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Ten Thousand Men

March 21, 2014 2 comments

I don’t get too excited about March Madness. When it comes to all things basketball, I lost the thrill decades ago. Once basketball was the sport I followed most closely, first as a devoted Knicks fan, then a Celtics fan who spent many a winter evening at the Garden.

As for college basketball, I trace my loss of interest to the double-overtime UCLA-NC State semifinal in 1974. I see here that Bill Walton called it “one of the bleakest days in the history of Western Civilization.” What a game! No point watching anymore.

Until yesterday. I keep up with who wins and who loses. I just don’t go out of my way to watch. Yesterday, however, I was at home later than usual and I saw online that Harvard was leading Cincinnati with three minutes to go. I figured I may as well tune in for the ending.

I have a bit of history with Harvard basketball. The best recruiting class in many years arrived in 1969, led by heavily recruited James Brown, out of high school powerhouse DeMatha in suburban DC (and later noted TV personality).

Freshmen didn’t play varsity ball in those years. Once that class became sophomores, I attended their games regularly. That season featured a trip west to Amherst to play UMass, led by the best player in the country, Julius Erving. I remember listening to the game on the radio, looking forward to UMass’s complementary visit to Cambridge a year later. But Erving didn’t stick around. He was a star in the ABA by then.

Harvard never did reach its potential in those years, to my great disappointment. Now they have, under coach Tommy Amaker. Despite being a #12 seed in the region, they were widely picked to upset #5 seed Cincinnati yesterday. Hence, I tuned in to catch the last two minutes.

Sure enough, Harvard held on to win. (Story here.) It was fun to see, though I felt bad for Cincinnati, which had dreams of going far. Harvard certainly won’t, not with Michigan State looming. Though only a #4 seed, the Spartans have been playing like one of the top five teams in the country lately. I don’t expect Harvard to keep it close.

When the game ended, the Harvard band played the historic fight song, Ten Thousand Men of Harvard. You may recall some of the lyrics.

Ten thousand men of Harvard want vict’ry today,
For they know that o’er old Eli
Fair Harvard holds sway.
So then we’ll conquer old Eli’s men,
And when the game ends, we’ll sing again:
Ten thousand men of Harvard gained vict’ry today!

I can’t imagine when I last heard that on national TV. The best opportunity would have been in tournament games during the years of Harvard hockey greatness, but those are past. Now Harvard is the weakest of the four Boston-area hockey powers, not much of a rival even to Yale. Heck, Yale won the national championship last year. So much for holding sway over old Eli.

Well, at least I got this post up today, before Harvard’s March Madness ends.

Categories: Music, Sports

Long Shadows

February 17, 2014 1 comment

longshadowwines

One of the stops on our Walla Walla wine trip two summers ago was Forgeron Cellars, where winemaker and managing partner Marie-Eve Gilla gave us a splendid introduction to her winery. We learned while there that her husband, Gilles Nicault, was involved with another local winery, Long Shadows, but the name didn’t mean much to us.

Half a year later, our friends Brooke and Robin brought a bottle of Nine Hats Sangiovese to my birthday dinner. Nine Hats didn’t mean much to me either, but when we tried the wine, we quite liked it. Searching on the web, I learned that Nine Hats wines are made by Long Shadows. As the website explains:

Nine winemakers. Nine hats. The nine renowned winemakers of Long Shadows’ signature wines discover after each harvest that a percentage of their resulting barrels are more than they require to achieve that perfect balance in their final blends. These extra barrels now produce NINE HATS…wines of complexity and distinctive character.

Ten days later, Gail and I made an excursion to Bainbridge Island, at the end of which—with time to kill before the next ferry back to Seattle—we stopped at Harbor Square Wine Shop & Tasting Room. I wrote at the time that the

wine that immediately caught my eye was Saggi, produced by one of the Long Shadows winemakers. Just a week ago, we were given a bottle of Nine Hats Sangiovese. In reading up on it, I learned the story behind Nine Hats and Long Shadows. … [Quote above.] … Reading further, I discovered that the “signature wine” corresponding to the Nine Hats Sangiovese is the Saggi, a Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah blend. I thought—last week, this is—that we might enjoy trying both and comparing. First we would try the Nine Hats. If we liked it, we’d look for the Saggi.

But here it was, a 2008. No looking required. I put the bottle on the counter to buy.

It was months before we tried another Long Shadows wine. Our local grocery store had a bottle of the Pirouette, which we bought last spring but didn’t drink until our Yom Kippur pre-fast dinner in September. I devoted a post to it, prompting me to learn more about Long Shadows. Let me quote from that post.

Long Shadows is becoming one of our favorite Washington wineries. From the website:

Long Shadows brings seven highly acclaimed vintners from the major wine regions of the world to Washington State, each an owner-partner in a unique winery dedicated to producing Columbia Valley wines that showcase the best of this growing region.

Founded in 2003, Long Shadows is the brainchild of Washington wine luminary Allen Shoup. As president and CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle and its affiliated wineries, Allen spent 20 years building the reputation of the growing region … .

After leaving Ste. Michelle in 2000, Allen’s commitment to advancing the Columbia Valley remained undaunted. He spent the next three years developing Long Shadows, a proposition that was as simple as it was complex: recruit a cadre of the finest winemakers in the world; give each vintner access to Washington State’s best grapes; and outfit a winery to accommodate a diverse group of winemakers’ exacting cellar specifications.

With the vision in place, Allen began by introducing a dream team of celebrated vintners to the vines and wines of the growing region. The idea quickly sold itself; and from the beginning, the wines have enjoyed critical acclaim that has continued to grow, vintage after vintage.

The Pirouette is made by Philippe Melka and Agustin Huneeus.

Philippe Melka and Agustin Huneeus, Sr. teamed to combine the traditions of old world winemaking, the advancements of new world technology, and small lots from Washington State’s finest vineyards to craft this enticing red blend.

The 2009 is a blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Malbec. Oh, right, it says so right there on the bottle, pictured at the top. I really didn’t need to add much. The bottle just about says it all.

What the bottle doesn’t say is that it was as fine a bottle of wine as we have drunk in ages. Unfortunately, we bought just the one, and they’re now sold out. Perhaps we should invest in the 2010.

It was around that time that I signed up for the Long Shadows mailing list, subscribers to which learn about and are offered the opportunity to order each of their new releases. I also discovered that Long Shadows had a tasting room in Woodinville. If we ordered some wine, we wouldn’t have to drive to Walla Walla or pay for shipping (and be home to sign on delivery). Gail and I could just drive up to the tasting room.

