Wednesday, November 30, 2011

800 Words: Cleveland Orchestra Signs With Miami!!!

The nation is reeling from collective shock as the Cleveland Orchestra announced tonight that they are leaving Cleveland to make Miami, their city of residence every January, into their full-time residence. Long thought of as the King of American Orchestras, it is thought that the Cleveland Orchestra has has done this as a determined bid to increase fundraising so that they can gain status to reach the top of the Gramophone Magazine standings as the greatest of all American orchestras.

In an hour-long primetime press conference on PBS, the orchestra of Rodzinski, Szell and Dohnanyi ended weeks of speculation during which New York, Chicago, Cleveland, New Jersey and Los Angeles all made competing bids to bring the distinguished orchestra to their cities. The competition to sign the orchestra was so fierce that many cities enlisted famous help: the city of New York made a movie to attract the Cleveland Orchestra that featured Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, while the city of Chicago enlisted the help of President Obama who declared in no uncertain terms that "The Cleveland Orchestra would be a great fit for Chicago." The speculation that the orchestra wanted to leave their longtime home turned out to be well-founded. Longtime concertmaster William Preucil commented during the press conference: "We did not want to leave Cleveland, but it's time to move on."

The move is widely seen as a concerted effort to challenge the hegemony of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. An orchestra that is thought to not quite match the Cleveland Orchestra in talent, but far exceeds the Clevelanders in drive. Many conductors describe the Los Angeles Philharmonic as brilliant but difficult and arrogant in the extreme. Their longtime Music Director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, recently published a memoir in which he referred to the LA Phil as "unconductable."

After Tuesday's announcement that Miami had also signed the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Louvre, the city was widely seen as the favorite to sign the Cleveland Orchestra and build a cultural 'superteam.' The city of Cleveland, however, is far from understanding. The Cleveland Orchestra's music director, Franz Welser-Most, wrote a scathing open letter in which he blasted the Cleveland Orchestra for what he called a 'shocking act of disloyalty' and a 'cowardly betrayal.' This carefully engineered all-star cultural team is widly seen to be the work of NBA legend Pat Riley, who is now rumored to be considering moving down from the front office onto the podium and replacing Welser-Most as the Cleveland Orchestra's Music Director.

I Am A Latke by Debbie Friedman

I have no words for this.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


The great classic master of Beethoven with the great modern master.

I am not generally a proponent of slow Beethoven. Much as I often love Furtwangler's recordings, I find many of his Beethoven performances overvalued to the point of absurdity - Furtwangler simply does not find the lightness or the humor in Beethoven, his performances are almost unrelentingly grim. But when masters like Klemperer and Barenboim present Beethoven with a complete understanding of all his facets, they can take whatever tempo they like. And in this case, here is a complete understanding of the facets of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto.

The greatest music can take all sorts of interpretations. Another of the very finest recordings of this work is Robert Levin's period instrument performance with John Eliot Gardiner conducting his Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra. If Barenboim/Klemperer tends toward the solid, dramatic and massive, then Gardiner/Levin tends toward the intimate, spontaneous and limpid. But both retain within them qualities of the other. In their ways, both of them deserve the moniker 'great performances.'

800 Words: Secret Handshake

(Another rerun from the VoW days. Not at all representative of the best things I've written, but it just seems appropos for everything that's happened during the last 24 hours)

(Evan sits down to begin work on the Concert for Washington, the first half of which will be premiered at the Atlas Intersections Festival in March. He stares intently at the screen...wondering to himself how such a magnificent statement of everything in the world should begin, and without warning a moment of inspiration finally descends upon him and he feverishly types upon the screen...)

Christopher Dodd has no neck.

(Evan stares blankly at this sentence for five minutes before inspiration deigns to descend upon him again and he revises the sentence extensively so that it now reads...)

Christopher Dodd has a second forehead where his neck should be.

(Evan stares at this still more. He then realizes that the sentence still misses a certain je ne sais quoi, and as inspiration descends upon him yet again, he humbly goes about revising the sentence into a more definitive form....)

Christopher Dodd seems to be slowly growing a fetus inside his neck. Seriously, what were all those women thinking? This is a man with a series of bad toupees and an upside down Mount Rushmore where his neck should be. If I were Carrie Fischer I'd have been actively wondering what it was in me that made me want to date somebody who looks so much like Jabba the Hut.

(Evan sits on his bed, with a feeling of intense satisfaction at what he just typed. Enter West Wing President Josiah Bartlett and The American President President Andrew Shepperd)

Bartlett: Another would-be-'genius' trying to depict Washington....What did we do to deserve this country?

Shepperd: They all think they can do it. But there's no harm in letting the kid try.

Bartlett: When the kid's twenty-eight and sitting on his ass on a Friday night in his parents house, there's plenty of harm.

Evan: I'd say it's an honor to meet you too Mr. President, but I have a feeling you're here to annoy me.

Bartlett: Maybe he IS a genius!

Shepperd: Aw c'mon, cut the kid some slack. Weirder kids than him ended up on our staffs.

Bartlett: Are you asking me to do that as President Bartlett or as A. J. McInerney?

Evan: Did I take your Vicodin?

Bartlett: Not until Sundays, then the sky's the limit with your back.

Shepperd: Hush up Jed, we gotta talk to him.

Bartlett: Yes sir Mr. President...

Shepperd: How many times do I have....never mind. I read your treatment Evan, it's not bad.

Bartlett: FOR ME TO POOP ON!.....Sorry Mr. President, keep going....

Shepperd: Really, it's not a bad idea you've got here. Voices of Washington, Washington from the perspective of the people who live here.

Bartlett: Why are you encouraging the kid? Somewhere in his life the poor boy has to make a living.

Shepperd: If he's as good as his idea, he just might.

Bartlett: The kid was watching a Star Trek episode he's seen a dozen times earlier tonight.

Evan: Hey, at least I don't have to dial the Butterball hotline on Thanksgiving....

Bartlett: They're good people at Butterball.

Evan: They didn't know that you solved the Middle East peace process with the help of a teleplay.

Bartlett: You take that back!

Evan: Or what? You'll put a hit out on me with your contacts in the Qumari Mujahideen?

(Evan and President Bartlett put each other in headlocks)

Shepperd: (Dives between them) Break it up! Break it up! (pause) Alright everybody, let's not say things we can't take back. Jed, Evan's right that you couldn't make peace in the Middle East without the help of a script, and Evan President Bartlett's right that you're a nerd beyond redemption.

Bartlett: And you didn't even need anybody's script to mediate that solution?

Evan: Y'know I feel like I'm losing control of this dialogue.

Shepperd: Don't worry, you'll get it back in a minute.

Bartlett: Look, all I'm saying is that I think this is a good kid who has to know by now that luck isn't on his side. That's all. Obviously he's bright and obviously the learning difficulties have left some battle scars. But kids like him have to sink or swim like everybody else. So why are we stopping at his house rather than a kid who more resembles an Aaron Sorkin character?

Shepperd: Because you know as well as I do that we're just figures out of liberal pornography and that both The West Wing and The American President are pieces that never dug into the realities of either politics or Washington.

Bartlett: And you never enjoyed living in a fairy-tale?

Shepperd: I enjoyed it plenty. So did he, but we never lived in a Washington college dorm with all those kids who watched The West Wing and decided that the show is what Washington is actually like.

Bartlett: Alright, so the kid has an idea to do things that we didn't do. But what credentials does he have to do something like this?

Evan: Credentials?

Bartlett: A guy with an education is still worth something in this country...ever consider going back to school?

Evan: No.

Bartlett: Why not? You're a smart kid.

Evan: You ever see my high-school transcript?

Bartlett: High school? Jesus kid, get over it already. And even if you'd never get into Dartmouth or Yale. Some people are destined for middle management and what's wrong with that?

Evan: Y'know you seem a lot nicer on television.

Bartlett: That was before I realized that my son is an inveterate wife beater.

Evan: OK, now I'm really losing control of this dialogue.

Shepperd: Just give it a minute...

Bartlett: What's wrong with saying that? Elites have problems too.

Evan: Yeah, but you all have a built-in network to shield yourselves from the worst of it.

Bartlett: And you think you don't?

Evan: I think my ride could have been smoother...

Bartlett: No arguments there. But what have you got against Aaron Sorkin characters? Whatever his shows are about, we're the kinds of people who have the lives you wish you had. We're always smart, good looking, benevolent, and we get everything we want. Don't blame us for being the types of people you want to be.

Evan: ...Why would anybody resent that?....

Shepperd: I don't blame you for resenting us. People don't just watch us to see how they want their lives to be, they also watch us to flatter themselves into thinking that they're somehow like us. We were Sex and the City for politicos.

