Sunday, June 29, 2008

Safe Arrivals

Everyone arrived safely yesterday.

My older brother and his family arrived late yesterday morning, and we all went to the airport to retrieve them and bring them home. We stayed in the rest of the day, catching up on things and playing with my nephew. My nephew had a ball all afternoon and evening, what with so many persons (and a dog) to play with him.

My brother from Denver arrived very, very late last night. It was almost 12:30 a.m. when he pulled in. We were all waiting up for him (except my nephew). We were very glad to see him. I made him a big breakfast to welcome him home, and then we put him to bed after his long drive.

This morning we went to church, and my brothers had an opportunity to visit with friends and acquaintances. We have otherwise remained home today, getting some last-minute things ready for our week at the lake.

We will head out early tomorrow morning, and return sometime Saturday evening.

In the excitement of our departure, I hope we don’t forget the dog.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Music For Independence Day

For the last couple of weeks, Joshua and I have been listening to six discs of American music, a preparation of sorts for Independence Day.

My parents and I have a longstanding practice of listening to American music this time of year, and Josh and I have been maintaining this tradition.

The discs we chose this year did not involve any “tough” music, unlike a couple of the discs we chose last year (I do not think that Josh derived much enjoyment last year from Gunther Schuller’s “Symphony 1965” or William Schuman’s Symphony No. 7—in fact, that Gunther Schuller work from last year made Josh grind his teeth). Instead, this year we stuck to a more “populist” vein.

The discs we chose this year were:

“After The Ball”, a recital of Victorian songs performed by Joan Morris and William Bolcom, on the Nonesuch label

Antheil’s “Ballet Mechanique” and other Antheil works, performed by the New Palais Royale Orchestra And Percussion Ensemble under Maurice Peress, on the MusicMasters label

Music of Jerome Kern, performed by the Audubon Quartet, on the Centaur label

American orchestral music of Ives, Barber, Copland, Cowell and Creston, performed by The Academy Of Saint-Martin-In-The-Fields under Neville Marriner, on the Decca label

Choral Music of Samuel Barber and William Schuman, performed by The Joyful Company Of Singers under Peter Broadbent, on the ASV label

Orchestral Music Of Aaron Copland, performed by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra under the composer, on the Sony label

“After The Ball: A Treasury Of Turn Of The Century Popular Songs” was the very first recital disc that the husband-and-wife team of Morris-and-Bolcom ever made. Recorded in 1974, it made Morris and Bolcom virtually household names among music lovers in the U.S., and the popular team followed up “After The Ball” with numerous other recordings of light, popular repertory over the next three decades.

None of the ensuing discs, however, has probably developed the high reputation that “After The Ball” has always enjoyed from the day it was first issued.

“After The Ball” is a very special disc. Morris is ideal in these parlor songs, sentimental ballads and novelty numbers, capturing the particular ethos of the era in which these songs were written—and without any “archness” ever creeping into her performances. This cannot have been easy. In other hands, such material might have invited maudlin, even camp, treatment. Morris avoids any such dangers, singing these faded old songs simply, without adornment, without excess emotion, and free from any undercurrent of contemporary “interpretation”. This is the disc for which Morris will always be remembered.

From this recording, it is clear that Morris was a lovely singer in the 1970’s. Her timbre was not interesting and there was little color in her voice, but her intonation was pure, her phrasing simple, natural and eloquent, and her enunciation always clear but unaffected.

In 1974, as captured by the microphones, this was a voice of sheen and bloom that was very affecting. In later years, this sheen and bloom were gone (last autumn, Josh and I and my mother listened to Morris’s “Orchids In The Moonlight” disc, recorded in 1996; Morris remained a stylist in 1996, but any special vocal quality was gone).

