Category Archives: Literature

Taruskin’s massive history well worth the time

For music only became autonomous when it stopped being useful; and this did not happen until conditions allowed such a thing to happen. — Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol. I
Now that’s a provocative statement, and just one of many I’ve run into while dipping into the first and second volumes of Taruskin’s massive history of Western music.
Through all unlooked-for but much appreciated avenues, I now have in my possession those first two volumes (of five in total) in paperback, and when I have the chance, I’m deep in the study of how music in the early Christian church was mediated by Frankish monks into the suggestion of a tonal-centered system. It makes absolutely fascinating reading, and one of the reasons is Taruskin’s lively style (describing a chant, he talks about a “Kyrie sandwich,” for instance).
Taruskin is probably the best-known musicologist in the country today, in part because he writes for the popular press as well as the media organs of his discipline. I’ve not always agreed with things I’ve read of his, and he doesn’t mind getting into a scrap now and again.
But he knows how to tell this story with passion. I enjoyed my studies in music history in college, but I’ve always been geeky and liked that sort of thing anyway. Yet much as I liked it, my classes, and the material we read in them, were hardly the stuff of heated debate. All of it was good, of course, clear and understandable, but you wouldn’t go there if you needed to raise your temperature fast.
Taruskin’s work is another story. It’s authoritative, and yet at the same time, because of his disputatious style, it reads like the fresh findings of new and important research. It’s edgy and unsettled, which has a way of reminding us how vital this music was to its originators, and how vital it should still be to us today.
This is a good time to be reading this work, with the Christmas holidays upon us, because no other discrete, niche body of popular music is so richly grounded in the past except for communities where folksongs are still handed down by oral tradition. The nifty thing about Christmas music is that you can turn to an all-holiday music radio channel (traditional, satellite or Internet) and hear something like Good Christian Men, Rejoice, which is really In dulci jubilo and dates at least as far back as the mid-15th century, followed by someone singing White Christmas, a popular American song written in 1940 by an immigrant Russian Jewish refugee who escaped a Cossack raid and made a lasting contribution to the popular culture of his adoptive land.
History comes alive in junctions like that, and I think that’s one of the reasons I love the music of this time of year. I not only hear the history of countless people who came before me and heard the same songs, but I hear my own history, and that gives this body of music its unique, poignant power.
Taruskin’s work is not exactly for a general audience, but if you are interested in how Western music came to be and can navigate your way through notated examples, it’s well worth the time and effort to try and understand this magnificent story.

Liszt anecdote provides glimpse of celebrity

FileFranz Liszt photo.jpg

I found a little essay about Franz Liszt in a book I chose rather impulsively from the racks of a used-bookstore hereabouts, and I want to mention it because it’s a contemporary memory of the great Hungarian and sometimes such memories get overlooked, especially if the memoirist isn’t a member of the famous person’s circle.

This memory comes from an essay by Ford Madox Ford, excerpted from his 1911 book Memories and Impressions, apparently, and contained in a beautiful little Bodley Head volume published in 1962.

Ford was taken to a concert when he was young and saw Liszt, which could only have been in 1886, the year the composer died, since he hadn’t visited England since 1841. Ford writes of seeing him come on stage in the company of “the late King and the present Queen Mother,” which, since he’s writing in 1911, would mean the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.

He tells a funny story about how Liszt took his seat from him temporarily as he tried to dodge having to sit on the stage; Alexandra pulled the old pianist out of the seat and sat there herself, and installed Ford on her knee, which he calls “a gracious act.”

A few days later Ford was taken to see Liszt again at a house where he was staying, and arrived to find everyone entreating a reluctant Liszt, who at this time was 74 and ailing, to play. He refused, but then his eyes light upon Ford:

Little boy, I will play for you, so that you will be able to tell your children’s children that you have heard Liszt play.’

And he played the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. I do not remember much of his playing, but I remember very well that I was looking, while Liszt played, at a stalwart, florid Englishman who is now an earl. And suddenly I perceived that tears were rolling down his cheeks. And soon all the room was in tears. It struck me as odd that people should cry because Liszt was playing the Moonlight Sonata.

I like the immediacy of that anecdote, and that Liszt can be seen in it behaving just the venerable celebrity he was. He was well aware of the breadth of his fame, and he found the youngest person in the room to extend that fame into generations unborn.