Bartlett: Alright, so you think you can do better kid? Go ahead. But why should I believe that your piece will be anything but an Aaron Sorkin portrayal of Washington with worse writing?

Evan: Because you're not who I'm interested in. This isn't Washington from Barack Obama's point of view, it's Washington from the point of view of the guy who does Barack Obama's secret servicemen's dry cleaning. I don't want the kind of self-consciously lofty stuff that Aaron Sorkin does. This has to be about the people who aren't glamorous enough to make an appearance on The West Wing.

Bartlett: Like you?

Evan: Damn straight people like me. Most of us will never get a professorship at Dartmouth or win a Nobel Prize, but why are our stories any less worth telling than yours?

Bartlett: I'm not necessarily saying it's any less worth telling, just that yours'll be harder to get people interested.

Evan: They always are. Because most of us have to get through our lives the best we can in spite of the knowledge that very few people are interested in what we think. And while people like you are busy moving in circles that most of us can only watch on television, the rest of us deserve to have our voices heard too.

Bartlett: Am I the only one who thinks this sounds eerily like somebody who'd vote for Nixon?

Shepperd: Don't listen to him Evan. So what's your plan for this?

Evan: Best I can tell the plan is to plug away. Write as much as I can as soon as I can. I know I'm not Dylan or Sondheim but I can write song lyrics, and I can certainly compose music. I know what I want to write about. So now it's just a matter of getting it down, and that has always been the big problem...

Bartlett: Well God's speed to you sir and we wish you the best. Now Mr. President let's get going, I still want to use that coupon at Quizno's.

Shepperd: Don't worry Evan, he'll come around. Keep at it.

Evan: Thanks. Tell him not to get the roast beef dip, the bread gets soggy.

Late Night Schubert

After today, I deserve some Schubert. After finishing listening, I shall continue to work on this arrangement for Kol Rinah that I had planned on finishing last Wednesday.

....though one last thought for the night. We often tend to think of the center of the 'canon' in classical music as revolving around Mozart and Beethoven the way literature revolves around Shakespeare and Cervantes (or the novel around Tolstoy and Dostoevsky), with Bach as the artist who codified what music meant in its golden age much as Dante codified 'modern' literature. But the comparison fails in part because Mozart and Beethoven were separated by a generation. But perhaps the comparison would do much better if we thought (as I sometimes do) that along with Beethoven, the center of everything by which we define music is not in fact Mozart but Schubert. The arguments themselves can wait, but if we think of the of music as either being something epic/dramatic (for which Beethoven would obviously be the prime representative), or something lyric/poetic, then it would be at best difficult to decide whether the best representative is Mozart or Schubert. It was not Beethoven but Schubert who sounded the final notes of Golden Age classicism in 1828. After Schubert, the world was ready for Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and the full-blown romanticism that went with it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

800 Words: A Modest Proposal for Baby Boomers - Part 1

It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great country, or travel through the shopping malls, when they see Walmart, Kmart, and Target crowded with babies and toddlers, followed by three, four, or six adults, all with blackberries, importuning every service representative for a pricecheck. These parents, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to buy x-boxes and i-pads for their helpless infants who, as they grow up, either turn businessmen for want of work, or leave their dear native suburbs, to fight the evils of commercialism in Berkeley, or sell themselves to middle management.

I think it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of adults at the hand, or at the foot, or at the beckon call of their children, and now frequently of their grandchildren, is in the present deplorable state of the republic, a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find a fair, cheap and easy method of making these consumers sound and useful members of the common-wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

But my intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the parents of professed blingers: it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in the whole number of adults of a certain age, who have birthed a generation as little able to support them, as those who demand our charity in the streets.

As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many seconds, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation. It is true, when seventy-nine point six million baby-boomers retire and the pre-Boomer generations die off, they shall make up a greater proportion than one-third of the commonwealth. And therefore upon their turning the advanced age of 62, they shall therefore each to each do their part to inflate the cost of Social Security and Medicaid from 7.3% of current Gross Domestic Products to 17.5% by the year 2030. And it is exactly at sixty-two years old that I propose to provide for them as, instead of being a charge upon their children, or the state, or consuming food and raiment for the rest of their lives, they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the sustenance, and partly to the production of many millions more.

There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary suicides, and the horrid practice of children murdering their parents to collect insurance, alas! soon to be too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent elderly, I doubt, more to avoid the expence than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.

The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned 308,745,538, of these I calculate that there are 79.6 million people born between the years 1946 and 1964, of these I calculate that 60% of them lost money in investments during the current economic depression; of these I add that 42% are delaying retirement; from which number we must add that 25% claim that they shall never retire, although I apprehend that our current economic crisis may one day see resolution; but this being granted, there will remain approximately 48 million Boomers whose ability to retire must at least be called into question.

I am assured by our merchants, that an unemployed American man or woman over 55 years of age is no employable commodity; and will at best yield but ten-to-fifteen years of decent work before they must be fired so that they do not qualify for pensions and their jobs can be outsourced to a third-world country where a person will be all too happy to work for one-fourth the value of their paycheck.

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

I have been assured by a very knowing green energy expert of my acquaintance in Washington, that an elderly, decrepit person, well-nursed for a year is a most energy efficient, clean-burning fuel with low carbon emission, whether burned alive, harvested after death, embalmed in fluid, or preserved alive after dismemberment, and I make no doubt that such people would serve equally well as fuel if they had pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the 79.6 million Boomers already computed, up to 13 million may be registered by persons of succeeding generations with the means to do so as house pets - to be fed, cleaned, and, if necessary, clothed by their masters. Like other pets, they must be registered to animal services so as to prevent animal cruelty, impounded if lost, and put down if proven hazardous to the community. That the remaining sixty-six point six million may, upon the attainment of social security age, be offered to the sale of quality energy companies for supply, fueling, research, and development purposes with the aim of bequeathing America with a new solution to its ever more arduous energy crisis. These energy companies, having needlessly absorbed so much of the present mature generation’s money over its lifetime’s course, will surely be obligated to provide their fuel supply with all the comforts and privileges after which they were always told was their right as Americans until such time as their personage is required for harvest.

After inducing general anesthesia in the fuel supply, I would then advise the energy corporations to puree their harvest into a homogeneous liquid - as such a liquid would be a most practically conducive solution, and would also absent the publick from such unpleasantness as may be incurred by the insertion of dismembered parts into automobiles wholesale for the purpose of combustion. I have reckoned that the amount of fuel that can be harvested from such liquid as can be secreted from a 150 lbs homosapien is roughly equal to 6 barrels of crude oil - and therefore enough to fuel 12 mid-size sedans to capacity.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

How John Williams Stole the ET Theme

I actually think ET is one of the great movie scores. But at this point, who would notice anymore when composers lift wholesale from the classical tradition? Perhaps (and no more than perhaps) it's a blessing in disguise. It's like that quote I read on twitter sometime ago:

"Bad writers borrow, good writers steal, great writers kidnap, Shakespeare ran a death camp."

In any event, everyone should hear the extraordinary piece upon which it's based, Dvorak's Dumky Trio. I'll link to the whole piece below. But if you're in the mood to listen to some of the most beautiful music ever written, go to 12:30.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

800 Words: The One Who Cooks the Turkey

It is 10:30, the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. The aroma of gluttony permeates America, and it is delicious. While we wile away our nation’s free Wednesday evening - at the movies, or at a bar catching up with old friends, or blogging as though you don’t have a friend in the world - our collective mothers slave in our kitchens to prepare a feast. We might help set the table or move some furniture, but we who are too blessed cannot understand how much work it is to prepare a turkey for 15 people, along with stuffing, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, cornbread, collared greens, brussel sprouts, pecan pie, pumpkin pie. We will happily gobble it up, and to a man we shall duly make a cursory acknowledgement to our mothers' blessed task of serving her family. After that acknowledgement, we will swiftly engorge ourselves like a pack of wolves, and then return to our daily ignorance of other people’s sacrifices for our welfare. We might help set the table, or move some furniture. But then we eat, and we leave. But before we do, we inevitably excrete the remains of our mothers’ slave labor of love, and we make our yearly mark upon her house by stinking up her toilets. For the smell of gluttony is invariably followed by the stench of regret.

