Saturday, October 31, 2009

American Music Rant

(this started as a piece on John Adams's new work - City Noir - and ended up as a Leon Wieseltier type ramble - shudder - you've been warned...)

With Steve Reich and John Adams, we finally got it. American composers whose talent cannot be kept down by the pressures of the world. And it only took us a hundred-fifty years of trying.


(The fifth movement of Leonard Bernstein's Symphony no 2. The Age of Anxiety. Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. The pianist is Kirill Gerstein.)

As a young man, Leonard Bernstein wrote music of ever-increasing personality and wide-ranging influence in both the classical and popular worlds, the final result being West Side Story. But the moment he hit forty his gift clammed up. and his appointment to the New York Philharmonic made him choose a side between classical and popular, and he was never able to draw inspiration from skating the dividing line ever again.


(Charles Ives singing his own 'They Are There.')

Charles Ives, exhausted by the work of maintaining of an insurance company he never wanted to be part of, abandoned composing in his mid-forties and spent the next thirty years wondering why he should continue writing wonderful music when no other musicians had the foresight to appreciate it.


(The piece in which Aaron Copland found his voice: El Salon Mexico. Leonard Bernstein conducting.)

Aaron Copland discovered his mass appeal in the mid-thirties, but by the early fifties had lost the public that gave him inspiration. His gift exhausted by an America that couldn't allow for the fact that the most American-sounding of composers could also be a Communist.


(Gershwin playing Rhapsody in Blue himself in 1927)

George Gershwin, perhaps the most gifted of them all, looked to be one of those musician too gifted to ever be pigeonholed by any man-made force. And yet, as for Mozart and Schubert, providence seemed content to give the world only a taste of what he could do.


(Back in the late 70's when it looked like Philip Glass was the future of all American music.)

Philip Glass and Steve Reich, doomed to be incorrectly remembered as musical twins by history, finally broke the mold and gave themselves full and lasting careers which they began as enfants terrible and end as living treasures. But at what price for Glass? Glass dresses up the same minimalist cells that he did forty years ago with the exact same harmonies. Only the orchestration is different.


(After the War. The final movement of Steve Reich's Different Trains - describing, among other things, the liberation of the Concentration Camps at the end of World War II.)

Steve Reich on the other hand has developed completely in a lifelong trajectory of an art that gets richer as he gets older as no American composer ever did before. The ideas of "Its Gonna Rain" expanded and ripened over the years into "Different Trains" and the "Daniel Variations." Phases and sampling that began merely as cool ideas made into towering statements of awesome complexity.


(The defining moment. The end of John Adams's Harmonielehre. With this piece classical music again became an artform that yielded no quarter in either intellect or it's ability communicate instantly. Adams's original champion Edo de Waart conducts the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic.)

And John Adams, eleven years younger and eleven years less exposed to the worst of the Boulez compositional wars, felt eleven years more comfortable with classical traditions. I once sat in a lecture with Steve Reich in which he declared to a room full of students "The orchestra is dead. Man, fuck the orchestra!" But whereas all Reich's pieces are for eclectic instrumental combinations that sound like a funkified L'Histoire du Soldat, Adams takes the reins of the full instrumental pallette. Orchestration hasn't been this fun since Richard Strauss and Ravel. Reich's idea of tonality is much closer to Miles than Mahler. Adams occupies the middle ground between them. Adams is the giant who is relaunching classical music as a popular artform, but he's standing on Reich's shoulders. As the New Yorker critic Alex Ross puts it: "Tonality is dead" says Arnold Schoenberg. "Like hell it is" answers John Adams.

...And it's only taken a century and a half to produce composers we can talk about like this.

Being any kind of musician in America is a dangerous thing, but it's even harder to be a classical musician - an outcast among outcasts. The most American music has always been made on the assumption that nobody would help you make it. John Lee Hooker may not have been able to read, but all he needed was three seven-chords to make history. Woody Guthrie traveled the breath of the country with nothing but a guitar on his back and depression-era hospitality to see him through. Bill Monroe grew up practically an orphan, only saved by the music his "Uncle Pen" would show him. Yet in the same generation of those three, was it even possible to be a classical composer of integrity without getting your voice taken away from you?

Mind you, it isn't hard to be a American composer per se. If you play by the rules and do everything your teachers tell you to do, the university system will coddle you from birth to grave. You can spend an entire lifetime making music of the same irrelevance your teachers always made, and make quite a good living at it. But don't expect that your hexachords and matrices will give voice to the place you grew up in, or the generation from which you sprang. To do that, you have to write music which connects to people, and that is something at which whole world - from businessmen to politicians to music professors to rock musicians to blue-haired old ladies - seems to want you to fail. Adams and Reich, both Ivy League elites in their youths (Adams - Harvard, Reich - Cornell), quickly saw the dead end they were approaching and got off their gravy trains before they derailed - Reich to 1950's Greenwich Village of Coltrane and Mingus, Adams to the 1970's Haight Ashbury of Jerry Garcia and Allen Ginsburg.

To do what Beethoven did - to write your music down into permanent record - is a dangerous thing in a country where the prevailing wind changes direction much too quickly even for most musical improvisers to capture. America is too large a country to know what it wants, and too small a country to be told what it wants. A classical musician cannot be self-sufficient. To be successful, not only must he spend 10,000 hours of his childhood honing his craft, but he must depend on hundreds of others who did exactly the same. In the days of aristocrats and patronage, there was always a source of money and privilege. Craft was honed to perfection, and then some.

By the time of Haydn and Mozart, the rules of what made great music were so strict that everybody else's music sounded the same. Perhaps Mozart is the greatest composer of all time. But if he is, it's because he took a series of rules from which individual expression was impossible for anyone else, and bent those rules to sound as though they could express anything in the universe.

And then came Beethoven, who said to hell with rules both musical and social, and to hell with patronage. And there began the great long century in which the musician was King. Every great composer of the 19th century knew the rules as well as any Boccherini or Cimarosa. But they all knew how to break them, and each broke the rules in their own unique way.

The musician's personality was the key, and to express it, music became bigger, longer, louder. But then something changed...

Electronic amplification. One electric guitar manned by Chuck Berry could make a louder noise than Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand. The rules of music had to be rewritten, and assumptions that we developed over a period of a thousand years had to be reexamined.

Expectations were not seen since over seven hundred years ago in the Age of the Troubadors. Musicians were not only the sole performers of their own work, but also the composers, the producers and the distributors. They wrote their own lyrics, and the two sides of songwriting were seen as inseparable tasks. It was the single greatest example of everything that was both lost and gained by the decline of European dominance. Once upon a time, musicians dealt purely in harmony and rhythm. And maybe Reich and Adams are the beginning of an era in which they will again.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Bing Crosby Sings Ol' Man River As It Should Never Be Sung Again

Fozzie and Rowlf play English Country Garden



I love Fozzie Bear. Always reminded me of someone I know....

Cat and Horse



Shoutout to Ags.

