Archive for the ‘Nano Note’ Category

Gotham Diary:
Opera and Its Discontents
Thursday, 23 June 2011

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

The other day, I bought an iPod. Now he’s lost it, you’re thinking; how many times has he bored us silly with his Nano Notes? But this time, it isn’t a Nano, but a Classic iPod, or iPod Classic. It looks like a Nano that ate one of those cookies in Alice in Wonderland. It is quite ridiculously large. But with the storage to match (about ten times the capacity of a Nano), it is the perfect place for my opera collection, or as much of it as will fit. Every day, I load another five operas onto the thing. I still can’t listen to opera if the page that I’m writing requires actual thought, but as you can see there’s nothing here that Un Ballo in Maschera (Bergonzi, Nilsson, Molinari-Pradelli) would get in the way of. 

It’s Thursday, which means that I’m planning to go downtown in a few hours to sit with Will while his parents have dinner alone somewhere. Tonight, I am going to take a bunch of the shirt cardboards that I’ve been hoarding. There was a time when shirt cardboards were the joy of my youth, and I got in a lot of trouble once for advancing myself the cardboards from my father’s shirts drawer. For a while, I was very into constructing hybrid castle/stage sets. I was very into hidden doors and secret passageways, and even though these were not easily realized in shirt cardboard (which at least had the merit of being stone grey), it was exciting to create three dimensional models of the houses of horror that I hoped to live in some day. I have no memory of outgrowing this pastime, so maybe I didn’t. Maybe it’s going to blossom again in the guise of “playing with Will.” 

Being with Will is always quite straightforward — we do this, we do that — but remembering my time with him is quite strange; it’s as though I were reviewing my recollections through someone else’s prescription glasses. It is impossible, when he is not actually in the room, to think of him as a child of nearly eighteen months. There are too many precocities, or at any rate moments when I feel that I’m with a teenager, or a third-grader. There are shards of his personality, as it were, that are already fully grown. They’re surrounded by undeveloped parts, sort of like a Roman Forum but under construction, not in ruins. Most of what he says is still — unintelligible, and it’s not always clear that he knows what talking is for. (Or, rather, what it isn’t.) But he appears to understand a great deal of grown-up talk. Like his mother, he has a formidable memory, and just because he hasn’t been exposed to something in a while doesn’t mean that the unguarded mention of it won’t kindle an insistent interest. (When in doubt, I spell things out.) 

He’s also “musical” — he dances, bangs drums, and even riffs on the harmonica. There is a spectrum of his vocalizing that could be called singing, sort of. But we are a long way from Aida. There has been no listening to music at our house. When he and his parents come to dinner, there might be a jazz playlist purring away somewhere, but not loud enough to catch Will’s notice. And when he’s here with Kathleen and me, we somehow don’t think to play anything — except, of course, for Shaun the Sheep. There’s step dancing in Shaun, which Will gamely attempts to imitate. It is mostly a matter of shaking his butt. If there’s one thing I’m looking forward to, it’s taking him to see Paul Taylor. There are always lots of kiddies in that audience. But although it’s very easy to imagine Will sitting rapt through a twenty-minute dance, it’s also easy to imagine that he might respond in a manner more typical of his age. Pretty soon, I expect, I’ll be learning all the minimum ages. At the Museum, happily, there isn’t one, but you have to be ten to get into the Frick. If he keeps growing at his current rate, Will will pass for ten when he’s eight.

But I mustn’t push things. I must remember what happened when a friend of ours was taken, as her first opera ever, to Parsifal. Amazingly, her date’s passion for this masterpiece proved not to be contagious in the least!

Nano Note:
Bach in Order I-V

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

For nearly two months, on most weekdays (other than Friday), I’ve been cycling through five identical playlists, or versions of a template playlist, the difference between them being the performers. The original Bach in Order playlist is the first one below, headed by Trevor Pinnock’s recording of Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerti Grossi, Opus 6. Red type indicates that the performer plays on a harpsichord.

Each set begins and ends with a concerto grosso and includes the ordinal Bach suites. Thus, the first set comprises the English Suite No 1 in A, BWV 806; the French Suite No 1 in d, BWV 812; the Cello Suite No 1 in G, BWV 1007; and the Partita No 1 in B-Flat, BWV 825. It begins with the Concerto Grosso Op 6 No 1in D and ends with the Concerto Grosso Op 6 No 2 in F. The second set begins with the Concerto Grosso Op 6 No 3 in c, and includes the second English Suite, the second French Suite, the second Cello Suite, and the second Partita. And so on. There are six sets in all.