Later still, I realized through one of their emails to the list that they have regular Friday programs in the Woodinville tasting room, listed on the events page of the website under the heading “Unwine’d in Woodinville.” The calendar listing for each has the note:

Please join us at our Woodinville tasting room to unwind for the weekend and enjoy a sampling of our wines. Choose from a selection of small pours, by the glass, or by the half bottle. With live music from [name of musician or group] to help kick off the weekend.

How could we resist?

Well, resist we did, for months. The drive out to Woodinville after work on a Friday never seemed all that enticing. Then, a couple of weeks ago, Long Shadows sent out an email announcing special Valentine’s Day events at both the Walla Walla and Woodinville tasting rooms. Gail and I agreed that this would be our opportunity to get up there. Only later did I realize that the Valentine’s event was just the usual Unwine’d evening, with dessert options thrown in. Still, we planned on going.

Last Tuesday, three days before our planned outing, Long Shadows sent out an email to the list announcing the establishment of a wine club.

As many of our current releases are selling out quickly, some of our customers are discovering it is difficult to find our wines. We are excited to offer new supporters the opportunity to have guaranteed access to their favorite Long Shadows wines by joining our Winery Key Club. As a member you will be assured early notification of all regular releases, with special pricing included. You’ll also receive complimentary admission to release events, VIP experiences at the winery and tasting rooms, priority access to library wines, large formats and gift boxes, and other exclusive benefits available only to our valued club members. If you have been interested in our wines but were waiting for the right opportunity to discover them for yourself, Key Club membership is a wonderful way to begin your relationship with Long Shadows.

Perfect. There were three club levels, as described in the email and also at the website. The lowest level offers two shipments a year of six bottles each, with 10% discount on those and any other purchases, pick up available at either tasting room or shipping at extra cost. Other perks were listed with the parenthetical comment “as available.” By stepping up to level two, we would get three shipments a year of six bottles each—three bottles of each of their six red wines—with 15% discount on those and other purchases plus guaranteed access to events, library wines, and so on. I signed up that night.

The next day, at work, Brooke asked if I had read about a Long Shadows wine being served the night before at the state dinner. I hadn’t. I knew French president Hollande was in DC to visit Obama, but I hadn’t heard about the dinner. As it turned out, while I was joining the Long Shadows wine club, President Obama was serving Long Shadows’ 2009 Chester-Kidder. The news was covered even before the dinner took place, Eric Degerman writing:

Political blogs in our nation’s capital are buzzing with the choice of wine for tonight’s State Dinner at the White House for French President François Hollande, and Washington state will be represented by Long Shadows Vintners‘ 2009 Chester-Kidder from the Columbia Valley.

Politico.com reports the other two wines being served by President Barack Obama’s culinary team are Morlet 2011 La Proportion Dorée from Napa Valley and Thibault-Jannison Blanc de Chardonnay from Monticello, Va. Dinner entertainment will feature pop singer Mary J. Blige.

Dylan Byers of Politico.com poignantly pointed out the French connection at Allen Shoup’s rockstar winery in Walla Walla.

The affable and talented Gilles Nicault has overseen the production at Long Shadows from the start. And while he works alongside such world-renowned winemakers as Armin Diel (Germany), Randy Dunn (Napa), John Duval (Australia), Ambrogio and Giovanni Folonari (Italy), Philippe Melka (France) and Michel Rolland (France), the Chester-Kidder brand is a separate collaboration of Nicault and Shoup.

“Gilles Nicault was born and raised in southern France, and received his degree in viticulture and enology from a French university. And yet, he chose to move to Washington state to make wine,” Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission, told Great Northwest Wine. “His story is a testament to the quality and international reputation of our grape growing region. We hope the French President appreciates the balanced style and food friendliness of this and all Washington State wines.”

Shoup spent 20 years at Ste. Michelle before retiring as CEO in 2000. Soon after, he developed Long Shadows and one of his first moves was to hire Nicault in 2003 from famed Woodward Canyon, where the graduate of the University of Avignon had worked seven years for Rick Small.

Nicault made wine in Champagne, Côtes du Rhône and Provence before he arrived in the Yakima Valley in 1994. He worked for Staton Hills and Hogue Cellars before landing a position with Woodward Canyon.

The first vintage of Chester-Kidder was 2002, and the blend is a tribute to Shoup’s grandfather, Charles Chester, and grandmother, Maggie Kidder.

The 2009 Chester-Kidder ($50) will be paired with Dry-Aged Rib Eye Beef served with Jasper Hill Farm Blue Cheese Crisp, Charred Shallots, Oyster Mushrooms and Braised Chard. That vintage of Chester-Kidder was a blend of Cabernet Sauvigon (50%), Syrah (28%) and Petit Verdot (17%) using grapes from Candy Mountain near West Richland, Wash., and StoneTree Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope. Production was 989 cases.

Between joining the club and learning about the White House dinner, we were even more excited about our Valentine’s plan. Then again, by joining the club, we had signed up for regular visits to the tasting room to pick up our wine, so getting up there that Friday night was less urgent. This is the quandary we faced when I got home from work Friday afternoon. And didn’t we need dinner anyway, not dessert?

Finally, around 6:30 PM, we headed out. The unwine’d evening ran from 6:00 to 9:00, so we had some time and really needed a meal. But not too much time. What to do? Burgermaster!, It’s a beloved Seattle-area institution with a charming drive-in site in Bellevue, just off State Route 520, the road we needed to take to get to I-405 and up to Woodinville.

One might not have guessed, but the drive-in turned out to be quite the Valentine’s Day hangout. Boy was it crowded! We ordered, ate a most satisfying meal in the car, and headed out.

Fifteen minutes later, we were lost in Woodinville. We headed up 202, the Woodinville Redmond Road, coming to a traffic circle just north of which was a concentration of winery tasting rooms and other commercial establishments. But where was Long Shadows?

There was Brian Carter Cellars, off to the left, and more wine rooms in a strip mall just north of it. To the right was a Mexican restaurant, Mazatlan, and more wine rooms, some with well-lit signs, plus a sign along the road listing Mazatlan and the wine rooms but not Long Shadows. We drove past, then back south, way south on discovering no good place to turn around, then back north, then finally into the crowded parking lot on the left, even though I knew from the address that Long Shadows should be to the right by Mazatlan.

