Archive for Music

A Musical Interlude

Aggie and I share some of our extra-political interests with you from time to time. Recently, I indulged myself in a Domenico Scarlatti-palooza at your expense (which prompted one of you to send us a delightful video of a girl playing that composer brilliantly).

I have several musical guilty pleasures, one of which is Ottorino Respighi. Not all of his work, but some pieces, specifically the Ancient Airs and Dances; even more specifically the Second Suite of pieces. Most specifically of all, the Campanae Parisienses, the penultimate movement of the suite. It’s ravishing, a time-stopping piece of music, during which the entire universe ceases expansion (or contraction) to listen in awe.

Originally an orchestral piece—Respighi’s specialty—this is a piano transcription. I encourage you to listen to both, but this performance by Konstantin Scherbakov is too beautiful, too astonishingly beautiful to deny you. I assure you I have purchased it on iTunes (as well as the orchestral version).

The second half of the video is the Bergamasca, the final movement of the suite. I recommend it too. Schubert didn’t know how to finish his Eighth Symphony after the ethereal second movement, but I think Respighi acquitted himself well with the same problem here.

As far as I know, no one else has recorded the entire suite for piano, though many have taken a crack at the Siciliana from the First Suite. And why not?

We now return you to the bitter misanthropy you’ve come to expect.

PS: If you didn’t get to see the lovely little Alma Deutchser play the piano (about a year ago), here it is again.


Alma Almighty

Reader Barbara thought we might like this show, based on our post about Domenico Scarlatti the other day. Much against my suspicious nature, she was absolutely right.

The host, Arie Vardi, is a renowned pianist (though one I was not familiar with), and this is from a show he does on Israeli TV. But the star of this episode is cute little Alma Deutscher, an eight year old prodigy at the keyboard (who ain’t half bad on the violin either). It’s mostly in Hebrew with English subtitles, but sometimes little Alma slips into beautifully British-accented English. I’ve only watched a few minutes before pausing to post it, but it’s wonderful. One thing to note is that Alma sometimes can’t find the words to describe what she’s trying to say musically. That’s not her fault; it’s a shortcoming of language. As someone once said: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

She’s not unique, obviously. All one has to do is think of Mozart for just one example. See? Not unique. Though I’m not aware of Mozart’s talents as a graphic artist:


PS: Ellen Degeneres booked her last year.

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Palate Cleanser

Before I venture out into the arctic wasteland known as New England to walk the Bloodthirsty Puppy, let me dispel the fright and worry of infanticide and Liberal Fascism with this wonderful, awesome, spirit-livening sonata by Domenico Scarlatti.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Scarlatti lately—a whole lot—but this is the piece (and the performance of the piece) I keep coming back to. During the two and a half minutes of its duration, I am never more grateful to be alive. Can I bestow higher praise?

When I mentioned this piece to an acquaintance, she came back with Dubravka Tomsic:

She’s got a point.

Feel beter, Bloodthirstani. How could you not?

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Must See TV

If your local PBS station is still showing the Great Performances episode “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy”, sit your ass down and watch it. It’s great. I stumbled across it last night, but I don’t know how much longer it’s going to be in circulation.

Here’s a handy summary:

“Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy,” which airs New Year’s night on PBS (that’s PBS SoCal, for local viewers) as part of its “Great Performances” series, shares again the great open secret that American culture is to a great extent Jewish culture. More particularly, it points out the strain of Hebraic melody and rhythm in what we think of as the most mainstream popular music: the Broadway show tune.

Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, Kurt Weill, Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein, Comden and Green, Jerry Herman, Strouse and Adams, Kander and Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz. To comprehend the degree to which this ethnic minority created a common national (even a Gentile) language, you only have to consider that the scores to “Show Boat,” “The Sound of Music,” “My Fair Lady,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “West Side Story,” “Godspell,” “La Cage aux Folles” and “Wicked” were all by Jews, and that Berlin wrote the essential Christmas song, “White Christmas,” the essential “Easter song, “Easter Parade,” and the essential patriotic song, “God Bless America,” in whose melody Maury Yeston (“Nine”) discovers cantorial echoes.