Frankly, the image of America painted in the first paragraph sounds a bit dated. Maybe it’s true in my family, but in most families it’s no longer the mother who prepares the meal, it’s still your indomitable 87-year-old grandmother to whom you go for your yearly visit in Detroit, Cincinnatti, Buffalo, or Cleveland. She’s the one currently slaving away and surely you remember her story. After school, your grandmother would work at the cash register in her father’s general store from the time she was six years old. Through relentless saving and work, her father managed to keep the store all the way through the Great Depression, but even he couldn’t last through the Depression’s second wave in 1937. So for four years, it was up to her to feed the entire family by working twelve-hour days in the neighborhood factory, which would only hire her because she was 13 and would work for starvation wages. For four years, she was the only girl on the floor. At first, she fended off daily bullying and harassment. But after a year of it, she caught some of the guys breaking into the front office to hijack some cash. Pretty soon afterward, she was one of the guys.

But shortly before the war, she lost herself on the very first date to a polite, lanky young mechanic with high cheekbones and a square jaw. The result was your Uncle Charles, and the Sunday Night after the mechanic stopped calling back, she knocked on his parents’ front door with a Priest and a rifle in tow. It was love at first sight, and a wedding followed exactly a month later.

The early days of the marriage were difficult. Years later your grandfather swore that he thought she’d eventually kill him. When Pearl Harbor happened, your grandfather wasted no time in signing up for his patriotic duty. So while your grandfather was flying in the Pacific, your grandmother raised Uncle James, all the while continuing her twelve-hour days on the factory floor, taking all the new broads under her wing and drinking them under the table at lunch. She would have made Foreman, but when the owner showed her what she needed to do to get the job, she grabbed him by his nuts and squeezed.

Three years later, both her brothers were dead. But your seemingly unharmed grandfather returned a hero. The bigwigs offered him an office job, but war gave no training for peacetime. His way through college was paid, but his mind was warped. Night after night she would do whatever she could to help him get good grades, virtually writing his papers for him. After they went to bed, he’d awaken them both by screaming in cold terror about some guy named Buddy. And every night, she would hold him under the covers and rock him back to sleep just as she soon would your mother.

After your grandfather graduated in 1948, he was offered an office job at the neighborhood factory. And since the owner didn’t want him to find out what your grandmother had to do to if she wanted the Foreman job, your grandfather was groomed for greater things. On the week of the Korean invasion, your grandmother expected finally to make Foreman. But your grandfather gave her a delightful surprise by telling her that he made Vice-President, which meant that she’d never again have to work a day in her life. And it was after that night’s celebration that she became pregnant with your mother.

The day your mother was born was the happiest day of her life. And on that day your grandmother made a promise to God that your Mom would receive all the chances denied to her. Your mother would go to good schools, get her college education, meet the man of her dreams, and have a career every man would envy.

And from the time she was a little girl, your mom was the angel of which her Ma dreamed every night. So bright, so curious, so friendly that she was the joy of the neighborhood. And as she matured, this perfect girl blossomed into the perfect woman. It was a blossoming that took constant care and remonstration: your grandmother watched her grades like a hawk - forcing your mother to submit every piece of homework to a rigorous inspection, never allowing her to socialize for too long, or spend too long on the phone. Any protest as to the unfairness of it all was met with a pep-talk: “It’s unfair that you were given so many more gifts than other people. You have a greater freedom than anybody I’ve ever known: You will be the first woman in our family who is free to become anything you want.” And your mother seemed run a marathon with that freedom every day. She was the star of her private-school class, lead in the school play, president of the Honor Society, a first-class athlete, marvelous on debate team, and a community service volunteer.

And one day when she was sixteen, she came into the kitchen with two pieces of paper. On the first was a list of schools to which she was applying - they were all in California or New England. On the second was a list of reasons why she should go to schools in California or New York. Your grandmother had to admit, the reasons were all extremely sensible. If this perfect creature sensed that the key to a better life was in a place far away from here, how could her mother possibly argue?

Yet when the inevitable occurred, your grandmother’s hair went grey as a mouse. Every week she received a new letter and a phonecall, with all the banal details of the discoveries of living away from home. But every new detail would reveal itself with a new fear of how this beautiful dream could turn wrong.

And to a nightmare it did turn. A horrible one, but very different from the ones she endured as she lie in bed awake as her husband now snored unperturbed. Experience told her to steel herself for the day which a girl this privileged might have to endure a theft, a fire, a rape, or perhaps worse. But no experience prepared her to see her perfect daughter worn down by the very privilege to which she was given as a birthright. In the middle of a group that is the featured story in... Life Magazine? Her local paper? The Huntley-Brinkley Report?: for there she was, her hair nappy and dreaded, her ears weighted down by hoop with a strange triangular sign in the middle, bedecked in tie-dye clothing and beads. ‘The Faces of a New Generation.’ And finally, there was that interview....

...As usual, it was all sense which your mother argued, so how could all these points add up to such complete nonsense? Taken part by part, there was nothing with which your grandmother could argue. By experience, she could come to no other conclusion than that America was a terrible place run by terrible people. But not for your mother. She was given everything to which thousands of ancestors before her had aspired, and worked so that one day some extraordinary offspring could reap the benefits they never could. Yet her sole affirmation of the gift for which so many people who loved her and labored for her benefit had striven was to reject it wholeheartedly.

A few weeks later, Thanksgiving night 1970, your atypically wilting grandmother finally worked up the nerve to talk to your mother about the interview. And then came that famous conversation. Your mother stated, with her invariable matter of fact tone, that freedom was as dear to her as achievement was to her mother. By the way she lived her life, she was in fact honoring her mother. And part of living with freedom was to work tirelessly for the freedom of others - for none of us are truly free until everyone is. She assured her mother that there was no occasion to be worried about violence, and certainly no reason to be worried about the sex she was having. When she needed an abortion, a friend took very good care of her, and she was now very careful to use birth-control - because sexual freedom is the very essence of personal freedom. She said that she could understand if her mother might be appalled by this, but cautioned her not to conflate her feelings of jealousy with moral umbrage. “This was the life which you worked for me to have, and now I’m living it as you always told me I should. I know that you’ll be happy for me.”

Eventually, your mother settled down. She got a law degree, met your father while working at a financial firm and after a seven-year on-again off-again relationship, they finally decided to get married. Eventually they had you and your siblings. There’s always been some bickering in the house about the minor stuff - how much money to decorate the houses, whom to invite to dinner with whom, why we work so much? Occasionally you’ve even wondered if your parents have been totally faithful to each other. But fundamentally, you had quite a happy childhood, even if your parents never seemed to care about whether you achieved anything, or whom your friends were, or how well you treated other people.

But every week since you were four, your mother handed you the phone so you could talk to your Grandmother. Though talk is a charitable word for what transpires - clearly, it’s an interrogation. When you were very young, the questions were innocent enough. But when you were a teen, the questions got quite pointed: Why aren’t you getting better grades? Why are you spending so much time with friends? Do your parents push you to do better? Are you sexually active?

And as always with your grandmother, words are matched with deeds. Four times a year, she comes to visit for a week. Every time you leave the house she demands a full account of where you’re going, what you’re doing, and whom you’re going with. She makes sure to walk by your room, and if she hears any noise besides the rustle of a pencil she opens the door without knocking to ask what you’re doing.

When you got to college, you looked as much forward to being out from under your grandmother’s eye as you did to the inevitable pleasures that await. But the day after you moved in, she called you and wanted to know all about where you were and whom you’ve met. The weekly interviews continued unabated. When you graduated college, she called bi-weekly to inquire about every single place to which you’ve applied for a job. When it was time to introduce your fiancee, she demanded that the two of you fly up together as soon as possible at her expense - and a weight lifted from your shoulders when your grandmother told you in the next phonecall that she approved, even if it was with certain reservations.

Even if her voice will always be heard through every decision you ever make throughout your life, life fundamentally exists apart from your grandmother. She has never been a part of your daily life, and she never will be. But as a tribute to everything she’s done for you, you go up once a year to Pittsburgh, Gary, Milwaukee, and St. Louis to pay tribute to everything which you’re thankful that she has done for you. And once a year, she gets to have the family which she always wished she had - and there’s not a single year when she hasn’t planned all year to make every detail exactly as it should be for that one meal.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Quote of the Day:

Dad: I don't know how to tell you this, but Justin Bieber is my father.

Monday, November 21, 2011

800 Words: Johnny Mercer at his Century

(Still another rerun. I promise I'll start posting new material again before Thanksgiving.)

I didn't know I knew this much about Johnny Mercer either...

It was the centennary of Johnny Mercer yesterday. It would have completely passed me by had I not caught a celebration of it from Terry Gross while I was in the car.