We got out, crossed the street, wandered toward Mazatlan, passing a crowded room with small unlit signs high up on the walls. A guard was in the parking lot, so I asked where Long Shadows was. It was the crowded place, and when we got close enough, it turns out that the sign I couldn’t read said “Nine Hats.” Another sign said Long Shadows. Unreadable though unless you’re close. How would we have known, especially given that neither they nor Nine Hats was listed on the big sign along the street that had all the other establishments?

No matter. We had arrived. We walked in, went to the counter in the back, past people sitting and standing, with featured artist Billy Brandt singing and a small jazz band backing him up.

At the counter, we were given menus. You could choose any of the six Long Shadows wines, $12 each, or order from a small dessert menu. I asked if we could buy bottles using our new club membership. Sure, 15% off. And we had privileges in the private tasting room in the back, though nothing was being served back there.

We ordered two glasses of 2010 Sequel:

John Duval, formerly of Australia’s iconic Penfolds Grange, chose the Columbia Valley as his “Sequel” for the continuation of his life’s work with Syrah.

Cool spring temperatures delayed flowering and reduced fruit set, while the summer temperatures remained moderate. In response to these conditions, we opened up the leaf canopies and dropped clusters so that the vines were well positioned to finish ripening when the warm weather arrived in the fall. The 2010 vintage was a cooler than average growing season that produced bright, fresh wines with excellent acidity, color, flavor and varietal character.

Deep and inky in color with vibrant aromas of wild blackberries, crushed rock, smoked meats and spicy oak. Concentrated dark fruit flavors are accented by a savory mid-palate and excellent acidity that provides a seamlessly balanced finish.

Syrah from Yakima Valley’s Boushey Vineyard (40%) gives Sequel its bright, fresh fruit character. These grapes are the perfect complement to the dense, dark fruit grown at Bacchus Vineyard (23%), from one of the oldest Syrah blocks in the state. Grapes from Candy Mountain (26%), adjacent to Red Mountain, give the wine its backbone. The remaining Syrah is grown at Sonnet Vineyard at The Benches in the Horse Heaven Hills, planted to a Shiraz clone that John recommended for its dark, rich and complex character. Dionysus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon contributes structure and adds to the wine’s appealing mid-palate.

Glasses in hand, we wandered into the back room, then returned to stand at a counter supported by two barrels, then grabbed two seats at the end of the bar and focused on the music as we drank an outstanding wine. The set was soon over, and Billy, the singer, headed toward us to start up a conversation. It turns out he’s from Boston. I mentioned that I lived there for twelve years and soon we were talking college hockey. He played on Boston College’s JV team one year (BC is currently ranked #1 in the country, was national champions three of the last six years) and described his career highlight scoring a goal against Harvard in a preseason game.

If not for Billy, we might have finished our wine, bought some bottles, and left. But now we wanted to hear his next set, so we stuck around. Gail bought a glass of the Chester-Kidder, allowing us to taste what Obama and Hollande had drunk three nights earlier. I had just a sip, and without benefit of dry-aged rib eye beef, but I imagine they were happy with it. With a bottle of Pirouette at home, we decided to buy the other five Long Shadows wines, using our new 15% discount. We paid, listened to some more music, then headed out between songs, with Billy calling out our names and saying goodbye as we exited.

Back home, we read up on Billy.

Having an affinity for the bluer side of jazz that rocks as much as it swings, Billy tends the musical bar with playful and wise originals and standards. A smooth and smoky voice with a swingin’ jazz combo mixes a delicious melodic libation best served up or on the rocks.

Bringing his New England background to the fore against the breathtaking backdrop of the Pacific Northwest, Billy entertains audiences drawn to his humor and storytelling. While immersing himself in the rich music community of Seattle, Billy has played at Tula’s, the Triple Door, the Columbia City Theater, Egan’s, Lucid, and the Paragon. He’s also busy writing songs, collaborating, and producing shows such as the popular annual The Big Gig (of which there have been four; the last two sold out the Triple Door).

With style and showmanship that is warm and easygoing, possessing a hint of swing and a blues sensibility, Billy is sure to charm as he celebrates the release of his first album, The Ballad of Larry’s Neighbor.

Here’s a video of Billy just last month at Seattle’s Triple Door.

We saw him on Friday singing with a guitarist, upright bassist, and drummer.

We look forward to seeing Billy again. He mentioned that he’s at Long Shadows about every six weeks. Indeed, we’ll be happy to return to unwine’d on any Friday, regardless of who’s playing. Maybe next time we’ll eat at Mazatlan first. Even with Burgermaster, it was a lovely evening.

Categories: Music, Wine

Joshua Bell Recital

February 9, 2014 Leave a comment

joshuabell

[From Joshua Bell’s website]

Half a year ago, on the morning when Seattle Symphony tickets for the season went on sale for non-subscribers, Gail and I selected two concerts we anticipated might be popular and bought tickets. One, with Bernadette Peters as special guest, I wrote about in October. The other, though sponsored by the symphony, wasn’t a symphony performance. Rather, it was a recital by the violinist Joshua Bell, which took place four days ago.

Almost a year ago we were at Benaroya Hall for an Itzhak Perlman violin recital, with pianist Rohan de Silva. I wrote at the time that

we arrived at 6:20. Not early enough. There’s only one eating option in the Boeing Gallery, the open space that runs inside the building along 3rd Avenue, with the Chihuly chandeliers on the north and south ends, elevators from the parking garage, coat check, and entry to the two theaters. Namely, Puck’s Café. (Puck as in Wolfgang Puck.) The website says you can “arrive early and enjoy a relaxing dinner or lunch before you attend the concert.” I suppose so, if relaxing means standing on line for 20 minutes, then searching for an empty table among the two-tops squeezed together in the Boeing Gallery, with tiny chairs, no separation from your neighbors, a view of busses and people standing in wait for them outside the window. But if we wanted to eat at a restaurant nearby, we would have had to arrive much earlier. So we got on line.

I probably should have reviewed this passage sooner. We arrived a little earlier this time, around 6:10, but the experience was much the same. One reason not to head downtown too early on Wednesday was that the celebration of the Seahawks’ Super Bowl victory had taken place that afternoon. We feared getting caught in the tail end of post-jubilee traffic. And anyway, I was at work. We got there when we could.

Same long line at Puck’s Café. Same difficulty finding a table. The dinner special this time was lasagna with green salad and a roll. We both chose it. Gail didn’t think it was so great. She’s probably right, but it was lasagna after all. I was happy.

