Thursday, March 31, 2011

ET Almanac

'''On what is your system built?'''

'''On Spinoza and Maltheus.'''

'''A peculiar combination. What do you preach?'''

'''Sex-control in the broadest sense of the word.'''

'''What's that supposed to be?'''

'''More sex and fewer children. The bedroom is the key to all social and individual problems.'''

- Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Family Moskat

Shared Without Comment

Revisiting Woody



There is a great piece about Woody Allen today in Slate. I love Woody Allen, unabashedly. I love his indulgences as much as his strengths. Scorsese and Spielberg may (generally speaking) make more absorbing movies, but they aren't moved by human beings being themselves. There are very few moviemakers, especially today, who go into movies as a way of recording the way people talk, think and react to one another. Allen's movies may generally be about "New York Jewish Intellectual" types, but I think that these characters are far more relatable to those of us who are not exactly that 'type' than those of many other similarly 'arty' directors -- though I could of course be wrong. I don't know if Woody Allen will date well, but I doubt he'll ever date for me.

I Love Anthony Weiner


h/t Le Malon

Don't run for Mayor of New York Anthony. You'll never be able to do things like this again.

L'invitation au voyage



Pretty.

Calvin on Business

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Rattle/Barenboim Concert for Japan



This is a lovely gesture for the people of Japan from the two Kings of Berlin. But I can't help noting with an ever-so-slight feeling of hilarity how Rattle looks like he's giving Barenboim a death-look. Rattle, with his schlecht deutsch, is clearly reading from a teleprompter. Barenboim, for all we know, might have also been instructed to read from the teleprompter but instead decided to pull a Kanye and improvise without telling anyone. That's pure speculation on my part and I'm probably just fantasizing. All things considered, it's an extremely meaningful gesture from two musical giants who have made an enormous effort to show how well they get along even though a rivalry between them could have been the most natural thing in the world.

For Robert Tear (1939-2011)



First Philip Langridge, now Robert Tear. It has not been a good year for British tenors born in 1939 (and that doesn't even account for the 1940-born Anthony Rolfe Johnson). They were both extraordinary musicians and the world is far richer for the singing they gave us. Though he was Welsh by birth, Tear had a voice that would have been entirely in keeping with the 'English Tenor' school if it were not so enormous. Most English tenors have a thin 'reedy' sound that would be very close to the traditional "Irish Tenor" if it were not accompanied by far more well-trained diction and vocal placement. If Langridge was the 'Pavarotti' of English tenors, endowed with a beautiful lyrical voice and gorgeous vowels, then Tear was the 'Domingo,' with an enormous trumpet of a voice (for an English Tenor at least) magnificently placed in the service of consummate musicianship. And both endowed with an intelligence and versatility that should serve as a model for opera singers everywhere.

The Telegraph's obituary is particularly wonderful.


(h/t Tim Smith)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Blanik



From 1942 to 1948, Rafael Kubelik was the director of the Czech Philharmonic. When the Communist tanks rolled into Prague, he immediately defected to the West. He explained that having abided one form of bestial tyranny under the Nazis, he would not abide another. The Czech communists tried very hard to lure him back with promises of complete artistic freedom, but he published an open letter saying that he would never return unless all Czech artists enjoyed the same freedom he was promised. After the Velvet Revolution, Rafael Kubelik returned to the Czech Republic after six years of retirement and illness to be reunited with his old orchestra and country after 42 years. It is one of the great performances of the perennially underrated Ma Vlast.

Smetana's Ma Vlast (My Country) is the perennial opener for the Prague Spring Festival, a festival founded after World War II by none other than Rafael Kubelik. In the spring of 1990, Kubelik returned to lead the work that was his calling card at the festival he founded. The entire performance blazes, but nowhere moreso than in the final three minutes which Kubelik turns into something that sounds like the finale of a Mahler symphony. The final peroration is based on a Hussite Hymn, meaning 'so finally with him you shall always be victorious.' For hundreds of years, this hymn was an anthem symbolizing the eventual freedom of the Czech people. In this performance, it becomes one of the most moving artistic moments I ever expect to hear. It merely tops off what must have been one of the greatest concerts of the century, charged not only with symbolic meaning but also with musical standards that defy explanation.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Quote of the Day:

The Hicks: have i mentioned that chicken is awesome
and that I hate the &*^%ing jonas brothers
me: chicken is awesome, though i'm having fish tonight
and i really haven't given the jonas brothers any thought
they are pretty much entirely out of my orbit
The Hicks: well, i assure you
they are worse than cher
me: whoa
that's pretty bad
though way to be up on 1978 pop culture
The Hicks: I was expecting the dubby brothers
I was not prepared

My Top 20 Conductors (Edited and Totally Complete)

The BBC List:

1. Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004) Austrian
2. Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) American
3. Claudio Abbado (b1933) Italian
4. Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) Austrian
5. Nikolaus Harnoncourt (b1929) Austrian
6. Sir Simon Rattle (b 1955) British
7. Wilhelm Furtwängler (1896-1954)
8. Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) Italian
9. Pierre Boulez (b1925) French
10. Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) Italian
11. Sir John Eliot Gardiner (b1943) British
12. Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) British
13. Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963) Hungarian
14. George Szell (1897-1970) Hungarian
15. Bernard Haitink (b1929) Dutch
16. Pierre Monteux (1875-1964) French
17. Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903-1988) Russian
18. Sir Colin Davis (b1927) British
19. Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) British
20. Sir Charles Mackerras (1925-2010) Australian

Apparently 100 conductors were asked to vote for three conductors to comprise this list. Now that the votes are tabulated, what amazes is how conventional the resulting list is. The only real surprise isthe presence of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, but I would imagine that the conductors who were polled were mostly British, so perhaps that explains his presence. Otherwise this list is, to my thinking, a very good approximation of contemporary tastes. Carlos Kleiber and Abbado are now the great models for young conductors. Leonard Bernstein’s influence is still felt palpably, while the influence of Furtwangler, Karajan and Toscanini is waning. When I first looked at it I was a little shocked to see Harnoncourt listed so high. Yet after thinking about it I don’t think it’s that big a shock, Harnoncourt and Boulez have shown alternative ways of approaching musicianship of which none had previously thought. That both attracted so many followers who viewed them as models would all but guarantee a high presence on this list for both of them.

But the moment I saw the BBC list of 20 conductors on Kenneth Woods’s blog along with the beginnings of his alternative 20, I knew I had to make a list of my own. I know most people hate lists. But I admit I like them, and I especially like reading the lists of others'. People have preferences, and even if it's a little ridiculous to say that you prefer apples to oranges, it still gives a great window into the mind of the person who makes the list. If that doesn't sound apologetic enough, I should mention that I was already kind of embarrassed by how conductor-centric this blog has become since I gave up Voices of Washington. But I love conducting, and I miss being able to do it more than once a week. We all need our fixes somehow.

In creating a list like this, the first question must be, what are the true criteria by which one judges a conductor? The orchestra’s they’ve built? The pieces they’ve premiered? The quality of their Beethoven and Mahler? But after thinking about it I realized, there is only one way to rank musicians that’s fair. And that is based purely on how much more one thinks of music as a more joyful, fascinating, enriched artform because of the contributions. This list will based purely on the conductors whom I think have made music a greater activity for everyone with whose lives they’ve touched.

For better or worse, this means that there will be no Toscanini or Karajan, because for all the greatness I find in Toscanini’s Verdi and Karajan’s Sibelius, I can’t think of two conductors who did more to place classical music in a constricting straightjacket of standardized repertoire and interpretations. From them originated the airbrushed ‘cult of perfection’ from which classical music has yet to emerge. Nor will there be Furtwangler or Mravinsky. For all the greatness of Furtwangler’s Bruckner and Mravinsky’s Shostakovich, I these two conductors are as much to blame as anyone for a musical culture that is unrelentingly serious and has an avid distrust of anything fun. The maestros you see below will be based purely on their musical curiosity, the pathos of their performances, the excitement they generate, their dissatisfaction with tradition, and their willingness to take the kind of foolhardy risks on interpretation and repertoire that less brave maestros would never countenance. So...without further ado....

1. Rafael Kubelik (1994-1996 Czech): In my strong opinion, no conductor has ever brought greater joy to their musicmaking.The unaffected musicality and humanity he brought to every bar of his performances is without parallel in the entire history of the podium. In terms of repertoire he was fearless, taking on everything from pre-Bach to the latest commissions, and he brought the same unerring musical sense to it all. His performances had all the rhythmic flexibility (and excitement) of a great gymnast, and yet he seems to be one of the only musicians in history to get away with every risk he takes -- a feat which must take great discipline. In his day, he was beloved but condescended to as the ‘great conductor of Czech music.’ Such a moniker doesn’t begin to cover his strengths. In my strong opinion he is still the greatest of all Mahler conductors, and equally at home in Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Schumann, Verdi, Wagner, Brahms, Schoenberg, Hindemith and Hartmann. He was a fearless champion of new music and a respectable conductor of Baroque repertoire. On top of it all, it helped that he was a profoundly wonderful human being who was apparently loved by everyone who worked with him. Would his results have been possible otherwise?


