Cue Sheet – August 2005
posted by James Reel
I am, to be polite about it, most assuredly not a fan of playwright Neil Simon, but even I have to admit that his Brighton Beach Memoirs is a fine piece of theater. The University of Arizona’s Arizona Repertory Theatre is reviving its production of the play starting tonight. Read my review of the show’s opening earlier this summer, order your tickets, and see what Simon is capable of when he’s not content to be merely glib.
posted by James Reel
This morning the radio alarm went off at 3:55, as usual, and as usual I muted it within five seconds to avoid disturbing my wife, who for some reason wants to sleep in an extra hour. But those five seconds were enough to register what was playing, a chirping woodwind figure in a musical atmosphere of some tension and drive.
“That was exciting,” my wife muttered.
“Enesco,” I said, and shambled off to my morning ablutions.
I’ve always been good at what in the LP days were called “needle-drop” tests, identifying a piece or composer within seconds of hearing some random part of a composition. Of course, there’s no way I’ll figure out a lot of oddball stuff, like a Havergal Brian symphony or Biber violin sonata, but there is a lot of off-the-beaten-path repertory I can get instantly, either through actually knowing the piece or recognizing the composer’s style.
You can be adept at this game without committing a 2,000-disc record collection to memory. Sometimes you’ll recognize the melody right off, but more often it’s something more subtle that triggers recognition of a piece. It may be a little transitional passage that sounds generic on its own but may be just familiar enough to evoke the more individual passages around it; Beethoven and Tchaikovsky wrote especially distinctive transitions, although in Tchaikovsky’s case they can be more like vamps. It may be a particular style of orchestration that gives the composer away; both Shostakovich and Revueltas, for example, were fond of extremes, for example having the tuba and flute (or even piccolo) simultaneously stretch the timbral boundaries of a passage. Perhaps it’s just some “atmosphere” that’s unique to a composer, as with Mahler or Berg.
It does help to have a very good musical memory, and I suppose mine compensates for other memory deficiencies. If I’m introduced to someone at a party or in a theater lobby, for instance, it’s as if some soundproof curtain comes down and I never even register the new person’s name. (I’ve reached the point at which I’m thinking, “I really need to pay attention and remember this name,” and I’m so busy thinking this that the name slips by … again.) Good music, on the other hand, never fails to stick between my ears.
posted by James Reel
The announcers at C24 out of Minnesota (a service known to you as Music Through the Night) are generally quite fine, but some of their tics and habits annoy me to no end. Case in point: As I was driving in this morning, John Zech introduced “the Overture in the Italian Style by Schubert.” Well, Schubert wrote two overtures in the Italian style, so you can’t describe this one as “the.”
The current philosophy of classical announcing holds that you should keep technical trivia (keys, opus numbers and so forth) to a minimum so you don’t intimidate or confuse listeners, but calling one of several similar pieces “the” is a confusion and a serious disservice to listeners. What if somebody liked this Schubert piece and wanted to buy a recording? The overtures aren’t often recorded together, so the innocent buyer looking for “the” Overture in the Italian Style has a fifty-fifty chance of spending money on the wrong piece.
Related rule of thumb: Never use “the” in conjunction with anything by Vivaldi. Whatever it is, he probably wrote 10 more in the same key.
posted by James Reel
The latest issue of Fanfare includes, among many other things, my review of a new Chandos recording of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 2, which earned its composer the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. It’s a 2000 expansion of Corigliano’s 1996 String Quartet, a version that takes full advantage of string-orchestra sonorities and never hints at its chamber-music origins. The symphony is coupled with a compelling suite for violin and orchestra from Corigliano’s score for The Red Violin, and you can read my full review here.
posted by James Reel
In October, we’ll broadcast a 13-week series drawn from the 2004-2005 Arizona Friends of Chamber Music season. Not only am I the vice-president of that organization, but I’m also the producer and host of the radio series. Recently I’ve been writing and recording the scripts for the shows, and that requires a completely different mindset from the writing I do every day for print and Web sites.
