Monday, December 11, 2006

A couple of weeks ago I heard a recital by Magdalena Kozena, a soprano with an international career and several well-received recordings. I wrote about it and tried to summon up some enthusiasm for what I thought should have been a good concert — tried and failed. I just wasn’t moved, and I thought something must have been wrong with me: I wasn’t in the mood, or I was preoccupied by some crisis or other in my life. I told a friend that it was a perfectly nice recital but I couldn’t get excited by it. Yesterday, I heard Angelika Kirchschlager sing Schumann and Schubert, accompanied by Malcolm Martineau, who was also Kozena’s accompanist. After the first measure of Schumann’s Freisinn it was clear that the problem at Kozena’s concert wasn't my mood. It was that Kozena wasn’t as moving or as involving a singer.

Kirchschlager, whom I didn’t like the first time I heard her, carried me away, to my considerable surprise. Her voice is smooth and rich, and her legato is exemplary. The voice is not without minor flaws — there were times when an increase in volume came with too much vibrato, though that seemed to abate as she warmed up, and not every note was perfect — but that didn't matter when so her singing was so beautiful. Most of the songs in both parts of the program were unfamiliar to me, which increased the pleasure of hearing her sing them. (The program, complete with the opus numbers Playbill saw fit to leave out, can be found at the la Web site: Apparently, Kirchschlager has been touring with this same program, though she was accompanied by Helmut Deutsch in Milan. Note also that the concert there was part of a 10-concert season for 100 euros, or $130. Tickets at Tully Hall were $48 for nonsubscribers.)

Also in contrast to Kozena, Kirchschlager’s dress was much more conservative, that is to say, not cut down to there, and displayed only a bit of lace on the sleeves. If I was in the diva advisory business, I would advise Angelika to “rethink the jewelry,” since a choker and a necklace are a touch over the top, especially when the necklace is evening length and sets up a contrasting movement to the rhythm of the music. Her encores (there were only two) were Widmung by Schumann (Op. 25, No. 1, from Myrthen), which was stunning, and Hôtel by Poulenc (No. 2 from Banalités, FP 107, text by Apollinaire), which was delivered in a wonderfully idiomatic style. It was a pleasurable shock after 24 Lieder to hear so ingratiating a mélodie.

Kozena deserves another chance. Perhaps she was nervous or having an off day. Kirchschlager, after Sunday’s recital and despite the minor shortcomings, takes her place as one of my Top Ten Recitalists.

Monday, November 27, 2006

One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Down: Three Views of Pynchon's New Novel

Whom do you trust? The complete reviews from which the following excerpts were taken were available on the Times and New Yorker Web sites.

Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, 20 November 2006
Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Against the Day, reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author’s might have written on quaaludes. It is a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex.

The novel plays with themes that have animated the whole of Mr. Pynchon’s oeuvre: order versus chaos, fate versus freedom, paranoia versus nihilism. It boasts a sprawling, Dickensian cast with distinctly Pynchonian names: Fleetwood Vibe, Lindsay Noseworth, Clive Crouchmas. And it’s littered with puns, ditties, vaudevillesque turns and allusions to everything from old sci-fi movies to Kafka to Harry Potter. These authorial trademarks, however, are orchestrated in a weary and decidedly mechanical fashion, as the narrative bounces back and forth from America to Europe to Mexico, from Cripple Creek to Constantinople to Chihuahua.

There are some dazzling set pieces evoking the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a convocation of airship aficionados, but these passages are sandwiched between reams and reams of pointless, self-indulgent vamping that read like Exhibit A in what can only be called a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Dozens of characters are sent on mysterious (often half-baked) quests that intersect mysteriously with the mysterious quests of people they knew in another context, and dozens of portentous plot lines are portentously twined around even more portentous events: the appearance of a strange figure in the Arctic, a startling “heavenwide blast of light”, the hunt for something called a “Time-weapon” that might affect the fate of the globe.

Whereas Mr. Pynchon’s last novel, the stunning Mason & Dixon, demonstrated a new psychological depth, depicting its two heroes as full-fledged human beings, not merely as pawns in the author’s philosophical chess game, the people in “Against the Day” are little more than stick figure cartoons.

Liesl Schillinger in The New York Times Book Review, 26 November 2006
In Against the Day, his sixth, his funniest and arguably his most accessible novel, Thomas Pynchon doles out plenty of vertigo, just as he has for more than 40 years. But this time his fevered reveries and brilliant streams of words, his fantastical plots and encrypted references, are bound together by a clear message that others can unscramble without mental meltdown. Its import emerges only gradually, camouflaged by the sprawling absurdist jumble of themes that can only be described as Pynchonesque, over the only time frame Pynchon recognizes as real: the hours (that stretch into days) it takes to relay one of his sweeping narratives, hours that do “not so much elapse as grow less relevant.”

Where to begin? Where to end? It’s both moot and preposterous to fix on a starting point when considering a 1,085-page novel whose setting is a “limitless terrain of queerness” and whose scores of characters include the doomed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a dog who reads Henry James, the restless progeny of the Kieselguhr Kid and a time-traveling bisexual mathematician, not to mention giant carnivorous burrowing sand lice, straight out of Dune, that attack passengers of desert submarines — or, rather, subdesertine frigates. In any case, Pynchon (speaking, one presumes, through his characters) dismisses the existence of time as “really too ridiculous to consider, regardless of its status as a believed-in phenomenon,” asserting that civilization has been dead since World War I and “all history after that will belong properly to the history of hell.” He also rejects a fixed notion of place. To him, delineations of the known world are merely maps that “begin as dreams, pass through a finite life in the world, and resume as dreams again.” Let us proceed, then, like Pynchon: as we wish, without a map, and by bounding leaps.

Louis Menand in The New Yorker, 27 November 2006
Do The Math: Thomas Pynchon returns.

Thomas Pynchon is the apostle of imperfection, so it is arguably some sort of commendation to say that his new novel, Against the Day (Penguin; $35), is a very imperfect book. Imperfect not in the sense of “Ambitious but flawed.” Imperfect in the sense of “What was he thinking?”

