From Riccardo Muti to Corno di Bassetto

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Find out how he made saints, Communism, and classic Broadway have something in common!

The Maestro…

Back in June, my girlfriend and I joined one of my best friends and his fiancee to see She & Him at Millennium Park, and I distinctly remember getting to the Pritzker Pavilion early, sitting down to lounge with my significant other, and standing up an hour later to find an entire small town had gathered around us. Well, that was nothing compared to the crowd last Sunday for Riccardo Muti’s debut as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Pavilion and the Great Lawn were filled to capacity, and on top of that, the surrounding area was clustered with thousands of people undeterred by an overcast day, and with those new little portable tables intact and set up with spreads and wines. Whether it was civic pride (for Chicago is a great, proud city) or a giant coming-out celebration for classical music lovers, which would be a tremendous thing, I am not prepared to say…but if it was the former, Maestro Muti’s performance should be enough to convert them all to the latter. I could not see any of the stage from where I was, and only caught the first half of the concert due to other commitments, but following a spirited reading of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino overture, the CSO performed Franz Liszt’s Les Preludes in a sixteen-minute cascade of drama, force, and beauty, with a fantastic diminuendo and crescendo perfectly but naturally arranged by Maestro Muti. If there are good videos or a bootleg recording available on the World Wide Web, I’d suggest you check them out.


Ignore the Wig

I happened to be downtown already to catch the concert due to my new job…which required me to take a special class and pass a test before beginning work. All of that is completed, I am happy to say, but in the middle of the studying week when I needed a break, I caught up with a movie which I’d been meaning to see for years: Double Indemnity (1944). James M. Cain’s story of two adulterers trying to pull off a perfect murder-slash-insurance scam is not exactly lighthearted, relaxing fare: in the hands of Billy Wilder and his co-writer Raymond Chandler, sheer unpleasantness rises to the foreground more than anything. Except for the big-hearted workaholic claims manager Barton Keyes, every character is duplicitous and scheming to some degree, and Messrs. Wilder and Chandler do not mince words or actions in conveying this nastiness; one of the picture’s greatest lines is in the climax when Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck, flat-out says “I’m rotten to the core.” It’s hard to believe this was directed by the same man who gave us Some Like It Hot. But…and this is why he was one of the great figures in Hollywood history…Mr. Wilder takes this disgusting, modern-day Hogarthian tableau and draws us in, makes us sympathetic to these people and almost rooting for them to get away with it. This mainly works through the narration of Walter Neff, the insurance salesman whose lust for Phyllis sparks the plot to murder her husband. Walter Neff does both very nice things and very, very terrible things throughout the picture, but in his narration—coupled with Mr. Wilder moving him through the story from fluid, well-lit action to scenes of rapidly-expanding darkness and enclosure—Mr. Wilder and Mr. Chandler make a convincing argument for how and why someone in his position could give in to such reprehensible ideas. It also helps that the film’s three leads are perfectly cast. Fred MacMurray, as Neff, manages to be both movie-star handsome and very next-door neighbor all at the same time, and he delivers even Neff’s most heartless lines in a way which sounds perfectly natural. Edward G. Robinson launched his transition from leading man to character actor with this movie, and he plays Keyes with relish, being wonderfully Sherlock Holmesian at times and also conveying muted tenderness in his scenes with Mr. MacMurray…pay close attention to Mr. Robinson’s smoking habits around Mr. MacMurray. And Ms. Stanwyck, despite one of the most awful wigs in movie history, is one of the great femme fatales of all time. Her stare, her legs, her anklet (“I’ll never look at anklets the same way again.”—Stefanie Gambino)…to borrow a line from Frank Miller, she’s a dame to kill for, and Ms. Stanwyck’s cool readings, punctuated with emotional outbursts as natural as Mr. MacMurray’s coolness, are wonderfully enticing.
And Mr. Wilder and Mr. Chandler’s screenplay is so outstanding that even Mr. Cain wished he had put some of their ideas into his original story. Despite knowing from the beginning who the murderers are, the last two scenes are full of clever but entirely plausible surprises. And so many great lines. “Did you know that murder can smell like honeysuckle?” “I could hear my footsteps…they were the footsteps of a dead man.” “You’re not smarter, Walter, you’re just taller.” And maybe the one line, spoken by Mr. MacMurray at the very beginning, which encapsulates the entire genre. “I killed him. I did it for money and I did it for a woman. And I didn’t get the money…and I didn’t get the woman.”