Op 6
Pinnock Ensemble 415 Kuijken Goodman Marriner
Schiff Kirkpatrick Leonhardt Hewitt Levin
Jarrett Rangell Hewitt Kirkpatrick Gavrilov
Ma Fournier Harrell Starker Wispelwey
Partitas Hewitt Ashkenazy Schiff Gould Perahia

I don’t know when the first playlist was compiled; I believe that it dates back to 2009. Nor can I remember when it struck me that I ought to have more than one list, but once I had that idea, I settled on five in total. While there are many more recordings of the Cello Suites and the Partitas, and even a few more Corelli sets, complete recordings of the English and French Suites are relatively uncommon; most performers play the one or two that they like and are not encouraged, doubtless, to be exhaustive.

Round about the time I was compiling the four new playlists, I thought that it would be a good idea to insert other works by Bach between the pairs of concerti grossi that delimit the sets. The well-known Italian Concerto fits between the second and the third of the Concerti Grossi; the fourth and fifth are separated by the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, and so on. The last punctuating work, the Toccata in C, BWV 914, is the work that Thomas, the Romain Duris character, wants to play at his career-reviving audition, in Jacques Audiard’s De battre mon coeur s’est arreté; and the third version of the playlist includes the recording that Caroline Duris, the actor’s sister, made for the sound track.

Italian Concerto Perahia Ross Suzuki Brendel Kirkpatrick
Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue Egarr Brendel Kirkpatrick Ross Hewitt
French Overture Kirkpatrick Hewitt Gould Suzuki Ross
Goldberg Variations Gould I Tipo Zhu Nikolayevna Schiff
Toccata BWV 914 Von
Egarr Duris Rübsam Gould

So far, I don’t know this music well enough to match up the different performances in a way that maximizes the interest of each, Fashions have changed a lot since Neville Marriner recorded the Corelli with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, and it shows, believe me. At some point, I’ll use one of Pablo Casals’s recordings of the Cello Suites, and I’m not sure that putting them next to Glenn Gould’s Partitas (arguendo) will be a good thing or a bad thing. We’ll see! The only programming criterion is to arrange things so that no performer appears on the same version “twice” — meaning that we don’t hear Gould playing the Toccata or the Goldberg Variations on the fourth version, the one with his Partitas; as it is, Angela Hewitt and Ralph Kirkpatrick are heard in every one. I’m beginning to feel the itch to rearrange things a bit, substituting one or two performances that I haven’t used so far. I have no intention of altering the template; that has worked very well. The Goldbergs, coming in the late afternoon, make for a complete change of pace, almost a hiatus — only one of the variations lasts as long as the sarabandes and courantes of the dance suites.

Since the beginning of March, only one or two weeks have gone by without my listening to any of these playlists; I usually manage three or four. If I’m going to be out for hours at a time, I find something else to listen to when I’m home; but once I’ve started a playlist, it plays through to the end. I’ve been getting better lately about starting the lists as soon as I get up. They run for about twelve hours, and it’s best to have them end before dinner — largely because Kathleen has become very tired of the antepenultimate item, the sixth Cello Suite. Which is a pity, because it’s my favorite.

I’ll be referring to these tables in future entries. I’ll be talking about how some of the hundreds of pieces (individual dances and variations) that comprise each list have emerged from the “wallpaper” of twelve hours of daily Bach; about how some of the different performers have become immediately recognizable (making it unnecessary for me to consult the table in order to know who’s playing what); and about what it’s like to wheel through the day alongside this musical planetarium.

Nano Note:

Monday, February 7th, 2011

For some reason, I’ve been listening to the Ring cycle. Last week, I was about to embark on a tedious household project when it occurred to me that I’d really like to hear Das Rheingold. I’m sure that I’m not the only Wagner fan who nurses a secret preference for the first opera in the tetralogy; and I’m just as sure that I wouldn’t like it nearly so much if it weren’t so pregnant with everything that follows. Rheingold is more pageant than opera — there are no mortal characters — and its four scenes have a ceremonial sequence. (The only other part of the Ring that’s ceremonial in the same mythic way is the Q&A between Mime and the Wanderer in the first act of Siegfried. There’s lots of ceremony in the Ring, but it is subsumed within the operatic drama.) Rheingold‘s ending is stupendously pretty — “Heda! Hedo!,” followed by the shimmering Rainbow Bridge — and it always makes me think of a deeply-upholstered country-house weekend.

