From the NEPR Archives: How I spent my Christmas afternoon

With a new star-studded movie version of Cats about to open, and with the news that the great Stephen Sondheim musical Follies is about to be filmed, let me share my impressions of an earlier screen adaptation of a huge music theater hit, originally posted at the NEPR Classical Blog on December 27, 2012.

So, The Wife, The Big Sis and I spent two-and-a-half hours of our Christmas afternoon at the local cineplex attending the new Tom Hooper film of the hit musical Les Misérables, which we might have been the only people in the packed house not to have previously seen.  We paid our seven bucks each and took our chances.  I went with an open mind and an appetite for entertainment.  And I got sucked in, too…for about 20 minutes.  Then I found myself gradually detatching from the on-screen proceedings, and noticing stuff.  Why did they do it that way?  What could they possibly have had in mind there?  I promise; I don’t go looking for things to pick at.  They just sometimes have a way of finding me.  So, without in the least desiring to diminish your own eagerness to endure, er, enjoy the movie, here’s what hit me:

1.  If the darned thing were 15 minutes longer, I would have finished counting the follicles in Hugh Jackman’s beard. Really, especially from the third row, the constant close-ups were oppressive. Even in Anne Hathaway’s gripping “I Dreamed a Dream” scena ed aria, I had to turn away from all the tears, blood and mucous. There is some benefit to the distance a stage provides.

2.  Ever noticed how when people on stage break into song, it seems perfectly normal, but when people on screen, captured in natural settings, break into song, it seems…odd?  No wonder so many of the classic movie musicals were about thespians putting on a show, thereby making the songs plausible.  This one jumped the proverbial shark about a fifth of the way in, and never won me back.

3.  There is a difference between an actor who sings (see:  Crowe, Russell) and a real singing actor (see: Jackman, Hugh).  A big difference.  It can be somewhat mitigated by tessitura, technology and outright trickery.  But it will out in the end.  While the sub-standard singing of much of the cast of Les Misérables didn’t sink to the disgraceful level of the awful Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham Carter film of Sweeney Todd,  neither should anyone pretend that it was actually, you know, good.  Worst for me was Amanda Seyfried, whose paper-thin warble made the singer who did Snow White sound like Ethel Merman.  Come on, film folks.  There are some really, really good singing actors around today; I bet they’d work for less than you paid the fancy but vocally challenged stars.  (Speaking of Ms. Bonham Carter and Sweeney :  Did she just leave her Mrs. Lovett makeup on for her Les Miz  role?)

4.  For a “popular” stage musical to be sung throughout or for long stretches, as opposed to songs separated by spoken dialogue, is nothing new, going back at least as far as The Golden Apple  of 1954.  It’s a cheap way to lend more operatic “class” to shows on big historic themes, like our dear Les Miz.  But it’s a place very few composers and lyricists should go.  Unless you have the verbal dexterity and musical craft of a Stephen Sondheim, you’re going to embarrass yourself — which, IMHO, is the fate shared in this case by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and English lyricist…excuse me, librettist  Herbert Kretzmer.  It was bad enough that the inter-song ariosos increased the unreality of the whole enterprise (see No. 2 above),  It was worse that their modal meanderings sapped what little melodic freshness the actual songs might otherwise have conveyed.  But oy, were the lyrics disfigured by the corniest, most forced rhymes I’ve ever heard! I swear, I expected a Burma Shave ad to pop up at any moment.  Someone, anyone, please  tell me it worked better in the original French.

I know, I know…there are millions who love this musical, quite a few of whom were packed into the theater on Christmas and cheered like crazy at the end.  If you’re a Les Miz  lover, go ahead and tell me what I’m missing.

“A Chronicle of Verie Coole New Things I’ve Been Listening To, Or…

…If the Recordinge Industrie is in Such Bad Shape, Why Does It Still Put Out So Much Good Stuff?”

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Beethoven: Triple Concerto, Choral Fantasy. Two of Beethoven’s one-of-a-kind works for soloists and orchestra receive fresh and lively (indeed, recorded live) performances by conductor Laurence Equilbey, the Insula Orchestra, Accentus Choir (which whom Equilbey has made several beautiful albums) and soloists Bertrand Chamayou, David Kadouch, Alexandra Conunova and Natalie Clein. A nice touch is the use of an 1892 Pleyel piano, “authentic” for neither Beethoven’s time nor ours, but just right nonetheless. The performers sound like they’re enjoying themselves with works that benefit from not being approached with great solemnity. Listen on Tidal or Spotify.