The Ultimate Party Musician

On the day I actually took the test, I was ready, partially thanks to studying, partially thanks to quality time with my significant other, and partially due to my workout music. Part of what comes to my ears whenever I hear folk music is the sound of the work song, be they the songs of marching soldiers, Southern slaves turned freemen and farm workers, Welsh coal miners, whatever. Music with a beat and a story can take even the most back-bending, mundane tasks and turn them into near-religious experiences when devised and sung with fervor, and few people have developed the work-song tradition in folk music better than Gordon Lightfoot, as the career-spanning Ultimate Greatest Hits collection shows. Mr. Lightfoot was a superstar in the mid-1970s, thanks to some lovingly written, tastefully-orchestrated albums for Warner Bros., but in the previous decade he made his name in his native Canada for his stripped-down songs played with nothing but a twelve-string on occasion. The high point of these songs is 1967’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” an epic, joyful celebration of walking into uncharted territory and creating something grand, of creating a future or what makes the future possible, with nothing but your own hands and the sweat of your brow…it’s a song that can make anyone take pride in what they do and do it better. Mr. Lightfoot further continues with this theme on the collection’s other top track, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” an old English news ballad transported to the 1970s, where the emotional crux is not the shipwreck but the honor we should feel for all the men who died on Lake Superior in the act of trying to do the job they loved. By this point, the twelve-string had given way to electric instruments and that more elaborate production…and one of the virtues of Ultimate Greatest Hits is its effort to cover all the parts of Mr. Lightfoot’s career…from the early tunes to some dismal final numbers steeped in generic eighties production where only Mr. Lightfoot’s baritone and turn of phrase, as in the closing “Restless,” makes them stand out a little. But for me, apart from his still gorgeous 1970 breakout single “If You Could Read My Mind,” a song which stuck out in my own mind as a little boy the first time I heard it for the imagery of these lines…

If you could read my mind, love

What a tale my thoughts could tell

Just like an old-time movie

About a ghost in a wishing well,

Or a castle dark, or a fortress strong

With chains upon my feet

You know that ghost is me

…the high point is the Warner Bros. material, the songs I’m sure Bob Dylan was referring to when he wished every song of Mr. Lightfoot’s could last forever. “Don Quixote” captures Cervantes’s themes in new language, “Daylight Katy” is a terrific bit of romanticism, and the chart-topping 1974 Sundown album is represented by two darn good singles, the title track and “Carefree Highway.” And again, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which hit #2 and sold a million copies in 1976 despite being six minutes long and about a whole bunch of people dying. “It’s the ultimate party record!” Dave Barry wrote in his Book of Bad Songs. “Turn it on and watch your guests instantly start to leave!” I’ll go with Mr. Dylan’s opinion on that one.

