Monday, February 10, 2014

It was fifty years ago today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Music of mourning

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Back online

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

Monday, November 25, 2013

More live music

Between one thing and another, I have fallen far behind on my blogging, but I didn’t want too much time to go by without mentioning a pair of memorable concerts I attended in the weeks before the Carter tribute at Carnegie Hall. The concerts took place on consecutive Sundays. On November 3, I drove out to Swarthmore (may the builders of I-95 roast in eternal perdition) to hear Orchestra 2001 and the Daedalus Quartet perform music by Walton, Joan Tower, and Schoenberg. The quartet played Joan Tower’s String Quartet No. 5, titled White Water, and, with baritone Randall Scarlata and pianist Charles Abramovic, Arnold Schoenberg’s 1942 “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte.” The afternoon began and ended with orchestra itself, dressed in red and black, playing William Walton’s early, sprawling “Façade,” split into two big sections, with Scarlata and the sublime Suzanne DuPlantis as narrators. Performances were uniformly excellent. The Tower was easy to follow, with broad lines and open textures, but it seemed to me more well-crafted than inspired, somewhat like the music of Walter Piston.

The greatest piece on the program was the Schoenberg, but for its sheer playfulness, the Walton made the strongest impression. It’s an eclectic piece, a sort of mixture of Pierrot Lunaire and A Soldier’s Tale, with a bit of Three-Penny Opera thrown in. Like The Rite of Spring ten years earlier, it caused a scandal at its premiere. Before the performance, James Freeman, 2001’s conductor, said the poet Edith Sitwell, who provided texts, had to sneak out of the theater, because, it was warned, she might come to some harm. Freeman said he had always envied Walton and Stravinsky for the violence and passion of those first responses, and he encouraged us to boo, if we felt like it. A few of us did, just to be polite, but we were all in much too good a mood to make a serious show of it. The performance was great fun. I told both James and Suzanne I wished the group would record it.

A week later, I had a lovely afternoon in the genial company of Mozart and Beethoven, courtesy of the Independence Sinfonia, which is fast becoming the best of Philadelphia’s small suburban orchestras. The concert was held at Or Hadash synagogue in Whitemarsh, in a boxy, wood-paneled sanctuary that conductor Jerome Rosen said was built as a music hall. The orchestra has about forty musicians, more enough to create a thrilling, knockout sound in such intimate surroundings. There was a tangibility to the music, a sense of envelopment you don’t get in the big halls,. Even with the biggest and best orchestras.

Charles Salinger was the Apollonian soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A. Rosen told me afterward he was especially proud of the job the musicians did in this piece, but after the concert, my head remained full of Beethoven, if only because his music is less subtle. The concert began with the Overture to “the “Creatures of Prometheus” and ended with the Fourth Symphony. The group was tight and fluent in both. Special mention should be made of bassoonist Judy Frank, who nailed the little cadenza in the last movement of the symphony. (The conductor gave her a congratulatory OK sign from the podium.) The passage is as challenging as a fifty-two yard field goal, Rosen said. Even the most experienced player can muff it, but when it works, it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

There. I am now caught up. It is cold tonight. Time to curl up under the covers with tea and Updike’s Couples.

Monday, November 18, 2013

All Carter, all the time


Yesterday I took the Jersey Transit to New York for the 2 p.m. all-Elliott Carter program at Carnegie Hall. Leon Botstein conducted the American Symphony Orchestra with guest artists Anthony McGill, clarinet; Mary MacKenzie, soprano; and Teresa Buchholz, mezzo. The hall was less than half full. Up in the dress circle, where I was sitting, everyone would have fit into one of the five searing sections. As with all Carter concerts, however, the crowd, such as it was, was knowledgeable and enthusiastic. It was rewarded with a good concert that fell several steps short of great.

The bad news first: The program ended with the extraordinary Concerto for Orchestra from 1969, the piece I was most eager to hear, and the afternoon’s big disappointment. The reading was note perfect, but it lacked definition. The climactic moments didn’t stand out, and individual incidents did not emerge from the surrounding texture so much as they sat on top of it. In short, the music didn’t flow. The pieces were all there, but they did not come together. I missed the energy, the grandeur and the spaciousness I find in my several recordings of the work. A friend said afterwards that if he were feeling generous, he would describe the performance as subdued and lyrical. I’ll forego generosity and call it weak. The musicians found it rough going, I suspect, but the failure was ultimately Botstein’s. Back in 2008, Oliver Knussen proved just how exciting the piece can be when he led a pickup orchestra of young musicians in a well-shaped, thrilling performance at the Tanglewood Music Festival. (Anyone curious about why I love this music should watch the performance video on YouTube.)

