October 12, 2004 | Permalink
Who says music critics don't work?
Oct. 11: Evening of Joan La Barbara's music at NYU's Frederick Loewe Theatre, 35 W. 4th St., "with live interactive videoscapes by Kurt Ralske and performers including Joan La Barbara and musicians from Ne(x)tworks."
Oct. 12: New production of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites at New York City Opera.
Oct. 13: Mikhail Pletnev recital at opening of Lincoln Center Great Performers season.
Oct. 14: Sounds Like Now festival at La MaMa.
Oct. 15: Sounds Like Now concert #2.
Oct. 16: Music critics' symposium at 9AM. Sounds Like Now concerts at 2PM and 8PM.
Oct. 17: Music critics' symposium at 9AM. Joint appearance with Justin Davidson at 4PM. Sounds Like Now at 8PM.
Sounds like exhausting.
October 11, 2004 | Permalink
Just saw Julie Taymor's debut production at the Met. Since I'm writing a review for The New Yorker, I won't upstage myself by saying anything too specific here, but suffice to say this was one of the most bloody marvelous things I've ever seen on stage — one joyfully imaginative tableau after another, a dream world dancing to Mozart's time. There are only four more performances this fall, all of which are sold out except for a few $300 seats, but five more performances follow in April, with an even better cast — René Pape as the Speaker! Also (special for ACD): Taymor must direct the Ring. People at the Met should be calling her every hour on the hour until she agrees to do it.
October 09, 2004 | Permalink
I have a lot of CDs, probably more than ten thousand of them. To some, this may sound like a windfall, but it gets to be a bit of a problem after a while. When I moved from Brooklyn to the big city a few years ago and faced a drastic reduction of space, I decided to consign large numbers of the little silver wonders to a storage facility. I made draconian decisions about who was staying in the major leagues and who was going to be sent down. Elgar, for example, was condemned to storage en masse. Lately, I've been cocking an ear to Elgar again, and he's returned from exile. The question, of course, is where the collected Elgar will go when Eisler and Enesco have that shelf locked down.
A couple of years ago, I found the solution. It has almost literally saved my life, and I'd like to spread the word to any other suffering souls. It is a plastic CD sleeve put out by Jazz Loft. I'm sure other companies put out similar products, but my loyalty is to Jazz Loft, with whom I just placed another order. What you do is this: you crack open a jewel case, take out the CD, booklet, and paper liner, and transfer them to the plastic sleeve. The genius thing is that you can fold the liner in such a way that you can still read the "binding," though it's at an angle. It takes up about one-tenth the space of a jewel case. I've been able to squirrel away a thousand or more new CDs without needing an inch of extra space. The transfer process is tiresome, but you can make a festive occasion of it, as Pack can attest. I am not, by the way, in any way affiliated with the Jazz Loft company.
Some excellent Dylaniana over at Zoilus. Apparently Sean Penn is doing the book-on-tape of Chronicles. If not Bob himself, I was hoping for Morgan Freeman. Carl and I are trying to figure out what in heaven's name Dylan is talking about in the Oh Mercy chapter when he unveils his new harmonic system ("If you're using the [diatonic] scale, and you hit 2, 5 and 7 to the phrase and then repeat it, a melody forms"). Has he been reading Schillinger? Is he going to convert to twelve-tone music late in life, like Copland and Stravinsky? Momentary opacities aside, it is a gobsmacking great book. Among other surprises, it turns out that Dylan derived his entire songwriting art from Brecht and Weill's "Pirate Jenny," and that at some point in the early sixties he was listening to the violin concertos of Darius Milhaud. Time to get those out of storage, I guess.
Here's a choice passage from Herbert Breslin and Anne Midgette's book The King and I, a riveting and darkly funny memoir of Breslin's career as manager of Luciano Pavarotti and other would-be opera stars:
I used to represent a Russian soprano named Nina Rautio. Ever hear of her? I thought not. Madame Rautio was someone who was very clear about where she belonged.
“I want to enter par la grande porte,” she would say. Through the big door.
In other words, she wanted to make a big splash. No modest entrances for Madame Rautio.
Her husband, a little Russian man, used to come around the office.