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Anna Meredith: Fibs. The final “Album du jour” on this blog before our long hiatus was “Varmints,” the 2015 debut techno-pop album by British classical composer Anna Meredith. I was blown away, almost literally so in the case of its opening track, “Nautilus.” Now, just in time for the rebirth of the blog, Meredith has put out “Fibs” a wild ride of beats, bleeps, soaring tunes and non-stop invention. I dare you to resist! Listen on Tidal or Spotify.

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The Beatles: Abbey Road (Super Deluxe Edition). Most fancy new remasterings of favored old albums have struck me as little more than excuses to buy them again, to which I plead guilty on several counts. This one’s more than that. Supervised by Giles (son of Sir George) Martin, the present redo of the lads’ final masterpiece brings the musicians into intimate contact with the listener, for once justifying use of the cliché “like hearing it again for the first time.” The release also includes a zillion extras and outtakes that may interest you more than they do me, but since I’m listening via high-quality streaming (Tidal and Qobuz, more about which in a future post), I don’t have to feel guilty about how much I shelled out for the whole package. Give it a listen on Tidal or Spotify.

The Unpublished Letter

Here’s a letter I submitted a few weeks ago to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, but which has not been published. I’ve added some hyperlinks, but the text is otherwise unaltered.

Last month, Slate.compublished a transcript of a secret audio recording of a “town-hall” that New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet held with the paper’s staff regarding the Times’s coverage of the Trump presidency. One of the key takeaways was that the Times’ coverage of “Russiagate” was driven as much or more by established narrative as by emerging evidence – or lack of evidence – and that now that the Mueller report has basically put that story to rest, it was time for a new anti-Trump narrative. That turned out to be “Trump is racist,” a narrative that would drive the paper’s coverage going forward, and which led to the “1619 Project,” a series of articles based on the premise that the legacy of slavery still underpins virtually all American institutions. Never mind the facts, the historical context, or other opinions – it was the narrative that counted.

As at the Times, so at the Gazette in its “Covering Climate Now” series. What’s the narrative? Let me quote the opening of one of the articles in the series: “It’s a problem threatening our very existence on Earth.” Not “is it” an existential problem, but “it is” an existential problem. Case closed, narrative established. But while there is consensus (which I agree with) that the earth is warming and that much of the warming is attributable to human action, there is no such consensus that warming threatens human existence. Read the likes of Dr. Judith Curry and Bjorn Lomborg, check out “Watts Up With That?” blog, and read the reports of the IPCC, and you might come away with a far less dire prognosis of the earth’s future health. Of course, even bringing this up gets one ostracized by climate alarmists and activist scientists, and will doubtless lead to furious letters in response, but that doesn’t mean that these heterodox opinions are invalid. The Gazette, like the Times, disserves its readership (which doesn’t look to the Gazette’s staff to be its thought leaders), and damages its journalistic reputation by its narrative-first coverage, and by suppressing the evidence that does not fit the narrative.

What Think You: Should the Music Stop When the Phones Come Out?

The Wife® just forwarded me a Classic FM article about the latest collision of traditional classical concert etiquette with changing times and new technologies. Here’s the gist:

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter was in the middle of performing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto last night when the glare of a smartphone stopped her mid-movement.

Mutter was performing the slow, middle movement of the concerto, when she suddenly stopped and confronted a member of the audience in the front row – because they had their phone out and were filming her performance.

So what do you think — did Mutter do the right thing or the wrong thing by stopping the show? Please add your opinion in the comment section. You may choose to do so before reading my snap judgment, which follows.

OK, here goes: I think she was wrong. This is not an endorsement of the audience member’s behavior. I’m not asking Mutter to alter her opposition to being recorded. But this was not sufficiently disruptive behavior to disturb the entire audience’s enjoyment (which they paid for, of course) for one person’s action. What’s next — stopping the show for one too many unwrapped candies or foot shuffles? Of course, the concert staff should exhort the audience not to use their phones during the concert. But this is a case when the reaction to the misbehavior was more disruptive than the misbehavior itself.

What think you?

From the NEPR Archive: Woodman, Spare That Piano!

On Sunday afternoon, The Wife and I are heading to one of our favorite classical concert series for a recital of Romantic piano music on an 1893 Pleyel piano. For background on the series, here’s a blog post I wrote for New England Public Radio in July 2012.

 

Dueling Goldbergs

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“Quick, Robin — into the Bachmobile!”