We took our seats around 7:00 PM, a half hour early. We were in Row F, six rows away from the stage, a ways left of center. This put our eye level about at stage height. We would be close to Bell, but looking up.

Time passed, the hall filled, the lights dimmed, and out came Joshua Bell, with pianist Sam Haywood (and page turner). Haywood has his own successful solo career and, I gather, has toured regularly with Bell for some time. The first half opened with Giuseppe Tartini’s sonata known familiarly as “Devil’s Trill,” from around 1740.

This isn’t a piece I know well. In fact, until a year ago, I don’t think I knew it at all, but I learned of it then because Perlman played it at his recital. Steven Lowe’s program notes haven’t changed. As I quoted a year ago,

some 200 concertos flowed from Tartini’s musical veins, but in truth, history has accorded him the dubious honor of being a “one-work” composer. That one work is his so-called “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, written, so he claimed, following a dream in which he sold his soul to the Devil. “I gave him my violin out of curiosity to see what he could do with it. To my amazement, I heard him play with consummate skill a sonata of exquisite beauty that surpassed the boldest flights of imagination. I was enchanted, my breath stopped and I awoke. Seizing my violin, I tried to reproduce some of the sound I heard in my dream, but in vain. The piece I composed, although the best I ever wrote … is but a far cry from what I heard in my dream.”

My memory of Perlman is that he made quite a dramatic showpiece out of the work. I wish I remembered better so I could more accurately compare, for Bell seemed to be playing an entirely different work. As would be the case throughout the evening, he played with what I might call a lighter hand, going less for drama and more for warmth. Not that Perlman isn’t warm, but everything about the evening felt gentler, more relaxed, and this applies equally well to Haywood’s approach on the piano.

Bell plays a famous instrument, the 1713 Huberman Stradivarius. I couldn’t help but imagine, ignorant though I am of such matters, that perhaps Bell has adapted his style of play, or his selection of pieces, to fit the qualities of the violin. True or not, it’s certainly the case that the sound throughout was astonishingly beautiful.

The second piece of the evening was Beethoven’s Sonata No. 10 in G major, from 1812. Lowe writes,

Dating from a decade after the popular “Kreutzer” Sonata, it is a far less sweeping or rhetorical essay than the previous showpiece. Indeed, in its comparative reserve and controlled emotion, the work demonstrates the same classical reserve as Beethoven’s contemporaneous Eighth Symphony.

“Reserve” and “controlled emotion”. That summarizes the evening as a whole and captures the contrast I was trying to convey between this recital and Perlman’s.

After intermission came Stravinsky’s Divertimento for Violin and Piano (after the Fairy’s Kiss). The Fairy’s Kiss ballet dates from 1928 and was composed to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the death of Tchaikovsky. “The resultant work … is a hybrid of original Tchaikovsky, with connective tissue and slightly ‘cleansed’ harmonies supplied by Stravinsky.” The divertimento came six years later and again was played with elegance and grace.

The evening was still young when they finished, took their bows, and went off stage. Plenty of time for a series of encores. But on their return Bell told us there would be two and that’s all there was.

As long as he had occasion to talk to us, Bell also made a Super Bowl joke, that being the theme of the day, then told us that he remembers the time when we had a good orchestra and a weak football team. Now we have a great orchestra, the best football team, and a world-class concert hall. People just love knowing they live in a special place. Or so I observed. This got the desired reaction.

And then it was on to the encores. Having just heard Tchaikovsky filtered through Stravinsky, we would now hear Tchaikovsky straight: his Mélodie. Speaking of which, here are Bell and Haywood playing the piece in St. Petersburg in 2011:

The view of him in the video is very much like our view Wednesday night. He assumes a stance facing to his left, so that we pretty much were looking at his right shoulder and the side of his face.

The second encore, gosh, I don’t remember what it was. A short piece by some nineteenth-century violinist. I’d recognize it if I saw it written down in a list of standard encores, but it has completely slipped my mind.

In searching on Bell encores to see if the name popped up, I have come upon a NYT review from last spring of the same duo, in which Zachary Wolffe describes the recital as “ravishing.”

… one of the vanishingly few artists still able to sell out halls on their names alone. He is an old-fashioned performer in both his repertory and his restless, dramatic physical presence. Listening to him on Wednesday I wondered what heights of fame, record sales and talk-show appearances he might have scaled had he been born 30 or 40 years earlier.

Which is not to say that he has gone unnoticed. Mr. Bell has been well known for long enough that it is tempting to take him for granted.

But it would be a mistake to underrate him. In a program of Schubert, Strauss and Prokofiev sonatas, with morsels by Fauré, Sarasate and Tchaikovsky thrown in at the end, he proved once again that there is no better-sounding violinist. His tone is a wonder: rich and round from the top to the bottom of his range. The precision of his bow control allows for fine gradations of volume and touch.

While not always revelatory, Mr. Bell is always riveting. …

Mr. Haywood was an unfailingly elegant partner, from the clarity of his Schubert to his sober chords at the start of the final movement of the Strauss. He and Mr. Bell combined poignantly in their final encore, the Mélodie from Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher,” the piece they performed for Mr. Cliburn in his final days.

It would be wrong to call it restrained. It was moving, rather, because it pulsed with the extroverted vitality that is Mr. Bell’s trademark. He will never get Mr. Cliburn’s ticker-tape parade or million-record annual sales, but he plays with the same exhilarating passion.

I just checked the Seattle Times to see if it had a review that mentioned the closing encore. There is a review, by Bernard Jacobson, but no mention of either encore. Maybe Jacobson left quickly. He observes that an

agreeably light touch prevailed in his well-attended recital at Benaroya Hall on Wednesday. The lightness was to be found not only in playing that emphasized a silvery sweetness over the sort of “fat” tone that some violinists cultivate, but also in the shape and content of the program he had devised.

It’s that silvery sweetness that I was writing about earlier. A lovely evening.

By the way, if you haven’t watched this internet classic before, do so now:

Read about it here.

Categories: Music

Bernadette Peters with Seattle Symphony

October 27, 2013 Leave a comment
Bernadette as Sally Durant Plummer in Follies on Broadway.

Bernadette as Sally Durant Plummer in Follies on Broadway.

[Photographed by Joan Marcus]

I’ve written about Stephen Sondheim many times (maybe most recently here). Invariably, when I think of Sondheim, I think of Sunday in the Park with George. “Our musical.” We don’t have a movie. Or a song. But we do have a musical. And invariably, when I think of Sunday in the Park, I think of Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, that musical’s great stars.