Heck, the “cantorial echoes” are everywhere! Listen to this, and imagine the text in Hebrew and the occasion a bar mitzvah:

Even the single greatest exception to the Jewish rule, Cole Porter, succeeded only when he started to “write Jewish”—as he himself admitted:

Porter told Richard Rodgers he had worked out the secret to it: He would write Jewish tunes. That this is exactly what he did is demonstrated by a variety of composers at their pianos. But it’s enough to run “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” or “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” or any of his other minor-key classics through your head to hear that it’s true.

Technically, Oscar Hammarstein wasn’t Jewish either. His mother was Scottish and English, and he was raised Episcopalian. But his paternal grandfather, after whom he was named, was a German-Jewish impresario.

Even so many of the great Broadway performers, from Al Jolson to Barbra Streisand, were Jewish.

One of the most interesting themes of the show was how the composers and lyricists were influenced by the Jewish experience in America, even if they largely disguised it. Some changed their names (Jacob Gershvin to George Gershwin, Hyman Arluck to Harold Arlen, for example); some used transference. Issues of race and intolerance, from Showboat to South Pacific, came up in their work, though never directly about anti-Semitism.

Until Fiddler on the Roof, of course, in 1964, and Cabaret, in 1966. (West Side Story would have beat them both by about 15 years if it had been completed along its original lines, as East Side Story, about a Jewish girl and a Catholic boy.)

Anyhow, fascinating and illuminating. I already knew that this most American of genres, the stage musical, was largely created by Jews. It was a revelation to learn how Jewish this most American of genres is.

I should have listened to Monty Python:


In Beauty, Tragedy

First, the beauty:

That’s Vladimir Horowitz playing Robert Schumann’s “Traumerei” (Dreaming) from Kinderszenen (Scenes From Childhood), a common encore he played and played incomparably well.

What’s not so common is that this performance is from his legendary concert in Moscow in 1986, the first there since he had fled Russia 60 years earlier as a 21-year-old phenomenon. He fled to the West in 1925, and the rest is history.

Tragic history. The seventy-odd years of the Soviet Union are as packed with brutality and inhumanity as any in the history of humankind. To think that a nation embraced Stalin and expelled Horowitz makes you wonder about our species (not for the first time).

But look at the audience. They are rapt. Most of them would have been high-level invitees, Party insiders, but Gorbachev’s reforms were beginning to melt decades of Brezhnev glaciation. One of the commenters at YouTube points out the man at 1:30. His is the face of the Soviet experiment, it’s aspirations and its failures. His square head and strong jaw are utterly humanized by the sheen of tears on his cheeks. It is as if on listening to this lost boy of Russia, a Jew, playing a tune from a suite of music about childhood has made him realize the monstrosity of what he and his nation have done. And what the country of Tolstoy and Nabokov and Stravinsky and Horowitz and Heifetz (and on and on) could have been instead.

Of course, all of that is imagination on my part, mere projection. Maybe the tears were in anticipation of the pickled onions he hoped to have with dinner. But the truth is that the history of a nation and its Jews is the history of that nation itself. Those nations that persecute or expel their Jewish population rarely turn out well themselves.

You’d think that lesson would have been learned by now. But you’d be wrong.


The Dream

It’s Saturday, so BTL can be found wearing headphones listening to the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast while running his dog and beating up hippies in Harvard Square.

This week, Massenet’s Manon, a lovely French opera, best known (by me) for the magical tenor aria in Act Two, La Rève (The Dream), or “En ferment les yeux.”

Here’s an English translation:

Closing my eyes, I saw
Down yonder a humble retreat,
A dear little cottage
A white spot in the woods!
Shaded by trees,
Were murmuring brooks,
Reflecting the leaves
And there birds were singing!
A paradise it was! Oh no!
‘Twas sad and lonely,
For one thing it lacked:
Manon was not there!

MANON (softly).
It is a dream, and madness!

No! But say the word, Manon,
And there we spend our lives!