I was surprised how many of the songs on “After The Ball” I had heard before, and so was Josh. In addition to the title song, we already knew “Good Bye, My Lady Love”, “A Bird In A Gilded Cage”, “I’ve Got Rings On My Fingers”, “Meet Me In Saint Louis, Louis” and “Wait Till The Sun Shines, Nellie”. Wherever had we heard these old songs before? In most cases, we had no clue, but they had entered our consciousness somewhere along the way.

One genre of popular song from turn-of-the-century America is omitted entirely from Morris’s anthology: the genre known as “coon songs”. Indeed, the most popular song in America for much of the 1890’s was Ernest Hogan’s “All Coons Look Alike To Me”, followed by “The Coons Are On Parade” and “New Coon In Town”. In fact, coon songs were a national—and worldwide—craze in the 1890’s, coinciding perfectly with the advent of ragtime.

Irving Berlin wrote coon songs. Much of the repertory of John Philip Sousa’s band was comprised of coon songs. Sophie Tucker got her start as a “coon shouter”—a singer of coon songs—in Vaudeville.

Coon songs were particularly popular in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna and, to a lesser extent, in Scandinavian countries and the Latin countries of Italy and Spain. Even Russia spent a decade in the thrall of coon songs. The genre only died, in the U.S. and elsewhere, several years after World War I (although it continued to thrive in Germany through the 1930’s, despite—or perhaps because of—Nazi efforts to suppress coon songs).

Many coon songs were written by black songwriters, including the ones generally acknowledged as most offensive. Ernest Hogan was black, and late in life he defended “All Coons Look Alike To Me” on the basis that the song had been “good for show business”.

The liner notes of “After The Ball” fail to make note of this forgotten genre, creating a gaping hole in what purports to be an anthology.

Josh hated “After The Ball”.

“Ballet Mechanique” made the name of New Jersey-born George Antheil known throughout the world at the time of its premiere in Paris in 1926, but Antheil’s fame was short-lived and he was virtually forgotten at the time of his death in 1959.

Antheil later arranged “Ballet Mechanique” for conventional orchestra, but the original version—and the version heard on the MusicMasters disc—called for instrumentation of three xylophones, four bass drums, gong, two pianos, sixteen synchronized player pianos, pitched electric bells, siren and three airplane propellers (of different pitches).

“Ballet Mechanique” was the height of modernism in 1926—the Paris premiere created a sensation, and the first American performance in 1927 caused a similar commotion—but it quickly faded from view. This was so for two reasons: its instrumentation may have been unusual, but its music materials were feeble, weakly developed and weakly manipulated; and Aaron Copland, vastly more talented than Antheil, was soon to dominate American modernism with a steady stream of more bracing and more finely-crafted works.

The MusicMasters performance was recorded shortly after a 1989 Carnegie Hall concert at which the 1927 American premiere of “Ballet Mechanique” was recreated. There is very little actual music-making involved in “Ballet Mechanique” once basic tempos have been set. The music merely drones on for 27 boring minutes before it is over. The piece does not improve with repeated listens.

The rest of the disc is devoted to Antheil compositions that were programmed along with “Mechanique” at its 1927 American premiere and at the 1989 concert recreation.

Most interesting is Jazz Symphony, the only interesting Antheil work I have ever encountered. It is a fine piece, a one-movement orchestral essay, tightly-constructed, that is free and breezy (if not particularly jazzy). It sounds, in part, as if it might have been written by George Gershwin had Gershwin enjoyed the benefit of a conservatory education. It also sounds, in part, like Darius Milhaud, but with a German twist.

The other two works on the disc, both chamber music, made no impression at all. Antheil’s String Quartet No. 1 was forgettable—vacant, devoid of interest, expression, personality and character. The performers were the Mendelssohn Quartet.

The Second Sonata For Violin, Piano And Drum was similarly vacant. The gimmick of adding a drum to the classic violin-piano duo added nothing.

The MusicMasters label is now defunct, and this disc has long been out of print. This disc may have some degree of rarity attached to it now, since the disc is currently selling for 76 pounds on Amazon United Kingdom.

Goodness gracious! Perhaps my father should try to unload it at such an inflated price while he may.

