Monday, July 20, 2009

Classical pianists face heightened risk of carpal tunnel injury

The Sacramento Bee carried a story July 15 by Edward Ortiz on carpal tunnel syndrome for musicians, who do not like to admit (or cannot afford to admit) to a music performance related injury. The Scripps Howard link is here. The most vulnerable seem to be classical pianists, and sometimes surgery is necessary. The article recommends changing practice habits and techniques. I don’t recall anything like this from my nine years of piano as a boy, but I never experienced this kind of intensity of practice.

The story appears on p 27 in print in the DC Examiner July 20.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Interesting old pianos visible at Ashlawn-Highland (James Monroe's home)

Yesterday I also visited the former home of James Monroe, (the facility is called Ashlawn-Highland), near Charlottesville. The facility now belongs to the College of William and Mary.

The newer, two-story building was constructed in the late 19th Century after a fire, and Monroe never saw that building. But in the original, one-level portion, in the salon there was a curious fortepiano that appeared to span only a little more than five octaves, about 66 keys. Some of Mozart’s piano sonatas were composed for a more restricted piano range and timber.

There was a copy of sheet music on top with the heading “Sonatas” but I couldn’t see the composer’s name (“do not touch”). The music had a lot of eighth-note scales in the natural A minor key and looked perfunctory. The sonata may have been by Domenico Scarlatti or Domenic Paradies. The guide said that Monroe's older daughter played te instrument "badly."

The “staff” area of the new building had a full piano visible, and I don’t know why it wasn’t in the public areas for the tour.

The facility did not allow indoor picture taking, so I can’t show the actual piano here.

Attribution link for Wikimedia GNU picture of fortepiano.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Richard Strauss: Capriccio: meta-opera and "a conversation piece for music"

It’s common in AP and college English classes to give students (especially on ETS exams) questions on analyzing literature for “what it is”, so it seems curious to find that somebody wrote an opera that does that. This is Richard Strauss and his last opera “Capriccio”, staged first in Munich in 1942, before the consequences of war would come down on the German people – and Paris, where the opera seems to happen, was under occupation. The DVD from TDK (2004) tells us that – and I wonder at the outset why a 2-1/2 hour opera required 2 DVD’s.

Strauss called the opera “A Conversation Piece for Music” and perhaps it is the most layered opera ever written, something like the operatic equivalent of the 2001 film “Adaptation”. Strauss and the original conductor Clemens Kruass wrote the libretto, again unusual in opera.

The music carries some nostalgia but doesn’t seem as challenging as Strauss’s earlier operas (“Elektra” is confrontational). The sextet in the opening seems to echo the mood of “Metamorphesen” and the music only gradually thickens toward the staged opera scene toward the end. The gentle ending contains some bizarre harmonic progressions not in the books.

The “plot” is familiar enough, or maybe not: a countess (Rene Flemming) and her brother can compare suitors. But the countess herself has two suitors, to pose the Wordsworth-like question: which comes first” music, or words. Reiner Traut plays Flamand, the composer, and Gerald Finley is Olivier, the poet. The two must cooperate to create a new
“opera within the opera”

When I came into listening to classical music in the 1950s, the opera was still relatively recent, and a bit of a mystery in those days, sometimes too nebulous to ears conditioned by the vigor of the younger Strauss’s tone poems and operas.

The “Free Library” has a brief summary of the cast of the performance. Capriccio; Left to right: Gerald Finley (Olivier), Rainer Trost (Flamand) and Renee Fleming (the Countess) in the Paris Opera production.

Attribution link for Wikimedia image of Metropolitan Opera House, New York

Friday, July 10, 2009

Kaija Saariaho: "Love from Afar": Finnish opera opens the 21st Century

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Finnish National Opera on a Deutch Grammophon DVD of the 2000 opera from female Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, “L’amour de loin”, or Love from Afar. The libretto, in French, is by Amin Maalouf.

It’s easier to appreciate the work first in terms of its building blocks: the visuals and the sounds. The staging (directed by Peter Sellars) is mostly abstract, and seems other-worldly, suitable for science fiction. In the opening act, the longing lover Jaufre (Gerald Finley) sings on a metallic staircase that looks like a DNA helix. The colors start with blues but change later to oranges and reds. Then the boat itself is abstract, a white geometric form in a featureless sea, almost as if it were an object from “The Matrix.” The DVD itself opens with a waterside picture of the Helsinki opera house, complete with geometric angles.

