Home Away From Home

Home, to Sir Simon Rattle, is the familiar musical repertory we most often
hear at concerts and on the radio, music from the 19th century or before, when
the tunes and the harmonies were friendly and set the mind at rest. Leaving
is the television series that Rattle and some friends dreamed up at
the BBC some years ago, to tell where music has gone since then. Produced in
1996, the series is now being released here on ArtHaus DVD and is, I think,
the best package of music-plus-information I have yet come across on any medium.
One of the “friends” who worked on the series, by the way, was the late Sue
Knussen, who later came here in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s education department.
Those of us who came to love her in her time here will, I think, recognize her
spirit and her remarkable level of imagination in these programs.

There are seven, each lasting 50 minutes. Rattle is at the center of each, with
his City of Birmingham Orchestra. His eyes skewer you to your seat as he talks
with spellbinding intensity about the directions that music has followed through
the 20th century. He traces the unfolding of rhythm, starting (as expected)
with the ecstatic outbursts in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring but moving
further afield toward Steve Reich’s purely rhythmic concoctions and the wild
mechanical creations of Conlon Nancarrow’s player-piano rolls. On another episode
he steers us through the dark passions of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle,
the tortured elegies of the late Shostakovich. The great Polish composer Witold
Lutoslawski is on hand to join Rattle in an explanation of his ideas on chance
music, the technique of allowing performance choices to be decided in part by
the players themselves.

One program is all about American music, a topic I entrust to British speakers
only with extreme hesitation. This one is gorgeous, however, starting with Gershwin’s
Rhapsody through the lithe curve of pianist Wayne Marshall’s playing,
and continuing on with a splendid collage of short works (Feldman, Carter, Ives,
Copland’s Appalachian Spring with Martha Graham’s first dancers, Cage,
and the smallest shard of West Side Story) set against New England autumnal
scenes of heartbreaking beauty. The whole 50 minutes becomes a tone poem about
American music, an achievement in itself.

The marvel of these programs – the three that have been released so far (by
Naxos) and the four on the way – is their extraordinary success in reaching
a level of seriousness and importance that is informative, valuable and totally
free from condescension. This is a rare happenstance. People my age were supposed
to go all weepy at the reissue, several months ago, of a large box of Leonard
Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts, and those discs are
supposed to rekindle all the first things we ever learned about music, on top
of which all our future artistic wisdom has been erected. I respectfully bow
out; these programs are riddled with misinformation, glibly delivered and intended
to establish points about musical history or sonata form or what-have-you that
are simply wrong. For all the famous Lenny charm, a quality arguable at best,
I find these programs next to unwatchable. Thirty-eight years separate the first
of the Lenny series from these excellent essays by Simon Rattle and his musical
forces. Let that stand, then, as a measure of civilization’s advance in those

Words, Words

What makes it great? asks Rob Kapilow about Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony,
but he leaves the question, alas, unanswered. Composer, pianist, lecturer, former
student (at 19) of the legendary Nadia Boulanger, the first-ever licensee granted
access to the words of Dr. Seuss, leader of the “What Makes It Great Players,”
Kapilow has somehow not crossed my path up to now, although I understand that
he sets up shop at the Cerritos Center now and then. His “What Makes It Great”
number on Mozart’s Symphony, issued on Vanguard’s “Everyman” Classics, is at
hand. On it he talks his way through selected passages of the “Jupiter” Symphony.
Once in a while he will identify a previously mentioned theme as “bub-bub-bup,”
so that we will know what he’s referring to. About halfway through the first
movement, just before the first appearance of one of the juiciest themes, he
gives up and moves on to the second movement. That strikes me as strange. Maybe
there wasn’t room on the disc for discussion of the whole symphony, although
the theme he leaves out is one of the things that makes the “Jupiter” Symphony
great, or so it seems to me. The point is: Discs are cheap and easy to make,
and you don’t need to have much going for you nowadays to turn out lousy product
like this. (The actual performance of the “Jupiter” on the disc is a Vanguard
recording first issued in 1960.) I understand that quite a few people buy tickets
to Rob Kapilow’s lectures, and that makes me wonder what makes him great.

You don’t need the 29 volumes of the latest Grove’s Dictionary, and you
can probably squeak by without the six volumes of the New Oxford History
of Western Music.
But everybody feels kindly toward penguins these days,
and the Penguin Companion to Classical Music is by some distance the
best single-volume reference I have ever encountered. Paul Griffiths is its