Josh hated the Antheil disc.

I have no idea whose inspiration it was to arrange Jerome Kern songs for string quartet, but someone in the Audubon Quartet clearly liked the notion, and this disc is the result.

Many of Kern’s most enduring songs are on the disc, including my two personal favorites, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “All The Things You Are”, two of the very, very greatest American songs ever written. Fourteen songs are on the disc, in all, plus a medley from “Show Boat”.

I love Jerome Kern—I think Kern and Richard Rodgers were our greatest songwriters, greater than Gershwin, Berlin or Cole Porter—but hearing an hour of Kern’s songs arranged for string quartet was not an enriching experience.

Some of the tunes outstayed their welcomes because the arrangements were too long (in a couple of cases lasting eight minutes or more). Some of the tunes cried out to be sung, because the lyrics are as important as the melodies. Some of the tunes might have worked in orchestral arrangements, but the string quartet medium was not a good choice to bring a few of these tunes to life, any more than a pipe organ arrangement would have been apt.

The arrangements were credited to Charles and Elliott Weiss and Howard Schatz.

The disc is primarily a curiosity, and an odd one at that. I have absolutely no idea why I bought this disc—it must have been a lack of lucidity on my part.

Josh hated the Kern disc.

The Neville Marriner/Academy Of Saint-Martin-In-The-Fields disc of American orchestral music was a tribute to the American Bi-Centennial and originally appeared on the Argo label. The disc includes Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 3 (“Camp Meeting”) and four shorter works: Samuel Barber’s ubiquitous Adagio For Strings, Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, Henry Cowell’s Hymn And Fuguing Tune No. 10, and Paul Creston’s A Rumor.

These are nice, neat performances, and this is a lovely disc. The Ives receives a very smooth, suave, highly-molded reading—much different than the kind of performance Leonard Bernstein, for instance, offered in Ives—and it works beautifully. In fact, this is my favorite recorded performance of the Ives Third, more observant of the hymn-based nature of the work than most American performances. I doubt that I would want to hear Marriner in the larger-scaled Ives Second, but in the more intimate Ives Third he is excellent.

The remaining performances come off well, too. Marriner’s reading of Quiet City is one of the finest versions ever recorded. The Cowell is charming. I believe that this is the only recording of the Creston piece ever issued, and I can easily understand why “A Rumor” is never recorded—it is the weakest composition on the disc.

The disc of American choral music by Barber and Schuman is devoted mostly to Barber. The disc features Barber’s Agnus Dei, a wordless choral arrangement of the Adagio For Strings, and includes nine other Barber works, three of which are songs arranged for chorus, including “Sure On This Shining Night” and one of the Hermit Songs.

Several moments in these Barber choral works are of almost indescribable beauty; many more, alas, are not. Barber was an extraordinarily uneven composer. One or two inspired bars are often followed by pages and pages of dull writing. One or two good ideas are often surrounded by a dozen hackneyed thoughts. This makes for frustrating listening. Moreover, I detest Barber’s choral arrangement of the Adagio For Strings—I’d much rather hear the piece on a calliope.

There are only two Schuman works on the disc: Perceptions, settings of eight aphorisms of Walt Whitman; and Mail Order Madrigals, settings of texts from a 19th-Century mail-order catalog. The Schuman works are intended to be witty. They are not.

The performances do not help matters. The Joyful Company Of Singers is a chamber choir, but the group lacks a chamber choir’s clarity of textural utterance. The group also lacks richness of tone, and it would not be inaccurate to describe much of the singing on this disc as “hooty”, a common problem with even the finest of English choral groups (and The Joyful Company Of Singers is certainly not among that number).

Josh hated the Barber/Schuman disc.

The Copland disc includes the original, chamber orchestra version of the complete “Appalachian Spring” as well as “Lincoln Portrait” and the suite from “Billy The Kid”.