God knows I'm waiting for the right day to do an arrangement of One For My Baby. Meaning in Mercer's songs will always be elusive. When Dean Martin did One For My Baby, it was as insipid as American Pop Culture ever gets. When Frank Sinatra does it, it is the saddest possible form of magic. Indeed, there was something about the Mercer/Arlen songs that spurred Sinatra to places that no contemporary of his ever went. He was more vulnerable, more raw, and more heartbreaking than any mere crooner could ever be.

There was something about Sinatra, somewhere in his delivery, that made him the ideal vehicle for Great American Songs. Other candidates you say? Well look at Sinatra in one of the great Johnny Mercer songs and compare him to a few others. Just listen to him do Autumn Leaves and take my word for it about everybody else.

(In spite of the picture, this is most definitely Sinatra)

Let's not kid ourselves. This isn't Mercer at his best. It's a sappy sentimental lyric only remembered for a downwardly arching melody that imitates the experience of lovesick depression perfectly. The music is what makes this song work. Many singing giants of the Postwar Era covered it, and a few non-singing giants as well. Yves Montand delivers the original French lyrics a sort of ironic distance as though he were winking at us that he couldn't possibly believe a word of it. Edith Piaf, ever the force of nature, seemed to throw herself headlong into the song as though she were trying to convince herself that the sort of romantic love associated with so many of the ballads she sang really exists. Nat King Cole sings it like a sort of confidence man, trying to sell you a heartbreak he doesn't really believe in. And then there's Sinatra, who is the only singer who makes this song worth listening to (for me at least). He plays the triteness of the imagery for all its worth, lingering on every phrase with weepy strings swelling right underneath him. And yet it is the very triteness of it that makes it work. Sinatra never strains to convey things the way Piaf did. Instead it is understated - like a reluctant confession.

In the age between opera and rock, the evolution of the popular song into the form as we now know was one of the great musical happenings of the 20th century. The music of Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Richard Rogers, Irving Berlin (make your own list) is as much in our bloodstream as Schubert is Viennese and Faure is Parisian. That weird artistic neither-region between absolute music and absolute poetry is always where the genius of hard-working professionals flowers. They were always too wrapped up in what they were doing to worry about whether or not it was brilliant. Their songs never impress or draw attention to themselves. They just do their job, and that job is to move the listener.

And no singer in recorded history was better at carrying out that intention than Sinatra. He wasn't the first singer to realize the potential the microphone gave to phrase everything in a completely different way - that would be Louis Armstrong. But Satchmo, great as he is, always sounds like himself. Frank Sinatra sounds like what every American man hopes his singing sounds like when nobody's there to critique it. So often when Sinatra sang, it was like a kind of confession. Before the age of the microphone, singers had to project to their audience with only their voices. During these years, there was no such thing as a vocal performance that was not larger-than-life. Opera succeeded so wildly for 300 years because it gave that larger-than-life style a suitable platform.

But what the microphone did was to give us singers that can sing our favorite songs the way we sing to an audience of a few friends, or even when we're alone. In front of the mike, all you have to do is be yourself, and the mike will project everything that makes you unique. And so for the first time in history, great performers could sing to an audience of thousands and sound every bit as personal as it would be to hear a friend who sings to an audience of ten.

(Thomas Mann had a bit of an obsession with this song - Der Lindenbaum by Schubert. Today Thomas Quasthoff can fill an enormous concert hall to sing it. But a hundred years ago it would more likely have been heard in the confines of a private drawing room, with a pianist who played scores of wrong notes and a singer who might have sounded as bad as untraditionally classical as Bob Dylan. And yet in such settings, Schubert seemed to move people more forcefully than ever.)

And in that way, the three minute song has not changed. Beethoven and Wagner always did the job of stunning the listener (and still do), but it was to Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Hugo Wolf that Germans turned to in their most personal moments. We now gather late at night in front of the i-pod (often fueled by alcohol) and play for one another our most favorite songs in the hope that someone else can appreciate it as much as we do. A hundred years ago, the alcohol would be the same but the it would be the piano we'd gather around with reams of sheet music. And we'd read through it with the same hope of mutual understanding.

But unlike in the 19th century, the heyday of the composer, it is the lyrics that we ultimately remember. Schubert made reams of great songs out of Goethe, and songs just as great out of poets that even academics don't read anymore. But when you recall the Great American Songs, what do you recall first? The music, or the lyrics?

Inseparable you say? Perhaps. But think of Moon River. Maybe as great a lyric as America ever has had, and how was it done? What is it about? It's a wonderful melody, but it's workaday enough that three years later Henry Mancini would reuse the first three notes (the hook) of it for the opening motif of "Goldfinger." In the context of Audrey Hepburn singing it in Breakfast at Tiffany's, it's straightforward enough: The shock of a lonely party girl at her first exposure to the excitement life may soon have in store for her. "Two drifters off to see the world; There's such a lot of world to see." is a justifiably famous line. But the lyrics are so open-ended that they can mean anything at all we say they mean. It can convey heart-fluttering excitement, but who says it has to be something positive? The song became perhaps even more devastatingly effective when Pedro Almodovar used it in his film Bad Education, in which a boy sang the song right before he was molested. In a context like that, how can one view the line "you heart breaker, Wherever you're goin', I'm goin' your way." with anything but horror?

Or think of "I'm Old-Fashioned." When Rita Hayworth sang it to Fred Astaire in "You Were Never Lovelier", it was exactly what it seemed. Fred Astaire, the original Wall-E, ever the romantic optimist on the edge of forlorn, trying to woo ever-so-bitchy Rita Hayworth. And then she opens up with this song and confesses her belief in the sort of deathless romance that never exists outside of Fred Astaire movies. Fast-forward forty-five years to Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters. Dianne Wiest plays the coke-addicted black sheep in a family of theatrical royalty. Never having had any acting talent, she tries to rebel only to find herself continually trying out for parts she has no hope of obtaining. But she steels herself for an audition and sings the exact same song Rita Hayworth sang with a voice that can only be described as pitiful. As she sings the song (she doesn't get through much) you can feel her note-by-note clamming herself up in anticipation of her inevitable rejection. Again, who remembers the melody? Does it even matter when put next to lines that virtually everybody quotes without realizing?

In different contexts, these songs can convey anything. They are completely value-neutral, with every interpreter supplying their own context. These songs can be used for two-dimensional entertainments to take them at face value, yet they practically beg great artists to stand their meanings on their heads. The melodies are endlessly malleable. There isn't a single song from the Great American Songbook that wasn't indispensable to bebop musicians like Bird, Coltrane and Blakey, who used the simplicity of these old standards as a lynchpin on which they could stretch their musical material past recognition. But if you change one word of a song by Johnny Mercer, or Oscar Hammerstein, or Ira Gershwin, or Lorenz Hart the meaning of the song becomes unrecognizable. They are what make the old standards unique.

Just For Now by Imogen Heap

How is this not just as innovative as nearly anything we produce in the classical world?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

800 Words: Top 9 Pieces of Classical Music of the 00's

(Still More Reruns. This was, obviously, supposed to be a top 10 list. I never wrote anything up for a potential tenth piece. In retrospect, this list is obviously much too America/UK heavy and I should have been bolder in what I included. I'm ashamed (really, I am) that there's nothing by superb Finnish composers like Einojuhani Rautavaara, Kaija Saariaho, or Kalevi Aho. I feel bad leaving off William Bolcom's insanely massive Songs of Innocence and Experience, which couldn't get a recording until twenty years after it was composed (and similarly about The Beach Boys's SMiLE). I feel bad that I haven't heard more Marc-Anthony Turnage, or that I haven't kept up with the developments of 'modern classic' composers like Hans Werner Henze or Krystopf Penderecki. I also think a list like this could easily have included lots more 'non-classical' albums. Perhaps Adam Guettel's musical, Light on the Piazza, or Regina Spektor's Begin to Hope, or The Mountain Goats's The Sunset Tree, or Bjork's Medulla or plenty of other 'non-classical' pieces which could one day be destined for 'classical' status. And I feel particularly bad opining in this way since I haven't even begun to brave the territory of hip-hop. So I can't even yet comment on the virtues one can (I hope) hear in Kanye, MIA, or Lil' Wayne. So here it is, a rather traditional, slightly unfinished, list of great music that a young American classical musician would have experienced in the first decade of the 21st century.)

(J. Robert Oppenheimer, alone with the bomb, recites the poem he was said to be obsessed with during it's creation. Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne.)

(Two notes:
1. It's a personal list. Only 1 and 2 are ranked. I make no claims to have exhaustively heard anywhere near all the new classical music to make any proper judgement. At this point in history, I think only a paid critic can do that. If anybody reading has suggestions for music to hear, I'm all ears.
2. In music school we're always taught about the terrible dangers of talking about music as though it means something extra-musical. Point taken, but the irrelevance of classical music to so many people bespeaks the dangers of NOT talking about music as though it means anything extra-musical.)

