March 31, 2008

Music of the Spheres

Major League Baseball has been having this rolling series of opening days this year—games in Japan and Washington—which is silly, since everybody knows that the capital-letter Opening Day only happens when your team gets going, so they might as well do them all at the same time. Which is why it's today (2:20 PM EST, Zambrano vs. Sheets) that we'll do an Opening Day post.

My loyalties lie elsewhere than here in Massachusetts, but here's a little something for the hometown crowd—M. J. Messer's "Una Schottische," published in 1874, and "Dedicated to the Una Base Ball Club of Charlestown—Junior Champions 1870-72-73." In 1960, the late Robert Cantwell offered an appreciation:
The amateur clubs were still in existence, and the junior champions were a club from a Boston suburb, called the Una Base Ball Club. When the Una nine won the championship again in 1873 it electrified a Boston dance music composer named M. J. Messer, of whom nothing is known except that he wrote the "Una Schottische" in honor of the victory. With this piece of music, baseball came very near winning a timeless composition in its honor. Perhaps the only barrier to its lasting popularity was its title. The "Una Schottische" was as vivid and lighthearted as the tunes of Oklahoma! almost a century later, and like that music possessed a charming country-dance or outdoor air; it was a work of happy enthusiasm that made it ideally suited for the band concerts that once accompanied ball games.
And here it is: just the sort of music to wax your handlebar mustache and beat up an Irish immigrant by.

I think I'll go get a hot dog.

Art nouveau

Reviewing the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
Boston Globe, March 31, 2008.

Bonus tracks

Reviewing the Boston Classical Orchestra.
Boston Globe, March 31, 2008.

March 27, 2008

Sweatin' to the oldies

Sports Illustrated is the latest publication to put its archives online, which means I can link to this 1979 article by Sean Kellogg about the athleticism of singing opera. Includes interviews with Sherrill Milnes and Luciano Pavarotti, who compliments some leading ladies: "For a big voice you need incredible muscular power to go to the top. Birgit Nilsson is very strong. The same with Joan Sutherland. She's a very athletic girl." And Kellogg anticipates Morris Robinson:
The strength required to sing is the reason you find so many mesomorphs in opera—the same body type usually found in football or weight lifting. Mesomorphs are bulky and muscular and tend to gain weight easily. A number of opera singers are obviously no exception.

Consider four of the top male singers in the world. Placido Domingo stands 6'2" and weighs 225 pounds; Milnes is 6'2", 212 pounds; Martti Talvela 6'7", 250 pounds; and Pavarotti 6'1", about 240 pounds. That's a front four Bear Bryant would covet.
(I'll let Opera Chic photoshop that one.) Nothing a fan doesn't already know, but still a fun read.

BONUS! From September 29, 1969, Seiji Ozawa falls on his butt:
Seiji Ozawa is a guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic and a second baseman for the Penguins, the orchestra's softball team. Earlier this month, while the Philharmonic was performing at Iowa State, the Penguins took on a fraternity team. The Penguins won the game 9-8 but almost lost a conductor. Ozawa was knocked down by a determined base runner and suffered a fractured coccyx. It's nice that conducting is something you do standing up.

March 26, 2008

Girder and Panel

I'm playing a recital this weekend (for which I'm behind on practicing; hence the lack of posts) that includes a set of Brahms' folksong arrangements, which I've heard, but somehow never performed. They're fascinating: Brahms adopts a fairly light touch, compositionally—one or two accompanimental ideas per song—but going through them, you can clearly hear how much of, say, Ein Deutsches Requiem was intended to be deliberately reminiscent of folksong.

Every time I play a classical folksong arrangement, I think of something I once heard baritone Sanford Sylvan say in a masterclass. He was coaching a singer on a Britten arrangement, trying to get her to do all the things that classical singers do—inventing a subtext, imagining a dramatic situation with personal resonance—in order to communicate the emotional content of the song. And then, as an aside, he pointed out that this is pretty much the opposite of what real folksingers do. Folksingers don't create the illusion of emotion; they just tell the story.

