Stephen Sondheim, Ruth Slenczynska, and Sabine Devieilhe

Still thinking about the late, great Stephen Sondheim, who, it seemed, sort of scored my life, and is responsible for many great evenings as an audience member for me (and challenging ones as a piano player). Hard to pick a favorite, but Sunday in the Park would probably be it (at least for now), even though I don’t think I’ve ever seen a completely successful production.

This one from Paris comes close, however. Here is the moving final tableau.

Ruth Slenczynska is a pianophile’s pianist: a prodigy who after having many of the positives and negatives of that experience, didn’t play in public for some years, coming back to an second act as a regular recitalist and studio artist, but not a performer who became a household name. She now has an amazing Act III, as she has recorded a new album of piano works for release in March 2022. Did I mention that she is now 97? Her teachers included Alfred Cortot and Sergei Rachmaninoff. She played canasta with Vladimir Horowitz, and was student at Curtis with among others Samuel Barber.

Here is a delightful video with her. And there are recitals, performances, interviews all over the web.

Finally, Gramophone went crazy over a new Bach and Handel recording by the French soprano Sabine Devieilhe. I checked it out, and it is as beautiful a recording of Handel in particular that I’ve heard in years, since Sarah Connolly’s wonderful Hero and Heroines album of some years back.

A taste:

Web Rabbit Hole: Igor Levit to Charlotte Selver

The web is often something I lament these days (remember when it was going to bring world peace and all the world’s intellectual riches within reach.) But there are some rabbit holes I find enjoyable to disappear down, to wit:

Inspired by Igor Levit, one of my favorite pianists of the younger generation, I was inspired to look up jazz artist Fred Hersh, as Igor played a piece of his in a great Wigmore Hall recital.

I followed the thread and found lots of great stuff including Fred’s lovely performance of his own composition, “Valentine,” and an interview, where he talks about, among other things, teaching and learning, mentioning in passing his 30 years of study with Sophia Rosoff. This was a name new to me—and a few further clicks revealed a fascinating character. She was a New York City piano teacher, trained classically, but a mentor to many jazz musicians.

Ethan Iverson is one of those musicians, and his wife Sarah Deming wrote a profile of Sophia that turned up additonal paths. She describes an afternoon at Sophia’s in which, among others, the Jazz great Barry Harris shows up. Harris, who just died at 91, was perhaps the last of that pianist of that lineage, and played a wonderful concert during at a residency of a few days when I was in college in the 80s and led weekly music workshops for most of his life.

That connection would have been enough, but it turns out that Sophia was also a student of Abby Whiteside, a piano teacher with an unusual following, in part because of Whiteside’s book Mastering the Chopin Etudes (a straightforward title for a book that tries to convey her ideas about the centrality of rhythm and the body’s expression of same in music making). Her prose, to me at least, is pretty vague, although in fairness writing with any specificity about the physical nature of playing a musical instrument is perhaps an impossible task. Had she been a great writer, she might not have been a great teacher. I first encountered her book around 15 years ago and have been puzzling it out on my own ever since. No sign of mastering the Etudes here, but she is a fascinating character to me because her views seem to go against the current of every piano lesson I’ve ever had, conventionally for piano lessons fingers are where it’s at. In Abby’s view, you don’t play the piano with your fingers, you make music with your whole body, and your fingers merely express what the entire mechanism is doing rhythmically. (Shades of another great piano pedagogue’s advice “Minimum effort, maximum sensitivity”.) Sophia is a direct connection to Abby, serving on her foundation, and kept her teaching philosophy alive—one that Barry Harris endorsed.

With this I though the journey of names and ideas would be over, but there was still one more. Charlotte Selver is a name I knew because the place my spouse and I go to vacation every year is a small island off midcoastal Maine. It has been a destination for painters (Rockwell Kent among others), but also for Charlotte Selver, a NYC educator who created a program called “Sensory Awareness,” an NYC-based human potential movement, which she brought to Maine among other places. After Abby died Sophia began to work with Sensory Awareness and became a follower of Charlotte. Why all these threads, from Igor Levit to Charlotte Selver come together is curious, but it a pleasant pastime to be able to find the links and puzzle them out.

West Side Stories at the Movies and a Golden Voice of Today

As those who follow musical theater know, Steven Spielberg’s new film of ‘West Side Story’ was recently released. Getting mixed reviews, it has also renewed interest in the first film version, from 1961, directed by Robert Wise when all those remarkable creators, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, and Stephen Sondheim were still alive.