It adds some humanity to what we know about Liszt, and it reminds my inner librarian to check out Alan Walker’s big bio of the composer, which came out around 1996. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another commemorative volume of some sort for the Liszt bicentenary in 2011.

It also makes me want to check out more of his music, not all of which I care for. I don’t like either of the piano concerti, or the Tasso or Les Preludes tone poems, and I’m not enamored of the B minor Sonata, either. But I do like the Totentanz, and the Weinen, Klagen variations, and much of the Annees de Pelerinage. What I would really like to study is the late piano works (Nuages gris, for instance), the art songs, and some of the religious music, such as Christus.

I’m of the same opinion as most experts on Liszt that I’ve read: There’s so much music there, and so much of it is unknown, that studying his writing is bound to be revelatory. It’s another example of the fact that a figure can loom as large as Liszt, for as long as he has, and the musical world at large can still know so little about his work and his life.

Second stimulus should include arts programs


It seems clear to me that sometime next year, if not sooner, the Congress is going to have to come up with a second massive stimulus plan to re-goose the economy.

The first stimulus was too narrow in its belief that funneling huge amounts of money to the banks would encourage them to lend again, but having been burned so badly in the runup to the recession, the chances of them handing any money out to anybody but the healthiest corporations and individuals is slim.

So a second stimulus is going to have to happen, and it’s going to have to be much more creative than the current one, which is far too narrow. The new one is going to have to rejuvenate many more sectors of the economy, from retail to infrastructure, and it’s in line with that idea that I would like to make a call for the revival of the federal arts programs of the 1930s: the Federal Music Project and the Federal Writers Project, among others (the Civilian Conservation Corps, too, which would be plenty busy down here in South Florida ridding the Glades of Burmese pythons, for one).

I’m sure this isn’t a fashionable idea, and some research into the history of these programs shows that they basically were fairly short-lived, as yahoo Congressmen of one kind or another let their grumpy glands inflate as they saw artistic expression suffused with the red glow of Communism. But leaving aside all that, there is some merit in the idea of giving work to underemployed writers and musicians, actors and painters.

In the Federal Music Project, for instance, according to this valuable precis of the New Deal arts programs, the government-funded musical ensembles reached about 3 million Americans each week in about 5,000 separate performances. That’s a lot of music, and for a country whose population was little more than a third (125 million) of what it is now. Music instruction was widespread, folk music was extensively catalogued, and there was a Composers Laboratory in which composers could try out their works.

Unsurprisingly, I like all those ideas, and not just for the laudability of a country taking care and pride in the artistic powers of its citizens. I like the idea in particular because, like so many of the New Deal make-work programs, it offered a real boost to the self-esteem of the people who worked them.

One of the most damaging things that happens to people who fall out of the day-to-day bustle of the working world is the one that’s hardest to see, and that’s the damage to the psyche. One day you’re virtuous and hardworking and bringing home the bacon, and the very next day you’re unwanted, unneeded and a drain on society.

A country that lets formerly productive people who lose work through no fault of their own and then does not allow them the wherewithal to recover, either through rational unemployment benefits (unlike Florida, which forces you to file a claim against your former employer, a hideous and vicious idea obviously dreamed up by a lobbyist) or temporary make-work as they look for new labor in their own fields, is not a country that is organized to help most of its people. It is a country designed to benefit people and institutions that already have plenty of money, and that’s true of the majority of our country’s history.

Tax dollars spread out through the economy, with national projects that need doing — environmental cleanup, infrastructure — and cultural projects that enliven our nation outside commercial channels, would at the very least give millions of people, at least temporarily, a feeling of usefulness once again, and that’s crucial to making them do what needs to be done to return to the regular workforce. And since Congress has no trouble allocating a first-class health plan to its members, the revitalized New Deal programs could include a government-run health plan, too.

No, government is not the answer to everything. But government often spends its money on things that don’t benefit enough Americans. Here is a chance for Congress to do the right thing and come up with some temporary work and economic recovery programs whose benefits will be immediate in putting people back to work and long-term in rebuilding infrastructure and encouraging all forms of cultural expression.

