Sunday, December 20, 2020

Julie Andrews, Andre Previn, and one wild Firestone album


Today I put up my Christmas tree and I am going to kick off an exploration of Christmas music.

Our pick today is Julie Andrews and Andre Previn teaming up for a Firestone classic!

Christmas is really a magical time of year when you listen to anything from the 1950s and '60s. This album, I know it inside out, from when I was a little kid. My brothers and sisters and I listened to it ALL THE TIME over the holiday season. This, and other Firestone records. They are all great. But I want to zero in today on this one.

Of course as kids we loved Julie Andrews. And we loved this record. I listened to it today as I assembled my, ahem, Kmart artificial tree, and put lights on it. It all came back to me. "Joy to the... joy to the .... Joy to the ... joy to the..." sang the Firestone Chorus at the beginning of "Joy To The World." We used to laugh ourselves silly over that.

 And we used to love Julie Andrews doing her number on "Deck the Halls" with harpsichord backing her up, and who knows what else.

These arrangements by Andre Previn!

That is what I am appreciating now!

As a kid, I do remember we liked this album. But his arrangements were over our head. Now I listen to them and I see what he is doing, and I love them. I know a little bit about Previn because Leonard Pennario worked with him. They did a great album of Rachmaninoff concertos. Here is the cover.

A couple of nice looking gentlemen there.

What do you know, that album dates to 1965, the same year as this Firestone album. That was a good year for Previn!

You can tell just by listening to his Christmas creations that Previn loved the heck out of Richard Strauss, who at the time was only recently deceased. He lifted stuff from "Rosenkavalier" for half the album. You hear the Presentation of the Rose in "Away in a Manger." And later you hear the famous waltzes. It might have been in "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" but I did not take notes, I was too tangled up in my Christmas lights. The point is, he does it so well. You would think it would be annoying but it is not.

He also gives you a lot of Handel. Even as kids we could recognize that. And he just throws in a lot of surprises and boldness and fun. As Julie Andrews is singing "Jingle Bells," the orchestra just breaks out in squalls all over the place. It is like unpredictable wild Buffalo weather. "Jingle Bells" ends the album. Julie Andrews soars up to some incredible high note on the last "sleigh." And then the orchestra blasts in with this big honk.

So much fun! Too sophisticated for kids maybe, but great for grown-ups, people into jazz and Handel and Richard Strauss. Previn is a great jazz pianist and we will have to get to that another day.

For now, grab this album and put it on your stereo, whether you are isolated or not. What a great mid-century creation it is.

It is a classic!



Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Beethoven turns 250


 Today being Beethoven's 250th birthday, people are calling on me to make a statement.

 What do you say on such a momentous occasion?

Two hundred fifty years!!

Maybe what I will say as a statement is, I can name a few of the Beethoven creations that I love the best. I do love a lot of them. I have always had a kind of funny relationship with Beethoven. All my life I have loved Mozart -- Mozart is my top guy, but then I got more into piano, and I began playing Beethoven sonatas, and I could not stop. I just love them so much. And it brought me closer to Beethoven.

It is funny, thinking of Beethoven vs. Mozart. I read this beautiful book on Mozart several years ago by the British musicologist Paul Johnson. He spent some time dwelling on this topic, Mozart vs. Beethoven, which I liked about him. He said that they would go through history together, both magnifying the other.

That is true, I think!

They were so different. But I do not think you would have had Beethoven without Mozart. Imagine Beethoven going through life always up against this superman. I wrote about that once. It had to have made him who he was. Not Haydn, not Cherubini, not even Handel. Mozart. Imagine having to follow that act. Lucky you, Beethoven, to have been born when you were, on Dec. 16, 1770.

Things Beethoven wrote that I love:

The slow movement of the "Archduke" Trio.

The "Eroica Variations." They are better than the Diabelli variations, I think because they have a better theme to start with. The theme matters. I was lucky enough to learn to play these.

The Sonata in E, Op. 109. This was Leonard Pennario's favorite Beethoven sonata and it is mine too. That last movement! But the whole thing, really, is great. I love the first movement. There are moments that just get to me. There is this measure that sounds like jingling sleigh bells -- just haunting.

