The books we haven’t read

Here’s something from Britain’s Telegraph that was great fun to read (and watch, too): A survey asking some well-known literary types what canonical work of literature they hadn’t read, and were ashamed to admit it.

The video for this thing is fun, with people such as Simon Sebag Montefiore, celebrated for his books about Stalin, admitting he’s never read Wuthering Heights, which didn’t stop him from winning the highest marks in a school class years ago for his paper on the Bronte novel.

The posts on this piece are even better. There are a lot of them, and several writers and books keep coming back as the most unread, and while I expected Joyce and Proust to pop up a lot, I was a little surprised to see Dickens come up repeatedly as someone readers pretended to read but assiduously avoided.

Joyce: As for Ulysses, which comes up often here, I’ve read it once and have almost finished reading it a second time. I decided to read it again because I couldn’t possibly catch all the references, and many sections took very slow, careful reading to become clear.

But I loved it; there is a great deal of music in Joyce, both literal and in the way the language sounds, and I found it intoxicating. Few other books I can think of really put you in the sights, sounds and scents of a specific place like this one does, nor do many authors really give you interior monologues that are as accurate, that is to say, ambiguous, as Joyce does.

To me, it’s an astounding achievement, even though there’s quite a bit of it that’s still obscure to me. Makes it worth reading again, to my mind. But I haven’t tried Finnegans Wake (though the American Scholar had a good piece earlier this year about a Finnegans Wake reading group; maybe that’s the best way to read Ulysses, too.)

Dickens: Great Expectations is my favorite novel of his, though I haven’t read his favorite, which was David Copperfield, nor have I gotten to Bleak House. I have enjoyed Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, and his American Sketches. I love his work, though, and am looking forward to reading more (a good TV adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit whetted my appetite for that novel, so maybe that’s next.)

Faulkner: He comes in for abuse in these posts, but I thought Light in August was magnificent. Like Joyce, difficult to read, but also like him, absolutely redolent of a time and place. I like to say, like the preacher’s wife, “Now you see what I have bore,” but no one seems to get the reference, so I’ll stop. Haven’t read The Sound and the Fury, though.

Austen: A frequent topic in the posts. I’ve only read Pride and Prejudice, which I enjoyed. Liked the Sense and Sensibility movie that Emma Thompson did, though.

Woolf: No one in the posts seems to like Orlando (again, a good movie, with Tilda Swinton); I didn’t mind it, but I liked Mrs. Dalloway much better. I love the opening pages in particular, which also are steeped in a specific London.

Melville: Poor old Herman. Everybody in the posts seems to have ignored Moby-Dick, which I greatly enjoyed the second time around. During the first, I found the whaling and digressions really tedious, but now I like them.

This, too, is a deep picture of a particular culture alive at a particular time in American history, and it’s fascinating.

Two other things about this little contest: Many of the works resisted here are long-winded novels of an earlier time, and because technology allows us to have much more immediate entertainment, the draw of these books for their diversionary value is much smaller than it used to be.

If you really want to read something like Moby-Dick, you have to plan it, you have to give it time, and you have to let it speak to you on its own terms. You can’t demand that it interest you right away; many of these books aren’t designed this way.

Henry James’s novels, for instance, I find quite difficult to read because his characters speak what strikes me as nothing approaching actual speech even in late Victorian and early Edwardian high society, and he tends to spend great swaths of time mulling over very small events. But even with my distaste for his aspect of his art, I liked The Golden Bowl, tough as it was to get through (the movie’s not bad, either).

It’s not exactly my kind of novel, but some of the descriptive writing is astonishingly beautiful, and the overwhelming sense of erotic tension throughout makes it worth putting up with his longueurs.

The other thing worth noting is that many of the books we have read for classes, and even on which we have written papers, aren’t in our conscious memory anymore and so have to be re-read. Most of the books I’ve mentioned reading here I read quite a while ago, and many of their details have gone into hiding in the deep recesses of my brain.

But I think good reading is often about re-reading; some of the greatest works of our literature require repeated encounters. If you’re really interested in a painter like Cezanne, for instance, you’d do as Rilke did and go back again and again to study the paintings. You wouldn’t hear the Beethoven Ninth just once, like it, and decide you never needed to hear it again. Same thing with great writing. Truly understanding it requires renewed acquaintance.

One last little postscript: Someone who posts on the Telegraph story says he or she is Canadian but ignores Canadian literature. That’s too bad, because there goes Robertson Davies, one of my favorite writers.

