Cue Sheet – February 2010
posted by James Reel
Unconfirmed report: The Tucson Symphony Orchestra's executive director and development director are poised to depart. The organization is undergoing some potentially devastating cuts, so this would be a good time to move people with fresh ideas into those positions. On the other hand, a period of instability is not the best time for regime change. We'll see what happens.
posted by James Reel
For years, I was under the impression that the multiple rings in the Olympics logo represented the many continents from which competitors originate, but I must have been wrong. Judging from NPR's top-of-the-hour newscasts, only Americans are competing now. What happened to the rest of the world?
posted by James Reel
I have managed, Sgt. Bilko-like, to work out a scheme that will enable me to target specific CDs for addition to the KUAT-FM library, despite the statewide Legislature-induced budgetary disaster. We have 6248 active items in the classical library already, so you’d think all the standard repertory would be well represented by now, but not so. Recently, I’ve been filling a lot of Haydn gaps.
Somehow, we’ve limped along for 20 years with only one set of Haydn’s “Paris” symphonies, which are among his most popular works. Appallingly, that single set was not Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic series, the best place for anybody to start exploring Haydn’s symphonies. So one of the first things I did was acquire Sony’s boxed collection of all of Bernstein’s New York Haydn recordings: the “Paris” symphonies, the “London” symphonies, a few major Masses and “The Creation.” Most of these stand among the finest recordings by anyone of anything by Haydn, and now you’ll be able to hear them on the air from time to time.
The biggest gap in our Haydn collection for many years has been the piano trios. Until a couple of years ago, we didn’t even have a single version of the popular “Gypsy Rondo” trio. Right now, I’m taking care of that by cataloguing the splendid 1970s nine-CD traversal of all Haydn’s trios by the Beaux Arts Trio. By no means are these all significant works, but they are all at the very least pleasant, and about half a dozen of them are essential listening for anybody who wants to learn the basics of chamber music and be highly entertained at the same time. These will start slipping into the schedule next month.
I’ve also acquired the Angeles Quartet’s survey of all Haydn’s string quartets—which are already fairly well represented in our library, but not completely—and Antal Dorati’s classic traversal of all 104-plus Haydn symphonies. But I won’t have time to get those into the database in time for March scheduling.
But it isn’t all Haydn all the time; I’m also trying to establish better representation of significant artists who for some reason are largely absent from our library, starting with two colorful and controversial conductors: Constantin Silvestri and Leopold Stokowski. Brace yourselves.
posted by James Reel
Here are two reviews I contributed to Fanfare last year of items from a new series of high-resolution recordings from James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
BRAHMS Ein deutsches Requiem * James Levine, cond; Christine Schäffer (sop); Michael Volle (bar); Boston SO; Tanglewood Festival Cho * BSO CLASSICS 0901 (hybrid multichannel SACD: 70:23) Live: 09/26-27/08
With the collapse of the major labels, more and more orchestras are launching their own audio series, on disc and online. So far, they seem to have learned little from the fates of the majors; for the most part, they’re churning out standard repertory conducted by conductors who have recorded the music before, and have little new to say about it. (The Mahler series from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony has been the major exception to this trend.) Now the Boston Symphony Orchestra has launched its own vanity label, and sure enough, its first two releases are standard fare that the orchestra’s music director, James Levine, has already recorded. Yet in terms of interpretive insight and audio quality, these discs deserve to enter the troubled marketplace with great fanfare.
I review Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé elsewhere in this issue; the subject here is Brahms’s German Requiem, which Levine recorded for RCA with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in 1983. In the quarter century between that version and Levine’s new in-concert recording with the BSO, the conductor’s timings have hardly changed. The new version is, overall, a mere 20 seconds shorter, and the greatest difference, such as it is, comes in “Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt,” the penultimate movement, which has now bulked up with all of 28 seconds—not a significant amount over the course of an 11- or 12-minute piece. Yet Levine’s conception of the music has changed greatly over the years; indeed, it has deepened and matured.