The Federal Music Project, for one, could reinvigorate music education, which has disappeared across the nation’s public schools. Learning how to read a simple line of notated music, for instance, is invaluable for churchgoing people confronted with an unfamiliar piece of group music to sing. But our culture now encourages musically minded people to use their ears alone, and technology helps them record even the minutest effusion of their muses.

But it hasn’t improved anything; it’s just made people more comfortable in making only their kind of music in a hermetically sealed technological shell. That’s not good in the long run, and just as being able to read words on a page helps open up the rest of human experience to anyone at all, reading simple notation does the same for the vast world of music, too.

I would further argue that in the 1930s, before industrialized agriculture seized the nation’s food supply, that it was still possible for people who bombed out in the big city to go home to the soybeans, sadder but wiser. Now that avenue is almost completely gone, and the jobless urbanite’s position is far more precarious thereby.

So let’s bring back government-provided work in the second economic stimulus, and in particular the arts projects. Sure, there were plenty of problems with the programs the first time around, but their legacy seems to me today to be overwhelmingly positive. Today’s jobless American workers are just like those of the ’30s generation: They don’t ask for permanent government help, just a little bit of help and useful work until they can get things back on track.

And in the meantime, we’ll also get a much better picture of how creative a people we are. The Internet is ostensibly a democratic medium, but the people whose voices are heard loudest there are the best marketers, and there are millions of worthy people out there whose work deserves to be heard and seen, but who will never be able to market themselves effectively.

Here, too, my tax dollars would help level that out. A second stimulus is inevitable, so let’s have one that really does the work that the banks will not do, and that’s dig deep into all the layers of our economy and get them going again.

‘Vertigo Years’ explores century’s vast changes



I’ve mentioned several times before in the course of this blog and others that the root causes of World War I escape me, and they get more mysterious the more I look into them.

But a book I finished reading earlier this month has been quite helpful in that regard, even though it was written with the aim of explaining the first years of the 20th century without the shadow of the coming war over them.

The book is The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914, by the Austro-German historian Philipp Blom. In the course of its 15 chapters, Blom takes a look at each year, using them as a stepping-off point to take a look at immensely complex issues. (Here’s the Economist review, for one.)

The year 1904, for instance, is devoted to a look at two men — one a crusading journalist, the other a civil servant — who exposed the horrors of the Congolese rubber plantations managed by King Leopold II of Belgium. It’s also a chance for Blom to discuss the meaning of empire, and how the major powers pursued it even when it was more about prestige than anything else and not worth the immense costs involved.

The rise of feminism is explored in the quest for the female vote, which Blom attaches to the year 1908. In addition to introducing us to many now-forgotten seminal figures such as the French psychiatrist and writer Madeleine Pelletier, Blom points out, crucially, I think, that the great transformation in relations between the sexes was an interior transformation, not one in which a new fad or guru appeared on the scene.

It was one of those things in which everyday people started to wake up every day and think: Why is it that we do things this way, and how can we change it?:

Within less than a generation, most received truths about the social order and the roles of the sexes had been invalidated. Among the millions of women who did not become feminists or who were even hostile to feminist ideas, there was hardly one whose life was not affected, whether by taking a job, by having access to a rudimentary education, or by choosing to have fewer children than their mothers and grandmothers had.

The great joy of this book is how much ancillary history Blom provides while taking a look at larger issues. This is one of those texts in which even offhand comments are packed with interesting information and ideas. The chapter on 1911, a brilliant study of the impact of movies and department stores on contemporary culture, points out that while globalization had begun to reach ordinary consumers and “technology had now taken hold of people’s dreams,” commerce had not yet discovered young people: “…they had not yet become a commercial, urban tribe. There were no special clothes for the young once the boys had outgrown their short trousers.”

What I came away with was a better understanding of the kinds of ideas that were in the Zeitgeist of the first years of the 20th century. It was a heady, exciting time, full of great change and radical restructurings of society, and it made me think that World War I is better understood the way it has been described by some historians: as an atavistic war that was the result of mid-19th-century impulses, and therefore even more tragic thereby; in a way, its stalemates proved its obsolescence.

I really should do a more extensive review of this fine work, but suffice it to say it will take an honorable place on my war studies shelf with the histories of John Keegan and Barbara Tuchman, and Paul Fussell’s literary study of how the war affected its poets and their work. 

