December 21, 2012

This night so chill

arr. Guerrieri: Still, Still, Still (2012) (PDF, 191 Kb)

This year's holiday card is a two-voice-and-piano arrangement of one of my favorite carols. Seriously, if I had to make out an intellectual Christmas list, "the chance to repeatedly harmonize an arpeggiated triad in increasingly odd fashion" would rank somewhere near the top. It's the simple things, really.

In the meantime, I am considering ringing in the new year with this concoction, courtesy of Jennie June's American Cookery Book (1866):


Put into a bowl a pound of sugar, pour on it a pint of warm beer, grated nutmeg, and some ginger, also grated; add four glasses of sherry and five pints of beer, stir it well, and if not sweet enough, add more sugar, and let it stand covered up four hours, and it is fit for use. Sometimes add a few lumps of sugar rubbed on a lemon to extract the flavor, and some lemon juice. If the lemon rind is pared very thin, without any of the white skin left, it answers better, by giving a stronger flavor of the lemon.

Bottle this mixture, and in a few days it will be in a state of effervescence. When served in a bowl fresh made, add some bread toasted very crisp, cut in narrow strips.

December 18, 2012

Last call

Over at NewMusicBox, critic-at-large Moe gets into the spirits of various seasons.

December 12, 2012

For your consideration

I'm traveling this week, so I'm a day late on a couple links. Over at NewMusicBox this week, I consider the composer's relationship with musical material from the vantage point of an early out.

Also, Ethan Iverson, a fellow Charles Rosen fan, asked for some reflections on his passing, which I was more than happy to attempt. If there's a more entertaining way to expand one's mind than a "Do the Math" post, I haven't found it; to be part of one is flattery indeed.

November 18, 2012

Word counting

I have a couple of First-Four-Notes-related articles up this weekend:

On Beethoven's Fifth and other warhorses.
Boston Globe, November 18, 2012.

Five Books Inspired by Beethoven's Fifth.
Publisher's Weekly, November 16, 2012.

Also, this, which I forgot to link to earlier this week:

Reviewing the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage.
Musical America, November 13, 2012.

I will once again, and with pleasure, acknowledge this blog's debt to Tippett's opera.

November 11, 2012


The American Music of Elliott Carter. A composer of the American experience.
Boston Globe, November 11, 2012.

The image is from Carter's business card, given to me by Helen Frost-Jones, Carter's wife, following a question-and-answer session at Orchestra Hall in Chicago for the 1994 premiere of Partita. I had asked a question, probably impertinent and almost certainly dull, but, in retrospect, it was a supreme encouragement to have passed some small sort of muster with Carter's most devotedly fierce protector.

I've spent a lot of agreeable time writing about Carter and his music, including interviewing him back in 2008 (outtakes here), and spilling many words over the Tanglewood celebration of his centenary:

1. Punctuality
2: Genealogy
3: The stuff that dreams are made of
4: Identity politics
5: Role modeling
6: This Is Your Life
7: Either/Or
8: You've got a head start

Reading over those dispatches again, I find my impressions still evolving—for example, I've come to hear a lot of the passing neo-classical references in Carter's later music to be less an extension of a Coplandesque style and more a critique of it—but the idea of Carter as a composer profoundly concerned with capturing the energy and friction of a democratic society, an idea that first fully crystallized for me in that full-immersion festival, is one that remains at the core of why I love the music so much.

November 01, 2012

La Fête de Toussaint

For All Saints' Day, a chance to remember past articles that I was too lazy to link to:

Reviewing Sound Icon.
Boston Globe, October 23, 2012.

On William Morris, Leonard Bernstein, and the Chichester Psalms.
Boston Globe, October 20, 2012.

New England's Prospect: Reactor Corps. Reviewing the HONK! Festival.
NewMusicBox, October 15, 2012.

New England's Prospect: Talking Cures. Collage New Music plays Nathan, Carter, and Dargel.
NewMusicBox, October 9, 2012.

Reviewing Daniil Trifonov.
Boston Globe, October 8, 2012.

Reviewing Boston Musica Viva.
Boston Globe, October 1, 2012.

New England’s Prospect: “The harpsdischord shall be theirs for ollaves." Martin Pearlman's Finnegans Wake.
NewMusicBox, October 1, 2012.

New England's Prospect: Tracking Devices. The Northeastern/NEC Harry Partch Symposium.
NewMusicBox, September 27, 2012.

