Category Archives: Music

Two useful new classical sites

leonardo_musician
It’s been a tough last week or so, with some mystery illness taking me over for about 24 hours early in the week, and problems with the air conditioning and the plumbing here in the house.

But things have settled down a little, and that gives me the chance to talk about two relatively new sites that I’ve recently learned about. One is Dilettante Music, a London-based company that states as its mission the bringing together of the worldwide classical music community.

The site has places for composers and performers to post their music, news, blogs, and member profiles, plus retail tie-ins with Arkiv and DG. I haven’t spent a great deal of time on the site, nor have I joined, but I like the way it’s designed, and the feeling I get of being part of a community as I browse around.

The other site I’ve learned about recently through an e-mail is Classissima.com, a France-based portal to news events, videos, reviews and other classical music activity on the Web. Clicking on “music stores,” for instance, sends you to a useful page with links to places such as the Werner Icking Archive and Faber & Faber.

Clicking on a composer’s name at random on the bottom of the pages sends you to a page with news items about the composer, and links to videos featuring his or her music. I haven’t found the right browser for this site yet; two I’ve tried chop off the far-right side of the pages, which are designed to look like an open spiral notebook.

Still, Classissima, like Dilettante, gives a surfer a sense of deep involvement in the classical music community. And it further adds proof to the conclusion that for classical music, the Internet has been a wonderful thing, mostly because it shows how vibrant and active a community classical music can really boast.

I’ll add both sites to my Blogroll, and pledge to spend more time on the sites when time permits.

Watching the repertory shift

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Where is the Nicolai of yesteryear?

I’ve lived long enough now to start seeing a repertory turning point in classical music, and I think the canon of the near future will be different in the kind of lighter music it lets in, among other things.

For instance, when I was younger, I could hear at orchestral or band concerts a couple pieces by Saint-Saens — the Danse Macabre and the Marche Militaire Francaise — reliably enough to think of them as repertory. But those two works seem to have disappeared, at least in my hearing orbit, though other works by Saint-Saens that were obscure 30 years ago, such as his late Clarinet Sonata, I have now heard in concert a number of times.

Light overtures, too, seem to be pretty much a thing of the past. Time was you’d hear the Merry Wives of Windsor Overture of Otto Nicolai, the Donna Diana Overture of Reznicek, and the von Suppe staples such as Light Cavalry. The Nicolai in particular was probably familiar to the German musicians who formed the core of major orchestras in the 1880s when most of them were being formed, and thus got frequent performances, but I can’t remember the last time I heard it live.

The same goes for other two; Reznicek got a new lease on life in the 1950s when it was a TV theme song, but it’s never played anymore that I’ve heard, nor is the von Suppe overture, probably because that older school of operetta was superseded by the Broadway musical and now has to be revived by opera companies.

Also, the music of Edouard Lalo is pretty much gone, with the Symphonie Espagnole never heard anymore, though Sarasate and Wienawski seem to be holding their own with their violin showpieces. Lalo wrote a nice cello concerto, though, and I have always been fond of the Le Roi d’Ys overture, which I haven’t heard it in years. Still, Lalo joins the ranks of Nicolai, von Suppe and Reznicek, it seems to me: Yesterday’s programs, yesterday’s enthusiasms.

Lighter music seems to represented nowadays by Astor Piazzolla above all, whose music I dislike, as I’ve noted previously. But it’s played everywhere now, and for the foreseeable future is repertory. Movie music by John Williams appears to be semi-repertory as well, in particular the Schindler’s List theme, which gets regular performances.

Among the heavier repertory, Shostakovich is the biggest winner, with the First, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and above all, the Fifth, symphonies having successfully secured strong canonical positions. The Second Piano Concerto and the Preludes and Fugues are now standard repertory, as are the first violin and cello concerti, and the string quartets, with the Eighth probably being the most played.

Of American pieces written in the past 50 years, the Bernstein Chichester Psalms is repertory now, and John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine seems to get a number of hearings, its brevity and color making it a good orchestral curtain-raiser. John Corigliano’s First Symphony should be repertory, though I haven’t heard it in a while.

American composers do better as repertory writers in wind ensemble music — Alfred Reed, Vincent Persichetti — and choral music — Daniel Pinkham, Norman Dello Joio, Eric Whitacre, Morten Lauridsen. But these composers are most often heard in academic settings, and their profiles are not as high with the general public, no matter how fine much of this music is.