I’ll close with a historic photograph of yours truly, taken 25 years ago by a friend at college that shows me, beardless, with my nose in a book, as always. And with a high nerd factor in the oversized glasses and buttoned-up shirt.


Once  a book geek, always a book geek.

New book series takes closer look at Western musical monuments



Thanks to the good offices of a friend of mine, I’ve been looking at a couple volumes from the Magnum Opus series at Continuum Books. This series, edited by Robert Levine, takes a closer look at what it calls the touchstones of the Western classical tradition, in a bid to reach people who want to know more about these pieces.

The volume before me is David Hurwitz’s examination of Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, which came out, according to the Website, last October. I’ve read roughly half of this small 132-page book, and I like it so far; Hurwitz does a good job in the opening chapter, which examines Beethoven, the history of the symphony, sonata form and other niceties in a friendly, non-threatening way, and he doesn’t have to resort to jargon to do it.

All to the good. One thing did catch me by surprise, and that was this sentence on page 30:

The presence of so many recordings of Beethoven symphonies, dozens of complete cycles and hundreds of individual performances, however, tends to blur the distinctions between artists, and makes it more difficult to get noticed in this repertoire, unless, like Mikhail Pletnev with the Russian National Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon), the conductor chooses to be wilfully perverse, damn the consequences.

As it happens, I had a busy few days last week reviewing the RNO and Pletnev (pictured at the top of this post) in performances of the Second and Fifth symphonies at the Festival of the Arts Boca, and while I did note some very eccentric conducting and said so on the ArtsPaper site, I loved the Pletnev perfomances of these works. I thought his interpretations were vivid, bold and big; he made excellent use of his huge orchestra, and while I didn’t agree with everything he did, I thought the power and the force of these well-worn pieces came out with fresh energy.

Hurwitz was talking about the Pletnev Beethoven cycle, which I haven’t heard, but judging by the work he did last week, I’d be eager to hear how he handles the series. One of the most interesting things about Beethoven is how durable he is no matter how inspired or indifferent the performance. His music, maybe because it’s so familiar and good readings of it are locked in our heads, seems to be able to withstand the weirdest of interpretations.

Weird doesn’t necessarily mean refreshingly radical. As I mentioned in still another Boca Fest review, the historically informed performance practice movement (Hurwitz calls it HIP) has done horrible things to the finale of the Beethoven Ninth. That movement remains one of the most bizarre, original such movements anyone ever wrote, but it can’t take the super-fast Beethoven metronome tempi. Itzhak Perlman’s version of the symphony was much more in line with the established tradition of conductors like Eugene Ormandy — the choral section beginning Seid umschlungen, Millionen, was quite slow and very broad, and that’s what the music demands, despite what marking Beethoven called for.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that even venerable works like the Fifth and Seventh can undergo readings that are widely divergent from received tradition and still work because of the force of the personality that has interpreted them that way. And if Pletnev’s interpretations last week were perverse, they  nevertheless forced you to think about these pieces in a new way, and that made it even more worthwhile.

Finally, I want to applaud Continuum for doing this project, and Hurwitz for writing what so far is a very useful little exegesis. I also have a copy of Victor Lederer’s traversal of the St. Matthew Passion of Bach, and since today is Bach’s birthday, I should take a look at that sometime today and probably play a good recording of it.

Here’s a nice video of an organist named John Scott Whiteley playing the beautiful chorale Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesus Christ, on the historic organ in Luneburg where Bach lived from 1700 to 1703:


Other 1809 birthday boys needed more days than Mendelssohn got


On Sunday,  I heard a great performance of the Mendelssohn F minor string quartet in a concert in Palm Beach by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, and besides the musical excellence of what I heard, I also thought about the two other 200th-birthday boys: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

Mendelssohn’s last string quartet was written in the summer of 1847, three months after the death of his sister Fanny and four months before he died after a series of strokes. The Mendelssohns had a history of fatal strokes in the family, and it’s likely Felix, Fanny (as well as their father, Abraham, and grandfather, Moses) died of what was an inherited condition.

The quartet is a great piece, and I remember on hearing the six mature quartets of Mendelssohn how astonished I was at how good these pieces are. I’m happy to be hearing them more often this year, but this last one is particularly remarkable, and it’s worth thinking about where that might have led him had he lived past 38.