The setting takes place in the 12th Century, in France and in Tripoli and at sea, but it seems to the viewer that it could just as well take place on Solaris, in another solar system.

The music to me sounds a bit like Ligeti, although the solo singing is loud. To me it sometimes sounds more like the atonality of Boulez than of the Viennese composers (although a couple of times it recedes to the mood of the ending of Wozzeck). Sometimes the music sounds declamatory.

The plot comes across as a schizoid fantasy, and perhaps a paradox, exploring “aesthetic realism”. A troubadour longs for real love, and yet clings to the notion that a perfect woman afar exists. The Pilgrim is the intermediary with the actual woman Clemence (Dawn Upshaw). The troubadour will fall into ill health out of his questionable search, leading to tragedy. Yet he sings “I want to live again” as the Pilgrim attempts CPR!

At the end, the performers wade on a stage covered in sea water for the applause.

The composer had been influenced by Messian’s opera “St. Francis of Assisi”.

The DVD offers several interviews. Sellars says that the opera shows the connections between East and West and counters the idea of a "culture war." Kaija Saariaho says that she came up with her own treatment of the story, originally with five characters, and had some difficulty determining what the music for some characters should be. Salonen talks about physical and tone color changing constantly and abou the "slowness" of the music.

I recall that when I was “coming out” in 1973, there was a gay bar called “The Troubadour” on the Upper East Side then. I don’t know what became of it.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

A Capitol Fourth (Independence Day 233) on the Mall

On Saturday, July 4, 2009 PBS WETA broadcast the 233rd birthday party for the nation from the Mall in Washington, with a concert that started at 8 PM, under cloudy, cooler than usual skies. The Nationals had played in the afternoon and actually won, for a change. The website for the performance is here.

Jimmy Smits was the host. Aretha Franklin sang a rhapsodic Star Spangled Banner, and Barry Manilow came on with a medley, but he didn’t sing “Rhinestone Cowboy” (link) which I remember hearing so many times around 1976 when working the night shift at NBC.

The highlight of the concert, for me at least, was George Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" (E Major) in a two piano version with dual soloists Michael Feinstein and Andrew von Oeven. The Steinways were put in symmetrical plush position. Both pianists used a lot of cross-hands and aggressive piano style, already mentioned in the May 14 review of the Andres concert. Erich Kunzel conducted the National Symphony.

Sesame Street came on with its Muppets (remember the “Five People in my Family” stuff from about 1970), as did the Cast of Jersey Boys.

Manilow did a reprise “Let Freedom Ring,” whence the fireworks from the Reflecting Pool area started, and then the orchestra played the last eight or so minutes (the recapitulation and coda) of Tchaikowsky’s “1812 Overture Solennel”. I think the piece works much better if played in its entirety. The Choral Arts Society of Washington joined in with a chorus that sounded like it came from “Reds”. I remember a similar choral passage from Prince Igor, the coronation scene (Mussorgsky), that played on a stereo back in the 1970s during a particular “first” for me.

The Military District of Washington bands and choruses performed afterward as the fireworks continued much longer than in past years.

I remember some other concerts in person, such as 1997 and 2000 particularly. In 2000, in fact, I flew back to Minneapolis early July 5 (diverted by storms to Duluth), only to find another “Fourth” concert in suburban Minneapolis on July 6!

Picture: local fireworks, Arlington VA

Update: July 5: ("The Fifth of July")

Today is just one of remembrance for the iconcolastic play named after this day (reviewed April 2007 on this blog).

Friday, July 03, 2009

Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart " and "The Destiny of Me" (from Grove Press, of course!)

I don’t find a DVD of any of Larry Kramer’s AIDS-related plays on Netflix, but Grove Press (of course!) offers a paperback volume of “The Normal Heart” and the sequel “The Destiny of Me”, ISBN 0-8021-3692-3. (Grove was right down 11th Street from the Cast Iron Building when I lived in that building from 1974-1978.)