(Blanik, by Smetana)

2. Leonard Bernstein (American, 1918-1990): Even his mistakes seem right. Yes, Lenny was incredibly over-the-top in everything he did, yet (to me at least) it was never in the service of self-aggrandizement. His seemingly perverse mannerisms were entirely in the service of enhancing the music he played. And frankly, they often sound superior to what’s written on the page. In everything he did, Bernstein gravitated to extremes. His Mahler is both faster and slower than everybody else’s. His Stravinsky is louder and softer than everyone’s. But his main accomplishment as a conductor was mostly in his final years when he toured every major world capital and made so many countries realize that the world had awoken to the greatness of their national composers. Everybody knows that he gave Mahler to the Viennese, but how many remember how he gave Nielsen to the Danes? Who remembers his (extremely idiomatic) performances of Latin music in Latin America? Who remembers the French performances of Berlioz or the Hungarian ones of Bartok (to say nothing of his famous performance of Shostakovich in Moscow or his tireless championing of American composers)? Along with the Young People’s Concerts, this is Bernstein’s great legacy as a conductor. We are still feeling the heatwaves of his intensity today, and no matter what else he was, he was firstly musicmad. He loved and played music of every stripe, and he wanted others to love it too. There was nothing he would not do in pursuit of that goal. In a time when American orchestras are beginning to wonder if they can survive in today’s economy, we miss him now more than ever.


(Shostakovich 6)

3. Dimitri Mitropoulos (Greek, 1896-1961) For risktaking, both musically and personally, there was no braver conductor -- and he paid a dear price for the risks he took. There’s a famous story about how John Cage and Morton Feldman met each other because they both left a Mitropoulos concert after a Webern piece because Rachmaninov was next. To be equally accepting of two so very different composers is remarkable even in 2011. But in the 1950’s it was nearly unheard of. There was no conductor willing to try repertoire further afield and none with less dogmatic discrimination in what he chose to play. But equally risky were his performances. There was no conductor more willing to take risks with impossibly fast tempos, no conductor more willing to push dynamic extremes to the limits, no conductor with less vanity about encouraging ugly sounds. He could draw absolutely beautiful sounds as well, and that combined with his great willingness to bend phrases (never too much), means that the results are invariably both musical and individualized. The result is, in my opinion, the most viscerally exciting musician to ever pick up a baton.


(from Berg's Wozzeck)

4. Neeme Jarvi (yeah, that’s right, Neeme Jarvi, Estonian, 1937-) - Let’s get real here. Among living conductors, we can all say that we admire Pierre Boulez’s ear for detail, or Bernard Haitink unerring sense of structure, or Claudio Abbado’s impeccable elegance or Daniel Barenboim’s Furtwanglerian sense of elastic phrase. But whom among living conductors gives the most joyful, most vital and uplifting, most educational concerts? For me, the answer is simple. Neeme Jarvi is the living the conductor with the most curiosity, the most elan, the most excitement and the most musicality. Any Jarvi program sticks out in an orchestra calendar like a sore thumb. All the other guests are performing the same Beethoven and Tchaikovsky while Jarvi’s performing Stenhammer and Taneyev. There is nothing he won’t try, either in repertoire or interpretation. If it doesn’t always work, who cares? At least he’s willing to take the risks and try all those things other conductors wouldn’t dare touch. For Jarvi, every performance is a new experiment, with new discoveries to be made. If there were any justice in the world, he’d be the most famous, powerful conductor in the world and not just the guy you call when Maazel or Muti gets sick.


(Zdenek Fibich's Symphony no 2...)

5. Charles Munch (French, 1886-1967) - Admit it, you’d take the seat-of-the-pants excitement of Charles Munch’s recordings over the military precision of Reiner and Szell any day of the week. Munch’s musicmaking is everything there is to love about music personified: ardor, intelligence, pathos and above all else, fun. He championed plenty of new and under-rated music in his day and he began his career as Furtwangler’s concertmaster in Leipzig, which probably accounts for his near-equal comfort in German repertoire to his performances of everything else. It would seem that he learned everything about how to wring maximum expression from a piece from Furtwangler without retaining Furtwangler’s staid seriousness. Other conductors inspire admiration, Munch inspires love. Eventually, every music lover is a Munchkin.


(Saint-Saens's Organ Symphony. Munch is the only way I can listen...)

6. Sir Simon Rattle (English, 1955-) - In recent years, Simon Rattle-bashing became a bloodsport. It’s all too easy to rag on him - Rattle was appointed to direct the Berlin Philharmonic with a mandate to modernize it, and is now continuously attacked for having been so successful at the task he was given. It’s almost enough to make one forget that before he came to Berlin, he’d already accomplished things that eluded generations of musicians before him. He is, in every sense, a musical omnivore who devours composers, musical eras, interpretive traditions and programming ideas and synthesizes them all with an interpretive personality that is truly unique. Rattle’s music-making sounds like no-one else’s, and because of that he will never be to everyone’s taste. But like Bernstein a generation ago, interpretations that strike today’s music-lovers as grotesque may seem canonical in twenty years.


(Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand with an orchestra of high school students)

7. Leopold Stokowski (Polish-English, 1882-1977) Stoki’s stock is due for a resurgence. Showmanship like his has never been needed more direly, and Stokowski was never a mere showman. He was a musical giant who gave more world premieres than any other modern conductor, championed far more unknown composers than any modern conductor, and was less dogmatic in the music he chose to perform. No conductor was more willing to expermiment. The results sometimes seemed perverse, but they were never boring. And when they didn’t seem perverse, there were true revelations aplenty. It’s a given that no one has ever approached Stokowski’s ability to draw a great sound from orchestra was unmatched, but far less commented upon is his ability to draw a singing line. Few conductors, if any could make a beautiful melody sound more beautiful than Stokowski did.


(Debussy, conducted by Stokowski in his 90's)

8. Pierre Monteux (French, 1875-1964) I find myself amazed that I didn’t put Monteux higher than this. Don’t ever be fooled by Monteux’s understated manner. This is a conductor who made music with consummate imagination. If Munch was the great dramatist of the French school, Monteux was its great poet. Perhaps still more than Munch, he was a universalist comfortable in every corner of the repertoire. But what truly distinguishes Monteux is his unique ability to retain elegance without ever diluting the excitement of the music he directs. Whether it’s Petrushka, the Franck Symphony, La Mer or the Enigma Variations, Monteux shapes the piece in manners that other conductors would never think to do. He may never look as engaged as Leonard Bernstein, but his performances never gave the sense that he was anything but engaged by everything he directed.


(Monteux rehearses The Rite of Spring.)

9. Michael Tilson Thomas (American, 1944-) MTT is, more than Jimmy Levine, the great living American conductor. If Koussevitzky helped to birth American classical music, and Leonard Bernstein helped it come of age, MTT has helped more than any other to establish an American musical canon. But his championing of American music is but a symptom of the qualities that makes MTT one of the greatest conductors of all time (and I would argue with anyone who disagrees with that statement). It’s the very flamboyance so many have decried (in barely concealed homophobic language) that propels the greatness of his musicmaking. His willingness to create living drama out of music is what makes his performances come alive so consistently. There is no set routine for MTT. Only a series of adventures and deeply personal interpretations that have both made the San Francisco Symphony the most inspiring orchestra in America and have made us think of music again as something that can reach people outside the classical ghetto.


(Carl Ruggles: Men and Mountains)

10. Antal Dorati (Hungarian, 1906-1988) No, it’s not too high for Dorati. It’s probably been twenty years since anybody seriously listened to a Dorati recording, and that’s truly a shame. Go back to them, his performances were far warmer, more characterful, and more delicate than anybody remembers. The popular image of Dorati is of a violently tempermental Hungarian who obtained singularly violent-sounding performances. To be sure, Dorati was a volatile man whose performances have immense fierceness and drama, but also a surprisingly generous level of lyricism in a huge array of music from Haydn to Tchaikovsky to Copland (and so many things between). He was in many ways the overlooked Hungarian in an era that also had Reiner, Szell, Ormandy and Georg Solti. But as often happens, perhaps his comparitive neglect spurred him to greater musicianship than any of the others in that group. It’s true, his work has all the same regimented precision of the others, but he also has more subtlety than any of the others. Sometimes far more.