The older I get, the less I latch onto one all-time favorite recording of a great classical work. Indeed, I find discussions of which is the “best” recording of this or that piece deeply boring. This may seem paradoxical, but only if you correlate — falsely, in my view — advanced age with stubborn adherence to the good old days. In my many decades of music presenting, I’ve heard from plenty of very open old folks and very closed young ‘uns. If there’s one thing that may correlate with advanced age it’s the decreased willingness to put up with lousy-sounding crap because some smart people said you’re supposed to like it. Life’s too short, especially when there’s less life ahead of you than behind you.

No, for me the score is never settled on the great works, and I’m always on the prowl for the next interesting version.  Such as two 2016 recordings of one of my all-time faves, J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations ( known to Bach-geeks as BWV 988, i.e., No. 988 in the Bach Werke Verzeichnis, “Catalogue of Bach’s Works”). And what a matched set of brilliant young keyboardists are featured on the recordings, Russian-German pianist Igor Levit (b. 1987) and Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani (b. 1988).

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I’d really rather not get into a better-and-worse comparison, since both Goldbergs are conceived and executed at the highest musical level. I will say, however, that I found Levit’s, for all its taste and control, and for the notable tenderness of the minor-key variations, a little dull. This is playful music, damn it, and I miss a sense of play in Levit’s Bach. Is that ungenerous? You may think so after listening on Spotify or Tidal, or downloading from Presto Classical.

Then check out Esfahani (download, Spotify and Tidal) and see if you can hear why I was vastly entertained by his flexible and creative approach. It helps that he’s playing a beautiful-sounding harpsichord (modeled on a German instrument from Bach’s era) with one of those great Baroque tunings (I couldn’t tell you which) that give each harmony a different color — it might sound sour at first, but you’ll get used to it. While I’m sure he planned and practiced everything to a fare-thee-well, Esfahani gives the illusion of making the piece up as he goes along. OK, he takes a few liberties, including a stripped-down, ornament-free rendition of the opening “Aria” (the first time through, at least), like seeing a beautiful face for the first time without makeup or jewelry. You got a problem with that?

 

 

The Blog Is Back…

…for the first time since I started Uber driving in early 2016. Let’s get right to it.

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What I’m listening to: Jaime, the debut solo CD by Brittany Howard, the 30-year old lead singer for Alabama Shakes, absolutely knocked me on my tukhes. Which at my age, could cause such a pain. But the risk is worth it in order to experience music this personal, this powerful. Name your favorite diva of American song, whether Bessie or Billie or Patsy or Janis, and young Ms. Howard does not disgrace herself by comparison. Purchase CD or download (high-quality, please) here. Spotify here. Tidal here.

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What’s coming up: Chris Goudreau has a nice write-up in Thursday’s Gazette of this Friday night’s concert at the Northampton Center for the Arts by archguitarists Peter Blanchette and Mané Larregla. Wait — there are two archguitarists? That’s right! Maître Blanchette, who invented the damned thing as a baby (OK, as a teenager), almost went and croaked on us after falling ill during a European tour last year. But judging from last weekend’s out-of-town tryout at the 1794 Meetinghouse in New Salem, his playing has lost none of its softness and sweetness. Neither has he lost a jot of his endearing on-stage loquaciousness. And this time, Peter’s joined by his Spanish friend Mané, an accomplished guitarist and recent convert to the archguitar. Renaissance dances, Satie, and of course, Bach — what could be bad? Details here.

That was fun. Maybe I’ll do it again soon. Stay tuned…

 

Album du jour: Anna Meredith, “Varmints”

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You may want to fasten your seatbelt before you start in on this album, lest you be blown out of your chair by the irresistible force of its opening track, a skipping, loping fanfare called “Nautilus.” One could well imagine it, rescored for standard symphonic instruments, lifting the lid on a classical concert, not to mention threatening to lift the lid off the concert hall.

And Anna Meredith could do the rescoring too, since she’s a bona fide classical composer, graduate of the Royal College of Music and former composer-in-residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. So, what’s a nice composer like Anna Meredith doing in the world of techno-pop? To quote from Laura Snapes’s profile of Meredith in the Guardian:

Eventually, though, Meredith decided that she wanted to explore an area that few classical composers tiptoe into: the pop world. To be more specific, the avant-synthpop and peak-time howlers of her debut album Varmints. She had grown frustrated by classical’s constraints, where months of work can climax in a single performance – and often to a sneery audience. “I don’t want to write music that people are enduring just to get to the Elgar in the second half,” she says wearily. She repeatedly highlights the snootiness during our gallery walkabout – an awareness that safeguards her own compositions. “I’ve got quite a pretentious-ometer running. If there’s ever a more direct way to say something, I’d rather do that. That’s what I’m asking myself the whole time: can you be braver, can you be bolder, can you be simpler?”