What the Ring has never made me think of is the critique of capitalism that it’s often said to be, and that it was made to look like in the great 1976 “Chéreau” Ring from Bayreuth, which spruced up the décor with references to Victorian clothing and Beaux-Arts design. Even after that, I was unpersuaded. The Ring has always struck me as being a lot bigger than “capitalism” — a term that is usually misunderstood by the people who throw it around. The Ring, it has always seemed to me, is about power, and that’s what makes it different from other operas, which are all about love and family. Power as an overarching, timelessly human problem. Not as an allegory of the Nineteenth Century’s bourgeoisie.

But this time, it’s different. I’m thinking a lot about contract. The problem that engenders the entire plot of the Ring cycle can be described in a short phrase: an unavoidable contract turns out to have unfortunate consequences. In sixteen hours of drama, we watch gods and heroes squirm within the constraints of the deals that they’ve made. Wagner is so good at coaxing tragedy from the Ring‘s contracts that we’re put in mind of the relentlessness of Greek drama. But Greek drama is overshadowed by divine caprice, and the Greek gods are spectacularly unfettered by the promises that they make. Wagner’s Wotan & Co is very much at home in the Industrial Revolution, which took place, after all, because the governments of Western Europe and North America invested business contracts with the same sacred insuperability that renders Wagner’s Valhalla defenseless against the flames of the pyre that Brünnhilde mounts at the end of Götterdämmerung.

The sacredness of contract has become a bit of a headache lately. At one end of the spectrum, we have bondholders, the vast majority of whom have lent their money to borrowers on the understanding that there won’t be any problems about repayment with interest. At the other end, we have the public-sector workers who were promised retirement benefits that states and municipalities can’t afford to pay. It’s important to note that neither bondholders nor pensioners are productive; they don’t do anything but collect payments. Does this make them parasites? To the worldview that Wagner’s Ring portrays, certainly not: nothing is more important than honoring the bond — the oath, the promise; call it what you like — that arises from a legitimate contract. To permit dishonor is to undo the basis of social obligation. But you know me and “honor” — I think it’s unhealthy.

I remember my father’s distress when, in the early Eighties, his 16% bonds were about to mature. Imagine paying sixteen percent in interest! But that’s what a lot of municipalities were reduced to in the late Seventies. It oughtn’t to have been necessary, but the country’s finances were already so shakily run that such inequities erupted like pimples on a teenager’ face, as they’ve been doing ever since. Dad actually expected me to commiserate: no more sixteen percent! The poor guy! Nor, by the same token, have I been able to enter into the glee expressed by government workers whom I’ve known as they’ve retailed their generous retirement benefits — benefits enacted by reckless, I’ll-be-dead-by-then politicians.

The Immolation Scene that concludes the Ring is grand opera at its grandest, and the inexorability of Wotan’s promises has a great deal to do with its power. But I’m not willing to see the world around me go the way of Walhall for that kind of reason.

Nano Note:
Playing Favorites

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

The other day, my daughter asked me if I’d like to have a box of classical-music CDs that she was getting rid of. Either she didn’t care for them or she had copied them into her iTunes library, but I was happy either way to take them home. When I went through the discs, I saw that I’d given  some of them to her myself, years ago, and for pretty much the same reason that she was giving them back to me: a shortage of house room. (I certainly don’t have more storage space today, but by getting rid of jewel boxes I can store discs more compactly.) Most of my handovers were what I thought of as secondary recordings of beloved works, purchased for the CD library that I kept at the apartment at a time when I was spending most of my time at our house in Connecticut. When we sold the house, I no longer needed these extras, because I would invariably listen to my favorite recording of almost anything, given the chance. Of course there were things that I loved so much that I had multiple recordings. Mozart’s piano concertos, and his later operas (I have six Cosìs alone; seven if you include a DVD.) But I thought that it was enough to have just one recording of most pieces of music. My youthful impulse, not surprisingly, had been to have many different compositions in my library, and this necessarily limited the collecting of different performances of the same compositions. One set of Chopin’s Nocturnes was enough. I don’t think that there was anything unusual about this outlook. 