Mom (between sobs from laughing): People don't find this funny?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Yes Giorgio: The Food Fight



In the early 80's, some brilliant studio execs got it into their heads that Pavarotti could make a great film star. So no expense was spared for Pavarotti's debut. The director was Franklin Schaffner, director of Patton and Planet of the Apes. The writer was Norman Steinberg, who a the very same time was co-writer for the wonderful and somewhat forgotten comedy, My Favorite Year. The result of these combined talents was one of the worst movies ever made. But there is really only one scene that everybody remembers from Yes, Giorgio. Here it is.

How Rossini's Cat Duet Should Be Played

'

(Felicity Lott and Ann Murray accompanied by the under-rated Sir Andrew Davis - not to be confused with his older contemporary Sir Colin Davis - at the Last Night of the Proms 1996)

Rossini: Duet for Two Cats



Sung by The Little Singers of the Wooden Cross.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Igudesman & Joo: Where's the Remote Control?



With Gidon Kremer and the Kremeratica Baltica.

John Adams is....

BLOGGING OMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMG!!!

Not the second president of the United States (or the sixth). The composer who is in the midst of establishing himself as perhaps the greatest, most influential, most accomplished, and most culturally engaged composer to ever come out of our country, now has a blog. You'll have to excuse me as I leave Baltimore to camp out outside of his Berkeley house to await his posts.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The King's Singers: Short People

Beverly Sills at Eight



Seriously. I nearly fell over. Go here for some context.

This is what she sounded like thirty years later. The aria is Si, Ferrite, from Rossini's The Siege of Corinth:

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hugh Laurie's Song for America

Beer Bottle Symphony Orchestra



I'm tempted to let this go without explanation...

Beer Bottle Symphony Orchestra



I'm tempted to let this go without explanation...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

RIP Helen Watts (1927-2009)



(The Sapphic Ode by Brahms.)

A great contralto passed on recently without much fanfare. Helen Watts was a singer too unassuming to be much remembered in singer lore. Singers like her go out, night after night for decades, and attend to the serious business of artistic realization as discreetly as possible. We often remember operatic stars more for what great roles and songs bring to their personas. No doubt Pavarotti will be remembered more for the times which he assumed roles like the Duke of Mantua and Mario Cavaradossi. But it was most likely tenors such as Alfredo Kraus and Carlo Bergonzi who turned a greater number of audience members into opera lovers by deflecting their attention to the music being presented.



("Oh Man, Take Heed." Mahler gives Nietzsche a much more beautiful setting for contralto and orchestra than perhaps Nietzsche's ideas ever deserved. I like to think Mahler was much more inspired by Nietzsche the seductive prose stylist than he ever was by the protofascism of his ideas - but I'd probably be wrong. The 4th movement of Mahler's 3rd Symphony. Helen Watts sings with the London Symphony under the baton of the legendary Georg Solti.)

Watts was a singer who matured in the first generation of international opera stars from England. A Welsh contralto, even one of her capabilities, would have found herself confined to a career of amateur chorus festivals at which she would purvey Bach, Handel and Mendelssohn, all in English, to subpar orchestral accompaniment. But Watts had the good fortune to rise in an era when the contralto's role was expanding, as was the English taste for international opera. She found herself not only the darling of Georg Solti's Royal Opera, but also of Herbert von Karajan's operatic feifdoms in Vienna and Salzburg, and even one of Benjamin Britten's chosen few allowed into the fold of the "Aldburgh Mafia." Britten would tailor-compose imperishable art around the specific talents of his favorite singers, unless the singer showed insufficient regard for Britten's word as law, in which case they were summarily expelled without permit for return. But that never happened to Watts. And so for a surprisingly long period, Watts found herself the reigning contralto of European opera: constantly as in demand for Wagner, Verdi and Strauss as much as Handel and Bach. She never became one of those legendarily formidable British matriarchs among singers like Kathleen Ferrier or Janet Baker, but she managed all the same a career of breath and distinction which put her solidly in the top tier of British singers during the British Golden Age.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Frank Zappa: Titties and Beer



After last night's trivialities, let's go for some real depth. This song does after all have the greatest Stravinsky joke in the history of rock music...

Sergiu Celibidache Explains Bruckner


(The ailing Romanian Maestro Sergiu Celibidache explicates Bruckner in French and rehearses his ninth symphony in German with equally stunning eloquence. He was rumored to be fluent in fifteen languages.)

(...and this is what happens when I do score study with scotch)

When you're knee deep in a Brucknerian swamp while preparing for rehearsal (four motets this weekend), you turn to the experts to guide you. Celibidache was not made for Bruckner so much as Bruckner was made for Celibidache. Other conductors - Gunter Wand, Eugen Jochum and Karl Bohm in Celi's own day, Bernard Haitink, Daniel Barenboim and Franz Welser Most in ours - probably got much closer to Bruckner's intentions. Celi was, as ever, more interested in what he could do with the music than what he could do for it. But there was a special kinship he felt with Bruckner, as though he were engaging with the one composer whose ideas might match the loftiness of his own.

It's a given that the understanding of great conductors deepens with age. But Sergiu Celibidache didn't deepen so much as he plunged off a cliff into murky regions of (pseudo?) enlightenment unknown to any conductor before or since. Other great conductors often take slow tempi, but in Celibidache's performances the slowness of the tempos is the point of the performance. And most obviously, other conductors distrusted the recording process, but Celibidache was the only conductor of stature who refused to make a studio recording for his entire mature career.

It's almost too easy to dismiss Celibidache as a bullshit artist of the most steaming variety. So much of what he did seemed too eccentric to take seriously. Yet everything within his music-making made sense on its own distended terms. He was neither a Toscanini-type taskmaster who drove the music forward mercilessly in a quest for maximum excitement, nor a Mengelberg-type micro-manager who put his personal imprint on music's every note. As he often took great pains to admit, he was much closer to a Furtwangler (whose role as a mentor Celi would exaggerate to heighten his pedigree). Furtwangler was a kind of musical philosopher who viewed every performance as a speculation. To Furtwangler's thinking, every performance must viewed on its own terms and creates its own rules as it goes along. But Celibidache was far less impulsive in performance than Furtwangler ever was.

Celi was like a gardener, content to sit and wait for the most organic possible developments over periods of months, years and decades, toiling on the growth same piece over and over again. Celibidache's goal was for every detail of the music - melodic, harmonic, timbral, and rhythmic - to register in the most elemental way. It was not enough for him that the music absorb the listener, every element of the music had to be of a piece with itself.


(whatever else Celi was, he was a master)

This particular philosophy of music-making is not all that there is to making great Bruckner, but it is Bruckner's most essential element. Gunter Wand, the ultimate obsessive among Brucknerians, proved this by whittling down his repertoire until Bruckner comprised more than 50% of his performances. And yet his performances of individual symphonies would differ greatly from year to year as his relationship to Bruckner yielded ever deeper insight into Bruckner's music. The greatness of Bruckner's music is a kind of phased process that can only reveal itself in the work of a musician who carefully hones his craft over a lifetime.

Bruckner had the unfortunate fate of being an absolute musician in an era when listeners demanded that music demonstrate a completely subjective connection to the phenomenal world. There is no way to speak about meaning in Bruckner's music the way one can about Wagner. In this way (and perhaps only this way), Bruckner is much like his contemporary Brahms. But Brahms was the master of the microscopic. In every one of Brahms's pieces, like Mozart and Bach before him, tens of thousands of exquisite small details combine into forms that can overwhelm only after one hears the work in its totality.