(Dorati's synthesis of Porgy and Bess)

11. Serge Koussevitzky (Russian, 1874-1951) Koussy is another conductor whose strengths are now far too overlooked. He was, to say the least, an indifferent technician. But nobody should care about technique when a musician inspires such commitment from his players. Few conductors were ever able to elicit as much drama from the process making music, still fewer had a better sense of the give and take a melody requries. A 19th century Russian Romantic by both training and temperament, he took to the music of his two adopted homelands -- France, then America -- like a fish to water, doing more to champion native composers than most native-born conductors ever did. He is, in so many ways, the patron saint of American music. And without him, we’d have had neither the Boston Symphony as we know it, or many of the masterpieces by composers from Aaron Copland to Prokofiev to Roy Harris to Bartok to Bernstein to Stravinsky to Martinu to Britten and Messiean.


(Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet)

12. Willem Mengelberg (Dutch, 1871-1951) To anyone whom Mengelberg seems too willful to be a great conductor, please just listen to the unique sound of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Even today, the unique sound of the orchestra is his achievement, built over a period of 50 years. Mengelberg remains the greatest orchestra builder of all time. Along with Toscanini, he was the first conductor for whom precision was the most important priority. But unlike Toscanini, Mengelberg’s precision was never used for streamlined interpretations. Mengelberg utilized his instrument for maximum drama and emotional involvement. He was a virtuoso conductor in the best sense. No conductor could be the first great champion of Mahler and Strauss without the ability to swallow music whole. As an individualized interpreter, he had few peers and no superiors. Next to Mitropoulos, he gave the most viscrally exciting performances of anyone to ever face an orchestra.


(Franck Symphony in D-minor)

13. Sir Charles Mackerras (Australian, 1926-2010) Our modern-day Monteux. No conductor ever had better taste than Sir Charles. And no conductor did more to champion a composer to the wider world than Mackerras did for Janacek. Occasionally, his performances could be a bit on the dry side, but no conductor has ever forced the world to listen to so much music in so radically different a way than Mackerras did for Purcell, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Donizetti, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Smetana, Brahms, Dvorak, Gilbert & Sullivan, Janacek, Delius and Britten. One looks around at our musical world today and eventually one realizes that no musician did more to shape our world than this unassuming Australian who quietly went about the business of great performances while his peers were more concerned with collecting fees. When the dust clears on this era of performing history, I have little doubt that Mackerras will be remembered as the finest conductor of his generation.


(Handel: Israel in Egypt)

14. Albert Coates (English, 1882-1953) The least known name on this list, and one of the most scandalously underrated names in podium history. Albert Coates was a fiery, spontaneous musician who performed everything with a surfeit of musical personality. He was brave enough to perform all sorts of music Beecham would never dare touch, and musical enough to perform it with an individualized point of view that Adrian Boult could never muster. In Russian, German and English music, he maintains the same commitment to ecstatic musicmaking. Perhaps it was precisely that extremely un-British commitment to make exciting music that kept him from reaching the pinnacle of eminence on Post-Victorian England. The overt emotionalism probably sounded unseemly to his British audiences. But would that any other country had a conductor so committed to inspiration.


(Rimsky-Korsakov: Dance of the Tumblers)

15. Otto Klemperer (German, 1885-1973) Next to Lenny and Stokowski, none of the ‘superstar maestros’ had as healthy an attitude toward music as Klemperer. He kept up his interest in new music to the very end of his life, still performing works by Stravinsky, Bartok, Janacek, Schoenberg and Shostakovich when he could have easily coasted on yet another slow Beethoven performance. Whether the performances originate from his manic younger years or the zen renderings of his final years, they display the same fanatical intensity of commitment. I am not a music lover who takes particularly well to strict rhythmic control, but Klemperer is one of those very rare conductors whose control of the structure (not the execution) is so steady that he makes vice into a virtue. Most conductors try unsuccesfully to control the rhythm, with orchestras lurching forward and backward in a manner that is completely out of the conductor’s control. Klemperer’s (frankly invisible) control of his orchestras is so ironclad that one is forced to concede that yes, his inflexibility not only makes his performances sound more personal, but also goes a long way to explaining his greatness.


(Old Man Klemp doing Beethoven 9)

16. Ernest Ansermet (Swiss, 1883-1969) The mercurial Swiss is the third in the French school’s triumverate who embraced the entire world of music while their supposedly greater German colleagues clung by-and-large to a nationalist view of German music’s superiority. It’s true that occasionally he would conduct in prose while Monteux and Munch conducted in poetry. But his sympathies were, if anything, wider than either Munch’s or Monteux’s. He was completely comfortable in German music, a great conductor of the Russians, and championed the three still underperformed Swiss composers: Honegger, Bloch and Frank Martin. There is still no greater conductor of Stravinsky and his Debussy has very few equals. The orchestra he led for fifty years, the Suisse Romande, was never world-class in technical excellence. But what they lacked in intonation they made up for in a kind of individuality that still put many more corporate orchestras to shame.


(Stravinsky: Petrushka)

17. Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (Russian, 1931-) It’s difficult to believe that Rozhdestvensky is still around. While Abbado, Haitink and Davis are still feted after fifty years in the spotlight, Rozhdestvensky seems to have dropped off the map. No doubt this has something to do with the death of the Soviet system. But even if does, Rozhdestvensky’s place in history is assured. He was perhaps the great example of the greater freedom that came to Soviet culture in its later years. Mravinsky, the great maestro of the Stalin era, was an unceasingly grim figure who gave performances of familiar repertoire with unbearable and unremitting intensity. Rozhdestvensky was the face of the new Soviet Union. Endowed with greater freedom to perform unfamiliar music, a far greater variety of expression, and possessing a joy in performance which no performer could ever be allowed under Stalin. Had Rozhdestvensky been twenty years older, he might have met the same fate as Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Meyerhold and Isaac Babel merely for conducting in the manner he does.


(Tchaikovsky: Symphony no 4)

18. Sir John Barbirolli (English, 1899-1970) Anyone who doesn’t love Sir John doesn’t love music. Is there any parallel to John Barbirolli leaving the New York Philharmonic to take a war-ravaged semi-professional orchestra and turn it into England’s finest? The Halle Orchestra now has a longer and less variable tradition of excellence (sometimes roughly played, one must admit) than any other British orchestra. He was a conductor devoted to imagination and personality. George Szell, who died at roughly the same time, inspired far better playing. But Barbirolli simply inspired. Few conductors, if any, took more relish in the challenge of ‘big music.’ Whether it was in the opera house doing Verdi and Puccini, or on the concert stage doing Mahler, Elgar, Sibelius or Bruckner, Barbirolli was one of the most willing conductors to ‘go the distance.’ He was also committed, however conservatively, to all kinds of new music. Not for nothing did Ralph Vaughan Williams call him ‘Glorious John.’ But in whatever he conducted, listening to John Barbirolli is an excercise in being moved.


(Finlandia. I grew up with this performance.)

19. Ferenc Fricsay (Hungarian, 1914-1963) It’s a given that Fricsay’s early death was a terrible tragedy for music. Yet it’s truly amazing how much Fricsay packed into the little time he had. Looking at his discography makes one marvel at the prodigious workload he must have taken. Not only was he a promoter of all sorts of new music both eminent and obscure, but he was also a nearly unmatchable director of the classics. Go back to his Mozart opera recordings, the fact that he could get such stylish Mozart out of so many German singers of the 1950’s is nearly a miracle. Yehudi Menuhin always maintained that had Fricsay lived longer he might have supplanted Herbert von Karajan as the world’s most eminent conductor. If so, that makes it doubly a shame that Fricsay didn’t live longer because Fricsay’s attitude towards musicmaking was far healthier than Karajan’s ever was.


(The Moldau)

20. Eugen Jochum (German, 1902-1987) Jochum’s ultra-dramatic interpretive style always belied his reputation as a humble Bavarian Catholic. Jochum will always be known best for his uniquely powerful interpretations of the German Romantics, yet his sympathies were far broader than his reputation first tells you. He championed much new music in the Post-WWII era (not just Orff), and he was the greatest of the Old-School Bach interpreters, endowing Bach with an admittedly nineteenth century pomp but also a dignity that is much more moving than many period instrument forces. But what ultimately distinguishes Jochum from the more starchy elements of German Romanticism is his ability to cut through the bull. He was not content to be another cookie-cutter Kappellmeister. Like Furtwangler, he brought his unique and dangerous conceptions to life without fear. But he seems to take greater joy in his work than Furtwangler. His performances seem to strain far less to obtain their effects, and feel as though they grow as organically as Furtwangler’s were said to have done (but often didn’t). If I view Jochum as the stronger conductor, it’s because I think his performances contain far more of the variety of human experience than the ultra-serious Furtwangler’s ever could.