There are two ways to hear classical music: you can select a recording and play it on some device or other; or, you can tune into the radio (more likely, its successors, XM and Pandora). You can choose what to hear yourself, or you can leave it to others. Leaving it to others is always easier, and unless you are sitting down to listen to a particular performance — and doing nothing else, except possibly following the score — it is something of a bother to take on the job of filling the air with music. What to play? The decision alone is laborious in its way, but the real work begins when you get out of your chair, paw through your library, find what you’re looking for, remove the LP or tape or CD from its sleeve, fiddle with the playback device (fiddling is inevitable; you have to put away whatever you were listening to before), and then go back to doing whatever you were doing. The burden of this effort and interruption is not very onerous, of course, but it’s onerous enough, especially with repetition, to steer you toward choosing what you think will be the best music to listen to; and, once you’ve picked the composition, an even stronger bias exerts itself in favor of the best recording that you’ve got of whatever music we’ve chosen. This is what makes those secondary recordings superfluous. If, whenever you want to hear Schubert’s Quintet, you’re going to choose the Alban Berg Quartet’s recording (even though you know you ought to give other performances a listen every now and then), why clutter your library with CDs that you’re never going to choose? That’s why I was glad to give my daughter the other one.

I had a favorite recording of Chopin’s Scherzos and Ballades (works that are often coupled on CD, as are the Schumann and Grieg piano concertos): Vladimir Ashkenazy’s. Well, perhaps it wasn’t my favorite recording, because it was my only one. I liked the music, but I didn’t know it well enough to appreciate different performances, so, following the law set forth above, I invariably chose what in fact was the only recording in my library. I wasn’t aware of doing any of this until I began to compose iTunes playlists. In the early days, two and three years ago, I’d stick in a scherzo or a ballade on a playlist the way that I’d have inserted it in an hour-long program at the radio station, to vary the tone and texture. At the station, I had several recordings to draw on, but with my iTunes playlists, it was always Ashkenazy’s recordings, and I was perfectly happy with that. I heard Chopin, not Ashkenazy. Until, one fine day, I came across a CD of the same music played by Arthur Rubinstein. I can’t remember why I bought it — undoubtedly it was in the interest of “giving other performances a listen every now and then.” That hadn’t happened; the Rubinstein CD mouldered among the RCAs. But for whatever reason, I copied the disc onto iTunes and used all of it in a playlist that I was putting together at the time. 

If you stop to think that listening to a twelve-to-twenty hour playlist, weeks, months, or years after assembling it, is a lot like listening to the radio, especially with regard to cutting out the effort and interruption of choosing what to listen to piece by piece, CD by CD, the you’ll see where this is going. Not long after stocking the playlist with the Rubinstein Ballades and Scherzos, I was shocked by how different the familiar Chopin sounded. How much bolder and more youthful! Not that I prefer my Chopin to be bold and youthful; on the contrary, the Ashkenazy recording would still be my favorite. But here I was, listening to Arthur Rubinstein, without having made any effort to do so, and that was fine. A nice change! (It’s also worth noting that I was hearing each Scherzo and Ballade one at a time, spaced out over a playlist that lasted all day, and not all of them at once.) It wasn’t long before I took a new look at Bach in Order playlist.

I had thought, initially, that I would rotate performances within the one playlist. (At the time, I had two sets of Bach’s Cello Suites and several performances of the French Suites.) Now it occurred to me that it made more sense to have multiple playlists. I’ve just put in my order for the recordings that will fill out Bach in Order IV. To create Bach in Order V — which is probably where I’ll stop — I’ll have to resort to harpsichord recordings, which I’d very much rather not do, but there aren’t many complete sets of the keyboard suites. Only three really great pianists — Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt, and András Schiff — have recorded all three sets. And when I say what a shame it is that putting the fifth playlist together is so difficult, you can see what has happened to the constraint of the “favorite recording.” Shackles broken!

Composing playlists is hugely laborious, especially if you’re working with a single computer monitor. But you do it just the once (plus fiddling — there will always be fiddling). Then you can listen without choosing.