1. Doctor Atomic by John Adams. (2005, San Francisco)

(Bhagavad Gita Chorus. Yes, the staging is hilariously awful, but it'll get a better staging before long. Even so, the power of the music is inescapable.)

It's the decade of John Adams. We were just privileged to be there. His achievements in this decade number a Christmas oratorio to rival Handel's Messiah, the classical music statement on 9/11, a tribute to Charles Ives that in some ways improves on the original, the first great concerto for electric violin, a companion opera to The Magic Flute, and the most entertaining autobiography by a composer since Berlioz.

But above all this, and above all other music this decade, must stand Doctor Atomic - Adams's opera about Robert Oppenheimer in the leadup to the initial atomic bomb test.
Adams has always been a devoutly political composer of leftist conviction, but I defy anyone - liberal or conservative - to name a work of art in any genre that speaks so clearly to the fears of people from every creed, background and class during the post-9/11 era. The libretto (text) is pared down to transcripts of primary documents and poetry quotations (Oppenheimer was a scarily erudite man). This is the definition of music that shows rather than tells. Through the power of pure music, we feel as though all the debates of the Bush years are carried out in sound alone. As much as any artist in any genre, Adams got to the heart of what it meant to be an American in our era.

(Red Alert)

2. La Pasion Segun San Marcos by Osvaldo Golijov (2000, Stuttgart)

This was the piece that made me realize I could never leave music. If Adams showed us our present through the recent past, then Osvaldo Golijov showed us our future through the distant past. People who tell you why Golijov - and particularly this piece of his - is bad are legion. But in listing the reasons why, all they managed to articulate was exactly why this piece - and its composer - is incredible. Here is an Argentinian-Jewish classical composer living in Boston who set the Gospel According to St. Mark to music utilizing a veritable encyclopedia of Latin American popular music traditions. This piece is everything classical music is not supposed to be: vibrant, sexy, partially improvised, and stylistically diverse.

(The Pascal Lamb)

It articulates the Gospel as though Christ were a martyred liberation theologist at home on the poorest streets of Santiago. It embraces every part of the music that Jesus would have heard on those streets - from the Tango to the Samba to the Habanera to the Rumba to Bossa Nova. It displays in sound what City of God does in images - the plight and the spirit of the world's most rapidly evolving continent with pinpoint accuracy, and in the process becomes the greatest and most transformative work of choral music since Stravinsky's Les Noces.

(Lua Descolorida...this could work for unaccompanied chorus too....though Golijov may have made his own choral version already. He certainly has a voice/piano version. Good man.)

Golijov was supposed to write an opera based on the Deadalus legend with a libretto by Anthony Minghella. But Minghella died a year into the project and Golijov has yet to find something equivalent to stimulate his imagination (and yes by the way, it's "English Patient" Anthony Minghella). His time off is well spent. He is now the house composer for Francis Ford Coppola as Coppola plots his gradual comeback into film. No doubt, there are few better teachers of what it means to have artistic vision. So mark my words, Golijov will be back and just as great as he ever was.

(The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Golijov's incredible tribute to Jewish music from 1998. In this part, the ensemble intones the High Holiday prayer 'Oonetanah Tokef' as it has never been.)

- The Daniel Variations by Steve Reich (2006, London)

(I Saw A Vision. Has Reich ever written music that comes anywhere close to the drama heard here?)

I have to say, I've never been a knee-jerk Steve Reich fan the way so many other classical musicians are. But then I'm a hard person to please. It's never been enough for me that Reich showed the way for classical composers back to engagement with popular audiences in a way that brooked no compromise with intellectual content. My problem was that Reich's music always seemed like ingeniously designed toys. Behind the incredibly sophisticated designs was something that sounded to me like emotional vapidity.

(My Name Is Daniel Pearl)

Then I discovered his later music, or to be perfectly frank, his Jewish music. As a young man, Reich (seemingly like every other great musician of his generation) did his time in ashrams and drum circles. But sometime in the 80's he found a way back into Judaism (sometimes a deathknell for creativity, as a lot of Dylan fans contend), and eventually to Orthodox Judaism. And suddenly his music was transformed. A musician content for so long with shimmering beautiful surfaces plunged headfirst into music full of anguish and contrast. The Daniel Variations is his darkest music yet. Commissioned to commemorate the death of Daniel Pearl by his father, Judah, it is music that seems to have a hotline to our volatile times just as special as Doctor Atomic. In the first movement of the piece, singers endlessly repeat the famous quote from the book of Daniel "I saw a dream. Images upon my bed and visions in my head frightened me." Anyone captivated by the story of Daniel Pearl will find that the music captures its essence all too painfully.

- Jatekok by Gyorgy Kurtag (ongoing)

(Quarrel. Played by the composer and his wife.)

In some ways, this is cheating. Jatekok was a project started by Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag in 1970, and it continues to the present day and now numbers 7 volumes. Kurtag is like the Siamese twin of his conservatory friend, Gyorgy Ligeti. Ligeti managed to escape after the '56 revolution, Kurtag was not so lucky. A man of ill-health, Ligeti experienced his great years in middle age and made avant-garde music of awesomely theatrical power. Kurtag, now a spry-looking 83, is enjoying his golden period in old age. His music is every bit as intellectually demanding as Ligeti's, but far more intimate and at times, far more personal.

(Perpetuum Mobile, played by the composer)

Jatekok (or "Games" in English) is in so many ways as seminal a work as our time has. It plays like the intimate diary written of an infinite musical mind. Every work was written with Kurtag having either himself or his wife, Marta, in mind as a pianist. Sometimes with them both in mind for 4-hand piano. Almost every piece has a subjective title, and none is more than a few minutes. Often with just a few notes, Kurtag is able to suggest all the different facets of a life as it is lived. It just might be the greatest collection of piano music in our time.

(The beginning of a full concert of selections from Jatekok by the Kurtags put down on youtube. The entirety of Jatekok so far still remains to be recorded. But what we all can hear is amazing.)

- The Little Match Girl Passion by David Lang (2007, New York)

(Amazing...I should have ranked this with Adams and Goljiov...)

If I had to pick one piece for the most purely beautiful and moving of the past decade, this would be it easily. The piece is based on Hans Christian Anderson's fable 'The Little Match Girl' about a little girl's final hours before she freezes to death. The compositional technique involved is staggering, but it feels artless. When was the last time music felt this unaffected and natural? Poulenc? Schubert? Bach? Maybe Bach is it...this is actually the second piece of this list to be based out of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. But the channeling of Bach is far more tangible than in Golijov's setting of St. Mark. Every composer who channels Bach invites a comparison. But most other composers channel Bach's unsurpassed compositional technique, which usually has the effect make Bach's materials sound overblown and distended. Instead, Lang might be the first composer in history to write an original work that successfully channels Bach's seemingly infinite humanity and compassion. Here is a modern composer who meets Bach on Bach's own terms and succeeds. So let it never be said that the greatest music is already written. At certain points, the music's intensity of feeling is almost unbearable. If you're a musical weeper (and I am, you probably are too, admit it...) you'll find it very hard to get through some parts of this piece while other people are in the room....I have absolutely no experience in this regard....none at all....

- A Scotch Bestiary by James MacMillan (2004, Los Angeles)

(Christus Vincit. Does today's world have a better composer of traditional sacred music?)

It was a tough call with Scotland's finest. Duty says that one should pick his 'great statement,' the St. John Passion which premiered last year in London. But I gotta go with my gut on this one and pick the piece I loved the most - A Scotch Bestiary. There are composers who make incredible intellectual demands (not to mention composers who pretend to), and there are composers who make incredible emotional demands. Like only a select few before him (Beethoven, Schumann, Mahler, Shostakovich, a few more...) the simple act of listening to MacMillan's music stretches your emotional capability. Everything is there from the highest humor to the lowest despair and all that lies between. In that way, he's the closest which our age of classical music has to a Mahler-like figure.

(Soweetan Spring. This gives the feeling of MacMillan at his most compelling. Born almost exactly a century after Mahler, he gives the exact same feeling of letting every sound he hears around him into his musical landscape.)

But like in Mahler, he's perhaps easier to love when he's in a lighter mood (note to any Mahlerians reading this, I'm the Ayatollah of the Mahler fanclub. Every note is holy text. So there...), and nothing brings his lighter moods out like nature. The program notes for the piece contain all sorts of grandiose desciptions of MacMillan's musical depiction of animals, but the composer admitted that he was most inspired to write the piece by the music from Tom & Jerry. To be sure, there's darkness aplenty, but it's always offset by an uncannily deft touch. In fact, this piece may have my single favorite musical moment of the past ten years: a full-throated choral incantation of a IV-II-III Amen, immediately followed by muted trombones going waaa-waaa-waaa-waaaaaaaah (V-TT-IV-III).