I’m hearing a lot of interesting repertoire in my concertgoing these days, with more frequent outings for writers such as Joseph Rheinberger, and overlooked pieces by canonical composers, including string quartets by Grieg and Sibelius and early symphonies by Dvorak.

But while the repertory has shifted to more Shostakovich and less Nicolai, it also remains solidly old-canonical. I’m still hearing more Beethoven than anything else, with Mozart closely behind (less Haydn, though, which is too bad).

I think it will be a while before I can hear a pianist in one of the big sonatas of Carl Maria von Weber, or a string quartet in something by Nielsen or Stenhammar, or an orchestra in a symphony by Roussel, just to name a few things I’d really like to hear.

Great art, odious people

Schmitt_FFlorent Schmitt.

One of the more persistent dilemmas of listening to music, or taking in any art form, is knowing too much unpleasant stuff about its creator.

I was talking to a fellow music critic the other day about a knockout performance he’d just seen of Shostakovich’s Song of the Forests, his 1949 oratorio in which some of the text hymns the genius of Stalin. Some really good music in there, but the words gave him the creeps, he said.

That brought me back to a concert earlier this month featuring a beautiful late work (Suite en rocaille, Op. 84) for flute, harp and cello by Florent Schmitt. A little research into Schmitt’s life revealed depressing things, and not the semi-comic one of his habit of yelling out criticisms from his seat while working as a music critic. What was depressing was his anti-Semitism and his collaboration with the Vichy government of World War II France.

What a shame that someone who could write something as lovely as this piece could be so odious otherwise. And that train of thought leads inevitably to Wagner, and interestingly enough a piece in last Sunday’s NYT about the Bard Festival this year, which features Fervaal, an opera by another anti-Semite, Vincent d’Indy.

I haven’t done much research into these composers’ lives, so I don’t know how fervently anti-Semitic they were, or how Schmitt in particular, who lived until 1958, might have come to terms with it after the end of the war. But it’s still depressing to think about.

It isn’t just composers, of course. How do we listen to Karl Bohm or Walter Gieseking, knowing their admiration for the Hitler regime? The truly great performances Bohm and Gieseking gave of the central repertory can’t be gainsaid; it’s great stuff. And yet thinking about their politics is bothersome.

I suppose it comes down to forgetting about it, and not tainting their achievements, or the art of music itself, with politics, which no matter how miserable is in any case ephemeral, while the greatest music is anything but. I guess when great art speaks, it speaks for itself, and we shouldn’t worry too much about the vessel through which it came.

In some ways, it’s like the secret lives of today’s movie and television stars. Given that everything you see is in some way an act of theater, it leaves you wondering who’s nice and who’s not. I think that’s because we all want to believe that the people who entertain us so well, who help us in our times of greatest emotional need, are people you’d be proud to call your friends.

That often they are not, and that the art has to stand aside from the person, is a fact of history. But it’s not one that makes me very comfortable.

Chamber music lures me to the work table

 

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Doing the composer/journalist/entrepreneur shuffle, as I’m doing these days, is difficult to keep up, in part because I find my allegiances sorely tested.

This past week I did a review of the opening concert in the 18th season of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival, as well as turned in an advancer to The Miami Herald for a concert coming up later this month. But at the chamber music concert I had the same feeling I often do as I sit in the audience and listen: Envy, more or less.

And it’s compositional envy. The chamber music repertoire is one of vast richness, and it’s wonderful when an organization engages its musical curiosity to seek some of these things out. And so much of it is good — this morning, I listened while working to three early Schubert quartets on a Kodaly Quartet release on Naxos, and I couldn’t get over how engaging Schubert’s very first quartet, in C minor (D. 18), really is.

But reference works that mention it, and even the disc’s own program notes, are very dismissive of this piece, and I can’t for the life of me understand why. Is it because it ends in B-flat? And so what if it does?

Anyway, as a composer, I can’t help but sit in a chamber music concert and feel that I should run right home and crank out an oboe sonata or a string quintet. There’s something so compelling about chamber music that I can’t help but wish I could take part right then and there.

I think this has to do with the intimate nature of the music; this is how we actually are able to hear the individual qualities of instruments, and hear what a single violin, a lone clarinet, truly sound like.

And it is also to marvel at how much music a skilled writer can get out of very small forces. In writing like this, the composer has to be aware of all the sonic possibilities of the instruments he is bringing together, and understand absolutely what one plucked cello will sound like under three wind instruments.