  Wrapping up this week, there once was a music critic who wrote for the London Star in the 1890s under the pen name “Corno di Bassetto,” who I think would have found Maestro Muti’s conducting sublime and Mr. Lightfoot’s songs hilariously over-earnest. Mr. di Bassetto’s real name was George Bernard Shaw, and this work was one of only far too many amazing endeavors he performed in ninety-four years as a writer and political philosopher. A single book doesn’t seem enough to do justice to Mr. Shaw’s life, and Sir Michael Holroyd knew that too well…his biography ran to four very thick volumes. But in 1997, Sir Michael abridged the text for a one-volume edition which is enough to make one want to devote the time to reading the entire work, and more importantly, pick up some of Mr. Shaw’s own writings. With the same critical and historical eye with which he discussed Lytton Strachey, Sir Michael offers tight, well-judged analyses of Mr. Shaw’s oeuvre and how he wrote it: his studies of those two extraordinary plays Man and Superman and Saint Joan are superb miniatures, while his discussions of Back to Methuselah and the actual book The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism make me want to sweep them up at Powell’s as soon as possible. But this is a life for general audiences, not lit crit, and two major theses emerge which give the book weight. First, Sir Michael brilliantly argues that Mr. Shaw’s one weakness was what made him a legend: his plays. The plays are not drama but transcribed arguments…his great strength was as a sociologist and man of ideas, and the intellectual portions of the biography are as fine a document of the growth of a mind, from a poor Irish upbringing to living around the world through wars and crises, as Wordsworth’s poetry. Second, Mr. Shaw in his personal life was a man of contradictions. The image of the intellectual man with a witty retort always at the ready, deliberately contrarian views on politics, economics, religion, love and marriage, everything, was a creation which stemmed from a lonely childhood where love was in short supply and art and culture stepped into its place. But human emotion is not so easily denied, and throughout the text Sir Michael delights in revealing the humanity of Mr. Shaw: his deep friendships with everyone from Beatrice and Sidney Webb to Gene Tunney to nuns, his meddling in the process of his biographers, his early and few sexual affairs and later-in-life platonic romances with Mrs. Patrick Campbell and others, and the forty-five year marriage to Charlotte Payne-Townshend, who took care of him in a way beyond any other human being and who somehow put up with his sentimental attractions to other women. The final chapters of Mr. Shaw facing his wife’s death and preparing to die himself are beautifully moving, and still stand in well with the many passages of Mr. Shaw turning on his irresistible charm. Mr. Shaw was a genius and possibly the greatest vegetarian of the last two hundred years (a compliment I know he would have loved), and Sir Michael Holroyd , that genius of the biography, has written a book worthy of his subject. Again! I’m worried that in the near future when I read his lives of Augustus John and Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, I’ll just be repeating myself, but I don’t give a darn. This is my blog, after all…and Mr. Shaw would respect a man who repeated himself.


The 2010 Chicago Jazz Festival: Five Concerts in Millennium and Grant Parks, September 3-5, 2010

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Under this exterior lies a Deadhead's soul

In getting ready to write this piece, I realized I have been telling a lie for years.  When discussing my love of jazz with others, I have always said that Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew was the recording which drove home for me that jazz was something more magical and beautiful than “smooth” pap.  But really, the groundwork for me to become a serious fan was laid by the sophisticated, intelligent music of Vince Guraldi for the Charlie Brown specials.  This gave me a taste for jazz’s mix of highly skilled composition and spontaneous, grand creativity of improvisation…a mix Mr. Davis perpetuated on the itnricate but melodic Brew and is present on every record I love, be it the classic sounds of a Blue Note tenor-and-trumpet combo or a piano trio or the Ellingtonian big band.  Hence, the avant-garde side of jazz never completely won me over….the sacrifice of one of the two major elements, in this case insufficient compositional strength in favoe of too much spontaneity, produces something poor.  Suffice to say, Nicole Mitchell’s world premiere of the 45-minute “The Arc of O” was interesting to listen to but not precisely my cup of tea.  The idea of doubling every instrument in the ensemble, including saxophones, pianos, and violin, was an intriguing one which created some potent harmonizing, but Ms. Mitchell’s final creation, as well as the two short pieces bracketing it, were heavy on atmosphere and short on developed melody and construction.  Still…a worthwhile effort.