(from Seven Last Words On The Cross. It would be an interesting program - albeit too long and sacerdotal - to do both the Haydn and the MacMillan in one sitting.)

- Tevot by Thomas Ades (2007, Berlin)

(Tevot. In it's entirety)

It's been a slightly rough decade for this composer of Mozartian talent. His opera based on Shakespeare's The Tempest has extraordinary moments punctuating what sounds otherwise like a dutiful attempt to be a Great English Composer. The Piano Quintet feels like a series of completely disconnected ideas, and while the Violin Concerto is a fine work (albeit I haven't heard it since the premiere broadcast in 2005), it hasn't set the world on fire either. Now pushing 40, he's too old to be an enfant terrible. Music that shocked the public ten years ago can now be rendered tame. But it's been a necessary decade for Ades, and Tevot shows he's returned to form a stronger composer.

(Ecstasio. The Ades of old.)

Tevot is a Hebrew word with a double meaning. On the one hand, it's the plural of the word 'ark,' on the other it is the Hebrew plural for the musical term 'measure.' Ades's idea of the piece is one of an ark that carries people to safety through a turbulent storm. Storm at sea is one of music's stock landscapes, and any list of the composers who endowed such scenes with excitement must include Debussy (La Mer), Sibelius (Oceanides), Mendelssohn (Hebrides), Britten (Peter Grimes), and especially Wagner in The Flying Dutchman. But what distinguishes Ades from the others is the sense that this storm is more internal than external (though one can make arguments for both Britten and Wagner). Perhaps it's the storm music Mahler never wrote. It is by turns frightening, exhilarating, and in the end triumphant. By the end of the piece, it's clear that Ades is the only composer who could write finest orchestral work of the decade and still be viewed as a disappointment. But I don't think there's much reason to be alarmed. Ades, who in his early years was a musical ironist par excellence in his early years looks to be finding sincerity a good fit. He will mature much further yet.

- Neruda Songs by Peter Lieberson (2005, Los Angeles)

( No estes lejos de mi un solo dia, porque como)

When the news spread of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's death, nothing in American music circles elicited similar mourning since the death of Leonard Bernstein. She was thought of as a patron saint to American music lovers. Her performances were written of like holy rites in which critics fell over themselves trying to describe what they obviously viewed as an experience of the divine. But just as Lorraine Hunt Lieberson reached her prime, she experienced a metastasized breast cancer that claimed her life just after she would be immortalized. Only six years earlier she halted her career to care for her sister when she died of the same illness. Perhaps unaware of the significance of what he was about to do, her husband Peter Lieberson composed a set of five songs to Neruda love poems. Shortly after Lorraine died, Peter developed serious cancer of his own from which he made a full recovery. In light of what was soon to happen, the texts are almost scary to read today. The final song of the set, is entitled "My Love, If I Die and You Don't."

(Amor mio, si muero, y tu no mueres... As it turned out, cancer claimed Peter Lieberson just a few short years after it claimed Lorraine)

The Fifty State Project by Sufjan Stevens (please keep it going) (The Seer's Tower) No, it's not cheating. Not at all. There was some sort of fantastic madness in Sufjan Stevens's ambition to make an album about every state in America - a project that if ever completed would last at least three times longer than The Ring Cycle and probably require the combined forces of Sufjan Stevens accompanying himself on a couple dozen instruments roughly 7000 times over (a not-very-educated guess). It is the kind of ambition that drives composers into the madhouse, but also moves history and shows the world just how big music can be. It was a project worthy of any classical composer, but only achievable by one thoroughly embedded in the rock tradition. (Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie) Perhaps Sufjan Stevens is our Mahler. Writing the final chapter in the story of American musical hegemony, under-appreciated by those who should love him best, and trying to bring together all the diffuse strands of his place of origin welded together in manners no one before him thought remotely possible. Whatever he is, he is a composer worthy of inclusion, and a very serious musician whom classical music dismisses at its own peril. Even if he fails to come even close to finishing it, he should do as much of it as possible. Because neither he or any other musician could come up with a better idea. (Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

800 Words: Late Night Thoughts on Mahler's 2nd Symphony

(more reruns while the move continues)

My first memory of the Resurrection Symphony was when I was thirteen. I was a second-year Dorrite at New England Music Camp in Waterville, Maine. My best friend at the camp was a guitar student named Eli Sacks (whatever happened to him?) who shared all my obsessions with classical music, obscure baseball statistics and Star Trek. The year before, he had introduced me to Mahler through his first symphony. I was in the throes of terrible anxiety from a week's worth of trying to work up the nerve to ask out a girl, and to the twelve year old mind there is no suffering so great as that. He would indulge me as I went off for twenty minutes at a time to listen to his Leonard Slatkin CD of Mahler 1's last movement. Perhaps he tolerated this because he was just as grateful as I was to know that there was at least one other kid on the cusp of high school who had the same weird enthusiasms.

(Last movement of Mahler 1)

I had heard Mahler before, on CD and in concert, but I had never heard Mahler until I was twelve. There are so many things about his music - the length, the complexity, the bombast, the breath of his style - that are completely beyond the understanding of even the most musically inclined children. I remember listening to the fifth symphony when I was nine or ten, and whatever I didn't find completely disturbing in it I found terribly boring. And yet all the things that make Mahler wrong for children make him completely right for adolescents. The violence of the music, the overwhelming sense of tragedy and burden, the bleak cynicism juxtaposed the lofty visions of a more ideal world, are always in place to make Mahler the perfect composer for human beings with overactive hormones.

And yet even when I was thirteen, Mahler's Resurrection Symphony proved just too intense. I borrowed Eli's CD's yet again. Eli had graduated from just a CD of Mahler 1 to a collection of the first 4 with the Chicago Symphony under Georg Solti. I mistakenly cued up the last movement of Mahler's Resurrection thinking it was the first. And suddenly the crash of the last movement filled my headphones until I thought I was deaf. I had never heard a sound so disturbing, and I found that after that, even the strains of Mahler 1's first movement proved far too much for me to listen to. I returned the CD's to Eli almost completely unlistened.

(Last movement of Mahler 2)

It was only when I was well into high school that I first heard it complete. I remember that night very well. I had a lot of homework to do, and yet there was an Orchestre de Paris broadcast about to start, and Semyon Bychkov was conducting the Resurrection Symphony. As usual in contests like this, my studies lost. I knew my priorities.

And thus began an experience that could never possibly leave me. Very rarely in my life could I ever listen to music with that sort of concentration. Schoenberg once said that the first time he heard Mahler 2, he was 'seized with a violent throbbing of the heart.' I knew that feeling well because that was exactly what it felt like. As we get older, it's impossible to feel with the intensity of a fifteen year old anymore. And while in most moments that is an entirely welcome development, it can also make you nostalgic for the days that you believed in things so fervently that critical distance never seemed necessary. The entire experience was like what Virginia Woolf said about Dostoevsky's novels, "seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture."

(To this day, nothing screams adolescent angst to me like the first movement of Mahler 2)

As a child, there is no way to be prepared for an experience like this. You want to cry out for protection because your world is not supposed to be filled with things so disturbing. But as a teenager, you want nothing more than experience after experience that's exactly like what Mahler gives you. When you talk to people who love Mahler's music, it's amazing how often they tell you that it started with a blinding adolescent passion. Usually brought on by a performance by that eternal adolescent, Leonard Bernstein.

(When attempting to carve out a niche for myself as a jazz violinist in Israel I probably listened to this untold hundreds of times.)

Now I'm 27, and perhaps I feel younger than I have since graduating college. And for the first time in a number of years, I'm listening to the Resurrection Symphony with something like the old passion. As a listener, your ears can't help but change. The composer gives the data, but it's my brain that processes it. And for the last number of years, this work, or at least the last movement of it, has seemed rather silly. Almost dangerously so. Granted, I never wavered in my passion for the first movement, the Totenfeier, which is not only an apocalyptic 22-minute funeral march but also a compositional tour de force of sonata-allegro form on a scale that nobody before Mahler had ever reached. I was always charmed by the second movement, even though I usually fast forward through it when listening to the piece (whatever, like there aren't songs on your favorite albums that you don't skip). With or without its presence in the second symphony, Urlicht is a great song (lied) and Uri Caine ensured that I'd never stop listening to it. And I especially loved the scherzo, which is one of the funniest juxtapositions in Mahler. It's based on another song of Mahler's, "St. Anthony of Padua preaches to the fish." And yet these are some bizarrely Jewish sounding fish (Nova Salmon?). And yet right in the middle of all this Jewish music is a series of bombastic Christian interruptions. It's the preeminent conflict in Mahler's life, sprawled all over the score in full view of proto-Nazi critics in the press and in his orchestras who hated Mahler for polluting Holy German Art with Jüdische Musik (like the Nazi composer Franz Schmidt, who was Mahler's principal cellist at the Vienna Opera).

