Archive for the ‘Music’ Category


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

    Mozart at the Gateway

    September 22, 2012 Leave a comment

    I wouldn’t have predicted a week ago that I’d now be reading Christoph Wolff’s Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune: Serving the Emperor, 1788–1791. But I am. I’ve seen it mentioned favorably, most recently a Briefly Noted review in the August 27 issue of the New Yorker. Last night, while struggling to choose from my growing list of other books, I decided to give it a try and downloaded the opening sample from Amazon. Having just finished that sample, I have now downloaded the rest.

    Wolff is a musicologist at Harvard, known especially for his work on Bach. Here is the description of Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune at the book’s website:

    A fresh look at the life of Mozart during his imperial years by one of the world’s leading Mozart scholars.

    “I now stand at the gateway to my fortune,” Mozart wrote in a letter of 1790. He had entered into the service of Emperor Joseph II of Austria two years earlier as Imperial-Royal Chamber Composer—a salaried appointment with a distinguished title and few obligations. His extraordinary subsequent output, beginning with the three final great symphonies from the summer of 1788, invites a reassessment of this entire period of his life. Readers will gain a new appreciation and understanding of the composer’s works from that time without the usual emphasis on his imminent death. The author discusses the major biographical and musical implications of the royal appointment and explores Mozart’s “imperial style” on the basis of his major compositions—keyboard, chamber, orchestral, operatic, and sacred—and focuses on the large, unfamiliar works he left incomplete. This new perspective points to an energetic, fresh beginning for the composer and a promising creative and financial future.

    The site also contains praise from famous musicians: Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Alfred Brendel. And conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with this over-the-top comment:

    For years I’ve been wondering and the question becomes ever more cogent, what puzzling new language Mozart used for his three symphonies and even the Magic Flute. It is a new Mozart, and we cannot simply continue as before. Why? What is it? What does it mean today? To the performer, to the listener? Now I found a helping hand in Christoph Wolff’s unexpectedly novel book. We musicians, used to helping ourselves, gratefully embrace his assistance.

    I’m only a short ways into the book, so I’m not in a position to evaluate Harnoncourt’s assessment. Not that I would be anyway. I love Mozart’s final symphonies, but I hardly expect to make much sense of Wolff’s analysis when I get to it. I did enjoy one passage from the Prologue, which I’ll quote.

    The setting: Mozart has written to his wealthy friend Michael Puchberg to ask for a loan, sending Puchberg a copy of the German translation of John Mainwaring’s biography of Handel. As Wolff explains, the “book was not a meaningless gift. It describes the life of a famous man Mozart would ultimately want to be compared with … . In addition, Mozart also seems to have used Mainwaring’s discussion of Handel’s excessive love of food as a paradigm for his own situation so that Puchberg, who knew what indulgences and extravagances played such a decisive role in his friend’s need of money, might better understand the special needs of a great artist.” Wolff then quotes from Mozart’s letter:

    Those who have blamed [Handel] for an excessive indulgence of this lowest of gratifications [his eating habits], ought to have considered, that the peculiarities of his constitution were as great as those of his genius. Luxury and intemperance are relative ideas, and depend on other circumstances besides those of quantity and quality. … For besides the several circumstances just alleged, there is yet another in his favor; I mean his incessant and intense application to the works of musical art. This rendered constant and large supplies of nourishment the more necessary to recruit his exhausted spirits.

    Constant and large supplies of nourishment. I like that. If only I were a genius, so I could merit them.


    I started this post two nights ago. In the meantime, I’ve gotten much further into the book, and I continue to enjoy it.

    Categories: Books, Music

    From Sublime to Ridiculous

    March 17, 2012 Leave a comment

    Thanks to a tip from Joel, I have been a regular reader of Robert Paul Wolff’s blog, The Philosopher’s Stone. I’ve even corresponded with Bob a bit. And Joel lives just down the road from him.

