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!

30 Days of Music Tidbits: Day 18, Industrial Musicals

Despite knowing all of West Side Story and My Fair Lady by heart as well as living and dying by Sondheim. I had never heard of the phenomenon of the “industrial musical.” Turns out during the mid-20th-century heyday of the art form, companies commissioned musical theater creators to do custom shows for their sales meetings etc.

There is a new book about this odd phenomena and it looks pretty wonderful. From a blurb on their website:

industrial musicals

Through the rare souvenir record albums presented in EVERYTHING’S COMING UP PROFITS, an alternate show-biz universe emerges: a universe in which musical theater can be about selling silicone products, or typewriters, or insurance, or bathtubs. Some of these improbable shows were hilariously lame. Some were pretty good. And some were flat-out fantastic.


I guess the practice didn’t die out completely. In 2006, there was a musical at the Wal-Mart share holder meeting. I bet Equity artists were NOT invited.

30 Days of Musical Tidbits, Day 17: Quick tips for preparing your written materials: A guide for performing classical musicians.

Over years of steady (if part-time) work as a music journalist and as program annotator, I’ve read a lot of résumés, bio-sketches, programs, web sites etc. for classical musicians. They are sometimes, even often, a bit of a mess, felled by typographical errors, out of date copy, fuzzy writing, and unusable visual or other resources.

They don’t do the job of presenting the artist in a clear, engaging way, and certainly don’t help the harried program note preparer or music critic find a needed fact and get on with it.

In the spirit of helping (with what is admittedly one of the world’s less pressing problems) here are some tips on improving editorial materials for classical artists (with singers in mind specifically).

1. Establish a set of consistent, and easily updated editorial materials and keep them fresh. Go for quality over quantity, both for your sake and those of your readers. I would recommend a résumé, and at most a bio in two flavors, short and long. Be strategic about the way the bio is written: build it out in modular sections  that can be swapped out and supplemented when there are new things to add, rather than requiring a redo from scratch.

2. Keep track of versions of documents by clearly naming and dating them (in both the file name and inside the doc). A file naming convention is good, for instance Violetta_Valery_Bio_Short_11_14_14.docx. Note the filename, author of the doc and important details right in the document as well.

3. Make it as easy as possible for all involved to tell at a glance whether materials are up to date and what to do if they aren’t.  Nothing wastes time (and annoys editors) like trying to determine which of 3 or 4 different versions of bios flying around as email attachments should be used for a program. One approach is to write something like “Violetta Valery’s s bio was last updated 11/17/14. Please check, http://www.allaboutvioletta.com for the latest version).  Alternately, you can just say something like this, “This biography valid for the 2014-2015 season only, see the web site for more info” and make a point to do an annual update. Importantly, if you have doubts about your ability to keep the web site up, be realistic with yourself, and don’t set up expectations you can’t meet.

4. Avoid excessive revision. Good: an opera singer slightly reworking a bio to emphasize her achievements in song as she prepares to make her debut in a distinguished lieder series. Bad, completely rewriting a bio because you got cast as the cover Marullo for a big opera company. Also, while it’s reasonable to present the best possible take on your background, don’t lie and don’t inflate. Singing “Ines” in a volunteer performance of Trovatore at Una Volta Opera Company of West Pitchfork, Montana, is all well and good, but does not a major credit make. Arts editors and presenters are savvy readers and can generally read through pad and discern what credits actually mean for the career in question. Don’t oversell or undersell yourself.

“Chicago,” not the musical, the authoritative style guide.

5. Choose and abide by a consistent copy-editing style. This is simple to describe although not so simple to do. It means applying consistent rules for things like the capitalization of titles, names of composers, working with foreign terms, abbreviations, etc.  Style guides also specify which choice should be made when several options are acceptable (form of titles, writing out numbers, certain spellings, use of the serial comma, the way sources should be cited etc.) Newspapers frequently use the Associated Press Style Book. Academe typically uses a style guide specific to the discipline or the big kahuna of style guides, The Chicago Manual of Style. None of these is targeted to the needs of practicing performing artists and presenters (as far as I know, there is not a resource tailored to this task). If that’s all too much for you, just make sensible rules for yourself and follow them. (Keep track somewhere of your decisions.)

6. Set reasonable expectations of yourself and enlist others to help. If writing and updating these materials is not a strength, don’t sweat it. There is probably an English major in your life who would be happy to help. I’ve flirted with the idea of starting a service to help with this–although in truth, I’m not much of a copyeditor. (Extra points to readers if they can spot all of the inconsistencies and other errors in this post!) Professional writers at all levels have editors, so it’s certainly no shame to ask for help on your materials.

6. Provide a range of photographs in usable formats. Print requires higher resolution photos (300 dpi or greater is preferable) and for a large photo, this may make it inconvenient for emailing. Provide a print and digital-friendly format of key photos (again, don’t go overboard) on your site for download (or in a cloud resource). Provide a caption and a photo credit, and explain any restrictions on use. Make other media (audio clips, video) as easy to use as possible (for instance, making sure it can be embedded).

