Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Gotham Diary:
At the Dinner Store
6 December 2012

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Last night, at the coffee shop across the street that Will calls “the dinner store” — an insight of genius for which I would praise him to the skies if I were certain that it’s altogether his own — I needed to break a bill for the tip. I told Will to sit still and went to the cash register at the front of the shop. When I came back to the table, in the rear, there was no Will. There was no nobody. A dust cloud of panic swirled up, and the only definite concern that I can retrieve from it now is that Will might somehow have been abducted into the kitchen. (Self-abduction being a possibility.) Regular readers will recall that I had a dreadful nightmare along these lines just a few days ago. Awake, it seems, I’m not so easily dread’s captive. It hit me that I was dealing with Will. A glance under the table revealed a number of potentially moving parts. “You little stinker,” I snorted. Later, his mother would tell me that he’s been doing this a lot lately, hiding “too well.” So it will be more out of concern for myself than from fear for Will’s safety that I’ll be keeping closer tabs on him when he’s in my charge.

For the time being, it is possible to entice Will into almost anything if pressing an elevator button is involved. Just one button, mind. Although he’s delighted to push the button for your floor, if you ask him. He has to be shown which one to push; what looked a lot like numeracy six months ago turned out to be a (familiar, well-documented) mirage.

Do you remember the Jane Austen action figure that I picked up a while back? I had to have one, after Rachel Brownstein used one for the dust-jacket of her recent book about Austen. Will never fails to pick this up when he passes by it, because he can tell that it is an action figure. He also thinks that it’s a guy — you know what superhero drag is. I’m disabusing him of that. I told him last night that Jane Austen was a “writer,” but then, worrying that this sounded far too much like “rider,” I said, with painstaking enunciation and emphasis, that “she wrote books. And the quill pen was her weapon.” I think that I’d better buy another action figure, just to have in a drawer when something action-related happens to the one I’ve got. (But wait! A replacement will cost a fortune!) The beauty part, was hearing him repeat her name, as he does almost every new word that he hears, softly but intelligibly. Hearing him breathe “Jane Austen” made me feel very — silly.


I complain all the time about going out in the evening: it’s something that I don’t want to do anymore. That’s why I felt almost honor-bound to get myself over to the Museum yesterday for an afternoon concert in the musical instruments galleries. Wei-Yang Andy Lin gave an erhu recital to a packed audience — well, forty or fifty folding seats, arrayed at one end of the long and narrow Mertens gallery, were packed. Andy Lin is perhaps the best violist that I’ve ever heard (I’ve written about him somewhere, perhaps at Portico), and it’s not surprising that he makes the erhu sound lovely, too. To be perfectly blunt: he plays the instrument with such skill that its exotic qualities (read: limitations) are swallowed up by a thoroughly Western musicianship. Had Mahler heard Andy play, there would be an erhu part in Das Lied von der Erde.

My knowledge of Chinese music is as limited as you like; I really know nothing about it save what I’ve heard in the movies. But I gathered that the seven pieces that Andy Lin played are part of an ongoing, evolving tradition that has not been uunaffected by the pull of Western diatony. Composers were not identified; it may be that there are none, as such — that pieces such “Birds Singing in the Empty Mountain” and “Parting after the Newly-Married” are closer to jazz standards, musical concentrates that the performer fleshes out in his or her own idiom. (I must look into this!) I will say, though, that while it might have been reasonable to fear forty-five minutes of Chinese-opera screeching, the gallery was filled instead with the sounds of music both mellow and engaging. There was a fair amount of bravura trompe l’oreille (“onomatopoeia” wouldn’t do it justice) — those “Birds,” the horses in “Horse Racing” and “Horses Running on a Battle Field.” But “Loved Lonely Flower” sang a song that was almost Central European in its post-Romantic melancholy. And “Parting after the Newly-Married,” which captures the dismay of a bride whose husband has been conscripted the day after the wedding, was a dramatic scena without voice. Or, rather, with the voice of Andy Lin’s erhu. This was sophisticated but accessible music. Not the faintest whiff of broccoli.


Two items in this morning’s reading had me mulling over the conundrum labeled “nation.” One, in the Times, concerned the “often overlooked” role of the oligarchy in Greece’s fiscal woes. Two years ago, Christine Lagarde, then French finance minister, compiled a list of over two thousand Greeks thought have bank accounts at a Swiss bank. In Greece itself, this list was “swept under the rug,” writes Rachel Donadio. (Surprise, surprise.) In the other piece, in The Nation, Gary Younge writes about “Secessionist Fantasies,” here and in Europe.

In Europe, it is partly history’s revenge on rhetoric. The emergence of the nation-state as the single most effective economic and political unit over the past two centuries necessitated a confected patriotism that sought either to iron out or ignore regional differences. This meant reimagining countries not as the product of regional alliances, wars or necessity but as an incarnation of innate genius born from essential characteristics. “We have made Italy,” said Massimo d’Azeglio at the first meeting of the newly united Italy’s infant parliament. “Now we must make Italians.” But while those differences were eclipsed, they were rarely eliminated.

That’s putting it mildly. Tara Zahra, in a review appearing in the same issue, explores the postwar ethnic cleansing that attacked the Volksdeutsch, German-speakers living outside the (new) German border, reminds us of the American role in the disasters of which this was only the latest:

But for the victors’ calculations to be understood entirely, we actually have to turn back the clock even further, to the end of World War I. Woodrow Wilson arguably bears as much responsibility as Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt and Czechoslovakia’s president, Edvard Beneš, for the postwar spree of ethnic cleansing. In 1918, the remnants of the multinational Habsburg and Ottoman empires were carved into sovereign nation-states, in accordance with the Wilsonian ideal of “national self-determination.” As Hannah Arendt perceptively argued, the world stood convinced in 1918 that “true freedom, true emancipation, and true popular sovereignty could be attained only with full national emancipation, and that people without their own national government were deprived of human rights.” 

The problem with this principle was that borders and nations were not neatly aligned in Eastern and Central Europe. Citizens of the Habsburg Empire’s many linguistic, national and confessional groups were hopelessly intermingled. In many cases it was not even clear who belonged to what nation, because so many citizens of the empire were bilingual or indifferent to nationalism. Equally important, in spite of the rhetoric of national self-determination, the frontiers of the new successor states had been drawn with geopolitical imperatives in mind. Even though German speakers formed an absolute majority in the borderlands of Czechoslovakia (which would come to be known as the Sudetenland), and most wanted to join the Austrian rump state, the region was forcibly annexed to Czechoslovakia for the sake of the state’s economic viability. 

The fact is — and citizens of the United States ought to appreciate this better than most — that the idea of the nation has never had much of a foundation outside the realm of sentiment. As a sentiment, it works pretty well: American children are (or used to be) brought up to respect the nation’s symbols, which are by and large inclusive and free of identity baggage. “Born in the USA” is all it takes. (Geographical isolation helps.) Strong national sentiment (“patriotic” is the preferred synonym; “nationalism” is for other people) made it easy for generations of Americans to overlook the ugliness of slavery and segregation — but then so did skin color. The toxicity of European nationalism springs from the difficulty of detecting “the other,” someone who might look just like you, giving himself away when he opens his mouth and speaks Walloon instead of Flemish. (How long does it take a Sunni Muslim to spot a Shiite?) American oppression of blacks was dreadful, but the status quo was largely free of the hate that fear of the invisible promotes.

It will be interesting, if we get to live so long, to see how future generations of Muslim immigrants assimilate into the textures of Northern Europe’s populations. There is every reason to expect that the lucky educated few will shed sectarian fervor, while the disadvantaged many will cling to Islam for the same reason that American immigrants supported Tammany Hall and tolerated protection rackets. But that overlooks any new wrinkles that might be in store. How long, one wonders, will the Maghrib and the Middle East remain pervasively unprosperous? Longer than it will take the Greeks on the Lagarde list to cough up? 

Gotham Diary:
Found Object
12 October 2012

Friday, October 12th, 2012

If I had known what was on the program, I should have stayed at home. I didn’t want to go out; I was feeling a bit gassy, and still pale and blank from the previous day’s strange hangover. Kathleen couldn’t go, for a handful of very good reasons. But when I totted up the excuses, they didn’t add up to much, and I bore in mind that the responsibility to attend concerts for which one has purchased tickets is not so much a financial one (there is no waste, if you have something better to do with your time; and your money has gone to a good cause) as a social one: the musicians want people in the seats, of course; but beyond that there’s the need to remind oneself — one’s physical listening apparatus — that the music one loves could not have become known, when it was written, if audiences never showed up for it. It’s the opposite of what they say about the movies (bosh, in my view); it inverts the alleged importance of thrilling to a spectacle in a dark room full of people one can’t see. At a concert, audience response (coughs or the utter absence of coughs, for example) is a register to which musicians are attuned, and a feedback to the audience itself. So I took my seat in Row T and played my part as a member of the crowd welcoming Orpheus to its 40th anniversary season (not its fortieth in Carnegie Hall — I don’t know when that will take place). But if I’d known what was on the program, I’d have stayed home, and made one of the biggest mistakes of my concertgoing life.

Beethoven’s Fifth, that’s what was on the program.

