Category Archives: Music

Book review: ‘The Soloist’

In writing The Soloist, the Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez has achieved the kind of useful act he writes about wanting and not finding in three decades of newspaper work:

After 30 years of fulminating about this or that, always from a safe distance and usually to no avail, I want something more, even if it involves the risk of failure. It’s not just a journalistic calculation, but a matter of curiosity and a desire for meaning.

The Soloist grew out of a piece of street reporting in 2005 that led to a column, then a series of columns, then to this book, and later this year, a movie starring Jamie Foxx, scheduled for release in November. It is the story of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a middle-aged, black homeless man living in the tunnels and sidewalks of Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Lopez first encounters him playing a beat-up violin with only two working strings on a street corner near the newspaper office, and is intrigued.

He soon discovers that Ayers is more than a busker with a bent for Beethoven. He’s a former student at New York’s Juilliard School, a genuine talent who had studied double bass at the prestigious conservatory before developing paranoid schizophrenia and leaving the school in 1972. He endured years of hospitalizations and treatments back home in Cleveland before heading to the streets of Southern California in 2000 after the death of his mother because that’s where Ayers thought his father, who abandoned the family years ago,. was living.

Lopez discovers all this as he digs into the past of the man he is soon calling Nathaniel, and for whom he begins to feel a sense of personal responsibility as well as dreams of getting him off the streets and into some kind of medical attention that will allow him to stabilize. He learns the hard way that it isn’t that simple, and that the mental health professionals he consults who advise the patience of Job are telling the truth.

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The Soloist is about a talented kid from a disadvantaged background whose promising career is cut off by mental illness; about a newspaperman questioning his own career at a time of maximum stress for the industry; and indirectly about the lack of services our country provides for psychiatric patients without means. It is written in the simple-and-direct style of a good metro column, and it is painfully honest about Lopez’s conflicted motives as well as his neophyte understanding of mental-health issues.

Lopez’s first column about Nathaniel (which can be seen here) provoked a huge reader response that included donations of instruments , which Lopez decides should be stored at the Lamp Community, a charity that works with the mentally ill homeless. This is the columnist’s way of trying to sneak Nathaniel into a place where he could at least have a roof over his head, but Nathaniel wants nothing to do with it, and he explains why in a way that shows just what Lopez is up against:

“..I don’t need the hassles I’d have to deal with going all the way over there with all of that nonsense. This isn’t Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a Beethoven town that’s doesn’t have all of that snow and ice. Los Angeles Times. Roman Gabriel. Jackie Robinson. I like it right here in the tunnels, where I can play all day and nobody’s going to bother me.”

Still, it doesn’t take long for Lopez to get completely involved in trying to help Nathaniel, at first with the idea that he can simply be plucked from the streets and whisked away to treatment and recovery. He sets up opportunities for Nathaniel to attend Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsals at Disney Hall, he invites him to his house — where he lives with his wife and 2-year-old daughter — for Easter brunch, and talks Lamp officials into setting a room aside in a renovation project for a music studio that Nathaniel can use.

But it’s a slow process, and it’s clear that the best thing Lopez is doing for Nathaniel is befriending him, even when the columnist wants nothing more than a quick, simple answer. Lopez raises interesting questions about the character of Nathaniel’s illness, implying very strongly that he believes the times Nathaniel grew up in — the late 1960s, a time when black American societal anger was at a peak — and the uniquely unforgiving atmosphere prevalent at Juilliard in the early 1970s had something to do with it.

To a non-expert like me, that seems plausible, and at least it suggests how complex each individual case of mental illness is: How much of a malady caused by a chemical imbalance can be aggravated by certain stresses? Is it possible, as one doctor here suggests, that Lopez’s friendship is literally improving Nathaniel’s chemical balances?

Nathaniel comes off in The Soloist as profoundly troubled but also terrifically ambitious. He has lost none of the resoluteness he must have needed to win a scholarship at Juilliard in the first place, and he’s something of a snob about his favorite music. He loves nothing so much as working on his music, and he can literally be sent into raptures at hearing the Sibelius Second or the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings.

But he is also deeply angry and intolerant about things that bother him, such as cigarette smokers, and when towards the end of the book he erupts in rage at Lopez, whom he thinks is trying to force him into a hospital, it comes with a sense of inevitability. Thereafter, Lopez no longer calls him Nathaniel but Mr. Ayers, a choice that makes sense from a personal standpoint for him, but which is jarring to read and ultimately unnecessary. By this point, journalistic objectivity is nowhere to be found, and a book that is basically about a friendship doesn’t do itself any favors by trying to reclaim long-lost ground.

Steve Lopez has done a fine thing for his community by taking a personal interest in one of its ignored members, and a finer thing still for his country by drawing attention to our critical lack of decent health care for the mentally ill. He has also done some good for his profession by showing just how important good, professional journalists are for the health of civic society. This is a story that literally would not have been told without the dedication of one man, and already that work has paid off in ways such as increased donations for groups such as the Lamp.