“What is she doing next? Remember, she wants to enter par la grande porte.”
“Well, I’m afraid la grande porte doesn’t exist.”
This is not quite a tell-all book about Pavarotti's antics, though there are many amusing anecdotes. It is really a book about the ineffectual flailings of classical musicians and their handlers in the wilds of American culture. Breslin is a man interested in selling musicians to a large public, and most of them are unwilling or unable to play along. Most are still waiting for La Grande Porte to open: they expect to proceed effortlessly to a now imaginary position of high-culture celebrity. Pavarotti, for all his foibles, was humble enough to work for his fame. There are much bigger fools elsewhere in the business.
It turns out I had the wrong address for tonight's Dylan reading in my "Agenda" listing below. I gave the correct address in "Appearances" to the right but somehow failed to notice the discrepancy. Terribly sorry if I sent anyone (i.e., Pack, myself) to the wrong place. It already feels like a long fall.
October 06, 2004 | Permalink
I picked up Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, thinking that I should have some familiarity with it in time for tonight’s reading. It’s a most goddamn wonderful book, as Hemingway said of Ulysses. The rough magic of the style was to be expected; the novelistic powers of observation are stunning. In one extended sequence, he’s in the library of a friend’s apartment, picking up books, reading parts of them, putting them down, free-associating, evoking the moment he was in and his history between then and now. Maybe he has photographic memory, maybe he took really good notes, maybe he’s making it all up, but who cares when you’re spending time with a mind like this:
I cut the radio off, crisscrossed the room, pausing for a moment to turn on the black-and-white TV. Wagon Train was on. It seemed to be beaming in from some foreign country. I shut that off, too, and went into another room, a windowless one with a painted door — a dark cavern with a floor-to-ceiling library. I switched on the lamps. The place had an overwhelming presence of literature and you couldn’t help but lose your passion for dumbness…
I liked the French writer Balzac a lot, read Luck and Leather, and Le Cousin Pons. Balzac was pretty funny. His philosophy is plain and simple, says basically that pure materialism is a recipe for madness. The only true knowledge for Balzac seems to be in superstition. Everything is subject to analysis. Horde your energy. That’s the secret of life. You can learn a lot from Mr. B. It’s funny to have him as a companion. He wears a monk’s robe and drinks endless cups of coffee. Too much sleep clogs up his mind. One of his teeth falls out, and he says, “What does this mean?” He questions everything. His clothes catch fire on a candle. He wonders if fire is a good sign. Balzac is hilarious.
Then there’s the part where he rides Tolstoy’s bicycle — but enough for now. I'm hoping for a book-on-tape version, and Vol. II before it's too late.
The picture was taken in northern Minnesota, not far from where the Meister grew up, during my endless Bob Dylan expeditions of 1998. Here's the very long article that emerged. More Dylan musings here and here.
October 06, 2004 | Permalink
October 05, 2004 | Permalink
Where I go this week:
Oct. 5: American Classical Orchestra's Mozart symposium, 10AM, Christ Church at Park and 60th.
Oct. 6: Bob Dylan panel with Rick Moody, Gary Giddins, Bob Christgau, Sean Wilentz, and yours sincerely, at Barnes & Noble at 86th and Lexington, 7:30PM, in support of the new book Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader. If I weren't doing this, I'd have liked to see the gifted young organist Paul Jacobs play at Holy Apostles on Ninth and 28th.
Oct. 7: American Classical Orchestra's Mozart concert, Church of St. Vincent Ferrer at Lexington and 60th.
Oct. 8: Debut of Julie Taymor's Magic Flute at the Met.
Oct. 9: Terry Riley's Sun Rings at BAM.
October 04, 2004 | Permalink
I'm in a state of quiet bliss following Pomerium's concert of Ockeghem, Gombert, Morales, and other Renaissance masters at Corpus Christi Church. Polyphony does wonderful things to a self-fatiguing urban brain when it's sung as impeccably as this. I walked away brightened and becalmed. Something funky happens when the intricate art of counterpoint, this quasi-mathematical interweaving of lines, takes life from singing voices — especially in a near-ideal acoustic such as Corpus Christi's, where the sound acquires an aura of warmth without degenerating into reverberant murk. The emotional and intellectual sides of the musical game are in perfect balance.