It probably makes more sense to get a Pandora station going. But then, you may not share my passion for doing my own programming. Then again, if you’re like most of the men I know who listen to serious music…

Nano Note:

Monday, January 10th, 2011

On the front page of the Times Arts & Leisure section yesterday, the trouble with Anthony Tommasini‘s article began with the title: “The Greatest: A Critic Tries To Pick the Top 10 Classical Composers.” Why ten? The pervasiveness of the “top ten” meme in popular culture ought to be irrelevant to thinking “bigger,” as Tommasini puts it, dismissing the ritual end-of-year lists of bests. His only excuse is inexperience: the critic claims, “I don’t do ranking.” Well, he does now, so let’s hope that he gets better at it.

This isn’t to quibble with his choices; in the event, he doesn’t make any. The piece turns out to be the announcement of a project that Tommasini will carry out in the coming months, with input from readers. No, my complaint is with that procrustean figure. The simple truth is that there is no way to compose a list of “top ten classical composers.” Such is the state of the art, so to speak, that many names cannot appear on a list of ten if other names are excluded.

The difficult is manifest in the article’s illustration, a montage of thirteen, not ten, portraits. Whether or not a “top thirteen” list would be useful, it wouldn’t be comprised of the composers chosen by the Times, for the simple reason that three faces are missing, those of Verdi, Wagner, and Mahler. A “top sixteen,” then?

There are many traditional lists of seven — vices, virtues, wonders — and as it happens we can put together a list of Seven Classical Masters in an instant — all of them speakers of German.

  • Bach
  • Handel
  • Haydn
  • Mozart
  • Beethoven
  • Schubert
  • Brahms

I think that this is about as unobjectionable a list as can be. Bach and Handel wrote with a seriousness that inspired the Viennese classicists to put on gravitas, and in Brahms the tradition flowered metamorphically. You might extend this list to eight, by including Mahler (who apotheosized the lineage), or to nine, naming Mendelssohn and Schumann (captivating crossers of classical and romantic currents), or to ten, by adding all three. But you could expect a good deal of argument against each choice. And it must be borne in mind that the restriction to German-speaking composers, working in a narrow, if powerful tradition, is not a musical restriction.

A list of great composers that includes Schumann but not Chopin doesn’t make much sense. And a list that includes Chopin but not Tchaikovsky is equally unstable. Once Tchaikovsky appears, then the absence of Verdi and Wagner becomes intolerable. I am not ranking composers here; I’m just pointing out the inevitable consequences of trying to put together a list of important composers. In my opinion, a list that includes Beethoven but excludes Verdi and Wager is myopic, reflecting a mistrust of opera that every really musical mind outgrows. And I expect that, over time, Puccini and Strauss will stand in relation to Verdi and Wagner much as Brahms does to Beethoven, and Mahler to Brahms, indispensably.

Our crowd of sixteen composers fairly screams with the injustice of overlooking Debussy and Ravel, two composers whose names are often coupled but whose works are deeply different. Eighteen! Can we go for twenty? Easily: how can Stravinsky and Prokofiev be left out? The problem lies in stopping there. A list of “21 Great Composers” would surely include Rachmaninov.

One face from the Times that doesn’t figure in my lists is Arnold Schoenberg’s. For reasons that I won’t expound now, I see Schoenberg’s break with tonality as severing him from the classical tradition, which unlike fashionable critics I regard as a closed book. Schoenberg is important; he wrote what I’ll call “serious” music. But so did George Gershwin and Duke Ellington and Steve Reich and John Adams and….

The task of filling up the list I’ll gladly leave to you — just so long as you don’t start out with a number in mind. 

Nano Note:
Bach in Order II
Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

The outer limits of classical-music geekery, I expect, but not an unpopulated place. Learning to live with and love the classics on iPod playlists. Where you can plan ahead.

I’ve just, for the first time, reproduced a playlist work for work, but with completely different performers. Here was the first Bach in Order playlist, in which English Suites, French Suites, Cello Suites and Partitas were sandwiched between concerti grossi from Corelli’s Opus 6. (If I find something to insert between the pairs of cgi at the “intermissions,” I’ll be in heaven.)