Tempest-Tost, for instance, is a lovely summer read, and his next-to-last novel, Murther and Walking Spirits, is a good character study as well as a nifty historical fiction. And then there’s The Lyre of Orpheus, which deals with a young composer. Davies was a terrific writer, and his fellow Great White Northerner is missing out.

Anyone out there want to ‘fess up? Take a look at the story, the video, and the posts, and post here: What :”great book” haven’t you read, and why?

An orchestra’s just a Beethoven tribute band

I’m not sure how long the phenomenon of elaborate tribute-band concerts has been going on, but right now in this area you can hear live renditions of seminal 1960s and 1970s albums such as Led Zeppelin IV, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Abbey Road, and later this coming season a Pink Floyd tribute band is coming to town.

It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the people who go to these concerts were dismissive of classical music as dull, museum-culture stuff, but really, the two groups are essentially doing the same thing. Symphony orchestras and chamber music groups are essentially Beethoven tribute bands, or tribute bands for whatever other composer you want to name.

The beauty of this particular kind of music is that while the notes might have been written down many years ago, the interpretation of those notes changes with the times and the players, so that different meanings can be brought to the same text.

With a band of tribute musicians doing, say, The Wall, which I saw part of the other night on a PBS pledge broadcast, the same kind of reverence for the original concept is observed. Every little murmuring keyboard eighth note in the chorus of Comfortably Numb was just as it is on the record. The text might not be written down (though I’m sure someone publishes it), but fealty to the original is paramount.

The same thing occurs in classical, where players make sure to play the notes as written, and let the composer’s original ideas make their impact before interpretive license is brought to bear. But too much license will earn critical and audience censure. The interesting thing here is that the tribute bands re-creating a classic album beloved by their audience probably have far less leeway to change things.

With the tribute bands playing an album, part of the joy in attending is hearing that album just as you remember it from long ago, thundering through your brain underneath those expensive headphones in your bedroom back in high school. So absolute accuracy in regard to the notes and the tempos on those albums is critical, because plenty of people will let you know about it when you stray.

What could be interesting to see in the future is how long an album like Abbey Road, for instance, continues to have its hold on generations of listeners who don’t remember the Beatles when they were together, and might find that particular band’s distinctive Englishness somewhat hard to get into. If the melodies and words continue to say things to people who aren’t here yet, perhaps the need to re-create it in all its idiosyncratic peculiarities won’t be necessary, and the music can be reinterpreted in different ways for different times.

But if not, it would go the way of a lot of classical music that was once extremely popular but has now been completely forgotten. You almost never hear Meyerbeer in the opera house, though at one time in the first half of the 19th century his music was the toast of Europe, nor do you ever hear anything by Joachim Raff, the Swiss composer whose music immediately vanished from view after his death and hasn’t made much of a return.

Since there’s no way to truly re-create a contemporary Beethoven concert, since no recordings exist, what we have is the notes and the rhythms, the harmonies and the tempi, the colors and the passion. Those speak to us today still, even though their composer is long gone. But a good performance of the Fifth Piano Concerto by a fine pianist and a good orchestra is no less a tribute to its writer than it is for four rockers to get together and make sure they have the chords right for Polythene Pam.

Though they may seem miles apart, in truth, both kinds of performers are in the business of classic, if not strictly classical, music.

Here’s a link to a recent performance by the Beatles tribute band Fab Faux (pictured above) doing Oh, Darling!, which comes from the Abbey Road album.

Kapell’s Australian concerts

Listening this week to the new discs of the short-lived American pianist William Kapell, taken from broadcasts over the air in 1953 as he toured Australia. He was killed that October when his plane coming back from Down Under slammed into a mountain near San Francisco.

He was just 31 years old, and on the verge of what in all likelihood would have been a major career. Although American composers were fond of him for pursuing fresh repertoire, the selections on these two RCA Red Seal discs (called Kapell reDiscovered) essentially are canonical works; the newest piece on the programs is the Seventh Sonata of Prokofiev, written over the period 1939-42. The composer had died earlier in 1953, but still the piece is the closest thing to a contemporary composition.

What one hears on these records is a pianist with a strong personality, a musician at that phase of his career in which the music becomes an outgrowth of his own personal expression, as if he had composed it himself.