It’s a precise kind of writing, and I think one of the reasons I find it so attractive is that it’s so challenging: it’s a puzzle, and you have to figure out how best to make all the pieces fit.

But it’s hard to leave enough mental space for that challenge when you’re concentrating on mundane things such as earning money. I’m not making much these days, and I find it difficult to get music finished when I’m getting weighed down with worry about finding enough cash to keep the household going.

It makes me respect those composers all the more. How did they keep going in the midst of far worse problems than I have? Schubert, his body wracked with syphilis, working under a death sentence, for instance. Surely, writing music was the only thing in the world that made him happy.

Or Gabriel Faure, who didn’t have that problem and lived a relatively long life, still didn’t have time to write during the Conservatoire year, and it wasn’t until the very end of his life that he could write at any time other than the summer.

How did he bring himself back to the compositional place in his mind after all that administration and management? It couldn’t have been easy, but again I imagine he probably lived for it in a very real way, and when classes were out of session, he could go deep and get back to his favorite musical activity.

I guess we all have to find a balance between the work we have to do and the work we would love to do, unless we’re fortunate enough that they’re the same thing. These are hard days (relatively so) for me, and finding the right balance is proving very difficult indeed.

Second stimulus should include arts programs

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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.

A playlist for the Fourth

July 3, 2009
One of my favorite blogging things to do for the Fourth is create an all-American playlist that I try to adhere to during the day. While one of our country’s most important exports is our popular music, the United States has a tremendous and marvelous corpus of classical music that rarely gets the attention it deserves.
There are historical reasons for that, such as the rise of a music-loving public with leisure in the years when German musical culture was at its most influential, and the heritage of the Bach-Mozart-Beethoven tradition remains a major part of our classical music. But American composers made something new out of those models, and it’s my hope that one day most of our concert halls will feature American music as a matter of course rather than making us all wait for major holidays.
Until then, I’ll offer up a few pieces that I’ll have on my various players tomorrow. These pieces are quite Romantic for the most part; that’s the mood that appeals to me this year:
1. William Grant Still, Symphony No. 2 (Song of a New Race). (Neeme Jarvi/Detroit SO; Chandos 9226; 1993) This piece has become a staple of my Independence Day soundtrack, and every time I hear it, I can’t for the life of me understand why Still isn’t recognized as the major American composer he was. Doubtless infrequent performances have the most to do with that, but give this symphony a listen and then start badgering your local conductor.
It reminds me of Dvorak and Schubert in its liveliness, color and ease of expression, and Still strikes me as the only other American art-music composer besides George Gershwin to have so successfully melded the worlds of pop and classical. It’s a lovely piece, full of good tunes in fine orchestral dress, and completely accessible to every audience. Unlike many other leading American composers whose work requires hundreds of pages of program notes to explicate, Still speaks with no less skill and sophistication, but much more directly. The neglect of this well-wrought, attractive work, as well as Still’s music in general, is a scandal.
2. Samuel Barber, Violin Concerto, Op. 14 (Hilary Hahn/St. Paul Chamber Orch, dir. Wolff; Sony SK 89029; 2000). When it comes to concerti, Americans write lots of them, but there are only a handful that have entered the repertory with any frequency: Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, Gershwin’s Concerto in F for piano, and the Bernstein Serenade, which is a violin concerto in everything but name. But it is the Barber Violin Concerto that is perhaps the finest of all of them, and it makes an eloquent case for Barber’s very conservative but lovely aesthetic.
From the opening bars to the moto perpetuo finish, this piece never fails to win over an audience, and I’ve seen it played less than spectacularly on a couple occasions. Barber’s melodies here are some of his finest, beginning with an unforgettable inspiration in the opening bars that is immediately appealing and gets topped only by the ravishing slow movement. It’s now a classic of the literature, but it still needs to be heard more often in regular concerts; perhaps next year’s Barber centenary will provide the impetus.
3. Howard Hanson: Laude and other pieces. (John Boyd/Philharmonia a Vent; Klavier 11158; 2006). The wind band is the original American concert ensemble, the performing group at whose hands most Americans of earlier generations heard great European orchestral music as well as their own native pieces. Who knows how many Americans only ever heard something like the ballet music from Gounod’s Faust in wind-band guise?
Plenty, is the answer, and this year I’m including one all-wind disc for the Fourth, because here, too, is a woefully underappreciated musical category at which Americans have excelled for more than a century. Howard Hanson, whose Second Symphony is hanging on for dear life at the far fringes of the repertory, represents not just a late-Romantic tradition but also the church tradition of the Midwest.
The states of the upper Midwest in particular have deep ties to the Lutheran Church and Scandinavia, and Hanson, the son of Swedish immigrants to Nebraska, was deeply attached to the religious music of his youth. This fine all-Hanson disc on Boca Raton’s Klavier label, featuring the Indiana State University Philharmonia a Vent, contains the title work, Laude, along with director John Boyd’s transcription of the suite from Hanson’s lone opera, Merry Mount.
4. William Schuman, New England Triptych (Jose Serebrier/Bournemouth SO; Naxos 8.559083; 2000) Not a surprising choice, perhaps: This is the one piece by which this estimable composer and educator is remembered today. But it remains an exciting listen for the way Schuman infuses the music of the early Boston choirmaster William Billings with something astringently 20th-century that nevertheless respects its archaic character.
The second movement, the poignant When Jesus Wept, has an intimate beauty that’s easy to associate with a dark, frosty day in New England, where I lived for a couple years as a music student in Boston, and this movement always takes me back there. The closing movement, Chester, the best-known of the three, also makes its point with relative restraint, even though the composer brings plenty of brass and drums to bear on his argument. In its clarity, precision and harmonic profile it reminds me of Hindemith, but without losing its distinctive American flavor.
5. Shenandoah, arr. Marshall Bartholomew and James Erb (Chanticleer/A Portrait; Teldec 0927 49702-2; 2003). This most achingly gorgeous of all American folksongs gets a slightly fussy arrangement at the hands of Bartholomew and Erb in this performance by the San Francisco-based male choir Chanticleer, but that’s a quibbling.
There’s nothing that will shut up a crowd and bring it to attention more reliably than a beautiful tune like this, with its sad, desolate lyrics and plush harmonic setting perfectly performed, as it is here. There’s a lot of debate over what the song actually is about, but I go along with the school of thought that maintains it’s originally a sea chantey of the early 19th century sung by men working the rivers of the west and dreaming of home in Virginia.
It also works for me as a Civil War song, sort of, but ultimately for me it’s about the love of a place where you no longer are, but a place you had to leave to make your way in the world. That, it seems to me, is much of what the American story is, and perhaps that’s why it usually reduces me to a shuddering, sobbing wreck.
Best wishes for a wonderful Fourth of July to one and all.