I mentioned this idea in an earlier post when I talked about Lincoln, but after the concert I started thinking about the same question from the vantage point of Mendelssohn: What were Lincoln and Darwin doing at this point? Lincoln and Darwin were both born on Feb. 12, 1809; Mendelssohn was born nine days earlier.

If Lincoln and Darwin had the exact same lifespan as Mendelssohn, they would have died in mid-November of 1847, and their legacies would have been profoundly different.

Lincoln was in Washington, waiting to take his seat in the 30th Congress, which assembled in December 1847 for its first session. The former four-term state legislator had been elected on the Whig ticket, and remained a loyal party man during his sole Congressional term, working hard in 1848 to get out the vote for Zachary Taylor. 

But in November 1847, he was living in a Washington boarding house with his family and other Congressmen-elect, and had made only a limited impact on the national stage.  Only historians would have heard of him had he departed the scene when Mendelssohn did.

Charles Darwin was living in Kent, in the house he had moved to a few years earlier., and was working on barnacles, the study of which helped buttress the opinions he had laid out in an 1844 sketch for a paper that would form the basis on which he would build On the Origin of Species, published in 1859.

 Darwin had written a note to his wife in 1844, essentially staking the claim for the species theory, and instructing her to get it published if he were to die. But he was not ready to publish, and it took him the barnacles study plus a painstaking review of his work aboard the HMS Beagle, not to mention pressure from the work of Alfred Wallace, who had independently arrived at the same conclusion.

Had he died in November 1847, certainly historians of science would have given him credit for the 1844 paper as well as his Beagle memoir, and he would be recognized as an early proponent of a theory that perhaps would now be associated with Alfred Wallace instead.  But again, the world at large would not have heard of Charles Darwin.

As it happened, the world is familiar with the work of all three men, and for me, it says something about the essential unpredictability of life and the part that luck plays in it. And it also says that while Mendelssohn’s life was far too short, he was in those 38 years granted to him to leave a large body of great work that secured his posthumous legacy.

It is certainly easier with an art like music to make a strong impression early in life and leave something of your time on the earth for future generations; the history of music is full of short lives that contained tremendous accomplishments. But it’s often been noted that even someone like Mozart, who lived an even shorter life (only 35 years), was a late bloomer artistically, and what he could have done had he lived as long as Beethoven (56 years, which would have meant Mozart dying in 1812) remains a tantalizing what-if that music lovers like me can’t resist speculating about.

The most important thing to do is celebrate the life and music of Mendelssohn as it was and is, and appreciate a masterpiece like the F minor quartet without asking for more. Still, it’s worth remarking that had Mendlessohn lived as long as Darwin, he would have died in April 1882 — just a couple months before the birth of Igor Stravinsky.

Reviews: Here are some other recent reviews (all positive, as it turns out) I’ve done of violinist Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, the Mozart Piano Quartet and the Palm Beach Symphony. The season’s in full swing here, and it’s only going to get busier next month.

CJR article explores shakiness of arts criticism



These days it seems as though I’m doing nothing but write, and not often enough for this blog.

But there was another piece I wanted to talk about in addition to The Atlantic article referenced in my last post. That piece is an article by David Hajdu in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review, and it’s headlined Condition Critical: Can arts critics survive the poison pill of consumerism?

I can’t find a free copy of this on the Web, but in essence, Hajdu takes the reader skillfully through the different challenges faced by today’s arts critics, among which are loss of venue, a cultural dumb-down that turns critcism into consumer advice rather than intellectual engagement, and the demise of the arts as a beat for critics even if you have a venue.

Hajdu is pretty objective in this piece, and quotes interested parties on all sides. But the main thrust of the article is basically that arts criticism is in trouble, and there’s no telling how much of a place it will hold in the future cultural landscape.

Some fascinating quotes in this piece, such as this one from Leon Wieseltier, who’s the literary editor of The New Republic. Hajdu quotes him saying this after Wieselteir says criticism has always been a mix of opinion and learned judgment:

But beginning with Amazon, which made anybody who could type into a book reviewer, and now as the Web sites and the blogs have proliferated, we have entered a nightmare of opinion-making. This culture of outbursts, and the weird and totally unwarranted authority that it has been granted, has been responsible for a collapse of the distinction between opinion and judgment. It’s one of the baleful consequences of the democratization of expression by the Web.

