorites. One song that crazed me was "Bless You! Sister," a song with words by Al Dubin and music by J. Russel Robinson. (Dubin's relatively famous, but Robinson is new to me.) A cheeky parody of revival music, "Bless You! Sister" has lines such as

Just like old Adam, I was eating an apple a day.

I'm through with apples, since the peaches came my way.

and it is very saucily sung by....

Read all about Private Astronomy at Portico.

March 06, 2005


Until Friday, I had not heard Bach's St Matthew Passion in a church. Nor had I heard it performed as written. The composer's 1736 revision, the standard in modern performances, calls for two "cori," meaning not choirs but corps: two distinct groups of musicians. The reason for this division may have been the composer's discovery that, for the performance of large-scaled passions, he could supplement the virtuoso ensemble that performed with him each week in one of the Leipzig churches with a capable but less expert group. This would give the better players a few breaks during a long work, and it would also make possible the call-and-response effect, antiphony, that makes for massiveness and drama.

Because I love great big choruses, I'm not best pleased by the current, allegedly authentic, performance practice of allotting each choral voice to just one singer, but if this was indeed a constraint that Bach had to work with, then the double-chorus construction makes a lot of sense. Because today's choral societies are not about to cede works like the St Matthew Passion to purists, standard performances will continue to ignore Bach's divisions. On almost any recording, you'll find that one chorus does the job (with perhaps a boy choir pitching in the soprano chorale in the two instances where that is called for), four soloists to sing the arias, a tenor to sing the part of the Evangelist, and a baritone to sing the part of Jesus. And one orchestra. As long as you've got a regular chorus, and don't need the second quartet of voices for weight, there's no reason to engage four second-string soloists.

Continue reading about the New York Collegium at Portico.

March 03, 2005

Guarneri at the Met I

Perhaps Arnold Steinhardt doesn't like Mozart. The thought crossed my mind as the Guarneri Quartet, of which Mr Steinhardt is the first violinist, made its way through Mozart's Quartet in A, K. 464. The top note was never exactly flat, but it usually sounded tired, as though the air had been let out. Of all the quartets that I know, the Guarneri sounds most like the old Budapest Quartet, which resorted to a similar style when it meant to be sweet. But this sagging tonality tightened up during the Mendelssohn that followed, and not in evidence when, after the interval, the Guarneri was joined by violist Steven Tenenbom for a performance of Dvorak's American Quintet.

The thought crossed my mind because I have not forgotten, and will never forget, a perfectly maddening performance of Mozart's Divertimento in E-Flat, K. 563, at Caramoor one summer afternoon years ago. Yes, the trio that I've written about at some length. It was a painful hour. I concluded that it must have been an "off" day for Mr Steinhardt, but there it was again on Saturday at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, a manner of playing all the high notes as if they were suffering from anemia. Nor did Mr Steinhardt appear to want to keep up with his colleagues' tempo. He never lagged, of course, but a certain resistance could be sensed. Second violinist John Dalley, violist Michael Tree, and cellist Peter Wiley, in contrast, seemed to like what they were playing. Mr Wiley was brilliant in the demanding Andante, a theme-and-variations that ends with a lesson in species counterpoint that puts the cellist to work.

Continue reading "Guarneri at the Met I" »

February 11, 2005

Jonathan Biss with Orpheus

The only point on which I agree with Times critic Allan Kozinn about the other night's Orpheus concert at Carnegie Hall is that the program was unusual. You know me about programs - read any of my MET Orchestra pieces. I didn't expect to like what Orpheus was serving, a sequence of World Premiere, Mendelssohn Piano Concerto, New York Premiere, Mendelssohn Symphony. But the evening was quite satisfying, and if anything the new works gave an edge to the Mendelssohn that might have been lacking in more conventional surroundings. Mr Kozinn didn't much care for the World Premiere and the Symphony, and he thought that the programming was just odd. I found it interesting, and it took me one step closer to shedding my dread of dissonant, irregular music. It still has its longueurs for me, but Orpheus never fails to shimmer whatever it plays with beauty.

Continue reading about Orpheus Orchestra at Portico.

February 01, 2005

MET Miscellany

It's time to say something about the last of this season's MET Orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall, and if you'll just think for a minute and give it a bit of the old college try (history of that phrase, anyone?), you'll spare me the effort and write it yourself. Am I going to say that the performances were great? Of course. Am I going to say that the program was a mess? You bet.

