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Cue Sheet – March 2007


    Douglas McLennan, mastermind of, started his very own blog last year, to which he posts about once a month. His latest item is well worth the attention of anyone who is appalled by the rampant stupidity of so many user comments at newspaper sites and blogs. McLennan urges newspaper editors, especially, to take responsibility for their sites’ content, including reader comments. After all, they're selective when it comes to running letters to the editor in the print edition:

    Online reader comments should hold to no lesser standard. But the comments need to be curated. Not censored. There ought to be a price of admission to the comments section, and that is: have something interesting to contribute. If you can contribute something interesting, you're in. Otherwise... This is the classic editor's job - pick the good stuff and separate out the nonsense.
    Please take a few minutes to read the entire post here.



    In the newest Tucson Weekly, I pass judgment on three more-or-less new plays:

    All three plays that opened locally last week show us women dancing with death: a Jewish teenager interned in Nazi labor camps, three graduates of a Catholic girls' school remembering a classmate who had been murdered years before, a lonely and self-destructive rock star.
    The newest of the three plays is Letters to Sala at Invisible Theatre. … Sala's Gift was fast-tracked to the stage, and Hutton readily admits that the script still needs some work. She's right, but if you think of IT's production as a first public draft, the play shows plenty of potential despite its flaws. …
    Meanwhile, the sometimes cautious Live Theatre Workshop is going out on a limb with an almost-new play by Tucsonan Toni Press-Coffman. In Holy Spirit on Grand Avenue, three successful and privileged women reunite many years after having been best buddies at the Bronx Catholic girls' school of the play's title. Eventually, the conversation turns to a classmate of theirs who was murdered more than 20 years before, when she was just 8 years old.
    That girl, Diana, is a constant presence throughout the play, trying to understand the adult conversation of her former friends, chatting with an apparition of the boy who killed her, and venting her growing bitterness and frustration to the audience. …
    Rock star Janis Joplin didn't quite grow up, either, although she had about 20 years more opportunity than Diana. Joplin is the subject of Love, Janis, the third offering in Arizona Theatre Company's current RepFest. Be assured that this is not just one of those smarmy jukebox musicals lionizing some popular singer of yore; oh, there's plenty of music here, but this is a serious and effective study of a figure who is very sympathetic, despite her outrageousness and personal failings.
    You’ll find the full three-in-one review here. (And, as proof that I don't write the headlines, consider the atrocious use there of "center around." This is a logical impossibility; it should be "center on," as I point out in just about every proofing job I get.)



    We interrupt this lazy stretch of non-blogging to link to a commentary by Eric Williams, who echoes a complaint I’ve had for 20 years:

    It's an amazing bait-and-switch. Every few months, your local PBS station begs you - and Viewers Like You - to support their programming for the rest of the year, yet they do this by cramming their schedule with shows which they ONLY air when they're pleading for dough. We get Eagles: Hell Freezes Over and Pink Floyd: Pulse and tributes to doo-wop and the British Invasion. We get Suze Orman and Dr. Wayne Dyer and some guy who'll teach you how to play the piano in an afternoon. …
    At least NPR sticks to its guns during pledge drives. They don't yank This American Life to air The Best of Opie and Anthony. They don't replace Terry Gross with Larry The Cable Guy. They don't dump the Car Talk guys because...well, because they couldn't find anything lower-common-denominator if they tried. All I'm saying is, if PBS has to tart itself up as something it's not in order to attract donors, isn't that a de facto admission that their regular schedule isn't enough of a draw to justify their existence?
    This afternoon, I’ll scoot down to Membership Central to do some fundraising for our sister station KUAZ-FM, where, I’m happy to report, the regular programming is deemed enough of a draw for a membership drive. No Opie and Anthony today.



    Alex Ross has posted some intriguing and sensible thoughts on the non-death of classical CDs. I trust his analysis, despite ambiguous evidence and conflicting opinions elsewhere. (See Alex’s post for some good links.)
    Coincidentally, yesterday I interviewed the head of, and our chat produced evidence to support the notion that classical CDs are alive and well. Last month, the online classical retailer polled 50,000 customers about how they prefer to store and hear recorded classical music. Overwhelmingly, the customers prefer CDs to downloads: The audio quality is better, you get liner notes, and you have a physical object whose survival is more assured than data on a hard drive or an iPod. (Arkivmusic has no vested interest in pimping the old CD format; the company exists to make money by selling classical recordings, no matter what form those recordings may take.)
    Furthermore, the retailer’s successful new “on-demand” program of licensing the back catalogs of major record labels and selling custom pressings of out-of-print discs demonstrates the importance of the Long Tail concept in classical music. That is, record companies can make money on classical recordings by maintaining a deep back catalog from which individual items may sell modestly in any given month, but those sales prove to be substantial over a longer period of time. (Mozart and Beethoven made little money from performances of their piano concertos in their lifetimes, but if they were still collecting royalties today, they’d be far richer than Bill Gates. But way too old to enjoy the money.)
    Let's sing no Requiem for the classical CD just yet.