“Appalachian Spring” was recorded in 1973 with a group of pickup musicians in New York. Ani Kafavian and the late Paul Jacobs are among the notable musicians who participated in the recording.

“Appalachian Spring” is a marvelous score, and this is a marvelous recording—I have loved it for years. There is a sweet, almost beguiling, quality to this performance that is very affecting. It is not as hard-driven as many recorded performances of the suite from the ballet for full orchestra, and all the better for that.

Josh loved “Appalachian Spring”, and we listened to the work over and over and over. It has become one of his favorite pieces of music.

“Lincoln Portrait” and “Billy The Kid” were recorded in London in the late 1960’s, and the performances are not quite up to the high level of “Appalachian Spring”.

The “Lincoln Portrait”, not one of Copland’s finer pieces, does not come across in this recording. The speaker, Henry Fonda, is all wrong for the text, and he sounds as if he is embarrassed to be part of the project. Further, the sound engineers were unsuccessful in creating an acoustic satisfactory for both orchestra and narrator. Both sound artificial, airless and dry.

The suite from “Billy The Kid” is another great Copland work, and it holds together well despite being stitched together from a number of old cowboy ballads. It is, in fact, one of my favorite Copland works.

Copland’s own performance is good, but I have heard better recordings of “Billy The Kid” from Bernstein and David Zinman.

We shall have to listen to more Copland. Josh has decided that Copland is one of his favorite composers, and by far his favorite American composer.

That’s an assessment I can understand.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

In The Works

My older brother and his family will be coming home for a week on Saturday morning, June 28.

My middle brother will be coming home for good the same day, although he will not arrive until midnight or so, because he will be driving from Denver.

We will allow everyone to rest on Sunday, but on Monday we will all go up to the lake, where we will remain until late Saturday afternoon.

This is our annual week at the lake, always scheduled for the week that coincides with July 4. My family has always gone up to the lake for this week since before I was born. It is family ritual, never-varying, and everyone always looks forward to it.

This weekend, we will not go up to the lake to prepare the house in advance, as we normally do. I have convinced my mother that the house needs no preparation except for a quick vacuuming and dusting, which can be done as soon as we arrive. Instead, we will stay in town this weekend, and get some jobs done around the house and yard, and start buying the food we will take with us to the lake the following weekend, and start packing a few other things for July 4 week. By doing these jobs this coming weekend, it will prevent my mother from running herself ragged next week, trying to do far too much and all by herself. We will get all advance preparations completed this weekend so that my mother can relax and enjoy the week before her family arrives.

When we return from the lake, Josh and I will have three more weeks of work before we leave our current positions. Our last day at work will be Friday, July 25. The following Thursday night, we leave for Britain. As soon as we return from Britain, Josh and I will almost immediately depart for Boston.

There are almost too many things in the works to digest.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Where Is Our Milton Friedman Of Conductors?

Things are looking up on the American orchestral scene.

One month ago, the Chicago Symphony named Riccardo Muti its next Music Director, the best possible appointment for Chicago short of luring Riccardo Chailly to these shores. Muti is a very good match for Chicago, I believe.

On Friday, the Cleveland Orchestra extended—again—the contract of Franz Welser-Most. Welser-Most will remain in Cleveland at least through 2018, a most welcome piece of news. One year ago, when Welser-Most accepted the post of Music Director of the Vienna State Opera, he told friends that he planned to leave Cleveland when his contract expired in 2012. I am most pleased that Welser-Most changed his mind. He is, by a long shot, the finest conductor working regularly in America.

Now it will be interesting to see what the Philadelphia Orchestra does. I am told that Philadelphia’s prime target is Vladimir Jurowski—not because Philadelphia actually wants Jurowski, but because Jurowski is the best candidate Philadelphia expects to be able to land—but I am also told that the orchestra is desperately seeking a superior candidate. Myself, I think that the Philadelphia Orchestra can do much, much better than Jurowski.