(Those very Jewish fish. The third movement of Mahler 2)
No, I was pretty cool with the first four movements of the symphony. But however transfixed they are by it, firstime listeners inevitably go home remembering the last movement, the blockbuster, the sonic pulverizer, the Mahlerdämmerung.

For almost forty minutes, the listener is bombarded with a series of images from the apocalypse. The music is too graphic to not be recognized as exactly that. The music roars, then retrats to almost absolute silence, then roars again. Fanfare after fanfare, march after march, with peaks higher and valleys lower than any music that ever came before, and perhaps any since. Like the last movement of Beethoven's 9th, it's not tied to any formal design. But unlike Beethoven's 9th, it doesn't seem to treat you as an adult with a message to entrust you. The music simply lays your senses on a rack and leaves you feeling as though you have fallen through fire and time to emerge from the experience purified and cleansed.

(The apocalypse itself. Then the rise of the chorus of saints - Mahler's own description of the chorus.)

Depending on whether the statement comes from the mouth of Churchill or the mouth of Stalin, Beethoven is either the most egalitarian or the most totalitarian composer who has ever lived. Mahler is scarcely behind him in this regard. There is so much in Mahler that seems democratic - his music is like an encyclopedia of every musical genre of 1900. Would that composers after him were half as all-embracing. But Mahler was as much the child of Wagner as he was of Mozart and Schumann. Listener's don't engage Mahler's music, they live it.

It's impossible for a sane person to listen to Mahler with the type of regularity that they can listen to Brahms and Schubert. Too much Mahler can easily frey the nerves and make you forget just how enjoyable life can be. Mahler's music can do anything except relax. As a man Mahler failed to come to terms with his inner torment, and as the most self-revealing of all composers his music reflects that as pellucidly as light in a mirror. The music so clearly made by a man enraged by life's refusal to meet his high standards that it speaks to the frustrated idealist in us all. But what Mahler can't do (for at least more than thirty seconds at a time) is settle with life's smaller pleasures. Mahler has all the the geniality and even the bittersweetness of Schubert and Schumann in his music, but he sets that against all the inherent bitterness of later composers who decided that the German middle-class dream of a heuse mit zwei point zwei kinder und a weisse picket fence muss nicht sein. Mahler's heart was obviously with Mozart and Schubert, but his head was with Wagner and Liszt. And he often seems so determined to see a Wagnerian Apocalypse in every positive sentiment that you could easily see an older Mahler welcoming the writings of a dumbass like Adorno with open arms. For all his sympathy with the popular music of his day, Mahler had extremely prudish attitudes about the sanctity of art. You could easily imagine him in our day being shown a television and stumbling on something on the Disney Channel only to say "That's So Raven! Das ist KEINE KUNST!"

(And just imagine what Schoenberg would have made of "That's So Raven.")

And yet...would that there were more people who had a little bit more Mahlerian an attitude today. We in the classical world can and should bend over backwards to embrace our brethren in the pop world for everything they are, but we can't bend over to embrace them for everything they're not. And what they're not is us. It is wonderful that we live in an age when musicians can make wonderful music that everyone knows in spite of not reading it or only knowing how to play three chords. But nobody should be forced to pretend that the music they make is of the same value as people who go to school for two decades to master their instrument. Maybe they're not even comparable, but entertainment will always be entertaining, but for it to be art, it takes skill that can only be acquired over a period of decades. The Beatles may have written songs as great as Schubert's, but neither Lennon nor McCartney repeated their best efforts hundreds of times over. Nor did either of them write deathless instrumental music (McCartney tried and it was an embarrassment). To do what Schubert did takes a highly delicate mixture of genius, proper training and ferocious self-discipline. There can be no doubt: the best of the pop world does create art that should be remembered as nothing less than art. But the greatest art is like a science. It takes hundreds of years to develop in a process of trial and error that has to factor in the accumulated knowledge of great predecessors. The very best of the American pop-music tradition: whether Dylan, or Ellington, or Sufjan Stevens, has obviously assimilated the knowledge of previous musicians and poets whose example can teach better than any classroom. But pretending anything less than that is art of any quality is a much worse kind of snobbery than any amount of gate keeping. At least the snobbery of the classical world, for all its flaws, has managed to preserve centuries of great music so that anyone who wants to may appreciate it today. The particular snobbery of the pop world that makes them hostile to classical music has only accomplished the feat of keeping music lovers from listening to hundreds of years of great music. The 'right now' approach of the pop world has made them forget thousands of great musicians even from their own culture the moment after they ceased to catch the prevailing wind. You tell me, which snobbery is worse?

Mahler is a hero of mine. But heroes are there to lead us by their example, not to be worshipped as incapable of wrong. No doubt, Mahler was not as egalitarian as he should have been. But he was working with a stacked deck, and anybody with the courage to move music to a more democratic model of composing in the shadow of Wagner's totalitarian fog should get a friggin' medal. The Resurrection Symphony will always be an assault on the senses that doesn't feel quite human even in the age of Ozzfest and Metalcore. But it comes by its assault honestly. After a good performance of the first four movements, you feel as though a punishing confrontation with the infinite is the only way to go. And the ending message is one of hope and cheer. It's not for nothing that Leonard Bernstein chose this work to conduct in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination (or in Jerusalem after the Six Day War). Its ending message of survival and hope, that in the face of all the world's brutality we are still here and perhaps better people for having suffered as we did. So long as the 'perhaps' remains to qualify the statement, there's nothing offensive about the suggestion.

(Mahler wrote his own text for the final movement. The line "I shall die so as to live" never struck me as being either particularly hopeful or comprehensible. But the message of the music speaks for itself.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

800 Words: Baseball - Bottom of the Tenth Inning, By Ken Burns

(another rerun. this one from roughly a year and a half ago)

Baseball: Bottom of the Tenth Inning. By Ken Burns

(Video Clips of Ted Williams hitting fifteen home runs in a row to the tune of When the Saints Go Marchin' In)

Narrator: It is more than America's sport. It is America's art. The Siren Song through which father passes to son the pursuit of happiness. The prism through which we view our history, our epoch, our birthright. But America's birthright was extended into the farthest reaches of the globe with the coming of the first great Japanese player.

(clips of Ichiro Suzuki hitting fifteen singles in a row to the tune of La Vie En Rose)

Daniel Okrent: What's amazing about Ichiro is how easy and joyful he makes baseball look. He takes a childlike glee from being in America that radiates outward. He loves this country, and this country loves him back.

Ichiro Suzuki (translated from Japanese): I always wanted to play in America. But I quickly realized that Americans are fat and lazy, and succeeding in American baseball was no harder than putting a chainsaw on a hemophiliac to make him bleed.

Narrator: It was at the height of baseball's first Age of Globalization that America's greatest rivalry was ended once and for all in October of 2004 the night David Ortiz's Red Sox beat Ichiro's Yankees in the American League Championship.

(Video Clips of David Ortiz hitting fifteen home runs in a row to the tune of A Fine Romance)


(Video Clips of Pedro Martinez striking out ten different batters, to the tune of Blueberry Hill)

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I would totally do the 2004 Red Sox, and I wish my father were still around so he could too.

Narrator: But suddenly a corpuscular pall cast itself over the game like the weight of the world upon Atlas's shoulders.


(Mark McGwire hits fifteen home runs in a row to the tune of What a Wonderful World)

George Will: John Keats would have exonerated the steroid-era, but Keats was a weak mind full of moral laxity. Steroids is a blight upon our moral fibre, guaranteed to turn America into a nation of pederasty.

Narrator: But hope springs eternal in this sport of eternal return. In our era of economic decay, America needs baseball, a sport too perfect for this most imperfect nation. And shall return to it like the prodigal son it has always been.

