Month: June 2009

Periodic groups

Reviewing the BEMF Chamber Ensemble and Les Esprits Inséparables.
Boston Globe, June 13, 2009.

I also spent Thursday afternoon at a BEMF Fringe Concert by Newport Baroque, directed by Paul Cienniwa, who was in the same Cub Scout troop as me. No kidding! An elegant visit with sonatas by Handel, Leclair, and Marcello, with recorder player Héloïse Degrugillier and Paul’s wife Audrey on cello. (Go buy their new CD.)

Infirmary Blues

Massachusetts residents like to think they’re smarter than residents of other states, but I have to say, there might be something to that—how else would the Commonwealth continue to function, given the frequent you-cannot-be-serious antics of our elected officials? Here’s a new one, as reported by the Boston Globe:

[S]tate lawmakers… last week debated a bill that would require all schools to sterilize musical wind instruments, like clarinets, flutes, and piccolos, before they are passed from one student to another.

The bill’s sponsor, state Representative Paul J. Donato, who represents Medford and parts of Malden, said he believes the same sterilization standards should apply to band instruments as those applied to medical instruments.

You never know when you might have to perform an emergency tracheotomy with that trombone mouthpiece, I guess. Now, given that high-school band instruments have been around since roughly the time of the ancient Sumerians (“I don’t care who your father is, Ur-Nungal, I will bump you to fifth clarinet if you don’t sit up”) without any evidence of major bocal-induced pandemics, one might ask why Rep. Donato is suddenly concerned about this now. Well, the invaluable Universal Hub asked, too, and found the obvious answer: one of Donato’s campaign contributors is a dentist who just happens to have invented an expensive system for sterilizing band instruments. (Seventy-six trombones would run you between nine and fifteen grand.) I know, I know—what are the chances? In fact, I’m sure the good doctor took it upon himself to give Donato money not to further his own interests, but because he recognized Donato’s already-present-but-inchoate concern over the same insidious sousaphones.

Is there a chance that the average band nerd could be infected with grave germs from a mouthpiece? Sure, and I’d guess it’s around the same probability as developing a fatal embolism after dropping a baritone sax on your toe. (In my own time, I could have said that it was roughly the same chance as this band nerd catching an STD.) In other words, doesn’t the legislature have better and less transparently mendacious things to worry about these days? I say if Rep. Donato keeps it up, just lock him in a beginning band rehearsal for six hours or so. Between the germs and the intonation, he’ll crack.

Authentication keys

Last night’s 8pm Boston Early Music Festival offering, a harpsichord recital by French virtuoso Pierre Hantaï, brought a surprisingly sparse crowd to Jordan Hall—next time, just TiVo the Red Sox, people—which perhaps added an extra modicum of wryness to Hantaï’s already-wry demeanor. But the program—Bach and Scarlatti—was solidly within Hantaï’s comfort zone, which resulted in the sort of casually risky, expansive performance that’s best among a more intimate mob anyway.

The most notable thing about Hantaï’s playing was his expert use of rhythmic variance in service of musical illusion. Playing an instrument with no actual legato and only manual-to-manual dynamic variance, Hantaï offered a world-class demonstration of how to fool the listener into thinking that legato and dynamic variance were everywhere. Much of this involved hairline gradations of delay: lagging one contrapuntal strand just behind the others to draw the ear to it, shaping a lyrical line with slightly sticky rubato to encourage the brain to fill in the decay. They’re familiar expressive techniques to any keyboard player—even the comparatively fat sound of the modern piano requires a certain amount of similar sleight-of-hand—but coupled with Hantaï’s overall improvisatory rhythmic cast, the manipulations become so organic to the music’s flow that they almost vanished in plain sight. I kept thinking of Penn & Teller’s cups and balls routine—somehow, knowing how the trick is done only enhances the effect.

Hantaï’s programming reinforced the ruminative vibe. Two of Bach’s English Suites—F major and A minor—and a quartet of Scarlatti sonatas were interspersed with a host of the little preludes and fugues Bach wrote for his students and children. Brief character pieces, they both allowed Hantaï to excercise his rhythmic fantasy and persuasively contrasted his sweeping interpretations of the larger works. In the suites and sonatas, Hantaï thought and played big; this wasn’t an intricate, polished clockwork, but near-Romantic landscapes, profusely detailed with crisp ornamentation, the long-breathed rhythmic waywardness outlining grand conceptions. The piano is usually thought of as the more orchestral keyboard instrument, but Hantaï’s prestidigitation just about put the harpsichord on equal footing.