This isn't to say that folksingers don't worry about the emotion of the song, but that they trust the lyrics to carry that emotion. Here's Joan Baez singing the old labor anthem "Joe Hill" at Woodstock in 1969:

If I was going to do an arrangement of "Joe Hill," I would be inclined to try and musically portray the emotional content—shift the harmony, or dynamics, or texture to capture the mystery of Joe Hill's appearance, the violence of his downfall, the defiant hope of his legacy. Baez doesn't do any of that; the verses are musically indistinguishable from each other. She's just telling the story. It's brilliantly effective on its own.

There's an interesting historical divide in the difference between folk music and classical music. Most classical music does tell a story of a sort—even "absolute" music can be thought of as a series of emotional evocations onto which the listener can project an imaginary narrative. But the emotional arc is what matters. Nevertheless, there's a smaller group of classical works that, in a curious way, have a sensibility closer to that of folk music, and those are pieces that tell the story of their own construction, that act out their own assembly. Now, a few weeks ago in this space, there was quite the to-do over the relationship between, and primacy of, compositional "process" and emotional effect, so I'm going to try to avoid the loaded word "process" here as much as I can. Let's just say that such pieces fall under a general category of what I'll call construction narratives. You can find them in just about every period of music history.

Construction narratives in general are pretty common. Basic examples range from the rather cut-and-dry—cable standbys like the Science Channel and the Discovery Channel are full of programs like "How It's Made"—to the downright sublime, as in the books of David Macauley. (If you're my age, you remember this precursor.) But variations abound. The Food Network is nothing but construction narratives: the dramatic arc of every program goes from raw ingredients to a finished meal, with close-ups of each successive transformation along the way. Heist movies are basically construction narratives. So, in fact, are a lot of backstage musicals. Over the weekend, my lovely wife and I caught a broadcast of the Fred Astaire-Judy Garland vehicle Easter Parade, which is built around a theatrical construction: build the dance, build the act, build the show—fall in love along the way. (Skip to the 5:00 mark of this clip and you can see the scandalously underrated Jules Munshin satirize the Food Network, still a half-century in the future.)

Even high-concept self-referential construction narratives aren't all that unusual anymore. Pirandello and Ionesco spring to mind in theater, not to mention James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George (the bulk of whose second act, after all, consists of a song called "Putting It Together"). There are movies about movies—Singin' In the Rain, . There's the visual arts—here's Richard Dorment talking about Jasper Johns' early paintings in the current issue of The New York Review of Books:
Whereas Rothko's floating expanses of dark color seemed to offer the possibility that art can provide transcendental spiritual experience, Johns's work was down to earth. A flag or target by Johns is a real object occupying a real space, which the artist made by using certain procedures in a certain order. In his paintings you don't find anything that Johns didn't deliberately put into them—and that the viewer can't see that he put into them. This is the moral center of his art. It doesn't lie, it doesn't deceive, and it doesn't signify anything other than what the viewer can see in front of his eyes.
That's a description that could easily apply to a lot of non-programmatic serial music, or more austere examples of minimalism—or, indeed, a traditional fugue. (William Walton made the fugue-construction connection explicit with his musical accompaniment to the manufacture of Spitfires in the WWII film The First of the Few.)

I can't vouch for all those other media, but I've always had the sense that construction narratives in music are definitely a minority taste. Now, I could make the case that all music necessarily communicates aural information about its own construction—you need to be able to hear at least some of how a piece is put together in order to make any sense of the form. But pieces that put such information front-and-center generally get tagged with such criticisms as "arid," "academic," "intellectual," &c. I myself tend to like such works—maybe since I fancy myself a composer, I have no trouble imagining the emotional aspects of creation, and superimposing that emotional narrative on the unfolding construction I'm presented with. But I have a sneaking suspicion this is yet another hangover of that that ultimate emotional-cultural bender, 19th-century Romanticism.