Lopez has been accused of exploiting an unfortunate person’s suffering for personal gain, and while The Soloist stands to be lucrative for him, you can’t read the book and impute malign motives to him. Lopez simply doesn’t come across as a calculating person, and a note in the front of the book indicates that a portion of royalties and other profits from the book are being set aside for Nathaniel’s benefit.

That’s quite an achievement from something that began as a way to meet a deadline, and I’m sure this story, which already has had positive effects, has more good to do in the years to come.

(The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music, is published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and is a brisk-reading 275 pages. The book jacket price is $25.95.

Respecting Puccini

The New York Times‘ Arts and Leisure section had an interesting piece on Puccini yesterday, bringing all of us up to date on a current scandal involving this composer, whose 150th birthday is being observed this year. Apparently, he might have had another love child than the boy he fathered with Elvira, the married woman who later became his wife.

The piece says this issue will be explored in a new movie about the composer, and I’m sure it will make diverting viewing. But Anthony Tommasini also points out something scholars have noted for many decades: That Puccini was a far more sophisticated composer than he gets credit for, though doubtless that credit gets withheld partly because of his popularity. Puccini had been a wildly successful composer since La Boheme premiered in 1896, and he died in late 1924 with an estate worth about $250 million in today’s dollars, according to Tommasini.

Julian Budden’s 2002 study of Puccini for Oxford’s Master Musicians series, which offers a good deal of musical analysis of each of the composer’s operas, also points out that he was beloved by the musical community of his time. “No composer received more affectionate posthumous tributes than he,” Budden wrote. “Affable, well-mannered, gifted with a broad sense of fun (reflected in his doggerel verses and Tuscan love of word-play), he rarely failed to charm all who met him.”

(Here’s a recording of his voice, made in 1907 when he was in New York; it can be found on the Puccini Institute site.)

There are a couple moments that stand out for me as evidence in particular of Puccini’s great skill; I concur with Tommasini about the Ping, Pang and Pong trio in Turandot, but one that really grabbed me once I actually heard what was going on was the finale of Act I of Tosca, the so-called Te Deum scene featuring the evil Baron Scarpia in one of the great bass-baritone set pieces in opera.

After the beginning of the scene — Tre sbirri, una carozza — Puccini combines ringing of church bells, a congregation saying Mass, the Scarpia’s machinations (Va, Tosca!), cannon fire, and then a chorus singing the Te Deum, all over a back-and-forth motion in the orchestra that slowly grows to a titanic conclusion.

Listening to it one day, it suddenly dawned on me that the climax of this act was nothing more or less than a unison sung line, supported only by horns and trombones. And yet it sounds gigantic.

Now, that’s the work of a skilled writer. He’s bringing everything he’s got to this massive ending, and then at the high point, the very peak, when Scarpia realizes that Tosca has made him forget God, almost every orchestral instrument drops out, leaving only the singers, all intoning the same notes. I’m sure a less imaginative composer would have kept the orchestral guns blazing right through it.

There are a number of performances available for viewing on YouTube, and the one from 1976 with Sherill Milnes is the most impressive vocally; it’s an unbelievably big and powerful sound.

But I like this performance just as much, maybe because the tempo’s a little bit more to my liking (Zubin Mehta is a very good Puccini conductor). This features Ruggero Raimondi in fine voice in a compelling TV (?) production from 1992:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3lPxwct2sk&hl=en&fs=1]

Leo Arnaud’s Olympics brand

Working today on the final version of a choral piece I need to finish in the next day or two, and then it’s on to two piano pieces I’ve promised to a performer that have been sitting on the shelf for a few weeks during all the chaos at work.

But while I take a break from all that, I’m going to point out, as I did during the last Olympic games, one of the minor heroes of its TV coverage.

And that would be the Frenchman Leo Arnaud (1904-1991), who was
one of the many behind-the-scenes orchestrators and music men during the golden age of Hollywood. He was nominated for an Oscar for the orchestration work he did on The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1964 (here’s a bit from it):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNOm5IpBKdo&hl=en&fs=1]

But Arnaud’s lasting contribution to the world of music is a 30-second -or-so bit of a piece he wrote around 1958 for Felix Slatkin (father of Leonard), who was making a bunch of orchestral albums at the time that showed off flashy sounds that would come off well on the new stereo equipment then making its way into American homes. One of those pieces was called Bugler’s Dream, and we have known it since 1968 as the theme of the Olympics.

We used to play an arrangement of it in high school band, and there was a bit right after the fanfare that always reminded me of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, and I found it finally on YouTube in a video taken from TV during the 1996 Atlanta Games:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwqE1QeyxM8&hl=en&fs=1]

For me, you can’t get much better than this theme for an Olympics brand (the beauty part for me is the second time through, when the chord sequence goes from I-V to I-iii-vi). The second you hear it, you think of the Games, and that’s an interesting kind of immortality. It reminds me, too, of the unexpected direction lives can take.

Arnaud, after all, studied with Maurice Ravel and Vincent d’Indy, and you simply couldn’t have studied with more eminent musicians as French music student of the time. Then he had a career as a jazz trombonist in the 1920s, after France went mad for jazz when James Reese Europe played this hot new music for them in the days after the end of World War I. That’s an interesting mix, to say the least.