This morning saw the inauguration of a new BEMF attraction, a day-long keyboard mini-festival to match the organ mini-festival that’s now in its fourth go-round. Ensconced at First Lutheran Church in Back Bay, the venue provided some questionable Boston hospitality via the city’s skinflint approach to parking—a meter maid was already lurking as I fed my quarters; the concert featured multiple announcements of which cars were in the process of being towed. But the new series started off strong, with fortepiano contributions from Andrew Willis and BEMF favorite Kristian Bezuidenhout.

Bezuidenhout was up first, tracing Franz Josef Haydn’s gradual accommodation with the instrument from the 1770s (the Sonata in C minor, Hob. XVI:20) to the 1780s (an announced addition to the program, the C-major Sonata, Hob. XVI:48) into the 1790s (the F-minor Variations, Hob. XVII:6). With Bezuidenhout playing a copy of a mid-1790s Anton Walter instrument, one could immediately hear the astonishing variety of colors that must have won over 18th-century composers: from a muted hollowness to a buzzing, harpsichord-like edge, almost like taking a guitar amplifier from clean-toned jazz all the way to rock distortion. It’s a larger palette than the modern grand, though, of course, the trade-off is in power—latecomers taking a seat in my row fairly drowned out a portion of the C-minor’s Andante movement. Bezuidenhout’s playing was a compelling mix of old and new, his ornamentation having the harpsichord’s jewel-cut clarity, but the comparative ease of dynamic highlights allowing a more groove-like rhythm. He also seized on the music’s dramatic touches, many seemingly inspired by the instrument’s possibilities—the opening movement of the C-major Sonata casts the piano’s varying registers as operatic characters, in a fluid series of recitative-like textures. The most magical moments revealed the possibilities for crescendo and diminuendo as a gee-whiz technological advance: Bezuidenhout let the close of the Variations toll ever softer, until it simply dissolved into the white noise of passing traffic.

Willis, playing a David Sutherland copy of a 1730s Florentine fortepiano, brought a string quartet to the stage with him for three of Bach’s keyboard concertos. A damp and cold New England morning seemed to be wreaking havoc on everyone’s tuning—you know you’re at an early-music concert when the pianist is pulling out a wrench to tune between movements. But Willis’s easygoing, dancing phrasing warmed up the chamber-sized dimensions of the playing, and once the intonation settled, in time for the bewitching Siciliano of the E-major concerto (BWV 1053), the group began to exude more confidence, and the closing Allegro had a happy brio. The fortepiano timbre didn’t reveal any new secrets in the solo portions—Bach’s writing is still very much modeled on harpsichord/clavichord virtuosity—but when providing a rippling accompaniment to the whole ensemble, the softer, subtler touch made for an invitingly plush sound.

Alas, the aforesaid parking situation (ars longa; meter brevis) meant I had to leave before one of my favorites, the BWV 1052 D-minor concerto. Next time, I’ll make like Bach and walk. I imagine it’s faster than rush-hour driving some mornings, anyway.

Amadeus Beaux-Arts

At last night’s Boston Early Music Festival concert, the harpsichord on stage was a French-style double-manual built in 1984 by the late David Jacques Way, currently owned by Boston organist and keyboard addict Peter Sykes.

That is one seriously pretty instrument. (It’s better in person—the palette actually tends towards an uncanny glowing verdancy.) Looking at it made me curse the one-size-fits-all 2001-monolith grand piano design that is now pretty much ubiquitous.

It’s interesting, given our human propensity towards all things blingy, that piano design has become so staid in comparison with its plucked ancestors. It’s probably the result of a combination of form-following-function and the music-appreciation ideal of keeping one’s attention soberly focused on the music. I would suspect the advance of the Steinway brand played no small part, as well. (And given some of Steinway’s recent forays into more elaborate cases, basic black certainly starts to look better in comparison.) But really, instruments all around have become pretty sedate, design-wise. Guitars still get a little adventurous (though less so than in the heyday of 70s metal); accordions still break out a bonanza of mother-of-pearl now and then, as does the occasional drum set. But you have to hang around the period-instrument crowd to see string instruments with heads, for example.

Someday—as soon as I am deemed worthy of attention by those fickle mistresses, time and money—I’m going to build my own harpsichord, paint it black, and then decorate it with old-school tattoo flash: skulls, hula girls, hearts that say “MOM,” &c. (At the rate I get through projects, tattoos will no longer be cool by that point—even better.)