Given that there have been some very poor, even inexplicable, American orchestral appointments in recent years—Marin Alsop in Baltimore, Alan Gilbert in New York, David Robertson in Saint Louis, Robert Spano in Atlanta—it is reassuring that our two finest orchestras remain committed to hiring and retaining the very finest conductors.

At least Chicago and Cleveland will not devolve into provinciality. The same cannot be said for many other U.S. ensembles.

I have never understood why America, for over a century, has produced the finest orchestral ensembles in the world, and yet has never been able to produce conductors of the same quality.

The Cleveland Orchestra puts to shame even the finest of European ensembles, and the orchestras in Chicago and Philadelphia, depending on the repertory, are just as fine as the orchestras in Amsterdam, Berlin, Dresden and Vienna. Given this, why are the conductors we produce such turkeys?

I could not help but snort when I heard about Michael Tilson Thomas’s meltdown last week with the Chicago Symphony—a meltdown in rehearsal and a meltdown in performance. Since Tilson Thomas’s engagements with prestigious ensembles are few and far between, I would have thought that he would have arrived at rehearsal fully prepared—especially since the works on the Chicago Symphony program have been in Tilson Thomas’s repertory literally for decades! And how could Tilson Thomas possibly have come to grief in Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, a work the musicians of the Chicago Symphony can play—and balance—in their sleep?

The Peter Principle, clearly, is at work here. Tilson Thomas, age 63, possesses the skills to work with regional-level ensembles, but he lacks the skills to work with international-level ensembles. International-level ensembles know this, which is why they so seldom—if ever—engage him.

The sad part is not that Tilson Thomas is not particularly good. The sad part is that Tilson Thomas is much better than most of his American confreres, who are even worse than he is. For whatever reason, we do not produce good conductors.

As a nation, we produce good economists. Where is our Milton Friedman of conductors, capable of training and perpetuating generations of fine baton-wielders?

An Alteration Of Plans

The “theater day” our landlady and Joshua and I had planned for this weekend was cancelled.

Because of performance schedules, it was not possible for us to see “Harvey” and “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” on a single day—neither production offered a Saturday matinee or a Sunday evening performance this weekend, and we did not want to undertake two separate theater outings this weekend.

Further, our landlady, who makes a point of seeing practically every theatrical production in town and who knows practically everyone in the theater community in the Twin Cities, had been informed that the “Harvey” production was somewhat of a disaster, miscast and misdirected, and that there was nothing that could be done at this point to salvage the show. That turned her off “Harvey”, and that also turned Josh and me off “Harvey”.

Our landlady had also been informed that the production of “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” had not settled yet, and that it would be advisable for us to wait and catch a performance later in the run. That turned her off seeing “Sherlock Holmes” this weekend, and it did the same for Josh and me.

Consequently, we did not attend any theater performances this weekend. Instead, on Saturday night, Josh and I had dinner with our landlady. She gave us a dinner of pasta, seafood and vegetables, all served in a cream sauce. After dinner, we watched the television movie, “Sybil”.

Our landlady had seen an earlier television version of the same material, and she had read the book on which both television productions were based. “Sybil” was new territory for Josh and me, but we did not care for it. It was not our cup of tea.

Today, after church, my parents and our landlady and Josh and I went out to lunch, and afterward we went to see a film: “The Rape Of Europa”, a documentary about art theft in The Third Reich and the efforts, over the last decade, to identify stolen artworks and to return them to the surviving members of the families that used to own the works.

This is a fascinating subject, much in the news over the last few years, because the U.S. government has been the leader in pressing this issue worldwide, both enlarging potential causes of action and extending applicable statutes of limitations so as to allow claimants to file suit in American courts, thereby forcing European governments—which had tabled the matter decades ago—to re-open and re-examine a thorny issue that those governments believed to have been long settled.

As a result, since early in this decade, museums throughout Europe have been required to cough up artworks and ship them to their rightful owners, who most often reside in the U.S.