But Bruckner was a master of making listeners aware of the totality from the moment his music begins. At every moment, the listener is almost physically aware of how every detail fits into the whole even before one hears the entire piece. Bruckner, like Handel and Beethoven before him, always tells directly rather than suggests. His music is like a rollercoaster ride in which the listener feels swept out of his body and then redeposited at the end with a feeling of having been through an experience too viscral to allow for much critical distance. Bruckner's symphonies seem to gain in power because Bruckner never seems to bother with something as mundane as fluent construction. Brahms writes like master scholar: the passion is always visible but kept at arms length. Brahms has an explosively emotional temperament, but never ceases to cast it in an iron-wrought critical distance - all the niceties of form observed and then some. Bruckner writes like an unflappable believer, the gigantic musical intellect that assembles his works always disguised behind the elemental power of what it creates. Brahms's education was negligable, yet no composer wrote music of greater technical erudition. Bruckner accumulated conservatory degrees until he was fifty, yet no great composer's writing seems so positively clumsy at first glance. Brahms often takes a few hundred bars to massage a transition between subjects as elegantly as possible. Bruckner simply stops his subject when he runs out of musical ideas and moves on to the next.

And yet that's only in the symphonies. There is no such clumsiness in the choral music. In the motets, it is as if the raw energy that only Bruckner could summon allies itself with a very Brahmsian elegance. In motet after motet, Palestrina counterpoint synthesizes perfectly with Schubertian melody. And with only enough Wagnerian grandiosity that the drama never wears thin. Bruckner's symphonies seem like superhuman creations, music written for God by a god. But the church music is almost unbearably human. Like Schubert lieder and Chopin piano miniatures, they contain a whole universe within a speck. And because of this, they are as much the backbone of nineteenth century choral repertoire as Schubert lieder are for singers and Chopin nocturnes are for pianists. However easy they may seem at first glance, there is an infinity of detail for performers to master, and it takes half a lifetime merely to notice them.


(VIOLA!)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

In Honor of Ozzie Guillen



Ozzie on the pre-game show will be much more interesting than anything in the Series this year.

Venue Announcement!

After three months of searching, The Washington Collegium finally has a permanent venue.

The Church of the Pilgrims
2201 P St NW, Washington, DC‎ - (202) 387-6612‎

Less than three blocks West of the Dupont Circle Metro's North Exit. Look it up on Google Maps.

Many issues still remain: most particularly membership. Please tell everyone you know, singer or non-singer, that the Washington Collegium is open for business.

A Short Film for the End of Time



"And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire ... and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth .... And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever ... that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ...."

Revelation 10: 1-2, 5-7

Olivier Messiaen wrote the Quartet for the End of Time after his capture by the Nazis and internment at a POW camp. Inspired as much by the circumstances all around him as by the above quote from the Book of Revelation, he immediately found the other professional musicians in the camp and set about work on what would become his best-known masterpiece. Scored for the odd combination of piano, violin, cello and clarinet, Messiaen had to write for the defects of any instrument they could find - the violinist had to play on a three-string violin, the cellist on a two-string cello, and the piano Messiaen played had defective keys. And yet the limitations if anything inspired Messiaen to greater heights. The world premiere itself was given in the freezing cold of a Polish January to an audience of four-hundred prisoners and guards. Yet through all those limitations, Messiaen wrote that he never again found performing circumstances as inspiring, or an audience as comprehending.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center commissioned the painter Zach Smithey and the filmmaker Tristan Cook to create a film based on Messiaen's work. The concept they came up with is, in its way, devastating. In the first half of the film, Cook films Smithey creating a beautifully colorful not-quite abstract painting. The background is a landscape, and yet there are blotches of paint painted over the top half. And the painting is never filmed in its finished state. By the end of the first half, colors are still wet, and moving all round the canvas. Messiaen, a musician who experienced profound synesthesia when hearing or even reading music, always thought of music in terms of color.



In the second half of the film, Smithey gradually pours whiteout all over the painting, effectively destroying everything he created. The colorful world is inexorably destroyed, replaced by an all-pervading blankness. Whatever this means is for you to decide...

A Talking Piano



No seriously. This is nothing but an analog player piano, nothing but eighty-eight keys, strings and a bunch of levered hammers, whose program imitates human speech. Coming from Alex Ross's new blog: Unquiet Thoughts. It's great to have him back to blogging all the time again. The text is cut off occasionallly, but it doesn't take seeing all the subtitles to begin grasping the full implication of what this means for the studies of both music and language.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Smells Like Teen Spirit: sung by Paul Anka

Victor Borge: How Does A Modern Composer Compose?



As usual, Victor Borge ends up not talking about anything to do with his original topic. So, as you can guess, he is for many reasons one of my greatest heroes since I was nine years old.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fidler Afn Dakh



Fyvush Finkel and Theodore Bikel. While most people today know Finkel for his work in Picket Fences and Boston Public, he is first and foremost the last living legend of the Yiddish theater. Theodore Bikel, a Viennese folk singer and sometime film star (Zoltan Kaparthy in My Fair Lady), has been the greatest champion of reviving Yiddish language and music in folk traditions for over fifty years. He has also performed the role of Tevye more times onstage than anyone - including either Zero Mostel or Topol. Both are now in their mid 80's, and last year they did the tavern scene in which Tevye barters for Tzeitel at the historic National Yiddish Theater in New York for the Folksbeine Gala.

Gulda plays Bach



...in the middle of a concert with Chick Corea.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Music Ball Machine



For lack of a better term.

Imitating the Great Cellists



Really spot on actually...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

From Mao to Mozart: Final Speech



The inspirational ending of From Mao to Mozart, about Isaac Stern's visit to China in 1979. Just ignore the part about his conducting.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hallelujah



Rehearsal finally begins tomorrow.

Bang on a Can on Newshour



The most influential of modern classical groups gets some time on Newshour.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Classical Aphex Twin



Alarm Will Sound playing 4. Go here to hear the original.

Flanders and Swann: First and Second Law



This is, without a doubt, my favorite song about Thermodynamics. How have Flanders and Swann not appeard here yet....

So to make up for that: the Hippopotamus Song. Those who don't immediately understand why this song is awesome have a lifetime ban from the chorus.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan: A Glorious Dawn



Auto-tune for Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking. Maybe it's the ambien I just took, maybe it was my four day old flu, maybe it was the stress of putting the collegium together as we know it should be. But oh my god I feel 11 years old again. What that entails is for others to know later.

A Hard Day's Night: recited by Laurence Olivier



Actually Peter Sellers...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dylan Christmas Album



Comes out today. Ever wonder what Winter Wonderland sounds like when sung by the Angel of Death?

Christian Thielemann: can he be stopped?

(Yeah, this is what happens when I'm bedridden for three days)


(Wilhelm Furtwangler. Often said to be the greatest conductor of all-time. When interrogated by the allies about why he stayed in Germany during WWII, he claimed he stayed to save the purity of German art from Nazi corruption.)