I'm beginning to think that there is a hole in, or near the middle of, James Levine's musicality. Perhaps it's a kind of undiscriminating gourmandise: too much is never enough. It doesn't matter what goodies are spread upon the table, as long as they're all, individually, delicious. My own taste in music is less focused, I suppose; I don't drop into the center of each thing that I hear with an empty mind, oblivious of what I've already heard (or even of what I expect to hear later). Concert performances are paramount - nothing can redeem poor or indifferent execution - but concert programs are tantamount: they're as important. A well put-together program enhances the sheen of each of its part. Perhaps I'm afflicted with gesamtkonzertohren: I hear the entire concert with one pair of ears (pardon my pseudo-Wagnerism).

Continue reading about the MET Orchestra at Portico.

January 23, 2005

Das Lied von der Erde at Carnegie Hall

Anne Sofie von Otter, the great Swedish mezzo-soprano who was brought up partly in London, the daughter of a diplomat, is in town getting ready for a Metropolitan Opera production of Debussy's Pélléas et Mélisande (performances begin next Saturday). So she was available to step in for schedule-conflicted Thomas Quasthoff at this afternoon's MET Orchestra concert, to sing Das Lied von der Erde. It is characteristic of the MET Orchestra series to provide replacements of Ms von Otter's caliber; I am perhaps not alone in saying that I was happier with the change, simply because I prefer to hear a woman sing the work's three songs for lower voice. Ms von Otter is perhaps a bit too fresh, scrubbed and youthful to invest this heartbreaking music with its full measure of pathos, but I quibble, and, in any case, I will never forget her way with the ending, an ever-softer repetition of ewig, "forever."

(UPDATE: It's a good thing that I don't even want to think of myself as a journalist. I neither read the insert tucked into the Program nor paid careful attention to my friend Michael when he explained that Ms von Otter was replacing not Thomas Quasthoff, who was never booked to sing Das Lied von der Erde, but Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who is suffering from a bad back. Mr Quasthoff was to have appeared at next weekend's concert; at the moment, the MET Orchestra has not engaged a replacement.)

Continue reading about this concert on Portico.

December 05, 2004

Ute Lemper with Orpheus


Ute Lemper was the featured artist at last night's second Carnegie Hall concert of the Orpheus season. In the program, she was identified not as a soprano or as a mezzo or as an alto, although she is all of these, more or less, but as a "vocalist." Her performance took us about as far from its stylistic core as a "classical" concert can go  without resorting to synthesizers and electric guitars. That's not to say that it belonged at Radio City; Ms Lemper's material was far too sophisticated for that venue. But her delivery was unmistakably pop. In the wilfully strident upper register of her voice, she outbelts even Patti LuPone. She drapes her femme-fatale figure in dresses that, in context, are quite provocative, she sings perched on very high heels, and she wields her mike like someone who was born on a television special. She even does a little shimmying. Meanwhile, despite big, elaborate orchestrations that bring Claus Ogerman and Vince Mendoza to mind, Orpheus almost gets lost in the background. Ute Lemper turns "concerts" into "events." All that was missing was jazzed-up lighting.

Continue reading "Ute Lemper with Orpheus" »

November 26, 2004

Steve Winwood and my Fear of Flying


I ought to be in bed, but I can't sleep. If the Marines video (see above or below, whichever) had been set to different music (as they say in the world of the serious), I'd have been able to go to bed. But I am a Steve Winwood junkie. Talking Back to the Night will never surpass Arc of a Diver for me; "Spanish Dancer" will always be one of the perfect songs. But the video opened the window a bit. Maybe it's just that I dislike the name "Valerie" - which is a stupid thing to say on a blog, no? Maybe I really like the song. Maybe I'll be able to stop listening after fifteen replays. 

I actually had to do a Google to make sure that 'call on me' came from "Valerie." What a dinde.

But I'm not in bed because I'm terrified of tomorrow. I'm getting on a plane tomorrow, and if I survive that flight I'll have to survive the one that brings me home. This is how I see what ordinary people would regard as a fabulous weekend out of town. There is nothing rational about my anxiety. I'm not really afraid that the plane will have been improperly maintained, or that sheer statistics will dictate a crash. That's ordinary. That's the way I feel about flying as a rule. My fear of the two flights ahead of me is very different. I'm doomed because I've launched this site, and I love it - it's my baby. I can't possibly be allowed to come back to this desk, this life, this world of meaning. Can I?

It's up to American.