It’s a work that I never, ever listen to. It appears on no playlist. There is a recording, by Carlos Kleiber, much-admired, that I pull out once every ten years. I ought to be very unfamiliar with the Fifth. But I seemed to know every note of it last night. At the same time, and by the miracle that is the Orpheus way with music, I had never heard it before. The Fifth that I had heard before was portentous and saccharine by turns, with gruff bits of fugato and a clanging, “heroic” finale. Fate knocking at the door and all that. The Fifth was a symphony that came in a brass box, lined with dead velvet, reeking of another era’s idea of human greatness. It was a cliché and a bore. Beethoven being “Beethoven.” The Fifth was an unbeautiful leftover.

Last night, however, this is what it was: a piece of music that, at the group’s inception, no member of Orpheus would have considered playing. Forty years on, its performance was still somewhat controversial among the players. But because of the way that Orpheus has developed for learning complex scores and playing them without a conductor, last night’s Fifth came off as a manuscript recently discovered in an attic. The musicians had looked at it every which way, practiced it alone, in groups, in sections, and altogether, and, when they were ready, they decided to play it for the public. What they played sounded like a missing link between Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and Schubert’s Unfinished, while at the same time making the point that Beethoven, unlike Mozart and Schubert, was not Viennese. Every note, every passage was fascinating. The symphony glistened and gleamed and sounded like music, not some big idea. There were no ideas, except possibly the professional one of outdoing Jupiter‘s last movement.

At the climax, the model and inspiration for a century’s soaring finales (culminating in Schoenberg’s Gurre Lieder and Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand), instead of daydreaming about heroism and being the best that you can be &c, I choked up at the thought of the once-scrappy little chamber ensemble, playing gigs on the Staten Island Ferry and suchlike, triumphing in the temple of Carnegie, nailing chord after hammering chord in perfect accord, but sounding nothing like the bored orchestras that made music sound like canned fustian when I was growing up. This was no sell-out of the early-music, eclectic-repertoire ethos that prevailed among the generation of musicians from which Orpheus emerged. This was the apotheosis of that ethos: to make something new not by making it different but by making it as best it can be made, from the inside out. 

The event was simulcast on WQXR. I don’t know how much of the grandeur of the performance came through to radio (and Intenet) listeners, but I don’t much care, because you really did have to be there to feel what was happening. You had to be sitting in the hall, coughing or not coughing. (Nobody was coughing.)


There were two other works on the program, the overture to Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri — an astute warm-up for the Beethoven — and a song cycle for mezzosoprano and baritone, Earth Echoes, by Augusta Read Thomas, a fortyish composer currently working in Chicago. The singers were Sasha Cooke, who had a warm voice, big but firmly in control, and Nathan Gunn, who sounded suave but underpowered. The writing for voice was agreeably lyrical, in contrast to the score for the orchestra, which managed to be both grandiose and meandering, like a monument stumbling about in search of a plinth. (But not as delightful as the Hockney image that my metaphor might suggest.) The texts were drawn from an A-list of world poets (Rumi, Dickinson, Basho, Wordworth, and so on — even Mahler’s adaptation of Wang Wei, from the end of Das Lied von der Erde), and the words were as unintelligible as English always is when it is sung at full voice. (There’s a reason why pop style is an Anglophone invention. It’s the only way our vowels can be understood.) I used to find works like Earth Echoes an utter trial, but years of listening to new works played by Orpheus has made me a connoisseur of virtuoso ensemble playing. At a concert a few years ago, a composer revealed in the program notes that he had set out to write something so difficult that the Orpheus musicians wouldn’t be able to play it, but he soon conceded that he was the one faced with an impossibility. Last night, I watched Laura Frautschi (on whom I am certainly not the only one to have a big crush) beat out the tortuous time with her upper body, whether she was playing her violin or not. I would not dream of passing judgment on Earth Echoes; I’ll leave that to time and future performances. I will only say that Orpheus did not fail to make it very interesting.

Gotham Diary:
Cirque de chambre
15 February 2012

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Circuses have never appealed to me. Animals don’t really interest me, and I don’t care for their smell. But it’s the human component that puts me off. In the circus, the illusion that the performing artist is having a good time — common to all the arts, even the ones that don’t involve performance; this is why everyone wants to meet artists (a mistake in most cases) — is exaggerated to the point of a smirking dare. Can you possibly be so stupid as to imagine that pleasure has anything at all to do with the clown’s leering grin?

All of this is precisely what made the circus appealing to modernists like Stravinsky, and to his sophisticated audiences, who considered themselves superior to bourgeois, fun-seeking naïveté. The pathos of circus life underlies the brittleness of Petrouchka, of course, but it was after World War I that Stravinsky made the pathos itself brittle, and never moreso than in L’Histoire de soldat, a circus-within-a-circus work that I wish I could have stayed for at last night’s ACJW recital at Weill Recital Hall. The important thing is that I got to hear the companion piece, commissioned by ACJW and Carnegie Hall, that was played before the intermission, a 25-minute work in three movements with pre-, inter-, and postludes, written by four composers as a consortium called Sleeping Giant. Had I been able to stay for the longer second part of the program — had I not had a date for Valentine’s Day dinner with my wife — I expect that I’d have found the Stravinsky interesting but slightly stale, at least after Histories, as the companion piece is called, proved to be both so interesting and so novel.

At dinner, after I’d described it, Kathleen asked me if I thought that Histories would work as a recording. I’d love to find out, but I’d have to sit through a second performance to be sure. Histories is the first piece of purely instrumental music that I’ve ever heard of, aside of course from Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, that asks the musicians to do something besides play. At one point, the four wind players left the stage for stations in the side aisles, from which they blew through their instruments so as to suggest winds or waves, although of course no suggestion at all may have been intended. It would be easy to make the staging of Histories sound silly, but in fact it was fun. That’s what makes Histories essentially unlike the work from which it draws its inspiration. Today’s younger classical-music composers are after serious fun. Nothing could be more rigorously strained out of their music than the cynicism that is always curdling the edges of Stravinsky’s work.


The four composers who constitute Sleeping Giant are Andrew Norman, Jacob Cooper, Robert Hornstein, and Christopher Cerrone (it seems that there are six giants in all, two of whom did not participate in this project), and their collaboration is rich enough but also sufficiently unified to suggest a new School of New York — a School of Brooklyn, more like. Born between 1979 and 1984, these musicians have evidently made a commitment to the traditional materials of classical music — the instruments, the system of notation, and of course the long list of compositions. But they are also young men of today, presumably unfamiliar with the deviceless life and as keen to have something happen right now as any gamer — or not! Although I can easily imagine a response to Histories that would dismiss it as racket and noise when it wasn’t repetitious, I’m very aware that such dismissals invariably attend early departures in new directions; you can go all the way back to Hugo’s Hernani for fine examples of fustian disapproval.  I am certainly not equipped to describe Histories in terms that would argue its musical accomplishments, but I can try to tell you why I liked it.

Histories adopts the orchestration of Stravinsky’s suite from L’Histoire du soldat: violin (Keats Dieffenbach), bass (Brian Ellingsen), clarinet (Paul Won Jin Cho), bassoon (Shelley Monroe Huang), trumpet (Nathan Botts), trombone (Richard Harris), and percussion (David Skidmore). And it borrows a few themes, or fragments of themes. But it is most like Stravinsky in that it doesn’t sound like Stravinsky at all; rather, it renews what you might call his exploration of the atomic structure of music. What is music, really, and what exactly does a trombone do? In order to engage an audience with these questions, you have to call attention to what’s going on on stage, and avoid sending the listeners off into reveries. Sleeping Giant has two principal strategies for making things fresh, and both depend on unblended textures in which, playing together, instruments nevertheless resist producing a “joint” sound. One strategy is to ripple the textures with complicated but comprehensible rhythms; another is to luxuriate reiteravely. The contributions of Mr Cooper (“Agitated, stumbling, like an endless run-on sentence”) and Mr Cerrone (“Marionettes”) exploit the first approach; Mr Hornstein’s “Recovering” embodies the second, taking a phrase from Stravinsky’s “Pastorale” and marbling it on the vibraphone.

Andrew Norman provides the prelude, the interludes, and the postludes, brief bits of amusing warm-up music that I should have appreciated better if I were more familiar with L’Histoire du soldat — my bad. His pieces established Mr Skidmore, the percussionist, as the MC/ringmaster of Histories. The proceedings were cued throughout by the scratching of a gourdlike instrument in the form of an oversized baguette. At Mr Skidmore’s signal, the other instrumentalists turned this way or that, or froze in place; it might have been dreadfully fatuous if it hadn’t been so light-handed.

The titles of the individual pieces proved to be singularly apt. Mr Skidmore’s virtuosos drumming propelled the “run-on sentence” of Mr Cooper’s composition. Did it go on for too long? I didn’t think so, but I probably would have been less patient thirty years ago. Although there wasn’t much in the way of a tune (I understate) and the drumming was insistent, I was never annoyed or eager for the piece to stop. It stopped just about where it ought to. Mr Cerrone’s “Marionettes” was exactly that, if you can imagine not little people on strings but ferocious tropical, perhaps prehistorical birds, all of them pecking at indigestible diamonds. I didn’t think of birds while the music lasted; it was only when it was over, and I asked myself, “What was that?” that the image popped into view. If you really pay attention to “Marionettes,” you probably won’t have the mental room for daydreaming about birds.


