December 24, 2008

Tho' hard and dry at first

Critic-at-Large Moe offers his painterly image to wish everyone a happy holiday season. It's the most wonderful deadweight loss of the year! We'll be back in the new year. (Maybe sooner if more stories like this try to slip under the holiday radar.) In the meantime, enjoy a batch of baked goodness from Amelia Simmons' American Cookery, first published in 1796:

Another Chriſtmas Cookey.

To three pound flour, ſprinkle a tea cup of fine powdered coriander ſeed, rub in one pound butter, and one and half pound ſugar, diſſolve three tea ſpoonfuls of pearl aſh in a tea cup of milk, kneed all together well, roll three quarters of an inch thick, and cut or ſtamp into ſhape and ſize you pleaſe, bake ſlowly fifteen or twenty minutes; tho' hard and dry at firſt, if put into an earthern pot, and dry cellar, or damp room, they will be finer, ſofter and better when ſix months old.

December 23, 2008

And since we've no place to go

Reviewing the Musicians of the Old Post Road.
Boston Globe, December 23, 2008.

A nice little musical pun from this one: in Telemann's Abscheuliche Tiefe des großen Verderbens!, some rapid-fire flute runs to accompany the words "Fluten brausen"—raining floods.

December 22, 2008

Oggi rivivi in me!

I am proudly and incurably a Puccini addict. There's not many other composers that combine such a lush surface with so many arresting, idiosyncratic details of harmony and orchestration—Messiaen, maybe, at least among this year's anniversary composers. It's sometimes startling to pick apart a Puccini score and realize just how many completely left-field things are going on beneath that gleaming hood. This is a guy who made parallel octaves a viable harmonic resource, after all.

For Puccini's 150th birthday, three versions of "In questa reggia" from Turandot. FIrst: Dame Eva Turner, who heard the premiere, first sang the role less than a year later, and recorded the aria in 1928.

Next is my personal favorite, Eva Marton singing at the 100th Anniversary Met Gala in 1983. (The non sequiter set is a David Hockney design for Les Mamelles des Tirésias.)

And finally: Puccini's music has carved out a small footprint for itself in popular culture, with varying degrees of success (do you really want to hear Neil Sedaka sing "Nessun dorma"?), but this Bob Belden big-band arrangement of (the first half of) "In questa reggia" (with Wallace Roney on trumpet) is pretty cool.

Buon compleanno!

Strauss and Mahler Re-Enact Your Favorite Movie Moments (5)

(Click to enlarge.)

Previously: 1, 2, 3, 4. T-shirts.

December 21, 2008

Un ballo di macher

Hanukkah started tonight at sundown. Spin that dreidel! Here's a recipe I was absolutely going to test and photograph—gefilte fish as prepared by Richard Tucker's mom—before Boston got hit with three days of snowstorms and shoveling, which I'm sure is some sort of payback for all the bad driving. Anyway, I'll get on the gefilte as soon as I can feel my back again.

This is from Peter Gravina's 1964 collection The Bel Canto Cookbook, which I picked up at this place, which is definitely a mekhaye.
Sara Tucker's Gefilte Fish

3 pounds whitefish
2 pounds pike
1 pound carp
4 onions
2 raw eggs
½ teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper
2 teaspoons cracker meal
3 quarts fish stock
2 carrots

Have fish dealer filet fish but retain the heads and vertebrae. Salt the fish and refrigerate while you make the stock. Combine the fish heads and vertebrae with 2 chopped onions, a little salt and pepper, and cover with water. Bring the stock to a boil and simmer gently for 15 to 20 minutes. Put the fish and two additional onions through a food chopper and grind them finely. To this mixture add the eggs, sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the cracker meal and chop until the mixture is thoroughly blended. Shape the mixture into balls 3 inches in diameter. Immerse the fish in the boiling stock (add water to cover if necessary) and cook covered for about 2½ hours, until the fish balls turn white and double in size. Cut the carrots into ½-inch slices and add to the pot ½ hour before the fish balls are finished. Yields approximately 2 dozen.