Reviewing Paula Robison and Paavali Jumppanen.
Boston Globe, September 19, 2012.

Also, if you missed it, The First Four Notes now has its own shiny new website, complete with book-related news and additional (and ever-growing) Beethoven miscellany.

(Oh, and in the meantime, take a moment and a bit of money and help those drying out from Hurricane Sandy.)

October 29, 2012

Zärtlich—einen Schädelbohrer!

The best thing about a Schoenberg O'Lantern? With the lights on, it looks like a Schoenberg self-portrait:

Update (10/31): Arnold guards the premises:

September 05, 2012

Music of Changes


—John Cage, "Seriously Comma" (1966)

One of the dilemmas of mental life is that people need to know of things that are untrue, and yet need to know that these things are untrue.

—Daniel T. Gilbert, Douglas S. Krull, and Patrick T. Malone,
"Unbelieving the Unbelievable: Some Problems in the
Rejection of False Information," Journal of Personality
and Social Psychology
, vol. 59, No. 4 (1990)

System 1 and System 2—that's what Daniel Kahneman calls them, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow: the two tracks on which the brain operates. In simple terms: System 1 is intuitive, biased, judgmental, and nearly always on; System 2 is analytical, rational, reflective—and sluggish. When we make errors of judgment, it tends to be because System 1 has jumped to a conclusion that System 2 can't be roused enough to correct. It's why we have such poor intuition about statistics, about aggregate vs. anecdotal evidence, about the amount of randomness and noise in the data the world presents to us.

Randomness and noise: a wholly appropriate thing to talk about on John Cage's 100th birthday. I've been thinking about the musical implications of System 1 and System 2 lately. Implication #1: musical works that are widely considered "great" play to System 1's particular proclivities, leveraging music's basic capacity for simple tension and release to create the illusions of causality, connections, and narrative qualities that System 1 is primed to see in whatever stimulus comes its way. Implication #2 is related: music that appeals more to System 2, more intricate and calculated, more geared toward an active investigation of what musical relationships there are in the score, rather than what relationships only seem to be on the surface—well, a lot of people aren't going to like it. It's easy to consider serial music in this way: completely shunting aside the mechanisms of System 1 in order to try and shake System 2 awake. In a society like ours—capitalist/post-capitalist, consumption-based, driven by appeals, both earnest and cynical, to System 1's intuitive reflexes—that can be a hard sell.

For a long time, Cage's music was an even harder sell than even the most hardcore modernist serialism. And more and more, I think this is because, paradoxically, Cage was a much better composer than he has customarily been given credit for. Cage the thinker is lauded, but Cage the craftsman was just as formidable. He knew how music was put together. He knew the techniques and the forms, the tension and release. He knew, in other words, how to make music appeal to System 1—which is why his music is so shocking. Serialism, at least harmonically, is selectively constructive, bypassing System 1 in order to attempt to power up System 2. But Cage's music is destructive: it fully engages System 1, only to fully undermine it. It presents, on a carefully-constructed platter, an opportunity to imagine a musical narrative, then drops the platter on the floor, smashing it to bits.

It's the pattern that Gilbert, Krull and Malone talked about in the paper quoted up at the top there. Through a elegantly tricky experiment—presenting subjects with nonsense sentences, arbitrarily assigning them as true or false, then interrupting the subjects' comprehension with an unrelated task before testing them on their recall—they demonstrated that, in order to disbelieve something, we actually believe it first: the mind doesn't immediately decide whether things are true or false, it automatically assumes everything is true at first, and only (very briefly) later sorts out those things that aren't. As Kahneman sums it up: "System 1 is gullible and biased to believe. System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy." We believe in order to disbelieve.

It strikes me that Cage's music is playing with this gullibility more often than not. His use of chance and indeterminacy, for example: parameters of musical events are turned over to chance, by design, with the audience's full knowledge, and yet we still try and make an illusory musical story out of it. Presented with randomness, we infer causality; presented with the unrepeatable, we infer purpose and statement. Cage doesn't just leverage System 1's capacity for musical myth-making, he gets in our face with it, dissects it in front of us. Listening to Cage, we make all the assumptions that we make about music while, at the same time, being forced to confront the fact that they're just assumptions, and largely unsupported ones at that.