They were either a couple on an early date or two very good friends, but the man and woman sitting enxt to me during Ramsey Lewis’s 75th birthday concert, who insisted I share their sushi and wine, told me that they had seen Mr. Lewis perform with the eight-decades-and-still-going Dave Brubeck.  That bill, I realized, was an apt one.  Mr. Lewis and Mr. Brubeck are two of a kind, emphasizing melodic integrity while taking their listeners on logical but emotionally intense journeys from their bedrocks.  For Mr. Brubeck’s groups, the epitome of this style was the unexpected drum solo of “Take Five.”  Mr. Lewis, in a spellbinding hour, gave us many equivalents of that moment, beginning with a mammoth “Wade in the Water” in which the dapper pianist, clad in suit and tie like sidemen Leon Joyce and Larry Gray, laughed that “we lost our mind for a minute.”  If losing your mind is akin to a rollicking journey of sudden tempo changes and melodic invention, sign me up for the looney bin.  Mr. Lewis of course played the familiar pieces, including the dance-friendly showcase “The Way She Smiles,” a beautiful “Betcha By Golly, Wow,” a long medley, and a final “The ‘In’ Crowd” which has lost nothing with the passage of decades.  But the centerpiece was three new, untitled compositions: a killer Oscar Peterson-style bluesy number which let the whole trio have fun, and two ballads, one for solo piano, which were the very definition of grand and once again prove that in jazz, age is nothing but a number: the serene energy of Mr. Lewis at the keyboard is a wonder.

Speaking of Bitches Brew, Bennie Maupin was the third horn, bass clarinet, with Mr. Davis and Wayne Shorter, so watching him play bass clarinet as part of David Weiss’s project Charisma was a moving experience for me.  Charisma is a tribute to that immortal trumpeter Lee Morgan, and the all-star spetet including George Cables, Eddie Henderson, and Billy Harper blazed through five Blue Note workouts as if they were only waiting for a classy cover photo to put it all on a pristine disc.  “The Sidewinder” ended the night, as expected, but a variety of compositions made for an entertaining hour, especially Mr. Harper’s own piece for Mr. Morgan, “No Mo’,” which began with a Wayne Barron bass solo and proceeded to make you lose all sense of time as the music went on…

I’d wanted to hear or see Boston’s Either/Orchestra ever since reading about an album where they played Monk, Ellington, and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” on the same record.  Russ Gershon brought his ensemble to Grant Park with a setlist reflecting their fascination with Ethiopian pop and jazz.  From a percussion trio onwards, the band performed beautifully arranged, frenetic, exciting tracks which would have been  the pride of any big band leader from Mr. Ellington to Gil Evans.  The only problem in trying to write a review is that I cannot spell any of the song titles, and I have no idea where they began or ended.  However, Ethiopian vocal legend Teshome Mitiku, an ageless man with a bombastic tenor, mixed perfectly with the group, Mr. Gershon is a great, wry frontman, and alto saxaphonist and flautist Hailey Niswanger played with such greatness that it made me again lament how few women have risen to prominence in this great American art.

And Brad Mehldau…the greatest living jazz pianist in the world…took the stage on Sunday evening with his longtime bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard for 55 minutes of the msot perfect jazz piano trio sound imaginable.  I had become a fan of Mr. Mehldau for his intricacy, his adventurousness, his willingness to push boundaries (two albums with Jon Brion), and his mix of originals, standards, and plenty of Beatles/Radiohead/Nick Drake/etc. covers.  So when he walked on with his usual slightly coiffed hair and button-down shirt, the only thing I knew to expect was that I should expect nothing and it would be thrilling…as Mr. Mehldau proved when he turned Alice in Chain’s “Got Me Wrong” into an opener of openers, changing rhythms, harmonies, and tempi on a dime while exercising supreme control.  Though the big surprise was after the song stopped and Mr. Mehldau paused for a moment, thought it over, and ripped off his button-down to reveal a vintage Grateful Dead t-shirt.  Then came a string of originals: “Be Blues” with a fantastic solo from Mr. Grenadier which reminded me of that paragon of the bass repetoire, the Dragonetti, a brand-new waltz which started like Mr. Guraldi gone psychedelic and ended in an all-out three-way call-and-response jam, and “Move,” inspired by a 1940s Kansas City piece in which each member got room to solo.  Mr. Mehldau then unveiled his piece de resistance, a song which I am, CONVINCED is an old standard but could not find the title for.  Didn’t matter…he completely reinvented it with a multi-fingered, first percussive, then grandeloquent solo which left this reviewer and the many people around him breathless.  And to close out the show in quiet grace, Mr. Mehldau gave a delicate reading of Surfjan Stevens’s “Holland,” a calm breeze after a hurricane of jazz excellence.