Till the stock of the Puritans die

My lovely wife picked up a degree from Harvard today—good Lord, I can’t possibly deserve a woman this smart—so we took in the entirety of Harvard commencement, which is kind of like the academic version of a live Ring cycle: long, sometimes fascinating, sometimes boring, but worth experiencing at least once in your life. (I mean, one of the comic highlights—no kidding—was an oration in Latin.) Wynton was awarded an honorary doctorate—

—and played a little (you can hear a bit of his “America the Beautiful” here).

The big advantage of attending Harvard commencement as a family member instead of an actual graduate is that you spend hours on end sitting around instead of hours on end standing around. I used my downtime filling the margins of my program with a reharmonization of John Knowles Paine’s “Harvard Hymn” that would probably have gotten me kicked out of Harvard by A.T. Davison back in the day:

(Click to enlarge; MIDI here.) I love doing four-part writing this way: just sort of let the voice-leading wander like a curious dog on a long leash. (This is why it took me multiple tries to pass the chorale section of my doctoral comps. “Resist the temptation to be interesting,” the department chair finally told me.)

I’m a big fan of varied academic regalia, and Harvard’s faculty provides some prime robe-spotting opportunities. The best regalia we saw featured round hats covered in fringe, kind of like this:

According to the Internet, this—the birrete—is a Spanish thing. I think it might be worth my while to get a degree from the Complutense just so I could wear one.

They built you a temple, and locked you away

Best academic overreach of the day:

[Billy] Joel’s treatment of the same Beethoven material [the slow movement of the “Pathétique” sonata, in the song “This Night”] is even more literal than that of [Kiss’s] “Great Expectations,” although he withholds the melodic quotation until the refrain. But the song is shot through with wordplay linking Beethoven’s nineteenth-century practice to that of the self-described “piano man” Joel and to the expressive registers of historical doo-wop ballads that the song references. Indeed, the love lyrics at times seem to suggest the solo pianist’s relationship with the keyboard; distortions of musical time and imaginitive space are effected through the utterance of words that possess meaningful implications outside the conventional subject matter of the song. These include “ready for romance” (code word for nineteenth-century repertoire), “only a slow dance” (the slow movement, outside the context of the full sonata), and the notion of an expressive historical musical continuum delivered at the end of the Beethovenian refrain music (“this night can last forever”). Joel sets up the first citation of the theme when his doo-wop rocker persona admits at the end of the verse that he can no longer “remember the rules,” launching the song into a different registral collection from which the melody and harmony of the refrain are borrowed to create an effectively expressive hybrid.

—Michael Long, Beautiful Monsters
(University of California Press, 2008)

Given that he’s just name-dropped Barthes, I was disappointed Long didn’t hit for the textual-analysis cycle with a “Piano/Man” reference.

We can probably thank producer Bob Ezrin for the Beethoven quote in “Great Expectations,” by the way—the demo has no quotation, and in fact reveals that the melody of the chorus was tweaked to more closely echo Beethoven.

Down and Out in Paris and Dublin

We’re back from Paris, where I ate bread, offal, and macarons; indulged in hero worship (above); walked until it hurt every day; and improved my French accent to the point where people would at least reply to me in French out of politeness, if not out of ignorance of my obviously American state. (As the headline notes, there was also a brief sojourn in the source of my giant head and pasty complexion.)

We even took in a couple of concerts, which I’ll write up in due course, but the big cultural news in Paris was the opening of Vengeance, directed by the impossibly prolific Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To, and starring the ageless French rock-and-roll legend Johnny Hallyday. Celebrity images in Paris tend to be the usual international crowd—George Clooney had an advertising banner hanging in the Opéra Bastille, and Vengeance was swamped in its opening weekend by the Ben Stiller vehicle A Night at the Museum 2—but Johnny’s fame trumped all, his weathered visage gracing seemingly every press kiosk, tabac, and Métro station in town.

It’s slightly amazing how big a contrast there is between Hallyday’s fame in France and his obscurity everywhere else. My lovely wife had never even heard of him, so we indulged in a crash course via YouTube. Given my own preference for proto-punk 1950s rock—if I were the pope, I would canonize Eddie Cochran—it’s not surprising that I liked the early stuff best. Here he is in a mellow mood in 1962, singing to Catherine Deneuve. Bon travail, si vous pouvez l’obtenir.