This has caused a great deal of resentment among European governments and European museums—state museums in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Britain and the Netherlands have been required to give up ownership of some of the finest masterworks of Western art, only to see them re-appear weeks later in U.S. collections.

Had this issue been adequately addressed in the decade following the war’s end, it would have been long since resolved. However, European governments in the late 1940’s had other, more pressing matters to address—feeding their populaces—and they either ignored the issue of art restitution, tried to sweep it under the rug, imposed proof-of-ownership requirements that they knew could never be satisfied, or legislated absurdly low-ball figures for compensating art owners (the latter two routes were chosen by Germany and Austria).

Art restitution issues have festered for over half a century, and many Europeans believe that recent recovery claims are all about heirs making a quick buck, and not about returning stolen artworks to their legitimate owners. To such Europeans, I say: your chickens have come home to roost.

The documentary film covered a fascinating subject, but as filmmaking it was entirely inept and as a serious examination of the issues it was facile if not crude, lacking all thought and nuance.

Why was this documentary even given a theatrical release? Rightfully, it belongs on PBS.

After the film, we all went to my parents’ house, where we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening. Our landlady loves my mother’s pork roll made with a special apricot-apple filling, so my mother prepared that for dinner, as well as two completely different kinds of cole slaw—one sweet, one sour—that go especially well with the pork roll. My mother also made a special potato dish, made with onions, cheeses and cream. For vegetables, we had steamed lima beans and glazed carrots. For dessert, we had raspberries and ice cream.

The dog had a nice dinner, because he was served not only his Sunday-night chicken but some of the pork roll and potatoes as well. I’m surprised that my mother didn’t cook him a steak, too!

Josh and I have nothing on the schedule for the coming week.

For the last week, Josh and I have been talking to my brother in Denver and Josh’s sister literally every night, preparing for our trip to Southern England. We have been discussing what attractions to visit, confirming open days and hours, checking theater schedules, and making hotel reservations. We have been keeping everyone up-to-date on our progress.

We have completed the first five days of our itinerary, soup to nuts, and Josh and I will take a break for a few days before we go back to work on the remaining thirteen days of our itinerary.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Catching Up And Relaxing

Joshua and I did not do much this weekend.

We stayed home all day Saturday, catching up on things and relaxing. It was a very mellow day.

Today, after church, Josh and I went over to my parents’ house, and we heard all about their weekend in New York. Nothing happened in New York, really, but my parents had a good visit with my brother and his family, and they loved spending time with their grandson. My nephew is, truly, a bundle of joy for everyone.

The dog was in good form today, full of spunk and devilment. He was very happy to see us. Josh and I took him to the park and ran him and played his favorite games with him. He had a ball.

My mother made us turkey medallions for lunch. She served the medallions with oven-roasted potatoes, green beans, carrots and a cranberry salad.

For dinner, we had roast chicken with stuffing, escalloped cabbage, beets, white corn and cinnamon applesauce, all preceded by a cold crab-and-pasta salad. We had blackberry cobbler for dessert.

We really did not do much of anything all afternoon or evening, except chat and play with the dog and talk to my brothers on the phone. It was another very mellow day.

Next weekend, I think Josh and I will go see a couple of plays with our landlady. The Guthrie Theater, Jungle Theater, Park Square Theater and Theater In The Round all opened new productions this weekend, and I think we may try to catch two of the plays next weekend.

We are trying to decide, right now, which two plays to see. The four choices are “Harvey”; “The Gin Game”; “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure”, a modern adaptation of the 1889 William Gillette classic taken from Arthur Conan Doyle; and “The Secret Fall Of Constance Wilde”, a 1997 play about Oscar Wilde’s wife by Irish playwright Thomas Kilroy.

We are leaning toward the two oldest vehicles, “Harvey” and “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure”, thinking that it might be fun to see the old-fashioned comedy “Harvey” first, followed by the old-fashioned Sherlock Holmes mystery. We may see the other two plays later in their runs.

We’ll make final plans later in the week.