It is one of the strangest yet most predictable occurrences in classical music that its movements coalesce so quickly and firmly around a decisive figure. Classical music probably lends itself to authoritarianism more easily than any other art form in the history of the world. Between its ability to be about anything people say it is, its centuries of tradition to maintain in the face of an evolving world; its jargon filled lexicon that only an elite can master after a decade's initiation, the inability of most musicians to contradict the word of the composer or conductor; and the sheer melodramatic bombast of the music, it is a genre that practically cries out for demagogues to exploit a gullible mass of people.


(...never gets old)

So it should be no secret as to why classical music reached the apogee of its significance to world culture in what is often called "The Long Nineteenth Century" - which Eric Hobsbawm dated from 1789 to 1914 and the reasons should be obvious. An artform that so readily gives itself over to propaganda is perfect for use in the age of imperialism, nationalism and great power politics.

But the nineteenth century had an equally democratic side to it as well, and so does classical music. Composers are as dependent on performers as performers are composers. And performers are completely dependent upon one another for the mastery of their own responsibilities. At its best, the classical world can be a model of democracy and cooperation - each person relying upon one another for responsibilities only that person is capable of fulfilling. At its worst, it is not like that at all.


(He's Otto Klemperer. The rest of us don't get away with that.)

The phrase 'all happy ______ are happy in the same way, all unhappy _____ are unhappy in different ways' comes from the beginning of Anna Karenina and the missing subject is 'marriage.' But it can apply to so many things, and quite so to the partnerships between conductors and orchestras. Particularly as the partnership between a conductor and an orchestra is so often likened to a marriage.

Conductors are people too (though that's often forgotten), and they come in every type. There are no end of Lorin Maazels and Riccardo Mutis whose natural talents are diluted by their disproportionate egos - making them think that the ability to exploit orchestras for their money and prestige and giving little in return is what's owed to them. But there are also plenty of Chirstoph von Dohnanyis and Charles Mackerasses who always think first about what they can give to music rather than what music can give them.

But then there are the genuine rarities. Musicians who have achieved such a peak of influence that like their peers at the top of other professions, their decisions affect everyone in the world in ways we'll never know. Imagine for a moment if Leonard Bernstein, a lifelong asthma sufferer, was conscripted for WWII and killed in action? How many thousands of musicians would have never been inspired to go into music? How many millions of music-lovers would have never been convinced to love it? And for that matter, imagine if Lenny had quit smoking and lived on into the age of the internet?


(We need him now more than ever)

The influence of these few historic conductors is so easily discernable that one can probably count those who have indisputably made it to that level in the twentieth century on your fingertips and one can easily identify what their contributions were that made them so influential: Nikisch (baton technique), Mahler (quality control), Toscanini (score fidelity), Mengelberg (orchestra building), Furtwangler (canonizing the German -dominant- repertoire), Karajan (popularization through recording), Solti (internationalization of Opera) Bernstein (popularization through television), Boulez (retraining for contemporary music) and Harnoncourt (retraining for early music). This is hardly a list of my personal favorites, it's merely a list of the conductors whom without which classical music would be very different from what we now know it to be.


(Simon Rattle)

Almost ten years into the twenty-first century, it's already clear that two figures of comparable magnitude have revealed themselves. Whether in Birmingham or Berlin, Sir Simon Rattle has set a standard of diversifying orchestral repertoire that every other conductor tries to emulate. Whether the music is Pierre Boulez or John Adams, Bach or Rameau, Rattle conducts every piece he believes in with equal commitment. Musical cliques that have formed over hundreds of years seem to be evaporating merely from his efforts. And just as Toscanini had his antipode in Furtwangler and Karajan had one in Bernstein, Rattle has his polar opposite in Valery Gergiev. Unlike Rattle's high-minded internationalism, Gergiev is unashamedly provincial in his repertoire and performance style. Just as Furtwangler gave searing performances that crowned German music as the dominant musical force of the 19th century, Gergiev is currently giving performances of maximal impact for Russian music establishing it as the dominant musical canon of the 20th.


(Valery Gergiev)

But in a profession as unnecessarily venerated as conducting, there's always room for three superstars. And this week, for better or worse, we probably got our third. Christian Thielemann has been touted for the last twenty years (not least by himself) as the 'second Karajan' or 'second Furtwangler.' Now fifty, he still looks like a much too serious adolescent. Formerly an assistant of both Herbert von Karajan and Daniel Barenboim, he seems to have learned how to make music from the latter and how to make a career from the former.


(Christian Thielemann)

When Thielemann first appeared in the early 90's, there was a collective frission in German music circles. Thielemann's concerts are like taking a trip back in time to the old world when music was played with 100 players regardless of the style and the sound was always polished to the point of sheen. The tempos were always slow, but with enough flexibility that excitement can always be milked. His jerky, nearly unreadable stick technique is also a throwback to the days of 19th century Germany. Like one of his idols, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Thielemann seems to have a outright fear of precise attacks which is displayed in the awkward manner in which he uses a baton. The only troubling thought about the excitement was that there was no other approach in Thielemann's concerts. There wasn't just a lack of Stravinsky or Bartok, there was a lack of Dvorak and Rachmaninoff too.

In 1997, Thielemann became director of the Deutschoper in Berlin. He inherited a large-scale mess which he helped to grow positively filthy. The city of Berlin, strapped as ever for euros, entertained a proposal to combine their two major opera houses. The director of the other house happened to be one of Thielemann's mentors, the Israeli Daniel Barenboim. The history of Barenboim's house, the Berlin Staatsoper and its accompanying orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin, goes back to 1570. Barenboim called the move for what it was, 'cultural vandalism,' and threatened immediate resignation. Whereas Thielemann let it be known that he would be all too happy to see the houses merged with himself at the helm. Matters became still worse when the leader of the Christian Democrats in Berlin, Klaus Landowski, said that the solution should be obvious. One of these conductors was 'A second Karajan,' the other is 'that Jew Barenboim.' Thielemann himself was quoted as privately saying that he was looking forward 'to the end of this Jewish mess.' While Thielemann issued a denial, he never publicly dissociated himself from Landowski's remarks. It was Barenboim's courageous stand on behalf of his opera house that saved Berlin's cultural life and Thielemann departed from Berlin out of favor, another major career apparently derailed.

He then moved to the orchestra made most famous for its time under the legendary Romanian conductor, Sergiu Celibidache, the Munich Philharmonic. By common consensus, the MPO is not the best orchestra in Munich (and often not the second-best). Word quickly broke that Thielemann was not shy in airing his displeasure at the quality of the players. But Thielemann's breaking point was not over the quality of players, it was over the issue of guest conductors. After five years, Thielemann announced his resignation because he felt that it was his perogative and his alone to name the guest conductors of the orchestra. This alone is not necessarily objectionable, but Thielemann made no secret that he regarded any conductor whose style of musicmaking conflicted with his own as a hindrance to the sound which he tries to cultivate. In Christian Thielemann's world, the diversity of modern musicmaking is a threat.