Omicron has kept me from seeing the new version in a theater, which judging by the trailer, is the best venue. The droll and insightful Mark Kermode gives it a mostly favorable review, though others have been hard on the film and/or the original material. Adam Mars-Jones cavil does seem plausible as he points out that adding an interracial romance is “a development that drives a coach and horses through the entire plot. If interracial marriage is no big deal then what is there left of West Side Story? Not much.”

I haven’t seen much mention of Bernstein’s own recording of the score made in 1984, and derided at the time for its use of famous opera singers, then considered vanity casting for a vain self-indulgent composer-conductor. The New Republic review of the recording sneered “Upper West Side Story” in its headline. It’s now a classic (at least by my lights), not to replace the Broadway Original Cast Album but to stand beside it as a great composer’s authoritative thoughts on one of the century’s best musicals.

A doc on the making of the recording was put out at the time, and bits and pieces of it turn up on YouTube.

The doc’s most famous sequence is José Carreras struggling to handle the complexities of ‘Something’s Coming.’ But listen to Kiri Te Kanawa and Tatiana Troyanos singing “A Boy Like That & I Have a Love” for some glorious vocalism. It’s also amazing to watch the composer’s regular producer John McClure do his job. Managing all the moving parts of recording a complicated score is a big lift under any circumstance, with Bernstein it was sometimes herculean, and John was on the receiving end of his fair share snappish Lenny moments, judging by this film. Yet they made some 200 records together.


Speaking of golden age talents like Te Kanawa and Bernstein, for fans of glorious voices I recommend the New Year’s Eve concert presented by the Munich Radio Orchestra with star tenor Javier Camarena. It’s full of old chestnuts (fans of ‘Granada’ and ‘Nessun Dorma’ will not be disappointed) as well as delightful zarzuela numbers, all delivered with honeyed tone, superb diction and high notes that gave me goosebumps. The band and their conductor, Ivan Repušic, acquit themselves beautifully as well.  I don’t know how long BR-Klassik will keep it live, so if operatic tenors are your thing, check it out now.

Tenor Javier Camarena thrills with the Munich Radio Orchestra for New Year’s Eve 2021-22

Edith Hamilton on Education

Spotted in the TLS:

It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought – that is to be educated.

And also on the literary life, there’s a charming cartoon by Brooke Barker about how her grandmother, a voracious reader, finally took on Will and Ariel Durant.

Conducting Words 2: Power vs. Authority

Another excerpt from The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters.

Power often works through fear and can force people to act against their will, through status or physical strength. But authority functions through respect and persuades others to respond voluntarily simply through personal influence. If conductors ever have to ask musicians to watch or listen to them it is normally too late to have any effect. The cliché of tapping the stand with the baton in order to attract attention has long since become outdated, and an orchestra will never deeply engage with you purely because of a conventional hierarchy that some might assume exists. In as creative and human field as music, it is authority–not power–that is more successful in creating a genuine performance of quality. In the long run, even if it looks less impressive, control without oppression accomplishes far more. Power damages relationships, and its trappings rarely last for ever. Natural authority, one that stops short of being authoritarian, empowers others and lasts a lifetime. Those blessed with it stay in charge for longer than those whose leadership is circumstantial.

Mark Wigglesworth
Thomas Beecham–a conductor whose charm and humor endured over a long career full of wonderful performances.

Conducting Words: The Impossible Job

Just finished Mark Wigglesworth’s The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters, which is a sort of apologia for that sometimes maligned profession (‘the phoniest job in music’ in the words of one mid-century British critic). Conducting, as anybody who has played in an orchestra, sung in a chorus or performed in a musical or opera, emphatically does matter–something paradoxically proven when things go off the rails.

Cover of Why Conducting Matters

Wigglesworth’s personal account is candid about the job’s pleasures and difficulties, insightful and personal (rare that, as many conductors don’t disclose much, preferring perhaps to preserve the mystery). It’s a fun read for any fan of orchestral concerts and budding conductors. Many quotable bits, but I liked this from the final chapter entitled “Conducting Yourself.”

I once asked some players to write down what they looked for in a conductor. There collated response revealed a daunting job description.