(Bruckner 8. Tape hiss is fierce but totally worth it.)

7 Honorable Mentions:

- Wilhelm Furtwangler (German, 1886-1954) and Sir Thomas Beecham (English, 1879-1961):
If one combines the philosophical earnestness of Furtwangler with the warm-hearted elan of Beecham, one might arrive at a perfect conductor. The two were said to be close friends, and no doubt each saw qualities in the other that they lacked themselves. I love much which they both did, but what rankles about them both is their inherent distrust of approaches alien to their own. Furtwangler being a self-consciously deep conductor who distrusted anything in music that allowed for light-heartedness. Beecham was self-conciously shallow, and had a distrust of anything that could not provide immediate enjoyment. Both are, on their own terms, indisputably great conductors -- probably the greatest of their particular approaches. Both obtain, in their way, results with an excitement and individuality that no other conductor could ever hope to equal in their particular approach. But if one listens to one then the other, one can immediately understand what they both lack.

- Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Austrian, 1929-) and Rene Jacobs (Belgian, 1946): One day, a conductor not named Mackerras will come along who is equally at home with period ensembles and generalized orchestras. Until then, the two greatest directors of Early Music are both specialists. Many, perhaps most, period directors are almost pathologically inflexible and unimaginative as a matter of dogma. One can no more imagine John Eliot Gardiner or William Christie disregarding a Mozart marking than one can imagine Moamar Qaddafi peacefully relinquishing control of Libya. Sometimes, their very unimaginativeness can yield fascinatingly different results, but following scores and research yields something unique only once (occasionally twice if the research is contradictory). This is what makes Harnoncourt and Jacobs the most valuable directors of period performance. They don’t simply follow research, they recreate the works they perform in a manner that draws on period research without being beholden to it. Imagination is more important to them than scholarship, and because they care more for quality than dogma, their accomplishments mark the true maturity of period performance.

- Hermann Scherchen (German, 1891-1966), Erich Kleiber (Austrian, 1890-1956) and Jascha Horenstein (Ukrainian-German 1898-1973) (Even) I’m surprised by how few Germans there are on this list. The stranglehold of Germany on taste in classical music is, unfortunately, a microcosm of many larger problems in the twentieth century. There is something a little creepy about the readiness of so many musicians to exclude alternative musical styles from the ‘pantheon.’ Thankfully, there are musicians in every country who know better and see music for all that’s good in it. The greatest of this ilk in Germany is still Hermann Scherchen, the eccentric German conductor whose daring as both a programmer and interpreter was unmatched by his countrymen. While Furtwangler and Walter gained prestige with the same ol’ repertoire, Scherchen cared far more for services to music -- spending his career teaching new music and new interpretations of old music to second-rate orchestras, often on limited rehearsal time. The results are as invariably fascinating as they are technically lacking by the standards of the Berlin Philharmonic. Kleiber was a more famous figure and a far more restrained interpreter, but he had a similar musical curiosity that caused him to spend the prime of his career in Argentina than make compromises with a marquee appointment in America or England would have entailed (and does anybody doubt he could have had his pick?). Finally, Jascha Horenstein is everybody’s favorite underdog among conductors. Furtwangler’s protege was poised for a remarkable career before the ascent of Hitler, and spent the next quarter of a century guesting with orchestras no better than Scherchen’s. Like Kleiber, he was far more restrained than Scherchen, but no conductor ever had more uncanny prescience in the repertoire he championed: Mahler, Nielsen, Bruckner, Hindemith, Janacek, Schoenberg would not have arrived at their present eminence without Horenstein’s patient training. The recordings of these composers (and plenty of better-known repertoire) come down to us with lots of sloppy playing, and an amazing presence of drama that comes through despite the flaws. Technical acumen will never cease to be important in performing classical music, but it can never be an end in itself. Far more important is the expression, individuality and commitment of the performers to move us. This, after all, is why we listen to great music.

Webern



This is Five Pieces for Orchestra by Anton Webern. The five pieces for orchestra are less than five minutes long in their totality and never sound as though they're written for more than three musicians at a time. This is extremely personal music written by a minor master. Music does not get more private than this, and yet his music caused so many vituperative debates among the generations that followed. Hopefully, we'll all be able to recognize Webern to what he is - a composer with a highly private language that can never be imitated.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Big Love...The Sopranos...Lillian Gish...Bergman...Dostoevsky...Michelangelo...The Prophets

Bill Henricksen is a man committed to good whose actions have the taint of evil. Tony Soprano is a man committed to evil whose actions have the taint of good. Like the protagonists of all great literature from The Bible unto the present day, both characters are at the center of parables that reveal the world to us in a grain of sand. They are every bit as much revelations as any religious awakening, but in no way are they fiery awakenings that provoke us into action. Rather than reveal an explanation of the world to us in a flash, they instead reveal to us the world's full complexity. And in so doing they reveal us to ourselves. We sit, we watch, and rather than watch the boob tube passively as TV is generally conceived, we watch actively and we contemplate, and we then create our own interpretations without need that they ever satisfy anyone but ourselves.

Quote of the Day:

Ethan: Another Fast and the Furious? Jeez Vin Diesel, get another job!

Les Noces



Just because it's so awesome.

Valery Gergiev's version is probably much faster than what Stravinsky had in mind (except for when it's slower). But it can't be denied, Gergiev has revved up the energy far past anything Stravinsky perhaps had in mind. Stravinsky's finicky fastidiousness is totally banished from Gergiev's Stravinsky, and try as I might, I can't bring myself to say that it's a bad thing.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dummy Visits Israel to Beef Up Foreign Policy Credentials



This might an even more brilliant Sarah Palin spoof than anything we've ever seen from Tina Fey.

Monster Vision



Remembering Joe Bob Briggs fondly.

h/t Der Fersko.

Friday, March 25, 2011

My Top 20 Conductors: 1-5

The moment I saw the BBC list of history’s top 20 conductors on Kenneth Woods’s blog, I knew I had to make a list of my own. I know this blog has become extremely conductor-centric since I gave up trying to make Voices of Washington (my former chorus) a reality, but we all need our fixes somehow.

The BBC list was apparently made by conductors. No doubt there are conductors among them whom I like and dislike. So I can't be surprised that they came up with what was, in my view, a very conventional list. The only real surprise is that Nikolaus Harnoncourt was so high up (not that I'd complain).

For me, the only question in building a list of my own is, what are the true criteria by which one judges a conductor: The orchestras they’ve built? The pieces they’ve premiered? The quality of their Beethoven or Mahler? Then I realized, there is only one way to rank musicians that’s fair. And that is based purely on how much more one thinks music a joyful, fascinating, enriched artform because of their contributions. This list is based purely around the conductors whom I think have made music a better artform for everyone whose lives they’ve touched. There will be no Toscanini or Karajan, because for all the greatness I find in Toscanini’s Verdi and Karajan’s Beethoven, I can’t think of two conductors who did more to place classical music in a constricting straightjacket of standardized repertoire and interpretations. Theirs is the airbrushed ‘cult of perfection’ from which classical music has yet to emerge. There will be no Furtwangler or Mravinsky, because for all the greatness of Furtwangler’s Bruckner and Mravinsky’s Shostakovich, I think they have contributed terribly to a musical culture that is far too unrelenting in its seriousness. The maestros you see below will be based purely on their musical curiosity, the pathos of their performances, the excitement they generate, their dissatisfaction with tradition, and their willingness to take the kind of foolhardy risks on interpretation and repertoire that less brave maestros would never countenance. So...without further ado....

1. Rafael Kubelik (1994-1996 Czech) - No conductor ever brought greater joy to musicmaking.The unaffected musicality and humanity he brought to every bar of his music making is without parallel in the entire history of the podium. In terms of repertoire he was fearless, taking on everything from pre-Bach to the latest commissions, and brought the same unerring musical sense to it all. His performances had all the rhythmic flexibility (and excitement) of a great gymnast, and yet he seems to be one of the only musicians in history to get away with every risk he takes -- a feat which must take great discipline. On top of it all, it helped that he was a profoundly wonderful human being who was apparently loved by everyone who worked with him. Would his results have been possible otherwise?



2. Leonard Bernstein (American, 1918-1990) - Even his mistakes seem right. Yes, Lenny was incredibly over-the-top in everything he did, yet (to me at least) it was never in the service of self-aggrandizement. His seemingly perverse mannerisms were entirely in the service of enhancing the music he played. And frankly, they often sound superior to what’s written on the page. Whatever Bernstein was, he was firstly musicmad. He loved and played music of every stripe, and he wanted others to love it too. There was nothing he would not do in pursuit of that goal.