Classical Music,


    With apologies for my recent lapse in blogging (busy, tired from fighting pertussis for the past month), I now take the easy way out and point you to my reviews in the latest Tucson Weekly. I’m covering two of the three offerings in Arizona Theatre Company’s RepFest.
    First, the comedy:

    Playwright Craig Wright offers a tremendous gift to nasty critics, but then snatches it away.
    Halfway through his play Molly's Delicious, a character explains the development of the apple with that name. Among its attributes, Molly's Delicious has the highest sugar content of all American apples. "Oh, boy," thinks the evil critic, squirming with malicious glee. "Now I can lead off my review with a wisecrack about the play's own ridiculously high sugar content."
    Trouble is, Wright defies the expectations he raises early in the play and backs away from excessive sweetness and sentimentality. Not that Molly's Delicious offers much to chew over. Nor is it exceptionally juicy, nor does it leave much of an aftertaste, pleasant or otherwise. It's just a nice little gentle comedy whose greatest success is in not going wrong.
    Read all about it here, then move along to the one-man drama, which I admire without reservation:
    From behind a door, a man appears, attired in a simple black dress, dark headscarf, clunky shoes and a string of pearls. He faces us silently, hands at his sides, palms outturned. Without a word, he withdraws behind the door.
    Soon, the man will reappear with a number of antique objects to show us, but in this first moment, it's the man himself who has been placed on display. And a remarkable item he is: Born Lothar Berfelde in 1928 in a suburb of Berlin, he thought of himself as a woman and lived openly as a crossdresser for decades, surviving the Nazis, then the East German secret police, all the while developing a private museum of furniture from the 1890s.
    We'll call this person Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and apply the feminine pronoun, both of which she did for most of her life. What else Charlotte did in her life is a matter of some debate, as detailed in the play I Am My Own Wife, in a quietly brilliant production by Arizona Theatre Company.
    The play ran Off and on Broadway about four years ago, and picked up every award short of the Heisman Trophy. Playwright Doug Wright gave it the subtitle Studies for a Play About the Life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, and with good reason: This is not a straightforward biographical work, but an account of Wright's effort to grapple with a unique life story told by an unreliable narrator.
    You can read the rest here.



    David Hurwitz, of Classics Today, has posted a 115-page essay denouncing the claims of certain period-performance-practice specialists—mainly Roger Norrington—that continuous vibrato was rare in orchestral string playing before World War II. Hurwitz has had enough of Norrington’s terminally dull forays into Romantic music (I’ve always thought of the man as Roger Borington, myself), but it’s only well into the essay that Hurwitz fully vents his frustration with this over-hyped (that is, British) hack: “In my view, Norrington is simply cynically exploiting a phenomenon all too common in the world of classical music: people would rather talk about it than listen to it. When a supposed ‘authority’ makes an oracular pronouncement seeking to justify his interpretive biases, it’s much easier to just accept the result at face value, even if the music sounds awful.”
    Hurwitz’s position is that “continuous vibrato arises naturally out of the demand for continuous expression.” He’s writing mainly about music from the early 19th century forward, but he also finds some precedents for this idea in earlier treatises, notably that of Leopold Mozart, which is often used as a justification for eschewing vibrato almost entirely in pre-Romantic music. But, as Hurwitz points out, Leopold Mozart doesn’t banish vibrato at all, which is clear if you bother to read him carefully (which I have). Leopold rails against excessive vibrato, applied indiscriminately. You also have to keep in mind that Leopold’s treatise reflects the taste of one man living north of the Alps; you can’t really generalize about pan-European performance practice circa 1756 from his writings—indeed, if you’re paying attention, you’ll see that Leopold was going against the grain to some degree, because he implies that vibrato was rampant among Italian violinists of his time, much to his distaste.
    Writes Hurwitz: “Interestingly, many of the historical naysayers present their arguments as a protest against a pernicious trend already rampant, indeed out of control. This fact alone tends to favor the pro-vibrato faction as evidence that, irrespective of what various musical eminences may have said, the free use of vibrato has always been the rule rather than the exception when it comes to what players actually did.”
    Hurwitz makes a useful distinction between vibrato in orchestral playing and its employment in solo playing, and he sifts through dozens of 19th- and 20th-century scores looking for evidence that some degree of baseline vibrato was in common orchestral use. Now, much of this depends on accepting Hurwitz’s contention that certain expressive markings themselves implied the presence of vibrato, and his long argument is not entirely free of unsupported generalization. In the end, though, he makes a good contextual case for vibrato as standard orchestral practice during the past 200 years. Curiously, though, for somebody who runs a Web site devoted to classical CD reviews, he refers to very few recordings made before World War II in support of his thesis. Now, any orchestral recording made before about 1928 is going to be too primitive and involve too many compromises of instrumentation and performance to be of any value in the vibrato debate, but anything professionally recorded since the invention of the electric microphone will have sufficient fidelity to be used as evidence, pro or con. So why did Hurwitz sidestep all this potential evidence?

Classical Music,

About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.