The book is set in the period between 1893 and around 1920, and this is the plot: An anarchist named Webb Traverse, who employs dynamite as a weapon against the mining and railroad interests out West, is killed by two gunmen, Deuce Kindred and Sloat Fresno, who were hired by the wicked arch-plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe. Traverse’s sons—Kit, a mathematician; Frank, an engineer; and Reef, a cardsharp and ladies’ man—set out to avenge their father’s murder. (Webb also has a daughter, Lake, but she takes up with one of the killers.) This story requires a thousand and eighty-five pages to get told, or roughly the number of pages it took for Napoleon to invade Russia and be driven back by General Kutuzov. Of course, there are a zillion other things going on in Against the Day, but the Traverse-family revenge drama is the only one that resembles a plot—that is, in Aristotle’s helpful definition, an action that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The rest of the novel is shapeless, just yards and yards of Pynchonian wallpaper: fantastic invention, arcane reference, virtuosic prose. Elaborately imagined characters and incidents, from a man who may or may not be transformed into a jelly doughnut to a city beneath the desert and a near-death experience in a mayonnaise factory, pop up and disappear after a few pages, so many raisins in the enormous loaf. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; the mysterious collapse of the Campanile in the Piazza San Marco, in Venice, in 1902; the equally mysterious Tunguska Event, in 1908, in which roughly eight hundred square miles of Siberian forest was flattened, evidently by an exploding asteroid; the Mexican Revolution; and the troubles in the Balkans leading to the First World War all figure in the book’s pages. Longer-running characters include the eternally youthful crew of a sometimes invisible airship, Inconvenience, who style themselves the Chums of Chance; initiates of a British spiritualist society called T.W.I.T.; a private eye named Lew Basnight; a glamorous mathematician named Yashmeen Halfcourt; and an itinerant photographer called Merle Rideout, his daughter, Dahlia, and his ex-wife, Erlys, who has run off with a magician named Zombini. Scenes are set in (among other places) Colorado, New York, Venice, Paris, Croatia, Macedonia, Mexico, various points in Asia, and Hollywood. Characters are given names like Alonzo Meatman, Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin, Professor Heino Vanderjuice, the Reverend Lube Carnal, and Wolfe Tone O’Rooney. Pig Bodine, a recurring avatar who appeared in Pynchon’s first novel, V (1963), puts in his ritual appearance. There is a literate dog, a machine for time travel, a “subdesertine frigate” for voyaging beneath desert sand, and assorted mad inventors, shamans, clairvoyants, terrorists, drop-dead-gorgeous women, and drug abusers. The whole thing sloshes along, alternately farcical and magniloquent, with threads left dangling everywhere, sometimes for hundreds of pages, ultimately forever. The novel doesn’t conclude; it just, more or less arbitrarily, stops.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Brava Kozena!

Brava to Magdalena Kozena for programming an encore by Erwin Schulhoff at her Alice Tully Hall recital in New York on Sunday. For encore fans everywhere, she began with Schulhoff’s “When I Was on My Mother’s Lap,” about 60 seconds of presto vocal filigree. Try as I might, I couldn’t find an opus number for it. It’s possible, but I wouldn’t want to have to swear to it, that it hasn’t been recorded yet. Kozena followed that with two songs of Dvorak: “There is nothing that could make me happy,” Op. 2, No. 3, and “The Mower,” also known as “When a maiden was a-mowing,” Op. 73, No. 2. Both were lovely.

Kozena put together an interesting program, beginning with five songs of Mendelssohn, which are not often peformed but deserve to be, followed by Schumann’s Frauenliebe and -leben, seven songs of Faure, and concluding with Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs, Op. 55. Kozena has a beautiful voice, and it was fascinating to hear how much she sang without vibrato—very cool, and reminiscent of early music singers like Emma Kirkby. Apparently, there is some controversy over whether she is a mezzo (vide Cecilia Bartoli) but she sounded like one to me.

Her accompanist of the afternoon, Malcolm Martineau, is of the accompanist-as-equal-recital-participant school, playing with the top of the piano up, and not a retiring partner at all. But someone needs to tell him to stop mugging at the audience at the ends of songs. It is jarring. He doesn’t need to swivel his grinning face around at the end of a comical number to make sure we get it. Malcolm, we get it, O.K? After a few grimaces from the keyboard, I had to stop looking at him. (James Levine is another one who gets into the act, in case anyone in the audience doesn’t notice the other person on stage.)

A word on Kozena’s recital dress: She seemed to be in costume for the Gypsy Songs and considering the chill in the air, I hope she didn’t catch a cold. She had on a black lace top, cut down to just above her navel, accessorized by a massive necklace/pendant affair. Her beige dress had a train she had to carry on stage, and doing so highlighted her knee-high (or nearly) black leather boots. It certainly excited comment amongst the audience members. Whether it was in keeping with the tone of Frauenliebe and -leben, and particularly the last song in the cycle, is a valid question but it is a tribute to her singing that I didn’t really notice what she was wearing most of the time.

NOTE: Kozena recorded the Schulhoff song, “Kdyz jsem byla mamince na kline” [“On my mother’s knee”] as part of her CD, Songs My Mother Taught Me. The piece comes from Národní písne a tance z Tesinksa (Folksongs and Dances from the Tesinskso Region) and is WV120 - 15 in Schulhoff’s catalog.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

I think I heard Florence Foster Jenkins’ recordings for the first time in the 1960s on WBAI-FM, New York’s left-wing listener-supported station. During the regular pledge drives, a few minutes of Mme. Jenkins was sure to get a steady stream of listeners to promise to contribute if the DJ would get her off the air. Yes, people would pay to stop her singing. And hanging out with fellow teenage musicians as I did at that time, fans of Tom Lehrer and the Goon Show, it was inevitable that we’d come across RCA Victor’s Jenkins LP, The Glory (????) of the Human Voice. So when I saw a notice on Parterre Box for the premiere screening of Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own, I simply had to go.

Filmmaker Donald Collup, assisted by researcher Gregor Benko, assembled a 91-minute film that explores all the facets of Jenkins’ life, and if it wasn’t tragic, there was certainly more than enough pathos to quiet some of the laughter around her recordings. As it turns out, there was more to Jenkins than someone whose attacks on notes above high C have left listeners gasping in disbelief for more than sixty years. There was the father who stifled her aspirations to study music in Europe, the goal of all serious students at the time. There was the accident that ended her piano studies. Later, her husband was a disappointment and the marriage led to her being disinherited for a time. She never could overcome her small-town background, though she traced her forebears back to the Revolution. A dedicated social climber, her tactic of choice was membership in New York’s women’s clubs. She belonged to more than a dozen and even founded one, the Verdi Club, but her aspirations to be accepted into New York City high society were never realized.

And, of course, there was her singing. She studied for years, performed at her clubs and at society musicales, but her dream was to be recognized as an artist. She could almost be the inspiration for Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “bouquet,” of course) of Keeping Up Appearances. That Jenkins was in her seventies when she went into the studio explains a lot about the way she sounded. Explaining the rest may be a combination of profound self-delusion and the complete absence of a musician’s ear.

