30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 29, The “seance” of music history

A TLS review of a new music book caught my eye, as it began, “Everything you know about the history of popular music is, in the view of Greil Marcus, most likely wrong.”

Paul Genders follows with a nice precis of Marcus’ argument:

[The] official, non-secret history referred to is the strictly chronological one: of jazz, blues and country giving rise to Elvis Presley, who gave rise to The Beatles, who changed everything – and the evolution has continued, with next year’s sounds emerging out of this year’s, in neat linear fashion. The problem is, of course, that the music itself doesn’t work nearly as prosaically as that narrative suggests. A great piece of popular music is less a “progression of the form” from an earlier work than a “rediscovery of a certain spirit”, or even a “step out of time”; this is an artistic medium best understood not as a sequence of forward manoeuvres but as “a drama of direct and spectral connections” between performers at different moments in history. We have “no reason to be responsible to chronology”, says Marcus, when considering something that moves as mysteriously as rock ’n’ roll.

I love this, and would only add that it’s as true of “classical” music as it is of rock ‘n’ roll. Although the time span goes on a little longer, the official history is still peddling a similar progression: baroque, to classical, to romantic schools, with Beethoven, who gave rise to Wagner, who “changed everything” serving as Elvis and the Beatles.

In fact, progression in music– maybe in any art form?–isn’t ‘forward’ –it’s multidimensional, and performers and composers are always waging restoration and revolution on their predecessors and successors. Does Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre” sound old or new? Is it still new primitive or is it old primitive now? Or consider his once derided opera “The Rake’s Progress,” which converses spectrally with Hogarth, Auden, Kalman, classical and bel canto musical forms, mid-20th century harmony, and, among others, via the medium of Dawn Upshaw, one of the great singers of yet another era.

Here is her performance of the soliloquy, “No Word From Tom,” at once an old-fashion scene and aria, and music that could have been written yesterday or tomorrow.

30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 28, In Praise of One Own’s Time (2)


Rosa Ponselle, considered the greatest soprano of the 20th century. She was no Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient,

Longing for the “good ole days” is particularly prevalent in opera. I’ve come to see such nostalgia as silly, even corrosive in large amounts. After all, “the end [of opera] has always been nigh,” as Rupert Christiansen put it in a recent issue of Opera, going on to point out that “in 1834, Richard Mount Edgcumbe was unmoved by Pasta or Malibran and complained that he ‘never expected to hear again…any new music, or new singers, that will make me amends for those which are gone’; in 1906 (considered the heart of one of opera’s many golden ages), W.J. Henderson was lamenting ‘that the race of beautiful singers is diminishing with every year, and in its place there is growing up a generation of harsh, unrefined, tuneless shouters.” Guess that included Ponselle, who was 6 in 1905, Caruso, who was at the height of his powers, Claudio Muzio, Farrar, Journet, McCormack, et al and many more. Now of course these singers are dubbed the best who ever lived, and used to spank the current crop as, “tuneless unmusical shouters” or worse.

Well, there are spectacular talents in our midst; here is one I heard just recently at the Kennedy Center, the young South African soprano Pretty Yende, getting her coloratura on in a Rossini scena.
She is a natural on stage, totally communicative, and it’s also remarkable that her voice is not only fluent and supple, but huge. (Coloratura sopranos often trade agility for tonal richness and full sound, Yende, like many of the greats she is compared with and may well take a place beside, has both). She also communicates things via singing that you don’t get any other way, and believes every moment.

Oh, and she’s 29.

30 Days of Musical Tidbits, Day 25, In Praise of One’s Own Time

So much classical musical blather is about how “it used to be better.” I have done my bit in this department, and to atone will wrap up this month with wonderful performers who are active now. Today, for example, I encountered this delight, by pianist I didn’t know, Antonio Pompa-Baldi, from a tribute album to Poulenc and Piaf.

Here’s the album, talk about music with a subtle smile, and charm and style for days.


Beautiful Picture: Diagram of A Newspaper Office, 1922

Check out this fascinating 1922 diagram of the long gone Washington Star‘s building on Penn. Ave in DC. Linked from “Ghosts of DC” where you can find the full file with amazing detail. Quite a sizable library! But the noise from the linotype room, just above the writers, must have been intense–and I assume the whole building shook when the presses were running. Not something that happens with a blog, alas.


30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 23, Magda Olivero

The cult of the operatic diva is one of the things that makes outsiders to opera a little curious (or put off, even). Although smitten in my past with certain singers, I am mostly past that stage, for better or worse. By midlife, you sort of find yourself saying, “they don’t make divae like they used to.” Even if this is perhaps not an entirely bad thing, when one of the genuine articles departs, it’s something to note.

The soprano Magda Olivero was one of these inimitable ones. She died this September at age 104, and Ira Siff captures what she was all about in his Opera News appreciation, well worth reading. Here is an excerpt from his tribute, describing her Met debut at an age when many opera singers are long since out to pasture in Bloomington or some such place.