p322354-Shenandoa

One of my favorite blogging things to do for the Fourth is create an all-American playlist that I try to adhere to during the day. While one of our country’s most important exports is our popular music, the United States has a tremendous and marvelous corpus of classical music that rarely gets the attention it deserves.

There are historical reasons for that, such as the rise of a music-loving public with leisure in the years when German musical culture was at its most influential, and the heritage of the Bach-Mozart-Beethoven tradition remains a major part of our classical music. But American composers made something new out of those models, and it’s my hope that one day most of our concert halls will feature American music as a matter of course rather than making us all wait for major holidays.

Until then, I’ll offer up a few pieces that I’ll have on my various players tomorrow. These pieces are quite Romantic for the most part; that’s the mood that appeals to me this year:

1. William Grant Still, Symphony No. 2 (Song of a New Race). (Neeme Jarvi/Detroit SO; Chandos 9226; 1993) This piece has become a staple of my Independence Day soundtrack, and every time I hear it, I can’t for the life of me understand why Still isn’t recognized as the major American composer he was. Doubtless infrequent performances have the most to do with that, but give this symphony a listen and then start badgering your local conductor.

It reminds me of Dvorak and Schubert in its liveliness, color and ease of expression, and Still strikes me as the only other American art-music composer besides George Gershwin to have so successfully melded the worlds of pop and classical. It’s a lovely piece, full of good tunes in fine orchestral dress, and completely accessible to every audience. Unlike many other leading American composers whose work requires hundreds of pages of program notes to explicate, Still speaks with no less skill and sophistication, but much more directly. The neglect of this well-wrought, attractive work, as well as Still’s music in general, is a scandal.

2. Samuel Barber, Violin Concerto, Op. 14 (Hilary Hahn/St. Paul Chamber Orch, dir. Wolff; Sony SK 89029; 2000). When it comes to concerti, Americans write lots of them, but there are only a handful that have entered the repertory with any frequency: Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, Gershwin’s Concerto in F for piano, and the Bernstein Serenade, which is a violin concerto in everything but name. But it is the Barber Violin Concerto that is perhaps the finest of all of them, and it makes an eloquent case for Barber’s very conservative but lovely aesthetic.