Not that we saw them in it. We were too late for that when we finally did make it to the original Broadway production during our honeymoon, in the summer of 1985. But we’ve listened to them on the cast recording so often that their voices are embedded in our minds. So when we learned that Bernadette Peters would be appearing in concert with the Seattle Symphony this fall, we prepared to buy tickets the moment they went on sale. Which we did. Two nights ago she came.

The program consisted of the orchestra playing alone for a very short first-half program, then Peters after the intermission. That first-half program consisted of three great overtures, popular pieces for an evening of popular music: Mozart/The Marriage of Figaro, Mendelssohn/A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Strauss/Die Fledermaus. Our seats were dead center in row P, which I would imagine is close to ideal acoustic location. Maybe so, maybe not. All I know is that the strings sounded a bit muted, not as vibrant as I would have expected. But the music is great. What’s not to like?

During intermission, the stage was rearranged to accommodate what was in effect Peters’ personal band. The symphony’s associate conductor, Stilian Kirov, had led the first half. The second half would be conducted by Marvin Laird, Peters’ long-time collaborator as conductor, piano accompanist, and music director. As explained here,

Behind every great diva there’s a hard-working, often brilliant musical director.

For Bernadette Peters, that man is Marvin Laird. The two first worked together in 1961. He was the assistant conductor and she was a Hollywood Blonde in a national touring production of Gypsy.

“Bernadette was clearly the one on stage with talent,” Laird says on the phone from his home in rural Connecticut. “I didn’t stay with the whole tour, but I knew our paths would cross again. You know when you meet certain people. We worked together again in New York when Bernadette auditioned to replace Kay Cole in Best Foot Forward. Then she got Dames at Sea, which necessitated a lot of TV stuff for her, so we started seeing each other a lot.”

Long story short: Laird, who moved from Broadway into the endlessly fascinating world of 1970s variety television, helped Peters craft a nightclub act, and they’ve been an inseparable duo ever since.

Also joining Peters on stage was Cubby O’Brien on drums and Kevin Axt on bass. O’Brien is famous in his own right, an original Mouseketeer, drummer for The Carpenters on tour (when Karen would sing rather than drum), and drummer to many other stars as well.

As the symphony players filed back in near the end of intermission, we had the happy surprise of seeing prominent local harpist John Carrington take the stage. A childhood family friend of Gail’s, he’s not the symphony’s regular harpist, but does appear from time to time. And today he posted a photo on Facebook of himself backstage with Peters.

The lights dimmed, Laird walked on in flowing white hair and tails, we applauded, and the music started up. It was in effect another overture. After about three minutes, the house announcer said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Bernadette Peters,” she strode in from the right, and the crowd went wild. I never saw anything like this at the symphony. For that matter, I couldn’t remember seeing anything quite like it anywhere.

I had the feeling that this is what it must be like in Las Vegas. I haven’t been there since I was 14—more than a few years ago—and never went to a show. I can only guess what it’s like seeing the Liza Minellis of the world. But now, when I guess, I’ll recall Peters. Her magnetism. Her control of herself and the audience. Her relaxed comfort with stardom and the knowledge that we would follow where she led.

She made the obligatory opening remarks about how much she loved Seattle. I don’t know why we need to be patronized like this, but people seem to enjoy it. And then the music. Lots of Sondheim. A little Rodgers and Hammerstein. Maybe 60%/20%. And a few other songs. Some with full orchestral backing. Some with the band alone, or (in one case) with Laird and the principal cellist. Loud. Soft. Full sound. Intimate sound. Ballads. Anthems. A little of everything.

From South Pacific, the song There is Nothing Like a Dame–usually sung by a men’s chorus but in her hands a vehicle to emphasize her own dameness. From Follies, whose revival at the Kennedy Center and on Broadway she starred in two years ago, In Buddy’s Eyes and Losing My Mind. (I own have been listening frequently to the cast recording of this revival, with Peters singing these two songs.) From Carousel, an unlikely choice perhaps, but one that offered a change of pace, When I Marry Mister Snow. From Into the Woods, a song I associate with her, though she pointed out (and I knew) that she didn’t actually sing it in the original production on Broadway, No One is Alone.

Here, watch her perform it below, from a concert in London a few years ago. You’ll see that this is the song arranged with just piano and cello. Marvin Laird stands and bows in the closing seconds.

Maybe there’s not much point listing all these songs. I’ll just mention three more Sondheim standards that were highlights: Being Alive from Company, Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music, and Ladies Who Lunch, again from Company.

Peters was on for about an hour and a quarter. She went off to thunderous applause, returning to do a single encore, her own composition, Kramer’s Song. I don’t know what to make of the phenomenon of stars writing children’s books. (Do they really write them? And would these books ever get published if written by anyone else?) But whether or not I approve, she writes them, and she wrote this song for one of them.

Gail and I were convinced that she was saving up any of several possible Sunday in the Park songs for the end or the encores. She wasn’t. Just the lullaby. And then she was off, as Laird led the orchestra and band in a postlude that left us all hungry for more. I didn’t see anyone leaving until the music stopped and the lights came up.

Which reminds me, in contrast to any other orchestral concert I’ve been to, in this one lighting was a feature. A fitting feature, as one would expect in a Broadway show, but another reason I felt more in Las Vegas than in Benaroya Hall.

So that’s that. I don’t know when we’ll see her again. She gives the impression that she’s not slowing down, though maybe her voice is. I know many of these songs well enough to recognize when a high note is coming, and I could see her pause as she prepared for each one. She would get close, not always hit them, then drop down a bit once she got there in a way that sounded perfectly musical, even if not accurate. It worked. And anyway, she is so expressive that none of this matters. We couldn’t have been happier.

Well, except maybe if she had sung We Do Not Belong Together.

Categories: Music

Richie Havens

April 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Richie Havens died today. I was a fan. I played his 1967 album Mixed Bag until it was wearing out. I saw him perform at Forest Hills as the opening act for Janis Joplin. (This would have been summer of 1969 or 1970, but I can’t remember which.) I never tired of hearing him sing Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower. And he did a pretty good job with another Dylan song—Just Like a Woman.

From the end of tomorrow’s NYT obituary:

Mr. Havens played many songs written by Mr. Dylan, and he spent three days learning his epic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” A man who heard him practicing it stopped him on the stairs as he headed for the dressing room of a nightclub, and told him it was the best he’d ever heard the song sung.

“That’s how I first met Bob Dylan,” Mr. Havens said.

