Friday, July 30, 2010

PBS re-airs Met's production of Bellini's "La sonnambula"; perhaps a complement to "Inception"

On July 29, 2010, some PBS stations re-aired the March 2009 broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera of Vincenzo Bellini’s “La sonnambula”  ("The Sleepwalker"), with Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez, as produced by Mary Zimmerman.

Maryland Public Television’s listing is this. A typical review (opera critic) is here.

Zimmerman’s production is “layered”. It is set up as a dress rehearsal in a New York City loft apartment overlooking Union Square, with the Swiss Village constructed inside the apartment. The “dress rehearsal” format makes unusual psychological demands of the performers, who say they have to give much more of themselves, and some of whom even wore their own clothes. (The concept reminds me of an important social function that happened my high school senior year in my own basement.)

The music is in bel canto style, with recitativs, arias and choruses and sounds lightweight to many ears, even compared to Verdi. But the opera is fairly early romantic, completed in 1831.

PBS stations may have become a little more interested in airing an opera about sleepwalking given the recent hype over the movie “Inception.”

The Metropolitan Opera offers a synopsis of the plot, however implausible, here.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

White House presents Paul McCartney, with Library of Congress Gerswhin Prize for Popular Song

On June 2, 2010, the White House held a 75-minute “fete” in the East Wing, where President Obama presented Paul McCartney (at one time from the Beatles) with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The prize is based on a lifetime pattern of contribution to music, not on one specific item. WETA rebroadcast the event on Wednesday July 28.

The President introduced the concert by noting that most popular music isn’t intended to last down through generations (a point I have talked about in the inverse), but McCartney was the exception. “Serious” music (we call it “classical”) is supposed to be immortal. I remember being taught that in piano lessons at third grade.

The Jonas Brothers appeared, with Nick the most visible. Jerry Seinfeld appeared to talk about “nothing”. Stevie Wonder and Lang Lang also performed.

The WETA PBS website account is here.

George Gershwin, with "Rhapsody in Blue", "Porgy and Bess" and his Piano Concerto in F, is viewed as the composer who merged classical and "popular" music. That would be a less applicable comment to Leonard Bersntein, whose output gradually became more "serious" in the tradition of Mahler.

Pictures: My own “festival” papers from piano lesson days, and the “trademark” for the Sherwood Music School courses popular in the 1950s (a salesman actually came to our home to present it).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

PBS airs Vox Lumiere's performance of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"

Tonight, some PBS stations aired the musical “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” as performed by Vox Lumiere and music and lyrics (22 songs, starting with “Just One Day”) by composer Kevin Saunders Hayes. The production is directed by Michael King. (Imdb lists it as officially titled "Vox Lumiere: The Hunchback of Notre Dame" , which as a "film" belongs to DPTV and may have had very limited theatrical presentations since 2008.

The basic website is here.

There is a photo album of Flickr here.

The music incorporates the Cirque du Soleil.

The dancing and lyrical songs are performed with the backdrop of the 1923 silent film of the novel, projected on a back screen in black and white. (Lon Chaney was Quasimodo in that film.) The novel is about a peasant revolt in 15th Century Paris.


Vox Lumiere-The Hunchback of Notre Dame - PBS Trailer from Vox Lumiere on Vimeo.


I saw the 1996 animated film of the novel from Walt Disney Studios.

Wikipedia attribution link for photo of Notre Dame in Paris.  I was there in May 2001.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Orchestras take to texting for encores, even "development"

The New York Times on Thursday July 22 offered an interesting article by Daniel J. Wakin in the Arts Section about symphony orchestras using text-message technology to solicit encores at concerts, secure contributions, and provide special packages to subscribers. The article is “Text-Message Virtuosos: Orchestras Seek BFF”, link here.

I’ve had two jobs with orchestras, one calling for contributions to a Guaranty Fund (Minnesota, 2002), and one selling subscriptions (Washington, in 2003). During those times, the jobs were completely manual and orchestras had not really caught up with using Internet technology for marketing. It seems as though social networking sites, especially Facebook, have changed their approach considerably.