The "Appassionata" sonata, especially the slow movement. The second variation gets me. It sounds like a guitar accompaniment.

Of course the slow movements of the "Emperor" concerto and the Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony. My dad said how he loved that Allegretto when he was a kid. I did too, and you know what, it grows up with you. You never have to shove it under the bed in shame the way you would have to shove away some pop album or other.

Of course I love the finale of the Ninth Symphony. My friend Margaret at church, she and I have a joke about it. At moments of stress we will say, "Freude schoener Gotterfunken, Tochter aus Jerusalem." As I write this there is a note from Margaret in my email inbox with that in the subject line. But really, I love it, how can you not.

Back to my list. The slow movement of the last string quartet. I got to know the quartets pretty intimately while working for The Buffalo News and covering the Slee Beethoven Quartet Cycle. I got the scores and I studied them. And I love a lot of them. Some of them sound kind of studied and overengineered to me, to tell you the truth. But that must be me, not Beethoven. That last quartet is breathtaking. And the Razumovsky quartets with their Russian folk tunes, I love those. I love Russian music.

The song "The Flea." What, you don't know that? You should!

Lots of other piano sonatas. I should write a book, you know?

I think over the next week I will go out of my way to listen to Beethoven, celebrate his 250th.

He is looking good for his age!

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Dreaming of Brahms


I have been joking with my friends about this dream I had about one of my favorite musicians of all time, Johannes Brahms.

For better or worse this was the older, bearded Brahms ... 

 


... not the young version that Howard, the guy I married, always says somewhat snarkily looks like Clint Eastwood. That is the Clint Eastwood Brahms at the top of this post. I used him as click bait.

Anyway, I approached this older, bearded Brahms, and I asked him, "Herr Doktor Brahms, do you like to go out and hear live music?"

Herr Doktor Brahms said ja, jawohl.

I said, "Because my friends and I, we like to go out and hear music. If this Covid craziness ever ends and we are allowed to go out and hear live music again, would you like to go with us?"

And he said he would!

So I was really happy about that.

Of course then I awoke, and ... no Johannes Brahms, no plans to go out with him to hear live music.

I consoled myself by finding on YouTube that wonderful little recording we have of Brahms speaking.

 

  

Then he plays the piano. But you know what, I have never really heard the piano part. I just keep rewinding the speaking part. 

One day maybe I will get to the piano. But meanwhile, I listened to Brahms speak a few times. He says something to the effect of this is Herr Doktor Brahms, Johannes Brahms. I used to think it was in English but it is not.

It is so cool, the things you can find on YouTube.

So cool!


Friday, October 2, 2020

Introducing The Mozart Bookshelf

I got on AbeBooks and I ordered this novel about Mozart. It is called "Sacred and Profane" and it is by an author called David Weiss. I remembered this book from when I was a teenager. I know I read it though I have forgotten most of the details.

"Sacred and Profane" is a terrible title because it does not make you think of Mozart. You could write pretty much any book and call it "Sacred and Profane." Perhaps I will title my biography of Leonard Pennario that! On the other hand look, I remembered it after all these years. So what do I know.

I paid something like $5 for "Sacred and Profane" on AbeBooks shipping included. I am excited about getting it. When I was a kid I got it out of the library. I am sure the library has de-accessioned it long ago.

After a few decades at it, I have amassed a pretty good collection of books about Mozart. I have a few children's books and an ancient copy of the biography of Mozart by Edward Holmes, who I recently learned was a friend of John Keats. Get out, who was a friend of John Keats? But Holmes was. I put it together and figured out they knew each other through Vincent Novello, who with his wife Mary wrote "A Mozart Pilgrimage."

I have that book too. The library de-accessioned it, surprise, surprise. But that book is another story for another day!

I also own several novels about Mozart. All of them are kind of weird -- the authors do not seem to get Mozart, they don't get the Catholic Church, they don't get music, they just don't get it. You know what I should do? I should start writing about all the Mozart books I have. I will title my miniseries "The Mozart Bookshelf." 

Haha.. I should actually call it "The Mozart Bookcase," or, "The Spare Room That Has Been Eaten Up By All My Mozart Stuff." That would be more accurate!

 Back to "Sacred and Profane." I just looked it up on Amazon and cannot believe the reviews. Five stars, from reader after reader!