Arnaud was one of those many thousands of workers in the film industry who helped make movie magic for billions of people, which maybe makes the first thing you think is: OK, a commercial hack who got lucky. But commercial music isn’t easy to do. It takes a great deal of skill, and it’s not for nothing that the sound studios of Los Angeles needed to get first-rate people as movies became more and more intricate.

So I like to think of Leo Arnaud as one of the unsung professionals who brought the work in on time, under budget, tirelessly and probably with no more than the usual complaint. In other words, your basic working guy, though in a much more glamorous field.

I’d love to hear from anyone who worked with him or knew him; he must have gotten a good bit of satisfaction out of hearing his music become associated indelibly with these great world events of sport. You have to think it made him proud.

Review: Music of Ron Nelson

The symphonic or concert band is the true native voice of American classical music, much more so than a symphony orchestra. It was through concert bands that Americans of an earlier age were first acquainted with symphonic music, and doubtless there were plenty of people who never made it to an orchestra concert or opera house, and the way they know something like the overture to La Forza del Destino is through a band arrangement.

Millions of Americans, too, have their first experiences playing in instrumental ensembles as members of the school band rather than a school orchestra. It’s not for nothing that the instruments of jazz are the instruments of the concert band, but in addition to the groundbreaking music created by jazz artists, there also is a huge corpus of vital classical music for band written by American composers.

Ron Nelson, born in Joliet, Ill., in 1929, is the kind of composer that our country has reliably fostered for decades even if the general public at large may never have heard of him (Nelson taught for 37 years at Brown University before retiring in 1993). At the end of June, Boca Raton’s Klavier Music Productions released a disc featuring Nelson’s music, along with a 21-minute interview with the composer conducted in 2003.

The eight works heard here, played by the Keystone Wind Ensemble (based at Indiana University of Pennsylvania) under director Jack Stamp, reveal a composer with a fine ear for color and melody who knows how to write a powerful piece that will command a listener’s attention. Three of the works are designed to do just that above all: Fanfare for the Kennedy Center, Fanfare for a Celebration, and Fanfare for the New Milliennium.

Although each fanfare has a different character, especially the millennium fanfare with its overlapping double brass choirs, these three works have the right feeling of momentousness and sonic grandeur that you would expect for pieces written to accompany a great occasion. But there’s a nice quirkiness to them, too. The chattering dissonance pileup just before the end of the Kennedy Center fanfare, for instance, adds a nice bite to the otherwise solemn proceedings.

The disc’s major works include a one-movement mini-concerto for alto saxophone and winds called Danza Capriccio, written in 1985 for the soloist who plays it here, Keith Young. This is a high-spirited, vigorous work that offers plenty of opportunities for Young to scoot around all over his horn and to scamper up into the far reaches of the altissimo register. He’s clearly an excellent player, and he makes a good case for the work, though he doesn’t sound all that comfortable doing the super-high notes. (I chalk that up to the uncongeniality of the sound itself rather than an inability to make it work.)

The Danza is an exciting piece, with a tender, attractive slow-movement middle section that provides effective contrast. It’s fun to listen to and probably great fun for Young to play.

The other works show other aspects of Nelson’s style, such as the Mayflower Overture of 1958, which includes thunder sheets to describe a storm at sea as the Pilgrim ship heads to the New World. It’s the climax of the piece that’s most interesting, as high winds race up and down in scale passages while lower brasses intone the Old Hundredth. It’s heavily reminiscent of Scheherazade, but still impressive.

I also enjoyed Savannah River Holiday (1953), which has a good, bumptious energy, and Pastorale: Autumn Rune, written in 2006. This latter work essentially is one long , slowly building arc that begins in murmuring darkness and expands into a flowering of melodic warmth about halfway through the piece before fading away at the end.

The Keystone Winds, about 60 strong, generate a great deal of mighty sound on this record, and Klavier has engineered it with plenty of room for maximum impact. Even on my car’s sound system, I could really feel the full band kick in during the closing bars of the Kennedy Center fanfare.

The interview with Nelson that closes the record is interesting and useful; one of the more important things Nelson and Stamp, his interviewer, discuss is the point that wind band music is truly contemporary classical music in a way that orchestral music is not. Orchestras tend to program many of the same things season after season, but fresh wind band music is folded right into the mainstream and gets repeated performances.

That fact has allowed dozens of American composers to build respectable, busy careers in a curious parallel universe to the more well-known classical circuit, built around the major orchestra halls. This is also true of American choral music, which constantly hears new pieces that quickly join the repertory.

Generally, the American composers who specialize in band and choral music tend to draw from the same basic tonal well of conservative 20th-century harmonic practice enriched by the language of jazz and other popular music, and Ron Nelson, although not exclusively a band writer, is no exception. That may help account for the repertory success of his pieces and the works of other composers like him, but it’s high time that the classical world at large acknowledged the work of these writers more prominently than it has.

Although American composers have found entry into the European mainstream of classical music difficult, they have been busy creating a large body of music for non-orchestral ensembles that deserves much more of our attention.