No wonder it makes people uncomfortable. The leading image of Cage during his centennial year has been a combination of inventor and ringmaster, whimsically rewiring music history one roll of the dice at a time. But he was out to shake people up, no matter how much the birthday celebrations domesticate him. He was an anarchist and a radical. From the foreword to A Year from Monday:
My ideas certainly started in the field of music. And that field, so to speak, is child's play.... Our proper work now if we love mankind and the world we live in is revolution.
"To forget that the moon is made of green cheese is to lose a precious piece of one's childhood, but to act as though one believes this assertion is to forego the prospect of meaningful adult relationships," Gilbert et al. note. "A ubiquitous paradox for natural thinking systems is that they must possess, but must not deploy, a wide range of false information." For Cage, musical information was as false as any, but he figured out how to bring the paradox to the forefront in such a way that, he hoped, listeners would stop being so gullible, about music, about the world. "Once we give our attention to the practice of not-being-governed," he wrote, "we notice that it is increasing."

August 20, 2012

Come September, they can't remember why

Because it has been a summer of STUFF and TASKS I have gotten dangerously lax about keeping up with even my own output. Some items you might have missed:

Sick Puppy 2012: opening concert (Boston Globe, June 18, 2012); closing marathon (NewMusicBox, June 28, 2012).

Reviewing Bruce Brubaker.
Boston Globe, July 3, 2012.

Reviewing Gerhard Oppitz.
Boston Globe, July 21, 2012.

Reviewing the Boston Landmarks Orchestra.
Boston Globe, July 27, 2012.

New England's Prospect: Output and Gain. Reviewing the Bang on a Can 2012 Summer Institute marathon concert.
NewMusicBox, August 2, 2012.

Reviewing the Boston Chamber Music Society.
Boston Globe, August 6, 2012.

Having It All.
NewMusicBox, August 10, 2012.

2012 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music: part one (Boston Globe, August 13, 2012); part two (NewMusicBox, August 16, 2012).

Also there are book-related things afoot; see the post below.

In the meantime, if your summer has been anything like the summer here at Soho the Dog HQ—i.e., cheerfully chaotic, mysteriously overscheduled, and leaving one grasping at free time with both dirty, bitten-off fingernails and a bewildered unfamiliarity with the concept—you probably could use some refreshment.


Fill a tall glass with ice cubes. Add 2 oz. gin; ¼ oz. Bénedictine; and the juice of one lime. Fill the rest of the way with diet orange soda. Give it a stir.
Does it have to be diet soda? Yes. Yes, it does. And really, the more day-glo artificial-color orange the soda, the better. If you can't bring yourself to buy better-living-through-chemistry orange soda, you might try the Staycation's cousin: the Orbital Sunrise, which is just a mimosa made with Tang instead of orange juice. It is, if I do say so myself, delicious. Ad astra per aspera!

At a lid-flipping price!

The First Four Notes, my long-awaited (by me, that's for sure) book exploring the cultural history and misadventures of the opening gambit of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, is ever closer to being an actual thing. Proofs have been proofed, hilariously serious author photos have been taken, bound galleys are fanning out across the land in search of blurbs, all in anticipation of November 13, when the book drops. (Can a book drop like a record does when it's released? I will drop a copy on the floor myself, if necessary.)

One thing left to do is to get a website up to promote the book, but until that happens, this space will have to suffice, which is why you can now find, over on the right, some pertinent links and information. This includes a now-tiny-but-hopefully-at-least-slightly-longer-eventually list of author appearances. That's right, I might be coming to your town! (Unless your town is Brigadoon. No way I'm falling for that again.) As things are confirmed, I will continue to post more and more detail until the density of information reaches the Bekenstein bound and I find myself giving a reading inside a black hole. Where I bet the refreshment table is superb.

The image at the head of this post, incidentally, comes courtesy of my Boston Globe colleague Jeremy Eichler, who generously rescued it from an old Boston Symphony program book. If anybody out there actually still has one of these t-shirts, send me a photo, and you will be rewarded with all the fame that an intermittently-updated blog can provide.

July 09, 2012

Beethoven, Ludwig van, publishing negotiations, 276-7

As noted on Twitter this morning, The First Four Notes now has an index, which means it is pretty much finished. Beware the Ides of November! Now I just need to plan some book-release-related festivities between now and then. Party, we shall.