At the concert, an early-music insider slipped me Peter Phillips' new book What We Really Do. Phillips is the leader of the mighty Tallis Scholars, which helped reveal Renaissance polyphony to worldwide audiences in the eighties and nineties. It's a most unusual book that talks about the music in painstaking detail while also supplying wry, even scandalous anecdotes about the strange business of singing ancient church music for a living. Who knew, for example, that the Scholars, avatars of timeless sublimity, have on occasion collapsed into giggles in the middle of the performance — a syndrome called "corpsing"? (Perhaps this happened on the occasion the group was advertised in a local paper as the Tallis Sisters.) In his "Singers' Argot" Phillips also gives an entry for "drug-like trance," a state that the Tallis Scholars are often said to produce. He's obviously a bit amused by the choice of words:
I have wondered which drugs might lie at the back of this metaphor: for example the hallucinatory ones which make you see many-colored backgrounds, or the ones that make you giggle. The former would yield an interesting adjunct to the all-round experiencing of polyphony. Perhaps the individual lines would become color-coded like on those improving television programs about how fugues were written that we used to watch as kids in the 1960s; or even better they might acquire their own animals, of which the pink elephants in Disney's Fantasia are so memorable a feature when the music gets a bit contrapuntal. The ones that make you giggle are not always needed (cf. "Corpsing"). But I know what people mean by this. It's just that I never get a chance to sit back as they do and let the music wash over me. I regret this, but the risks of my trying it are too great when conducting, and when it comes to recordings I tend to listen to romantic symphonies for relaxation. Or Tom Lehrer.
Yet at the end of the book Phillips can't resist comparing polyphonic art to the mind-bending effects of abstract painting. "Trance" is not the right word: the mind is not numbed out but made more alert. It is a state of pleasurable perplexity:
It is no coincidence that the paintings of Kandinsky and his modernist colleagues, especially the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, send me into the same kind of reverie as an eight-part motet by Byrd. The surface is seductive, the meaning obscure, the desire to grasp something that is too abstract to be grasped only causing me to try again and again, a lifetime of agains, a thrall without end.
The New York Early Music Celebration, of which Pomerium's concert was a part, continues through Oct. 10, and the Renaissance masters will figure in several more programs, such as Polyhymnia's on Oct. 6 and the Choir of St. Ignatius's on Oct. 10. The Tallis Scholars themselves will be touring America in December, stopping in Berkeley, Santa Barbara, LA, Toronto, Buffalo, Boston, DC, Princeton, and NYC (the Miller Theatre on Dec. 10). Pomerium sings more Ockeghem at Cooper Union on Nov. 13 and travels to the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cornell, and Colgate. Unless, of course, John Ashcroft gets wind of this and declares Ockeghem an illegal substance.
Here's a piece I wrote in 1998 about the Franco-Flemish scene.
October 03, 2004 | Permalink
Phrases that have recently lassoed readers to my site: "Hitler Youth cyanide concert," "La Juive shopping cart," "rent a tennis racquet in Toronto," "teen muscleboys," "botched embalming" (#1 on the Internet!), "Radu Lupu is crap" (begging your pardon).
October 02, 2004 | Permalink
Nationalist insanity is a terrible thing. Once an idea has taken root in a nation, is respected and held in high esteem, how could it not be truth? Who would even dare to doubt it? Language, law, education, the course of daily life — everything confirms it. Whoever does not share in the folly of others is an idiot, an enemy, a heretic, an alien. And if — as is usually the case — this folly is a boon to certain prominent people, or even is thought to benefit all classes; if it has been sung by poets, demonstrated by philosophers, if fame has trumpeted it as the glory of the nation — who would want to contradict it? Who would not prefer, out of courtesy, to share in this folly? Even vague doubts of an opposing folly serve only to reinforce an established one. The disparate natures of peoples, sects, classes, and individuals jostle against one another, and each clings all the more tenaciously to its own point of view. Folly becomes a national emblem, a coat-of-arms, a guild banner. It is frightening to see how strongly folly becomes attached to words, once it has been forcefully imprinted on them…. When taken over by political parties, watchwords previously associated with no concept, signs which meant nothing at all, have plunged minds into madness, sundered friendships and families, assassinated men, devastated countries. History is full of such demonic words — it could yield an entire glossary of human error and folly….