(Wagner's grandson Wolfgang giving his org some much needed PR)

One might imagine it ineviable that a conductor with such an attitude might find a natural home for himself in the Bayreuth Festspiel - a summer retreat to a Bavarian hamlet where Wagner erected a theater to showcase exclusively his own work. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus is a still storied German landmark, remembered for its monumental effect on Hitler, who made it his spiritual home (Wagner's widowed daughter-in-law Winnifred was arguably his closest friend). To this day, the Bayreuth Festival is controlled by the Wagner family, whose never ending quarrels and intrigues have entertained Germany for over a hundred years. When Wagner's 90 year old grandson Wolfgang was finally able to convince the Bayreuth trustees to allow his 20-something daughter Katherina to take over, it was primarily because Thielemann agreed to mentor her musically. Thielemann is now the unofficial music director of Bayreuth, and granted a degree of control over the festival no conductor was allowed even in the days when an invitation from Bayreuth was considered the most prestigious conducting job in Germany (and therefore the world).

And just this week, Thielemann was appointed music director of the world's oldest orchestra. The Staatskapelle Dresden was founded in 1548. It was not only described by Richard Strauss as the world's greatest orchestra, it was also described by Beethoven as the world's greatest orchestra. Going back through its history, its music directors have included such luminaries as Bernard Haitink, Herbert Blomstedt, Kurt Sanderling, Rudolf Kempe, Karl Bohm, Fritz Busch, Fritz Reiner, Wagner (!), Weber (!!), Hasse (!!!), and Heinrich Schutz (!!!!). It has given the world premieres of untold dozens of works music-lovers still love today. But the greatest peak of its history was probably on Christmas Day 1845 when a young composer named Richard Wagner conducted what amounted to a second premiere of Beethoven's 9th Symphony that established it to the world as the masterpiece we still know.


(The Staatskapelle Dresden under its current conductor, the underrated Fabio Luisi. Playing Richard Strauss's hymn to nature, Mahler and vulgarity. The Alpine Symphony is the greatest work ever written when played by a great orchestra and the worst when played by a good one.)

The Staatskapelle Dresden is more than an orchestra, it is a symbol to the World of the gift German culture gives. The Allies may have bombed Germany's most beautiful city past recognition, but so long as the Staatskapelle Dresden remains the city retains its most important link to its history. Erich Honecker realized this as well as anyone, and during the Communist years a steady parade of great western conductors were allowed behind the iron curtain to conduct in Dresden so that the orchestra could maintain its greatness even under dictatorship.

But what does it say about the inheritor of Germany's oldest musical institution that he was willing to risk the survival of the second-oldest to get a better job? What does it say that when anti-semitism crept into a disagreement with his mentor, he never issued a blanket denunciation of it?

There's no way of being certain. But there is no mistakening what Thielemann represents to the music world. If Rattle is the way forward, and Gergiev the summation of a tradition soon to be lost, then Thielemann is perhaps the resurrection of a tradition that if possible might best be left dormant. He is not only a throwback to the traditions of Furtwangler in his style, but also in his entire outlook. He rose to prominence as much for what he doesn't do as for what he does. There are plenty of conductors who conduct German music in a "German style" and do much else besides. Christoph Eschenbach often conducts just as well in much the same manner, and plays the piano besides. Eschenbach indulges in the cardinal sin of musical curiosity and performs many pieces risk-averse conductors wouldn't dare to touch. Daniel Barenboim gave the German tradition back to Germany as perhaps only an Israeli could. But he also does everything Eschenbach does and still finds time to sound notes for peace in his country of origin. A list like this can go on for ages.

The rise of a Christian Thielemann to a position past the Barenboims and Eschenbachs of the world can only happen with a sinister movement at his back. He is the darling of every classical music lover who cannot accept that the world moved on a hundred years ago. To everyone who would like to press the reset button on music since roughly 1883, Christian Thielemann is their long-awaited messiah. He speaks to their longing to return to a time when German Classical Music was the uncontested lingua franca of the music world. He speaks to their eagerness to ignore the developments of a century of popular culture. He speaks to their belief that music with a different sound than Beethoven's cannot be great. And most egregiously, he speaks to their belief that musical truth can only be handed down from gatekeeper to gatekeeper. He represents a bygone era hundreds of subjects must bend to feudal whims. Around him seems to have coalesced the idea that classical music can be resurrected as the world's dominant artform in the place where it reached its zenith. Perhaps it can be, but without a globe's worth of musical cross pollination to evolve it into better music, who would want to live there?

All the Great Operas in 10 Minutes

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Argument to Beethoven's 5th



Classic Sid Caesar sketch.

Hilariously Awful Opera Stagings #4: La Traviata



The act III prelude is usually done either with the curtain down or with the original hooker with a heart of gold, Violetta Valery, lying down in her bed, dying from consumption. Instead we get her lying on the floor, with a giant clock in the middle of the stage, and a hundred odd men walking around it. Symbolism, ooooooh.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mel Brooks: The Critic



Mel Brooks's first short: The Critic. It's an almost ironclad rule of Mel Brooks that every movie he makes is worse than the last one. There is no movie in the world I find funnier than the (original) Producers, but in three minutes this is about as funny as any movie gets. The music, by the way, is some roughly cut splices from Bach's French Suite #5.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra



11 members and they still have more women than the Vienna Philharmonic.

This is Not About Alberto Gonzales



From The Gonzales Cantata. We are totally doing this at some point.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Alle Yarok



Completely unrelated to music. But every time I watch this Israeli political commercial I marvel that I used to live in this country.

Horowitz


(Horowitz's version of the Gypsy Song from Bizet's Carmen)

He was, quite simply, the most legendary pianist of the twentieth century. No listener ever experienced another pianist who could thunder in the Horowitz manner. In the words of critic Harold Schonberg, Vladimir Horowitz's piano playing sounded as though there was a 'demon trying to get loose.' Oscar Levant once wrote that Horowitz's octaves were "brilliant, accurate and etched out like bullets."


(How many pianists play Scriabin's Vers La Flamme in their homes on request?)

Critics often hated Horowitz with a savage passion. They charged him with being a grotesque exaggeration of a virtuoso pianist - all technique, no music. Yet there was hardly a pianist in the world who could play with as much delicacy and sensitivity. Horowitz was not only THE virtuoso pianist of the twentieth century, but also a solid and undervalued musician who gave genuine thought to the way in which he interpreted the pieces he played.


(Schumann's Traumerei. Played on his first, and what proved to be only, visit to his native Moscow in seventy years)

And yet he was a tormented man. Tormented by his loss of his beloved Mother Russia after the 1917 Revolution, tormented by his secret homosexuality, tormented by doubts about his talent, tormented by his daughter's drug overdose in 1975. A depressive who subjected himself to electro-shock therapy on multiple occasions, he retired from the concert stage no less than four times.


(The Horowitzes talk about his key relationship with Rachmaninov. Then he plays the Prelude in G-Sharp)

And yet he was also a survivor. At every announced retirement, Horowitz sounded as though he was taking his final bow. And yet after every retirement he would return to a public that loved him and sold out nearly every concert he played. There has not been a piano virtuoso who inspired the devotion that Horowitz did since Franz Liszt did in the mid-19th century, and there may never be again.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Muppets: Stars and Stripes Forever



Somebody does this for a living...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Rebirth in New York?