I was in Illinois all last week, so I ended up finishing the index in a hotel just outside of Buffalo, after which Critic-at-Large Moe and I had a beef on weck and then drove on through to Massachusetts. I have decided that my next book will be a 1970s-era noir thriller in which all the characters are named after exits on the New York State Thruway:
After his team is ignominiously bounced from the ABA playoffs, the last thing basketball journeyman Waterloo Clyde wants to do is turn his attention back to his off-season job: private investigator. But wealthy widow Auburn Weedsport insists that there's something fishy about her husband's death, and it's up to Clyde and his partner, martial arts expert Akron Corfu, to get to the bottom of it. Not a simple task, not with the likes of the late Mr. Weedsport's exotic, scheming mistress, Solvay Baldwinsville; Vernon Hamilton, Weedsport's ex-partner—and United States Senate hopeful; "Mohawk" Herkimer, Weedsport's old college buddy (or is he?); or even Mrs. Weedsport herself, a former Hollywood glamour queen harboring secrets of her own. And once Clyde and Corfu find themselves in the killer's sights, it becomes clear that this case will be anything but an easy layup.
It'll be called Waterloo Clyde and the Blindside Screen. I should totally Kickstarter this idea.

June 15, 2012

"The reason... is a remarkable one, or rather it is no reason at all"

I am a foolish person, and I am comfortable with that, but I at least have enough sense to be a little suspicious when something that seems terribly obvious to me nevertheless has seemed to escape the notice of everyone else. Full disclosure: this is one of those things. But it's something interesting enough to warrant temporarily casting such caution aside, and also something that, the more I think about it, has to possess some sort of significance. And the significance has a lot to do with just why it's so deserving of a cautious reception in the first place.

The thing in question is a quotation that Richard Strauss threaded into "Im Abendrot," the first-published but almost always finally-sung of the Vier Letzte Lieder, the Four Last Songs. Setting a poem by Eichendorff, "Im Abendrot" sings of a couple at the end of their lives, wistfully but peacefully coming to the end of their journey, walking in the sunset, as two larks symbolically flutter up into the sky. "Im Abendrot" is commonly interpreted as the composer's vision of he and his wife, Pauline, accepting their own mortality, a calm farewell to a long and sometimes tumultuous shared life. And anyone who knows anything about "Im Abendrot" knows about the quotation at the end of it, the motive from his own tone poem Tod und Verklärung that Strauss brings in as the soprano surveys the tranquil scene and asks ist dies etwa der Tod? ("Is this, perhaps, death?")

But I'm not referring about that quotation. I'm referring, instead, to the one at the beginning of the song, a bar before rehearsal "C," on the line vom Wandern ruhen wir ("Now from our wandering we can rest"):

Take a look at the accompaniment there:

It's a quote from "Porgi, amor," the Countess's introductory cavatina in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro:

I am fairly sure this is not a coincidence. It's the same melody, the same harmony, the same key, even. Strauss knew his Figaro, certainly—he conducted the opera often, and even composed his own idiosyncratic reboot of it in Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss also had Mozart on the brain throughout the 1940s: his 1945 Sonatina no. 2 for winds (subtitled "Fröhliche Werkstatt"), for instance, was dedicated "To the spirit of the divine Mozart at the end of a life full of gratitude." So if one of his own songs, first sketched out a year later, suddenly clears the table to make room for a note-for-note amuse-bouche of "Porgi, amor," I think it's a safe assumption that it's happening on purpose. The question is what it might mean. Here's a recklessly speculative answer: what if it means that "Im Abendrot" isn't about Pauline Strauss after all?

Strauss had been through the mill of love before he finally married. In 1883, he had met Hanuš Wihan, the great Czech cellist, and his wife Dora. Dora (née Weis) was 23, pretty, an accomplished pianist, a friend of Strauss's sister Johanna. The 19-year-old Richard Strauss fell in love with her, and—the Wihan marriage being what it was: strained—Dora reciprocated, to an unknown extent. Even if it never passed beyond flirtation, it was blatant enough for Strauss's father to warn his son, via letter, of the possible professional repercussions of Munich gossip. Given Hanuš Wihan's inclination toward suspicion, the relationship probably contributed to the breakup of the Wihan marriage.

A teenaged whippersnapper in love with an older woman in an unhappy marriage to a jealous husband—where have we heard this story before? That's right, Figaro. No wonder Strauss liked the opera. No wonder, when he came to reimagine the opera in his own Rosenkavalier, it was the Cherubino-Countess pairing that took center stage, in the guise of Octavian and the Marschallin.