As only one example, consider the aforementioned penultimate movement. In the Chicago recording, the beginning is as light and airy as if it had been lifted from one of Brahms’s early orchestral serenades, and the first climax is dominated by the typically bright, prominent Chicago brass section (exacerbated by RCA’s tinny, early-digital sonics). In Boston, the opening passage is more processional and subdued (but not undercharacterized)—more like a Requiem than a serenade—and more ominous in the baritone’s early interactions with the chorus and orchestra. At the first climax, the Boston brass are well blended with the rest of the ensemble.
In other words, Levine has fundamentally rethought his approach to the score; he no longer leads it like a serenade, or as if it were Fauré’s gentle welcome to Paradise, yet he doesn’t impose more drama than Brahms placed in the score, as if it were Verdi or Berlioz (two composers with whom Levine has long experience in the opera house). This is a reading of greater gravity, in which each movement gradually unfolds, revealing more and more layers along the way. This is by no means Wagnerian music, but Levine as an experienced Wagnerian has clearly mastered the art of pacing.
The Tanglewood Festival chorus sings this challenging music beautifully—from memory, as is its usual practice—and the two vocal soloists, Christine Schäffer and Michael Volle, are fully satisfactory, although they can’t beat Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau in the classic Klemperer recording, still on EMI; Fischer-Dieskau, especially, has the finest sense of line and color I’ve ever heard in this music.
The surround recording was produced by Elizabeth Ostrow with the technical services of the staff of sound/mirror, the excellent Boston firm that transformed many of the BSO’s old Living Stereo recordings into SACDs. They’ve done a superb job here, taking advantage of Boston Symphony Hall’s warm acoustics to create a spacious yet well blended soundstage.
So in almost every respect, this new release marks a great advance over Levine’s earlier recording of the Requiem (almost every respect; the Chicago Symphony Chorus was certainly wonderful in the RCA version). It’s also more insightful than the Robert Spano SACD from Telarc. This and the Ravel disc I review many pages hence augur very well indeed for BSO Classics. James Reel
RAVEL Daphnis et Chloé * James Levine, cond; Boston SO; Tanglewood Festival Cho * BSO CLASSICS 0801 (hybrid multichannel SACD: 54:55) Live: 10/05-06/07
James Levine recorded Daphnis with the Vienna Philharmonic for DG in the mid 1980s. I’ve never heard that version; Gramophone liked it, which is not necessarily a good sign (critics there generally favor discretion over passion), but I imagine that Levine’s ear for color and fine technical control coaxed an effective performance from an orchestra not usually associated with Ravel’s idiom. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, of course, made one of the greatest Daphnis recordings half a century ago under Charles Munch (and acceptable ones in the 1970s and ’80s under technicians Seiji Ozawa and Bernard Haitink). Now, with James Levine, the BSO has made yet another of the score’s finest recordings.
People think of Daphnis as a sonic spectacular, but it’s much more than that; just listen to the delicacy Levine and his musicians, including the chorus, bring to the hushed opening pages. Thanks to the performers and the recording team, the overall sound is plush, not overtly analytical, yet all the various instrumental and choral lines are expertly balanced throughout. That said, it’s possible to differentiate one trumpet from its neighbor at the back of the soundstage. Still, the emphasis is on sensuality, even through very precise attacks and ensemble work. The excellent solos are flexible and dreamy, but the pirates’ orgy has tremendous punch and precision, and the final scene is stunning. The concert audience is silent until its outburst at the very end.
As far as I can tell, there are only two complete recordings of Daphnis on SACD: this one, in 5.1 surround, and the mid-50s Munch, in two channels. Both are equally superb performances; Levine’s has the sonic edge. James Reel
posted by James Reel
Last night I had one of those performance-anxiety dreams. For students and ex-students, it’s the one in which you’ve gotten several weeks into the semester without bothering to attend a particular class, and now you’re hopelessly behind with an exam coming up, and you can’t even find the classroom. For radio announcers, it involves dead air. I have both dreams from time to time. Last night, though, was something that sneaks through my subconscious far less frequency: a dream about actual performance.