From the opening bars to the moto perpetuo finish, this piece never fails to win over an audience, and I’ve seen it played less than spectacularly on a couple occasions. Barber’s melodies here are some of his finest, beginning with an unforgettable inspiration in the opening bars that is immediately appealing and gets topped only by the ravishing slow movement. It’s now a classic of the literature, but it still needs to be heard more often in regular concerts; perhaps next year’s Barber centenary will provide the impetus.

3. Howard Hanson: Laude and other pieces. (John Boyd/Philharmonia a Vent; Klavier 11158; 2006). The wind band is the original American concert ensemble, the performing group at whose hands most Americans of earlier generations heard great European orchestral music as well as their own native pieces. Who knows how many Americans only ever heard something like the ballet music from Gounod’s Faust in wind-band guise?

Plenty, is the answer, and this year I’m including one all-wind disc for the Fourth, because here, too, is a woefully underappreciated musical category at which Americans have excelled for more than a century. Howard Hanson, whose Second Symphony is hanging on for dear life at the far fringes of the repertory, represents not just a late-Romantic tradition but also the church tradition of the Midwest.

The states of the upper Midwest in particular have deep ties to the Lutheran Church and Scandinavia, and Hanson, the son of Swedish immigrants to Nebraska, was deeply attached to the religious music of his youth. This fine all-Hanson disc on Boca Raton’s Klavier label, featuring the Indiana State University Philharmonia a Vent, contains the title work, Laude, along with director John Boyd’s transcription of the suite from Hanson’s lone opera, Merry Mount.

4. William Schuman, New England Triptych (Jose Serebrier/Bournemouth SO; Naxos 8.559083; 2000) Not a surprising choice, perhaps: This is the one piece by which this estimable composer and educator is remembered today. But it remains an exciting listen for the way Schuman infuses the music of the early Boston choirmaster William Billings with something astringently 20th-century that nevertheless respects its archaic character.

The second movement, the poignant When Jesus Wept, has an intimate beauty that’s easy to associate with a dark, frosty day in New England, where I lived for a couple years as a music student in Boston, and this movement always takes me back there. The closing movement, Chester, the best-known of the three, also makes its point with relative restraint, even though the composer brings plenty of brass and drums to bear on his argument. In its clarity, precision and harmonic profile it reminds me of Hindemith, but without losing its distinctive American flavor.

5. Shenandoah, arr. Marshall Bartholomew and James Erb (Chanticleer/A Portrait; Teldec 0927 49702-2; 2003). This most achingly gorgeous of all American folksongs gets a slightly fussy arrangement at the hands of Bartholomew and Erb in this performance by the San Francisco-based male choir Chanticleer, but that’s a quibbling.

There’s nothing that will shut up a crowd and bring it to attention more reliably than a beautiful tune like this, with its sad, desolate lyrics and plush harmonic setting perfectly performed, as it is here. There’s a lot of debate over what the song actually is about, but I go along with the school of thought that maintains it’s originally a sea chantey of the early 19th century sung by men working the rivers of the west and dreaming of home in Virginia.

It also works for me as a Civil War song, sort of, but ultimately for me it’s about the love of a place where you no longer are, but a place you had to leave to make your way in the world. That, it seems to me, is much of what the American story is, and perhaps that’s why it usually reduces me to a shuddering, sobbing wreck.

Best wishes for a wonderful Fourth of July to one and all.

Thoughts on Michael Jackson

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It’s a little off my usual subject, but I did want to weigh in with a couple observations on the death of Michael Jackson.

I was never a big fan of Jackson’s, though his talent was unmistakable. I remember being a young kid and marveling at the power of the young voice that sang I Want You Back, which was a giant hit in 1970. That’s still one of the performances I like best of his: The way he first kicks in with Oh, baby, give me one more chance is a moment of pure pop bliss.

But his death has caused me to think of a couple things, and the first one is something that the New York Times touched on today (which is why I regret not finding the time to write something earlier), and that is the question of his fame. Gore Vidal said a few years back that “real fame is no longer possible for any of us,” or something similar to that, and when I first read it I didn’t understand what he meant.

Yet he was right, I think, though perhaps he called it a little early. Because Michael Jackson was truly famous in a way that is most unlikely to be duplicated, though some people today come close: Barack Obama, Bono, Bill Clinton, perhaps a couple others. But Jackson had Elvis-style fame in that his name alone conjured up an instant image of dance and song that people all over the world responded to.