— Johann Gottfried Herder, 1794
October 02, 2004 | Permalink
Mussorgsky, Prelude to Khovanshchina: a chilly dawn on the Moskva, but beautifully colored.… The Philharmonic’s program book looks better, exposition up front and dull facts at the back. Time was you’d start off reading about the instrumentation — “Three flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, four clarinets (one doubling E-flat clarinet, another doubling bass clarinet)…”— and fall asleep before the music started.… Tchaikovsky First Concerto: Lang Lang, clang clang…. Choice sentence from Maazel’s bio: “Between age 9 and 13 he conducted most of the major American orchestras.”… Augusta Read Thomas’ new Emily Dickinson settings, Gathering Paradise. Gleaming, Gehryesque orchestration. Ungainly vocal writing, warmly delivered by Heidi Grant Murphy. Shiny happy atonality…. Miraculous Mandarin: wow. Maazel is perfect for this vicious, fabulous score. He could conduct it in his sleep, possibly from the grave.
October 01, 2004 | Permalink
Cleaning my office the other day, I rediscovered this photo, which was given to me by the oboist John de Lancie. It is of Richard Strauss in the summer of 1945, at his home in Garmisch. De Lancie, who asked Strauss to compose the work that became the Oboe Concerto, sent me an extremely generous letter after I wrote about Strauss in 1999. He commented that he had a hard time recognizing the alternately cold and vulgar figure who was depicted in many books, articles, and portraits; this snapshot, he said, caught the man he knew. De Lancie died in 2002. Opening that letter, and seeing that craggy smile, was one of the loveliest moments of my writing life; it was almost as if I'd had a message from Strauss himself.
The Rest Is Noise, my history of twentieth-century music, begins and ends with tales of Strauss — first, a scene of him presiding triumphantly over the Austrian premiere of his opera Salome in 1906; then, glimpses of him in his last weeks and days, as he muses wryly over his long, strange life. ("I have outlived even myself," he said.) I'm not sure why Strauss fascinates me so. When I wrote in my New Yorker essay that he was the "composer of the century," I did not intend to suggest that he was the greatest composer of the century; there are pieces of his — the ballet Schlagobers, the opera Friedenstag — that seem to gainsay greatness by their very existence. Actually, there is no "greatest composer of the century"; it's a condescending formulation that diminishes a fantastically rich period to a quaint village that one man could be the mayor of. Who would try to pick out the greatest composer of the eighteenth century, or the nineteenth? Yet I do feel there is something profoundly representative about Strauss' work, in all its strengths and flaws. Thomas Mann began his long essay on Wagner with the words: "Sorrowing and grand, like the nineteenth century of which he was the perfect expression, the spirit of Richard Wagner stands before my eyes." That's how Strauss appears to me, except that "sorrowing" and "grand" aren't the right words.
For several years, I have been gathering stories from American soldiers who met Strauss in Garmisch after the end of the war. For some reason I find these tales incredibly moving. If you or anyone you know met the composer in the period from 1945 to 1949, please write to Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 4 Times Square, NY NY 10036, or to alexrossny at gmail dot com. I would love to hear your story. The 10th Armored Division and the 103rd Infantry Division were in the area at the time. Also, I would like to know more about Maj. John Kramers, a military-government officer hailing from Philadelphia, who seems to have been the first American to talk to Strauss on April 30, 1945, the day of Hitler's suicide.
My experiment in direct marketing must be counted a triumphant success. Evidence exists that no fewer than three people bought Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Handel record at my urging. What's more, Amazon.com's servers have obviously gone haywire as a result of the untold dozens of readers who followed my link there yesterday morning. How else to explain the album actually falling in Amazon's sales rankings? They must be begging me to stop the insanity. Therefore, I am calling an end to my "strike" and will go back to nattering on about Richard Strauss.