 This would be a good point to write about the enormous shift in sophistication that Histories registers — the shift, that is, from Stravinsky’s hyper-sophisticated faux-folk music. Sleeping Giant, for example, stands in utterly different relation to the popular; in our time, it is the popular that is overworked to the point of corruption, and classical music that is, somewhat astonishingly, artless. I shall leave it at that. I was grateful to hear Histories in the Weill, because gold-and-white neoclassical rooms are part of the classical-music tradition, too, and I am more at home in them than I would be (I expect; I haven’t been) at a downtown venue such as Le Poisson Rouge. The venue underscored the degree to which Sleeping Giant is up to something really new.

Gotham Diary:
20 December 2011

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

After all, I did go to Carnegie Hall last night to hear Messiah. We didn’t stay until the end, because we’d never have gotten a decent dinner if we had. None of the restaurants that we likes keeps the kitchen going after eleven anymore (New York has certainly become the City That Gets Its Beauty Rest), so we took after “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” (sung a tad harshly by Emalie Savoy). We didn’t like leaving early, but we hadn’t been mesmerized, or at least I hadn’t. Kent Tritle’s direction went for lovely, light-handed clarity of texture, but at the expense, I thought, of the occasional impressive choral boom that reminds you what this music is about. And there had been muddles.

It would have been nice, for example, if I’d brought the tickets. I still had them at home, although I didn’t think to look. I thought that I had sent Kathleen off with them in the morning. But she had taken the wrong envelope — the one containing tickets for the Oratorio Society’s April performance (Dvorak’s Stabat Mater). We found this out as we were heading up to our box seats. (Box seats! I hadn’t sat in a box seat in Carnegie Hall since the last Philharmonic season there, when I was 14 or so.) The ticket-taker sent us packing to the box office, where correct tickets were issued on the spot, as soon as my name was confirmed on a list of Oratorio Society subscribers. I’d heard about such marvels from Fossil Darling, but I’d never had to test them.

The muddle might have been much worse. In the middle of the afternoon, before I’d made my mind up one way or the other, Kathleen called to say that the parents of an associate were desperate for tickets, and, much as she herself wanted to go, she’d rather give the tickets to people who really wanted them than go alone. I fastened on what I knew to be Kathleen’s genuine desire to hear Messiah at Christmas, and asked for an hour to decide. In that time, I threw on some street clothes, walked up to Staples for some mailing envelopes, came home, walked over to the Post Office to mail the cards-and-calendars that I’d already stuffed (the line was daunting, but it moved quickly), and come home again. And I felt pretty good. The air had cleared in my head a bit. Partly, it had been the exercise. Partly, though, it had been the surprising moment when, thinking of the aria that I mentioned above, I began to weep, right in the street.

Indeed, the first half of Messiah (in Mozart’s arrangement, which I’d never heard live before) served as a kind of Requiem for my aunt — a private service for just me, right there in Carnegie Hall. (This is what Kathleen has in mind when she says how appropriate it is that I was born on the Feast of the Three Kings.) As the tenor, a pleasing Aaron Blake, intoned the opening words, “Comfort Ye,” my tears welled up again, and they kept flowing through the first chorus. They bubbled up for the last time during the Pastoral Symphony. By the time the first part of the oratorio came to and, I was deeply happy about having come. And I was especially relieved that the associate’s parents hadn’t been presented with a very unpleasant booby prize when they tried to get into the hall.

After the interval, there was another muddle. It turned out that the young lady in the front corner seat of our box who was visibly attached to a young man in the adjacent box was (surprise) sitting in the wrong seat. The actual ticketholder, a forty-ish gent in a tux who looked like a knocked-down Robin Williams, not only fussed about his seat, but he helped himself to the program from my chair when he went to take it. He wore, according to Kathleen, who was stuck right behind him, some very cheap cologne. But the worst of it was that he was, tout court, an asshole. Throughout the second half of the performance, he engaged in dumbshow conversation with someone, unseen by us, in another box. During Mary Phillips’s somewhat underpowered rendition of “He Was Despised,” our natty neighbor mimed an ostentatious yawn. Later, after some squeak in the chorus that you had to want to notice, he stuck a finger in his ear as if to clean it out. I’ve never seen such behavior! It may make me sound like May Robson to say so, but I’ll say it again: I’ve never seen such behavior. As he sat directly in front of Kathleen, his bobbing and weaving — every now and then, he had to lean out over the edge of the balcony, looking for I shudder to think what — made it impossible for Kathleen to watch the performance without plenty of bobbing and weaving of her own. We werent very hard into Part II of Messiah before my thoughts were distracted entirely from the the music by the thought of tapping the jerk on the shoulder and insisting that he sit still. (Indeed the only number that held my complete attention was Kevin Deas’s fierce complaint about raging nations and vain imaginings.)

Decamping early for dinner seemed, then, doubly wise.

Gotham Diary:
26 October 2011

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

I can’t say that I’m very happy with this photograph. I could not manage, in more than fifty images, to capture the crispness of each leaf on the mat of vines that covers the back half of the side wall of a building fronting 87th Street — not really that far away. I fiddled with every dial and every setting that Dennis Curtin’s Short Course linked to sharpness. Perhaps I ought to try my skill on a somewhat closer subject. Perhaps manually setting the focus to infinity is overshooting it. If anyone has any ideas, you know where to get me. In a few weeks, when the leaves fall off, the white wall will be crazed with woody ropes. That would make a good picture too, if I could capture the detail so sorely blurred here.


I was in a mood to stay home and teach myself photography, yesterday, but I had a ticket in the drawer that I could not let go to waste. Ensemble ACJW is a group of young musicians — but I’m not even going to try to summarize the humanitarian goulash of mission statement that takes up a page of the program. The musicians comprising the Academy (“A”) are recent graduates of Juilliard, Eastman, &c. (“J”) They commit to teach music, on some unspecified level (and with very unspecified frequency), at New York City’s public schools. (No initial for this.) Now they are giving recital series at Weill Recital Hall (that’s what the “W” stands for), which is of course in Carnegie Hall. The name of the group left me wondering whether the nation’s business schools or Central Marketing will be the death of this country.

The Ensemble’s first program of the season served double duty as an entry in “Tchaikovsky in St Petersburg,” a curious title for a string of musical events actually intended to commemmorate the composer/conductor’s opening concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1891. (It was there that music from the Nutcracker was first played anywhere.) As their contribution, the Ensemble offered a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in a, which is perhaps best thought of as not just another piano trio. Works by Glinka and Arensky filled out the first half of the bill. As cellist Yves Dharamraj pointed out in his remarks before the Arensky, the three works on offer covered the variety of musical direction taken by Russian composers in the Nineteenth Century. Happily, the actual music was more than edifying.

Glinka’s Trio Pathétique for Clarinet, Bassoon, and Piano — well, pathétique can only mean that it is written in the latest European style. Written in 1832, it bears all the hallmarks of music and art dating from the Silly Quarter (1815-1840). The first movement was free-ranging if not absolutely incoherent, but the second and third movements did a better job of imitating Weber (who wrote so well for both clarinet and bassoon) and, through him, the frill and fun of bel canto roulades. Alexey Gorokholinksy deftly met the score’s virtuoso demands, but Shelley Monroe Huang performend the slightly more remarkable feat of making her bassoon sound like a chamber instrument in need of larger repertoire. For pianist Marina Radiushina, the work must have served as a welcome warm-up to her second-half challenge.

Then we had Anton Arensky’s second String Quartet, an oddity calling for two cellos instead of two violins. It’s a lovely piece, but I spent the entire second movement trying to remember more about the LP that tacked the quartet’s theme and variations, adapted for a full string section, onto a recording of Tchaikovsky’s famous Serenade. It’s really the only Arensky that I’ve ever known, and I never knew that it came from a string quartet. Emily Popham Gillins, Mr Dharmaraj, and Hamilton Berry all played very well, but it was Margaret Dyer’s strong viola that caught my ear.

Mr Berry came to the fore in the Tchaikovsky, which he played with Ms Radiushina and violinist Keats Dieffenbach. He played with a passion that would have set the house on fire if Ms Dieffenbach had shared it. She played extraordinarily well — like a god, as they say — but the collegiality of top-notch chamber music was missing by a hair. Tchaikovsky hadn’t wanted to write chamber music for strings and piano; like almost everyone who wasn’t a German, he found the combination of bowed and percussive sounds indigestible. But the death of his mentor, Nikolai Rubinstein, jarred the composer into a change of heart, and the piano trio, nicknamed “Elegiac,” is the result. Tchaikovsky resorts to a couple of devices to soften the clash between the violin and the cello, instruments that had not been changed since early in the previous century, and the piano, which had recently been reconceived for steroid-ophonics. One is to subdue the keyboard with burbling arpeggios. The other, to very opposite effect, is to keep the strings in bold unison.

I had only the dimmest memory of the trio befefore last night’s performance, and what I remembered was that unison writing. I remembered it for the same reason that I had for not getting to know the trio better. Mr Berry and Ms Dieffenbach may not have infused their performance with white-hot surrender, but they did play the unison passages in tune. It was not so on the recording that introduced me to this work (a late offering, as I recall, of the Heifetz-Piatigorsky collaborations). I thought, callow youth that I was, that Tchaikovsky’s unison writing was bare and uninspired, and the venerable musicians’ meandering did nothing to suggest the power that can be attained by setting strings soaring together over a thundering Niagara of piano music. That was last night’s surprise. I saw that Tchaikovsky knew what he was doing, and I was quite stirred by it.

Here’s how good Hamilton Berry is: as a young man, he’s a bit woolly and indistinct, prone to shuffle on and offstage in a self-effacing manner that Mr Dharamraj, for one, ceertainly doesn’t share. But when it came time for the waltz variation in the vast second part of Tchaikovsky’s trio, the otherwise unprepossessing cellist became an Ethan Stiefel. There was no way that a man who could play that well couldn’t dance that well — or such was the illusion.

Gotham Diary:
14 October 2011

Friday, October 14th, 2011

We apologize for the outages these days; we’re assured that there won’t be any more. Not for a while, anyway.

Not that I have much to report this morning — or, rather, much time for reporting. I’ll have to fill in this entry later this afternoon. We were out late last night, Kathleen and I, and the evening was so exhilarating — Gil Shaham playing the Brahms Violin Concerto with Orpheus was an experience without parallel in the concert hall, although I was often reminded of extremely tight jazz sessions — that I had no desire to be a good boy and go to bed when I got home. So I sat up reading a preposterous but amusing article about The Quilted Giraffe, a restaurant that Kathleen and I never tried (thank heaven, I can say now) in the current issue of Town & Country. Even that was exhilarating. 


But before I get to last night, I want to say a few more words about Jennifer Egan’s novels, and the powerful sense that I have of understanding them, at long last. I should begin by saying that I knew along that the problem was with me. Egan’s books are subtle and sophisticated, but they are not hermetic puzzles that yield secret meanings only to those who know how to hold them upside down in just the right light and squint. Her fiction is as straightforward as it appears to be. The problem at my end was that I was picking up a strong signal that I didn’t know how to interpret. I only knew that I was receiving it. I was sure of that; I was sure that I wasn’t reading in a significance that wasn’t really there. The signifier was in plain sight. But then so was everything else in Egan’s rich fictions, with their occluded plots, layered timelines, salient recursions, and fertile lacunae. There was so much to see. And I understood most of it. But I was persistently aware of not understanding something that I was seeing.

And then, as I wrote yesterday, it came to me. Literally: the sentence drifted through my mind and into the paragraph of a letter. Only when I’d written it down did I grasp its significance — which turned out to be the significance that I’d been hunting ever since I was first beguiled by A Visit From the Goon Squad. Rather, I grasped that I had a handle on it. The handle was the term “American exceptionalism.” I’ve moved beyond that; I don’t believe that Egan’s characters could not behave as they do if they were not American. (We live in globalizing times.) If I’ve held on to “exceptionalism,” it’s because the term took me to the image that seemed to explain everything. Jennifer Egan presents her characters as they see themselves in the mirror after they’ve done their primping and are ready to go out the door — at their most self-confident, that is — but she is able, as if writing in some sort of stereophonic parallel text, to accompany this image with a morally grounded critique (a quiet demolition, really) of the rationalizations and petty dishonesties that underlie that self-confidence. Egan’s characters are glamorous because they’re all con men, and they’re sympathetic because they’re all their own greatest marks. Here, at the very beginning of Goon Squad, is one of the novel’s major characters, Sasha, roiling in the backwash of her bad little habit of stealing other people’s unconsidered trifles (sometimes not so trifling), which her analyst (whom she calls Coz) has just asked her about.

Sasha turned her face into the blue couch because her cheeks were heating up and she hated that. She didn’t want to explain to Coz the mix of feelings she’d had, standing there with Alex: the pride she took in these objects, a tenderneess that was only heightened by the shame of their acquisition. She’d risked everything, and here was the result: the raw, warped core of her life. Watching Alex move his eyes over the pile of objects stirred something in Sasha. She put her arms around him from behind, and he turned, surprised, but willing.

One of the elements of that “something” that stirred in Sasha is a feeling that everything is okay, or will be okay if she can change the subject, which she does by distracting Alex, the young man whom she has brought home from a bar, from the virtual shrine to kleptomania that has accreted in a corner of her Lower East Side flat — a place about which she has paralytically mixed emotions.

In fact the whole apartment, which six years ago had seemed like a way station to some better place, had ended up solidifying around Sasha, gathering mass and weight, until she felt both mired in it and lucky to have it — as if she not only couldn’t move on but didn’t want to.

Never once in this entire chapter (or elsewhere in the book that I can think of) are we invited to feel sorry for Sasha. She’s a big girl, and a clever girl; she can take care of herself. She can afford to “risk everything” with a little light-handed thievery. She is an exceptional girl: the ordinary rules manifestly don’t apply to her. Do they? That’s really whatA Visit From the Goon Squad is about. I’ve said that Egan weighs her characters with a morally-grounded critique, but she is no moralist. Some of her characters get away with murder. Others don’t.


About last night: Orpheus began its — what, 39th? season — at Carnegie Hall with what looked to be a very pleasant program; it turned out to be rather more. It opened with Mendelssohn’s Fair Melusine Overture, a trim tone-poem inspired by a legend that Goethe retold in Wilhelm Meister. I hadn’t heard it in years; I couldn’t remember a thing about it. But it turned out that every note was familiar, because works of its charm (considerable) and length (ten minutes or so) were invaluable to me in my radio days, when I had to schedule forty-eight minutes of varied music for every hour, with at least three breaks for commercials. What I really remembered, though, was the little old Jewish emigrant who did something mysterious at the Wall Street bank where I worked for a few summers in my teens. When she learned that I was developing an interest in Wagner, she heaped as much scorn and contumely on the wizard of Bayreuth as she could muster, and certainly one of her most considerable charges, quite aside from Wagner’s concededly posthumous popularity with certain Nazis, was his musical plagiarism, particularly his theft from a Jewish composer — Mendelssohn. I didn’t know what she had in mind at the time, but it came back and hit me when I heard Fair Melusine the first time. By then, I was an aficionado fo the Ring cycle, and it was obvious that Wagner had stolen the whole rolling Rhine motif from Mendelssohn’s overture. It still seemed obvious last night, although I know that musical creative lightning strikes twice a lot more often than you might think, meaning that it strikes two minds at the same time. From what I know of Wagner, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear him defend his theft as an improvement begging to be made upon the original.

I thought about that, and how different things were then; the War hadn’t been over for twenty years. I thought about how dingy Carnegie Hall was in those days; it was slated for demolition as soon as Lincoln Center, rising amidst slum clearance to the northwest, was completed. Looking at it today, with its gilt and its plush as opulent as can be, I can hardly believe that it was such a dreary old barn when I was a kid. Some things really do get better!

I can’t be sure whether it was in 1961 or 1962 that I was taken to Carnegie Hall for the first time, but it was about fifty years ago. Carnegie Hall was only seventy years old when I made my debut as a member of the audience. Seventy years seemed a much bigger number then than it does now, and fifty years — well, fifty years is about how long I’ve been doing everything that interests me.

The composer of the next piece on the program was sitting a few rows ahead of us, and on the other side of the aisle. Cynthia Wong was born in New York in 1982; she’s not even thirty. Her composition, Memoriam, commissioned by Orpheus, was given its first New York performance. The dedication, printed in the program booklet, began with an address to her father, dead of cancer, and the music that followed was at least as effective a tone poem (in this case about hospital corridors and chemotherapy) as Mendelssohn’s. I didn’t understand Memoriam in any formal way, but I was happy to listen to it, and my only objection, one of aesthetic economy, was that the score didn’t make enough use of the vibraphone or the tubular bells to warrant, so to speak, the rental. It was grand to see Laura Frautschi in the concertmaster’s seat; I missed her last season.

Then, Haydn’s 73rd Symphony, La Chasse. I wondered if I knew it. I know all of Haydn’s Paris and London symphonies, of course, and a sprinkling of earlier ones, but not in any systematic way; I seem to be saving the methodical comprehension of Haydn’s symphonic development for a rainy day. I misread the program note, which said something about La Fedeltà premiata, one of Haydn’s operas. I don’t know any of Haydn’s operas; I’ve never really given them a chance. I have enough trouble with Mozart’s early operas, and Mozart really knew what he was doing (eventually). But I know La Fedeltà premiata for precisely the same reason that I know Fair Melusine. An overture by Haydn! Aside from his symphonies, quartets, and sonatas, what Haydn wrote was for the most part much longer than twenty or twenty-five minutes a pop. As I say, I misread the program. It said something about how Haydn had later recycled the opera overture into the 73rd symphony. I assumed that this would be the first movement, which, as it played — very agreeably, of course — I didn’t recognize. It was only when the bumptious finale began that I realized my mistake. That was the overture. How like Haydn.

After the interval, Gil Shaham played the Brahms violin concerto. That’s why we went to the concert. The weather was damp and dreary, and Kathleen was exhausted; she could hardly keep her eyes open on the train. (How do you get to Carnegie Hall from Yorkville? Unless you’re an idiot, you take the 6 and then the N or the R.) But we’d been wholly wowed by Mr Shaham’s performance, a few seasons back, of Beethoven’s violin concerto. That was when Orpheus was beginning to play big-boy stuff that was considered beyond the reach of a conductorless “chamber orchestra.” Brahms’s concerto is about a million times more challenging than Beethoven’s in this regard, if you ask me, because Brahms is always playing rhythms off against one another, and who’s going to keep track of what’s going on if not an overall music director?

The Brahms violin concerto is one of the most beautiful in the world, perhaps the most beautiful, and I am always happy to sit back and enjoy it. But sitting back was not permitted last night. Here’s what happens when there’s no conductor to direct the traffic: the orchestra and the soloist morph into a gigantic jazz band and the familiar score becomes a series of astonishing riffs. Never has my little brain followed music in a concert hall with so little internal distraction. It’s very hard to write about how great performances “make it new,” but a homely image that comes to mind is that of an imaginary machine that rolls along ripping up old roadway at one end while laying down new pavement at the other. You know the music; but you don’t know this music. The musicians are tearing it apart in the very act of putting it together.

I’ve heard lovelier violin playing than Gil Shaham produced last night, and there were more than a few squeaks in his upper register, at least in the early part of the performance. But the beauty of the concerto, and the beauty of violin playing — these were exploded and reconstituted along with Brahms’s score. Certainly some of the most beautiful moments were the quietest ones. How softly can you play an instrument in Carnegie Hall, filled with a thousand odd people, and still be heard? Very softly. It was a curious miracle, how silent the room was, but for the gossamer silver threads of tone that spun from Mr Shaham’s violin. They were the only sounds in a zone of absolute quiet. (Even the subway was stilled.) Aside from that, all I can say was that soloist and orchestra exercised a collegiality that I’m quite sure would have amazed the composer. Certainly they threw the schoolbook notion of the concerto as a form of conflict right out the window. It clearly meant something that Mr Shaham was wearing what all the Orpheus men wore: a dark suit, a dark shirt, and a silver tie. He was One Of Them. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.

And the fans went wild: it was one of those ballpark evenings at Orpheus. Orpheus audiences can outshout and outwhistle the opera queens any old time.

Gotham Diary:
3 October 2011

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Kathleen and I were married thirty years ago today. It does not seem so very long ago. What it seems is both unimaginably distant (in illo tempore — as I was taught in school: in another kind of time altogether, not quite continuous with ours) and eternally present (marking the beginning of life as I’ve known it).  

The day is special, but celebration seems out of key. I find it difficult to regard this anniversary in the American way, as marking an achievement. Kathleen and I were lucky to stumble into one another, because it turned out that we were well-suited to stumbling through life together. You think that you know what you’re doing, but the whole point of having brains, it seems, is to grasp, in retrospect, that you didn’t. When we tripped and sometimes fell down, we were able to pick ourselves and, more important, one another up. We dusted ourselves off and kept going. And we were glad, to say the least, of the company.

On Saturday night, we had a dinner party, just six of us, friends whom we’ve known (with one slight exception) since before we were married. I wasn’t thinking of our anniversary when I planned the evening, or prepared the meal, or even when I served it forth. If I was thinking of anything, it was inaugurating a new season, one in which I’m resolved, as I am always resolved, to give more and better dinner parties. In retrospect, though, the evening was the best imaginable observance of our years of marriage. Especially in one novelty: when one of the guests noted that I was having trouble keeping my eyes open, I didn’t protest and open another bottle of champagne; instead, I saw everyone off with a warm “goodnight” and went straight to bed.  

I can’t say that that wasn’t an achievement.


On Friday night, we went to hear Cassandra Wilson and her fantastic band at the Rose Theatre in TimeWarner Center. This was the result of idly chatting about Dianne Reeves while we were out on Fire Island. Kathleen and I are both crazy about Dianne Reeves, and we wondered when she’d be singing in New York? And where? (We’ve heard her at Carnegie Hall and at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium — she was fronting for Al Green on the former occasion, but had the Met to herself.) The next thing you know, we’d bought two subscriptions to a series of three Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts, of which the Reeves date is the last, sometime next spring. We have Herbie Hancock before that — neither of us has ever been to hear him, so that will be something. Cassandra Wilson made a believer out of Kathleen when she released In the Belly of the Sun, and we went to see her at the Blue Note a couple of New Year’s Eves ago. Her heading the Hancock-Reeves lineup clearly indicated that subscribing to the series was Meant To Be. I ordered the tickets online from the house. The lagniappe: aisle seats!

We hadn’t been in the Rose yet, and, boy, did we wonder what we’d been waiting for. A gem of a concert hall — any kind of usic would sound good there, I expect — with a great lighting system, the Rose is a great deal more than a shrine to jazz; it’s a place where jazz can grow. And Cassandra Wilson is an artist who makes sure that it will. Her instincts are evenly divided between providing a diva showcase for her luxuriant, low-pitched voice and approaching her material as a jazz deconstructionist. “Her material” happens to be just about anything. It occurred to me to hope that she eventually puts Bach in her hopper. For the moment, her environment doesn’t stretch quite that far, but it comfortably ranges from Gershwin (“the Man I Love”) to Delta (“St James Infirmary”), and is thoroughly infused by Afro-Caribbean rhythms and textures. I mean it as a compliment when I say that Wilson can turn any room into a bordello’s front parlor.

Wilson’s sidemen are all extraordinary, and they do not hide their virtuosity. That’s why I was disappointed when the intermission was erased by the musicians’ spontaneous enthusiasm. A gentleman came out from the wing and handed Wilson a sheet of paper, which she read to the audience: no intermission. All very well in its way, but my ears needed a break, just as they would if the program consisted to two late Beethoven quartets. The result was that we missed the encore(s). When Wilson bid us all “goodnight” and walked off the stage, I told Kathleen that I had to do the same.

Part of the blame goes to Grégoire Maret, the Harlem-Swiss harmonicat who has traded in his Malcolm Gladwell look for a shaved head. It seems unfair, especially to guitarist Marvin Sewell, to single out one member of the band for special mention, but I do so because Maret’s solos, while brilliantly musical, have the urgency of an air-raid siren. They’re electrifyingly acrobatic (as is the musician himself), and you more or less stop breathing for the duration. There’s only so much of this that an elderly body can take. That intermission would have been most welcome!

Gotham Diary:
30 September 2011

Friday, September 30th, 2011

There was no babysitting last night — Megan was down with a viral sore throat that there was nothing for but to suffer through — but I did make it to the Kitano Bar to hear Chip White Quartet’s second set. At a time when, lately, I’d be getting ready for bed, I was getting dressed instead, and sharply, too, mindful that the Kitano is in a Japanese hotel.

Before the musicians assembled, I saw the “Zildjian” marque on the back of Chip’s largest cymbal, and I remembered watching a clip about the company, which was founded by an Armenian alchemist in Istanbul in 1623, to serve the sultan’s court, and which now, somewhat more prosaically, supplies the greats of rock and pop from a factory in Massachusetts. I’m not a big fan of cymbals (except when Mozart goes for a “Turkish” effect, in which case I giggle like an unreconstructed toddler), but knowing something about the Zildjians — or, better, knowing that I had once upon a time known something about them — focused my attention on how Chip played them. What had hitherto seemed the random banging on the graduated discs now revealed rhythms and patterns that it was a pleasure to follow. Chip’s jazz is not only inspired by the classics (Parker, Gillespie, Rollins, Jackson) but an embodiment of it as well; it’s Chip’s leading from the drums that makes for a bit of difference. I especially liked his more ruminative pieces, “The Other Side of the Rainbow With Sybil” and “Rain.”

The Kitano is a great live jazz room, and I hope to go back at least a few times a year. It’s a cosy little corner of a space, and there’s a no-talking rule that didn’t need to be enforced last night. As the MC put it, “silent” is an anagram of “listen.” The frites are great, too.


Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 is a very rare treat: a charming and delightful movie about cancer. It is charming and delightful because the actor playing the young victim of a rare sarcoma, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, projects a persona that it is impossible not to care about. It is also not so much about him as about the people in his world, all of whom have a hard time coming to grips with his very bad luck. In a profound if cinematic way, 50/50 refutes the proposition that we all die alone: facing possible death during a delicate surgery, Adam Lerner (Mr Gordon-Levitt) seems aware that anaesthesia will assure that only he will miss the news of his death. Death is something that happens to all of us, more or less repeatedly, until at last it ceases to happen, along with everything else. At no point does the movie plump for hospital drama; for the most taken up with Adam’s course of chemotherapy, 50/50 underlines cancer’s spooky but debilitating uneventfulness. And, by the way, 50/50 is actually very funny. But do bring a hankie.

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.

Music Note:
Fake Mozart by Mozart; Real Mozart by Strauss
Orpheus at Carnegie, with Arabella Steinbacher

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

On Friday night, Kathleen had a reunion dinner that I wanted to go to — it’s no surprise that, although I’ve kept up with hardly anyone that I went to school with, a lot of Kathleen’s former classmates (and their husbands) have become good friends — but I thought that I had better show up for the last of this season’s Orpheus concerts at Carnegie Hall. My attendance record has been pretty bad, but what really got me to go was the challenge of writing about it later. Nothing is more difficult than writing about concerts, and most serious music reviews are stunningly uninformative. (They may be packed with information, but not about the performances.) There is also the ephemerality: nothing that can be said about a concert is going to bring it back; even a recording won’t bring it back.

Consider the concert that opened the season, back in October. As an encore, after Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, Garrick Ohlsson played Chopin’s most famous waltz, and he played it as if it had never been played before and would never be played so well again. I remember the intensity of that feeling very well, but I couldn’t begin to tell you what it was about the playing that took the music from exceptional to unique. It was an illusion, in any case. I’ve heard the waltz played several times since then and never thought to myself, “but this is not as good as Ohlsson!” The magic, I conclude, was the pianist’s ability to infect the waltz with the peculiar excitement of the piano concerto’s finale. This is not to say that he made Chopin sound like Beethoven — not at all. He simply made it seem, given what we had just heard, that this was the way to play the waltz, and the only way. He made it bigger than it had ever been — immense, articulate, and perfect. You had to be there. Even if you had heard Garrick Ohlsson play the same music half an hour later, in another hall or at someone home, and some sort of computer were able to document the fact that he played the waltz in exactly the same way twice, you wouldn’t have been there, at Carnegie Hall, after the Beethoven, listening with us. There is more to music than notes. 

So then: for all my verbiage, I’ve said nothing about what Chopin’s waltz sounded like in October. And that was my point. I can’t tell you about the concert. I can only talk about what I heard. That alters the challenge. 

Friday’s concert turned out to have a wonderfully old-fashioned flavor, because although Arabella Steinbacher, the Bavarian violinist who played Hartmann and Mozart, is a slip of a girl, she plays like Jascha Heifetz. She plays like Jascha Heifetz the way that Garrick Ohlsson played Chopin’s waltz in the only correct manner: You had to be there, and I was. The Hartmann, a Concerto funèbre written at the start of World War II and revised twenty years later, was just about the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. Its brighter moments were saturated with a melancholy that reminded me of Korngold’s violin concerto. Hartmann’s tonality wanders further from the heavenly steps than Korngold’s, but it is never harsh. Which is surprising, given Hartmann’s fondness for supersonic high notes that, even though they were perfectly sounded, must have pained a few ears in the audience. The string band was both lush and austere, like an extraordinarily soft but short-napped velvet. Ms Steinbacher played with complete authority and more than a touch of “longhair” romanticism. Where a violinist such as Gil Shaham will persuade me that he has just written the Beethoven concerto, maybe yesterday, maybe earlier this afternoon, imbuing it with an ineffable up-to-the-minute-ness, an artist in Arabella Steinbacher’s mold takes me back to my childhood, when the music seemed ancient even when it was new, and violinists were pre-eminent brooders. 

And then what did she play, after the interval? Two pieces that a) haven’t appeared on a concert program in the past fifty years, having been overplayed to death in the preceding century and b) never never never ought to be played side by side — or so you would think. I’m talking about Mozart’s Adagio, K 261, and Rondo, K 373, for violin and orchestra. These stand-alone pieces, written long after the five violin concertos, have a fluty quality that suggests a Meissen bust of Beethoven playing the piano, if you can imagine such a thing. To put it another way, they seem incredibly fake — much too pretty to be genuine. (Mirabell rather than Reber Mozartkügeln, if you will.) This is the sort of music that has Mozart the reputation for cuteness that he never quite lives down. (Maybe Leopold wrote them.) What made listening to all that gorgeousness side by side bearable was the violinist’s venerable tone. I was reminded that Bavaria is one of Europe’s more conservative corners, and I don’t mean its politics only. And that’s what made the pieces’ meretriciousness so moving: the violinist’s complete faith in them.

I have not been able to identify Ms Steinbacher’s solo encore, which was extremely old-fashioned. Lots of gypsy bravura. What it reminded me of, more than anything else, was the show-off opening of Ravel’s Tzigane. Also Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy (but minus the laughs). This was fiddling!

At the end, we had Haydn’s London Symphony, the 104th. The last. Did Haydn know that it was his hundred and fourth when he wrote it? It seems unlikely. Did he know that it would be his last? The most exciting part of the performance was the Andante, which alternates an almost banal tick-tock motif with abrupt outtakes from Beethoven’s stormier development sections. The impression conveyed by the orchestra was that Haydn really had no idea of how to bridge these modes, but that his raw blurting would inspire Beethoven to figure it out. I used to think that Beethoven took Haydn’s classicism and roughed it up a bit, making it romantic. Now I think that what Beethoven did was just about the opposite: he smoothed Haydn’s sometimes jocular juxtapositions and gave them an Olympian integrity that is actually more classical than Haydn’s originals. 

The first work on the program was the big surprise: Richard Strauss’s Serenade for Winds, Op 7. I had never heard this before and I wasn’t looking forward to it; really early Strauss can sound post-Wagnerian in a sawdusty way. But the Serenade turned out to be far more like the composer’s great late wind serenades, written in the 1940s (and superbly recorded by Orpheus decades ago), than I should have thought possible. Although not so magical, so shimmery as late or even mature Strauss, the music contemplated the same sort of beauty, at once comfortable, sensuous, and transcendant — it is the beauty of a dreaming child. Not yet twenty years old when he wrote the piece, in 1881, Strauss nevertheless demonstrates a complete understanding of Mozart’s Gran Partita, also known as the Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments, and is itself scored for thirteen musicians. (No double-bass, though.) Unlike the Adagio and Rondo that would come later in the evening, the Serenade was far too Mozartean to sound like Mozart. The Orpheans’ performance was extraordinarily convincing. Without ever playing too loudly, they filled every cubic inch of Carnegie’s space with musical volume — I had never understood that term so well before. There was a moment when the four horns had a gloriously burnished passage just to themselves, and this just about stopped my heart.

I was disappointed to hear the audience’s applause peter out while all the musicans were still on stage. I had just heard something excitingly lovely, but perhaps I was the only one. I had to be there! 

Gotham Diary:
Cold Seat

Monday, April 11th, 2011

Ten days or so ago, in a burst of strange enthusiasm, I bought a couple of expensive opera tickets. I almost immediately regretted having done so, and this regret materialized in the form of a certainty that the tickets would not arrive in time via the mail — which indeed they did not. I was assured that this wouldn’t be a problem, and indeed it wasn’t: when I called the Metropolitan Opera this afternoon to report the problem, I was told that tickets would be waiting for me at the box office. But I asked instead to donate them. Now I can wait for a tax certificate instead.

The opera in question was Capriccio, which for all of my adult life has been a beloved work of art. I know every line; I even own a full score. The flash of enthusiasm that I felt ten days ago, excited by an ad in the online edition of the Times, was an urge to see the role performed by a great exponent of Richard Strauss’s music, Renée Fleming. I booked two aisle seats in the parterre. They were fairly far back, but still very pricey.

If I’d bought just one ticket, maybe I’d have gone. The prospects of hustling to Lincoln Center in time to fetch the tickets at the box office, on the one hand, and of dragging Kathleen along with me, after her week in bed with a bad flu, on the other, combined to transform an evening to look forward to into a nightmare. And in fact I had a bad dream about it this morning, one that woke me up. 

There was a third worry: Capriccio, properly performed, runs for two and half hours, without intermission. I’m certain that I would spend the final hour — full of beautiful music thought it be — longing for a bathroom. Some pleasure. Until the seat donation was settled, I

Most people would probably agree that my ability to take pleasure in anything is too dependent upon my physical comfort. But I can’t enjoy anything if I’m irritated by aches and pangs. I can endure. But few things are as wicked, in my view, as enduring what ought to be pleasure. The falseness is unspeakable.

I saw Capriccio at the Met thirteen years ago, when the production was new, and I recall that the great pleasure of the evening was sitting in a theatre full of people who, thanks to Met Titles, were enjoying the civilized repartee that constitutes the opera’s libretto. Like almost all of my recollections of evenings at the Met, beautiful music did not figure much in what was memorable. This isn’t to say that the performances were unsatisfactory; but there was no special joy in hearing familiar music in the opera house.

Give me a concert performance at Carnegie Hall any time.


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:

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. 

Out & About:
December Doings
31 December 2010

Friday, December 31st, 2010

You might think, from recent entries, at I’ve been doing nothing but reading The Kindly Ones and other earnest books, but I’ve had a few nights out in the past weeks.

The second Orpheus Carnegie Hall concert of the season featured the stunning British soprano Kate Royal. Ms Royal sang Britten’s Les Illuminations, a song cycle, set to Rimbaud, that gives the composer’s countrywomen a chance to show off their Continental chops. After what struck me as an uncertain beginning, Ms Royal’s voice bloomed into the music, but when a beautiful woman sings “Being Beauteous” beautifully, it is hard to say where artistry stops and good luck begins. A beautiful young woman, I should say; time will settle the mystery. My companion and I, old school gents, felt that a slip ought to have been worn beneath the clinging white satin gown over which the singer seemed always about to trip. (If wardrobe is going to malfunction, let’s get it over with.)

The concert opened with Barber’s Capricorn Concerto. This astringent music, with its oddly chosen scoring for flute, oboe and trumpet, was very well played, as more or less goes without saying for an Orpheus performance. I was carried back into my first radio days in Houston, when I discovered, thanks to music such as this, that there was a difference between the modern and the avant-garde. Barber was unambiguously a modernist who wished to please and entertain, and I remembered trying to imagine the state of mind of a modernist bourgeois listener who would be pleased and entertained by the Capricorn.

After the interval, we had Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I had been thinking about the Orpheus way of making music, with its core committees and meetings and endless rehearsals, and I was beginning to realize that most musicians would probably not care to take on so much work. And that’s fine: if Orpheus shows us that you can make great music without a conductor, that doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with conductors. What it does mean, though — and with blazing humanity — is that there is a big difference between music made by an orchestra executing a single mind’s idea of what’s important, and music made by a group of musicians each of whom has his or her own cohering idea of what’s important. The first tends to be more powerful, but the second is unquestionably more interesting.

The Metropolitan Musem Artists in Residence gave the first of three recitals at Grace Rainey Rogers. First up was Beethoven’s seldom-played Opus 44, a set of variations for piano trio. I knew the work vaguely, as I also knew the concluding Dvorak, because I’d put it on one of my Nano playlists. In between, Edward Arron played Luciano Berio’s Les mots sont allés, about which I don’t remember a thing, not a thing, except that it was evidently written to be played beautifully. Then we had a lovely string trio by Gideon Klein, a Moravian composer who helped to organize the musical establishment among inmates at Theresienstadt (where, one imagines, this work had its premiere) before meeting his own death at Auschwitz. The trio is the transporting souvenir of a mind that is very happy to be alive. As soon as I got home, I ordered a recording from Arkivmusic, because I’d like to see if it’s possible to get to know this music so well that the horrible circumstances surrounding its composition evaporate.

For Dvorak’s Piano Quartet, Opus 87,  Jeewon Park came back out to join the three principals of  MMArtists, who in addition to her husband, Mr Arron, include violinist Colin Jacobnsen and violist Nicholas Cords. The best performances of Germanic chamber music from the Nineteenth Century seem always to suggest that excellence of execution, no matter how manifest, is of secondary importance to the expression of the musicians’ friendship, and Mr Arron and his friends reminded us that this tendency attains its high point with Dvorak.

Kathleen begged me to wait to see The King’s Speech until she could see it with me, and I did. I liked it and was very heartwarmed, but I was surprised at how brown and quiet-looking it was. Every attempt appears to have been made to strip the picture of regal flash. Home Life at “The Firm” would make a good subtitle, if smart  movies had subtitles (why is that only the most brainless ones do?) Colin Firth, although a very handsome man, does not have the interestingly sleek, quasi-“Oriental” features of George VI; nor does he project majesty. Well, of course not; this is a movie about a stammerer who is taught the confidence to speak plaintly by a failed actor just this side of a mountebank. The movie’s funniest moment is also its most rude: the Duchess of York (the magnificent Helena Bonham Carter) trills that dinner with the family of her husband’s helper would be delightful and then immediately rolls up this prospect in the claim of a “previous engagement.” Without ruffling her composure in the slightest, the actress projects the alarm of a cat in free fall.

Geoffrey Rush, as the self-taught speech therapist Lionel Logue, is grand and craggy enough to anchor the story through its gales of potential uplift; there is also a terribly important scene in which the Duke of York (as he then still is) berates and spurns Logue with a heartlessness that makes you want to summon the RSPCA. And yet the story does not follow in the footsteps of The Madness of King George. This King George actually apologizes, which is also terribly important.

I wanted to see more of Eve Best, who plays Wallis Simpson with breathtakingly impudent self-assurance; what I’m probably clamoring for is a series of movies in which Ms Best and Guy Pearce enact further adventures of the Windsors. Mr Pearce is thoroughly convincing as “David,” a man who, all who knew him seem to agree, was fundamentally childish and inconsequential but also blessed with a godlike grace that his brother lacked. I also wanted to see more of Jennifer Ehle, who plays Mrs Logue; but then I always want to see more of Jennifer Ehle. Don’t you sometimes think that Jennifer Ehle is the Meryl Streep upgrade?

Another true-story movie that I saw but did not get round to writing up was the one in which Ewan McGregor plays a cutie by the name of Philip Morris — I Love You Philip Morris turns out to have nothing to do with smoking. Not a frame of this frolicsome film went by without my wondering, bewildered, how it ever got made. Where is the audience for a romp about a nutty gay con man?  Jim Carrey’s brio is so extreme that his scenes feel animated, to accommodate cartoonishly stretched limbs and leers — but we expect this of Mr Carrey. Philip Morris is a must-see movie because of the bashful glances that Mr McGregor casts through the magnolias of his eyelashes. 

¶ At MTC, we saw Spirit Control. (Kathleen also saw The Pitmen Painters; Ms NOLA took my ticket to that show.) The interesting thing about this play by Beau Willimon is that it works very well as a theatre piece but fails again and again as a formal structure. At the very beginning, Adam, an air-traffic controller, attempts to guide an inexperienced woman through the landing of a small plane. This increasingly hair-raising scene ends in a way that guarantees the audience’s sympathy with and concern for Adam, and a plainly naturalistic sequel would have been satisfying. As it is, Spirit Control ought to crash as disastrously as a misguided plane, but the performances are so strong that it doesn’t matter that we can’t go along with the playwright’s arty meta complications. We still care.

Music Note:
Extremely Raw Notes on Orpheus at Carnegie
with Garrick Ohlsson

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Every time I sit in Carnegie Hall and listen to Orpheus play, I feel very lucky. Every time. Now and then, though, Orpheus does something blitzing, and I jump out of my seat. Tonight was one of those nights. Garrick Ohlsson had a lot to do with the fabulousness, but we’d been well primed.

Let’s start with the encore, Chopin’s biggest waltz, E-Flat, Op 18. Everybody knows it by heart but it got a completely fresh performance, highly mannered in being true to the period (the very affected 25 years, 1815-1840, that we call the “Silly Quarter”). But clear and perfectly articulated, a dance for ten figures choreographed by Paul Taylor.

And go from there to cadenzas. Never before in my life have I found cadenzas interesting in the concert hall. There has always been an obligatory feel to them; “we have to do this, even though we don’t like to show off.” I’m afraid to say (which is why I’m not quite saying it) that Garrick Ohlsson made the cadenzas seem the whole point of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. A shocking idea; if there’s one Beethoven concerto that seems not to be about showing off, it’s the Fourth. And Ohlsson wasn’t showing off! He was just filling Carnegie Hall with something like the inescapable presence of a massive pipe organ as he tootled through the orthodox cadenzas — with the air of improvising them, not getting them exactly right. You know what I mean; does this run come before that trill or after? Who pays attention? I didn’t pay attention to the composition of the cadenza, that’s for sure. I was completely taken in by the playing. Music that I’ve known like the back of my hand since I was a freshman in college reared from the Carnegie stage like a new kind of animal.

At the beginning of the Beethoven, I thought that Ohlsson was doing his own thing on the runs. This is a feeling that I get when pianists begin and end a run on time but fall out of synch during the execution. Rhythms seem almost syncopated, and not in an interesting way. But long before the midpoint of the first movement, Ohlsson dropped his needle into the groove and stayed there, the beating heart (pulse) of the music. The soloist, in my view, is the real conductor of a concerto. The orchestra is with him or not. When it seems that the soloist is not with the orchestra, the effect of his playing is never more than decorative.

Enough about Ohlsson for the moment. The program began with Schubert’s Fourth. I don’t really know the work. I recognize the hooks, ah yes, this is the symphony where that happens. But this was Orpheus playing. With a little effort, I could hear the sprouts of mature Schubert pushing through the Haydn. The program notes, by the way, compared the propyleia (the slow introduction) to Haydn’s 97th, but to me it emulated the opening of The Creation. Not bad for the nineteen year-old Schubert. I felt that everyone on stage was working hard to present Schubert’s not-at-all Tragic symphony as an interesting piece of music. (This was distinct from my impression of the playing, which was one of effortlessness.) I was persuaded. I need to get another recording. (Which is unfair to the EMI-era Karajan in my library; I’ve really never listened closely to it.)

Berg’s Lyric Suite: I thought to myself before it started, maybe I’ll get it this time. And I sort of did. The music of the Second Viennese School breaks the promise that Western  music makes from the Seventeenth Century on, which is that you will always know more or less how far you are from the end of the piece. The three movements from the Lyric Suite could have been three times longer or half as long, and only the experts in the audience would have felt the difference in a musical way. But the music is pregnant with possibilities for movie soundtracks. It’s almsot a sample book, especially if you’re thinking of horror or suspense. I want to listen to this again, a lot. Maybe on my Chopin playlist!

Here’s a good one: the program misplaced the Intermission, putting it between the Schubert and the Berg. I didn’t notice,  because it would never occur to me to check to see where the intermission would fall in such a program. I expect that most of the other people sitting in the stalls knew just as well as I did that a mistake had been made, but that didn’t stop them from getting up and milling about. It was a bad high school moment. When Orpheus came back out to play the Berg, they had to sit tight for a good three minutes whilst stragglers found their seats. After the Berg, Kathleen overheard a nearby woman complain that she hadn’t heard a piano.

For Kathleen, as for me, this was one of the great nights. Orpheus is always at least wonderful. Tonight it was scary: what if we’d missed it? And I came to an odd conclusion at dinner afterward. Orpheus is proof that you do need a conductor to make most orchestras play well. Every musician who can do without one is already committed to Orpheus. Seriously, I don’t think that most symphony orchestra musicians want to work as hard as the Orpheus gang does. It was a sobering reflection: Orpheus is not the “wave of the future,” as we used to say. It’s anomalousness proves a point. The Mutis and Levines will always be with us.

Gotham Diary:

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

The missing package is either a Borsalino cap that I bought at a clearance sale from Hartford & York, or the complete works of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, for I forget how much money. Under $200, though! Jillions of discs at practically pennies per! Will the performances (or the recordings) be terrible? Who knows? I don’t much care. I bought the set pretty much for its index. I know almost everything in Mozart’s catalogue that’s at all famous, and I know it pretty well. But there’s lots of stuff that isn’t well known. Not that we’re talking about hidden diamonds. Mozart wrote a lot of okay-rate music that is fairly forgettable. He wrote less and less of it as he grew older, and after 1783 he wrote nothing that isn’t worth listening to. But he was no child genius as a composer. (That said, I’ve always found the six minuets that are now catalogued as K 61 — I think; it used to be 65 — to be especially delightful. Mozart wrote them on the eve of his thirteenth birthday. They’re no more routine than the great Clarinet Quintet, from the other end of Mozart’s life.)

Buying this complete set of Mozart required cutting through a web of taboos. Way back in — when was it, 1991? the bicentennial of Mozart’s death? Maybe it was long before that, when LPs were still the default — the prestigious Philips label (part of the Polygram complex that also owns prestigious labels Deutsche Gramophon and “English Decca”) issued a series of boxed sets, numbered as volumes, in a “Mozart Edition.” I do not believe that it was intended to be exactly comprehensive, but I may be wrong about that. If someone had given it to me, I don’t know what I’d have done with it. The main thing wasn’t the quality of the performances, which was excellent but not really to my taste, but the packaging. Jewel boxes take up so much room! If the Edition were to come out today, it would arrive in the same sort of box as my cheapo set (I’m guessing), with each CD in a sleeve of some kind. I can certainly live with that. A treat that I still haven’t tired of is a Complete Brahms (Deutsche Gramophon). It sits atop my vestigial stereo system, a cube with Brahms on every face.

As I write this, I’m listening to Van Cliburn’s Cold War recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, the one that was So Famous that nobody else recorded it for ages. Again, I’ll beg your pardon regarding the details. The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto has endowed me with one of the many entries in my Modern Jackass portfolio. Long ago, when I had just enough knowledge to be dangerous, I castigated Tchaikovsky for not developing the magnificent opening theme of the concerto. Magnificent yes; opening theme, no: it’s a classic introduction, or what snazzy music writers about Haydn and Mozart’s opening gambits might now and then call a “propyleia.” Meaning a porch. But it was fashionable to dump on Tchaikovsky in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Which turned out to be not all bad: I had to discover for myself a composer who had become so cliché-popular that nobody really heard him anymore. I still hear André Previn’s recording of Sleeping Beauty as a revelation of how incredibly gorgeous music can be, without a hair out of place.

As I’ve gotten older, all my time-machine speculations have come to involve Mozart. If I could go back in time, I’d check out one of Mozart’s extravagant costume balls — he had a flat with a ballroom for a while — and ask the guests what they thought of their host. People like to think of Mozart as a droll wraith, shyly seeking a quiet corner in which to dash off the odd Requiem. Nothing could be further &c. The man went in for loud clothes and big jewels. He made so much money, for a few years at least, that he could carry on like an aristocrat, and quite alongside the brilliance of his music there is the cunning of his parody of patrons. I’d like to know more about that. I don’t think that I’d have anything to say to Mozart himself, unless I thought that a request for three more string quintets might bear fruit.

If the time machine worked the other way, of course, I’d drag Mozart up to my place in Yorkville, where I’d worry about which was more likely to give him a heart attack, the taxis down in the street or the Brahms on the Nano. What am I saying? Haydn’s London Symphonies would be shocking enough. You know, of course, that the people in London asked Mozart first, right?

Evening Note: Dianne Reeves

Thursday, April 15th, 2010


Dianne Reeves has one of the biggest and best voices going, but it’s her authority over this powerful instrument that gives an evening spent in her company the musical equivalent of a Biblical directive. Thou shalt not flat! Open up thine upper registers and thine lower registers. Honor thy scat. (Even if you’ve brought it all home from Rio.)

We heard Ms Reeves at Grace Rainey Rogers this evening, a venue that Ms Reeves pointed out as being surrounded by the “Egyptian Situation.” We had just received some stupendous news — of vaguely Egyptian proportions — and the match between the good news and Dianne Reeeves’s recital could not have been bettered.

For the rest, we’ll have to wait until tomorrow. (We were burping.) All we can say right now is that Dianne Reeves reinvents every cubic centermeter of her show in the process of performing it. Somebody who knew her work only from recordings would never have understood this evening.

Dear Diary: Schnee Musik

Monday, December 21st, 2009


Fürchte dich nicht — I haven’t been buried in a snowdrift. But I have decided to take a vacation. I’ll be posting regularly, yadda yadda.

We attended a superb and, what’s more, interesting performance of Handel’s Messiah this evening. I have never in my life heard a better chorus than Musica Sacra; what a dunce I was not to show up sooner. Still, I missed Mr Mozart; Kent Tritle, as a chorus and organ man, may be forgiven for taking a dim view of Mozart’s occasionally scene-stealing emendations, but straight Handel is rather a like a sandwich without condiments. Don’t mistake me for a sophisticated listener, though; “Glory to God” induced both a minor seizure and major teardrops, and the standing-up at “Hallelujah!”, along with all the other New Yorkers in Carnegie Hall, threw me into such a fit of historical synesthesia that my ears stopped working. We went because Kathleen has wanted to hear a live Messiah for years, and because I finally got over my having “outgrown” such events.

Did I say that the place was packed? Packèd straight. Which reminds me: while we were listening to the Messiah playlist yesterday (four recordings, punctuated by Bach and Vivaldi — very seasonal), it occurred to me to change “the dry land” in the first bass recitative (“…and I will shake the sea and the dry land…”) to “Long Island.” Now, of course, I can’t stop.

Nano Notes Christmas Carols

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009


Back in the days of three- and four-hundred disc caroussel CD players, our collection of Christmas albums lived in one, all the time. Come Beethoven’s birthday (that’s today), all I had to do was select a group of CDs to play (there were two, as I recall, on that machine; the other was a Standard Song Book collection) and hit “play.” The caroussel was programmed to shuffle among the discs, which meant for silences of fifteen or twenty seconds between carols. The moral of the story is that it didn’t take me very long to transfer this idea to a Nano.

Aside from much shorter spots of dead air, the Nano offered the signal enhancement of allowing me to tranche the carols. The ones that we really love — Sir David Willcocks’s collection (“Once in Royal David’s City” is given an amazing performance), Andrew Parrott’s two albums (an unforgettable “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” sung to a different tune and in a very strong North-of-England accent.), and the old Waverly Consort Christmas offering (my favorite version of “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.”) — go in the first tranche. The second group includes novelty albums — Rita Ford’s music boxes, carols re-charted in the styles of Old Master Composers. The third group, which may not be chosen at all during the season, includes the divas (Christmas with You-Name-Her, from Battle to Te Kanawa, but not including Schwarzkopf, who appears in the second group) and a colossal multi-disc set of dulcimer recordings that sounded swell at the Japanese pub across the street one snowy night, when I was deep into a martini.

There is another playlist — or was; I can’t find it anywhere. It consists of several recordings of Messiah, connected by things like Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. (Where can it have gone? How did it disappear from the computer? Was I so dumb as to compose it on the Nano itself?) I forget how many Messiahs we have, but it’s more than five, and we play ’em all. (What a bore, though, to have to reconstitute the list! It was terrific, but I don’t recall everything that was on it. The moral of the story is: backup, people!)

Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009


¶ Matins: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals is eaten alive by John Williams, at The Second Pass, in a piece that begins with the surprised observation that Mr Foer does not mention Peter Singer in his book.

¶ Lauds: Michael Williams writes about the amazing Zildjian family, and shares some terrific clips. (A Continuous Lean)

¶ Prime: James Surowiecki addresses the debt bias in this week’s New Yorker, and in a background piece at the magazine’s blog.

¶ Tierce: While Choire Sicha rails against the “Swiss Drug Pushers” who run the United States government (at The Awl), Jonah Lehrer (at The Frontal Cortex) reminds us how L-Dopa really works.

¶ Sext: Unknown to Downing Street or the Palace, Margaret Thatcher dies. Meanwhile, Thatcher scholar Claire Berlinksi writes an article for Penthouse.

¶ Nones: Joshua Kurlantzick discusses President Obama’s trip to Asia, regretting that Indonesia was left off the itinerary and noting the dispiriting realism of Asian diplomacy today. (London Review Blog)

¶ Vespers: Grant Risk Hallberg’s long piece on myth and backlash in Bolaño studies serves as a toolkit to bring you completely up-to-date on a writer who, from beyond the grave, has excited a pungent array of macho responses. (The Millions)

¶ Compline: A story that we never thought we’d see: “Money Trickles North as Mexicans Help Relatives.” (NYT)