December 18, 2008

Quote of the Day

The significance of language struck [Richard] Wrangham most forcefully on an occasion when a group of [Mbuti] hunters had killed an elephant.... Excitement was intense, and appeared dangerously volatile as the animal was skinned and dismembered. In terms of activity and noise, the scene matched anything of a comparable nature that Wrangham had observed among chimpanzees.... THe noise was cacophonous, but amid the din patterns of negotiation became discernible. The hunters and those with immediate rights to a share of the carcass were told to honour the obligations of kinship and give meat to their relatives. Old debts and favours were settled in exchange for meat; new pledges were contracted. The talking went on for hours, doubtless reinforcing a long-standing web of reciprocal obligations that was fundamental to the social order of the region. Wrangham says:
Chimpanzees in a comparable situation would have gone berserk. They would have screamed and squabbled and physical strength ultimately would have determined the distribution of the meat, and there probably would have been some violence between competing individuals. There may have been some bad feeling among the Mbuti too, but aggressive tendencies were constrained by the intervention of other individuals. They could talk about their differences, and bring in the issues of what happened in the past and what might happen in the future. In short—they could negotiate. Talking reduced the fighting.

—John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent

I wonder if this is why the dream of bringing disparate human communities together through music—Schopenhauer's "universal language"—simultaneously seems to be so tantalizingly reasonable and wishful thinking: it re-enacts the process of negotiation, but without the specificity to make anyone feel satisfied. (For every instance of music peacefully bridging a divide, it's not hard to find an example of music being used to foment division and/or violence.)

December 16, 2008

Ending up

Reviewing pianist Paavali Jumppanen.
Boston Globe, December 16, 2008.

Published, I notice, on Beethoven's birthday—it's weird to have a sense of occasion even when you're not trying.

Better watch out

Reviewing Boston Baroque's Messiah.
Boston Globe, December 16, 2008.

December 12, 2008

Absence of Malice

Don Rosenberg, the Cleveland Plain Dealer critic who, a few months ago, was rather infamously reassigned for being allegedly too hard on the Cleveland Orchestra and its music director, Franz Welser-Möst, has now sued both the paper and the orchestra for a legion of offenses, including defamation, age discrimination and (I love this phrase) "tortious interference."

Most of the reaction to Rosenberg's plight has taken up familiar themes: freedom of speech, journalistic independence, the value of an experienced observer, &c. (All eminently valid.) But there's one angle that I haven't really seen, which is this: from a circulation standpoint, what are the powers-that-be at the Plain Dealer thinking? A pre-packaged feud between one of the biggest cultural institutions in town and your own on-staff critic drops into your lap, and your initial instinct is to somehow make it go away? I'm not familiar enough with the specifics of Rosenberg's suit to know whether he has a legal leg to stand on or not, but I think the Newhouse family (who own the Plain Dealer via their holding company Advance Publications) might want to take a second look at a management team that seems averse to exploiting opportunities to, you know, sell newspapers.

I mean, come on, the Plain Dealer's the paper getting sued, and they themselves get scooped by The New York Times. Daniel Wakin gets hilariously impolitic quotes from the orchestra's lawyer; the Plain Dealer gets this:
The Plain Dealer declined to comment, and a spokeswoman for the Musical Arts Association could not be reached.
Declined to comment? Why would they not play this story for all it's worth? (At least their online editor can see the appeal.)