Far from being an obscurity, as I assumed she was, Jenkins was well-known enough to leave a considerable documentary trail. Using a surprising number of articles from newspapers and magazines, supplemented with interviews, plentiful photographs, and period music, Collup has produced a film somewhat in the Ken Burns mode, though there was no contemporary movie footage. The testimony of people who were at the 1944 Carnegie Hall recital —Marge Champion, Alfred Hubay, and Daniel Pinkham — along with the photo taken from the stage, showing Cole Porter, were fascinating, as were articles by critics and gossip columnist Earl Wilson. Overall, we get perhaps too much information about Jenkins — I could have done without the family tree, for example — but the result is that a person takes shape behind the notorious recordings. “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” applies here.

Collup’s film is aptly titled. Jenkins did her best to construct a world of her own but ultimately had to live in the same world as the rest of us, where disappointment is plentiful and triumphs hard-won and often fleeting. Though not without its longueurs, Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own is well worth seeing if you are at all interested in understanding the person behind the legend.

NOTE: In response to public (?) demand (!), Video Artists International released A World of Her Own on DVD. It is available from VAI, as well as Amazon and other fine retailers.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Don’t be a luddy-duddy!
A friend recently asked my advice about an investment suggested to him by a salesperson with one of the larger multinational financial services companies. I thought there were some problems with the vehicle, a unit investment trust, though it might not be a bad choice for someone in his circumstances. But it reminded me of the archetypal encounter between salesperson and prospect portrayed in W.C. FieldsThe Bank Dick. It seems likely that Fields was reliving the days before the 1929 stock market crash, when fast-talking brokers unloaded soon-to-be-worthless stock on eager would-be investors, lured by a flowery spiel promising a life of luxury and ease.
The Bank Dick

Egbert Sousé.................... W.C. Fields
J. Frothingham Waterbury...... Russell Hicks
Og Oggilby.............................. Grady Sutton

Pardon me, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. Waterbury’s my name, J. Frothingham Waterbury.
Very glad to know you. My name is Sousé, accent grave over the e.
I’m in the bond and stock business. Now, I have five thousand shares of the Beefsteak Mines in Leapfrog, Nevada, that I want to turn over to your bank. I like this little town and I want to get some contacts, I think you’re the very man.
Now, these shares are selling for ten cents a share.
SOUSÉ backs into a table, impaling himself on a fork. Squealing, he removes it.

Now, these shares are selling for ten cents a share. A telephone company once sold for five cents a share. These shares are twice as expensive, therefore, consequently they’ll be twice as valuable. Naturally, you’re no dunce. Telephone is now listed at one seventy-three and you can’t buy it. Three thousand, four hundred and sixty dollars for every nickel you put into it. The point I’m trying to make is this —
SOUSÉ takes hat off hatrack, puts it on.
The point I’m trying to make is, these shares sell for ten cents. It’s simple arithmetic — if five’ll get you ten, ten will get you twenty. Sixteen-cylinder cars, a big home in the city — balconies upstairs and down. Home in the country — big trees, private golf course, stream running through the rear of the estate. Warm Sunday afternoon, fishing under the cool trees, sipping ice-cold beer.
WATERBURY mimes blowing foam off beer
I can almost see the foam, yes.
Ham and cheese on rye —
With mustard. We have plenty of mustard at the house, yeah.
Yes. And then this guy comes up the shady drive in an armored car from the bank, and he dumps a whole basket of coupons worth hundreds of thousands of dollars right in your lap. And he says, “Sign here, please, on the dotted line.”
I’ll have a fountain pen by that time.
And then he’s off, to the soft chirping of our little feathered friends in the arboreal dell. That’s what these bonds mean.
They do, eh?
I’d rather part with my dear old grandmother’s paisley shawl or her wedding ring than part with these bonds.
WATERBURY removes a handkerchief from his pocket, wipes his eyes.
It must be tough to lose a paisley shawl.
SOUSÉ takes the handkerchief from WATERBURY and dabs at his eyes in sympathy.

Gosh! Oh, pardon my language. . . I feel like a dog. But it’s now or never. It must be done. So take it or leave it.
I’ll take it.
Fine, fine, fine.
* * *
SOUSÉ walks to the bank in a big hurry.
SOUSÉ finds OGGILBY in the vault.
Og, my boy, I’ve got you set for life! I don’t hang around that Black Pussy Café for nothing. I met a poor fellow who is in trouble. There’s something the matter with his grandmother’s paisley shawl. He has five thousand shares in the Beefsteak Mine and you can buy them for a handful of hay!
Hay? And they’re worth. . .
Ten cents a share. Telephone sold for five cents a share. How would you like something better for ten cents a share? If five gets you ten, ten’ll get you twenty. Beautiful home in the country, upstairs and down. Beer flowing through the estate over your grandmother’s paisley shawl.
Beer! Fishing in the stream that runs under the arboreal dell. A man comes up from the bar, dumps three thousand five hundred dollars in your lap for every nickel invested, says to you, “Sign here on the dotted line,” and then disappears in the waving fields of alfalfa.
Gosh! Do you think he was telling the truth?
You don’t think a man would resort to taradiddle, do you? Why, he sobbed like a child at the very thought of disposing of these shares. How does a bank make its money?
By investing.
That’s the point. You don’t want to work all your life. Take a chance. Take it while you’re young. My uncle, a balloon ascensionist, Effingham Huffnagle, took a chance. He was three miles and a half up in the air. He jumped out of the basket of the balloon and took a chance of alighting on a load of hay.
Goll-ly! Did he make it?
Uh. . . no. He didn’t. Had he been a younger man, he probably would’ve made it. That’s the point. Don’t wait too long in life.

I’ve never done anything like this, and for another thing, I haven’t got the money. Of course, my bonus comes due in four days — that’s five hundred dollars. I could buy ’em then. And then with all that money I made I really might be worthy of your daughter’s hand.
Women really appreciate the fine things in life. You don’t want to die and leave your wife and children paupers, do you? Borrow the five hundred dollars from the bank. You intend to pay it back when your bonus comes due, don’t you?
Oh, sure.
Surely. Don’t be a luddy-duddy! Don’t be a moon-calf! Don’t be a jabber-nowl! You’re not those, are you?
No. Well, I guess there’s no way you could confuse it with stealing, is there?
[Chuckling] Nothing could be more absurd.
Well, all right, send him in.

Note that Sousé’s invented uncle is named Effingham Huffnagle, an alternative spelling of which might be F---ingham Huffnagle. Fields was always trying to slip double entendres past the Hollywood censor and frequently succeeded. Just one example in The Bank Dick (the title is another one), is when he says, “I don't hang around that Black Pussy Café for nothing.” Perhaps it was a slip of the tongue — “an inadvertent peccadillo,” Fields might call it — but based on the frequent appearance of pussycats in his movies I don’t think it was inadvertent at all.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Anna Russell (1911-2006)

I note here with sadness the passing of Anna Russell, the funniest lady in classical music. I was privileged to see her perform at Carnegie Hall twice. The first time, in 1965, the hall was nearly empty. The second time, for her farewell tour in 1984, the place was packed and the audience was in stitches. She had impeccable timing, an upper crust British accent that made everything funnier (to American audiences, at least), and knowledge of music and musicians that skewered the pompous, the pretentious, and the just plain silly.

