Month: October 2008

Many happy returns of the day


WHITE PLAINS, NEW YORK, April 14.—Mr. Percy Grainger, the composer who died on February 20, specified in his will, which was filed for probate today, that his skeleton go to the University of Melbourne, Australia, “for preservation and possible display in the Grainger museum”.

Mr. Grainger’s instructions concerning his skeleton have not yet been carried out; whether they will be is still questionable. A friend said that Mr. Grainger’s widow had flown to Australia with the body soon after the death, and it had been buried at her request in a coffin beside that of his mother in Adelaide.

The Times of London, April 15, 1961

Alas, Grainger’s vaguely Benthamite wishes were, indeed, ignored. The University of Melbourne does have his death mask, though.

Majestic 12

Tune in to Counterstream Radio this evening at 9:00 Eastern, and you can hear yours truly free-associating about “American Serialism,” the first in Counterstream’s “Crash Courses in New Music.” Babbitt, Martino, Wuorinen, Powell—the gang’s all here, and just in time for Hallowe’en. (If you can’t tune in tonight, you can catch it again Sunday afternoon at 3—it’s also available on demand.)

Future installations include Kyle Gann on Minimalism, Tom Lopez on acousmatic music, and Lara Pellegrinelli (aka Dr. LP) on the new jazz. (Great big thanks to Molly Sheridan for shepherding the thing through, and Corey Dargel for deftly assembling and mixing down a script with a density of montage that would have made Eisenstein blush.)

There’s always room for

Reviewing Steven Isserlis and Jeremy Denk.
Boston Globe, October 29, 2008.

Local readers are highly encouraged to head back to the Gardner museum this Sunday (11/2) at 1:30, when Jeremy Denk will be bringing his Evel Knievel “Concord” Sonata-Hammerklavier program to Boston. Also: I can’t possibly be the first person to notice this, but it’s downright uncanny how much Isserlis in performance looks like Roger Daltrey in Tommy.


If you can’t figure out my politics, you’re just not paying attention, but this space tends to be non-partisan; like I’ve said before, as important as it is, politics is a lousy way to pick your friends. But I will make one public endorsement this cycle, and that’s to encourage everyone in California to vote no on Proposition 8, which would rescind the right of gay couples in that state to marry. (Similar measures are on the ballot in Florida and Arizona.) I make this endorsement—stuck here in Massachusetts, I can’t actually vote against the thing—because, honestly, I can’t think of any reason for anyone of any political persuasion who believes in the virtues of a democratic republic to object to gay marriage. Except homophobia. Which I won’t dignify with a response. Beyond that one, anyway. But if you need more convincing:

If you’re a liberal: Come on, it’s a straight-up civil-rights issue. It’s the foam on your vote-for-Obama latte! It’s the… look, just get some clichés from your nearest wingnut and fill in the blanks. And vote, OK?

If you’re a conservative: Do you really want the government telling you who you can and can’t marry? That’s the first step down a slippery slope leading to, um, progressive taxation!

If you’re a member of the Thermodynamic Law Party: Without institutionalized marriage keeping open the possibility of energy exchange with the rest of society, gay couples will become adiabatically closed systems, preventing them from importing negentropy and thereby increasing, not decreasing, the entropy of such non-traditional but long-standing family units.

If you’re a Narodnik: You know the Tsar would have been for Prop 8.

If you just don’t like gay people: You know who I just don’t like? Baal-worshiping smooth-jazz fans. There, I said it. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. And I still don’t see where I get the authority to tell two Baal-worshiping smooth-jazz fans that they can’t marry each other.

If you’re a musician: Then this is the closest to a pandering pocketbook issue you’re going to get in this election cycle. A “no” vote means that many more wedding gigs. Or do you want to give up jobs in the middle of a recession?

In all seriousness, if you at all value the idea of personal responsibility, as even this incurable lefty does, I would think that preventing any two consenting adults from legally and publicly confirming their commitment to each other should seem at least a little counter-productive. Here in Massachusetts, gay marriage has neither a) devalued or undermined my own straight marriage, or b) unraveled the fabric of society. In fact, four years later, it’s exactly what it should be: a non-issue.

Also: Critic-at-Large Moe encourages Massachusetts residents to vote Yes on 3.

Principal products of Padania

In lieu of actual work: random things named after Verdi’s Nabucco:

The Raymond Weil “Nabucco Cuore Caldo” watch.

Nabucco Island resort, off the coast of Indonesia.

The DeLonghi BCO70 Caffe Nabucco espresso/coffeemaker.

The CMA CGM container ship Nabucco.

The Salvatore Ferragamo ‘Nabucco’ sandal.

The EU’s proposed Nabucco gas pipeline. Okay, this last one isn’t entirely random—it’s supposed to echo the theme of freedom and independence (in this case, from reliance on Russian natural gas fields). But really—a gas pipeline into the heart of Europe named for an opera about exiled Jews? Really?

Variations (7): Culture wars edition

WILLIAMS: Who is a member of the elite?

PALIN: Oh, I guess just people who think that they’re better than anyone else. And– John McCain and I are so committed to serving every American. Hard-working, middle-class Americans who are so desiring of this economy getting put back on the right track. And winning these wars. And America’s starting to reach her potential. And that is opportunity and hope provided everyone equally. So anyone who thinks that they are– I guess– better than anyone else, that’s– that’s my definition of elitism.

WILLIAMS: So it’s not education? It’s not income-based? It’s–

PALIN: Anyone who thinks that they’re better than someone else.

WILLIAMS: –a state of mind? It’s not geography?

PALIN: ‘Course not.

WILLIAMS: Senator?

MCCAIN: I– I know where a lot of ’em live. (LAUGH)

WILLIAMS: Where’s that?

MCCAIN: Well, in our nation’s capital and New York City. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived there. I know the town. I know– I know what a lot of these elitists are. The ones that she never went to a cocktail party with in Georgetown. I’ll be very frank with you. Who think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves.

—Brian Williams interviewing John McCain and Sarah Palin,
NBC Nightly News, October 23, 2008 (via)

While     I     was     studying     the     frozen
   food     department     of     Gristede’s     one
    day,                                Mrs.     Elliott
    Carter     came     up                and     said,
                               “Hello,     John.
                                   I     thought     you
    touched     only     fresh     foods.”
     I     said,                                 “All
  you     have     to     do     is     look     at
  them                and     then     you     come
  over     here.”                She     said,
                         “Elliott     and     I     have
    just     gotten     back     from     Europe.
                                         We’d     sublet
    to     some     intellectuals                 whose
    names     I     won’t     mention.
                               They     had     been
 eating      those      platters                  with
     all      sorts      of      food      on      them.”
                 I      said,
         “Not      TV      dinners?”
 She      said,                                      “Yes,
                                     I       found
them       stuffed       around        everywhere.”

—John Cage, Indeterminacy

Can’t tell the players without

Here’s something to while away your entire day: while trying to track down a quotation source, I stumbled across the fact that Google Books includes, for some reason, three runs of Boston Symphony Orchestra programs from the 1910-11, 1917-18, and 1918-19 seasons. You could be diligent and read all the Philip Hale program notes, but me? I’m too busy perusing vintage ads. The Roland Hayes recital above (with special guest Harry T. Burleigh—I absolutely would have been in line for tickets to that one) dates from 1917. The two below come from the 1918-19 programs, amidst a plethora of ads pitching housewares to returning soldiers.

And here’s a couple from the 1910 season—first, accessories for the well-dressed concertgoer:

And finally, commercial launderers and longtime BSO program-book advertisers Lewandos:

Yes, their corporate image is a cat scrubbing baby chicks in a washtub and then pinning them up by their wings to dry. Stare at that long enough, and the advent of Expressionism starts to make a lot more sense, doesn’t it?

In core scolpiti ho quegli accenti!

Last week Mark Adamo took John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, currently in its Met premiere run, to task:

But as written, Doctor Atomic is approximate where it should be precise, airily literary where it should be riskily personal: for musical characterization it substitutes remembered manners, and for political confrontation it offers chocolate cake…. How disappointing, then, that the first American opera on so complex and incendiary a subject should prove so obvious, so evasive, and thus—of all things—so safe.

This is not a post about Doctor Atomic, of which I have not heard enough yet to form a responsible opinion; this is a post about Giuseppe Verdi. But Adamo’s ideas, whether you buy his assessment or not, make for a good serendipitous frame—because I think one of Verdi’s greatest achievements is something that Adamo seems to be hinting at: an impeccable skill for distinguishing between the most obvious way to musicalize a scene and the most direct way.

A few weeks back, my lovely wife and I hit the theater for the Met’s high-def simulcast of their opening gala—an act each of La Traviata, Manon, and Capriccio. Verdi—as he is wont to do—ended up making the other two composers seem a little self-indulgent and amateurish, for all the pleasure they provide (and I bow to no one in my gleeful wallowing in late Strauss). And it’s all because of knowing this difference between obvious and direct.

Traviata is actually a great example of this, because given the plot—passionate, melodramatic, full of sharp interactions between characters—the obvious treatment, letting the music magnify and amplify the characters’ inner emotional lives throughout, would probably work just fine. But at crucial points throughout the opera, Verdi doesn’t do this.

Take that ball scene in Act II, the most emotionally fraught point in the piece. Germont père has convinced Violetta to leave Alfredo—to preserve the family honor—so she writes a “Dear Alfredo” letter that falsely claims her ardor for him has cooled, so Alfredo rushes off to Paris in a rage to confront her at said ball. What always strikes me about this scene is how long Verdi sticks with the party music, even as the emotional water boils. But what he’s doing is setting up the climax—Alfredo calling out Violetta in public, for which Germont scolds his son. But note exactly how he scolds him: he doesn’t say stop being cruel, or even you don’t know the real story—the secret remains safe with him, at least for the time being. What he does say is this: That is not how a gentleman behaves. And that’s the key to the whole scene—Verdi has been musically showing us how a gentleman does behave, lulling us into a sense of the social milieu Alfredo, Violetta, and Germont are navigating. And the climax makes us realize how restrictively shallow and repressed it is—Alfredo’s breach of decorum is made startling and shocking enough to drive home what the lovers’ relationship is up against.

Instead of telegraphing the characters’ emotions, Verdi is focusing like a laser on the central conflict of the plot, the societal restrictions that prevent Alfredo and Violetta from their own happiness. What Verdi knows—and, in retrospect, what he makes us realize—is that the real linchpin isn’t Violetta’s giving up of Alfredo, it’s that she agrees to do it. The heartbreak is that she’s trapped in a world where Germont’s argument actually makes sense—once she sees his point, and once we see that she sees his point, doom settles over the whole story with far more devastation than if Verdi had solely focused on the individual emotional turmoil. Because the most important dramatic engine, the most powerful one, is not between the characters themselves, but between the characters and their social standing. The tragedy is not the loss—it’s the inevitability.

Verdi could expertly let the characters take the lead when that was the most direct route—witness Falstaff, after all—but it’s his ruthless rejection of the diluted obvious that makes him such an expert at delineating plots about people who are trapped, existential no-exit nightmares. Macbeth, Don Carlos, Aida—no one cuts to the characters’ helpless quick like Verdi. For him, tragedy isn’t something that sneaks up, or hangs in the background—it’s a smart bomb, aimed directly at human illusions of happiness and control, with the music guiding it to the dead center of the target.

The trees they grow so high

Five years later Worcester was to be the scene of a still greater and more important conflict, Cromwell’s “crowning mercy,” the decisive struggle of the great Civil War. King Charles II., with an army drawn from Scotland, took up his position in Worcester on the 22nd of August, 1651, first expelling a small garrison of Parliamentary troops then occupying the city. Reinforcements arrived from the county around, most of the local gentry and their followers flocking to the banner of the King, but even with this augmentation his forces only amounted to about 12,000 all told. Six days later, that is, on the 28th, Cromwell appeared before the walls of the city with 18,000 men, and fixed his headquarters at Spetchley, then, as now, the property of the Berkeley family.

—Bertram C.A. Windle, The Malvern Country

Towards the end of October we went to Malvern Wells, and, on our way there, spent two very pleasant days at Spetchley Park, where [Lady Chatterton] heard Mass for the first time (her health not permitting her to do so before), and where we met the Bishop. It had been our intention to go farther, and the plan of our journey was sketched out; but her protracted struggles against interior influences adverse to her aspirations, her nature, her happiness had undermined her health. It is not till the ship is safe in port that the damage done by wind and waves can be fully estimated.

—Edward Heneage Dering, Memoirs of Georgiana, Lady Chatterton

One of the several Catholic schools to which the young Elgar was sent was at Spetchley Park, a few miles west of Worcester. The schoolhouse was set in an estate belonging to an old Catholic family, and the spacious grounds again contained tall pine trees. Almost ninety years later, the critic Ernest Newman recalled: ‘Elgar told me that as a boy he used to gaze from the school windows in rapt wonder at the great trees in the park swaying in the wind; and he pointed out to me a passage in Gerontius in which he had recorded in music his subconscious memories of them.’

—Matthew Riley, Edward Elgar and the Nostalgic Imagination

A DISPUTE over sycamore trees in a Malvern garden has led to accusations of heavy handedness being made against Malvern Hills District Council.
West Malvern composer Paul Farrer contacted the Malvern Hills Conservators after becoming concerned that the trees blocked sunlight and posed a hazard because of their size.
He sought advice on how to approach the trimming of the trees and whether there were any officials channels he must go through to employ a tree surgeon.
His e-mail was passed on to district council planning officers, who placed a tree preservation order on them.
Mr Farrer, of Westminster Bank, said: “I have only ever been concerned about the height of these trees and I am very worried about them.
“I have no idea if they pose a danger to me or to members of the public if the wind picks up and, in my view, MHDC’s actions have deliberately contributed to increasing the danger by telling me that if I trim them I go to prison.
“Do the heavy-handed and dangerous actions here not engender a culture of trying to keep the council out of our lives as much as is possible?
“This is a gross invasion of privacy and one I intend to fight.”

Malvern Gazette, October 20, 2008

Youth Without Youth

Greg Sandow was back in the age-of-the-audience saddle this week, criticizing a rosy assessment of classical-music health that Leon Botstein recently wrote for the Wall Street Journal. Botstein said that classical music has always played to a largely adult audience, and that hand-wringing over the perceived lack of young people at concerts is a red herring. Sandow replied:

But has the audience always been the same age it is now? (Which in fact means older than middle-aged.) This is a persistent myth. I used to believe it, since music biz veterans repeated it so confidently. Then I started asking for data, and found that there wasn’t any. Then I started finding data that exploded the myth.

I won’t begrudge Sandow the undeniable joys of contrarian iconoclasm. But his use of terms like “young” and “middle-aged” points up an interesting assumption—that such demographic categories are fixed in their boundaries.

Here’s what I mean. I unpacked the audience data Sandow links to (for the 1937 data, I assumed the age distribution was smooth, and averaged the results of the two surveys the report mentions based on their sample sizes), and stuck it in a chart with at-birth life expectancy rates I culled from the CDC. Just for fun, I threw on a couple of right-axis data sets: the average age at first marriage for both males and females, as tabulated by the U.S. Census Bureau. (The Bureau began keeping annual track of those numbers in 1947.) Here’s what it all looks like (click to enlarge):

Notice that the linear trendlines for life expectancy and audience age track almost exactly—and that the average first-marriage age has been rising even faster since 1970 or so. (You can find a similar rise in average first-birth age among women over the same period.) Which circles back around to Botstein’s point—classical music has historically played to an adult audience, it’s just that the passage into adulthood—as indicated by first-marriage age—has been getting later and later, and the length of adulthood—as indicated by life expectancy—has been getting longer and longer.

This intuitively jibes with the NEA’s “Audience Participation in the Arts” surveys, which show the median audience age going up for all surveyed forms of performance. In other words, the problem—if it even is a problem—would seem to be more a function of demographic evolution than a lack of cultural wherewithal on the part of classical music specifically. If you look at “young” and “old” not as absolute numbers, but relative places within the average life trajectory, the “aging” of the classical music audience starts to look a lot more equivocal. Think of it this way: if 30 is the new 20, and 60 is the new 40, that audience is right back where it started.