I've written before about one of the main differences between Classicism and Romanticism, the knowable process vs. the unknowable leap. There's a certain amount of that dichotomy in the devaluing of musical construction narratives—Romantics thought that rational artistic forms and processes obscured the sort of emotional effects they were after—but really, it's far more complex and interesting a situation. Particularly in music, Romantic freedom never completely eclipsed Classical order, and ever since, the two have been circling each other like dogs. One could write a fairly deep history of art since 1900 based around tracing the tension between formal propriety and emotional promiscuity.

That's from a creator's standpoint, though. What about the audience? I wonder if a steady erosion of musical literacy has taken its toll on the viability of construction narratives. If you've never played an instrument, never translated musical ideas into notation, never worked through the coordination of a piece of chamber music, you can certainly still end up a music lover—it's strong stuff—but the emotional experience of working with the building blocks might remain foreign, unavailable for reference. Such music has the most traction when an emotional narrative is layered on top of it, as in opera—minimalism proved well-suited to the genre, and Wozzeck, for example, never seems to fall victim to the alleged serialist box-office curse.

Musical construction narratives will still be created—composers, after all, have a built-in emotional connection to the act of creation. In a way, pieces that revel in their own process are like folksongs for composers, the vernacular music of a land inhabited exclusively by pitch and rhythm. It's kind of ironic that the Romantics seized on folk culture as a lifeline, a balm for Classical formality—such "untrained" art was a more direct pathway to emotional communication. But the result, in "high" art, was a premium on emotional expression that relegated a big part of folksong's sensibility to the background. Of course, in order to do that, music still needs to be built—even Wagner's operas are intricate clockwork, their leitmotif construction guiding the listener across the carefully delineated landscape. Unnoticed servants, nevertheless setting the table in plain view. Reversing the upstairs and downstairs of the musical house on occasion is not, on the face of it, an invalid narrative strategy.

Art has gotten so mixed up in the past century that even trying to separate out each impulse is tricky. Sondheim's George is an artist, and a musical, concerned with (as the character says) order, composition, and balance, yet the core of that show is the inchoate, inarticulate nature of creativity, and the difficulty of integrating that into everyday life. Serialism reimposed classical order on musical expressionism with a result that, to many listeners, uncannily evoked violent chaos. The mechanical, repetitive discipline of minimalism can carry waves of emotional power.

In 1950, Jean Cocteau released quite possibily the most perfect depiction of the Romantic ethos, his film Orphée. The poet Orphée thinks he has found his artistic salvation when he finds a car radio broadcasting a narrated stream of seemingly random numbers. For him, it is a Romantic ideal, a creative source completely unmediated by process or model. But numbers imply order and instruction, and Orphée's new creative routine—in the front seat, diligently taking dictation—is a model of monastic discipline compared with his brawling colleagues. It's also a movie explicitly about creation and the mechanism of the artistic method. Orphée has discovered a new process he thinks will be his salvation. He ends up crossing between the upper world and the underworld, a passage marked by ritual and rules, a bureaucratic tribunal, and the consequences of violating order are too terrible to mention. The philosophy is Romantic—the movie is not only Classical, but almost folk-like in its everyday realism. Everything is matter-of-fact: the ban on Orphée looking at his wife bursts into the real world with sitcom absurdity, and the logistics of death are translated into mid-century plausibility, with motorcycle delivery and a checking of the files. Towards the beginning, a critic tells Orphée—and, implicitly, the movie—to "amaze us." Cocteau does so, it turns out, by just telling the story.

March 21, 2008

Und ich, ich, ich, ich, ich, die ihn dir geschickt, / ich bin wie ein Hund an deiner Ferse

Needless to say, critic-at-large Moe is licking his chops after reading this story.
[A proposed] bill submitted to the Tuscan regional parliament... would allow pet owners in Tuscany to take their cats, dogs and other animals to any sort of public place—including museums, cinemas and even theatres.
(Via.) Even theatresOpera Chic may have herself some canine competition. Talk about real-time criticism: if Moe likes my practicing, he curls up under the piano. If he doesn't, he drops a drool-laden ball in my lap and barks at me. Is that really all that different from the La Scala loggione?

On the other hand, I don't know if we're ready to pack up for Europe, and domestically, I fear that Moe won't be sitting in that Met box anytime soon. (They'll let 'em onstage but not in the seats.) Still, a dog can dream. (Though, on a sad note, and all his theatrical anti-feline bluster aside, Moe is truly sorry that he won't have the chance to chase Bert up the Grand Tier on the way into that 2010-11 Nixon in China. Condolences and—no mean feat for a terrier—a moment of silence.)

March 20, 2008

Make it up as you go along, lauda, laude

Our Easter anthem this year is a venerable old barn-burner, the "Gloria" from "Mozart's Twelfth Mass." It's not by Mozart at all—it was written by a guy named Wenzel Müller—but under Mozart's name it was a big church choir hit in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Loud, bright, common-time C-major: what's not to like? Here's a typical passage towards the end:

Domine Deus, Agnus Dei from Müller Gloria
The edition in our choral library—which appears to date from just after the Crucifixion—has a typo in this bit. The alto line reads:

Alto typo 7/8 measure
Here's how slap-happy church music directors tend to get during the onslaught of Holy Week: I was curious enough to take time out of rehearsal to see what this passage would sound like if all the parts were rewritten in 7/8:

Müller Gloria in 7/8
Instant Chichester Psalms! Next week's episode: how to make Beach Boys background vocals by swapping the bass and alto parts of Protestant hymns.

March 18, 2008

Wen suchet ihr?

Via Geoff Edgers, this bit of Hub ridiculousness:
Peter Watchorn is a professional harpsichordist, an Australian-born US citizen, and a 21-year resident of Cambridge. He was very surprised last week when he was mistaken for a terrorist.... A tip from a passenger and a manhunt that followed disrupted the T's Red Line for about 13 minutes during rush hour Thursday morning, as police surrounded a train with bomb-sniffing dogs. It also forced Watchorn to miss a business trip to Buffalo while he was being questioned by State Police.
Peter Watchorn is an awesome guy. A number of years back, I somehow ended up at an informal concert/party he was throwing in his apartment. Knowing even less then than I do now about Baroque music or the ins and outs of harpsichord technique, I was a little uncertain about whether I'd make any conversation at all. But Peter pulled out a pristine vintage RCA no. 50 suitcase Victrola and spun a few priceless 78s, and we ended up chatting about local sources for proper needles. Wonder what his anonymous tipster would have made of that conversation.


Reviewing Imani Winds.
Boston Globe, March 18, 2008.

March 17, 2008

Sean nós

One of Ireland's many tricks is to fade away to a little speck down on the horizon of our lives, and then return suddenly in tremendous bulk, frightening us.

—George Moore, Hail and Farewell

For St. Patrick's Day (or, in Boston, Evacuation Day—a ruse so transparent that even the mayor can't be bothered to keep up appearances), a bit of George Moore, a quintessentially disreputable Irish writer ("I would lay aside the wisest book," he once wrote, "to talk to a stupid woman"), who, in true Irish fashion, confounded the stereotype by both maintaining a lifelong skepticism towards his native country and also being a very good writer indeed. Hail and Farewell is his often biting three-volume memoir of the Irish literary Renaissance at the turn of the last century; upon publication of the third volume, the New York Times opined that "if Mr. Moore revisits Ireland he is the bravest man in the world." But Moore could also accurately and sympathetically capture the Irish susceptibility to romance. Here, Moore attends a Dublin literary dinner organized by the journalist and politician T. P. Gill; a fellow guest is William Butler Yeats.
My neighbor laughed, but his laughter only irritated me still more against him, and my eyes went to Yeats, who sat, his head drooping on his shirt-front, like a crane, uncertain whether he should fold himself up for the night, and I wondered what was the beautiful eloquence that was germinating in his mind. He would speak to us about the gods, of course, and about Time and Fate and the gods being at war; and the moment seemed so long that I grew irritated with Gill for not calling upon him at once for a speech. At length this happened, and Yeats rose, and a beautiful commanding figure he seemed at the end of the table, pale and in profile, with long nervous hands and a voice resonant and clear as a silver trumpet. He drew himself up and spoke against Trinity College, saying that it had always taught the ideas of the stranger, and the literature of the stranger, and the songs of the stranger, and that was why Ireland had never listened and Trinity College had been a sterile influence. The influences that had moved Ireland deeply were the old influences that had come down from generation to generation, handed on by the story-tellers that collected in the evenings round the fire, creating for learned and unlearned a communion of heroes. But my memory fails me; I am disfiguring and blotting the beautiful thoughts that I heard that night clothed in lovely language. He spoke of Cherubim and Seraphim, and the hierarchies and the clouds of angels that the Church had set against the ancient culture, and then he told us that gods had been brought vainly from Rome and Greece and Judaea. In the imaginations of the people only the heroes had survived, and from the places where they had walked their shadows fell often across the doorways; and then there was something wonderfully beautiful about the blue ragged mountains and the mystery that lay behind them, ragged mountains flowing southward. But that speech has gone for ever.

March 14, 2008

Variations (5): Tech rehearsal

Robert Schumann saved a steel pen he found at Beethoven's grave for special occasions, such as writing his essay on Schubert's C-Major Symphony. There are various ways to understand this act, but I think it sufficient to note the association with Beethoven and that the pen was made of steel. Attempts to manufacture steel pens were not satisfactory until the 1820s, and steel pens did not widely supplant feathers until the 1840s. To find one at Beethoven's grave would be comparable to finding a typewriter at Wagner's grave, or a computer at Stravinsky's.

—Alfred W. Cramer, "Of Serpentina and Stenography:
Shapes of Handwriting in Romantic Melody,"

19th Century Music (XXX/2), Fall 2006

It is not surprising that when the "Anti-Gas Establishment" of the Royal Engineers got together for a reunion ten years after the [First World War], one of the sketches in a comedy program made reference to the Russian ballet. Both gas and the Russian dancers were regarded as the height of "newness," as expressions of a sense of the modern that far exceeded what was considered acceptable by most of society. Lieutenant Colonel Henry S. Raper, CBE, FRS, Cavalier Crown of Italy, was presented on the anniversary program in the following way:
Raperski Presents his famous Russian Ballet, "Dialysis." Argument:—The scene is laid in a woodland glade in which the three beautiful sisters, Chlorine, Bromine and Iodine, are discovered wandering. Sodium, a notorious bad character, approaches and beguiles them by presenting each with an electron for their rings. Too late they discover what has happened and they are about to crystallize out in despair, when they are precipitated by Argentum and thus saved from their awful doom. The last scene depicts Sodium, who has now become an Ion, in Brownian motion.

—Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War
and the Birth of the Modern Age

March 12, 2008

Für fünfzehn Pfennige

The New York Post misses the crucial details in giving some background on the whole Eliot Spitzer-call-girl-scandal-resignation thing:
Shortly before his pre-Valentine Day's Washington, DC, hotel tryst with the call girl now publicly known as "Kristen," Spitzer asked his aides in the Mayflower Hotel if they had a classical-music CD he could bring to his room, a witness said....

"At the time, he claimed it was to help him focus and concentrate," the source said of Spitzer. "He said he was going to work late into the night."
(Emphasis added.) So what are we talking here? Götterdämmerung? The Turn of the Screw? Lulu? The Emperor Waltz? Enquiring minds, &c.!

In C

According to the counter at the bottom of the sidebar there, sometime in the past couple of hours, this blog received its 100,000th visitor. Thank you all very kindly! Good friend Jack Miller (whose now-defunct As the Apple Turns was pretty much my primer on how to blog) used to offer fabulous prizes to those visitors who turned over the odometer in such dramatic fashion. Not being nearly as tech-savvy, I honestly can't tell who was responsible for that portentious click. However, a couple of months ago, my mom expressed her determination to trigger this particular milestone, and far be it from me to doubt her. So a round of applause to Soho the Dog's official 100,000th visitor:

My mom.

A new Strauss & Mahler t-shirt will soon be making its way to lovely and scenic Niles, Illinois! And again, many thanks to everyone who finds these ramblings worthy of occasional perusal.

For the First Time

Reviewing Paul Potts.
Boston Globe, March 12, 2007.

March 11, 2008

Mother, Superior

Today's episode marks the 500th post here on Soho the Dog.

Last spring I had occasion to mention the 1970 book The Computer and Music, edited by Harry B. Lincoln. Here's another excerpt from the book that grabbed my eye:
Another composition of a much different sort was produced in 1964 by Mother Harriet Padberg of Maryville College of the Sacred Heart outside St. Louis....

Her compositional method is based on the idea of first subdividing the octave into twenty-four steps. These are not tones in equal temperament, however, but rather the 24th to 47th harmonic partials of a fundamental of 18.333 cps. It follows, therefore, that the 24th partial is 440 cps. The 48th partial is, of course, the octave of this, and the steps within the octave are separated by equal numbers of cycles per second.... Second, Mother Padberg associated a letter of the alphabet with each note of this scale, doubling up V and W and associating Y with either I or Z. Third, she defined a tone row by means of any 12-letter meaningful phrase and further defined ways of developing rhythms from ratios of consonants to vowels. With the addition of further rows for dynamics and voicing or orchestration, she was then ready to write computer programs for generating compositions based on these schemes. Mother Padberg first wrote a computer program in FORTRAN for an IBM-1620 computer to enable her to write a canon for two or four voices. Later, however, she was able to expand and generalize this idea by writing a more generalized program for an IBM-7072 computer. This latter program permitted her to generate canons in two or four voices based on one to three tone rows with the further option of producing a "free fugue." The construction of this "free fugue" was based on the idea that a tone row and its transformation constitute a "group" to which transformations of group theory are applicable.

—Lejaren Hiller, "Music Composed with Computers—
A Historical Survey," in The Computer and Music,
Harry B. Lincoln, ed. (Cornell University Press, 1970)

Sister Padberg's "Canon and Free Fugue" sounds like one of the coolest pieces of all time. Hiller gets most of the basics right, although the tone rows can range anywhere from 5 to 12 notes in length—the computer separates the input into blocks based on word breaks, which are then converted into rows. The use of text as the generating material isn't just for ease of input, in other words; the linguistic structure becomes a main factor in the musical results. The rhythmic patterns are fairly intricate, based on prime number relationships derived not only from the consonant-to-vowel ratio, but also the comparative lengths of the resulting word blocks. You can get all the details in Sister Padberg's dissertation, available through ProQuest.

It's fun how many contemporary musical threads the "Canon and Free Fugue" seems to echo, however distantly. The use of language as not just an inspiration, but a guiding factor in the actual compositional building blocks of the music, relates to a similar current in other avant-garde music of the 1960s, from the serious investigation of the inherently musical qualities of phonemes in Luciano Berio's Circles or Sinfonia, to the playful embedding of Bach's name—via Morse code—within Lukas Foss's Baroque Variations. The program's ability to turn any phrase of suitable size into music also gives it a kinship with aleatoric developments. And the intricacy and ingenuity of the scheme points towards the fascination with process that would lead to early Minimalism. But even on its own, the "Canon and Free Fugue" intrigues, the way the step-by-step transformation of written language into a musical result parallels the computer's translation of programming language into purposeful electronic activity.