This is an illuminating, and confrontational, thing to say. There’s no question that there are all kinds of different opinions from an astounding number of sources out there any day on the Web. And to a certain extent, many more opinion-makers will be followed than at any time during the dominance of the older style of media, if only to very small segments of the population.

But as wild and woolly as it is out there, I think at most what will happen on the Web is that there will be a few more names than there otherwise might have been of pundits and writers that will have national and international reputations. The Web has democratized opinion making, yes, but it’s created a much smaller number of folks who reliably offer critiques on the Web. It takes time, no matter who you are, to write a decent piece of criticism, and when you sit down to do it you are more than conscious of the great hall of educated opinion you’re stepping into.

For everything I say in a critical piece, I am aware that some if not most of my readers know more, and in some cases, much more than I do about a specific piece of music that I’ve heard. What I can offer is not superiority of education or the ability to play pieces better than anyone I hear; what I can offer is the relative pleasure of knowing that someone who’s as interested as they are in the art has volunteered to take the time to go to the event, take notes, and write up what he thought.

I don’t take my criticism writing lightly, either. If I can (and it’s much easier now with the Net to find things) I study the scores of the pieces before the concerts, play through them if I have enough time, and listen to recordings, also if there’s time.

If it’s a book  I’m reviewing, I almost always — and I’ve only failed to do this once or twice — read the book through twice and take notes. Serious nonfiction is very difficult to review because in many cases so much of the information is new or looked at in such a novel way that it sounds new. Fiction can be an easier read the first time through, but the second time is almost harder because you’re trying to see how the writer carries off his effects and makes the fiction work (if indeed it works).

So I don’t think there will be more seat-of-the-pants criticism that competes for our attention in the long run. A few voices, and there will be more than there would have been before the arrival of this technology, will rise above the others to shoulder the burden of received general critical opinion about the arts.

That will be true not because everyone is retrograde and afraid of different opinions. It will be because doing a decent job of writing criticism that people will respect and read is actual work. It’s brain work, not physical labor, so it’s not as demanding on the muscles as roadbuilding or something crucial to the way we live.

But it’s still work, and that fact will push most of the millions of occasional bloggers to the margins, which is the land of the hobby, and there’s not a thing wrong with that. It’s wonderful, actually.

What will remain for those who want to be professional critics is the question of the outlet, and that, too, will follow the same logic. The best blogs and news organizations will get the best critics, and they will be well-known names whom people enjoy reading and whom they respect, even when they disagree violently with them.

Speaking of criticism, I’ve been to four concerts in the past eight days: The Poulenc Trio at the Flagler Museum; the Boca Symphonia at St. Andrews; Itzhak Perlman at the Kravis; and the Dublin Philharmonic, also at the Kravis.

Millhauser collection a worthy choice for NYT list


I’ve been writing reviews this week and small pieces of church music, and that’s left me short of time to address some larger topics in this blog.

But I did want to mention something from the weekend: The New York Times‘ list of the 10 best books of 2008. One of them is the short story collection Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser.

As it happens, I reviewed the book for The Palm Beach Post (read it here; my original review was a good bit longer, but it’s nowhere to be found on this computer) and found it a most compelling read. If you saw the movie The Illusionist, with Edward Norton, which was based on an earlier Millhauser fiction, you have a very good idea of the world these stories inhabit: mysterious, supernatural amid a very grounded reality, and quite dark.

But they are marvelous stories, and perhaps the best thing about them is the quality of their ideas: these are original stories, and wholly memorable. One of my favorites is The Other Town, in which an unnamed town is copied, brick for brick, just to the north of a stretch of woods outside the original town. Millhauser’s anonymous narrator explains that the practice of copying the town began apparently in the 17th century, and that by 1882, the craft of replicators was established.

The craft has become so accomplished, he says, that now there are groups of people watching the original town, relaying changes by laptop to the replicators, who update its look every two hours to reflect how the original town has changed. And they can reproduce everything, down to cracks on a porcelain rooster and the leaves of a shagbark hickory.