3. Dimitri Mitropoulos (Greek, 1896-1961) - For risktaking, there was no braver conductor. There was no conductor willing to take on repertoire further afield and none with less dogmatic discrimination in what he chose. There was no conductor more willing to take risks with impossibly fast tempos, no conductor more willing to push dynamic extremes to the limits, no conductor with less vanity about encouraging ugly sounds. He can draw absolutely beautiful sounds as well, and that combined with his great willingness to bend phrases (never too much), means that the results are invariably both musical and individualized. The result is, in my opinion, the most viscerally exciting musician to ever pick up a baton.



4. Neeme Jarvi (yeah, that’s right, Neeme Jarvi, Estonian, 1937-) - Let’s get real here. Among living conductors, we can all say that we admire Pierre Boulez’s ear for detail, or Bernard Haitink unerring sense of structure, or Claudio Abbado’s impeccable elegance or Daniel Barenboim’s Furtwanglerian sense of elastic phrase. But whom among living conductors gives the most joyful, most vital and uplifting, most educational concerts? For me, the answer is simple. Neeme Jarvi is the living the conductor with the most curiosity, the most elan, the most excitement and the most musicality. There’s nothing he won’t try, either in repertoire or interpretation. If it doesn’t always work, who cares? At least he’s willing to take the risks and try all those things other conductors wouldn’t dare touch. For Jarvi, every performance is a new experiment, with new discoveries to be made. If there were any justice in the world, he’d be the most famous, powerful conductor in the world and not just the guy you call when Maazel or Muti gets sick.



5. Charles Munch (French, 1886-1967) - Admit it, you’d take the seat-of-the-pants excitement of Charles Munch’s recordings over the military precision of Reiner and Szell any day of the week. Munch’s musicmaking is everything there is to love about music personified: ardor, intelligence, pathos and above all else, fun. He championed plenty of new and under-rated music in his day and he began his career as Furtwangler’s concertmaster in Leipzig. He learned everything about how to wring maximum expression from a piece from Furtwangler without retaining Furtwangler’s staid seriousness. Other conductors inspire admiration, Munch inspires love. Eventually, every music lover is a Munchkin.



6-10 will probably be before the end of the weekend.

Quote of the Day:

The Hicks: I love crashing parties. Hell I crash parties I'm invited to.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Real Rachmaninov


(The Loud Alarm Bells)

The real Rachmaninov is practically unknown to his greatest admirers, and frankly a lot more interesting than the half-dozen pieces of his we hear ad nauseum. To most listeners (in America at least), Rachmaninov signifies easy listening - good ol' fashioned music with lots of hummable melodies and drama. "They don't make composers like that anymore. It's almost like watching a movie."

The truth remains that that for most of his life Rachmaninov was about as good a composer as one can be without being a truly great one. Technically, he was always impeccable. His concertos, symphonies and piano pieces are all masterly from the standpoints of form, instrumental technique, and yes, they have wonderful melodies. The problem is that they're almost entirely conventional, and on repeated hearings you begin to wonder, 'where's the originality?' Tchaikovsky (his idol) and Scriabin (his childhood friend) had nowhere near Rach's perfection of technique. But they had an ability to surprise us, to confidently sound like themselves, in a way that Rachmaninov rarely summoned up the courage to do. Yes, Rachmaninov's melodies are very much his own, yet the music which contains it can also feel as though it was constructed in an assembly line. Rachmaninov's problem was not that his music was conservative, his problem was that his music was conventional.


(The Isle of the Dead - yes that's a toothpick the conductor's using.)

As a person, Rachmaninov was conventional almost to a fault. The composer Abram Chasins once wrote about Rachmaninov that "[he] had only one ordinary characteristic: ordinary." He was a Russian aristocrat who idolized Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy, and both in turn considered him the 'Next Great Russian Composer.' But while in his youth Rachmaninov wrote music that reflected the tastes of the Russian Aristocracy, Scriabin and Stravinsky wrote music that portrayed their country's times of troubles far more vividly.

Yet for a few years, mostly during the First World War, Rachmaninov became a great composer with genuine vision and fire. His music lived on the edge in a way it never before did, and never would again. The music was startlingly different. The font of melody was there, but it was accompanied by a new vitality. The drama was not the predictable rhythmically four-square climax with lots of diminished chords. The harmonies were downright strange, and the rhythms suddenly took on a Stravinskian irregularity. It was as though a true compositional genius was emerging which could combine the harmonic innovations of Scriabin with the rhythmic confusion of Stravinsky.

But then the Russian Revolution occurred, and Rachmaninov was forced from his home country, his money and land possessed by the government. For the rest of his life, Rachmaninov made his living as a pianist and went back to composing in his spare time, with conservative results that had far more resemblance to his early output.


(The 'Little Red Riding Hood' Etude)

Helen Thomas Playboy Spread

This interview from Playboy is, in addition to being unintentionally hilarious, one of the most scarily frank admissions of American anti-semitism in recent years. At the beginning of the interview, Helen Thomas states flatly that being anti-Zionist is different from being anti-semitic, and then spends the rest of the interview conflating the two terms. As for the rest, just judge for yourself.

Quote of the Day

me: sorry, but i think we need a serious campaign to make Der Koosh king
Le Malon: i agree
i'll abandon my campaign
me: he'd be kim-jong il without the human rights violations
Le Malon: so long as he makes me Minister of Alternative Energy and persecutes the Los Angeles Lakers
me: sounds good to me
i call minister of culture and TV
and 9/10's of the government budget
Le Malon: whoa whoa whoa....let's be realistic here
half

For Those Who Know..



Did Marmalade influence The Beatles or was it the other way around?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lewis Black on Donald Trump


h/t Der Fersko

Lewis Black is the world's greatest 5-minute comedian. His hour-long specials are like 12 five-minute bits. This is far from his funniest bit (it's merely very funny as opposed to soil yourself funny) but nobody not named Stewart or Carlin has ever gotten more mileage out of America's misery. Jon Stewart was exactly the backing Lewis Black needed to succeed - a comedian as brilliant as he was but not a tenth as outrageous. All Stewart has to do is stand back and let Lewis Black do his thing and he can pull laughs out of America's most depressing phenomena with a devastation that makes Stewart look like a lightweight...for five minutes....and then Black can get tiresome.

Backstage with Burton and Taylor



has profanity and other not particularly savory things. quite funny though.

Classical Notes

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I read a lot of classical music criticism, probably too much. That you all knew, and there are some fabulous critics out there: from mainstream critics Alex Ross and the Sandow/Midgettes and Alan Rich and Joseph Horowitz to bloggers like Soho The Dog and La Cieca and The Rambler and Classical Iconoclast. But my very favorite classical critic to read is some guy named Peter Gutmann. I have no idea who he is, his website says that he's a partner in a DC lawfirm, but I've looked up his firm and can't find his bio-page.

Perhaps this guy has the money to pursue his pleasure away from the 'game' of networking with other music people, and far more power to him if that's the case because there is a freedom to his perspective that is entirely divorced from the neurotic inhibitions which pervade the writing of most classical taste-makers. Most of us who write about music are constantly looking over our shoulders and don't want to make claims too outrageous lest some snarker (like me) tell us what idiots we've been.

He is unabashedly a romantic when it comes to music. Not in the sense that the 19th century is the only music he likes, but in that he does not hesitate to ascribe romantic biographical notions to why composers compose or performers perform as they do. He has no inhibitions about saying that he vastly prefers personalized interpretations to ones that adhere closely to the score, yet he has no problem commending those who adhere to what's written so long as they give a performance that lives and breathes. He is neither intimidated by modern music nor by the thought of condemning its worst excesses. He doesn't like opera very much, yet he consistently makes exceptions for the operas he loves. He clearly loves 'un-classical' music as well, yet he's always weary and resentful of the tendency of music - classical as any other - to dumb down.

Would that everybody in 'the game' could write with such a healthy attitude.

Libya Pundit Sanity Test

For those of us addicted to political pundit porn, the Libya intervention is one of those moments which tests precisely who's worth reading and who should be ignored. Libya is a situation full of ambiguities: the UN may or may not have prevented a full-scale democide, but beyond that aim the institution may not have any clear idea of its objectives. There are completely convincing arguments for and against this incursion, and the commentators worth reading are the ones who can maintain a cool head in this extremely heated situation. So, without further ado, here are lettered grades as to the particular commentator's sanity. And so I don't go insane from the insanity of others, I'm not going to read anything by commentators whom I consider hard right or hard left. So what you see here is a division as to who is for action and who is against it. Each name is listed chronologically in order of sanity.