The obituary in The New York Times was excellent (registration required and it’s probably on Times Select by now). Other good pieces are in The Telegraph, The Washington Post, and Opera News, which has a lovely photo of Ms. Russell in her salad days. A personal reminiscence from a Canadian point of view is in this piece from La Scena Musicale.

The picture below is of Russell and the Valkyries from a Canadian production of Die Walküre in 2004.

Some clips are posted at (here and here) for anyone who never saw her and for anyone who did. VAI has a DVD taped at her (First) Farewell Tour, television appearances from the 1960s and 70s, and a CD of her performance in Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s opera, Arcifanfano or You’re Always Too Old to Learn, with the great American soprano Eleanor Steber, as well as a live performance of some of her opera pieces from 1973.

It’s a cliche, but true nevertheless, that we will not see her like again.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Top 300 Favorite Songs of All Time II: Fool in Love (Ike Turner)

I was talking about love and relationships a couple of days ago — in fact, I was explaining something about Yobo — and I quoted the chorus of Ike and Tina Turner’s astounding song Fool in Love:
You take the good along with the bad, Sometimes you’re happy and sometimes you’re sad.
It reminded me that Fool in Love is one of my Top 300 Favorite Songs.

Here’s another song, like Love Potion #9, that has an unsurpassable, even inimitable, opening: Without any warning, like a volcanic eruption, Tina Turner shouts “There’s something on my mind. Won’t somebody please, please tell me what’s wrong?” And with four perfectly placed intro chords, the band starts playing and in close, gospel-inspired harmony, The Ikettes sing
You’re just a fool, you know you’re in love.
You’ve got to face it to live in this world.
You take the good along with the bad,
Sometimes you’re happy and sometimes you’re sad.
You know you love him, you can’t understand
Why he treats you like he do when he’s such a good man.
The Ikettes, having explained exactly what the situation is, step back and Tina returns to the mic for the first verse. In her take-no-prisoners style, Tina explains how dire her straits are and I suspect that her audience understands that she’s talking about something more serious than being made to wear white flannel after Labor Day or not being allowed to use the right fork.
He’s got me smiling when I should be ashamed,
Got me laughing when my heart is in pain.
Whoa now, I must be a fool,
But I'll do anything he wants me to. Now, how come?
Back come the Ikettes to reiterate that she’s just a fool, and Tina has two more verses to explain that she knows she is a fool, but she loves her man so much that she can’t leave him, no matter what.
Without my man I don’t want to live.
You think I’m lying but I’m telling you like it is.
He’s got my nose open and that’s no lie,
And I, I’m gonna keep him satisfied. Now, how come?

Ways of actions speaks louder than words —
The truest thing that I ever heard.
I trust the man and all that he do,
And I, and I’ll do anything he wants me to do. Now, how come?
There are two things that I love about Fool in Love and that are a big part of making it one of my Top 300 Favorite Songs. The first is that Tina Turner’s delivery is completely at odds with what she’s singing. She doesn’t sound the least bit confused or perplexed, or in need of advice. Her powerful voice doesn’t convey any sort of weakness on the part of its owner. The second is that the Ikettes don’t second Tina’s supposed confusion. The words of the chorus chide, lecture, and advise. They rebuke the naive woman who doesn’t know about love or even how to live in this world. Most times the backup singers ratify the lead singer. Not here. Tina’s delivery and the words of the chorus provide the tension that keeps the song interesting no matter how many times you hear it.

A good cover of Fool in Love is by Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli, and LouAnn Barton on Dreams Come True. Notice that it takes three lead singers to replace one Tina Turner. Nevertheless, they do a good job of delivering a solid version of the classic original.
I don’t remember exactly when I heard Fool in Love for the first time, but it was probably on Valaja Bumbulis’s show on KARL-AM, Carleton College’s student-run carrier current radio station. Valaja (a/k/a Linda Stephani) was a dedicated Ike & Tina Turner fan in the late 1960s, so even though I was born and grew up in New York City, I didn’t hear Tina Turner until I went to Northfield, Minnesota, hardly a hotbed of R&B outside the Carleton campus. But once I’d heard Tina Turner I became a fan, and was happy to see her subsequent success, especially once she ditched Ike. Valaja was definitely onto something.

I plan to write about other of my Top 300 Favorite Songs, including Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn song Saint Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes, Marshall Crenshaw’s Some Day, Some Way, Graham Parson’s Luxury Liner and Wheels, Candi Staton’s Victim, and Let It Be from the Mad Dogs and Englishmen concert album, so keep an eye out for those.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