Which brings me to another aspect of his art, and that was its very conservative nature. Yes, he did break the last of the artificial music color barriers that had been raised by industry and the critical apparatus (though not the fans), but he still was essentially an old-fashioned song-and-dance man, drawing on the heritage of a century of American popular stage art.

That’s one of the reasons his return would have been so cannily accomplished, had he lived. His personal life had cast him in a ruinous guise, but more importantly, he was out of touch with the musical times, which were dominated by hip-hop. But that genre has begun over the past couple of years to fade in favor (probably at least partly through the offices of American Idol) of song rather than the spoken word.

No doubt he would have returned to the studio, seeing that his kind of entertainment had returned to favor, and with the right kind of material he probably would have been able to engineer what would have looked like a brilliant comeback from out of nowhere, but which in reality would have been a most shrewed comeback based on knowing instinctively what a mass audience was in the mood for.

As for his troubled personal life, his death was very much like Elvis Presley’s in that he died during a period of exile with an in-house physician attending to what apparently was a serious involvement with pain medication. Doubtless the aggressive physicality of his dance work is much harder on a 50-year-old body than it is on one nearly 30 years younger, and surely he was in a good deal of physical pain while working hard on his stage show.

One other thing, too, worth mentioning is that Jackson was born in 1958, and as a gay man he would have had much more difficulty expressing that in the 1970s than he would had he been born 20 years later and come to a knowledge of his sexual identity in the early 1990s, when the taboos against homosexuality had begun to crumble. Surely today, as a man of 30, he would be far less worried about maintaining a facade of heterosexuality when the majority of his mass audience couldn’t care less.

Whether that means he would have been more likely to have relationships with fully grown men is something impossible to answer, but in general I think a wider acceptance of same-sex orientation in the culture at large almost certainly would have made his emotional life easier.

Because that’s what happens to entertainers like Jackson and others who are show biz people from the get-go; it’s always about topping yourself and making your audience love you all the more, but it’s also about being almost a prisoner of that same audience. It’s their adulation that provides the air you breathe, and without it, you’re lost.

And Michael Jackson was down, but he was not out. He knew he still had a huge following that would cling to every falsetto hiccup, every moonwalk, every bit of glam and glitter. Had he lived, he would have showed the world just what it really means to be a truly big entertainer, the kind you see maybe once in a generation, and the absence of which makes everyday life a quieter, and sadder, place.

What Bach’s job benefits tell us

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In the middle of my current Bach mini-0bsession, I’ve come across a couple interesting things.

The first, and not hard to find, was that I can see the entire documentary of the John Eliot Gardiner/Monteverdi Choir cantata pilgrimage of 1999-2000 on YouTube, and it’s a beautiful thing. This is one of the last major cultural documents from the pre-9/11 era, for me, and it’s poignant to see in the New York section of the program the World Trade Center standing there where it was supposed to be.

But aside from the shading that piece of history casts on the enterprise, this was a remarkable effort, and I would imagine being part of it was extraordinary and something you would never forget. I have cherished my Vol. 15 set of the cycle for some years now, and it’s good to see what part it played in the larger story.

The other thing I’ve found interesting is in the economic arena. J.S. Bach, as we read in Christoph Wolff’s solid, illuminating biography (Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician), did well for himself when he took a job in Weimar in 1708, when he would have been around the same age as a college graduate today:

And with an initial salary of 150 florins plus incidentals (18 bushels of wheat, 12 bushels of barley, four cords of firewood and 30 pails of tax-free beer) , he could indeed look forward to “a better living,” as his Muhlhausen resignation letter reads.

In addition, as a court servant (he was the organist) he was entitled to lodging in one of several buildings reserved for court employees in the middle of town.

JSBach.jpgFirst, there’s the money, and if we use Wolff’s table at the back, we find that 150 florins was roughly equal to somewhere under $9,500 in 2000 dollars, which is around $11,700 today, according to a couple of calculators I used on the Net. So Bach at 23 was making a little less annually than the pastor of a church,  but about three times as much as a barber, if we can take wages from the 1720s and assume they were comparable a few years earlier.

Not bad, and at this time in his life he already had a reputation as one of the most brilliant young musicians in the German states. But what I find really interesting are the benefits.

Imagine if today you were to get a job in which you would get not just your salary, but guaranteed housing, as well as the equivalent of wheat, barley, beer and wood. In other words, you’re getting bread as well as fuel to heat the house and do cooking. So it would be as though you got your job at some company somewhere, and in addition to a decent salary, you’d get a place to live, as well as some of your power costs and food staples taken care of.