A Child of Our Time (1939-1942) by Sir Michael Tippett, Performed by the 2010 Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus

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A Child of Our Time

I am not a strict devotee of Spinoza or Leibniz. I cannot fully subscribe to a philosophic concept of bringing good and evil into harmony with each other. But it must be admitted that out of the darkest, ugliest evil can come moments of beauty which remind us of the human spirit. Sir Michael Tippett was such a committed pacifist he would be imprisoned for a short while during World War II, but even he was moved to violent reaction by the events of November 9th, 1938. Sir Michael responded, however, in the words of Richard E. Rodda, “with the most potent weapon in his pacifist arsenal—music.”

Herschel Grynspan was a teenager living with relatives in Paris when he discovered that his family was among 15,000 Jews sent to confinement in Poland by Hitler as part of a political maneuver. Grynspan tried without success, in the face of government opposition, to learn what had happened to his family. On November 7th, he pumped two bullets into Ernst von Rath, one of the highest-ranking German diplomats in France. When von Rath died two days later, Hitler responded with the devastating attacks on German and Austrian Jewish communities known as Kristallnacht. Grynspan’s fate has never been fully confirmed.

Sir Michael’s “potent weapon” was an oratorio for which he penned both music and libretto after his chosen collaborator, T. S. Eliot, read his notes and encouraged him to write the whole himself. A Child of Our Time, which switches between the specific case of Grynspan and a mediation on the universal human condition and our capacities for good and evil, took three years to complete and was not performed until 1944. Such effort was more than worth it.

The oratorio has three parts: an introduction about the tumultuous character of the soul, a dramatization of Grynspan’s act of violence and the retribution, and a conclusion which declares that peace will one day come when we can reconcile the emotions within us into a coherent whole, letting neither of the dialectic opposites within us rule. And the one flaw of the oratorio is that these more general Parts I and III are so much stronger than Part II. Sir Michael’s orchestral sections never live up to the brilliance of his Concerto for String Orchestra, but that is to be expected since this is focused on voices. Yet getting bogged down in repetitive recitation of somewhat banal words makes Part II a chore to sit through. But the beginning and the end are astounding moments of choral mastery: the interaction between the tenor and the soprano in Part I (“I am caught between my desires and their frustration as between the hammer and the anvil. How can I grow to a man’s stature?” “How can I cherish my man in such days, or become a mother in a world of destruction?”) rings with an eternity’s worth of fear of the unknown and uncertain, and the call-and-response of the bass and chorus in Part III, culminating in the world’s renewal as all four soloists are repeated by the chorus, builds layer after layer of melody into an elaborate, lovely whole.

But arguably A Child of Our Time is more a triumph of arrangement than composition, for the most defining feature of the piece is Sir Michael’s integrating American spirituals into the English chorale. His treatments pile voice upon voice, layer of strings on layer of woodwinds, and resound with titanic majesty. They make Part II bearable (especially “Go Down, Moses” as another bass-chorus duet) and give the oratorio its two greatest moments in the conclusions of Parts I and III: the renditions of “Steal Away” and “Deep River” are oh so earnest, oh so lovely, and the still-hopeful cries of “I ain’t got long to stay here” and “My home is over Jordan…I want to cross over to camp-ground” speak not to one particular people but all people. And in that multiplicity, the democracy of the arrangements, Sir Michael fulfilled his dream of writing a universal statement. Despite its weaknesses, A Child of Our Time is a great memorial to Herschel Grynspan and all people victimized by history.

(This was my first classical concert at the Pritzker Pavilion, and the acoustics and architecture of Frank Gehry are as effective here as at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The orchestra was excellent, and the soloists all in fine voice.)