A Dumbarton Concert in April allowed the audience to vote on paper what pieces they wanted a string quartet to play in the second half of a concert.

But technology seems to be changing the way operas, symphony orchestras, chamber groups, and individual classical musicians market themselves.

The media has widely reported the passing of Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, 84, as with this bbc link.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Pianist in Florida dazzles at age 101

I’ve documented very young pianists here, but I thought I would pass along an ABC news story about Gertrude Matthews, who at age 101 and with no disabilities, plays piano at a restaurant in Palm Beach, FL. It does sound like Trump country.

The music was mostly “popular” in tone, but she demonstrated great technique in the piano clip.



Artur Rubenstein played concerts until age 89. He made many of his major early stereo recordings for RCA (especially of Rachmaninoff) while in his 70s.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Remember the days of vinyl record wear and inner groove distortion?

When I took piano starting in the early 1950s, the teacher had a Wednesday afternoon “class” where she taught ear training in her Arlington basement by playing records, many of which were old 78’s. I seem to remember one of a prelude from “La Traviata”.

One time we had a “high fidelity” and record care lesson, which was an introduction to LP records and some instruction on how they should be handled.

At home, I had an old RCA Victor LP record changer with a tone arm that tracked at 10 grams and we used sapphire needles until the summer after my graduation from high school. A high school buddy that summer mentioned the days of wood needles!

At William and Mary that lost fall semester of 1961, I met a freshman from California who claimed to have composed 57 symphonies, and at least one piano concerto in E-flat which he played in piano reduction for me one time in a practice room in Ewell Hall. I still could reconstruct it by ear now (maybe I will if I buy an electric piano).

He talked about record care and gave me some old records, including a brittle old Columbia of the Bach Schubler chorales, and Bruno Walter Mozart 25th (little G Minor) and 28th symphonies. He used to say no one should play Beethoven until 30, and considered the “real music” to end with Schubert. I remember a particular conversation about the Schubert B-flat sonata.

During my NIH “incarceration” in the fall of 1962, my parents “gave in” and bought me a Voice of Music Stereo. I remember the first music that I played on a home stereo was the opening movement of the Mahler 7th on Westminster (another gift from John). The effect was stunning. But on Christmas Day I would get Beethoven’s Ninth (Angel, Klemperer) and Mahler’s Fourth (also Angel and Klemperer). The first stereo record in the basement would be the sleighbell opening of the Mahler Fourth. (For the Mahler First and Ninth I “grew up” on Horenstein on Vox).

But once I had a VM stereo, I found that all the records with piano had been ruined as they got into the inner grooves. That included, for example, the wonderful climax at the end of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. The piano would completely break up. The stereo (.7 mil) stylus would get covered with black vinyl shavings. I tried replacing the other-side 78 stylus with a 1-mil stylus for mono records to reduce the effective tracking force. At the time, around 1963, the Girrard Changer tracking at 3 grams was considered advanced, but technology would improve quickly. Pretty soon elliptical styli were introduced, but they actually presented less surface area and could cause more wear.

In 1974, in New York City, I bartered away a Miracord turntable and tonearm for a piece of sculpture of a space alien by artist Stuart Lamle.

Record stores sold little magnifying glasses to check styli. I would wonder if a broken or chipped stylus could ruin an entire collection without being noticed until replacement.

When CD’s were introduced in 1983 (I started buying them in 1985; “Also Sprach Zarathustra” on London was the first), people said they would last forever, but that may not be true. Maybe a few decades. Temperature and humidity can damage them, as can the rubber foam on multiple sets, which should be discarded.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

A Capitol Fourth: Got there this year

A Capitol Fourth tonight, well, it was warm and dry, and I got there from the Washington Monument side, walking throuhg the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which had a pavaillion "El Salon Mexico" (actually a tone poem of Aaron Copland).



PBS has the best account of the concert program, here. PBS WETA in Washington is good enough to rebroadcast the entire concert at 10 PM.


Just a few remarks. When Rachmaninoff’s “18th Variation” (from the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) is played by itself, it seems to represent the composer. (But the Third Concerto Finale would be a bit heavy for a Capitol Fourth.)