In the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, for instance, the first few promenade sections are intensely intimate, while in Bydlo, Kapell plays with brute force, snapping off the melody and its grinding accompaniment, and then does a marvelous fadeout as the ox-cart disappears into the distance, the dynamic level getting softer and softer until it is lost from view.

The Mussorgsky is on the first of this collection’s two discs, included with a gentle, clear-lined Bach A minor Suite (BWV 818) and the Rachmaninov Third Concerto, with the Victorian Symphony Orchestra under Sir Bernard Heinze. It’s a good performance of the Rachmaninov, too, with plenty of fireworks, fast fingers, and lyricism.

These performances were recorded off the air by a department store salesman named Roy Preston, who saved them onto acetate discs, and that creates two problems: One is that a short section of the Rachmaninov third movement was lost as the disc ran out of room and Preston had to turn it over.

The engineers here have patched it with an earlier recording of Kapell playing the same work, and the patch is quite obvious. They did the same thing in two other instances: the first movement of the Bach was not recorded, so a recital version was subbed, and the final bars of the Mussorgsky weren’t broadcast, so another recital version has been stitched in.

In all these cases, the difference in the sources can clearly be heard, and there’s been no attempt to go through and eliminate the large amount of surface noise and dynamic distortion present on the original acetate discs. Listening to it, especially in louder portions of the music, can be irritating, but it’s worth enduring these two difficulties to hear this pianist in his final appearances.

Still, I wouldn’t oppose a remastering — not to eliminate mistakes (there aren’t many), but to clear up the noise, which can be considerable.

The second of the two discs features the Prokofiev sonata, a late sonata by Mozart (in B-flat, K. 570), the Suite Bergamasque of Debussy and three works by Chopin: the Barcarolle, the Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 55, No. 2, and the First Scherzo.

The scherzo sticks out for its blistering speed — if Chopin wants Presto, that’s what I’ll give him, Kapell seems to say. But it’s a little too fast, and it sounds rushed and muddy. The pulse of the piece gets lost in the opening bars, and the closing bars of the first section sound tacked on rather than a product of the same narrative line.

The Prokofiev sonata, on the other hand, is well-suited for Kapell; he knows how much to make of the composer’s mix of tunefulness and grotesquerie, and he makes a good case for the work The first movement is slightly on the galumphy side, but it has a nice impishness that translates well through the old sound technology.

Although the sound isn’t ideal on these Australian recordings, it’s wonderful that they were in good enough shape to offer a window into the last days of a fine pianist who clearly had talent and ambition to burn, and it’s a shame he didn’t get the chance to realize it.

Here’s a video offered up on the Kapell Website of a 10-minute recital by the pianist, apparently for an old Omnibus program hosted by Alistair Cooke. Kapell plays Scarlatti (the E major sonata, L. 23), a favorite of Horowitz, who played it on his Moscow recital in 1986; Kapell makes a lot of the imitation-guitar chords he hears in the piece, while Horowitz’s performance is much more intimate. Both good performances, both with lots of personality.

Also on this video are the Chopin nocturne Kapell played in Australia, and a flashy arrangement of an Argentine folksong.


When the weather makes you work

A friend writes this week that certain kinds of weather seem more conducive to creativity than others, and with Tropical Storm Fay having moved through here with plenty of wind and rain in the past days, there was plenty of weather to choose from if you wanted.

But I know what she was getting at, and for myself, the most work-inciting weather in South Florida is any day in the winter when I can open up the windows and feel the fresh, cool air coming in. I usually have to wait until after Thanksgiving for that to happen, since right now it’s the time when all of us down here live in our air-conditioned boxes.

Give me January and February in South Florida, or a good late September or early October day up north, when there’s a snap in the atmosphere as the season changes from summer to autumn. It’s at those times that I feel especially pressed to work, which can mean composing music or writing prose, but can also mean reading something challenging and deep.

Nothing forces the mind into the serious groove like weeks of cool air, and these days I tend to judge what I’ve already done when the cooler days blow in — call it reckoning weather, and I think I might do that this year.

Goethe, it’s been pointed out, was heavily influenced by the weather, and always wrote down what the weather was in his journals. He also believed that it was important to understand that humans were part of nature, not beings apart, as the Australia-based Scots academic John Armstrong wrote in Love, Life, Goethe: Lessons of Imagination from the Great German Poet, a fine book that was published in the United States early last year:

…Goethe thought there were great advantages to be won from demonstrating the connection between human life and that of the rest of nature. Being part of nature was not some kind of demotion — not a way of drawing us down from a privileged status one grade below the angels and perversely glorying in an ‘animal’ identity.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons he was so interested in the weather. Since creation is an ongoing thing in nature, and we are part of nature, then perhaps there are times when nature makes it more conducive for us to create.