One gentleman who describes himself as a musician and a Mozartian writes, "It's one of the greatest books I ever read!"

It looks as if it has been reprinted several times.

Well, there goes this plan I had. I was thinking that in the week or so before this book gets here, I should write my own novel about Mozart. Just a mini-novel, see how it goes. I know enough about him, that is for sure.

But now I wonder what is the point.

I am looking too forward to this one!


Saturday, August 1, 2020

Opera-tunity knocks: This week at the Met

"Don Giovanni" at the Met this week.
I want to go back to watching the MetOpera's opera stream.

Remember, I was going great guns with it back in April, when we were in the depths of the lockdown. I quickly fell behind with it because I got hooked on Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" and began watching it over and looking for different versions. Then there was Wagner week and I caught a few of the Wagner operas as I recall. And then .... and then ...

And then I guess what happened to me was like what happened to everyone else as we went through the Coronavirus craziness. The weeks began passing faster and faster and running into each other and now suddenly it is months later and I have not watched one single other Metropolitan Opera opera.

But now I do believe I will start again. I was just looking at what is coming up.

In the next week -- the week beginning August 2 we are talking -- they have two Mozart operas coming up, "The Magic Flute" and "Don Giovanni." There is also a "Madame Butterfly" with Roberto Alagna and a "Parsifal" with Siegfried Jerusalem.

"Parsifal" is a little heavy for me though Leonard Pennario liked it a lot. I might watch it to try to see what he saw.

There is an illustrated synopsis for "The Magic Flute." Cute!

There is also an interesting essay about "Don Giovanni" which I have been enjoying picking over. There is a trend these days, say I, to see Don Giovanni as not a bad man but as a rather attractive rebel, a man who insists on his own happiness. I am saying it is a trend because when I saw the opera in Toronto a few years ago, they took that tack.

I admire this essay for acknowledging the Catholic background to the opera, and the literal nature of hell. The director, Michael Grandage, suggests that literal interpretation is something quaint, something the public in general might have trouble understanding. I do not have that trouble, I will tell you that. I believe hell exists. But Grandage has a point, I do not think a lot of people would agree with me. It is nice that he would even explore this topic because Mozart's Catholicism informs so much of his work and few musicologists acknowledge that.

What else is on tap this week? Handel's "Agrippina." They keep giving us this Handel in modern dress and pointing out political parallels to modern times ....


...  I don't know, not to use the language of Don Giovanni but are people seduced by this? Have these operas drawn audiences and gained fans? They seem to me tough to swallow.

But anyway ....

A lot to look forward to this week, if I get back into the opera saddle!



Sunday, April 19, 2020

Free from the Met, "Der Rosenkavalier"


The free opera tonight from the Metropolitan Opera is "Der Rosenkavalier." I watched half of the first act while I was cooking dinner. I took a break and left dinner simmering on the stove so I can share my initial observations.

One, Renee Fleming, just lovely. She is a lovely person in real life, from where I sit ... or sat, which is the chair of the music critic at The Buffalo News. I interviewed her on the phone a couple of times and I really enjoyed the conversations. I love Richard Strauss and we had a wonderful talk once about the Four Last Songs, which she was singing with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. That was a dream come true for me! I have loved the Four Last Songs since I was a teenager. And to be discussing them with a world-class soprano ... unbelievable.

My life has been blessed, you know?

Anyway, Renee Fleming is one of the glories of the production ... so beautiful, and such beautiful singing. She is believable as the Countess. Did I say the Countess? I meant the Marschallin. I think of her as the Countess because Strauss was inspired by the Countess in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," another opera I love. I think of them as the same person because they are.

Elina Garanca who was our bad-ass Carmen a few weeks ago is Octavian. You figure she will take it over the edge and she does. What a good-looking gal and she makes a good-looking guy. This was their last performance in these roles. Both were retiring, at least from these particular parts.

They are very good together.


I have special praise for the singer who sings Baron Ochs. Gunther Groissboek.


Peter Gelb, introducing the opera, refers to his terrific panache, and that is true. Panache. It is cool to have an Ochs who is cute and has panache. It makes it more fun.