I’d love to hear the piano and orchestra rendition of “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca (Warner Brothers’s trademark).

As for Sousa and The Washington Post March, I remember a 78 record of that, I think on Capitol Records. It cost 79 cents in 1949.

Just as the fireworks start, we hear the Kate Smith (and for that matter, Ronald Reagan) special, “God Bless America” (sung by Reba McEntire).

David Archuleta (who got past Simon Cowell, remember) sung. In 2004, Clay Aiken sang.

As for the Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture, again, the NSO played only the recapitulation and coda (though with Chorus, making it sound a bit like the coronation scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Gudonov). It’s interesting to me that it’s called an “Overture Solenelle” and that it celebrates commemorate Russia's defense of Moscow against Napoleon's advancing Grande Armée at the Battle of Borodino in 1812, and has nothing to do with America’s War of 1812. As the overture concluded, extra cannons went off near the Capitol Reflecting Pool, and it was followed by another medley of non-Mahler marches.

My first recording of that work was an old Somerset, and then (when I got stereo in 1962) a friend gave me a second copy of a Mercury recording (Dorati, I think) with the Capriccio Italienne on the back (not Tchaikovsky’s best, which for my ear, is something like the close of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony.)

At a "Freedom Plaza" tent, an evangelical preacher was trying to save souls with some good ole'time religion. In lower light, the camera wouldn't resolve on him, and the picture (right above) came out fuzzy.



Friday, July 02, 2010

Vincent D'Indy and "French" romanticism

We sometimes have the impression that French romanticism in music is a little less idealistic and more superficial than what we call “German romanticism” or the Viennese post-romantic school (basically inspired by Schubert but running through Mahler, Bruckner and Strauss and leading to early Schoenberg).

The Symphony #2 by Vincent d’Indy, Op 57, written around 1903, slightly over age 50, certainly challenges this impression. I have the Koch recording with James DePriest and the Monte Carlo Philharmonic and an older EMI with the Toulouse Symphony which is not as impressive. The Koch recording has a tone poem "Souvenirs" which has many of the same technical manners but ends quietly and is much less impressive to me.

The symphony, in four conventional movements and running about 45 minutes, seems to have all the mannerisms of impressionism, with the use of the whole tone scale in places, and rich palates, sometimes resembling Ravel a bit. Often there is a ground bass effect, with various winds strings playing fast over top in complex triple meters. But in the finale, the music settles into a grand passacaglia at the end, and builds up to what is an absolutely apocalyptic climax and conclusion. I remember back in the 1980s that the new company Records International remarked about the brazen conclusion of the work. You wonder, why B-flat instead of C.

This work is more subtle than Franck's famous D minor symphony; Chausson's, also in B-flat, makes a good comparison but it dwindles away at the end.

I guess the “first” symphony was really a piano sinfonia concertante, the Symphony on a French Mountain Air, which, if you tune in to the radio in the middle, sounds like a very snazzy piano concerto.

D’Indy’s style is certainly much more “Parisian” than, say, Saint-Saens, whom one really can call the “French Beethoven”.

But a comparison of D’Indy to Debussy is instructive. The other day I played a CD of Debussy’s early Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, and it reminded me of the Arabesque that I studied when I was taking piano as a teen. The piece seems a bit silly. When I hear “La Mer”, cited as a masterpiece of impressionism, I come away with the “impression” of just that: a picture, without much induced emotion. I had an RCA LP as a teen of Munch’s recording of “Iberia”, and it seemed a little “superficial” to me. I was almost like “pop music.” On the other hand, Debussy’s “Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian" is quite engaging at climactic in a manner like that of d'Indy's work here.

In a few spots, the music of young composer Tudor Dominik Maican seems to seek these kinds of effects (as I have heard it at Dumbarton Concerts) and he titled at least one of his piano pieces in French (go to this NPR web page and note on the left the piano piece, somewhat impressionistic to my ear. "Where the sea meets the sky" has sometimes been used as a euphemism for Fire Island, NY.)

Once we got into 20th century atonality, as conventionally understood, the French Pierre Boulez sounded a lot more radical to my ear than did "Viennese" composers Schoenberg, Berg, or even Webern.