  • Corelli: Trevor Pinnock and his band.
  • English Suites: András Schiff.
  • French Suites: Keith Jarrett.
  • Cello Suites: Yo-Yo Ma.
  • Partitas: Angela Hewitt.

And now, for the second round:

  • Corelli: Ensemble 415.
  • English Suites: Angela Hewitt.
  • French Suites: Andrew Rangell.
  • Cello Suites: Pierre Fournier.
  • Partitas: Vladimir Ashkenazy.

When I saw that I had another set of Opus 6 (Sigiswald Kuijkin’s), and Angela Hewitt’s French Suites just lying around, I went ahead and ordered Lynn Harrell’s Cello Suites, Robert Levin’s English Suites, and András Schiff’s Partitas. Bach in Order III, coming up!

This is the sort of thing that was too cumbersome to imagine in the age of the LP. Or even with tapes. Hours’ worth of music, all familiar as hell, but all played by different people — and that’s, of course, what you notice. The performances stand out over the music itself, in a simply palpable way that’s, strangely, new.

And my choices, I hasten to confess, are as conservative as all get-out. That’s why there’s no Glenn Gould! (Yet!) I’ve just put in for Casals and Starker.

Nano Note: The Big Boys

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009


Last week, I finally got round to something that ought to have happened a lot sooner: I plugged a Nano dock into a right old-fashioned stereo receiver, the kind of amplifier that is connected to big speakers. And here’s the paradox: the Nano’s MP3 files are finally audible at low volumes.

I don’t really know what I’m talking about here. It could be that volumes that seem low coming from the big speakers are high coming from the Klipsch RoomGroove. (As it happens, the big speakers are by Klipsch, too). That seems unlikely, though, as the standard for ambient sound is the moment of distraction. From the very first, I’ve compared the RoomGroove sound to that of the superior table radios of the Fifties (made by Grundig, for example). It’s very good if you’re listening to it. But the big speakers are much better at playing music in the background. Doesn’t that seem odd?

Currently, the stereo systems in each of our three rooms are not connected. I plan to change that in the coming months, laying down a lot of wire and taking advantage of the right-of-way, so to speak, that was established in wiring the wireless boosters to the router. The interconnection of the amplifiers will probably spell the end of the RoomGrooves here. But I plan to change a lot of things in the coming months, so the RoomGrooves will probably be here for a while.

“Stereo system” — does anyone under 30 use that phrase? I can certainly remember a time when no one over 30 did.

Nano Note: Beethoven in camera

Saturday, September 26th, 2009


For a long time, I’ve been wanting to put together a playlist of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, in order of publication (which is to say, in opus-number order). Now that I’ve done it, I want to make a few variants, and one of them, at least, is going to have to be structured in compositional order, or it won’t work any better than the publication order.

That’s because there are no piano sonatas with opus numbers that fall between 60 and 68 — the opus numbers of the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. Nor can any fall between the numbers attached to the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, which are sequential (92 and 93). A playlist that lines up the symphonies and the sonatas in opus-number order is unlistenably imbalanced. Nearly a third of the sonatas precede the First Symphony. The Second Symphony follows the 18th Sonata (the “Hunt”). Three sonatas later, we reach the Third.  Only the 23rd Sonata, the “Appassionata,” falls between “Eroica” and the string of three symphonies that I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph. Four sonatas, including “Les Adieux” but also two shorter sonatas, fall between the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. After that, there’s the massive chunk of the final five sonatas. On top of which: the Choral Symphony. End of playlist. From a programming standpoint, it’s a disaster.

So I’m going to do a little research — rather, I’m going to hope that a little research will break up these alternating masses of symphonic and solo music. Perhaps it won’t. In that case, I doubt I’ll listen to the sonata-symphony playlist more than once.

Meanwhile, I’m going to line up the sonatas with the string quartets and the piano trios, with perhaps the Piano Quartet (Opus 16) and the String Quintet (Opus 29) thrown in for good measure. Beyond that, my familiarity with Beethoven’s chamber music peters out. (I’m not including the popular Septet, Op 20, because, like Mozart’s Horn Quintet, K 407, it is entertaining concert music on a reduced scale, not true chamber music.

OMG! The violin sonatas! Of course I’ll throw them in, too. 