The story is familiar enough: boy meets girl, they shack up in a Paris garret; girl wants more and marries richer man; boy joins priesthood; girl misses boy and seduces him to leave seminary; girl is exiled to French colony of Louisiana; girl dies still torn between love for boy and for worldly goods. You can see why De Grieux’s (the boy’s) image of a simple cottage in the woods is anathema to Manon (the girl). She’s Madonna and he’s Ted Kaczinski.

But lord, is the music gorgeous. Here are three “vintage” performances of the aria, all of which have something to recommend them. This is a money piece for almost every great tenor, so there are many to chose from. I’ve chosen (in order below) Beniamino Gigli, John McCormack, and Georges Thill. The first two are in Italian, Thill in the original French—and he’s not afraid to sound like it. All three date from the 30s and have decent sound.

I’ll confess now that the Gigli struck me when I first heard it as the best singing any man has ever done. Ever. But now I wonder whether the McCormack might not be even better.

And for comparison, a modern staging with Roberto Alagna as Des Grieux and the molten hot Anna Netrebko as Manon. Alagna is fine, but no miracle of nature as some others are. And Netrebko is, well, hot (but it’s not her aria). If your heart is not grasped by the cold fist of great art, then you have none (unless that’s acid reflux I’m feeling).

Music is the trap door to my soul. I can describe this scene as archly and sarcastically as if describing a sermon by one of my favorite Egyptian clerics—but just let the music play and I’m undone. Doesn’t really happen with any other form of art.

BTW, Massenet is nothing much to look at in most pictures—but this image leads me to believe he might have known a thing or two about love in his youth.

Not my thing, but cute, no?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m wiped.


Sunday Dylan (and Cash, of Course)

The most amazing thing here is how good Dylan looked when he got scrubbed up:

I find Dylan’s voice on Nashville Skyline too labored, not natural. But it doesn’t mean there’s nothing to this:

This is just about perfect, though:

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Look Out Kid, It’s Something Ya Did/God Knows When, But You’re Doing it Again

We were talking the other day (talking in a blogging sense) about talent versus genius. Mozart had genius, Salieri merely talent (as the playwright Peter Shaffer tells it anyway).

It took me a while to remember this scene from D.A. Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back”, but it brilliantly demonstrates the difference. Donovan sings a blandly sweet song for Dylan and his entourage, then Dylan reciprocates.

What I only just heard when I reviewed the clip is that it’s Donovan himself who asks Dylan to sing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, the song that serves as the blade Dylan wields to leave not a scrap of meat on Donovan’s bones. Dylan could be cruel; I’d say it was his default behavior. But this is cruel in the way that a god is cruel too a mortal—he can’t help it.

Donovan’s look of realization reminds me of a line from Randall Jarrell’s classic novel, Pictures From an Institution.

Gertrude was looking at Flo narrowly, like a hydrogen bomb staring at an Act of God.”

Poor Donovan. He was talented and famous, but he was no Act of God.


Do Forget the Lyrics

The hit new show on Al-Fox TV:

Following are excerpts from an interview with Lebanese Shiite cleric Sheik Hassan Ghandour, which aired on Al-Jadid/New TV, on November 13, 2011:

Hassan Ghandour: In general, singing is completely prohibited. Islamic law prohibits singing because it constitutes falsehood. Singing includes all kinds of lyrics that attribute false things to the other…

Interviewer: Singing is forbidden?!

Hassan Ghandour: Yes. The kind of singing prevalent in our Arab region and even in Europe…

Interviewer: Even among men?

Hassan Ghandour: Yes, even among men. Singing is categorically prohibited.


Interviewer: Any Muslim who sings is violating a prohibition?

Hassan Ghandour: Yes, undoubtedly. All the kinds of singing that we encounter on the streets are specifically prohibited.

Do they make this [bleep] up as they go along? “Singing is categorically prohibited.” Since [bleeping] when?

Hey Sheiky, stick this in your hookah and smoke it.

You don’t look so bad, as Bernie Goetz said. Here’s another:

And you’re going to thank me for this one, Hassan. One of Dylan’s least appreciated masterpieces.

You’re welcome, Sheik. There’s lot’s more where this came from. It’s called YouTube. I think Allah would approve

PS: This guy’s hardly my favorite, but he could write a nice tune, and he’s one of yours now:

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Stravinsky’s Firebird

Fasten your seat belts.