Sister Padberg taught mathematics and music at Maryville University for 24 years, starting their music therapy program in 1973. Though retired from teaching, she continues to volunteer as a music therapist (and pick up awards now and then). She relates via e-mail that the only realization of the piece was fairly "primitive"; for her thesis defense, she played examples that were synthesized from punch cards that she sent to Bell Telephone Labs. Her dissertation contains the complete FORTRAN code for each program, as well as sample data outputs, if anyone with more computer savvy than me is interested in attempting a full realization. If you'd like to play around with the 24-tone scale, the frequencies are reproduced below (click to enlarge):

For an idea of how technologically spoiled we are when it comes to electronic music, Sister Padberg writes:
It is interesting that a few weeks ago an "alum" of those days was reminiscing about how the students had helped me get some idea of the "sound" by filling Coke bottles with the correct amount of water and blowing into them!!! How times have changed!!
That image of a bunch of college students pouring water in and out of Coke bottles until they whistle at the proper frequencies is irresistible—the low-tech, hands-on, trial-and-error origin of the digital sound world we live in now.

March 10, 2008

(Write it!)

My esteemed colleague Lloyd Schwartz, poet, professor, and critic, has also been burning the midnight oil for the past few years editing the poems, prose, and letters of Elizabeth Bishop. You can hear him talk about it on today's "Here & Now" from NPR (RealPlayer; Lloyd comes in at the 34:24 mark).

The Rest Is the Noise of Envious Backlash

(Click to enlarge.)


March 06, 2008

O wie mich sehnet auszuruhn

Apologies for the spotty posting this week—I've been buried in a pile of music for a recital this weekend. And a special voodoo curse on whoever decided that the proper low key for Brahms' "O wüsst' ich doch den Weg zurück" should be C-sharp major. What is this—affirmative action for double-sharps? I haven't seen this many x's in one place since they cleaned up the Combat Zone.


  • "[F]ormer U.S. House of Representatives Page, Real Estate broker, and music composer" Thomas Boyle promises to FINE TUNE AMERICA (probably a joke, but who can tell these days?).

  • In this corner: jazz legend Oscar Peterson. In that corner: right-wing anti-Semitic Mussolini-loving priest Lionel-Adolphe Groulx. The prize? A subway station. You can probably guess who I'm rooting for.

  • Kyle Gann and librarian friend (really, all of you should have a librarian friend) Rebecca Hunt send items for this year's Christmas list.

  • And finally: Against growl, opening salutation scrambled toast (15). For Joshua Kosman and longtime Soho the Dog friend Katie Hamill, who both placed in the top 100 at this year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
  • March 04, 2008

    When you're having more than one

    Live, from 1973, it's composer/arranger Edd Kalehoff hawking Schaefer beer with the unstoppable power of the Moog Modular. (Via.)

    Kalehoff—still going strong in his sixties—crafted a ton of game-show music for Mark Goodson and Bill Todman; he's best known for his work on The Price is Right. He's also done plenty of backgrounds for news and sports programming, particularly for ABC. Click on the "Edd's Classics Medley" on Kalehoff Productions' website for an idea of how deeply his composing and orchestration work has imprinted itself onto your subconscious.

    March 03, 2008

    Pretty Woman

    "No, I haven't gotten a flu shot—why do you ask?"
    (Robert Taylor and Greta Garbo in Camille.)

    Verdi: La Traviata
    Presented by Teatro Lirico d'Europa
    Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston
    Sunday, March 2, 2008

    Teatro Lirico d'Europa's La Traviata this past weekend was, like all their productions, thoroughly traditional and efficiently entertaining. With this opera, though, such an approach makes clear the primacy of Verdi's contribution, the tipping of the scales to favor music over words. As a piece of drama, La Traviata isn't exactly preposterous, but it's hardly Shakespearian in its character development. Puccini's for-all-practical-purposes remake Manon Lescaut is often cited for its striking, tableaux-based approach to storytelling, but Verdi's original has its share of lacunae. Some of the most dramatic points of the plot—the consummation of Alfredo and Violetta's romance, Alfredo's duel with Baron Douphol—happen only in the audience's imagination. The lovers spend more time expressing their love to the audience or to third parties than to each other. Parts of it seem almost to be missing a reel: everything important is either about to happen or has just happened. (The incongruities are heightened when the traditional act breaks are abandoned, as they were here: the curtain comes down on Violetta's "Sempre libera" profession of hedonistic freedom, only to promptly come up again on her happy domestication in the country.)