    On Monday, Wolff had a personal note of just a few lines in anticipation of attending a performance at UNC with his wife of Bach’s B Minor Mass. Wednesday, after in writing about how moved he was by the piece’s power, Wolff turned to the passing political scene. I quote his closing thoughts:

    I write, you understand, as a life-long atheist, an unbeliever, someone who has never been a communicant of any faith, and who will go to his grave without the consolations of faith. And yet, through the transcendent beauty of Bach’s music, I was able to feel the power of the Christian message. A lifetime spent reading philosophical disquisitions about the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal, a lifetime reading Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Maimonides and Averroes, Luther, Calvin, Kant, and Kierkegaard, combined with a lifetime steeped in the music of Bach, to give me yet again a deep emotional appreciation of the mysteries and wonders of this message that I am utterly incapable of believing.

    As I sat in that auditorium, the final sections of the Credo unfolding, a strange, vagrant thought entered my mind, a thought quite unworthy of the moment, and yet impossible to put aside. This extraordinary message, I reflected, is presented to Rick Santorum in its impenetrable mystery, and yet all that impoverished, vulgar, cheap little man can think is that it is all about sex — about who is giving pleasure to whom, and how, and where, with or without protection. Offered a vision of eternal life, the dirty little mind of this wretched homunculus turns to “man on dog.”

    It occurred to me — and I say this as a confirmed atheist — that what is wrong with American politics is not that Christianists have brought religion into the public space. What is wrong with American politics is the debased, diminished, soulless, conception of religion they have brought. These are trivial men and women, vulgar, ignorant men and women, men and women who have never felt the least tingle of divinity and would not know what to do with it if they did.

    Categories: Music, Politics, Religion


    November 3, 2011 Leave a comment

    November 11, 2011. Nigel Tufnel day (11/11/11)

    My e-pal Leslie posted the image above on Facebook and I couldn’t resist passing it on. (To give proper credit, she in turn borrowed it from Xavier Riley, who provides the wording I’ve used for the caption, and whom I don’t know at all.)

    I know, for those of you not familiar with the heavy metal band Spinal Tap or the documentary about them, this will be completely mysterious. You might have been thinking, as I have, that this year’s commemoration of the end of World War I, at 11:11 on 11/11/11, will have special resonance, at least for numerologists. And so it will. But Nigel Tufnel has staked his own claim on 11.

    By way of background, Tufnel was Spinal Tap’s lead guitarist. As for the way that 11 has attached itself to him, well, you should see the movie. I don’t want to spoil the moment. Also check out the Nigel Tufnel Day webpage, with the heading, “The Nigel Tufnel Day Appreciation Society and Quilting Bee in Favor of Declaring & Observing November 11, 2011 as Nigel Tufnel Day (in Recognition of Its Maximum Elevenness).”

    Oh, never mind, just see the excerpt below. But please do see This Is Spinal Tap in its entirety some time. You’ll be glad you did.

    Categories: Holidays, Music

    Portland Art Museum and Tony

    May 31, 2011 1 comment

    I wrote Thursday night about how, in getting ready for our Friday-Sunday trip to Portland, I looked up what was going on at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. I discovered that the center has several components, the principal one being the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, which abuts the Heathman Hotel, where we would be staying. The hall seats 2776 and is home to the Oregon Symphony, which gets a rave review from Alex Ross in the latest New Yorker for their recent appearance in Carnegie Hall.

    I thought maybe we could see them, but they weren’t performing this past weekend, at least not in Portland. Instead, the symphony was sponsoring a special appearance by Tony Bennett and his band. After consulting with Gail, I bought tickets. There were no pairs together on the main floor, so we checked in the balcony and got the last two seats in the dress circle, which consists of the first four balcony rows. (As we would discover, they hang down below the level at which one enters the balcony. The rest of the balcony seating rises way above the entry level.) I had never thought I would go out of my way to see Tony Bennett, but this didn’t qualify as out of the way. All we would have to do was walk next door from our hotel. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got.

    Friday, we pulled out around 11 AM and headed south, stopping for lunch in Centralia and arriving at the hotel around 2:45. The Portland Art Museum is just a couple of blocks from the hotel. Once we were unpacked and settled, we headed over. The museum has an older building and a 2005 addition, connected underground. We wasted a few minutes figuring out how to get around, but eventually worked our way through the underground passage to the new building. I think we might have proceeded differently if we took even a moment to look at the map the receptionist handed me. The old building houses the older art — Asian, Native American, American and more — but we found ourselves embedded among the newer art, from a modest display of impressionists on to contemporary artists. An enthusiastic guard urged us to take the elevator to the top and work our way down, which we dutifully did, but which had the consequence that we viewed the art in reverse chronological order.