That’s a pretty good deal. Say you worked at Acme Widgets in its accounting department. They pay you $30,000 a year. Then in addition they pay most of your power costs — somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000 a year — plus enough wheat and barley to make bread all year round, and the table suggests that the 30 bushels of wheat and barley was worth in the neighborhood of $2,000.

So you get free housing, $30K a year, plus $4,000 for food and energy costs. Well done, Sebastian! And that’s not even counting the beer!

When was the last time an American employer paid its workers anything but salary? Wouldn’t it be nice to get a Cost of Living Voucher along with the salary, plus a Beer Voucher to go along with that? Is there anything else we generally require? This also is at a time when you weren’t expected to keep horses and a carriage for yourself that you bought from Dietrich down at Hohenstaufen Motors. Transportation was on foot or it was public, unless you were an aristocrat, in which case you hired people to do that.

The real fact of the matter is that we as workers in today’s global economy are required to support a gigantic industrial complex that influences most of the laws under which we live and which burdens us to the point of bankrupcty. We have to have cars, which cost far more to buy and operate than most of us have, but we don’t have any choice if we live in a place like South Florida; we have to pay for power, which for most of human history we provided ourselves; we’re forced to subsidize the private insurance industry on pain of breaking the law; if we’re ordinary people the only access to credit we have is at absurdly usurious rates.

It’s a giant, bruising, endless ripoff, and sometimes it takes looking at the economic arrangements of people a few centuries ago to see how out of whack things have become. Sure, not having money in the old days was just as bad as it is now, but nowadays, because we are forced to support so many enormous business operations, the fall is much sharper and steeper, and far more painful. And if you’re in the United States, the social services system is almost nonexistent, pace the selfless volunteers who work tirelessly on behalf of their fellow man simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Bach had it pretty good in most places he worked, even though the folks in Leipzig made him tear off his peruke from time to time and curse in a manner most unbecoming a Lutheran church official. And I think we should recognize that and insist our employers help us meet cost of living right off the bat.

Beer vouchers for everyone!

Music to work by

art-of-painting-trumpet.JPGI”ve found that I can work much better at repetitive or research-intensive tasks that require a lot of sitting here and staring if I have good brain music to work by.

When I last was a member of Cubicle Nation (and I was a member of 25 years’ standing, too), one of the pieces that helped me enormously in concentrating and getting down to business with a particularly recalcitrant office duty was the The Art of Fugue, J.S. Bach’s very last composition, and one that’s famously unfinished. The recording I listened to was that of the Russian pianist Tatyana Nikolayeva, and I must have favored it for brain work for somewhere in the neighborhood of two years running.

Although The Art of Fugue has the usual Baroque downside of being mostly in the same key throughout (D minor), this is an astonishing piece of music, and remarkable for study purposes. Bach is able to take the unlikeliest permutations of his theme, a melodic fragment of very humble promise, and make spellbinding music out of it. A good case in point is the 13th fugue, a 3-voice construct that begins with some closely argued triplets that soon share pride of place with a jaunty dotted-eighth-and-sixteenth pattern. These combine to exhilarating effect; I know from my days as a modal counterpoint student that dealing with any fugue subject more complicated than five or six notes, half of them long and slow, would be a daunting task indeed, and here’s Bach with a blizzard of triplets and then a march version of that same rhythm for his subject, and it’s brilliant.

I greatly enjoyed the Nikolayeva recording, but I didn’t take it with me when I left work for the last time, and so last week I borrowed the Pierre-Laurent Aimard recording from the library. This was also extremely fine playing — I admire his discs of the Messiaen Vingt Regards, as I’ve mentioned — but there’s something kind of detached about it. I wasn’t as involved in it as I was the older Russian recording, which, stereotypically enough, was more soulful, mysterious and emotional.

But the Aimard was excellent music to work by, and I’ve found Bach in general good for cerebellum exercises. I have a fine recording of Richard Goode playing three of the Bach partitas, and his recording of two of the Mozart piano concerti (Nos. 23 and 24) also works beautifully for letting the mind work for sustained stretches.

This raises an interesting question, and that of course is whether the music is best-suited for background music. Certainly composers of an earlier day wrote with the expectation that much of their music was supplying ambient sound of a general kind. And while Bach and Mozart are revered, as they should be, how many minds wander far afield while their pieces are played in today’s concert halls?