Strauss's own real-life version eschewed Mozart's catharsis for a gradual fade: after her divorce, Dora Wihan went into something of a self-imposed exile from Munich, visiting America, teaching piano for a time in Lixouri, on the Greek island of Cephalonia, traveling around Europe. Tracing the Richard-Dora romance becomes a string of hints at missed connections and unfortunate schedules, the ardor all the while cooling from the intimate "Du" to the formal "Die." Still, even though Strauss's affections transferred to Pauline de Ahna, Dora Wihan would always be his first serious love. One of the few extant letters between them dates from well after their romance ended, hints at how the thought of that romance may have lingered:

Dresden, 10 March 1893

My dear friend,
   Will you be very, very surprised, if a sign of life from me surfaces after such a long time? The reason that presses the pen into my hand is a remarkable one, or rather it is no reason at all, but only an impulse, but why shouldn't one follow an impulse once in a while, even at the risk of being laughed out of court? (Mirth is very good in convalescence, incidentally!) External circumstances: house arrest, sorting out old things, and the letters you sent me at Lixouri came to hand. Inner condition: recognizing the truth of the old saying that the greatest human happiness is the power of memory. Do not be afraid, dear friend, I am certainly not going to become sentimental, but the outcome was that I had to write you a few words, even though it is only a friendly greeting despatched to the far south to tell you how glad I am that you are now fully recovered. Are you very angry with me now, at this unexpected invasion of you retreat from the world? Then punish me and never reply to

Your old
(now truly old)

(Via.) So: is "Im Abendrot" about the prospect of a reunion with Dora as much as, or even instead of, a denouement with Pauline? Is the "Wandern"—together with the "Porgi, amor" quote—a reference to the vagaries of life and career and circumstance that caused Dora and Richard to drift apart? The marriage of Richard and Pauline was certainly something more and deeper than the customary caricature of a tempestuous wife and a bemusedly henpecked husband that has been perpetuated (including around these parts); but the veiled reference to the Countess's unhappiness, to mio duolo ("my sadness"), is still dissonant. At the end of his life (Dora had died in 1938), did Strauss, in some way, yearn to rewind the tape and run it again, to let Cherubino run off with his beloved Countess? Maybe not. Maybe the Figaro quote was a private reference (Pauline, after all, had herself sung the role of the Countess during her operatic career). Maybe it was an admission on Richard's part: a reference to Dora Wihan, after all, but an acknowledgement that the affair was something he had to journey past on his way to a life with Pauline. (The quote is near the beginning of the song.) Maybe it was a happy accident, one that Strauss left in the score because of its emotional congruence.[1]

In the end, we don't know what that quote is doing in "Im Abendrot." And what fascinates me most about the whole idea of this is that we can't know, not for sure. I would love to have found some telling connection, some piece of evidence that would tie "Im Abendrot" and Richard Strauss and Dora Wihan up into a satisfying knot, some smoking gun, but there isn't one—and for that, we can thank Richard Strauss and Dora Wihan. Both of them destroyed their letters to each other—in Strauss's case, an unusual move. The letter I quoted above is one of only four that managed to slip through, three from Dora, one from Richard, all of them dating from the tail-end of their romance and later. That's all we have left to get a grasp on. Everything else is purely circumstantial. The number of objections one can make to the Dora Wihan/"Im Abendrot" theory are formidable—I'm not even sure I believe it, and I'm the one promulgating it—but, then again, Strauss and Wihan made sure that any hypothetical counter-corroborations would be wildly outnumbered to begin with.

History is made out of what is left behind. We think of Beethoven as a composer of painstaking struggle because his sketchbooks survived; we think of Mozart as an effortless divine amanuensis largely because his sketches were mostly destroyed. In some way, the reason that the proposal to link "Im Abendrot" with Dora Wihan is a pretty shaky one—because there's no paper trail left, it is by definition speculation, and because it's about people's personal lives, it is by definition foolish speculation—only increases my affection for the proposal, even as it triggers my skepticism. It's a little re-enactment of the nature of history and historical investigation, the way that, because we rightfully demand evidence for historical arguments, there's an awful lot of actual history that disappears as soon as it happens—simply because it's never recorded—or that disappears down some accidental or purposeful hole along with whatever scrap of document happened to catch its echo. In all too many cases, such disappearances are terrible things, tragic or mendacious or downright criminal. In the case of "Im Abendrot," though, it feels more like a gentle reminder that history is, for the most part, a lot of locked doors, and that it's a minor miracle that we jimmy open any of them at all.