I'm not saying that critics should get out their knives solely in order to boost circulation, but newspaper criticism is equal parts information and entertainment, and I would hope that papers would still know how to parlay a little controversy into beneficial entertainment. Critic-at-Large Moe and I spent a couple of lunch hours this week reveling in the glorious pre-Code cynicism of Lewis Milestone's 1931 film version of The Front Page (mainly to enjoy how little things have changed in my old hometown); can you imagine how one of those papers would have reacted if the local orchestra had hired a PR firm to lobby for a friendlier critic? They would have laughed them out the door—and then bragged about it in print. (And, if it was a two-paper town, God help them if they didn't.) Journalism is a long way from the callous unscrupulousness that Hecht and MacArthur romanticized—even some contemporary reporters found The Front Page to be defamatory caricature—but objective doesn't have to mean cautious and boring. Rosenberg's reassignment, apart from being journalistically suspect, is, to me at least, symptomatic of the creeping corporate blandness leaving a lot of papers high and dry while digital content blooms around them. Milestone's film opens with a great joke, a title card proclaiming that
This story is laid in a mythical kingdom.
Keep playing it safe, and the newspaper industry is going to end up as its own Neverland.

December 11, 2008

The lads in their hundreds (2)

Elliott Carter being interviewed by Charlie Rose, December 10, 2008. Rose asked Carter if there were times in his career when he felt a sense of exultation, when he felt like he had reached the top of the mountain. Carter said that he was still climbing; if he ever reached the top of the mountain, he'd be worried.

I've happily spilled plenty of words on Carter and his music this year (start here or here if you missed them). For his actual hundredth birthday, a bit of ephemera. A few weeks ago, I spent a day poking around the Harvard University Archives, and found this photo of the Harvard Glee Club, on stage at Boston's Symphony Hall (click to enlarge):

Harvard Glee Club, 1927 - HUPSF Glee Club - Harvard University Archives.

The conductor is the legendary Archibald T. Davison. The organist is future director G. Wallace Woodworth. Small world department: I'm pretty sure the guy in the horn-rimmed glasses behind Woodworth's right shoulder is future Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. And seated in the back row, eighth from right, is Harvard undergraduate Elliott Cook Carter, Jr.

Happy birthday, Mr. Carter—and many happy returns of the day!

Update (12/11): You can now watch the Charlie Rose interview, with Carter, James Levine, and Daniel Barenboim, online.

December 10, 2008

The lads in their hundreds (1)

Just saying Olivier Messiaen's name is exceptional. Thomas Grubb's textbook Singing in French includes an appendix in which he cross-references every possible combination of vowels in French, in every possible situation, with the corresponding correct pronunciation in IPA. It's pages of this sort of thing:

But every so often there's a unique word, one that makes its own rule—including this one:

An appropriate inheritance for a creator of singular sounds.

As you probably know, Messiaen would have been 100 years old today. For a birthday card, here's one of my favorite shorter Messiaen pieces, the comparatively obscure "Pièce pour le Tombeau de Paul Dukas," from 1936. (Today is unseasonably warm here in Massachusetts, which not only brought out scattered celebratory choruses of birds, but also got the piano closer to being in tune than it was at this time last week.)

December 09, 2008

Drede ye nought, sayd the aungell bryght

Guerrieri: Be We Mery in This Feste (PDF, 163 Kb; not terribly subtle MIDI here)

Here's a nice, crunchy, part-of-this-balanced-breakfast Christmas carol that I'll toss into the season's general musical maelstrom. Merry Christmas, every one! This will probably end up being this year's Christmas Eve choral introit—sometimes you just want something in-your-face to shake everyone out of their cookie-induced torpor. Can I augment that harmony? Sure! Can I throw on all the mixture stops? It's Christmas, isn't it? Why do Tudor sources add so many extra letters to otherwise normal English words? Hey, it's the thought that counts.

If the macaronic inclusion of ecclesiastical Latin is too sober for your holiday, you can always set the Wayback Machine to last year's wassails. And it's as good a time as any to remind everyone that charity-supporting t-shirts are a great way to distract your friends and loved ones from the coming financial apocalypse. (Buy eight for Hanukkah!)

December 05, 2008

Tempo e tempi

The composer in Cambridge: Carter looks back. Interviewing Elliott Carter.
Boston Globe, December 5, 2008.