    Highlights? Let’s see. Among many, a 1981 George Segal sculpture, Helen with Apples, that I can’t seem to get a decent image of from their online catalog. A Roy Lichtenstein Goldfish Bowl that I can’t find an image of. A large 2010 piece by Anselm Kiefer, Entrance to Paradise, that dominates the basement passageway between buildings. This seems to be on loan from Eli Broad. I can’t find an image of it either at the museum site or the Broad Foundation site. Oh well. Maybe I should move on. One more thing. There was an excellent selection of photos from the Fae Heath Batten Photography Bequest.

    We headed back to the hotel. It was 5:30 by then, with Tony starting at 7:30, so we had to figure out a dinner plan. Just get room service? Go down to the hotel restaurant? We decided to go down, got changed first, and then headed to the lobby. To our alarm, but not surprisingly, what with those 2776 people due to descend on adjacent Arlene Schnitzer Hall within the hour, all the hotel eateries were packed — restaurant, bar, lounge. It was hopeless. We decided to retreat to our room for room service. As we waited for the elevator in the library, Gail nudged me. I couldn’t figure out why. The elevator door had opened, but a couple was coming out and I couldn’t very well run over the couple standing in front of us who were also waiting to get on. I looked at Gail in puzzlement. Then the couple blocking our way moved on to the elevator and we followed. Suddenly I knew what the nudge was for. The door shut and there we were, sharing the elevator with Tony Bennett and his wife. I said hi, he said hi back, we ascended. We had 8 pushed. They had 9. Do I make conversation? Leave them in peace? We chose silence. Then, as we reached 8, Tony wished us a good evening and I reciprocated. If I didn’t know it was him — if moreover I hadn’t checked concert events the night before and had no idea he was in town — I would have known the moment he spoke to us. There was no mistaking that voice.

    I proceeded to spend the next few minutes imagining all the missed opportunities, all the comments I could have made, like that we were definitely going to have a good evening, we were going to hear my favorite singer. Maybe it’s just as well we didn’t make a fuss.

    After dinner, we walked over to the concert hall and took our seats. Just after 7:30, the lights went out and the band came on: Lee Musiker on piano, Gray Sargent guitar, Harold Jones drums, Marshall Wood bass. A voice over the PA system then asked us to welcome Antonia Bennett, Tony’s daughter. That was a surprise, and not an entirely welcome one, especially because we had no clue how much of the program she would occupy. Four songs, as it turned out. She was okay, but nothing special. On the other hand, the band was fabulous. She thanked us after the fourth song, headed off stage, and Tony came on. I can’t imagine a more receptive (or older) audience.

    The rest was pure magic. Okay, so, he’s 84. His voice is fading. His stamina too, no doubt. But he sure knows how to pace himself, how to entertain us, how to put on a show. For many songs, he would barely sing, which is to say, he changed pitch a little, but it was as much talking as singing. That voice, though. And the band. It worked. He would sing quietly, the band would play at just the right level to ensure audibility, then perhaps he’d hit a climax and shout out three words, leading into a musical interlude during which they cranked it up, and just as quickly they’d settle down and he’d sing softly for the rest of the song. Add in a few well timed twirls, a few steps, and he had us in his hands. Antonia came out once for a duet with her father of Sondheim’s Smile. He wove in some of the expected songs: The Way You Look Tonight, The Best is Yet To Come, I Left My Heart in San Francisco. And for his final encore, he talked to us about how this hall, this intimate setting, is where he likes to perform, not arenas or TV shows to millions. (It turns out that he was on TV just the night before, on American Idol.) He then asked the tech to shut down his microphone, and he closed with an unmiked performance of Fly Me to the Moon. I didn’t really think a concert hall that seats 2776 was quite the level of intimacy he had in mind, though it sure beat a sports arena, and he was indeed audible. Hearing him unmiked was a splendid way to end the evening. We walked out grinning, in awe of his consummate professionalism. If he makes it to Seattle, I will happily hear him again.

    Categories: Art, Museums, Music, Travel