For:

Leon Wieseltier F - He gets a half-point for not imputing the moral laxity of those who disagree with him, even if it's implied (hence no D). But if you want to read a perfect specimen of a liberal hawk gone haywire into neoconservative manicheanism, just read the very last three paragraphs of this piece. But don't read any more unless reading hilariously opaque prose is your idea of fun (and it's most definitely mine).



Against:

Michael Walzer: A - When Michael Walzer

Andrew Sullivan: F- - There has been no more obnoxious voice in this debate on either side. His stridently anti-intervention position has no more complex reasons than his former jingoism in support of the Bush administration, and until last week his cheer-leading of Obama through everything. How can someone write a book advocating a conservatism based upon doubt and then go from year to year embracing completely contradictory positions and denouncing everyone as morally lacking who disagrees with him at that particular moment? How have we taken him this seriously for this long?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

J. Peterman Buys Trader Joe's!

From the Trader Joe's Catalogue:

Yellowfin Tuna in Oil (aka, Can of Tuna fish)

About 99% of tuna eaten comes from a can. It's a pantry staple icon. And there are a lot of options in the market, so why choose Trader Joe's Yellowfin Tuna in Oil? There are a plethora of reasons, but here are a few pointed ones. We work closely with a prominent, sustainable-focused fishery to procure our Yellowfin tuna. Recognized for their yellow-tipped fins, large size (they can reach up to 400 lbs and 90 inches, fully grown), and fast swimming speeds, their flesh is tender, light and pale pink. We pack our tuna in olive oil with a touch of salt (that's it!) to preserve its delicate, meaty flavor and firm, flaky texture. It's a premium catch for a pocket-friendly price -- $1.99 for a five ounce can. That's why.





...I strongly urge everyone to subscribe to the Trader Joe's Catalogue.

Chico



h/t HiLobrow

Concert Minis #2

Mario Venzago is possibly the most beloved guest conductor in BSO history. On stage this Friday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, the diminutive Swiss sometimes resembled an elfin force of nature. He seems to create his interpretations as he conducts, indicating completely unexpected inflections, but always in the spirit of discovery rather than calculation. In the antiseptic world of classical music, one can easily understand why he’s beloved.
This is why the concert’s first half was such a disappointment. One would think that Venzago, leader of so much great Mozart and Schumann, would be an ideal conductor for Schubert’s Fifth Symphony. He may well be, but the nuanced performance indicated with his baton was far from the tentative, unrefined one we heard.

We then were treated (or subjected) to a performance of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto -- a seminal 20th century work. The Latvian soloist, Baiba Skride, is clearly a major talent. Skride obtains a thick tone that is both lush and aggressive. Furthermore, unlike yesteryear’s virtuosi, she viewed the orchestra as equal partners. But her accompaniment was far too bland, resembling Lawrence Welk’s musicmaking as much as Arnold Schoenberg’s.

And yet the second half sounded like a completely different concert. Venzago spoke, quite movingly, about the orchestra’s concern for Japanese colleagues. We then heard a gorgeous orchestration of a Japanese folksong: The Moon Over The Ruined Castle - by longtime bassist and in-house arranger, Jonathan Jensen.

Almost without a pause, a not to be forgotten performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony followed. Here was the Venzago long-cherished, following Beethoven’s light speed metronome markings, but with a freedom of tempo most musicians think impossible at such high speeds. So many passages seemed reconceived in the moment as though Beethoven were a bebop jazzman. Venzago merely had to lift a finger and an entire string section would change the character of its phrasing and dynamics. The ovation which followed was enthusiastic even by the uncurbed standards of Baltimore. A musician as spontaneous as Venzago is necessarily erratic, but hearing him at his best is always worth sitting through less than that.

Concert Minis #1

On Thursday Night at Peabody Institute’s Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall in downtown Baltimore, a half-capacity audience heard the benefits, without the perils, which an academic setting can provide for music. Where else in the Baltimore-Washington area can one see two one-act French modernist operas staged?

The first opera was Les Mamelles de Tiresias (meaning The Breasts of Tiresias) by Francis Poulenc, based upon a satire by Guillaume Apollinaire. Few things date more quickly than satire, particularly if the subject is low post-WWI birth rates. Poulenc provided a neutrally beautiful score for it that could as easily accompany Greek Tragedy. The students treated the score like the masterpiece it clearly isn’t. Standouts included soprano Amber Schwarzrock and tenor Jayson Greenberg as the story’s central married couple. Finer still was the Peabody Concert Orchestra, which displayed fearsome technical standards rarely achieved by professional orchestras.

Following intermission we heard Maurice Ravel’s strange masterpiece: L’enfant et les Sortileges (The Child and the Spells). Odd it may be, but this opera is a great artistic achievement of the 20th century and heard all too rarely. The inexplicable story functions perfectly as an allegory for childhood terrors and how they prepare us for maturity. Ravel’s awesomely imaginative score matches its book weird-for-weird. This opera, with many solos for minor characters, showcased the Peabody Opera Department’s depth. Standouts included a beautifully sung role of ‘the child’ by mezzo Mary-Lacey Rogers. Also impressive were Jisoo Kim, Stephen Campbell and Alexandra Razsakoff who displayed their talents while respectively playing a Comtoise Clock, a Wedgewood Teapot, and a squirrel.

None of the above should imply that either performance was beyond reproach: a number of young singers displayed strain in roles for which their voices weren’t ready. Few singers displayed an idiomatic command of French and the orchestra was occasionally too loud to hear the singing. But all that must be weighed against a surfeit of musical sensitivity, finely nuanced acting and imaginative staging. Here’s hoping that Peabody continues to provide us with nights like this long into the future.
My brother once owned a lobster that committed suicide.

That is all.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Do The Right Thing

This is a wonderful commentary on Do The Right Thing, one of the 'Great American Movies' that looks ever greater by the year.



Today is not the day to write about it (tonight will be Big Love night), but all I can say is that I will never forget the explosive impact it had on me at my first viewing when I was fifteen, I will never forget analyzing it in Mr. Cox's senior English class, I'll never forget watching it again in college, and I hope the country never forgets that Do The Right Thing was what Barack and Michelle Obama saw on their first date.

Do The Right Thing

This is a wonderful commentary on Do The Right Thing, one of the 'Great American Movies' that looks ever greater by the year.



Today is not the day to write about it (tonight will be Big Love night), but all I can say is that I will never forget the explosive impact it had on me at my first viewing when I was fifteen, I will never forget analyzing it in Mr. Cox's senior English class, I'll never forget watching it again in college, and I hope the country never forgets that Do The Right Thing was what Barack and Michelle Obama saw on their first date.

Spring is here!



Mahler-style.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Will Future Generations Understand The Simpsons?

Matt Zoller Seitz is a fantastic critic that I don't often agree with. He seems to have become an important voice only in the last year or two, and has since proven up to the task with a veritable blizzard of articles, the sheer volume of which would make John Updike proud.

Last week he released a piece asking a question that I've often thought about myself - entitled 'Will future generations understand the Simpsons?'. In the article he makes a number of claims I find ridiculous -- like that Seinfeld has dated far faster than the Andy Griffith Show. However, I still can't blame him for asking that question.

I would be willing to argue with anyone that The Simpsons is the greatest television show that ever was or will be (or at least the first decade of it...). It was the TV show which displayed to the world what television is most capable of being. Aesthetically, of course, it's barely functional. Yet the content held within their ugly style has a constant stream of extraordinarily crafted lowbrow, highbrow and middlebrow gags that never stop being funny no matter how many times they're viewed, quoted or remembered. No live show, not even Seinfeld, could keep up with the speed of The Simpsons comedy. And, unlike Seinfeld, the fact that The Simpsons could combine so much good comedy with cultural commentary both satirical and earnest makes it more than just a great TV show. To me, The Simpsons is the most extraordinary work of art created in my formative years that I've ever had the privilege of seeing. When people remember the end of The American Century, they won't first think of Philip Roth or Quentin Tarantino, they'll think of Homer Simpson.

And yet, as much as I want to believe that, I have my doubts as well. Posterity plays tricks on us all, and nobody knows what aesthetic priorities 2150 will have. It's entirely possible that future generations will have no idea why it's hilarious that Homer screams about Sherrif Lobo in his sleep. Or why it's incredibly clever to have Mr. Burns looking vaguely (more) like a monster and speaking in rhyme after shutting down the town's power. No two generations can possibly have the same frame of cultural reference, and the meaning of lots (perhaps most)of their jokes will become lost in history's dustbin.