T’aint Funny, McGee, Part II
I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. It’s a sign of the times, I guess, something that comes with reaching “un certain age.” For one thing, it seems like a lot of people I know (or knew) are dying. Of course, people are dying all the time, but this year’s been an especially striking one for me. So far, I’ve lost my last two aunts (both in their 90s) and a friend of the family who I’d known since I was born (89). There were also people who weren’t close but went way back: my sister-in-law’s sister-in-law’s mother (88), a woman who grew up in my building (54), a man I knew when I was a journalist (56), and one I found about by accident, a man I knew when I was at the University of Denver in the 1970s (50). And a suicide, who I saw a just couple of days before he jumped off the roof of his building, the production manager of a quarterly magazine I copyedited for. At the end of last year, I saw two articles in the same week that continued the theme: “Death and a dinner party” in the D.U. alumni magazine, about planning one’s funeral, and another in The Times, about planning one’s parent’s funeral.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t find Keeping Mum so very funny. Laughter is a way of keeping away the ghosts but when they come as close as I’ve felt them this year, the laughs aren’t as spontaneous as they usually are. Kristin Scott Thomas was excellent and Maggie Smith was fun to watch, but Rowan Atkinson seemed to be trying too hard not to be funny. The characters played by Patrick Swayze and Tamsin Egerton were more cartoonish than believable. The settings were lovely, in a travelogue-of-Britain style. I couldn’t figure out, though, why Thomas, the vicar’s wife, was taking golf lessons from Swayze, the local club’s pro, and how he found his way to the out-of-the-way course on the English coast. Better not to ask too many questions, I guess, and just go with the comfy flow. Think of it as Arsenic and Old Lace with a posh accent, and let it go at that.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Work Song
There can’t be too many points on which RuPaul and President Bush agree but our President’s obsession with hard work is uncannily close to “You better work,” RuPaul’s admonition in his hit, “Supermodel.” A musical expression of our president’s obsession is “Hard Work,” Harry Shearer’s brilliant and hilarious remix of soundbites from the 2004 presidential debates — more than 20, according to one source — with a smooth jazz groove. And who could forget the compliment to former FEMA head Michael Brown: “Heck of a job, Brownie.”
Darned if he isn't at it again. We learn from news reports from Katrina—The Anniversary Tour that President Bush is out there working hard and praising those who are hard at work. In her Wednesday, August 30, New York Times column, Maureen Dowd reported that Bush told a crowd at a high school in New Orleans, “I’ve been on the levees. I’ve seen these good folks working.” He amplified that observation in the speech he gave in New Orleans on the anniversary of Katrina’s Landfall, saying, “The Army [Corp of Engineers] has been working nonstop — and I mean nonstop — to repair the damage and make 350 miles of the system stronger. … They’re extensive. They require a lot of work, including rebuilding I-walls with T-walls. That strengthens the foundations of levees.” I’m sure we’re all glad to have that cleared up.
It’s a real concern of his, that people work hard, because if they’re working hard then progress is being made. Or something. It also establishes their bona fides, because if they weren’t serious, good people, they wouldn’t be working hard. They’d be slacking off, goldbricking, and generally goofing around. Lost in this chain of reasoning is that it is possible to work hard and get nowhere, work hard and reach a dead end, work hard and fail miserably. Even evildoers work hard, after all.
Did Bush work hard at Harken Energy, or later as a shareholder of the Texas Rangers franchise? As governor? Maybe he did. Maybe that’s where he learned the value of hard work. But it sounds more like something he reaches for when he has nothing else to say, something to accompany a slap on the back or a shoulder punch, a good-ol’-boyism he picked up in Midland. What puzzles me is how his advisers can have such a set of tin ears that they don’t hear that this meaningless verbiage is evidence of a mouth stuck in fifth gear while the mind spins helplessly in neutral.
It’s great that our President read Camus’ The Stranger on his vacation, but when he latches onto the Hard Work mantra he seems a lot more like the one of crowd described in the Texas saying “You buy ’em books and buy ’em books, and they just chew on the covers.”

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Power to the Pols

If Joe Lieberman wins the election in November — and I sincerely hope that he doesn’t. I can’t decide if he’s a schmuck or a putz. — it will go a long way to proving a long-held contention of mine, that the Democratic Party’s decline began when the party bosses turned over the power of selecting candidates to the party’s rank-and-file. Case in point: John Kerry. Primary voters decided he was more electable than the other candidates. It was his gravitas, it was reported. Well, the gravitas thing may have worked on the floor of the Senate but it didn’t play so well in the rest of the country.

Of course, there were several other factors that kept Kerry from winning, and he certainly didn’t lose by much. Among the factors working against Kerry were the Vietnam War issues that he didn’t address adroitly enough, his too-heavy reliance on advisors, and ballot measures tailored to bring cultural conservatives to the polls, but the bottom-line issue, in my opinion, is that voters didn’t like him enough to repudiate Bush. The primary voters were wrong again.

From what I saw, Edwards had the charisma and the message, as well as the fire and the quick-wittedness, to take on Bush-Cheney-Rove but apparently he was seen as not seasoned enough. It’s a damn shame. So if Lieberman wins (a poll last week gave Lieberman 45% to Lamont’s 43%, with the rest either undecided or for Schlesinger), maybe it will be time to start a discussion about giving political professionals more control over the candidate selection process.

UPDATE: Call it a psychic reading or a strange coincidence but as I was writing this post a ruling in a similar situation was being handed down in New York. According to The New York Times (N.Y./Region, August 31, 2006), a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled on Wednesday, August 30, that the New York State system of choosing State Supreme Court judges based on nominating conventions was unconstitutional. The ruling upheld a lower court decision ordering that primary elections be held until a new system is set up by the state legislature. “Critics have long contended that the practice effectively robbed voters of their say in who made it to the bench,“ reporter William K. Rashbaum wrote.

It’s a lovely sentiment but I’d be astonished if most voters, even educated, politically savvy ones, were dedicated enough and had enough time to research who would make the best judges, on the State Supreme Court or any other court, for that matter.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

T’aint Funny, McGee

WARNING: Spoilers abound.
Where did I ever get the idea that Transamerica was a comedy? Blame it on the TV ads, which featured Felicity Huffman (Bree Osbourne) delivering what were the only funny lines of the movie, and the premise, which I picked up from the reviews—pre-op transsexual bails her (unknown to him) son out of jail and with only a week before her final operation, drives from New York to L.A., reuniting with their families along the way. Supposed to be a lighthearted look at the travails of gender dysphoria in 21st-century America, the movie turned out to be not a comedy at all. Yes, there were some amusing lines, but they were never laugh-out-loud funny. In fact, it didn’t play all that well as a television viewing experience, though it was, overall, effective and consistently interesting.
In my definition of a comedy, physical violence immediately disqualifies a movie or play, and Transamerica has a couple of scenes that go right over the line that separates funny from serious. In one, a character is knocked out, and kicked when he’s down, if I remember correctly. In the other, a punch to the face leaves an ugly red bruise.
Also keeping Transamerica from being a comedy is its muted quality, which comes from Bree’s character. Huffman’s performance is impressive but Bree is, frankly, not all that much fun. Sweet, thoughtful, mysterious, even, but her lid is on pretty darn tight. Huffman is convincing, without question, especially after seeing her in “Sports Night,” which was about as far from Transamerica as you can get. The same could be said of “Desperate Housewives,” of course.
Her family also sabotages the comedy, while posing a serious plausibility problem. Her over-the-top domineering mother (Fionnula Flanagan) and nebbishy-though-apparently-successful father (Burt Young) made my teeth ache. From what sitcom planet did they descend? The tattooed and pierced sister (Carrie Preston) must have been left on their doorstep by escapees from a desert commune. The scenes in Phoenix may have been dramatically necessary but were largely wince-inducing.
Another problem was that as Bree’s character unfolded during the film, we learned precious little about her. It was as if the screenwriter found her transsexuality fascinating but beyond that couldn’t figure out what made her tick. Bree works as a waitress in a small L.A. Mexican restaurant and does telemarketing at home, she went to college for about ten years but never graduated, and she’s half Jewish (her father, so it doesn’t really count). She had a girlfriend in college, when she was Stanley, though she described it as “sad” and “Lesbian.” No friends, apparently, and she doesn’t seem to have any hobbies or outside interests.
Bree’s clothes are conservative and her speech is guarded. When she first meets Toby, her son (Kevin Zegers), and he thinks she is a Christian missionary it’s completely plausible. Perhaps a scene in church was cut, along with scenes with friends, as slowing down the action. The result is that Bree is revealed piecemeal and whole aspects of her character are unexplained. There’s her sly, even sarcastic, humor that slips out at times and seems to be a remnant of a cynical youth. When she says she’s happy or that everything’s fine, it is clear that she isn’t and it’s not. Maybe, we think, the operation will fix that (pun intended).
Probably the most interesting change Bree experiences in the course of the movie’s 103 minutes is the development of her parental instinct. When she first hears about Toby’s existence, he’s little more than a minor detour on the path to the operation. By the time they get to Phoenix (cue Glen Campbell?), Bree is thinking of how she can guide his life, couched as a corrective to her own growing up. As the movie ends, she’s trying to teach him how to behave like a grownup; his grudging response suggests that he could allow her a place in his life, though she may not get to be quite the mother she’d like to be.
The Hollywood expression “Give the puppy a limp” seems to apply to Transamerica. Supposedly, a producer is telling a screenwriter how to make a character more appealing. “Give him a puppy,” the producer says. “Give him a limp.” “Give the puppy a limp?” the confused writer asks. “How the hell do I know?” says the producer. “You’re the writer. You make it work.” Bree got the puppy (long-lost teenage son who’s a hustler) and the limp (pre-op transsexual), and Felicity Huffman delivers a bravura performance, but it still leaves Transamerica as a good movie that falls short of claiming those extra Netflix stars.