(Ms. Snapes, by the way, also gave “Varmints” a glowing review in the American indie music mag Pitchfork.)

Then again, Anna Meredith doesn’t just compose “nice” classical music, to judge from her best-known works, such as her big hit from the 2012 BBC Proms, a visually and aurally arresting spectacle called “HandsFree”:

Now, if I hadn’t known about Meredith’s background before listening to “Varmints,” would I have guessed that it was the work of a classically-trained composer? Probably not, especially during the approximately half of the album (e.g., “Taken,” “Something Helpful”) with a strong pop orientation, replete with melodic hooks and conventional pop vocals (some by Meredith herself). But on the big instrumentals, such as “R-Type,” “The Vapours” and the aforementioned “Nautilus,” the shaping, shading and invention of the music equals or excedes that of almost any techno artist now active. They also really rock. So for now, at least, classical’s loss is our gain. Check it out below or at Anna Meredith’s
Bandcamp page, where you can purchase “Varmints” on CD or vinyl with complimentary download.

Why choose bad sound when you can do better?

Which would you rather hang on your living room wall: A fine print of your favorite artwork, or a reproduction cut out of a magazine and blown up on a photocopier?

What would you rather dine on: A dish made from whole, fresh ingredients, or one made of processed foods and reconstituted freeze-dried vegetables?

As the late Christopher Hitchens was wont to put it, “to ask these questions is to answer them.”

Then why oh why, fellow music lovers, would you willingly settle for sound-reproducing technologies that strip the sound of its clarity, color, dynamics and beauty — the very qualities the musicians practiced for years to cultivate — when you can do better? In other words, why would you listen to your favorite music via MP3, when you can stream, download or purchase the music in far higher fidelity? Don’t you think that by doing the former you not only do yourself a disservice, but also do a disservice to the music and the musicians?

Yeah I know, I’ve been banging away on this topic (including in this blog post) almost as long and as tiresomely as Bernie Sanders has been blustering about billionaires. But this time, I’m going to put aside the analog vs. digital culture wars. If you really think vinyl records sound better than CDs, I will magnanimously permit you to go with what you prefer. What a guy, huh?

In the spirit of comity, let vinylphiles and digiheads unite against a common foe! MP3s and other “lossy” formats suck. They denude the music of its sound and its soul. While listening to MP3s does not by itself make you a bad person, it certainly arouses suspicion. What other crimes against humanity might you be committing? And where do you think all the digital bits stripped out of the music to make MP3s get dumped? Probably in some depressed minority neighborhood or third-world country. (OK, I made that last thing up.)

So, my non-negotiable demands: When either streaming or purchasing for download, don’t settle for MP3, any more than you would settle for just the “food” you can find at Aldi. Go for FLAC or other “lossless” audio formats. Here’s a good technogeek explanation. Not that its owner Jay-Z needs any more of our money, but I strongly recommend his Tidal service for hi-fi music streaming. I’ve done comparisons between Tidal and MP3-only Spotify — and there’s no comparison. And when purchasing music for download, stay away from iTunes. It only provides lousy alternatives. I’ll do a survey of download sites with better choices later this week.

Two qualifications: I’m not saying you have to buy super-fancy, super-expensive audio toys. You’ll notice the difference even with a decent inexpensive system or even a pretty good pair of headphones. Neither do you have to spring for “audiophile” 24-bit and other fancy download choices when offered. 16-bit FLAC is perfectly OK and costs less too.

The Brits have a wonderful expression that fits perfectly here: “The better is the enemy of the good.” In this case, MP3 and its crappy cousins are the enemy. It’s time to destroy them once and for all.

 

Album du jour: Jeffrey Biegel, Paul Phillips & the Brown University Orchestra, “Manhattan Intermezzo”

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Here’s the concept: Take four classical works for piano and orchestra by noted American and British non-classical musicians, apply first-rate musical talent and production values, and voilà! — as easy an album to recommend as has shot out of my loudspeakers in months.

The album title comes from its first track, composed in 2008 by — wait for it — pop legend Neil Sedaka. Before you roll you eyes, did you know that years before his hits, the young Sedaka earned a scholarship to Juilliard’s prep division as an aspiring virtuoso pianist? As far as subsequent career path is concerned, he made the right choice. I mean, the world has plenty of virtuoso pianists. But it has only one creator of “Calendar Girl,” “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” etc. ad gloriam.