Nano Note: Endless Summer

Sunday, September 13th, 2009


Chieli Minucci’s “Endless Summer” comes from an album of the same name that I bought at HMV one day, when there was still an HMV store where Best Buy is now. I had been spending a lot of time in the jazz section, building up a basic collection of classics. On this particular day, “Endless Summer” was playing on the shop’s sound system, and, despite long experience with the disappointments of buying music that’s playing in record stores, I had to have it. I had to have it even after the clerk told me that the rest of the album was “not as good.” And even though that turned out to be true, I have loved “Endless Summer” ever since. Why?

The answer must lie in the mystery of the harmonies. “Endless Summer,” part riff, part tune, never actually comes to an end, but keeps modulating into repetitions: it ought to be quite tedious. But it triggers a composite sense memory that lies very close to my sense of well-being: having spent a summer afternoon at the pool, I’ve showered and dressed and am about to go out for the evening, probably to a party at somebody else’s house. I am anywhere between sixteen and thirty years old, and I am probably in Houston. It could be 1977, when the easiest summer of my life. The sorrow of my mother’s illness and death was behind me, and the travails of law school lay unimaginably ahead. I had moved back to my parents’ house in Tanglewood, to help to take care of the place while my mother failed, and then to keep my father company in my desultory fashion. I was through with Houston in the way that you are through with high school after graduation. I had a lot to learn about enjoying life, but, at 29, I thought that I knew what I needed to know about having a good time. I would be in my fifties when I woke up from this delusion.

I have no desire to go back. It’s like the summer during which Kathleen and I spent alternate weekends at Fossil’s house in the Pines — great fun, but once was enough. Everything that was scintillating about 1977 is there in “Endless Summer,” even though the song hadn’t been written yet. Perhaps that’s the secret of its appeal: it carries no associations with the period, in the way that favorite pop songs do. (At the time, I was discovering Manhattan Transfer and August Darnell, and my favorite song was Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” — music that stirs up more realistic and complicated memories of that summer.) It just reminds me of what it felt like to feel good.

If the parties never lived up to expectations — never nearly — “Endless Summer” does not remind me of that disappointment. It simply distills the pleasure of looking forward to something, such that now, when I hear the song, I feel the pleasure without actually looking forward to anything at all, except, perhaps, the possibility that, just this once, the song itself will be endless.

Nano Note: Degl'orridi abissi

Saturday, August 8th, 2009


Right before the end of the opera that bears his name, Handel’s Xerxes — Serse, in Italian — sings an aria that I like a whole heck of a lot more than the very famous one with which he opens the so-called comedy. That would be “Ombra mai fu,” almost certainly the one number from Handel’s catalogue that’s up there with such Verdi hits as “La donna è mobile.” Everybody knows the tune, even if nobody has ever heard it sung. But, as I say, I like Xerxes’s last aria, “Crude furie degl’orridi abissi,” much better. The famous aria is wonderfully stately and all that, but “Crude furie” scores a perfect ten as a ridiculous temper tantrum. What could be more operatic than a comically-presented temper tantrum?

Mozart’s entry in this field, “Smanie implacabili,” from Così fan tutte, is the reigning masterpiece, and, as with Handel’s aria, the joke lies in the the orchestral commentary. Mozart scores Dorabella’s grandiotically despairing plea to the furies with a wallpaper of sweet Bronx cheers. Handel is a bit simpler: his violins mock Xerxes’s clueless tirade with cheekily swooping scales. Up and down they run, and they’d make you seasick if they didn’t have your eyes rolling. The eye-rolling is what I love about the aria; it gives me a clear and distinct idea of what Kathleen must be thinking while I storm about the apartment in search of a misplaced Book Review.

Although I know Così fan tutte as well as I know my own name, however, you mustn’t think that I’m a scholar of Handel operas. So not! But I came to listen to Serse and Rodelina a thousand years ago thanks to the Brian Priestman recordings on Westminster. As I recall, Canadian mezzo Maureen Forrester sang the title role in Serse, and I hope that I’ll be able to recapture her performance on CD (or MP3) one of these days. For the record, this marks the first time that I’ve ever thought that somebody did a better job than Anne-Sofie von Otter. But it’s early days; I only listened to the new recording for the first time yesterday.

I played “Crude furie” seven times in a row, steadily increasing the volume each time. There was nothing else in the world that I wanted to listen to while this state of play lasted.