    Part of La Traviata's enduring popularity (the third-most performed opera in the United States, according to Opera America) has to be its aura of sheer fantasy. Dumas fils' La Dame aux camélias had a requisite sheen of romantic longing, but was comparatively clear-eyed about its title character. Verdi and Piave, his librettist, took the novel (and play) and, in the course of jettisoning most of its dramatic logistics, burnished it into the mid-19th-century prototype of every Hollywood hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold scenario ever devised. A courtesan who immediately gives up her life of luxury for a stranger's profession of love? Who goes through all five Kübler-Ross stages of grief when faced with the prospect of separation? Who—and this is crucial—sells her stuff to support her lover? It's every man's dream!

    But really, La Traviata's music simply leaves traditional dramatic plotting in the dust. It's the prime masterpiece of the period where Verdi went from a talented master of the Italian operatic tradition to a genius of reinvention: Verdi saw that the conventions of bel canto—the coloratura decoration, the steady build from recitative to cavatina to cabaletta, the diagetic justification for dance and popular music—had matured to the point that their mere presence could have dramatic content above and beyond the story. Violetta's fioritura, Alfredo's tenor ardency, his father's baritonal sterness, the tripping flute thirds of the perennial parties and balls: all those familiar elements start to play off of each other, turning up at inappropriate moments with an ironic charge, standing in for dialogue and plot rather than simply advancing them.

    And Verdi's orchestration never fails to astonish with its paradoxical combination of daring and efficiency.Teatro Lirico's usual musical director Krassmir Topolov led an orchestra that fared somewhat better than in last month's Tosca, with fewer sour moments in the strings and a warm, rounded mix from winds and brass—the distant, funereal tattoo behind Violetta's dying "Prendi, quest'è l'immagine" was particularly lovely, the highlight of an afternoon of dignified restraint. Giorgio Lalov's less-is-more direction, too, was unobtrusive and solid: party scenes may have lacked diabolical whirl, but he let intimate conversations unfold with simple stillness. (The one unfortunate exception was the third-act deathbed scene, with Alfredo given a lot of impulsive but directionless stage crossing that only made him seem oddly afraid of his beloved Violetta.)

    Some comprimario and secondo roles were doubled up: Vladimir Hristov was both a George Clooney-suave Marchese d'Obigny and a bland Dr. Grenvil; Giorgio Dinev, previously seen enjoyably blustering as Tosca's Spoletta, doddered formulaically as Violetta's servant, but had mischevious sparkle as Gastone—having introduced his friend Alfredo to Violetta, he worked the room, pointing out his handiwork to the other guests, a proud yenta.

    Plamen Dmitrov was somewhat stiff and uncharismatic as Alfredo's father Giorgio, but then again, the character is somewhat stiff and uncharismatic, so, intentional or not, it worked. Vocally, Dmitrov seemed to be fighting a cold, saving himself for high notes. Perhaps the bug had spread to Gabriel Gonzalez, singing Alfredo; despite some moments of real power, Gonzalez never got his voice "up and over"—there seemed to be no resonance in his head, the voice stuck in his throat, both intonation and tone frequently flat. (With his limited frequency range and a bleat in his vibrato, he often sounded uncannily like a 78 rpm recording.) As an actor, Gonzalez seemed the most reliant on stock gestures, signaling emotions rather than embodying them, but he did brood effectively.

    But La Traviata can only rise on its fallen woman; the joy of this performance was Marina Viskvorkina's excellent Violetta. Viskvorkina put her lovely, sapphire-polish lyric coloratura to unfailingly stylish use—not just a voice, but a real singer. She had the requisite fireworks for Violetta the pleasure-seeker, but also beautifully pared down her tone for the Act II duet "Dite alla giovine" and the high-wire finish of "Addio del passato" in Act III. And her acting was superb—if one never quite ascertained the attraction between Violetta and Alfredo, one got a palpable sense of both her love and the rebuke of her grief. As a character, Violetta is too good to be believe, but portraying her, Viskvorkina was more than good enough to be believable.