On the plus side (and it was a big plus), Anthony McGill was dazzling in the 1996 Clarinet Concerto, and Botstein was wise enough not to stand in his way. His tempos were brisk, and if he wasn’t especially nuanced, he was exciting. From the very opening riffs, he swung. It was the most memorable performance of the day.

The concert opened with a solid reading of Pocahontas, Carter attractive and underplayed ballet from the late 1930s (though the Suite was composed 1960). This is early Carter, written in the rangy, relatively populist style he was devoted to at the time, and while it has been described as derivative of several other composers, it has a feeling of its own, marked by the composer’s way with counterpoint and a love of percussion that became increasingly important in his later work. It was a pleasure to hear.

In the second half, just before the Concerto for Orchestra, MacKenzie and Buchholz joined Botstein and the crew for two early songs. MacKenzie was touching in “A Warble for Lilac Time,” though from where I was sitting, it was hard to judge Buchholz’s handling of “Voyage,” since she was swamped several times by the orchestra.

The program also included an oddly energetic performance of the supposedly contemplative “Sound Fields” for strings.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The home of Mozart and Beethoven

The Independence Sinfonia, a good group that is getting better, will present a concert Nov. 10 at Or Hadash in Fort Washington. On the program will be Beethoven's Creatures of Prometheus Overture and Fourth Symphony and Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Soloist in the Mozart will be Charly Salinger. You can read my interview with him here.

Charlie called me on my cell this afternoon and asked when the article and in what paper the piece would  run.  He also said if there was anything he could ever do for me, I had only to ask.

I told him the Mozart would be enough.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Police alarms and ear worms: Make it stop!


Here at the paper, we leave the police scanner on 24 hours a day. Recently the cops instituted a little, two-note electronic alarm a little "buh-BOOP" to draw officers' attention to some particular form of announcement. The tones, both in pitch and duration, sound to me exactly like the rising motif contained in the opening clarinet solo of Sibelius's First Symphony. As a result, the first movement of that work has been stuck in my head for weeks.

What is the longest-lasting ear worm anyone here has ever experienced? I think I am going for some kind of record, though I suppose I'm fortunate: I like Sibelius. The two tones could have reminded me of the theme to Bewitched.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Weird Piano Music

My second Spotify playlist has been posted on the homepage of the Times Herald. This one is titled “Weird Piano Music,” for reasons that need no elaboration.

Schoenberg, Walton, Tower

Click here to read my article on the upcoming concert by Orchestra 2001 scheduled for November 3 in Swarthmore. The Daedalus Quartet will be on the program, performing Joan Tower's String Quartet No. 5 and Schoenberg's “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte,” and the orchestra, conducted by James Freeman, will present William Walton's “Façade.”

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ives Updates

Yesterday was Charles Ives's bithday, which is always a special occasion for me, even if I do nothing to observe it. I didn't get to listen to post or listen to any music yesterday, but I wa pleased to receive the following e-newletter from James Sinclair and the Charles Ives Society: 

Happy 139th Birthday to Charles Ives!!

Ives’s West Redding house sold
Ives’s 101-year old house in West Redding, Connecticut sold to a family from New York City. The new owners are doing restorations and carefully considered renovations which are scheduled to be completed by May 2014. They express a strong interest in having Ives’s music performed inside the house and on the grounds.

Findings in the West Redding barn
Several Ives scholars did a carefully combing of the dusty old red barn (wherein Rocket the horse once lived) and found interesting and important items which have been transferred to the Yale Music Library. A decade of personal checks now documents the Ives’s daily expenses in 1933–43 and two marked up copies of 114 Songs (one labeled “Master Copy”) hold otherwise unknown editing by Ives. A doctoral dissertation is in the works at Indiana University about these editorial revelations.

Ives’s West Redding music room
One of the important necessities of closing down the Ives house in West Redding was to save Ives’s music room for posterity. The American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City accepted the donation of the full contents of the room and is building an exact replica of Ives’s study, complete with the views out the windows. The room will become available in later November 2013 for viewing and scholarly pursuits. The AAAL is located at W. 155th St. and Broadway in New York.

Complete Organ Works edition
Published this last fall by Theodore Presser Co.: The Complete Organ Works (62 pp. of music plus 16 pp. of historical and critical notes); William Osborne wrote the preface.

In the pipeline at Peermusic:
Robert Browning Overture, String Quartet No. 1, and a volume of the complete Ives marches for piano.

New biography Stephen Budiansky has written a new biography of Charles Ives. Release is expected in March 2014.

New children’s book on Ives
“The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives”, written and illustrated by Joanne Stanbridge [Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, ISBN 978-0-547-23866-1]

All-Ives concert
Orchestra New England will celebrate its 40th birthday with an all-Ives concert, on Saturday, March 8, 2014 in New Haven, Connecticut. James Sinclair will conduct. The orchestra began with an all-Ives concert in March 1974 which immediately lead to a recording for CBS Masterworks.