The last glimpse of Richard Strauss and Dora Wihan together that we have comes from 1911, in the run-up to the Dresden premiere of Der Rosenkavalier—in which, tellingly, Octavian, the Cherubino stand-in, does not end up with his older, married lover. Johanna Strauss arranged a get-together between her brother and his wife and Dora, who had settled in Dresden and who, one surmises, Johanna would have preferred to have as a sister-in-law. Pauline's reaction, understandably, was prickly enough that Richard was left to smooth over the family friction. "[Pauline] was very put out in Dresden by the fact that you were always in the company of your friend D.W., whose constant presence even in the most intimate family circle was bound to be burdensome," he wrote his sister (again, via.). "At all events, it was not her intention that you should notice her mood, but it is very difficult for her to disguise her feelings when something has upset her." And then, ironically or not, depending on how much one is inclined to read into a passing quote of Mozart: "She has probably already forgotten the matter: so there is no need for you to refer to it again."

[1] On the Pauline-symbolism side would also seem to fall Timothy Jackson's theory that the earlier lied "Ruhe, meine Seele!," which Strauss orchestrated just after composing "Im Abendrot," was intended to be included in the Vier Letzte Lieder as a prelude to the final song. (For details, see Jackson's essay in Bryan Gilliam, ed., Richard Strauss and His World.) "Ruhe, meine Seele!" was, of course, the first of the four songs published as opus 27, which Strauss presented to Pauline as a wedding present. Then again, the actual composition of "Ruhe, meine Seele!" came on the heel of a series of reckonings for Strauss, not only his engagement to Pauline (which was left in an insecure limbo for a number of weeks as the bride-to-be entertained second thoughts), but also the failure of his opera Guntram—and I have always found it intriguing that Strauss's wedding gift included a song, "Cäcilie," that could just have well as been written for another of his former lovers, actress Cäcilie Wenzel. Perhaps Strauss was in a stock-taking mood: if (and this is even more wildly speculative than the speculation in which I've been indulging) one were to regard op. 27 as one last look at Strauss's pre-Pauline amours, then "Morgen," the last of the set, becomes even more of a departure—having bid farewell to the life that late he led, Strauss takes a deep breath and steps into the tomorrow of marriage. Unlikely, but entertaining to consider nonetheless.

June 06, 2012

Filling out, filling in

Some recent shouts into the wind you may have missed:

New England's Prospect: Yard Work. MusikFabrik at Harvard; the Boston School at the Cantata Singers.
NewMusicBox, May 17, 2012.

Close-Reading Donna Summer. "Love to Love You Baby," disco's 17-minute sit-down protest.
Boston Globe, May 27, 2012.

New England's Prospect: Space Is the Place. Grisey in Vermont.
NewMusicBox, June 4, 2012.

The Plight of the Page Turner. In which more than pages get turned.
NewMusicBox, June 6, 2012.

I promise to be more punctual! If I can't be bothered to properly blog, I can at least put in the effort to improperly blog.

March 14, 2012

Worth of the Cool

New England's Prospect: The Real World. Reviewing BMOP and the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
NewMusicBox, March 14, 2012.

March 10, 2012

Attend the tale

On Twitter yesterday, Will Robin alerted everyone to the impending release of Downtown Express, in which the moldy old uptown-downtown musical bifurcation has its Hollywood moment. I, for one, could not be more pleased! It means I might finally find backing for my Off-Off-Broadway musical about a serious, serially-minded young composer and the plucky, punky postminimalist he falls for after she accidentally whacks him with a bunch of kale at the Union Square Greenmarket. Featuring the songs "My Ivory Tower of Power," "I'm Making a Loop (around Me and You)," and, of course, this stirring anthem:

Call me, cliché-loving producers!

February 29, 2012

Cutting room floor

I spent yesterday working on a comic that, for a whole host of reasons, I decided to quash. But this panel was too good to lose:

February 20, 2012

Horse trading

Reviewing Vladimir Spivakov and Olga Kern.
Boston Globe, February 20, 2012.

The Schubert-Franko "Valse sentimentale" Spivakov played for an encore was new to me; are there any violinists out there that can tell me exactly what Schubert waltz Franko arranged? Or was he passing off his own piece as Schubert's, à la Kreisler?

February 16, 2012

Nothing but a vast midnight

New England's Prospect: Storyboarding. Sound Icon's in vain and free jazz at the Lily Pad.
NewMusicBox, February 16, 2012.