For more, check out this compilation of TV appearances between 1969 and 1971.

Categories: Music, Obituary

Itzhak Perlman in Seattle

February 24, 2013 Leave a comment

When we got the booklet in the mail for the Seattle Symphony’s 2012-2013 season, I immediately made note of Itzhak Perlman’s scheduled appearance. He would be performing a solo recital. Not with the symphony, but presumably with a piano accompanist. No program was listed. No additional information. A few months later, the Saturday morning when tickets went on sale to non-subscribers, I logged on to the website and spent an hour trying to order tickets. I’d see a pair of seats, select them, give order information, click on buy, and after a few minutes I’d be told the order didn’t go through. I’d start again, this time another row or two back. Finally I called the box office, held for a long time, spoke to someone, and was able to get seats in the fifth row, seats that had long disappeared online. I don’t know what was going on. But no matter. We had our seats.

Last week, the Seattle Times previewed the concert. I was delighted to learn that Perlman would be playing The Franck violin sonata, one of my favorite pieces, accompanied by pianist Rohan de Silva. Monday, I looked at the symphony site to confirm the program and starting time for Tuesday’s concert. That’s when I saw that at the same start time, 7:30 PM, Aaron Neville would be performing as well in the smaller venue at Benaroya Hall. I warned Gail that the building would be that much more crowded, so we should think about getting there early for parking and a bite to eat. Gail’s response: why were we going to hear Perlman rather than Neville? I passed on that one. Some questions just aren’t answerable.

Tuesday evening, we arrived at 6:20. Not early enough. There’s only one eating option in the Boeing Gallery, the open space that runs inside the building along 3rd Avenue, with the Chihuly chandeliers on the north and south ends, elevators from the parking garage, coat check, and entry to the two theaters. Namely, Puck’s Café. (Puck as in Wolfgang Puck.) The website says you can “arrive early and enjoy a relaxing dinner or lunch before you attend the concert.” I suppose so, if relaxing means standing on line for 20 minutes, then searching for an empty table among the two-tops squeezed together in the Boeing Gallery, with tiny chairs, no separation from your neighbors, a view of busses and people standing in wait for them outside the window. But if we wanted to eat at a restaurant nearby, we would have had to arrive much earlier. So we got on line. I had the turkey dinner, with green beans and carrots, a small salad, and a scoop of mashed potatoes. Gail had the evening’s sandwich special, pulled pork, with salad. We felt fortunate to find seating, just across from the doorway to the Neville concert.

Then we headed in to find our seats. Once seated, we looked down the row some distance and found an unexpected concertgoer calmly awaiting the music. It was the dog pictured below via Gail’s iPhone, no doubt wondering why he wasn’t next door with Aaron.

perlmandog

Gail speculated that, like our friend Brooke’s border collie Trip, who howls when Brooke plays her harp, this audience member might howl to the violin. That would be a charming bonus. But no. In fact, when I looked over at intermission, he was gone. Gail thought he disappeared before the program even began. Maybe he really did come for Aaron Neville and realized his error just in time.

It’s been a while since I’ve heard Perlman perform. Over the years, he has always walked on stage with the aid of crutches, but this time the doors opened and he raced ahead of Rohan de Silva (and the piano music page turner) in his motorized scooter. He positioned the scooter at an angle, rotated his seat on it ninety degrees, and I found myself staring at him head on, some thirty feet away. Handkerchief out, placed on the violin under his chin, a nod to Rohan, and they began Beethoven’s first sonata for violin and piano. A good warmup piece. Not high on my list of favorite music, but what tone he has on the violin. And de Silva was a welcome accompanist. So too the young page turner.

After a brief retreat to the wings, they returned for César Franck’s sonata in A major for violin and piano. As noted, this one’s near the top of my list of favorite chamber pieces, and they were magnificent. I’d have to dig through my record collection to verify, which I won’t do now, but I’m pretty sure the recording I bought of this work many decades ago is the outcome of the Perlman-Ashkenazy collaboration featured in the video above. The narrator states at the 11-second mark that it’s their first collaboration, in London in July (1968, according to the video notes at youtube). Have a listen. Gosh it’s great.

In the second half, Perlman focused on showpieces. I couldn’t help thinking that he was having fun participating in the long tradition of great virtuosi dazzling audiences with their astonishing skill, at the expense perhaps of musical values, but what the hell, let’s just go for it.

The one scheduled piece was Giuseppe Tartini’s Sonata in G minor for violin and piano, familiarly known (though not to me) as “Devil’s Trill.” According to the program notes of Steven Lowe,

some 200 concertos flowed from Tartini’s musical veins, but in truth, history has accorded him the dubious honor of being a “one-work” composer. That one work is his so-called “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, written, so he claimed, following a dream in which he sold his soul to the Devil. “I gave him my violin out of curiosity to see what he could do with it. To my amazement, I heard him play with consummate skill a sonata of exquisite beauty that surpassed the boldest flights of imagination. I was enchanted, my breath stopped and I awoke. Seizing my violin, I tried to reproduce some of the sound I heard in my dream, but in vain. The piece I composed, although the best I ever wrote … is but a far cry from what I heard in my dream.”

What to say? Well, Gail loved it. I thought it was good fun. They exited, the audience roared approval, they came and went, then returned to play the expected sequence of encores. The page turner had a stack of music about a foot thick in her arms. The woman across the aisle from us screamed, “Thank you! Thank you!”, which seemed at least a little over the top. After all, encores weren’t in doubt. The program even said, “Additional works to be announced from the stage.”

This is where Perlman’s personality shines through, as well as his other great instrument, his sonorous bass voice. He’s a warm, genial host. Had I written this post Tuesday night, I would have remembered what followed in some detail. Now it’s faded. Let’s see. Two Fritz Kreisler transcriptions. A Brahms Hungarian dance. That must have been one of the Kreisler transcriptions. A piece by one of the great violinists who came before Perlman, Joseph Joachim. Music from Schindler’s List.

The Schindler announcement brought a thunderous response, even before they played it. We might have been excited too, had we ever watched the movie, had we thereby been familiar with the soundtrack, and had we further understood that Perlman played on that soundtrack. Here:

After those four pieces and another that escapes me, they headed off. Additional thunderous applause. A return. One more piece. A trifle. But as showy a trifle as I’ve seen a violinist perform. Up and down the fingerboard Perlman’s fingers flew. Higher up the fingerboard than one could imagine possible, with notes that must be near the limit of high frequency audibility for my aging ears. Crazy. Nothing could follow that. We applauded, then raced to our car.