19 July 2006

Monday, August 28, 2006

Criticizing the Critics

I’d like to revive something the late critic B.H. Haggin used to do: criticize the critics. For the most part, critics don’t acknowledge the existence of other writers in their pieces, aside from the occasional vague reference to other opinions. It’s a professional courtesy not to question another writers’ opinion, I think, a sort of honor among thieves. However, I’m not a professional and I can say whatever I please. The July 10 issue of The New Yorker had a couple of choice places to start this project: “Farewell Symphony,” Alex Ross’s encomium on the departure of Daniel Barenboim from the Chicago Symphony, and “Westward Ho!,” Joan Acocella’s paean to Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky.

Here’s Your Hat. What’s Your Hurry?
In my opinion, Daniel Barenboim is one of, if not the, least talented musicians before the public today. Clearly, since he’s music director of the Berlin State Opera and principal guest conductor of La Scala, many other people don't share this opinion, and it’s true that I saw this view first expressed in Haggin’s writing, but nothing I’ve heard in all the years since has changed my mind.
Take, for example, his contribution to the 30th anniversary celebration of Live from Lincoln Center recently broadcast on PBS. In the madly kaleidoscopic segment of concerto performances, Barenboim’s few measures stood out for the leaden quality of the playing. There was no phrasing, musicality, or even interest in what he did. He looked the part but based on his playing he could just as well have been some guy from the audience in a tux, called up at the last minute to take the place of an indisposed soloist.
I have to think audiences respond to his bella figura. Just listen to the Mozart Two Piano Concerto in E-flat, K.365, he recorded with Vladimir Ashkenazy in 1975, my exhibit A of Barenboim’s astonishing shortcomings as a musician (available in Decca/Londons Mozart Piano Concerto box set). Ashkenazy’s entrance after the orchestra introduction is everything it should be: beautifully played, tastefully phrased, technically secure. Then Barenboim comes in and instead of answering it in kind, produces an elephantine response, painful to hear.
Another recording of the Concerto is available on the BBC Legends label (BBC 4037-2), taped live at a Proms concert with Barenboim conducting the English Chamber Orchestra and Sir Clifford Curzon playing the other piano. Listening closely while following the score to keep track of who was on which piano, it was clear that Barenboim’s playing was consistently less sensitive, less interestingly phrased, less varied than Curzon’s. It’s not always out-and-out bad, which surprised me, but it isn’t really good. It is Curzon who I wanted to hear more of, who made Mozart interesting and engaging. For example, in the solo in the last movement that starts at measure 113, Barenboim’s playing isn’t cleanly articulated, especially the dotted notes. Sometimes he’s just sloppy, as in the sixteenth-note runs at measure 418 in the same movement.
There’s also a video of the same Concerto with Barenboim and Sir Georg Solti, who plays the first piano part and conducts the English Chamber Orchestra in a 1990 performance. It is also available on CD (Decca Eloquence 476 2451). I was only able to watch a few minutes, but I would recommend it to anyone who would like to see Barenboim in action. Perhaps you will hear that he uses only three dynamic levels: forte, mezzoforte, and pianissimo. Compare his playing to Solti’s, who shapes the melodic line by varying the dynamics. Barenboim does precious little within the phrase and waits until the end to dramatically reduce the volume to a whisper. The Live from Lincoln Center clip suggests that his playing hasn’t changed in more than 30 years.
I would say that Barenboim’s leaving Chicago would be cause for celebration, but that wasn’t why Ross wrote his piece. We are told that the performances Barenboim conducted over three valedictory days were variously “grimly eloquent at the outset and electrically triumphant at the end” in Beethoven’s Ninth, “vividly executed” in Carter and Boulez, and contributed to an exit that “could not have [been] more graceful.” But read between the praise and you will find these cavils:

“The Mahler Ninth felt like a recapitulation of Barenboim’s Chicago career. The first movement was rocky at times, orchestra and conductor never quite settling on a central pulse—that stuttering-heartbeat rhythm that signifies the composer’s knowledge of his own approaching death. [A questionable assertion, but let it go for now.] Yet the playing was passionate in the extreme. There was an engaging wildness in the middle movements, together with more disagreements about tempo. (Some musicians have long been frustrated with Barenboim’s habit of setting new tempos on the spur of the moment.)”

“I had an adverse reaction when I first heard the great Chicago orchestra under Barenboim, a decade ago. There was a crude and chaotic quality to the sound: you could still hear the vehement aesthetic of Georg Solti, Barenboim’s predecessor, but it lacked Solti’s precision. Barenboim conducted with a broad beat, trying at times for profound effects that either he was unable to articulate or the orchestra was unwilling to execute.”