7. Abide by copyright and other IP requirements. Don’t use materials without permission and don’t put your presenters in the position of inadvertently using copyrighted materials unlawfully. Just because it’s on the web and can be downloaded, doesn’t mean it’s okay to use in your press kit or materials you submit for a program. Also, “fair use,” is a complicated issue, in that it is a decision that is dependent on a number of relative factors, one of which being whether there is any commercial interest involved. Given that marketing and promotion are implicit in a singer’s biographical and other materials, there is a risk in assuming that material could be used on a fair use basis automatically.

7. Be on time and responsive. There are a lot of things to juggle for artists, god knows, but stay on top of this, and don’t let the line go dead on this topic. Many presenters and program editors pull their hair out waiting for long-requested materials, or holding a spot to accommodate a program change or bio update. Playbill–and most other publications–fine presenters for late material, and, of course, late changes breed opportunities for errors. Managing things in a timely fashion will be enormously appreciated, as will be being forthright when problems come up. A practical example: if you can’t get a program note you had hoped to write done in time, call and explain yourself. That will give enough time to consider a “plan B” (for instance, doing a Q&A on the program that can be pulled together in two days). Just hiding in a bunker and not answering email for two weeks risks making a minor glitch into a major hassle.

Your editorial materials are not the most important part of your tasks, certainly, but handle them professionally from the get go and they’ll add polish to your presentation, save everybody some time and headaches, and might even open some unexpected doors.

30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 14, Hector Berlioz

Writing on music is a fraught business:

“If a literary man puts together two words about music, one of them will be wrong.”–Aaron Copland, (author of some books of his own on music, plainspoken style but still very readable). Elvis Costello also put in his two cents, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (At least that’s a possibility…)

But there is one writer on music who is dancing all the time and a marvel of style, Hector Berlioz, who was also a critic, author of a book on orchestration, and avid correspondent (as was Verdi, whose letters are a treasure).

Berlioz wrote a long, rollicking, and moving memoir. (If not factually reliable in all regards about the man, it still captures truth about the composer.) It is also a ring-side seat for a lively era in music history, with a chatty wit, who was full of opinions and who knew everybody and traveled everywhere for a companion.

You can dip in anywhere, but here is his account of the first performance of his earth-shattering Requiem, and the near disaster that befell one of his most wondrous effects, the entrance four brass choirs that create the sound of the “last trumpet” in the Dies Irae.

Now listen very carefully.

Hector_SizedMy performers were divided in a number of groups at some distance from each other. This is necessary for the four orchestras of brass instruments which I have used in the Tuba mirum, and which must each be placed at one corner of the large mass of singers and players. At the point where they make their entry, at the start of the Tuba mirum which follows the Dies irae without a break, the tempo broadens to half its previous speed. All the brass instruments enter in the new tempo, first all together, then in dialogue with each other in successive entries each a third higher than the previous one. It is therefore of the utmost importance to indicate clearly the four beats of the bar at the moment when they come in. Without that, this awesome musical cataclysm, so carefully prepared, where exceptional and tremendous means are used in proportions and combinations never attempted before or since, this picture of the Last Judgement, which will, I hope, live on as a great landmark in our art – all this is in danger of resulting in an enormous and dreadful cacophony.

Because of my habitual suspicion, I had posted myself behind Habeneck. [The conductor] With my back to his, I was watching the group of timpani players, which he could not see, as the moment approached when they were to take part in the general mêlée. There are perhaps a thousand bars in my Requiem. At precisely the point I have been speaking of, when the tempo broadens and the brass instruments launch their awesome fanfare, in the one bar where the role of the conductor is absolutely indispensable, Habeneck lowered his baton, quietly pulled out his snuff box and started to take a pinch of snuff. I was still looking in his direction. Immediately I pivoted on my heels, rushed in front of him, stretched out my arms and indicated the four main beats of the new tempo. The orchestras followed me, everything went off as planned, I continued to conduct to the end of the piece, and the effect I had dreamed of was achieved. When at the last words of the chorus Habeneck saw that the Tuba mirum was saved: “What a cold sweat I had, he said, without you we were lost! – Yes, I know very well,” I replied, looking straight at him. I did not add a word … Did he do it on purpose?… Is it possible that this man, in concert with M. XX. who hated me, and the friends of Cherubini, could have dared to plan and attempt such a despicable deed?… I do not want to think about it… But I have no doubt. May God forgive me if I am doing him an injustice.

The success of the Requiem was complete, in spite of all the conspiracies, cowardly or criminal, official and unofficial, which had tried to prevent it.

Although that is one of the great moments in music, you need it in context, and for a taster, here is Berlioz in another mood, his “Harold in Italy,” a wandering musical journey for viola and orchestra.

The memoir is a wonderful read, and I’m partial to the Cairns translation.

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