It seems I’d been engaged as a piano soloist with the Tucson Symphony. But I hadn’t bothered to prepare, and didn’t even know what piece I was supposed to play. Backstage, I looked at some music, and it turned out to be Janácek’s Capriccio for piano left-hand. Well, not using the right hand would make the job much easier, I thought. I looked at the printed music, and it didn’t seem too hard, but I found myself figuring out the first note on the treble staff by using the old mnenomic “Every Good Boy Deserves Favor,” and I realized that there’s no way I’d be able to pull this off by sight-reading. (I did take a few weeks of group piano lessons many years ago, and got pretty good at playing scales, but my later instrument was the cello, so I’m more comfortable on the bass clef.)
This is pretty mundane as such dreams go; if you’d like to read a much more sophisticated account along the same lines, try the novel The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, or, for the linguist’s version of the dream, Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy. The reason I had my own version, I’m sure, is that my brain was telling me I have too many non-KUAT projects coming to fruition, and I’m not quite ready. Let’s take a look at my schedule over the next couple of weeks.
This afternoon, I have to drop off with a director a recording I made of about 60 seconds worth of lines from the play Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, which is being produced by the new group of which I’m the board president, the Winding Road Theater Ensemble. From there, I’m heading out to Academy Village for a meeting about a course I’ll be teaching in late April and May for the Arizona Senior Academy; the topic will be 19th-century French theater, and aside from having decided which playwrights to cover (Musset, Hugo, Rostand) I’ve put no thought into the project yet. That’s because I have other thigns to worry about before April.
Things like wading through about 350 reviews and features that I have to proofread for the May-June issue of Fanfare magazine (I recently, against my better judgement, agreed to be the magazine’s classical music editor). This coming Monday night I have a Winding Road board meeting, at which, among other things, we’ll be planning a fundraising event for late April. Wednesday night, I need to attend a concert presented by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, of which I’m the vice-president and dictator-in-waiting. Next Thursday, I have to help run the box office at the preview performance of Frankie and Johnny, duties I’ll repeat later in the run.
On Feb. 15 I have to give a presentation on the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival for a gated community way north of the city. The festival itself will take place March 7–14, during which I’ll be giving the five pre-concert talks and emceeing a special kiddie concert. In conjunction with the festival, I’m co-teaching a chamber-music course for Exploritas (formerly Elderhostel). I’ve done this before, but for this year I really need to revamp my main presentation. Which I haven’t done yet.
Meanwhile, I’ve got gigs scheduled with Chamber Music Plus—not the Chopin program originally announced, but a new version of something I did a few months ago for the Arizona Cultural Forum, in which I play Claude Debussy and Charles Baudelaire, Steve McKee portrays Edgar Alan Poe, and Rex Woods plays some Debussy preludes, in a music/theater piec by Harry Clark exploring the influence of Poe on Debussy and certain French poets. The first performance will be Feb. 19 in Scottsdale, then we’ll do it again two days later in Tucson, possibly with a fundraiser performance in between. At some point in the days leading up to that weekend, we’ll need to rehearse a little. Steve and I will be reading from the script, but there are some complicated segments in which we have to talk over the music.
Let’s see … anything else? Aside from my regular duties at KUAT, that pretty much covers it into the middle of March. Believe me, it’s more than enough.
posted by James Reel
If I were a good blogger, I would link to a couple of interesting little comments on the classical Grammys, but the Grammys are even less relevant to anything than the Golden Globes. So instead I will offer the second monthly installment of reruns from a column I wrote for a literary e-zine back in the late 1990s. So please bear in mind that a couple references to things that are “current” or “latest” are about a decade out of date.
HOW NOT TO READ A BOOK
There we were, six avid readers with advanced degrees, confessing to one another our shared secret: Each household held a copy—an unread copy—of James Joyce's Ulysses. A sense of relief and embarrassed delight fluttered through our little group; until that moment, I, for one, had assumed that my copy was the only one that sat uncracked upon the shelf. But now I knew I was not the only person in the world who had faked his way through Joyce allusions all his adult life.