Once I heard the Russian pianist Kosntantin Lifschitz play the first 12 preludes and fugues from both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and it was an absorbing experience. I had studied the pieces for years, and I brought my study scores with me to check for interpretive niceties, but it was still incredible to hear these pieces come alive as they did at the hands of a gifted player.

But that was a special kind of listening, and I was prepared for it by years of study and playing the preludes and fugues through on my own battered upright. I recognized several other people in the audience as well-known area musicians and pedagogues, so they were a special audience, too.

What I’m wondering is whether when I listen to it with half my brain while the rest is working on something else, am I paying it the ultimate sign of disrespect?

Or is the music protean enough to work fine as mental wallpaper but also be available to reveal the highest artistic achievement when you’ve got time to listen to it?

I think it’s the latter; it’s surely true that truly bad music that works fine as wallpaper won’t stand up under scrutiny, so it’s logical to think that great stuff is ready to show its greatness when you can give it the attention it deserves.

In the meantime, I’m grateful for the malleability of Bach, and he’s helped me get through a lot of computer work I would gladly have bypassed had I that option. If anyone else has a list of good music to work by, please post it and share your ideas.

Loewe, other Broadway writers, deserve musicological treatment

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In the midst of furious preparation for the fifth print edition of ArtsPaper, out last week, and for the Tony Awards, which I admit to watching every year, I have been thinking about the life and work of Frederick Loewe.

I even checked out a copy of the movie version of Brigadoon from the library, and it doesn’t hold up very well; the only really good scene for me is the one in New York in which all those gray-flannel suit types are yakking away in some high-powered restaurant before Gene Kelly decides to return to Scotland.

That’s the only scene that has any interesting energy or life. The scenes in Brigadoon itself are wooden and hopelessly corny, and the dialogue (especially the Van Johnson cynic role) is dreadful. Some of the dancing is nice, particularly the Kelly-Cyd Charisse pas de deux, but other than that, all it has is a good score, which in the end is the most important thing.

But every time I hear Loewe’s score, it makes me wonder why someone with such a huge talent for operetta wrote so little, and the reason appears to be success: You make a great deal of money and the leisurely life starts talking in soothing tones to you until you answer back, Yeah, you’re right, I think a nap would be a good idea. (Gene Lees has written a book about Lerner and Loewe which he says is much more Lerner than Loewe, because the composer retired early.)

From all the available evidence, and I’m sure there’s more out there to be found, Loewe’s story of his early life is heavily fictional, but we do know that he was a published songwriter while still in his teens, and that it took him some knocking-around time before he was able to find a good partner in Alan Jay Lerner. In addition to Brigadoon (1947), the two men wrote Paint Your Wagon (1951, which has some good songs), Gigi (1958, for film), Camelot (1960) and of course, My Fair Lady (1956).

All of these scores have a certain amount of formula, including the big choral number that fills in the dramatic action (Go and Stop Him, etc.) But they all have absolutely lovely songs, especially some of the lesser numbers in Camelot, such as Before I Gaze at You Again, and I Loved You Once in Silence. Unlike Richard Rodgers and the other composers of the Broadway mainstream, Loewe was essentially an operetta writer, not a writer of musical comedy, and he is the true heir of Romberg, Friml and Herbert; most of Broadway went in a far jazzier direction.

It seems to me that much of the music Loewe wrote would sound far better, and would be much more appreciated, if it got the overhaul treatment, and in particular were reorchestrated in a light, classical manner, rather than the glitzy, boffo horn-driven sound of the charts that now accompany the music. This is delicate writing, and it needs a sensitive approach, and most of the way his music has been presented is in very dated instrumental garb.

I, for one, would like to see these scores revisited, reworked (a longer madrigal by Lancelot, for instance) and represented, perhaps with book alterations, too. I think a lot of this music deserves to be listened to again with an ear toward its classicism, and I think we’d find that it fits quite well into the operetta tradition, and further we would find that Loewe’s melodies have more shape and less cliche than some of his predecessors (I heard a suite from Herbert’s The Red Mill the other day, and found it ghastly).

And these are scores in which some editing could still be done, getting rid of dance interpolations that aren’t needed, or extending, as I noted, some other ideas that get short shrift: if you can stretch out a piece of one of the songs for a big dance number, you can expand them in other ways for other purposes. Maybe a few more years have to pass before the classic musicals of the 20th century get the scholarly musicological treatment, but I think it’s an idea whose time has come.