Nothing dates as quickly as comedy. There once was a time when Jack Benny seemed edgy and Dennis Miller didn't sound pretentious. But even the comedy that did not age changed immeasurably before our eyes. No doubt there was a time when Jacques Tahi and the Ealing Comedies seemed LOL funny. Some poeple must have convulsed with helpless laughter as they watched Alec Guinness play eight characters who are all murdered in Kind Hearts and Coronets. To our eyes, movies like the Lavender Hill Mob and M. Hulot's Holiday are still comic gems, but they are not funny in the way the Zucker Brothers or the Farelly Brothers are funny. Perhaps we're more meant to enjoy those 'high comedies' -- we are amused by them even if we don't often LOL.



In a different style of comedy, like The Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy, we also don't LOL that much. But even if we don't, we're amused. There isn't a single gag, no matter how stupid, which is beneath them if they think it'll provoke a laugh. Their desire to entertain us is nothing short of manic, and even if we don't often LOL at their antics, we can't help being entertained by 'low comedy' because there is simply so much to watch that we can't help being swept up by its spirit.



In Chaplin and Keaton, or the Marx Brothers, something still weirder is at play. The gags still occasionally make us LOL. But even when they don't, we can't help admiring the artfulness, the sheer cleverness that went into crafting something so perfect, even if it's not as funny as it once was. At their best, their movies have all the elegance of a mathematical proof, and fortunately have the added appeal of sometimes being extremely funny.

So the cliche goes, a table lasts because it's well-made. Over the years, people may see its qualities differently. But something made with as much innovation and creativity as The Simpsons is bound to have something for everyone. It's highly probable that at least 3 out of 4 jokes will not hold up in 50 years, at least not in the way which we find them funny. And yet it's entirely possible that people will still watch The Simpsons and find them as entertaining as we do. How will they see it? I have no idea, but I think it's safe to assume that they'll find something worthwhile in it.


Springfield Gorge. As far as I'm concerned it's the greatest moment in the history of television and exhibit A as to why the Simpsons will last forever.

Ian Buruma on Japanese Resilience

I can never forgive Ian Buruma for his humiliating treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali or his dangerous kowtowing to a particularly insidious form of multiculturalism (note: that does not mean that one should automatically bestow a negative connotation on multiculturalism.), but this piece on how Japan has learned from its disasters is truly wonderful. Few countries have a history of greater misfortune than Japan, and no country ever coped better with them.
The fact that Mario Venzago is not regarded as one of the great conductors of our era is a crime against music. That is all.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Quote of the Day:

Dad: I may not have been the best father, I may have been a terrible husband, but damnit, I've been a great son-in-law.

Anthony Weiner "Goes To Town" on Car Talk



I hope Anthony Weiner never runs for higher office. I hope he never runs for Mayor of New York. I would be OK with his running for Senate so long as he knows he can win. But I hope he never gets a committee chairmanship. I just hope that he stays a back-bencher congressman for the next fifty years so that he can make more speeches exactly like this one.

Anthony Weiner is exactly where he needs to be. h/t Le Malon.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Quote of the Day:

Le Malon: i LOVED prog (rock) in late high school/early college
less so now
too much of it is the very worst of both classical and rock

Streaker Scores Goal

Streaker Scores Goal
Tags: Streaker Scores Goal


h/t Jordan and Dad (I love our office). Needless to say, NSFW.

My favorite part of this clip (since there is no novelty in seeing nudity anymore) is the goalie, who not only dives for the ball but also looks incredibly pissed that he missed it.

Power in a Union

Power In A Union from JD on Vimeo.


from John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats for the State of Wisconsin.

h/t Le Malon, The Manning, Der Fersko

For Yakov Kreizberg (1959-2011)



Sad sad news.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bach on the Glass harp

Bullied Kid Fights Back

(The embedded video was disabled. Here's the link.)

This warmed my heart to see.

In Praise of Raymond Scott (edited and completed)


(yeah, he's that guy)

The act of casually listening to Raymond Scott recalls Looney Tunes from Wiley E. Coyote to Bugs Bunny. But the act of seriously listening to Raymond Scott's music feels like listening to jazz from an alternative universe -- a universe that could just as easily be operating on an infinite plane as in a pinball machine.



The rhythmic charge is not the inviting dance-along of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five or even of Count Basie. His is a manic, desperate pulse that makes one nervous even as one grows exhilarated, and yet Scott offsets the bleakness of his music with musical jokes that never fail to come at the listener in ways they'd couldn't possibly expect. The result sounds like Prokofiev with a better sense of humor, or Ligeti with more regular rhythms.


(Scott also got to electronica well before most of his compatriots in the jazz world)

One can only draw comparisons with classical composers because hardly any other jazz composer ever took this sort of autonomy for himself. Louis Armstrong may have established the primacy of a single soloist as the norm, but even Scott's big band music banishes the idea of single soloists. His music, whatever the instrumentation, adheres to an ideal of equality practically unseen outside of Dixieland and chamber music. Ensembles are never merely accompaniment and the accompaniment has all the detail of a solo. The solos themselves are of a complexity not seen again in jazz until the bebop generation.

Raymond Scott did jazz the honor of taking it seriously in an era when most white jazz musicians took every opportunity to water down the flavor of black music to make it palatable for white audiences. He didn't write 'numbers', his pieces are serious musical compositions that take the jazz idiom into the laboratory for dissection. And just when you think his music can't get stranger, he distends it through a series of fun-house mirrors. No jazzman of Scott's era, not even Ellington, took as many musical risks.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Terry Gilliam Directs Damnation of Faust



YES! Opera is a natural home for Terry Gilliam, far more than film. Gilliam possesses an explosive, surreal genius that seems totally unsuited for the realities of the film industry. Film requires a cooler, more disciplined temperament more open to compromise than theater, radio or even animation. There is a reason that Alfred Hitchcock turned out masterpiece after masterpiece while Welles spent his days begging for funding. Terry Gilliam is one of those directors who needs a place where he can rule the production like an absolute monarch. Whether such an attitude is healthy for opera is a discussion for another day. Even so, the fact remains that there is no profession in today's world that provides an artist with more autocratic control than that of the opera director.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

O Care, Thou Wilt Dispatch Me



Thomas Weelkes. Still one of history's most overlooked composers. This was published in 1600(!!).

That is all.
I feel vindicated.

Dear Goethe,

I've been trying to wrap my head around Faust for nearly eight years. As of tonight - since I'm a socially lazy person - I'm reduced watching a German Peter Stein production on my laptop (ohne subtitles) while following along with my tattered bilingual Walter Kaufmann translation that got soaked seven years ago in a tragic dishwasher accident. My German is um....sehr schlecht. I'm even uncomfortable reading Werner Herzog's tweets without subtitles.



What I learned tonight is that I think I'm finally old enough to 'get' Faust. For years I'd begin to read that high-minded transcendental irony of yours, full of earnest intention to pay tribute to the great exemplar of Kultur und Biltung. Yet within minutes my mind would invariably wander to thoughts of which Seinfeld rerun is airing. What is different this time is that tonight I found Faust relatable. And that, dear JG, is more valuable to reading than a thousand well-turned phrases in succession (no matter what Nabokov tells us to the contrary, but Nabokov was a brilliant idiot, not unlike someone you know).

You see my dear Johann Wolfgang von, what's relatable about Faust is that the more learning he accumulates, the more he realizes how many boring idiots there are to read, and the more he feels like a boring idiot himself. This is ironic because no great writer (ok,...maybe Milton) acquired a more eminent reputation as a boring idiot than you. I daresay, your reputation is at least a little deserved (though others are in far better positions to corroborate this than I), but it also conceals on crucial thing about your writing. For all the heavy weather -- endless monologues, stylized language, philosophical musings etc. -- your version of Faust contains an inexhaustible supply of sex and violence. All that magic, all that lust and worlds forbidden to humans, all those 'epic' battles that pit virtue against vice... Goethe was a fantasy writer before George R. R. Martins and Orson Scott Card were gleams in their mothers' eyes. All that transcendental irony's a plus too..

After eight years of trying to read this damn thing (EIGHT YEARS!), I've finally begun to understand it. Behind all the fearsomeness is a very basic, primal story about the limits of human understanding....I think...after all I'm still only a third of the way through.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Cataloging the internet. Fascinating.

h/t aldaily.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Quote of the Night:

The Harris: Remember, Cannibalism is for Christmas, not for life.

Quote of the Day:

The Tabak: time to go drink beer
because it's friday and I don't know what else to do
me: it's friday night over there?
The Tabak: yeah
me: i always get confused about the date line
The Tabak: it's the future!
me: ooooooohhhhhh
The Tabak: I still don't really understand how it works either
but tell me if you want any lottery numbers or sports results or anything

Dortmund Concert Milk



h/t Oboe Insight.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I buy other people's landscape paintings at yard sales and Goodwill and put monsters in them.

h/t The Tabak

Young Pops


(don't worry ----, no actual snakes.)

