PACKAGES: Naxos of America has become the most active, and thus the most interesting, source of home media, both compact disc and DVD, as an outlet for a number of associated European labels. That number seems to be growing; it includes a veritable inundation of opera performances from European stages, where videocasting is apparently much more common than here if not necessarily more proficient. There is also a profusion of musical documentary material, some of which I’ve already written about. It’s difficult to keep up with the flood.
Here is a five-DVD package from Naxos, produced by Medici Arts, of composer-documentaries, priced at a dirt-cheap $49.99. Some of its content – Frank Sheffer’s “Labyrinth of Time,” an Elliott Carter piece that tells us little – has been around for a while. The rest is new to me, and wonderful. Pierre Boulez reconstructs his great work “Sur Incises,” a piece for three interlocked chamber ensembles, in front of a student group and then leads a performance. Olivier Messiaen spends time in the great Utah gorges that inspired his last great work, and discusses with captivating intensity his passion for the smaller creatures of God’s earth. In a series of short musical sketches the quiet joyousness of Arvo Pärt gradually takes shape. Philip Glass natters on and on, just like his music; toward the end of many long minutes, he and Bob Wilson afford us some of the wisdom in their wisest work, “Einstein on the Beach.”
It does not necessarily follow that the voice of composer, author or painter becomes the most expressive medium to convey the essence of an artistic conscience. For all the information we may glean from awareness that Philip Glass delivers words rapid-fire, as does Steve Reich by the way — as does much of their music — little more is added from awareness that Elliott makes (or used to make) the beds himself in the Carters’ apartment.
TICK TALK: You know, or should know, of Judith Tick as biographer of the important
composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, creator of a small heritage of important chamber music that good ensembles – the Arditti, Kronos — know to keep alive. Now she and her assistant editor Paul Beaudoin have created a truly awesome and significant volume with the modest title “Music in the United States” and the immodest ambition of serving as a “documentary companion” to the history of musical activity in this country drawn from actual evidence, from before it existed as a country until pretty much the day before yesterday. The fruit of their labors is large and lavish: 881+xxxviii pages weighing, in paperback, a smidge over five pounds. It’s published by Oxford, a step back from their last Music History fiasco.
What treasures! Our national musical history, in the writings of its perpetrators!. Here is Samuel Sewall’s Diary, he a judge of the Salem witches: “About midnight my dear wife expired, to our great astonishment, especially mine. May the Sovereign Lord pardon my sin…”
At the famous Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889. where Debussy first heard the music of Gamelan, there was also a concert of American music, and here is a certain Brument-Colleville (who didn’t make it to Slonimsky’s “Dictionary of Musical Invective”) on the subject of Edward MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto, dealing with the anomaly of an American composing classical music: “It is made to disgust you forever with the instrument so dear…One asks oneself is it really a piano playing, and not a mill for grinding out notes. God, it’s annoying!!”
Seventy years ago this week Arturo Toscanini braves the horrors of modern music, offering a broadcast world premiere of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” drawing down a favorable huff from the NYT’s Olin Downes and a storm of correspondence that kept the Times’ columns busy for weeks thereafter.
Here is Morty Feldman, in a book of his correspondence: “Usually my pieces begin maybe on the tenth measure, kind of getting into it…”
Again at the Times, Harold Schonberg, the Chief Critic who once hired me, takes an entire Sunday column to air his profound misunderstanding, couched in basic belligerence, of contemporary cultural trends. “Art is bunk…” this from a Times critic!
Of what use, you might ask, so ponderous a tome to a fireside reader? I used to think that, about Otto Erich Deutsch’s “documentary” companions to Mozart and Schubert. Then I let myself get hooked, on the newspaper reviews, travel clippings, small bits of info that let me get involved in the musical life of small and large cities in the lives of these composers and their friends, and whole panoramas opened up. Read the chapters in this book on the olden times; play the two great Angel discs by Anonymous 4 of old-timey American music, and sail away.
SUBLIME INDULGENCE: Sunday provided two concerts: the Schubert C-major Quintet in the afternoon; all six Brandenburg Concerti at night; what unknown Deity have I accidentally appeased lately? I have known about the Lark Conservatory and the musical activities it sponsors, especially the Dilijan Concert Series. I keep having to tell Movses Pogossian, the series’ artistic director and a terrific local violinist, that his this-and-that concert falls on the wrong date for me. This time the presence of the Schubert Quintet automatically made it the right date. Movses played second violin, with Guiillaume Sutre; Paul Coletti was the violist; Ronald Leonard and Antonio Lysy were the cellists. THEY EVEN TOOK THE FIRST- MOVEMENT REPEAT, bless them. Their playing of the slow movement had me clinging to my seat. I can’t remember a more beautiful chamber-music performance in this town in a very long time. Nobody from the Times was there. Earlier there was a new work, the Second Quartet by Ruben Albunyan (b. 1939), proficient, predictable in the “Schelomo” vein, ending exactly where it should. The next Dilijan concert, at Zipper, will be on December 21.
A few years ago, when the L.A. Chamber Orchestra played all the Brandenburgs I wrote that hearing them all in one whoop was like having my own box of Godiva chocolates, and the Godiva company sent me a box. Since then I’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, so let me say it’s more like having my own Mercedes. At the risk, however, of sounding a note of ingratitude in advance of delivery, conscience ordains a piece I must speak, a qualm that besets me along with the euphoria that usually accompanies my departure from LACO concerts. It has to do with mismatch: the robust sound of the modern flute against the harpsichord in the Fourth Brandenburg, conflicting with my memory of the exquisite balance in the same work in the recent Musica Angelica concert. I think we are at a new crisis where the halfway measures sort-of worked because of the excellent musicianship with bands like LACO. After all these years, however, I found myself last night cringing at the sound of LACO’s flutes in Bach. This has nothing to do with David Shostac and Susan Greenberg, whose playing I intensely admire. With the emergence of LACO under Jeff Kahaneas a superlative Mozart and Haydn orchestra, its activities as a Bach orchestra may need some reconsideration. I note with interest that some record company, maybe having exhausted all sensible reissue source materials, is planning a release of the ancient Brandenburg set by the Adolf Busch Chamber Players from the early ‘30s, the first recording in circulation with any pretense toward “authentic” performance. The most “authentic” element in that bulk two-album 78-rpm set was the presence of a high trumpeter in Brandenburg 2; his name was George Eskdale, and he played elegantly and stylishly (not show-offishly as David Washburn did last night and then multiplied the sin in an even-faster encore repeat). Otherwise, Rudolf Serkin played continuo on the piano; the flutes were just flutes, and, in those days – which were also my days – we all thought they sounded simply terrific, authentic, the real thing. Tempora mutantur, et nos in illis, as we used to intone in the corridors of Boston Latin School.