(No matter how awful the Lindberg piece was, opening night had some awesome Berlioz)

In the midst of all this Dudamania, let's not forget that something almost equally incredible is happening at the New York Philharmonic. The NYPhil, that singular bastion of American conservatism, the banner constantly used for everything that is wrong with American musical life, has hired a 40 year old near-unknown as its music director named Alan Gilbert. The last time they did this was over 50 years ago, when they took a chance on a young American conductor whose greatest achievements until then were as a Broadway composer. In the classical world, he was best known for a TV show in which explained classical music to the masses at a time when discussing music was greatly frowned upon. Needless to say, this relative unknown turned out to be Leonard Bernstein. It was only a matter of time before his collaborator Stephen Sondheim was turning out opera for Broadway of greater intelligence than nearly any opera composer, and even less time before Bernstein's manner of talking about music began to look extraordinarily effective, even downright necessary. Bernstein's methods, deemed superficial and glib in his lifetime, seem absolutely appropriate for our own. Bernstein is still our contemporary.

In the forty years since Bernstein left New York, the NYPhil coasted on the brandname he established. I'll never forget a visit I took to the NYPhil giftshop at Avery Fischer Hall, it tells all you need to know. Barely a single CD displayed in there had any other conductor on the label. A steady stream of big names followed Bernstein into the music director's chair - Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta; Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel - all of whom ran afoul of the audiences, the orchestra or the critics (in the case of Boulez, all three) and had to be gotten rid of before long so that the orchestra could find a better long-term solution. The orchestra never recovered from Bernstein's early departure, and no music director seems to last any longer than his 11 years on the podium.


(and Sacre Saint François! Messiaen on a New York Phil opening night?!? It's as though the Philharmonic finally realized it's 1949.)

The New York Phil was always known as an orchestra of conductor-killers. The list of conductors who had drubbings from the NYPhil is like a list of the greatest conductors of the century. Otto Klemperer once explained how the Beethoven's 5th was inspired by his autobiography and the oboeist rose to say 'Klemp, you talk too much.' Georg Solti once told the orchestra how fortunate he felt to be conducting them only to have a cellist say "You probably say that to every orchestra you want to be music director of." And those are just guest conductors. Mahler was hounded by the NYPhil board from the moment he took over until his premature death 2 years later. John Barbirolli was so demoralized by his directorship that he accepted an offer to take over a then-third-rate orchestra in Manchester for which he had to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a submarine in the middle of World War II. His successor, Artur Rodinski, was said to carry a gun with him to every rehearsal. Poor Dimitri Mitropoulos was another who may have been driven to an early grave from his music directorship of the NYPhil. Their reputation for treatment of conductors is so awful that lots of great ones still refuse to lead them. When asked why he wouldn't conduct the New York Philharmonic, Simon Rattle replied in his trademark Liverpudlian twang "Ah like me balls."

But unknown as Alan Gilbert is, he is not unknown to the New York Phil. He is, in fact, one of them. Both his parents were first violinists, and as a teenager Gilbert often accompanied his parents on Philharmonic tours - often handling the orchestra's passports. In 167 years, the New York Philharmonic has not once had a native New Yorker lead them. If they tear Gilbert up, they really are as bad as their reputation leads us to believe.

Gilbert has started in ways just as promising as Dudi. Thomas Hampson and Valery Gergiev are artists in residence. Magnus Lindberg is composer in residence...ok, that's not that promising. But what's important is that the New York Philharmonic is beginning to think longer-term. Rather than a concert-by-concert repeat of the same experience blue-haired old ladies had in 1956, the Philharmonic now wants artists who have things to say and can give audiences real experiences that both entertain and challenge. Things are looking up at the orchestras of America's two major cities. Let's hope this lasts for a while.



(Well...Lenny he ain't. But hopefully he'll find his own way and it will work well for what he has to do.)

Ave Maria: Bobby McFerrin



Yesterday's post made me feel dirty. Today, Bobby McFerrin working another miracle. I love that man. Also, I think I have a new idea for auditions...

Gorbachev



Not much to say except this is for anyone who hasn't seen this, and with not very sincere apologies to Leninists and feminists everywhere.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Billie Jean: by Steve Martin



Last week we had Stephen Fry's version, this week Steve Martin. Next week it'll be Stephen Baldwin's.

The Wrath of Khan: The Opera



Wow. I've been really wrong about Robot Chicken. Even if they don't realize that Khan was stranded on Ceti Alpha Six.

The Dude Abides (sorry, not that one)


(The concert that changed everything. Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in August 2007 at the BBC Proms at London's Royal Albert Hall.)

What's being covered as the most important partnership in classical music began yesterday. 28 year old Gustavo Dudamel is now the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And with it, we are asking him to take on the great musical challenge of our generation. Arturo Toscanini brought fidelity to the composer's intention to performances, Herbert von Karajan brought classical music back into the home with recordings; Simon Rattle is showing the world that new music is just as compelling as old, and the challange now falls to Gustavo Dudamel to bring classical music back to the masses. We can only hope that one day soon conductors can stop being the dominant voices in classical music life, but until then, the task will fall to Dudi. We don't yet know how he's gonna do it, but so far, decidedly not disappointing. John Adams is now the LAPhil composer in residence, and the season begins with the world premiere of Adams's new piece: City Noir. Music by him, Thomas Ades, Osvaldo Golijov and Dudamel's predecessor Esa Pekka Salonen, are on the schedule.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bad Jokes



I can't escape the feeling that posting this awesome scene from Robert Altman's last movie is a terrible idea. It's an awesome scene from an awesome movie based on an awesome show...and that statement alone piles still more evidence that the WC director is forty years older than he claims.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Nigel Kennedy



In all his glory.

(A piece about Nigel Kennedy I wrote two years ago)

After swearing for what seems like the 500th time that he was done with classical music forever, after swearing for what seems like the 1000th time that he will never perform on a London concert stage ever again, Kennedy, the greatest English violinist since Albert Sammons, the designated heir to both Yehudi Menuhin and Stephane Grappelli, is returning to England's pre-eminent classical venue for the first time in 21 years.

Every newspaper that does a profile on him seems aghast at the thought that he's now on the other side of 50. The idea that old-timers can pretend they're still twenty-five is still something new to the classical world. But even for me it does seem like yesterday that I was eleven years old going backstage after an electrifying performance of the Bruch Violin Concerto (that I tried ten years later to pathetically imitate as best I could) to announce to Nigel Kennedy that one day I wanted to be a violinist as good as he is. Kennedy heard my words with what seemed like something between amusement and alarm and immediately grabbed me by the forehead and shook my head back and forth until my brain was ready to fall out. And then he said the advice that I have kept with me to this day 'Just don't let'em turn you into a wankah!'

I'd like to think that I'm the only young musician to have had such a 'life-changing' encounter with Nigel Kennedy, but I would imagine that there are hundreds more stories just like it. Kennedy is the type of guy for whom the very act of meeting him becomes an event in itself. Between the punk haircut, the salvation army wardrobe, the 'mockney' accent straight out of Spinal Tap, the obsession with Aston Villa (he wears the team scarf onstage at concerts), he is a one-man anecdote machine.