Conductors need good baton technique, rehearsal technique, musicianship, knowledge, interpretive conviction, an ability to communicate, to stretch and challenge people, to make the performance better than the rehearsals, to be inspirational, have a good ear, clear thoughts, reliability, competence, rhythm, an expressive face, sense of structure, ability to accompany, style, suitability for the repertoire, originality, knowledge string bowing, an ability to collaborate, analyze and solve difficulties, explain why things need to be repeated, empower people, train people, make people listen. They must not talk, over-rehearse, under-rehearse, or be musically detached. They must have good manners, humor, respect, approachability, enthusiasm, encouragement, humility, positive spirit, patients, leadership, sincerity, audibility, creativity, and an awareness of everyone, strength, self-control, and strength, of character. They must be relaxed, self-confident, empathetic, punctual, motivating, polite, authoritative, realistic, interesting, charismatic, persevering, committed, well-dressed, and even-tempered. They must be popular with audiences, and show chastity, poverty, and obedience to the score. They must not be egocentric, intimidating, sarcastic, rude, boring, nervous, bullying, ugly, smelly, over-familiar, detached, pedantic, cynical, insecure, or blinkered. They must not change things for the sake of it, glare at mistakes, or hit the stand.

Wigglesworth closes this passage with “I am glad I have never hit the stand.”

I’ve certainly not met a conductor who checked all those boxes (although many were fun to sing for). Judging by this enjoyable intro to an English National Opera Magic Flute a few years back Wigglesworth probably meets many of these requirements. He certainly is a fine conductor and a modest one.

Ian Sansom on Auden

Recently finished September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem, writer and teacher Ian Sansom (of the delightful Mobile Library mystery series) giving a quirky, personal and finally quite illuminating take on the famous Auden poem (perhaps infamous, as Auden himself more or less disowned it). Lots of bits for commonplacing, but I particularly liked this passage, riffing on how Auden is addressing the average man in the street:

“…Of course, things could be even worse for the ‘average.’ A recent paper published in the Journal of Positive Psychology analysing the appearance and frequency of words related to moral excellence and virtue in American books published between 1901 and 2000 found a decline in the use of general moral terms such as ‘virtue’ and ‘conscience’. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that we no longer have a shared moral framework, but it may mean that we’re beginning to lack the vocabulary to describe it.)

Our changing understanding of what it might mean to be ‘average’ perhaps indicates a crisis in how we think and talk about the social contract, about how we think and talk about each other–what makes us similar, what binds us together, and what constitutes a culture, a democracy and a commonweal.

And that crisis, I think, is already apparent in Auden’s use of ‘average’.

It is both the glory and the shame of poetry that its medium is not its private property, that a poet cannot invent his words and that words are products, not of nature, but of a human society which uses them for a thousand different purposes.'  (Auden, 'Writing')

(Now, I am perfectly aware that all this might sound like just so much hogwash and hooey, an example of what the late great Gilbert Adair liked to refer to as ‘the Tardis doctrine of criticism’, the ludicrous idea that ‘within a single detail, a detail as humble and as measurable as a telephone booth, there may be contained a whole world’, but I suppose I am a bit of a critical Whovian and I happen to think that ‘average’ is one of those telephone booth-type words, or a trapdoor, or a portal; I think it leads to all sorts of strange and dark places.)

Matters Musical

There is such a wealth of music online now, but I’ve been taking in Igor Levit’s daily house concert, a graduate course in Beethoven, and marvelous pianism despite less than ideal recording circumstances.

And among many collaborative bits I’ve heard online recently, this performance of the opening of the CPE Bach Magnificat from Salzburg is particular hoot. (As the friend who sent it suggested, PDQ Bach’s spirit was clearly involved as well).

A Voyage Around My Room

I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought, just now, of the small genre of stories of being cooped up. There are several I have encountered over the years, including “Voyage Around My Room” of Xavier de Maistre, written in 1790, while he was house arrest in Turin. Nice Guardian article here, and the opening of the book below. You can read the whole thing on various public domain sites.

What is more glorious than to open for one’s self a new career, — to appear suddenly before the learned world with a book of discoveries in one’s hand, like an unlooked for comet blazing in the  empyrean! No longer will I keep my book in obscurity. Behold it, gentlemen; read it! I have undertaken and performed a forty- two days’ journey round my room. The interesting observations I have made, and the constant pleasure I have experienced all along the road, made me wish to publish my travels; the certainty of being useful decided the matter. And when I think of the number of unhappy ones to whom I offer a never-failing resource for weary moments, and a balm for the ills they suffer, my heart is filled with inexpressible satisfaction. The pleasure to be found in travelling round one’s room is sheltered from the restless jealousy of men, and is independent of Fortune.

The opening of Voyage autour de ma chambre
A rather fancier room than I am traveling around. “Drawing Room of the Plas. Spa” by Julien Muère, and in the Met collection.

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