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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

Eleven

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

Tony Bennett

May 26, 2011 Leave a comment

I suppose I’ve grown up with Tony Bennett. He’s always been there, in the background. Emphasis on background. Mostly I hear him these days because I listen almost every Saturday (online) to WNYC’s broadcast of Jonathan Schwartz‘s four-hour radio show, and invariably he plays Tony Bennett at some point. You can’t count on it quite the way you can Schwartz’s playing of Sinatra, or Nancy Lamott, but more often than not, there’s Tony. I figured that’s about as close as I would get to him, and that was fine with me.

But that’s about to change. We decided a couple of days ago to head down to Portland this weekend. We don’t get there much. We went in the mid to late ’80s when Gail’s sister lived there. Thanksgiving 1985, five months after we were married. We won’t forget that. The coldest Thanksgiving ever, what with the 17 inches of snow that fell here in Seattle 10 days earlier and the constant sub-freezing temperatures that followed. We took the train down on Thanksgiving morning and never warmed up. June 1987. Another unforgettable day, making the drive down for our nephew’s high school graduation, with Gail 8 1/2 months pregnant, and returning immediately afterwards. We were a little early on the way down, so when we saw a sign for Fort Vancouver National Historic Site at the next I-5 exit as we passed through Vancouver, Washington, we veered off and visited. Well worth it. We always thought we’d get back soon. But 21 years passed before we found ourselves down there again, for an overnight visit three years ago that didn’t go quite as planned. A story for another day.

Anyway, we’re off to Portland again, prompted largely by Gail’s interest in seeing an exhibit at the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center before the exhibit ends on Sunday. The show is Taken: FBI. From the webpage: “This exhibit brings to light the experiences of the families of 118 individuals in the Portland area and 17,477 in the western states taken into custody by the local authorities, then imprisoned by the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice directly following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.”

We booked a room at a downtown hotel. In reading about it, I learned that it abuts the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. Tonight I decided to see what’s playing at the center. Two events popped up. Riverdance is in town, performing tomorrow night through Sunday afternoon, though at another theater, not the one next to our hotel. The Portland Center for the Performing Arts seems to cover several sites. What’s next door to us is the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, described as follows:

The beautifully restored Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, opened in 1984, was originally the Portland Public Theatre, built in 1928.

The Italian Rococo Revival architecture was said to be the national showcase of Rapp & Rapp, renowned Chicago theatre architects. Visitors are greeted by a 65 foot high “Portland” sign above the Broadway Marquee, which contains approximately 6,000 theatrical lights. … The Arlene Schnitzer Hall is home to the Oregon Symphony, White Bird Dance Company, Portland Arts & Lectures, and many more local performing arts groups.

It’s hard to resist Riverdance. I mean, Riverdance! Wow! But the whole point of my web search was to see what playing next door, and that’s not Riverdance. Who is it? Yes, Tony Bennett, one night only, tomorrow night.

Do we go? Why not? I don’t know when we’ll have the chance to see him again, but it sure won’t be next door to our house. There weren’t many seats left, other than singles. We took a pair in the front part of the balcony. This is going to be a great trip.

Categories: Music, Travel

Bernard Greenhouse

May 15, 2011 Leave a comment

I was sad to read yesterday that cellist Bernard Greenhouse died on Friday. He was a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, which I saw many times in my last few years in Boston.

The NYT obituary explained that when the trio was founded in 1955, the piano trio literature was not widely performed.

Piano trios faced their own obstacles. For chamber-music lovers, the string quartet, with its evenly married sonorities and vast repertory, was the ensemble of choice. The sonic challenge entailed in combining a violin and a cello with a piano, akin to pairing gentle breezes with a thunderclap, was something performers were rarely willing to take on.

As a result, there were few high-level piano trios at the time the Beaux Arts began. Those that did exist were generally shotgun affairs, created when three prominent soloists converged in the recording studio and dissolved immediately afterward.

Though born of similar circumstances — it was convened primarily to make recordings — the Beaux Arts was different. Its players remained together, dedicated to performing the neglected trio literature, which encompasses works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak and Shostakovich, among others.

After making its debut at Tanglewood, the Beaux Arts became a fixture of concert stages throughout the world; in New York, it performed regularly at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It seems I fell in love with chamber music at a good time, given that my favorite chamber pieces of all were the Brahms piano trios. Speaking of which, watch the video below, featuring not the Beaux Arts Trio (I couldn’t find them), but Eugene Istomin, Isaac Stern, and Leonard Rose. Not a bad alternative.

Categories: Music

Pipes and Drums

May 12, 2011 Leave a comment

I mentioned in my last post the painfully premature death last Friday of our cousin Jeffrey Birt. His funeral was yesterday. I don’t intend to recount it here. I’ll just say that I now know who I would like to make an appearance at my funeral. The Seattle Firefighters Pipes and Drums. Yesterday’s service was moving enough as it was, but the effect of their rendition of Going Home as they marched in to open the service and Amazing Grace to conclude it was beyond words.