A thoroughly entertaining evening. Gail may even agree.

Categories: Music

Landfill Harmonic

January 2, 2013 Leave a comment

I realize that once a video shows up on Andrew Sullivan‘s blog (via David Haglund at Slate), it has gone viral and beyond, so my pointer to it is pretty much redundant. Nonetheless, here it is, for those few of you who may have missed it. Be sure to watch at least until the 51-second mark and a bit beyond, in order to watch Bebi play the first measures of the prelude to Bach’s first cello suite on an oil can.

From an AP article:

The sounds of a classical guitar come from two big jelly cans. Used X-rays serve as the skins of a thumping drum set. A battered aluminum salad bowl and strings tuned with forks from what must have been an elegant table make a violin. Bottle caps work perfectly well as keys for a saxophone.

A chamber orchestra of 20 children uses these and other instruments fashioned out of recycled materials from a landfill where their parents eke out livings as trash-pickers, regularly performing the music of Beethoven and Mozart, Henry Mancini and the Beatles.

A concert they put on for The Associated Press also featured Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and some Paraguayan polkas.

Rocio Riveros, 15, said it took her a year to learn how to play her flute, which was made from tin cans. “Now I can’t live without this orchestra,” she said.

Word is spreading about these kids from Cateura, a vast landfill outside Paraguay’s capital where some 25,000 families live alongside reeking garbage in abject poverty.

And from a BBC report:

This is Cateura, the main rubbish dump of Paraguay’s capital, Asuncion, where the conductor of the country’s symphony orchestra, Luis Szaran, has established a music school.

“I came here once and saw a woman holding a newborn child with one hand and picking up rubbish with the other, and told myself this could not go on, this is how everything started,” recalls Mr Szaran, who is of Hungarian and Polish origin.

He launched the Sonidos de la Tierra (Sounds of the Land) initiative six years ago to bring classical and folkloric music to the poorest children with the help of the Swiss non-governmental organisation, Avina.

[snip]

The children in the programme are not only taught to play music. They also learn how to build and repair musical instruments in an adjacent wooden workshop.

They are granted credits to buy materials like strings and other specialised music components for their instruments. When they have sold or repaired an instrument they can earn money that allows them to make a living and maintain their studies.

Recently, they have even started building high-quality instruments made of rubbish.

Also see the Facebook page for the landfill harmonic documentary.

Categories: Life, Music

Radi-Aid

December 13, 2012 Leave a comment

My old friend Sverre showed up today, in town to visit his in-laws for the holidays from Trondheim. Seeing him at my office door, I instinctively asked, “Hvordan stor det til?”, that representing 60% of my Norwegian. He responded in kind, then we switched to English and got caught up. I learned in particular about his experience this past fall teaching mathematics at The Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology in Arusha, Tanzania.

With Norway and Africa discussed, Sverre told me to go to my browser and find the Radi-Aid site, the home of Africa for Norway. Featured there is the music video you can watch above. Below the video are two links. To the left, under the headline, “Donate Your Radiator!”, is the text “Africans unite to save Norwegians from dying of frostbite. You too can donate your radiator and spread some warmth!” and a link with the text Yes I Can!. Click it and you’ll be taken to, well, see for yourself.

To the right, under the headline, “Why Radi-Aid”, is the text “Imagine if every person in Africa saw the ‘Africa for Norway’-video, and this was the only information they ever got about Norway. What would they think about Norway?” Click on About Radi-Aid and you’ll be taken at last to a serious page that explains what’s up, including the following points:

  • Fundraising should not be based on exploiting stereotypes.
  • We want better information about what is going on in the world, in schools, in TV and media.
  • Media: Show respect.
  • Aid must be based on real needs, not “good” intentions.
  • Enjoy the video. It’s funny without context, interesting with context.

    Categories: Culture, Music

    An Evening with Manny

    November 25, 2012 Leave a comment

    [From his website]

    One Saturday a few months ago, Seattle Symphony single concert tickets went on sale at 10:00 AM. I was ready. Unfortunately, the website wasn’t. There were long hang-ups and, more frustrating, repeated messages that our purchases didn’t go through, meaning we lost our selected seats and would have to start over again. After an hour of frustration and long holds on the phone, I eventually emerged with the desired tickets. Among the concerts I had chosen was one featuring Emanual Ax playing Brahms’ second piano concerto.

    I have long felt a bond with Manny. He’s about my age, a fellow New Yorker with similar background. Well, except that I wasn’t born in Lvov of Holocaust survivors, didn’t emigrate to Winnipeg on the way to New York, didn’t study at Juilliard. On the other hand, there’s the wedding I went to of a good college friend of mine, while we were in grad school, flying into Ithaca in the morning, hanging out in the hotel with other friends of the bride and groom, among which was someone named Manny who was going to have to depart that evening to get back to the city for a concert. Pretty interesting guy, lots of good stories. I never did catch his last name. But I realized a few days later, back in my Cambridge apartment, that he sure did look like the pianist pictured on the cover of one of my record albums. I’ve been a fan ever since.

    Our seats last week were in the fifth row, left of center, which is to say, we were pretty darn close to the piano. Maybe not ideal for a balanced sound. Ideal if you wanted to study Manny’s pedal technique — when I stared straight ahead, my line of vision went straight through the pedals.

    The concerto opened the program. Not only was the piano close; so was Manny. Fifteen feet away, allowing us to observe his facial expressions as we listened to the music. I can’t imagine how many hundreds of times he has played the Brahms concerto. Yet, he appeared enthralled by the music, and fully enjoying the partnership with the orchestra. The magnificent adagio features the principal cellist as co-soloist, and Manny took special pleasure in trading the lead back and forth with Seattle’s cellist, Efe Baltacigil. (More about Baltacigil here. This is just his second year with the symphony. He was outstanding.)

    Following the concerto, on being called back to the stage for a second time, Manny sat at the piano and explained that it would be natural, since the Brahms piece is essentially for two soloists, to do an encore for both piano and cello. He and Baltacigil then performed the slow movement of Chopin’s cello sonata. An unexpected and most welcome treat. (Below I’m inserting a youtube performance of it by cellist Umberto Clerici and pianist Diego Mingolla.)