Wynton Marsalis: It is a contractual obligation that I appear in this movie.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Dash of Honegger

I'm currently listening to some small-scale Honegger to get the taste of the Baltimore Symphony's performance tonight of Honegger's turgid Jeanne d'Arc au bucher out of my mouth. The problem was not the performance, which was fundamentally excellent with a marvelous actress who played Jeanne. I'm afraid the blame must rest squarely on Honegger himself. I remember this piece being more exciting when I once listened to it during college. This feels like a dull propaganda piece for a soon-to-be wartime France. Honegger's incredible musical vision and craftsmanship is subordinated to a long-winded and heavy-handed script. The piece has an assortment of exciting moments, but the overall effect unfortunately feels like simple-minded bombast. It's a disappointing piece of music which I worry could turn people off from one of the great masters of the 20th century. Honegger is still thought of by specialists as a minor master. He is not a minor master, he is a giant.

Here is a post I did almost two years ago about the Honegger Symphonies.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

800 Words: Being Popular - a conversation between Evan, Eugene O'Neill and Rachel Berry from Glee's an oldie from the Voices of Washington days....and I wondered why that group didn't work out...

(Evan sits quietly in his room, attempting to do Kol Rinah work, along comes Eugene O'Neill and Rachel Berry from Glee. They walk into his room, arm in arm. Eugene's other arm has a whiskey, Rachel's other arm has an i-Phone.)

Eugene O'Neill (to Rachel): Perhaps there's something to this gay marriage thing. God knows the straight ones never worked out.

Rachel Berry: And maybe you're right about all good girls wanting to marry their fathers. The problem is that I could never figure out which of my fathers to marry.

Evan: I suppose it's not worth mentioning that I'm working on something important right now.

Eugene: Shut up kid, this is what's important.

Rachel: We need to talk to you Evan, seriously. We're totally concerned about your attitude towards mixing high art with popular culture.

Evan: I suppose I have no choice but to listen to this....

Rachel: We're happy being apart from each other.

Eugene: I'm not happy.

Rachel: I don't want to challenge people. I want the world to love me. People who challenge other people always look unhappy and kind of creepy.

Evan: And what do you think of this Gene?

Eugene: I agree with her. Even if in twenty years she'll be a sauced whore like my mother.

Evan: Your mother was addicted to morphine.

Eugene: Whatever.

Rachel: Why do you dislike us both so much?

Evan: I don't dislike either of you at all.

Eugene: That's a shame...

Rachel: So why are you always staring daggers into Gleeks whenever you meet them?

Evan: I don't stare daggers, I roll my eyes. And I do that because nobody should be liked unconditionally.

Rachel: I don't even know what that means. But I do know that unconditional love makes the world go 'round!

Eugene: And nobody'll tell her the world is flat...

Evan: Loving and liking are two very different things Rachel. I like Glee pretty well every time I watch it, and I like Long Day's Journey Into Night. But I don't think it's a good idea to make a religion out of either of them. If you take Gene's plays too seriously you'll end up thinking people are miserable creatures and go crazy five minutes after you leave the theater. If you make a religion out of Glee you'll end up a narcissist who can't see the world out of anybody's eyes but you're own.

Rachel: I can see the world through other people's eyes!

Eugene: She can. Just a few minutes ago she was telling me how great it must be to be Liza Minnelli.

Evan: I don't doubt you can Rachel. But the world is a much more difficult place than your show allows.

Rachel: But we show people's problems! We show problems all the time! Is it so wrong to make people's problems adorable with a little song-and-dance?

Evan: There's nothing wrong with it. But nobody's adorable all the time. It would be a lot more interesting if you showed people being disgusting and then demonstrate why they're still worth loving.

Eugene: Who needs love when you have disgust?

Rachel: I don't see why anybody should do that. Putting on a good song-and-dance is frustrating enough without people seeing what goes into it.

Evan: How will you know until you try?

Rachel: What about the Gleeks?

Evan: What about them?

Rachel: They have a right to love shows like mine.

Evan: They certainly do. And I have a right to disagree with them.

Rachel: But why do you disagree? All we want is for you to love us.

Evan: There you have it. A show like yours doesn't want to give people the choice.

Rachel: But we just want to be loved so badly!

Evan: You can't force people to do that. What would be so terrible if you let us see the show from a different point of view?

Rachel: What point of view do we not show?

Evan: Well, why do we never get stories from the orchestra musicians' point of view? Or the tech people? Or that journalist guy who likes you so much?

Rachel: Why should we? This is our show and they're not as interesting as we are. We have to use them to get what we want from them.

Evan: I don't know that they're not as interesting. But if your show tried to see things from their point of view you it would go a long way to making the show something more than adorable.

Rachel: Again you go off with these grand dreams about all the stuff my show should be. We just want to entertain people, we don't care if they don't want anything more from us. Why can't you just be satisfied with entertainment? Look at me, I'm an entertainer and everybody loves me.

Eugene: Except for whatever unfortunate kid knocks you up.

Evan: OK Gene. Even I'm cringing now.

Rachel: No, he's right. I'll probably end up trapped in a bad marriage with kids I can't stand.

Eugene: Then maybe we can make an artist out of you.

Evan: Rachel, how can you possibly talk about yourself like this?

Rachel: That's my whole point. I'm probably the same as lots of the singers you see week-after-week in all your rehearsals. A lot of us don't have much hope for what life's going to give us, so we just want to have some fun while we can still convince ourselves that we're worth loving for a little bit of time every week.

Eugene: Hooray for women setting the bar low! (downs the rest of the whiskey)

Evan: Rachel, I don't know where to begin. That's not how most singers feel, that's how most people feel. Life is difficult for everybody, but the one thing that can ensure that life stays difficult is to not aim higher. If you want to just be entertained, then you can be sure that you will feel just as miserable about your problems after the performance is done as you did before. But the one thing you can do to combat that is to perform things that challenge your beliefs about what life is and let you view things with a different perspective. And that is why I became a conductor - so that I can give people music that makes them feel completely different about their lives after they experienced it than they did before. It's a long process and not always the easiest, but it's worth it every time. I'm pretty good at what I do, and while there's no doubt that I was born laying on the sarcasm on thickly, I always try to be considerate to the feelings of the people who sing under me. I love singers, and I wouldn't want to work with anybody else.

Rachel: But how would we ever know that without you always indicating approval at what we do?

Evan: You don't need my approval, you just need my counsel for how to be a better singer. So long as you work hard, you will always have my approval.

Rachel: But I'm a girl. I need constant approval.

Evan: Oh my....Rachel, this is 2010 and you are not a talented woman, you are a talented person. If somebody like me would disapprove, you'd have no reason to take me seriously. Hopefully women like you will never again need to tell themselves that life will only get better if other people approve of them.

Eugene: I'll never approve of women.

Evan: We know.

Rachel: Wait. So does this mean you're saying my show is anti-feminist?

Evan: Not quite. But it's skirting the line. (Evan realizes what he just said and cringes)

Eugene: Good one dumbass.

Rachel: Shut up Gene.

Eugene: Yes ma'am.

Rachel: I don't know how you can think that. We've empowered women all across the country!

Evan: Glee is a show that gets its power from its ability to caricature it's characters in different ways and then subvert those stereotypes. But just maybe,...very seldomly,... stereotypes are stereotypes for a good reason. Sometimes the show implies that not only do women have the ability to be manipulate others, women and men, at a level that men can't, but that in some ways this is a good thing and that this should be viewed an endearing trait. It's no different than how Glee occasionally shows Puck's bullying as an affectionate vice that he doesn't get rid of in spite of having a sensitive side. By including this, part of the message you all are giving is that 'It's OK to do terrible things because even people who do terrible things can have redeeming qualities that make their terrible acts worth putting up with.' We watch Tony Soprano kill dozens of people, we watch Don Draper lie to everyone in his life, we watch Homer Simpson ruin his family's lives. We're supposed to feel sympathy for what makes them do what they do and occasionally even love them, but we're never supposed to excuse their flaws.

Rachel: But this is totally contradicting what you said earlier. This is getting people to see things from a different point of view!

Evan: It's not a different point of view when you can hear claims like the ones made in Glee in every high school in America. That doesn't challenge people, that defines laziness.

Rachel: Well I suppose see your point. But we make too much money to change anything about that.

Evan: No argument there. I'm all for making money and wish I had a lot more these days. Anyway I suppose we should wrap things up. By the way, you should be nicer to that creepy journalism kid who likes you. That was me ten years ago.

Eugene: If kids like that boy and Evan didn't spend so much time trying to impress girls like you with their political correctness maybe they could grow up to be Eugene O'Neill!

Rachel: Ah-ha! So you admit it Eugene O'Neill. You watch Glee.

Eugene: Only when The Biggest Loser isn't on.

(In walks Stephen Sondheim who opens his mouth six feet wide and eats both Eugene O'Neill and Rachel Berry in a single bite and gulp)

Stephen Sondheim: Thanks Evan! I was really hungry!