Even to twenty-six year old me, Nigel Kennedy was supposed to be Peter Pan. I remember being thirteen and hearing his version of the Four Seasons (apparently I was one of 2 million people to have that experience) for the first time. It was the most exciting thing I had ever heard. I must have played the third movement of Summer five-hundred times. Vivaldi was no longer this boring composer of music that people listened to when they didn't want to listen. Vivaldi was as intense, as emotional, as 'hard-core' as Beethoven or Stravinsky.

No doubt his eccentricities have drawn serious flak on occasion. One time he appeared to play Berg's magnificently eerie violin concertowearing a black cape and Dracula makeup. In turn this prompted Radio 3's then comptroller John Drummond to blast Kennedy as a "Liberace for the 90's." No doubt there will always be people who feel that way.

And perhaps they're right. Kennedy has done his part to cheapen and coursen our musical life. After experiences with all those conductors who have bent over backwards to give him precisely what he wants, to castigate the entire profession as 'greedy egoists' is just plain embarrassing. Nobody needs to be told that conducting is a profession packed to the brim with bloodsuckers who milk orchestras for the highest buck and lowest performance standard. But for every Ozawa/Muti/Maazel of the jet-set whose aim is to piggyback off other's achievements, there is a Handley/Tennstedt/Tatewho has gone as many extra miles for Kennedy as are necessary to give the best possible performance. Indeed, in the Kennedy/Simon Rattle feudthat everybody already seems to have forgotten about, it was Kennedy who flaked out by not learning Sofia Gubaidulina's Violin Concerto, not Rattle. Rattle is now a living legend, while Kennedy is still a singularly impressive novelty act.

But who can say that music a is more boring, less meaningful activity for Kennedy's being around? No doubt about it, Kennedy can be a pill. But for everything he does that is unbelievably annoying, there are five acts of musical revelation that are so inspiring that they shake the very foundations of what we thought classical music was.

Classical music was supposed to be a civilizing force that our parents instilled in us as a way of teaching us discipline. If we could concentrate enough to practice our instruments every day, doing our homework and eating our vegetables should have been that much easier. But at least a few of us found something in classical music infinitely more valuable: it was subversive, it was dangerous, it was rebellion personified. It was rebellion against every whiny brat we knew in high school who insisted that his favorite band was comprised of artistic geniuses. It was rebellion against every bully who thought it was a joke that somebody would prefer to listen to Mozart over DMX. It was rebellion against our parents' generation, most of whom tried to tell us that no music was written before 1964. But more than anything else, listening to it was a way of taking it back. It was rebellion against the stuffed shirts who force fed it to us as kids and tried to use it as a way to make us into obedient citizens. Some of us fought back by staying with it and playing classical music with the emotion that it's no longer supposed to have.

So here's to you Kennedy. Here's to your hemming and hawing about the snobbery of our ghetto. Here's to your constant breaks from the classical world to play jazz - even if by now they're nearly as snobbish as we are. Here's to your prolonging your adolescence for another thirty years. Here's to you making passes at every pretty girl in the front row of your concerts. Here's to the all the constant provocations and tantrums and pointless feuds. We love you for every damn one of those things and we would never have you any other way.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Barn in the USA



A cute but not as memorable sequel.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Polanski... (hopefully part 1 of 4)

It's difficult to explain what it's like to grow up in a place where 90% of the people are Jewish for five kilometers in any direction to people who have never lived in Israel. It's hard for most people to imagine the entirety of a sold-out movie audience booing a Mel Gibson trailer. It's impossible for most people to imagine an American place where there isn't a single Christmas light for miles at a stretch. But that is exactly what happens in Pikesville, Maryland and on January 3rd 2003 the entire population seemed to pack itself into the Charles Theater's biggest screen for the Baltimore premiere of The Pianist.

I was with some old friends of mine who had been my classmates since we were five, and we entered the 500 seat theater to find that we had to go to the far right side of the third row to find any seats. Fifteen seconds later the lights dimmed. Within that time we seemed to get waves not only from half the people we went to school with but from half our parents' friends as well. The movie began, and for 150 minutes a theater full of Jews sat in rapt silence. A full half of the movie is without dialogue, and yet the audience was so quiet as to make me feel that I was the only person in the room.

No movie can possibly convey what being in the middle of the Holocaust was like, but more than Sophie's Choice, or Europa Europa, or even Schindler's List, The Pianist gives us an approximation. It is a survivor's story, and a lot of critics said that it was a testament to Wladislaw Spillman's perseverence that he survived an event that killed so many millions. But no other Holocaust movie contains The Pianist's ultimate insight: that no amount of willpower could save a single victim slated for death. All that allowed for Spillman's survival was luck, and luck of the most pure variety.

Spillman had help from gentiles, but so did millions of other Jews, many of whose lives were not saved. Two of those who were were my grandparents, Morris and Eva Tucker (formerly Maishel and Chava Ticoczki), but two who didn't survive was their daughter, Tzipporah and my great aunt Rachel Slodke. The chances are infantessimally small, but it's not totally out of the realm of possibility that Roman Polanski was hidden in the same Polish convent as my father's sister, or that one of the many people he probably saw shot was my father's aunt Rachel.

So maybe I have too much sympathy for a bad man. Holocaust survivors can be bad people too and I've had occasion to meet a few. But bad people are deserving of sympathy too and even if Polanski might deserve to go to jail for the rest of his life, I don't feel ashamed for having sympathy for him.

Born to Add



Greatest Sesame Street Parody Ever?

Who Does A Better Joe Cocker?

Joe Cocker?



or John Belushi?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Roman Polanski survived the Holocaust to be raised by his father. His father was also a Survivor, but to become so had to endure Matthausen, a camp deadly enough that no reliable figures exist for the casualties. The Nazis destroyed most of the statistics before liberation, but it's believed that somewhere between 170,000 and 320,000 people were killed (though some historians have put the figure at 2 million). After a childhood under Stalin and Hitler, Polanski was rewarded with a young adulthood in Gomulka's Poland. As a budding Polish director, his first film had enormous success but came under official criticism at a time when official criticism often meant imprisonment and sometimes worse.

He received asylum in France in an era when defection from a Communist country was anything but easy. His first period in France was unsuccessful because the arts in France were dominated by fellow travelers like Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Paul Sartre who were hostile to anyone who might contradict their view of the Soviet Union as the anti-imperialist savior of the world. One bad word from a famous cultural figure was enough to scare producers into refusing Polanski more than a few francs at a time. So Polanski had to move to London, where he found success and began his western career in earnest.

But Polanski's early movies had very little to do with politics. He was much more interested in human beings, and particularly in their humiliation. The streak of cruelty that marks his movies (and his personal life) was manifest from the very beginning. Whereas filmmakers today like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez use violence as an omnipresent force whose shock barely registers on the screen, the violence in Polanski's films slices to the cruelest possible angle. Perhaps a man who saw so much of life's terrors would see brutality as a part of the commonplace, or maybe Polanski was just a born sadist. But even with the Hitchcockian manner by which he makes his characters suffer (particularly his female characters), he seems to identify with their suffering in a way the Hitchcocks of the world never do. In a perverse, almost psychopathic way, there lurks a feminist streak to Polanski. It is hardly a streak that absolves him, but certainly one that that should make people question the standard writeoff of him as a born mysogenist.