“Pride filled Barenboim’s voice as he declared that he had gained that trust—for much of his tenure, there was resistance from factions in the orchestra—and that he had just received the unofficial title of Honorary Conductor for Life.” [Perhaps he just wore them down over the years.](italics mine)

I’d suggest that Ross was really hearing Barenboim’s conducting in those passages, but that over the years he let down his critical guard. When Ross says “although [Barenboim] had gravitas even in his youth, something in his work has deepened,” it is more likely only Barenboim’s acting ability that has deepened over the years. I don’t think musicality can be taught to an unmusical person, any more than someone can be taught to be a good writer.
The fact that Ross takes Bruckner’s symphonies seriously is further proof that he’s reacting to Barenboim’s stage gestures and demeanor since Bruckner is a prime example of a composer whose chief ability lies in creating impressive sounds that don’t add up to anything. A hit single, a guitarist friend once told me, has to have a sound and a hook and Bruckner’s symphonies have both. Unfortunately, while he wanted desperately to write symphonies, he couldn’t assemble the pieces into a coherent whole. But there are those, like Ross, who are convinced he was a worthy successor to Beethoven and predecessor to Mahler. He characterizes Bruckner as “a composer who carved out his music as if it were cathedral limestone.” To my ears, the cathedral is imposing, all right, but it is hollow inside, which perfectly describes Barenboim’s playing and conducting.
Alex Ross seems like a really nice guy, which is not the first qualification I think of in connection with criticism. When I read his blog, The Rest is Noise, I get the sense that he’s a big ole’ classical music fan who wants to do his best to encourage composers, musicians, and listeners to get out and write, play, and hear more music. Now that’s a great attitude and essential in keeping the business going but I think a critic better serves music and the music business if he starts out committed to the belief that guiding readers to the most accurate and most exciting performances of the best music is his primary reason for writing.

A Direct Line to Heaven
Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography may not be on the same level as Barenboim’s conducting, but it is not at all the great white hope of Russian dance that Joan Acocella thinks it is. “Russia is in the torturous process of catching up with twentieth-century modernism, from which it was isolated for more than half a century, and Ratmansky was made by God to help it do this,” she said. God? Really? Who told her this?
Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons was part of the New York City Ballet’s latest Diamond Project, a program that commissions new ballets for the company. Acocella starts her piece with a perceptive critique of the Diamond Project and its latest products, a mixed bag at best, she says. I saw just one other of the seven pieces, Christopher Wheeldon’s Evenfall. It was on a program with Robbins’ Ma mère l’oye and Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco (to Bach’s Two Violin Concerto) and in that company it didn’t stand a chance. (Well, with the Balanchine at least. The Robbins is entertaining but embarrassingly sentimental.) After seeing Evenfall and a subsequent performance of Klavier I’m starting to wonder about the fuss that’s been made over Wheeldon. Evenfall did not hang together at all. It looked like an homage to Balanchine, using Bartók instead of Stravinsky, but it made me think that maybe Balanchine was right not to set a ballet to Bartók. Acocella summarized it as a piece “in which women in filigreed tutus bent over and stuck their butts up in the air to Bartók’s beautiful Piano Concerto No. 3.” Fair enough.
But then she goes right off the deep end with Ratmansky’s Seasons. It clearly touched her at some profound level but the work itself doesn’t live up to her reaction to it. At its best it was reminiscent of Robbins’ piano ballets, and come to think of it, at its worst it was too. To start with, there were the costumes. The five couples came onstage — strolled onstage, to be accurate —in simple costumes reminiscent of Russian peasant dress. “Wass very Rooshian,” I told a friend. “Wass all very Rooshian.” The couples were color-coded and the women wore a version of the traditional headdress, though it was not decorated as in the traditional peasant style. Finally, we have an answer to the crucial question Steven Sondheim raised in “Ladies Who Lunch”: “Does anyone still wear a hat?”
As the couples stroll onstage they greet each other, talking about something or other — the harvest, perhaps — before they start to dance. In the ballet’s 12 sections the couples enact stages of the peasant year, accompanied in five of them by a singer. The music, by Leonid Desyatnikov, was dissonant sometimes, melodic other times. Acocella heard “not just folk material but also jazz and Steve Reich—and Stravinsky” in the music, making for a curiously mixed bag at best. It was not, apparently, composed for the ballet.
Wendy Whelan was the featured soloist, though Jenifer Ringer, a wonderful dancer, was also in the cast I saw. Whelan returns at the end in white, which is the color of a wedding gown but also — gasp! — the color of a shroud. Also very Rooshian.
To Acocella, Ratmansky “takes on the great themes—love, grief, marriage, death—and looks them straight in the face.” But there’s a Marie Antoinette-playing-at-being-a-shepherdess quality in a work choreographed by the director of the Bolshoi Ballet and danced by some of the world’s most sophisticated ballet dancers for a New York City Ballet matinee audience that takes as its subject the life of rural Russia. At the same time, and I realize this sounds completely contradictory, it is very New Masses: The simple peasants are closer to the truths of life, love, and death than we decadent bourgeois and we could learn so much from them if we would only take the time to sit at their simple, peasant feet.
What’s fascinating is that Acocella sees the ballet clearly but, bless her, she takes it seriously. Also, she has the advantage of program notes that translate the texts of the songs. Here she describes one of the sections, quite accurately:

“The ballet wears no tragic mask. The dancers often do regular, unsentimental, ‘street’ things. They run around; they knead charley horses out of their legs; they chat with one another. Even in the most mystical passage, nothing gets too heavy. Here is the lyric:
“For you, the body, there is but one lot . . .
To go under the earth, to feed worms.
And me, the soul, I’ll go repenting.
I went near Eden, I didn’t get there . . .
Our Eden, it’s a mighty merry place,
Birds are singing, flowers are blooming,
Oh, on the flowers angels are sitting.
“To this song Jenifer Ringer enters, her expression rapt, her arms groping. She is searching for something—Eden, heaven—and everywhere she turns she comes up against some obstacle. Three men partner her, but they are not men; they are just the arms that support her quest, and block it. In the ballet’s most beautiful moment, the men become the angels on the flowers in Eden. They sit on the floor in a neat little row, and she steps into their hands, then onto their knees, as she walks out into the air, into the void. ‘I went near Eden, I didn’t get there’: she doesn’t get there, but no tears are shed. The whole thing, as serious as it is, looks like a children’s game, which I think is what Ratmansky is saying about the hope of heaven. The thought is Russian, the manner Western. The casualness is a bit like Jerome Robbins’s. Still, you are stabbed in the heart.”
Or else you’re not. As for the ballet’s “most beautiful moment,” didn’t Paul Taylor do the same thing in Esplanade 30 years ago? “No new steps, only new combinations,” Balanchine said. And sometimes not even that.
Acocella may have let her head get ahead of her critical gut with Ratmansky but she was right on the money the next week in “Secrets,” her review of Diana Vishneva in American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle. (See sidebar, below.) I’m not sure which New Yorker critic Edward Gorey was talking about when he said, “She knows who danced Giselle in 1897 but she can’t see what’s in front of her face,” but on the evidence of this piece he wasn’t referring to Acocella. (That would leave Arlene Croce as the next most likely candidate.)
She saw the performance with Angel Corella as Albrecht; I saw Vladimir Malakhov a few days earlier. The effect was the same: “a show that left people sitting dazed in their seats afterward.” In the second act pas de deux, the Met audience was as quiet as I’ve ever heard them, transfixed by the dancing of the two principals. They slowed the tempos w-a-a-y down and turned in a breathtaking performance. Here were the true “angels on the flowers in Eden” of Russian Seasons.
Burning Down The House
Another New Yorker critic in that July 10 issue was Hilton Als, who wrote about Richard Greenberg’s The House in Town, presented by the Lincoln Center Theater. Als took his review as a springboard to psychoanalyze Greenberg through his characters, a temptation critics often give into. In the climax of the review, Als condemns Greenberg for projecting his fears of contemporary Manhattan women on the play’s protagonist. That’s a serious charge, but if we take it at face value, we’re facing the slippery slope of assuming that a character’s moral shortcomings are a reflection of the writer’s neuroses. Is Sweeney Todd about Hugh Wheeler’s difficulties with authority figures? Moving away from the theater, what does that say about the screenwriters of Heathers (Daniel Waters) or Mean Girls (Tina Fey) and their views of women?
Critics are a lot like families: You can’t always live with them and you can’t shoot them. If only they agreed with us more often.