When you write for speakers rather than readers, the first thing you need to to is keep the sentences pretty short, so the speaker doesn’t run out of breath or have to pause awkwardly in the middle of some thought. (A script sentence shouldn’t get any longer than that last sentence, and those particular 40 words can be sustained only because of the two commas providing natural breath pauses.) Then, you have to remember that sentence structures and turns of phrase that look sophisticated and elegant on the page may become hopelessly clumsy when spoken. Back in the mid 1980s, I visited KUSC in Los Angeles during a conference of radio music directors, and met Gail Eichenthal, the host of the Los Angeles Philharmonic broadcasts. What I remember best about that encounter is that Eichenthal vowed to make her own scripts simpler and more natural sounding. No more starting sentences with clauses like, “Born in 1756, Mozart …” That’s not how people talk, and if we say things like that on the air we’ll sound stilted and phony. (I did notice, though, that over the next several months Eichenthal was still starting sentences that way. “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley,” as I would probably not try to say on the radio, let alone in person.)
You’ll notice that a lot of us suddenly sound stilted and phony when we read underwriting announcements, which are written by people who don’t have to deliver them on the air, and consequently stuff them with long sentences as well as sentence fragments and oddly placed modifying phrases and clauses. If you don’t have to read copy out loud, repeatedly, you just don’t think about these things. But we have to think about them if we’re going to sit here and impersonate normal folks.
It’s been a long time since classical radio announcers practiced the old-school, black-tie formality of 1940s and ’50s figures like Ben Grauer (who was actually one of the less tight-sphinctered announcers of his day). Now we’re supposed to imagine ourselves to be ordinary people speaking enthusiastically, knowledgeably (but never condescendingly) and directly to one listener at a time. “Ordinary,” “enthusiastically” and “knowledgeably” require varying degrees of imagination depending on who’s on the air, but it’s something to strive for—precisely so we don’t sound like we’re striving for anything, just relaxing and sharing music with a friend.
posted by James Reel
As my wife says, sometimes you need to go to work on Monday in order to recover from a weekend at home. For me, this past weekend included an all-morning hike in the Catalinas on Saturday; a visit from David Close, local host of Morning Edition on sister station KUAZ (he wanted to poke at an old, malfunctioning laserdisc player of mine); a trip out to the Gaslight Theatre for a review in this Thursday’s Tucson Weekly; participation in my monthly book group (which I helped organize long before book groups became middlebrow chic, I’ll have you know); and the usual domestic chores. I also had to put in a few hours proofreading some golf-review copy for a local publisher, even though I personally find golf to be dull and the spread of courses across the desert to be an ecological mistake, but that’s what happens when you’re an anything-for-a-buck freelancer. A good friend of mine—who is herself an excellent writer—told me Saturday that this was further evidence that she and I too often “cruise below our natural altitude.” This from someone who was once asked to ghost-write a book on the Cosmic Yoni.
Anyway, I didn’t get much reading or listening done this weekend, and no cello practice at all. I did finish the last few pages of an eight-month-old New Yorker, while listening to two CDs I hadn’t heard in a while. One’s definitely a keeper: Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra with a pair of suites from stage works by Rameau, one of those rare composers who never seems to have had an off day. The other disc, though, I’ve finally decided after several years to dump onto the eBay pile: an orchestral miscellaney by Vassily Kalinnikov. Now, Kalinnikov was a greatly talented Russian composer of the generation following Tchaikovsky’s, but unlike Rameau he did suffer some off days. I’ve finally lost patience for the overtures and incidental music in question (on a Marco Polo disc), which are generic examples of cosmopolitan Russian Romanticism (as opposed to the Russian nationalism of Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky).
His health undermined by chronic poverty, Kalinnikov died in his mid 30s; had he survived another couple of decades it’s quite likely he would have positioned himself as a first-rank composer, judging not from the pieces on that Marco Polo disc but from his two symphonies. They show the slight influence of Tchaikovsky (inspiration comes more from Tchaikovsky’s early symphonies than his heart-on-sleeve later works), and Kalinnikov was evidently closely familiar with the symphonies of Borodin and Balakirev. I learned these two wonderful works from the typically brash Svetlanov recordings that EMI licensed from Melodiya in the LP days, but a better-rounded view comes from Neeme Järvi on Chandos. My shelf space is tight, and I’m not sorry to see that Marco Polo disc go, but there’s no way I’ll relinquish those Kalinnikov symphonies.