I ended up with way more material than I could fit into a Globe article. Some of the more off-topic or esoteric excerpts:

It's interesting how much of Carter's early musical experiences revolved around folk music—not just his contact with Ives and Gilbert:
EC:I also studied Greek with Milman Parry, who invited me—Milman Parry caused a revolution in Greek, in the study of the Greek language, he decided to go to some mountains in Albania where there were still people singing like Homer, who sang big epic poems at night. And he wanted me to go with him—I didn’t go, I think I was a little foolish not to, but I’ve forgotten why I didn’t go. But he came back with a lot of recordings of all this, and decided, he had a whole new idea of how Homer had written the Odyssey and the Iliad because of that. There’s still people fighting about it.
MG: One interesting thing: you spent a summer in Tunisia?
EC: Indeed I did.
MG: How did that come about?
EC: Well, I knew a woman who sang Arabic music, Laura Williams.... And Laura Williams had been asked by the Baron d’Elanger, who had a big palace in the northern part of Tunisia, who was very interested in capturing what the original Arabic music of that place was, because radio was playing all kinds of jazz and everything, and everyone was forgetting all about it. So he wanted to make a big effort to have everything down. And I notated a lot of these—we used to set up, it was so hot, we slept all day and worked all night. And it was a lot of fun.
Carter arrived at Harvard in 1926, after Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell had controversially resegregated student housing with regards to Jewish and African-American students. Carter didn't remember that being a big deal among the student population, but he did recall the outcry over Lowell's institution of the Harvard house system:
EC: [T]he other thing I remember very vividly, when we learned that they were going to put up all these dormitories—you know, a lot of students didn’t live in dormitories at Harvard. I rented a room from some old lady on a little street that doesn’t exist anymore. And then later, I rented rooms in a building on Mount Auburn Street. But when we heard that Harvard was going to build all these new dormitories, a great many of us went to President Lowell and said that this was going to destroy the campus. And Lowell said, “You can’t turn down three million dollars easily.”
Carter also got a little lesson in labor relations from BSO players:
EC: My main memory of Boston—the people in the Boston Symphony, it was largely a group of Frenchmen who were not unionized, it was not a unionized thing. So that they were all caught in this situation—if they were fired, they’d have to go back to France, they couldn’t get a job in America. So there was a kind of funny business—in any case, I was brought up to speak French as a child, and they used to run a boardinghouse, and I used to go there and have meals.
Later, in the 1930s, Carter would start his own union:
EC: [T]he thing that we all had going on, was the fact that there were not many American composers, and that the American composer was not paid for his performances—in fact, he was supposed to pay for his performances. And so, in the old-fashioned way, we made a union, and wouldn’t allow any music to be played until we were paid. Well, we finally got it, and the American Composers Alliance worked quite well, and Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland, and the rest of us, we were very active in establishing that....
And now: 20,000 composers in this country.
MG: Too many.
EC: It’s all a mistake, we shouldn’t have done it. [laughs]
I asked Carter about this photo, which shows the Harvard Glee Club visiting Herbert Hoover at the White House in the spring of 1929.
EC: I certainly do not remember anything like this.
MG: There’s one person who kind of looks like you, but I don’t know.
EC: [laughs] Where was this? At Harvard?
MG: No, it was actually at the White House.
EC: Oh, then no.
I was only at the White House twice. There was once with Kennedy, with some other composers. And the second time, Ronald Reagan, he invited me, and he gave me a medal [the National Medal of Arts, in 1985].
God, he was stupid. I had lunch with him, and—well, maybe he wasn’t stupid, but he certainly acted stupidly that day. There were very funny things about it. That famous black opera singer, a beautiful woman, [Leontyne Price]—she sat between me and the president, it was a round table. And she looked at me very angrily and she said, [clenches teeth] “We’re here to have a good time.” [laughs] It was all sort of in that mood. And I sat next to Carter Brown, who I knew, who was head of the big museum down there, the Mellon Museum [the National Gallery of Art], and we talked. And Mr. Reagan tried to get in on some conversation, because we were all talking about things he didn’t know much about. Finally, he said, “I just love the sculpture of [Frederic] Remington,” you know, the cowboy guy.
Finally, he had to take the lead, and he decided to tell his stories, and the stories were unbelievable. I don’t know if you want to hear them.
MG: Sure.
EC: OK. Well, there was one story—he said, there were two psychoanalysts, they had offices in the same building, and they’d go up together in the elevator in the morning. And in the evening, one of them was all disheveled, and the other one looked perfect. And the disheveled one said to the other, “How can you go through all that, hear all those terrible things, and still look like that?” And he says, “Who listens?”
Now, this is the president saying that.
MG: We do know how to pick our presidents.
EC: Well, yes, we finally did! I didn’t think [Obama would] ever get in.