I'm not writing a new post until all 100,000 people who've visited this site since May — I know, 40,000 of the hits are me refreshing the page after making pointless revisions — have bought Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Handel record. Amazon is offering it together with her similarly soul-transfiguring Bach record for $28.98. Here are some other things you can buy for $28.98: the Swingline 390 Heavy-Duty Stapler, Eric Clapton's There's One in Every Crowd, the Linksys Network Adapter, two pounds of Whey Protein Bodybuilding Chocolate, and a DVD of The Nutty Professor II. The fate of culture is in your hands.
Tony Tommasini wrote in the Sunday New York Times: “For too long, the troubles among the major record companies and leading performing arts institutions have been taken as proof that the entire classical music field is struggling to engage an uninterested general public.” Yes. The former leading labels may be struggling to justify themelves to the corporate (non)entities that own them, but Nonesuch, ECM, Hyperion, and Harmonia Mundi have defined the category "major" out of existence, and there seems to be no end of new glories. I dithered over a dozen rave-worthy releases before picking René Jacobs’ Figaro, the Anna Netrebko recital, and Till Fellner’s Well-Tempered Clavier for my CD column last week. Here are six other recent discs that are evidence of something other than an industry in decline:
Handel Arias, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Avie). I'm running out of superlatives for La Lieberson. What can you say about her singing of "Ombra mai fù"? It is supreme. It is beyond. It is beyond the beyond. It leaves the beyond in the dust. It obliterates. It is absolutely the end. It is the music that will be playing ten thousand miles above the powers that be as they shuffle down to the special hell reserved for those who judge and will be judged. Sorry. Got carried away. It's really good.
Vivaldi, Concertos for the Emperor, Andrew Manze and the English Concert (Harmonia Mundi). Manze’s soul-shivering arpeggios in the finale of the C-minor concerto give you a very good idea of how the composer himself might have sounded at a famous concert of 1715: "Towards the end, Vivaldi played a solo accompaniment — splendid — to which he appended a cadenza which really frightened me, for such playing has never been nor can be."
Bartók, Violin Sonatas, Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes (Virgin Classics). More white-hot fiddling: the raw rural songs that Bartók heard in Eastern Europe and North Africa dance through the modernist melee.
Monteverdi, Orfeo (Virgin Classics). A cast of young stars — Ian Bostridge, Natalie Dessay, Alice Coote, Christopher Maltman, Lorenzo Regazzo, Véronique Gens, Patrizia Ciofi, Paul Agnew — sing Monteverdi’s genre-solidfying opera better than it has ever been sung in the past. Emmanuelle Haïm draws beauty and mystery from Le Concert d’Astrée and the European Voices.
Bach, Beethoven, and Webern, Piotr Anderszewski (Virgin Classics). A staggeringly gifted young pianist with a Richter-like ability to sustain tension through stretches of perilously slow playing.
Leon Fleisher Two Hands (Vanguard). When I wrote about Fleisher's mesmerizing master classes last spring, I never actually got to hear him play the piano. The dean of American pianists has regained the use of his right hand, and his account of Schubert's B-flat sonata dwells in no one's shadow, not even the master Schnabel's. The encores come first: "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" had me in tears after thirty seconds.
And the hits keep coming — surreally beautiful Ysaÿe solo violin sonatas played by Thomas Zehetmair (ECM); Fretwork's ravishing, revelatory compilation of the sixteenth-century songs of Ludwig Senfl (Harmonia Mundi; with tenor Charles Daniel); the fine young violinist Daniel Hope playing Ravel, Ravi Shankar, Bartók, and Schnittke with an east-west ensemble (Warner Classics); Rachel Barton Pine’s masterly Baroque recital (Cedille). I don't know if it's an age, but it's golden.
September 28, 2004 | Permalink
I've received a few suggestions from elsewhere in the blögôsphère for rock-band-ish classical ensemble names. Robert Gable proposes Joan Tower of Power and the Amy Beach Boys, while Madrigalia (I blush) offers Nissan Doorman, The Vivaldi Underground, Wreckwiem, and Stradella My Ass, Baby. Although the Fredösphere himself has not spoken, he has ventilated his permalinks and prepared an extraordinarily gracious nonacceptance speech for the MacArthur "genius" awards. You can find his original crazy-band-name post here and my response down there.
September 28, 2004 | Permalink