    Following the intermission, the symphony played Henri Dutilleux’s The Shadows of Time. As the program notes explain, Seattle conductor Ludovic Morlot and the symphony have “embarked on a survey of the orchestral music of Henri Dutilleux.” The piece consists of five short sections, during one of which three boy soloists sing “Pourquoi nous? Pourquoi l’étoile” (Why us? Why the star?) several times over. The programmatic significance of this escaped me, but on the whole I enjoyed the piece, which I hadn’t heard before. As I did Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. A fine show piece for the orchestra. But I wouldn’t have come for those pieces alone. I was there for Manny, and he was great.

    Categories: Music

    Reinventing Bach

    October 14, 2012 Leave a comment

    Last weekend I finished Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful. In my post about it, I observed that

    Lewis-Kraus does have this odd habit of quoting people without any reference to the source of the quote or any explanation of who the quoted writer is. For instance, out of the blue, a section begins with a quote from Paul Elie: “Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always second-hand, planned an described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.”

    Do you know Paul Elie? I didn’t, and L-K chooses not to help me out. It turns out that Elie wrote The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, a 2004 study of four great mid-twentieth-century Catholics: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. And just two weeks ago, his second book appeared, Reinventing Bach. The re-inventors are Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney, Glenn Gould, and Yo-Yo Ma. (Both books appear to be worthy additions to my reading list, with the second a perfect complement to my recently finished Mozart book.)

    Hours later, at the NYT website, I saw that the subject of the next day’s book review was none other than Reinventing Bach. And a little later, I found that it was the subject of one of the briefly noted reviews in this week’s New Yorker. Moreover, had I only been paying attention, I would have seen a review a week earlier in our local paper, the Seattle Times, by their former music critic, Melinda Bargreen, with Elie scheduled to speak in Seattle the next day as part of his book tour. Someone was trying to tell me something.

    I downloaded the book and have slowly been progressing through it. From what I’ve read (a little more than one-fifth in), Bargreen’s opening summary of the book is apt:

    Paul Elie’s new book on Johann Sebastian Bach is a wonderful piece of writing that’s hard to categorize: a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, a history of recorded sound, an analysis of Bach’s interpreters over the years, and a virtuoso attempt to explain why Bach is simply the greatest composer of all time.

    None of these descriptions does justice to Elie’s “Reinventing Bach,” which is written like a great piece of music — with its own rhythm, counterpoint, moments of deep reflection, and spectacular flourishes of verbal dexterity.

    I am ambivalent so far about those spectacular flourishes. Some work well. Others I find overwrought.

    Yesterday I started the book’s second part, on Pablo Casals. As was the case in Part I, on Albert Schweitzer, Elie alternates passages about the interpreter under discussion with an account of Bach’s career. I love Elie’s treatment of Bach. These passages are fabulous.

    In parallel, Elie is telling us about Casals’s discovery of Bach’s cello suites, the impact they had on his musicianship and life, and his recording of them decades later, in the 1930s. Here is an example of Elie’s verbal dexterity.

    “Cultivate a singing style in playing” Bach liked to say, and nobody has done it better than Casals did with the cello suites. …

    You can hear their equipoise in Casals’s recordings: in the balance between fast and slow, delight and struggle, and in the serenity of his playing even in passages of outward agitation. But balance and serenity are not what you hear first of all. What you hear is a voice. At first, it is the voice of the cello itself: the sound of wood carved, glued, polished, strung, and tuned in ways so as to replicate the tubes and chambers of a creature’s innards.

    It is an animal sound, all furred and tendoned. In the slow passages, it is elephantine, or older–a dinosaur’s cry. In the fast ones it is equine, a steeplechase run in stop-motion. But before long, the sound of this music, played this way, is a human sound. The instrument sighs. It grunts. It swallows. It inhales and exhales. Sometimes the sound is dry and nasal. Sometimes it is a chesty honk, a double lungful of sound. Sometimes it is glottal, the tongue enunciating against the roof of the mouth. Sometimes, as the bow is pulled across the strings as across a row of teeth, it is a shout. But it is a voice, no question about it. Like a voice, it seems to come from a source at the center of the body. And like a voice, it seems an inherent trait, given to the performer, not striven for.

    And this, a couple of pages later.

    Casals’s cello suites are records of life during wartime, anchored in the exploits of a man who discovered the suites and then, blood-soaked, discovered them again. But how did he do it? How, exactly, does the sound of people killing one another in the plain air get behind closed doors, into the cello, in between the lines of Bach’s music, and onto the steel-cut disc that is the master recording? Did he play the suites the way he did in the late thirties because of the state of the world, or in spite of it? And is it right to suppose that music is somehow more human when it is made while there is a war on?

    Those are the questions running through his recordings of them, in cogitation counterpoint to their armature of wood and wire.

    How’s that for writing? Okay, one more, this time about Bach. Elie is discussing an early cantata, one in which Bach “dramatizes a chorale Luther wrote on the episode known as the Harrowing of Hell, in which Christ, while `in the thrall of death’ on the cross, descends to the underworld to consider the souls damned there.”

    In this cantata he is not, in the main, expressing himself with his music. He is trying to devise a structure that will make Hell seem truly hellish and the Harrowing of Hell really harrowing. His kin are Mercator, with his drafting tools, Hooke with his springs and gears, and Leeuwenhoek with his microscopes–men in small rooms trying to see the world whole and steady, mastering phenomena with precision instruments by the pale northern light.

    I like that one.

    By the way, the first classical music I ever bought was a recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos with Casals conducting the Marlboro Festival Orchestra. (Here it is, decades later. A 1990 digital version in two parts, with I imagine miserable sound quality, available from Amazon.) New to live classical recordings, I was taken aback partway through the second concerto by the distinct sound of someone sighing. I’ve always imagined it was Casals. Thanks to Elie, I now realize that it was Casals’s cello, inhaling and exhaling.

    Have a look at Tommasini’s NYT review. It takes exception to some of Elie’s argument in ways that I suspect I will agree with as I work my way through the book.

    And since the New Yorker’s brief review is behind the paywall, I’ll quote its first and last sentences.

    Elie examines how the age of recording has changed the way we listen to Bach’s music. … The book, structured in short sections intended to mimic Bach’s polyphony, is an occasionally frustrating but ultimately impressive testimony to Bach’s power to speak to successive generations.

    In closing, I’ll note that as I write this, I am listening to János Starker’s recording of Bach’s sixth cello suite through my computer’s built-in speakers. I have always thought that listening to the Bach suites this way, rather than on our high-end audio system (or better yet, live), is absurd. Apparently Elie will convince me that it’s just right.

    Categories: Books, Music