It isn't as if we had been intellectually dishonest. We hadn't been buying book-spine facades, little literary Potemkin villages behind which we stashed such cultural humiliations as cheap booze and videos. No, we had purchased actual, tangible books (well, one of us had inherited his Ulysses from his father, who hadn't read the thing either). And I am certain that we each intended to read our books ... eventually.
Don't most of us gaze lovingly and longingly over our collections of great unread books? That sturdy Library of America volume featuring Moby Dick, that yellowed paperback copy of War and Peace that looks like it's seen more of the former than the latter? And don't we swear to ourselves that we will sit down someday and read those fine tomes, right after we finish those much-delayed household projects and look through the magazines that have been piling up?
After all, we haven't bought these books to impress other people. We've bought them because other people have impressed their importance upon us. Our high school teachers, college professors, and friends all mention them with as much reverence as can be mustered in our cynical society. These old texts are continually reissued in new editions, or at least with fresh cover illustrations. They also provide fodder for Hollywood, and not just as material that saves somebody the trouble of writing original screenplays. Go to the latest Star Trek movie, and you'll hear Capt. Picard quote Melville. How could we not get the idea that these are works that we must, someday, read?
We know exactly what they are, of course. The experts compile vast book lists for us to ponder. Every major retail book store displays several copies of Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren's How to Read a Book. This was first published in 1940, at the height of America's intellectual self-improvement craze, when much of the bourgeoisie launched itself out of mouth-breathing Babbittry into a new cultural category: the middle-brow. The ideal goal of the new bourgeois-gentilhomme was to develop broad taste and knowledge. The actual achievement, more often than not, was to purchase some ready-made library like Encyclopaedia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World and store it prominently near the baby grand piano, which functioned less as a musical instrument than as a flat surface that could accommodate several half-finished martinis.
How to Read a Book, once it's through the how-to part, offers a list of books to practice on. Not coincidentally, the list corresponds to the Great Books series, with a few important additions (but only one living author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn). This list is where the trouble begins. I don't mean the tiresome controversy over canonical texts versus diverse voices, but the very existence of reading lists themselves. Over the years the Adler/Van Doren list and others of its ilk have been amplified, trimmed, answered, and counter-argued, and in every case we've wound up with yet another list of books we haven't read, but should.
Twelve members of the English faculty at the university in my city have just issued a reading list for high school students preparing for college study. It's basically the Great Books lineup made a bit more relevant and inclusive—Nicomachus of Gerasa's Introduction to Arithmetic is out, Dereck Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain is in. But how many high school kids will slog through the nearly 200 titles here, brawny books ranging from John Dos Passos' USA (counts as one) to Shakespeare's major plays (counts as six), with the odd detour into the works of Zora Neale Hurston and Leslie Marmon Silko? How many adults will make it through each of these volumes? How many of the narrowly specialized members of the university English department have cried "Excelsior!" from atop this bookish butte? Can they really claim an intimate familiarity with both The Federalist Papers and the plays of Wole Soyinka?
But admit it—you're sitting there right now jotting down "Silko" and, if you are truly sick, even "Nicomachus" in preparation for your next trip to the bookstore. You are drawn to book lists exactly as a pubic hair is drawn to the shower drain. If you could just read all these books, you would pull away from a mass of conformity and be swept along, spun around and sucked down into a realm that is dank, twisted, frightening, and excitingly unlike anything in your cramped, sour little existence.
Knowledge is a gap in our vast ignorance, and that gap widens with each intellectually stimulating book we read. So we stockpile recommended books. True, we collect partly for the aesthetic pleasure of seeing the books on our shelves, partly for the smug satisfaction of possessing something that is quantitatively and qualitatively better than what the Joneses own, and partly so we'll have something to do with all that free time we anticipate at the end of the week, or at the end of our lives. But we stockpile mainly in good faith, with the real intention, however long deferred, of adding to ourselves as well as to our libraries.
My friends and I have resolved to read Ulysses by June 16, the date in 1904 on which the novel's action takes place. It looks like a sturdy book, one that can pry those walls of ignorance a bit farther apart.