Sidebar: Thinking About Giselle
Giselle is quite a dichotomous little ballet. The first act is stereotypical, colorful, and melodramatic, while the second act is Romantic, monochromatic, melodramatic, and moving. It is also fascinating, and it is still influencing ballets today.
As the American Ballet Theatre program notes point out, Giselle is the oldest ballet still in the active repertory, premiered in 1841. The current ABT production, however, owes more to a Petipa version reset by Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1987. If the structure is reminiscent of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, with a first act in which the story is set forth with more mime than dancing and a second act which is nearly nonstop dancing, that may reflect more of the Petipa/Maryinsky influence than surviving aspects of the original 1841 version. Also familiar from Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty are the royal characters who parade around in lavish costumes attended by a stage full of courtiers, the young prince with an attendant who has not independent life of his own, a unison dance for demi-soloists (think of the “Dance of the Young Swans” in peasant costume instead of tutus and feather headpieces), and a curse. In Giselle, it is Giselle’s weak heart instead of a fairy with a grudge but the plot hinges on it just the same.
Giselle’s determination to dance despite the fate that awaits her may have inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes, published in 1845, reworked in the 20th century in Powell and Pressburger’s movie, made just over 100 years after the ballet. (And doesn’t Victoria Page’s ghost appear at the end of the film? I’m not quite sure as it has been several years since I last saw it.) The twist that Andersen introduces to the story of the demonic shoes is that in Giselle it is the men who are danced to death by the women, spirits who have killed themselves after being jilted or betrayed.
Another aspect of the ballet that has resurfaced in modern times is the interplay between members of the corps, who wave to each other as they enter, cross the stage, and exit. The intent is to establish a sense of community among the dancers before the action takes place before their (and our) shocked gaze. They are surrogates for the audience, most of whom are unknown to each other before they take their seats in the theater. This interplay was a central motif of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering and the subsequent dances he created to Chopin, as well as Goldberg Variations and even Ma mère l’oye.
Closely associated with Robbins as this vocabulary was, after Peter Anastos’ wicked satire, Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet, it might have seemed like choreographers would leave it strictly alone. However, Alexei Ratmansky’s commission for the New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project, Russian Seasons, shows that even today they find it just as appealing.

29 June 2006

Pandora Opens the Box
Feeling out of touch with current music? I sure am. Some time around 1995, I mostly stopped buying new pop, rock, and country CDs, in part because I ran out of space to store them but also because I lost interest in trying to follow popular music. Most of what I heard sounded like stuff I’d heard before, only not as good. NPR is all right as far as it goes for hearing new music, but it barely scratches the surface of the thousands of CDs released each year. If that describes your situation and there isn’t a good rock radio station in listening range—there isn’t in New York City—and you can spend some time at the computer, I’d suggest that you point your browser to, a high-tech way to hear music you’re likely to like.
Pandora is the computer equivalent of a friend with good taste, a site which takes your favorite groups or musicians and creates a personal radio station that programs them and musicians like them. Pandora uses the 423 criteria devised by the Music Genome Project to categorize and organize popular music to select other songs and performers that share those criteria. The more musicians you input, the more songs it selects. Or you can listen to your friends’ stations, or the most popular stations.
The music is continuous, with a few seconds of silence between the cuts. Information about the artists is accessible through a link under the album art or generic image that appears as each song is selected. If you really like something you hear, you can order it from Amazon or download it from iTunes.
To create my station, Music-o-Rooney Radio, I started with Marshall Crenshaw, then added Thelonious Monk to spice up the mix, and Chris Hillman to expand the selection to the country-bluegrass universe. Adding Chris Hillman to the roster brought in a heavy bluegrass representation, as well as some alt-Country artists, which is fine but I’d like to find a way to make it more of an occasional thing. Those major keys and modal progressions are hard to resist, though.
The resulting mix included some artists I’d never heard of, though they’ve been around for decades: John Strohm, who was in the Blake Babies in the late 1980s and is now an entertainment lawyer; Sloan, which is a group, and Dan Colehour. I don’t know if I’d buy CDs by any of them but the tracks were good, interesting, and I was glad to hear them. Their songs were chosen, Pandora explained, because they feature “a subtle use of vocal harmony, meandering melodic phrasing, major key tonality, melodic songwriting and many other similarities identified in the Music Genome Project.” “Meandering,” I guess, is the opposite of “monotonous.” I don’t know, I just think it’s interesting.
On the jazz side, Monk brought in Steve Lacy, whom I’ve known about for years, and Elmo Hope, whom I can’t have heard much though his name is familiar. Then the jazz cuts disappeared for a while. It seems like Pandora concentrates on one genre at a time; the rotation through your favorites isn’t as random as it might be. Jazz seems to be less well covered than rock or country. Pandora doesn’t have any Dave Frishberg or Roberta Gambarini, though I was able to add Fats Waller. A somewhat annoying aspect of the jazz selection is that you can’t get discographical information. Want to know who’s playing on that track? Well, you can see the CD it’s drawn from and maybe figure out who the musicians are and when it was recorded, but mostly you just have to enjoy the playing.
To give an example of what Pandora is like, turning on the radio today loaded jazz for the first eight selections. Starting with Louis Armstrong, moving through Eddie Lang, Coleman Hawkins, and a track from Freddie Redd’s music for The Connection, the jazz set ended with Charlie Parker’s Ornithology. The next track was Marshall Crenshaw’s Calling Out for Love (At Crying Time), one of my favorite songs but jarring in that context. If I were going to try a segue like that I’d have done an ID, recapped all of the tracks I’d played, and added an intro to the new segment of pop, Western swing, bluegrass, and alt-Country. Maybe Fats Waller’s It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie would have been a better lead-in but that’s what you get when a computer program is the DJ.
An in-depth article about the Music Genome Project and Pandora can be found here: