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 Verdi.org Web site: http://www.laverdi.org/english/quartetto.php. 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
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 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
Egbert Sousé.................... W.C. Fields
J. Frothingham Waterbury...... Russell Hicks
Og Oggilby.............................. Grady Sutton
INT. BLACK PUSSY CAT CAFÉ.
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.
Tuesday, October 24, 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 google.com (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
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.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.
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.
He’s got me smiling when I should be ashamed,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.
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?
Without my man I don’t want to live.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.
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?
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
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
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
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
Monday, August 28, 2006
To go under the earth, to feed worms.
And me, the soul, I’ll go repenting.
I went near
Our Eden, it’s a mighty merry place,
Birds are singing, flowers are blooming,
Oh, on the flowers angels are sitting.