He tells all of this in an utterly believable deadpan style, and even though the idea is completely loony, it’s plausible. It’s the kind of idea you have while dreaming, and you ponder over its weirdness all day long. But Millhauser has thought out the ramifications of this concept, and he gets to the point where there are cultural ramifications:

The real value of the town … lies in the way it permits us to see our own town more clearly or completely. Preoccupied as we are with domestic and financial cares, we pass through our lives noticing so little of what’s really around us that we might be said to inhabit an invisible town; in the other town, the visible town, out attention is seized, we feel compelled to look at things closely, to linger over details that would otherwise fail to exist at all. In this way the other town leads us to a fuller or truer grasp of things.

This collection is a great read, and I’m happy to see it on the NYT list.

Concert notes: Since writing here last, I’ve reviewed the first cast of Palm Beach Opera’s Rigoletto, the Delray String Quartet, and the Palm Beach Symphony. There’s not much left in the way of concerts for the rest of the year, though cellist Alisa Weilerstein is doing the Dvorak B minor tonight in Lauderdale. I’d like to make the concert, but don’t know whether I can.

But sources working with her now tell me she’s terrific, and the music on her site leads me to think so.

Odds and ends, December edition


I’ve been unable to get back to this blog for a few days, what with Thanksgiving and holiday duties, and more work on Palm Beach ArtsPaper. But I’ve been busy:

1) At Florida Atlantic University this weekend, the Klezmer Company Orchestra and FAU scholar Aaron Kula will present a realization of Shulamis, an operetta by the father of Yiddish theater, Avrom Goldfadn (or Abraham Goldfaden, as he was known in this country, where he died 100 years ago.)

I’ve written a feature about it for The Coastal Star and posted a longer version on the ArtsPaper site. I’m hoping to make the concert, but I might have to settle for a recording afterward depending on how my schedule goes. Here’s the piece.

2) Heard the Chameleon musicians concert Sunday in Fort Lauderdale and wrote a review for the South Florida Classical Review, which you can read here. The Reger suite I heard for the first time Sunday was well worth an acquaintance: It’s a beautiful piece.

3) Saw something in November’s Monocle that I really liked: A feature about the upcoming Ace Hotel in New York. The designers’ group that has outfitted these hotels in other places apparently includes custom music paper among its amenities! I think that’s a wonderful idea, and if I have to stay in a hotel in Seattle, Portland, Palm Springs or New York, I might go there just for that little touch. You can’t see the piece online, but here’s the hotel Website, and here’s a piece about it from Hotel Chatter.

4) Arts grants: The Knight Foundation  has just released a list of South Florida arts projects that will share $8 million in grant money for their work here. It’s very interesting to see former Florida Philharmonic director James Judd back on the local scene, creating a classical music education program for middle school students in Miami-Dade County. You can see the list here.

5) Reading: Finished reading The Ring and the Book (quite wonderful, but very difficult, too, and I’ll need to re-read it) and The Library at Night (also terrific) over the past couple weeks. Next up: Krin Gabbard’s new book on the place of the trumpet in American music, and I’m thinking of finally getting to Henry Adams’ Mont Sant-Michel and Chartres.

Library meditations, and a new arts project


Began the other day to read Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, and already I find it captivating. There’s something special about the bookish book for bookish people, and I’m glad people are still writing them.

Right at the beginning, Manguel writes about his own personal library in France, and he gets across a feeling with which I’m quite familiar:

But at night, when the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but this space of books remains in existence. To someone standing outside, in the garden, the library at night appears like a vast vessel of some sort, like that strange Chinese villa that, in 1888, the capricious Empress Cixi caused to be built in the shape of a ship marooned in the garden lake of her Summer Palace. In the dark, with the windows lit and the rows of books glittering, the library is a closed space, a universe of self-serving rules that pretend to replace or translate those of the shapeless universe beyond.

Nicely written, and I love that sense of the library as a separate thing, not just a room devoted to bibliophilia, but the literal manifestation of the curiosity of the human mind. I know having a decent selection of books around me at all times means I’m never bored. There are more than enough voices I’ve yet to hear in those pages to keep me occupied for years to come.

A new blog for area arts: We’re starting small, but a few of us have launched Palm Beach ArtsPaper on the Web. We’re a work in progress, but we’ve got some good plans for a custom site and other projects in the months ahead. Mostly, we just didn’t want our community of audience members and artists to miss out on what was happening because of what the economy has done to the critical community hosted until now by newspapers.

Please check in from time to time as we add more reviews and commentary from the arts scene here in Southeast Florida. There’s simply too much going on not to take serious notice of it.