December 04, 2008

Bonjour, l'etoiles!

I'm beginning to sense a pattern at the Metropolitan Opera. Literally.

The photo wall they've put up in the lobby for the 125th Anniversary Season:

From this season's production of Doctor Atomic:

From this season's production of La Damnation de Faust:

It's a real Hollywood Squares vibe, isn't it? Faust for the block: true or false—a jockey can have up to twelve mounts a day!

December 03, 2008

Conducting oneself

I can't go, but you can: tonight at 7:30, head over to Smith Hall at Harvard Hillel and you can hear Daniel Barenboim chatting with Michael Steinberg. (Barenboim is in town for the world premiere of Elliott Carter's Interventions.) The conductor/pianist/Olympic-class troublemaker is also promoting his new memoir, Music Quickens Time (at least that's the American title, anyway). I've heard Barenboim in such conversations a couple of times, and you always end up with your head expanded. The event is free—no tickets required.

December 02, 2008

Principle of Locality

Reviewing the Florestan Recital Project.
Boston Globe, December 3, 2008.

Everybody's Talkin'

Reviewing the Laurel String Quartet et al.
Boston Globe, December 2, 2008.

The Carter centenary is accelerating into the homestretch. I feel like I should have one of those countdown clocks on the sidebar or something.

December 01, 2008

On the small screen

A netting of scuttlebutt:

Announcing the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. Upload a video of yourself playing a newly-commissioned piece by Tan Dun, and you can be part of some sort of grand mash-up; if other viewers vote you worthy, you can go to New York for a three-day Carnegie Hall workshop in 2009—conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas:
Thomas cheerfully conceded that much of the actual planning for the April concert is still up in the air. It depends, he says, on who emerges from the audition project.

For that matter, the entire program still has plenty of serendipity built into its genetic makeup. Asked what might constitute a success for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, [YouTube product marketing manager Ed] Sanders sounded open to just about anything.

"There are lots of ways it could go. If we were to have this conversation again in six months' time, I think the most successful tangents this might go on would be ones that were impossible to predict today."
Wait a minute—technology people using the phrase "impossible to predict" in reference to their creation? Isn't that the linchpin of every movie James Cameron's ever made? Yes, I see no way this can end badly. (I can still watch pirated opera excerpts, though, right?)

Congratulations to composer Brett Dean, now brainstorming just how he can leverage his Grawemeyer award into keeping the bald guy from Midnight Oil from shutting down the Australian National Academy of Music.

Condoleezza Rice plays piano for the Queen of England. Always Brahms with this woman! Well, some people do respond to stress by eating.

Isaac Stern's son, new director of the Israeli Opera, will maintain the Wagner ban.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, having started their own record label, is now offering downloads on their website. Choose your format: 320 Kbs mp3 or, for newer stuff, Windows Media HD Surround Sound. I don't have a surround-sound set-up, so I can't comment on that, and the Java-based download manager kept telling me that a couple of movements of Bartok weren't on the server. (No access to the "Intermezzo interotto"—maybe it's supposed to be ironic.) On the other hand, the prices aren't bad, and seeing how I'm currently listening to the world premiere of Bernstein's Symphony no. 2, with the composer at the piano and Koussevitzky conducting ("The Masque" is nearly flying apart at the seams in exciting fashion), I can definitely see the upside. (Update (12/2): Geoff Edgers gets the details.)