His most famous early movie, Repulsion, is a case study of the madness that creeps in from isolation. The icily beautiful Carol (played by the icily beautiful Catherine Deneuve) comes to stay with her sister and gets into an argument with her sister's omnipresent yet married boyfriend. After the argument, Carol's sister goes on vacation with him to Italy and Carol finds herself trapped in her sister's apartment with the effects of an insanity that becomes more apparent every passing day. Unable to connect with people in either her personal life or her work, she comes completely undone over the course of a week. We helplessly watch as her hair gets messy, her clothes become tattered, and the food she refuses to eat rots on the table. Having previously confided that she is a virgin and perpetually afraid of men, she attempts to connect with a man only to end up blugeoning him with a candlestick and then cuts the throat of her sister's groping landlord with a straight razor. The sister comes home at the end of the week to find the dead bodies and Carol hiding under the bed. In the final shot, the camera pans to a family portrait in which Carol isolates herself from the rest of the family's domestic contentment.

Habanera



(Oh dear, the hours I've spent imitating this with Andrew Gordon...)

Hugh Laurie Interviews Michael Jackson

Alicia De Larrocha (1923-2009): An Appreciation

It was heady times for pianophiles in the 1980's. The grand age of Romantic Piano was coming to its end with a Lisztian bang. And the bang was dominated by three pianists still near the top of their respective games in their mid-eighties, each representing the last vestige of a different dying tradition.



In the late 1980's, Vladimir Horowitz was arguably in better pianistic shape than he was at any time since the early 50's. When Horowitz died in late 1989, the age of Anton Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Scriabin died with him. He was the last vestige of Russian pianism before the Revolution with its particular combination of elegance and volatility. The Soviet pianists after Horowitz could match him in temperament, but none of them could wed Horowitz's passion to his natural elegance.



One year older than Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin was nearly every bit the pianist at eighty that he was at thirty. The son-in-law of the great violinist Adolf Busch, the younger contemporary of Artur Schnabel and Wilhelm Backhaus and a favored colleague of Arnold Schonberg, Serkin represented the last active link with the middle-class German traditions of chamber music, wide reading and bildung (though Wilhelm Kempff survived him in retirement). Serkin was the last pianistic link to an era in which German families would play Beethoven and Brahms for each other in drawing rooms. As a teacher Serkin mentored three generations of pianists and to this day generations of pianists he taught honor his legacy by playing the German classics with the same rigor and intensity he brought.



Serkin's exact contemporary in birth and death, Claudio Arrau, was Chilean by origin. But Arrau came from a tradition just as German as Serkin's and every bit as extinct. If Serkin was reared in the middle-class traditions of Brahms and Busch, Arrau came from the upper-class traditions of Liszt and Furtwangler. Arrau's music-making had a self-concious probity no other pianist would dare. No other pianist of the recorded era would chance to play the classics with Arrau's flexibility of tempo or disregard for written dynamics (not even his disciple, Daniel Barenboim). Arrau aimed not for Serkin's rigor but to endow music with all the weight of German philosophy. Every moment of Arrau's playing seemed to be an attempt to bend the listener's sense of time and space. Music-making has rarely been as 'heavy' an experience as it was in his hands.

While all three pianists still played around the world in their mid-eighties, their technique seemed fundamentally indestructable until the end (though Horowitz and Arrau had many off-nights). As they played on, a slew of slightly younger pianists seemed to find it excruciating to cope with the octogenarian onslaught. Among the Eastern Europeans: Emil Gilels, Gina Bachauer and Geza Anda all died early. Mieczyslaw Horoszowski and Shura Cherkassky seemed content to stay out of Horowitz's limelight, and Sviatoslav Richter confined his appearances to festivals. The entirety of th German-speaking lands did not produce an heir to Serkin until Alfred Brendel reached maturity and Arrau fans had to wait even longer for the maturation of Daniel Barenboim. Great American pianists seemed to appear at the speed of light: William Kapell, Julius Katchen, Leon Fleischer, Gary Graffman, Byron Janis, Van Cliburn - and yet every one of them seemed to die or burn out as quickly as they appeared. And that's not even mentioning Glenn Gould to the North... Maurizio Pollini was at his peak as he was twenty years before and still is twenty years later - playing the piano to an unassailable technical standard with barely any hint of a beating heart behind it.

With all these pianistic casualties, only two pianists the world over seemed to be able to compete with the old men on their own terms. Both were Spanish-speaking women, but there similarities end.



The Argentinian Martha Argerich was still only in her forties. Critics never seemed to tire of using words like 'volcanic' and 'smoldering' to describe her playing of the great Romantic works. Physically beautiful and forever rumored to be as tempestuous in her private affairs as she was in her pianism, her performances electrified crowds in every city. Like Horowitz, she seemed to carry an aura of instability and danger that magnetized audiences. Like Arrau and Horowitz, she overwhelmed her public with the enormity of her conceptions more than she did with the rightness of them. To this day her playing can be as wrong-headed as any great pianist in history, but her pianism was as unmistakable within a few notes as it is now.



But the Spaniard Alicia De Larrocha was Argerich's antipode in every way. Physically diminutive, Laroccha looked like a diminutive grandmother who couldn't possibly manage the piano's physical demands, and in a way she played exactly how she looked. Hers was the playing of a master who never tried to inundate the audience with pyrotechnics. Never especially intense or fiery, never prone to exaggerated phrasing or distended tempos, Laroccha's playing was elegance personified. She seemed to traipse onto the stage, blithely unaware of audience's expectations and played in a manner that seemed unaware there was an audience to play for.



In Larrocha's playing, proportion was the key: Every note articulated perfectly in proportion to the phrase in which it came, every phrase exactly right in proportion to the phrases around it and through it whole movements built with the efficacy of a master builder. Every tempo was perfectly chosen, and every tempo modification applied so judiciously to be unnoticeable. And all of that coupled with a touch to the piano that endowed Steinways worldwide with the most beautiful sound since Artur Rubinstein.



In the words of her manager, Herbert Breslin, "Alicia has two kinds of repertoire. The stuff she plays extremely well, and the stuff she plays better than anyone else." So it should come as no surprise that a pianist of such supernal elegance would be the undisputed Mozart pianist of her generation. But in the span of a concert she could go from making Mozart sound more pellucid than ever to making the music of her countrymen resound with swagger and abandon. Rubinstein and Barenboim have played Spanish music with more fire, but not even they could make it sound as natural, as "Spanish," and however she did that was her secret.

Pianists like Alicia De Larrocha are not supposed to be superstars. The kind, polite pianist who plays music like an eloquent conversation is not supposed to fill Carnagie Hall half a dozen times over. And yet in her era of giants, Alicia De Larrocha found an enormous place in music for intimacy and refinement. She was the most beloved pianist of an era and (with all due respect to the fine Maria Joao Pires) no heir has yet arrived to conjure up her particular breed of pianism for another generation.