February 12, 2012

I say a prayer with every heartbeat

My wife is the bigger Whitney Houston fan in our house, but I'm a fan, too, one of those supposedly guilty pleasures that I never felt all that guilty about. It was the voice, and the formidable technique behind it. She was a real diva, in that she could make a mediocre song into something great, and a great song into something transcendent, through sheer vocal splendor. This is still far and away my favorite:

"How Will I Know" is a perfect symbiosis of song, production, and voice. It's a great exception to the rule, a pop song that modulates down, rather than up, at the climax. This is solely to take advantage of Whitney's high belt voice. (That you could talk about her voice in strict classical/music-theatre technique terms—chest, belt, high belt, head voice—indicates how much more solid and finely-honed her voice and technique were than anybody I can really think of in top 40 today.) Her belt topped out around E-flat—impressively high—and for the first two-thirds of "How Will I Know," she's deploying that E-flat in every chorus. Then the song modulates from G-flat-major to E-flat-major, and that same E-flat now sounds a third higher, an upper octave rather than a sixth. It's at once brilliant sleight-of-hand arranging, a singer who knows exactly what her voice can (and should) do, and a sign of where the song's real power center is. She could have extended up past that E-flat into head voice—she does so elsewhere in the song—but the thrill of the high belt is what the song needs, so the whole thing reorients around that one note. Timbre trumps harmony, as well—in this case—it should.

I keep thinking that the race she lost is a race that all singers run, and all singers lose; even the most powerful voice can't defeat time and decay. Whitney ran the race too hard and too fast, but at her best, in those years when she really was incomparable, her singing had a quality that so many great singers have, that of euphoric resistance. There are singers who acknowledge mortality, and break your heart; but Whitney was the other kind, shouting away death, even just for a while, with defiant joy.

February 02, 2012

The usual suspects

I swear, I was going to do hourly comics yesterday (like last year)—I was going to do them on the train back from New York, but the train was pretty shaky, and then the engine broke down and we were stuck in the dark for a couple hours, and by the time the lights came back on, my brain wasn't really working that well. So instead, I did what any sane person would do under the circumstances: I doodled sketches of mid-century American composers.

January 31, 2012

January 30, 2012

Been around the world

Not really. But I have been mostly elsewhere than this space. Catching up:

Fuzzy Math. Many words on the history and appeal of the hot toddy, with recipes both true and speculative. A guest post for Molly Sheridan's Wonderland Kitchen, January 30, 2012.

Reviewing Helios Early Opera.
Boston Globe, January 30, 2012.

Reviewing Lise de la Salle.
Boston Globe, January 30, 2012.

Reviewing the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players.
Boston Globe, January 24, 2012.

New England's Prospect: The Haunted Mansion. The BSO plays Harbison's Sixth and Turnage's From the Wreckage.
NewMusicBox, January 20, 2012.

January 15, 2012


Why Boston is "not an opera town." The Boston Opera Company (1908-1915) and its upshots.
Boston Globe, January 15, 2012.

Additional tangents:

If I had to guess who first said that Boston wasn't an opera town, I'd say Heinrich Conried, the onetime manager of the Metropolitan Opera; after disappointing Boston box office during the company’s 1905 tour, Conried bypassed the city altogether the following season. (Read between the lines of this article, for instance.) Was the founding of the Boston Opera Company and the building of the Opera House, in some small part, a riposte to Conried? The author Henry C. Lahee thought so, writing that Conried's snub served to "fix a determination in the hearts of Bostonians to have an opera company of their own, and no longer be dependent for their annual homoeopathic dose of opera on the Metropolitan or any other visiting company."

One of the more interesting plans surrounding the Boston Opera Company before its bankruptcy was the possibility of an “opera trust,” which would have combined the major American opera companies—Boston, the Metropolitan in New York, the Chicago Opera Theatre—into a syndicate. Instead of hiring singers on a per-appearance basis, the syndicate would have contracted singers for a full (half-year) season, during which they would appear with multiple companies. The idea was masterminded by Otto Kahn, the head of the Metropolitan, and would have been engineered through interlocking board memberships, which is why Kahn ended up on the Boston Opera Company's board, and the BOC's Henry Russell and the Met's Giulio Gatti-Casazza served as “advisory associates” for each others' companies. As was the case with the Boston Opera Company itself, World War I was the official death knell for the opera trust, though it's easy to imagine the trust unraveling on its own as competition and the convenience of transatlantic travel increased.