The Normal Heart” was performed first on April 21, 1985 at the Public Theater in New York City, as part of the New York Shakespeare Festival Production, and was directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Brad Davis plays the main protagonist, Ned Weeks.

The actual play, in two acts. takes place from 1981-1984, runs 106 pages, and reads quickly. Ned Weeks, who is a protagonist surrogate of Larry Kramer himself, helps found “the organization: which is really the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, but is eventually expelled from his own organization. In the last scene he has a commitment ceremony (long before the gay marriage debate blossomed) with Felix, who then passes away.

The passages in the play describe the rapid progress of the epidemic in the early days, when the number of reported cases doubled every six months, with geometric spread. The play mentions The New York Native, the loud weekly newspaper edited by Charles Ortleb, which I subscribed to by mail even though I lived in Dallas. All the usual political debates occur, including the need to fend off the religious right. The seeming lack of sympathy from the Reagan administration and sometimes the mainstream press is well covered, as are some of the conspiracy theories that Ortleb often published in the Native. I thought Ortleb was a bit crazy, but his researcher friend John Beldakas said, “he has a right to be crazy.” I actually visited the premises of the Native in February 1986.

I also remember my experiences as an assistant “buddy” with the Oak Lawn Counseling Center in Dallas. The disease went through the Dallas community in 1985 and 1986 like a tornado. Men would come back from hospital stays for pneumocystis pneumonia, “robust enough” at first, but with their forearms shaved from wrist to elbow for multiple iv’s. Sometimes one saw the dark purple skin masses (often just under the skin) of Kaposi’s sarcoma – and this became much less common as the epidemic wore on. (Some early cases were quite brutal, as on Geraldo Rivera's May, 1983 ABC 20-20 report; at one point, a tabloid wrote "AIDS eats its victims." KS is also covered in the play. Of course, we know the story of the discovery of HTLV-III which would soon be called HIV-1, and the also correlating discover that KS was probably related to the activation of a specific herpes virus (HHV-6) which could become carcinogenic in an immunosuppressed person.

The second play, in three acts, runs in 1992, and actually opened in October 1992 at the Lucille Lortel Theater in New York. Ned picks up at that time, as he participates in research for a cure, where again all kinds of political and social objections surface. In this play, the values of the heterosexual world are expressed more directly, as in one scene where intercourse and procreation are explained to a child.

The printed version has a 25-page introduction (dating from 2000) by Tony Kushner (“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”, a play which became an HBO television series and is available as 2 DVD’s; also an opera by Composer Peter Eötvös). Kushner bashes the gay right (whether it calls itself “conservative” like Gay Patriot or libertarian, like GLIL, or both, as in my DADT books – he think’s it’s neither – rather like the second reviewer of my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book on Amazon). He writes “with ‘personal responsibility’ as their battle cry, the gay and lesbian right seeks to remove homosexual enfranchisement from its place as a chapter in the book of liberation and paste it squarely in the book of the irresistible rise of entrepreneurial individualism.” He then goes on to compare the “gay right” notion of “personal responsibility” with Larry Kramer’s, which is still more a collective idea, comparable to a reaction to the Holocaust; Kramer says “we must save ourselves.” That’s an idea that Christianity (Rick Warren style) supposedly rejects, that anyone can save himself. Yet, at a deeper level, perhaps Judeo-Christian tradition demands it.

"By the way", my own first experience with New York theater was on a college weekend trip in 1964, when I went to the Circle in the Square when it was in Greenwich Village (those were the bad days, of the New York World’s Fair, when bars were closed down) and saw "The Trojan Women" (Euripides) as I best recall.

Update: May 27, 2014

HBO has a new film of "The Normal Heart" by Ryan Murphy (135 minutes).  Due to travel and misreading of schedules, I saw only the conclusion. I will review in full after a rebroacast, DVD,, or availability on HBO GO.  Mark Ruffalo is Ned Weeks.  There is mention of Alan Turing's winning WWII, and the closing credits note that Ronald Reagan never mentioned AIDS until Sept. 17, 1985, and actually cut the budget for AIDS funding ion 1986.  The film shows various angry demonstrations.  The credits also say that 36 million people have died of HIV disease worldwide.