But it was not until 1975, at the instigation of her great admirer Marilyn Horne, that the Met finally invited Magda Olivero for three performances as Tosca. She made her debut soon after her sixty-fifth birthday. Although the audience was wildly demonstrative, this was no mere nostalgia event. After a few minutes to warm up and conquer nerves, Olivero’s voice was astonishingly fresh, shedding decades by Act II. At the second performance, this listener was treated to the most touching, spectacularly sung “Vissi d’arte” of his experience. During Act III, Olivero’s ascent to a spectacular, lengthy high C and plunge down two octaves into chest voice on the line “Io quella lama” earned her a spontaneous ovation. This old-school audience response was inspired by the artist’s old-school stage deportment; it was an evening that, in the best sense, turned back the clock whenever she was onstage. Olivero’s total belief in the reality of the drama prevented her performances from ever being reduced to shtick. And her prodigious technique and breath control spoke of a bygone era, but one in which she was unique among veristas, none of whom matched her vocal capabilities.

You can find a pirate of the Vissi d’arte in question online, as well as the NYTimes notice.

Oddly, I found this bit of “The Cherry Duet” from L’Amico Fritz from some Italian TV show more touching, not least for the smile in her voice that her sweet toned tenor evokes.

It’s all a bit odd, and not voices that you’d cast today; (nor would you hear an opera duet on a general interest TV show for that matter.) But you feel with her, and with him too, that you know a bit about them through their singing, and that bit you know is authentic.

30 Days of Musical Tidbets: Day 22

Yes, I realize I have got to catch up with my daily posts, and for today a terrific performance of Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango” arranged for 4-hand piano by husband and wife team Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung.

duetsFour-hand keyboard music, although great fun to play, is often anything but fun to listen to for others. The piano is, after all, a percussion instrument, and getting the rhythm perfectly in sync–particularly for pianists, who, let’s face it, can be a little wayward in the counting department–is tricky.

But this is a model of how it’s done. (And also of the intimacy of 4-hand, which made it such a stand in for flirting in 19th century fiction).

Another magical piece in this repertoire is Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, here with the starry pair of Lang and Argerich.

30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 20, Cheapskate’s Guide to Live Classical Performances

Cost is often something that scares people away from classical concerts. The “brand” for lack of a better word, seems pretty tony, and people automatically assume that tickets for live performances will be out of reach.

Although some tickets for famous performers at big venues are indeed pricy (although not necessarily more so than those of other live events), there are lots of ways to hear classical music less expensively. Here are a few I use, and I’m sure there are others.

Symphony Hall: Famous Friday afternoon concert "Rush Line" waiting chance for unreserved seat

Symphony Hall: Famous Friday afternoon concert “Rush Line” waiting chance for unreserved seat

Reduced-cost “day of” tickets. Many classical organizations have rush or discount tickets and if you can spare the time to get to the venue early, you may get a very good seat for less than a movie ticket. I attended a lot of Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts this way. Check the web sites for the policies (often called “rush tickets” and sometimes limited to students).

Meet-Up and Online Newsletters In DC, there is a very active classical music Meet-Up, which frequently has offers for discounted tickets. Through that resource, I found out about a Kennedy Center mailing list you can join for notice of last minute deals for unsold tickets and sometimes deep discounts on advance sales. Look for these kinds of resources in your areas: in addition to Meet-Ups, these sort of resources can be associated with a venue, an individual company, or a presenter. Of course, they want your email in return and the right to market to you, but if it’s relevant info, it’s a perhaps a reasonable trade.

Ushering/volunteering This is not particularly my thing, as I’m fairly promiscuous in my musical tastes and don’t want to spend say every Thursday at the symphony. But people I know have found it a practical way to hear a lot of good music (or see theater for that matter).

Trusting to luck Just showing up an hour early at a hall and seeing if somebody has a ticket to give away is a risky practice. I would not recommend it for a concert you have your heart set on. But it has worked for me. Ticket resale is sort of a murky practice at many venues, but giving away an extra is kosher, so some people prefer to do that, even for sold out shows.

Conservatories and Music Departments’ OfferingsIf there are musical education organizations in your community, check out their free concerts. Elite outfits, like Indiana University and its world class opera program, or the amazing string faculty at New England Conservatory give performances that are deeply satisfying experiences. But even if you aren’t lucky enough to be near programs like those, it’s likely that there will be music worth hearing in your community, be it at a school, a religious or community organization, or another non-profit. They will be happy to have you: musicians want to perform!

Roll your own I have turned from a critic to a participant over the years, and now play chamber music with friends and sing in amateur ensembles more often than attending concert. Opportunities abound and they are rewarding in themselves, and also frequently lead to chances to hear other concerts. Even if you are not a musician yourself, informal house concertsare cropping up all over, and these can be nice ways to experience music.

With all the money you save going to free or low cost shows, you can consider funding that once-in-a-lifetime concert going experience. Most music lovers have a “dream list.” A friend of mine wants to go the New Year’s in Vienna concert at the Musikverein. I’m content with watching that one on TV, but if you know a cheap way to get to La Scala, Bayreuth, Teatro Colón, or the Berliner Philharmoniker, let me know!