Now, to Nourish Your Soul

It’s kind of bothered me lately that we’re so negative here—I know I am. It’s negativity with a purpose, admittedly, and in pursuit of a moral cause, but still a bit of a bummer.

I appreciate Aggie’s posts about extreme sheepherding and super alter kockers, and think maybe I should contribute such items a bit more myself. I’m not really such a bitter person; in fact, I can tell a pretty good joke.

Why did the corrupt Democrat, who coddled public-sector unions in exchange for their campaign contributions, and who voted against cutting off funds to the Palestinian Arabs despite their rejection of—and bombardment of—the state of Israel, shortly after “forgetting” to declare rental properties as income, cross the road?

I forget. But it’s killer.

Okay, if I don’t do humor, I can at least do classical music. This is magic:

Many years ago in college, a friend had a single ticket to see Christoph Eschenbach at Carnegie Hall. He was sick and offered it to me. I didn’t even know what was on the program. It turned out to be Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas. The recital still stands as one of the greatest experiences of my life. Each sonata was greater than the last, the performances getting deeper, more personal, completely hypnotizing. When the ghostly last notes of the Opus 111 died away, there was only silence. Awed, devastated, timeless, grateful silence. Eventually, we applauded and he bowed. But there were no encores. There was nothing more to say that night.

It’s nice to see the old boy still has his touch.


Israel Philharmonic Update [UPDATED!]

Reader Yerushalimey sends us this account of the shameful antics at the Albert Hall the other night:

Police. Placards. Protests. And bag checks. It meant only one thing. Jews were performing at the Proms. Here we were in the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2011 witnessing a stage of musicians being barracked and abused for having the gall to be Jewish. Last year, four more Jewish musicians, the Jerusalem Quartet, had the cheek to perform and broadcast a recital at the Wigmore Hall. They were again heckled and hounded off air. No, not a portrait of Europe in the early 20th century, but Britain in the 21st. I wonder. In a few years, will Jews be able to make music publicly in Britain at all?

If it wasn’t all so depressingly shameful, it might have been amusing, such was the pathetic absurdity of the protests. The evening certainly started with comedy. A small bedraggled bunch of Palestinian protesters (all white, middle class and bearded of course) were scowling by a side entrance of the Royal Albert Hall. Opposite them an Irish Zionist, sporting the tricolour of Eire and the star of David, was goading them with an Irish jig. That was where the whole farce that is the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign’s (PSC) boycott of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra should have remained: in the realms of risibility.

The BBC had by now switched off their live Radio 3 broadcast after the audience began barracking the barrackers at the beginning of the Bruch. It was understandable – no point giving the protesters publicity – but disappointing, considering that, if the listeners had been given an opportunity to hear the whole Prom, they would have heard the Prommers shouting down the protests, and the Israeli Phil ploughing on valiantly through their programme, to repeated standing ovations. That is, they would have heard us win.

What do we do now? What can we do now? The protesters have all now walked free to hound some more Jews. The recorded concert – what’s left of it – will be salvaged and aired next week. One thing we do know: the Israel Phil won’t be coming back to these shores in a hurry. And that’s where things become troubling. When we get into a position where programmers and arts organisations are forced to think twice about giving a platform to certain nationalities and races lest they incur the wrath of hooligans, we are in real danger of no longer being able to call ourselves civilised. The protesters didn’t win last night. But they certainly did raise the stakes.

I hadn’t thought about the role of the BBC, but its demonstrable hostility toward Israel can’t be ignored. No, Radio 3 (the classical channel) isn’t the same as Radio 4 (news and light entertainment) or the World Service, but their programmers are drawn from the same class pool and ultimately answer to the same Director.

As the writer makes clear, the overwhelming majority of the audience (99% from the sound of it) turned up expressly to hear the Israel Philharmonic and the Israeli violinist, Gil Shaham. And that majority fought for the musicians, and derided (even attacked) the despicable protesters. I can understand the decision to pull the plug in musical terms—but in political terms it was a disgrace. A shameful bow before Liberal Fascism. Yet again, as ever, the BBC should be ashamed.


Video clips here.

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