Boston's political sea-change from Brahmin to Irish neatly coincided with the Opera Company's lifespan. Mayor Hibbard was a no-show at the groundbreaking for the Opera House; “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald was in office for the Opera Company's early seasons; Both Honey Fitz and his successor, James Curley, saw the company off for their swan song, a 1914 European tour. (The expense of that tour, incidentally, is sometimes cited as a cause of the company's bankruptcy, but contemporary news reports emphasize that the tour was independently financed.) One can sense, in Fitzgerald's and Curley's relations with the opera, the gradual widening of the gap between the ascendent Irish and venerable Yankee society. Fitzgerald might have been an Opera Company stockholder, but Curley wasn't; and Curley seems to have gotten at least as much political capital out of the company's demise as its survival, to judge from this report, in the November 11, 1914 Boston Evening Transcript:

Provides Three More Members of the Boston Theatre Opera Company with Fare to New York


Today three more members of the Boston Theatre Opera Company, making thirty in all, appeared at the office of Mayor Curley seeking car fare to New York. The mayor gave then $10 each, and, turning his empty pockets inside out, exclaimed that he had done his share for the relief of the distressed company, though inquiring if there were any more who had failed to get out of town.
Both the gesture and the presence of a reporter are pure Curley. (Though there was, from time to time, a distinct Boston Theatre Opera Company, the timing and circumstances would seem to indicate the soon-to-declare-bankruptcy Boston Opera Company.)

The notion I explore in the article, that the wedge between Brahmin society and the Italian immigrant population, in particular, tripped up any possible revival of a Boston Opera Company is, to be sure, speculation. Even more speculative, though equally interesting, is whether Bostonian anti-Semitism played a part as well. There doesn't seem to be indication of it in the collapse of the original Opera Company—the fact that both Russell and Kahn were Jewish, for instance, rates hardly a mention in contemporary news coverage. By the 1920s and 30s, though, fueled by the Red Scare and an increasingly vocal Catholic hierarchy, anti-Semitism was rampant. In his book The Crimson Letter, historian Douglas Shand-Tucci has traced how anti-Semitism, in combination with traditional Boston prudishness, shifted the locus of modern art in America from Boston to New York—with two of his case histories being those of the Massachusetts-raised, Harvard-educated Leonard Bernstein and Lincoln Kirstein. The opera doesn't exactly fall under the modernist umbrella, but one could make the argument that the flight of such talent only made it harder to establish a new company in Boston. Consider that the groundbreaking for Lincoln Center came only a year after the demolition of the Boston Opera House, then consider that two-thirds of Lincoln Center's tenants were Kirstein's New York Ballet and Bernstein's Philharmonic, and one can get a sense of the missed opportunities.

If, indeed, anti-Semitism also indirectly contributed to the less-than-amenable operatic atmosphere in Boston, then it would be a small irony to find one of the city's most notorious anti-Semitic demagogues, Father Leonard Feeney, lamenting (in a 1956 issue of his magazine The Point) that “Boston is a 'symphony' rather than an 'opera' town,” because of a preponderance of Jewish conductors—“with about three notable exceptions, the men who gesticulate before the chief orchestras of the nation are all Jews.” The article goes on:
Shall we start a crusade to rescue the holy precincts of Symphony Hall from the sacrilegious hands of the Jews? Shall we picket the box-office? Shall we assault the place? Storm it in mid-season? Shall we sweat and bleed and die for the right to hear Beethoven conducted by a Mayflower descendant?

After proper consideration, we think not. We think that perhaps this time we will restrain our wrath, run the risk of being labeled “above it all,” and just contemplate with medieval, Romish satisfaction, the prospect of a stuffy hall-full of heretics being serenaded by a pit-full of infidels—for all eternity.
Also: make sure to read Geoff Edgers' autopsy of Opera Boston.

January 02, 2012

Und ihre Rosen in purpurner Glut, Bächlein, erquicke mit kühlender Flut

Raise a glass! You made it to 2012!

Lucy's Purple Aura

juice of 1 lime
juice of ½ lemon
1 tablespoon grape jelly
1 teaspoon grenadine
1½ oz. gin
a decent handful of mint leaves

Shake it all with big chunks of ice until the jelly is liquefied and the mint is in confetti-like bits. Strain (keeping the mint, leaving the ice).
According to the same psychic who filled in the corners of my CV, my wife's aura is, in fact, purple. For those not inclined towards gin (like, say, my wife), this makes for a good mocktail; just replace the gin with still or (better) sparkling water.