Categories: Music, Obituary

Grace Slick Interview

April 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Just a guess, but I’m thinking some of you might have missed the Wall Street Journal’s Grace Slick interview in yesterday’s paper. As a service to the Ron’s View readership, here is the link.

The interview is short, so I don’t want to quote much from it. Here’s one excerpt:

What happened at the White House in the early ’70s?

Tricia Nixon went to the same New York girls’ finishing school [Finch College, now defunct] that I did, but 10 years later. When I attended, my maiden name was Wing. Tricia invited all the graduates, including me, to a White House tea party. Her people didn’t know that Grace Wing was Grace Slick [her first husband was Jerry Slick]. So I called Abbie Hoffman and said, “Guess where we’re going.” I had planned to spike Richard Nixon’s tea with acid. But when Abbie and I were on line, a security guard wouldn’t let me in. He said, “We checked and you’re a security risk.”

The Airplane was my favorite group through my late high school and early college years. When in high school, I saw them perform at nearby Westbury Music Fair. And I spent my first fall in Cambridge making fruitless daily walks to The Coop to see if their soon-to-be-released album Volunteers had arrived. Fifteen years later, just before Gail and I married, she and Jessica had a roommate whose brother played in Jefferson Starship. Which is as close as I got to Grace.

Categories: Music, Newspapers

Finishing the Hat

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

I had a post two Sundays ago about Paul Simon’s NYT review that day of Stephen Sondheim’s new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. Much as I love Sondheim, I wasn’t prompted to buy the book. This past Sunday, NYT business columnist Joe Nocera had a piece about the book in the arts section.

It turns out that Nocera is a Sondheim fanatic.

When I fall for something, I fall hard. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever fallen as hard for anything as I did for Mr. Sondheim’s music. His songs and shows became central to my life, insinuating themselves into my heart and mind. I’m a business writer, but I’d often find myself, in the middle of trying to write a tough-minded article, haunted by some Sondheim song that I couldn’t get out of my head.

Nocera writes movingly about what Sondheim has meant to him, and about what he learned from the book.

The discordant experience of listening to him while reading him made me think hard, in a way I hadn’t before, about why I found his songs so affecting. Why did his best songs make me cry?

My assumption had always been that Mr. Sondheim’s skills as a composer were the root cause. Back when I was first learning about him, I was stunned to discover that the songs in some of his early shows like “Company” (1970) were originally viewed by some critics as “cold.” To me his music seems the opposite of cold; his melodies have always seemed warm and inviting, while his harmonies have invariably stuck with me. I know nothing about music theory, but I do know that great composers use certain chords and rhythms and harmonies to evoke sadness or joy or melancholy. I suspect that if Mr. Sondheim were to write a book about his music, rather than his lyrics, he would explain just as clinically how he creates mood with harmony.

But reading “Finishing the Hat” made me realize that my assumption had been way too blithe; it was a way of letting myself off the hook. What I had long admired about Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics — what everyone admires, really — was their sheer gleaming intelligence. But what I had been missing — and what I could see, at last, on the page, as I listened to his songs — was their wealth of emotion, and how often they directly spoke to me.

On reading Nocera, I hesitated no longer. I ordered the book last weekend and it came yesterday. No revelations of my own yet. I’m just getting started. But after paging through the Sweeney Todd chapter last night and noticing the multiple appearances of the song Johanna, I couldn’t get its melody out of my head the rest of the night. And the photos are great.

Categories: Books, Music, Theater

Simon on Sondheim

October 31, 2010 Leave a comment

Even if you’re not a fan of Stephen Sondheim (and I know some aren’t, but I don’t understand how that’s possible), you may enjoy today’s NYT review of his new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. It’s the Sunday featured review, for which the editors called on Paul Simon. I read it, and write this, as I listen to the cast album from the Broadway revue Sondheim on Sondheim.

I just love the photo above of Sondheim at the piano in the mid-1930s, drawn from the book and reprinted in the NYT review. Speaking of which, here’s a review excerpt:

“Company,” one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, is often cited as another example of his cerebral, cold writing. The plot is a bitter examination of the “joy” of marriage and the existential loneliness of its unmarried protagonist, Bobby. Some have speculated that Bobby is an auto biographical stand-in for Sondheim, although he dismisses this as the trap of attributing the character of the art to the character of the artist. It’s harder to read autobiography into the words of a composer who writes for theater than it is for a pop music counterpart. A song from “the heart” of a character has to be truthful, but if it isn’t, it’s not the author’s lie — it’s the character’s. But if a pop singer or songwriter writes a love song, a song of regret or even a bit of inscrutable doggerel like “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” it’s autobiography. The lyricist in a musical is writing the art of the character. Both are pathways to a truth, but there is a profound difference in process.

To be fair to Sondheim’s critics, the heart/mind dilemma is a constant for many songwriters, myself included. If a writer composes a lyric with a complex thought or vivid image and fails to say it well, then the lines seem pretentious. If the songwriter goes for the heart and misses, then it’s sentimental. Sondheim is the farthest thing from a sentimental songwriter that I know, but his songs of the heart are shaded with rueful sorrow (“Send In the Clowns”) and translucent compassion.

Categories: Books, Music, Theater