Sedaka describes the work in question, “Manhattan Intermezzo,” as “a journey through the musical diversity of Manhattan. As a lifelong New Yorker, I wanted the audience to feel the spirit of the city, exploring its melting pot of nationalities. I tried to incorporate the sounds of the city where I was born: Latin, Asian, Russian, Broadway, and the New York of today and yesterday.” Playing like a medley of catchy tunes you think you should recognize but don’t, the “Intermezzo” (orchestrated with plenty of pizzazz by veteran all-around musician Lee Holdridge) exudes ingenuousness without ever devolving into kitsch. Just like Neil Sedaka’s great records.

We move then from the world of Brill Building pop to the galaxy of progressive rock — “prog” to its friends and enemies alike — with the 1977 Piano Concerto No. 1 (does anyone know of a Piano Concerto No. 2?) by Keith Emerson. You probably know Emerson best as keyboardist and chief composer for Emerson, Lake & Palmer, perhaps the foremost purveyors of musical excess in prog, a genre rarely celebrated for its restraint. (If you haven’t yet, please read David Weigel’s “Prog Spring,” a superb multi-part history of the genre for Slate.)

Compared with Neil Sedaka’s “Manhattan Intermezzo” which trods the easy path also trodden by such cinematic classics as the “Warsaw Concerto” (played by Valentina Lisitsa here) and the “Cornish Rhapsody” (played by Liberace here), Emerson’s Concerto has far higher aspirations. Why are you not surprised? The piece begins with a bleepin’ 12-tone row, for chrissake, although Emerson, once establishing his avant-garde bona fides, immediately moves on to more congenial Shostaprokofiev territory. The best of the Concertos three movements by far is the zesty and noisy third, “Toccata con fuoco” (“with fire”), where any pretense toward classical propriety is thrown overboard, except for the rather limp and unnecessary middle section. Memo to rockers who want to go classical: Keep it rocking. That’s what you do best, and that’s what classical music needs most from you.

Let me pause here to offer boundless and obsequious praise for the album’s solo pianist, Jeffrey Biegel. He’s got all the technical firepower anyone could want, and has all the tone color and suppleness of phrasing these works demand. What really stands out, however, and what unfortunately cannot be assumed of pianists with similar gifts, is the absolutely impeccable timing with which Jeffrey intereprets the vernacular rhythms when things get jazzy or start to rock. The lack of such timing has ruined many an attempt of classical musicians to “let their hair down,” and end up making fools of themselves in the process. Bravo!

Finally, a pair of rhapsodies from American musical immortals, Duke Ellington’s 1943 “New World A-Coming” (arranged by Maurice Peress) and George Gershwin’s 1924 “Rhapsody in Blue” (as orchestrated by Ferde Grofé). Why has the former never achieved the fame of the latter? Ellington’s is after all the more “significant” of the two, named for journalist Roi Ottley‘s eponymous book calling for racial equality. In his “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington,” biographer Terry Teachout offers this explanation: “Ellington was fond of the piece and performed it often in later years, but ‘New World A-Coming’ never caught on with the listening public, no doubt because it contained none of the indelible melodies that make it easier to forgive the twenty-five-year old George Gershwin his own youthful ignorance of how to put together a large-scale musical composition.”

Well, hardly any American works have the melodic appeal of “Rhapsody in Blue,” the only classical piece on ASCAP’s 1999 list of the most-performed songs and works of the 20th century (thanks in large part, no doubt, to its use in string of American Airlines commercials, the broadcasts of which count as “performances” in ASCAP’s lingo). On its own terms, “New World A-Coming” has plenty of elegant melodic charm and nostalgic (some might say dated) appeal. In the Ellington, Jeffrey Biegel recreates the cadenza improvised on a 1988 recording by the late jazz pianist Sir Roland Hanna. In the Gershwin, Jeffrey restores more than fifty measures of music deleted without Gershwin’s participation by Harms Music prior to the Rhapsody’s original publication. And he plays the living daylights out of both.

Oodles of kudos also to Paul Phillips, known locally as long-time maestro of the Pioneer Valley Symphony, and the occasionally overtaxed but very game musicians of the Brown University Orchestra. Once you get used to the less-than-fully-professional standard of playing, you can get back to enjoying the music. Score yourself a download here (go for the FLAC 16-bit — that’s an order!). It’s not on the streaming services yet, but Naxos subscribers can stream it here.