And then, there’s a special kind of sadness that goes with the changing season, a memento mori, and as I get older I do feel more aware of the transitory nature of life itself. That not only makes me want to finish the things I have in mind, it also makes me want to savor the things I have already accomplished, small though they may be, and be grateful for them.

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.


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:


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):


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:


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.

A buyout story, Huysmans-style

During the last days of my work at the paper, I kept thinking about a story by J.-K. Huysmans, published first, apparently, only in 1964, some 57 years after the writer’s death.

It’s called M. Bougran’s Retirement, and it’s about a civil servant who gets pensioned off early, at age 50, and finds out right away that his identity is wrapped up in his job:

And, more poignant than ever, the memory of his office obsessed him. Seen from afar, the ministry appeared to him as a real paradise. He had quite forgotten the iniquities he had endured, his post as under-chief -clerk nabbed by an outsider who had entered the service on the coattails of a minister, the irritations of a job that was both mechanical and stressful; the darker side of this existence spent polishing your chair with the seat of your pants had evaporated; all that was left was the vision of a nice sedentary life, cozy and warm, made cheery by the conversation of his colleagues, by their awful puns and their third-rate practical jokes.

My copy of the story comes from the Hesperus Press edition, translated by Andrew Brown and published in 1997 (the Hesperus Website is being revamped, but here’s a good piece by Carlin Romano about what this innovative little house is all about).

Bougran is in despair at his early retirement until he has a stroke of inspiration: He’ll redecorate his apartment to look just like his office. He even goes so far as to hire another ex-colleague to come in every few minutes or so with an urgent case that needs his attention.

It’s hilarious, but also very sad, and it ends with Bougran’s death of a stroke, at his desk, writing an opinion in regard to a nonexistent appeal, his health having been seriously undermined by the loss of his job.

Huysmans spent 30 years working for the French government himself, and he knew whereof he spoke when it came to office tedium.

I think the excerpt above shows how ideal a writer he is for Cubicle Nation, and while I’m enjoying being out of the office routine right now, there’s a comforting esprit de corps there that Huysmans touches on that rings as true today as it did in the late 19th century.

I recommend this story, and the Hesperus series in general, which offers 100-page paperbacks featuring shorter works by excellent writers (my library has Hesperus volumes of works by Petrarch and Pushkin). Rereading the story of poor old M. Bougran has been quite a tonic in these stressful days.

As I was saying

Welcome to my blog, Classical Greg.

I’m a newspaper editor and writer with 25 years’ experience who took a buyout in August 2008 from The Palm Beach Post, where I had piloted a classical music blog since November 2004.  I am now relaunching my personally blabby brand on the Web, where there are a gargantuan number of frighteningly creative people, and I hope not to embarrass myself in their midst.

I’m also a composer with two years of conservatory study at Boston University, and the founder of a composition prize of 15 years’ standing (the Frank Willis Prize) at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. I have written much incidental music in the past few years for local documentaries about dog-friendly beaches and the citrus industry, as well as Post-related Web projects such as its short-lived but award-winning podcast and video features about the diabetes crisis.

For the Post, I wrote many book and music reviews, and I plan to keep doing that here for as long as time and the Net permit. (You might have read my reviews in the Post or several other newspapers through the medium of the Cox News Service, or seen a post or two of mine featured on sites such as Jerry Bowles’ Sequenza21, or Bud Parr’s Chekhov’s Mistress.)

This blog will feature primarily cultural commentary and news, if I’ve got it, about classical music and literature both new and old. I’ll also wander into jazz and pop, since I write those kinds of music, too, and I hope before too long to feature regular video of local classical events  here on the site once I clear the technical hurdles. I’m also planning to put a classical/jazz calendar up, and a live news feed of some kind.

But that’s in the future.

For now, I want to get this blog rolling, and I’ve got some interesting items coming up in the next few days that I expect you’ll find interesting. Or as Heminge and Condell said: “And there we hope, to your divers capacities, you will finde enough, both to draw, and hold you.”

Thanks to all those of you who sent me good wishes on my departure from the Post, and  I hope to see you here from time to time.

If you’re a South Florida classical music entity seeking coverage, or you simply want to contact me, send an e-mail to