Everybody owes it to themselves to find any way they can to get a copy of the collection - Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 4 1/2 Hours of Satchmo from 23-34. It's like listening to the birth of 20th century music itself.
Dear Charlie Sheen,

Like the rest of America's population (at least the male half) I've watched your meltdown with perverse fascination. You have now become fodder in an article which might be the greatest anti-US propaganda article you'll ever read. Particularly the part about President Martin Sheen. Amazing.

h/t The Tabak

Wartime Adrian Boult and J B Priestly



Some extraordinary footage from 1944 here. Priestly was a famous socialist writer, a bit like the Studs Terkel of Wartime England. Frankly he's only known to me because of the love he is always reported to have of classical music. The London Philharmonic has been in grave danger for most of its existence but this is something apart. Boult was always an underrated conductor but this shows his rather extraordinary conducting technique before his dotage. Boult was a consumate professional and even if his work never had the fantasy of the other two B's of British conducting: Beecham and Barbirolli - he was a first class musician who knew his craft as few did. And just in case people think of Boult as a sclerotic old man, click below.

Dear Evan's Brain,

Why is it that every time you try to write a crowd-pleasing song for Kol Rinah you end up coming up with 'brilliant' avant-garde ideas? Just askin'.

Love,

Evan

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mountains is Dead, Long Live Mountains


(From Pan's Labyrinth. In all sorts of ways, one of the most terrifying scenes in the history of movies.)

This news is really disappointing. Guillermo Del Toro is one of the authentic great 'artists' today - and a rare one who finds it as easy to do good camp like Hellboy as he does high-minded fantasy like Pan's Labyrinth. Like most of the greats, hitting up against reality proves very difficult. He spent two years waiting to direct 'The Hobbit' while Peter Jackson struggled to raise with the appropriate funds. He is now walking away from a second project, 'At the Mountains of Madness' because Universal Pictures refused to fund the picture if it had an R-rating. This may go down in movie history as one of the most astonishingly wrong plays of all time. A film like this could be the first to take the cheap artificiality of James Cameron's 3-D vision and turn it into some real art. Even if people in less numbers came to the theaters, those who did would have come to see this movie again and again on a level well past Avatar.

Film is not an artform that takes kindly to patience. Like so many of the big Scorsese projects which he couldn't make until years after he announced them, 'At the Mountains of Madness' could come out freeze-dried after years of red-lights, its conception drained of its innovativeness by the passage of time. If so, the loss will be ours.

Name Anagram

http://deanjackson.dj/nameanagram/

Evan Tucker is apparently an anagram for CUTER KNAVE (I've been described as a knave many times, but cute? probably not in twenty years.)

Atkins Diet: Week 3

Daniel Radciliffe Sings Tom Lehrer's Periodic Table Song



I like him more now.

Strauss Lullaby



For my birthday, I would like to propose an e-toast to sleeping more easily. May we all find the ability to do so in the coming year.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

An Open Letter to an Old Friend

Dear Bob V. (a pseudonym),

It's been a long, long time. I'm fairly sure the last time I saw you was at my 23rd birthday party at The Brickskellar. You were the last person to leave and you made a point of telling me what a bright future you thought I had. Hearing that from you meant an enormous amount to me then and still means a lot to me now.

Brickskellar closed at the end of last year, today is my 29th birthday and my future, like everybody else's, gets darker and brighter as the days wax and wane. Time goes by, and memory often counterfeits what one would like to remember.

In many ways the college days feel like an eon ago, but in some ways I still feel like I'm living them. My memories of everyone I knew well at AU have not a whit grown dim -- not yet at least. And neither have my memories of the things we all did: The 5-in-the-morning conversations, the boozy days and cigarette-soaked nights; the out-of-our-league girls we all longed for and the kids barely nerdier than us about whom we talked smack so ruthlessly, the dreams we all had for our futures and the deep fears we had of what we might become. You and I may not have been the very closest of friends, but you and I knew each other quite well, and I know that you have as many of these memories as I do -- sometimes involving one another. I hope you value these memories as I always have.

Everyone under the age of 35 collects mentors the way old people collect stamps. We all need models for how to behave, and even if our mentors sometimes point us in the wrong direction, at least they give us the direction we need and filter out the confusion which all of us feel when we first realize the difficulties with which life will continually present us.

You always seemed to collect mentees -- after you graduated I can't deny that I did exactly the same thing, but you collected far more and with far greater devotion than I ever did. In your time at AU, you had a whole basket full of us. Insecure, bookish younger kids (usually guys but not always) who flocked to you because the generosity of your mind extended to having an opinion about every subject. Even if we knew we disagreed with you, even if some of your opinions seemed totally bereft of nuance, there is something incredibly comforting about thinking that the world can be understood through a single prism. So long as all the facts can be framed through a single frame, the world seems less confusing and less dangerous.

And on top of all that, there were two simple facts. The first was that you were a genius, with a force of personality to match. You would extol ideas about modern media that seemed either visionary or lunacy in 2002, and in 2011 most of them are considered conventional wisdom. Anyone who came across you could not come away without your having made an enormous impression, whether positive or negative never mattered. Everyone who met you knew, consciously or unconsciously, that all you had to do to bend the world to your vision of it was to be yourself.

The second reason was still simpler: I liked you. Even before we met, I knew we'd get on when I heard the story about you spitting in the face of Jack A.(another pseudonym) after he said that America had brought 9/11 on itself. Even if I probably agreed with what he said at that time in my life, the simple fact of someone with the guts to do something like that meant that I knew I could not possibly lack for entertainment by being around you.

Dear Evan's Inner Monologue,

You're a bit like a mythical beast which I'm not sure exists. Most people aren't either.

Quote of Last Night

Ethan: As far as gifts go, your talent of predicting what's about to happen in bad movies is really dumb. But a gift is a gift.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Gentle Rain



Tony Bennett was, at his best, a nostalgia artist. With the Rat Pack in decline, Bobby Darin and Bing Crosby dead, Mel Torme too ugly and Perry Como in semi-retirement, Bennett became an American icon --representing 'The Crooner' in the age of Michael Jackson and Madonna. But even if he was not the most important crooner, or the greatest, he still made some lovely music over the years.

36 Hitchcock Death Scenes



Synchronized to occur at the exact same moment. h/t Sister of Die Weishampel.

The greatest line I've ever heard about Hitchcock has to come from Truffaut when he presented Hitchcock the honorary Oscar. 'Many Americans love French films because we film love scenes like they're scenes of murder. We in France love Hitch because he films murder scenes like scenes of love.'

Quote of the Afternoon:

Der Koosh: there are only two genres of literature that people remember after reading 500 pages of
1) War and Peace
2) Erotica

Quote of the Morning:

The Manning: HEY
what's wrong with blues traveler?
hmmm?

Washington Post March



My review in the Washington Post is up.

Les Miserables Fan Video



I'm not one for fan videos, but this is really excellent. It takes footage from the 1998 film version and superimposes it onto 'Do You Hear The People Sing'. Rather than trivializing the (already slightly trivial) song, it amplifies the epic sweep which the song is intended to make us feel.

I spent most of tonight watching the 25th anniversary concert for Les Miserables. As a production it was pretty awful, but for nostalgia's sake it was a long-overdue revisit to a piece I've known from memory since I was six years old.

I'd hardly claim Les Miz as an extraordinary work of art. The only part of it that rings of true genius is the organizational acumen required to create the franchise it became -- if Cameron Mackintosh were a General, he'd have wrapped up Iraq and Afghanistan by the second year.

But we underestimate Les Miz's quality at our own risk. It is a solidly built musical that translates the epic sweep of 19th century literature -- preserving all its outsize passions, its melodrama, its social consciousness, and its ridiculousness -- into a vernacular that contemporary audiences can understand. It is, very simply, a great musical. Is it great art? Probably not. But who cares?

Also, even if the musical is not a great work of art, the long-awaited movie version now has a chance to be so. I've long thought that for Les Miz to work on the screen, it would have to be steeped in realism. We must see the dirt in the Parisian streets and the yellow of the character's teeth. News recently leaked that the Les Miz movie will, most likely, be directed by Tom Hooper. Most people now know Hooper as the director of The King's Speech. But I know Hooper as the director of the extraordinary (albeit uneven) miniseries based on the life of John Adams. Hooper recreated Colonial America so vividly that I have near-infinite faith in his ability to do the same for 1848 Paris.


(Amazing. Just watch. If this is not the man to direct Les Miz, nobody is)