Here are my thoughts on the opera as performed by Renee Fleming, Susan Graham, and a great Scandinavian Baron Ochs, Kristinn Sigmundsson. That Ochs also had panache.

Reading back on that post just now, I am glad I wrote it! There are things I had forgotten. Such as how Ochs says of Octavian, "I see myself in him." And the possibility that Octavian is Ochs' son. Their names are similar, you know? Both start with the same syllable. That is something to think about.

I do not think I mentioned this before but watching that other production, I noticed something else. There is this one moment that struck me. I had missed it previously, or something. That is in the last act, when Ochs puts it together about the Marschallin and Octavian. It dawns on him. You see it in his face, if he is a good Ochs. He says something about, What am I to think about this?

And she says Nothing, if you are a gentleman.

And he says, Never let it be said that a Lerchanau was a spoilsport. That is his name, Ochs von Lerchenau. And you remember at that point that he is her cousin, they are related.

They are cut from the same cloth, after all! That scene is a game-changer, and to think that I missed it before. I am looking forward to seeing it.

Along with the rest of the opera. "Rosenkavalier"!

There is nothing like it!

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The fun and beauty of the Met's "Die Meistersinger"


Son of a sea cook, I never did get around to posting my report on "Die Meistersinger," the production the Met aired free last week.


Or whenever it was. Everyone says that in our Coronavirus homebound social distancing, the days are running together. It is true!

Anyway, about "Meistersinger." I loved it. I love this opera and they did a beautiful job with it.

This "Meistersinger" was staged about six years ago. The staging is magnificent, just the way I like it, a beautiful medieval street scene.

Hans Sachs is Michael Volle and one thing that hit me was, his portrayal made it clear that Sachs has real feelings for Eva. I always kind of figured that was the case but in this production there was no missing it.

Six years was a while ago and it is sad that Johan Botha, who sang Walther von Stolzing, is no longer with us. He died young. Botha's portrayal of Walther, like Volle's of Sachs, also gave me new things to think about. His bearing is so knightly, I had never really thought about how Walther is a knight, a nobleman, thrust into the world of tradespeople, of common people. He not only has to make his way among them, he has to submit to them. He has to compete for Eva's hand. He has to deal with Beckmesser. He is lectured by Sachs, a shoemaker, and is grateful for it.

This world is Lutheran but you have to wonder about Walther whose hero is the Roman Catholic medieval singer Walther von der Vogelweide. Well, I will not get into the weeds about this.

It was touching to see Walther von Stolzing with his finery and his girth, standing in the humble cobbler's shop, enjoying this unexpected episode in his life. He had to get his bearings in this humble new world. Earlier in the opera you saw his impatience -- he kept drawing his sword, he wanted to get Eva out of there.

Eva -- Annette Dasch -- was so beautiful and I got such a kick out of when Walther showed up in his knightly finery ...



...and she was just staring at him with stars in her eyes. This huge guy. so graceful! And you never forgot he was a knight. He projected that. You could see what she saw in him.


The last scene was stunning. I always get tears in my eyes, just seeing the sheer number of people on stage, all of them gathering before dawn. The trumpet calls, the pageantry. For some reason I noticed the children's chorus and just now I found this charming blog post written by a woman apparently studying singing who was in a production of "Die Meistersinger" at the Met. Imagine that! It was funny to find it right when I had been thinking about that. I loved her account of what it was like.

The picture up at the top of the post shows the famous Quintet. It is rare to have something classical like that in Wagner and the beauty of it made me wonder if he was thinking of Mozart. I know, I always wonder that. But then I think I am usually right!

Granted, not everybody hears what I hear. Once reviewing a performance of the Verdi Requiem for The Buffalo News I wrote about how I was sure Verdi was thinking about Mozart and ways in which the music reflected that. One woman got really mad and wrote me a nasty letter!

Ha, ha! I will have to go back and review my arguments. They were on deadline and off the cuff. But I bet I was right. I bet he was thinking of Mozart. And I do not think he would have minded me saying so. It is high praise when you sense, from hearing someone's music, that the composer was thinking of Mozart.

Back to Meistersinger. I could ramble on and on. These great works, you always find something new in them.

Just a few other observations: Sixtus Beckmesser was Johannes Martin Kränzle, a little too handsome for the part but a ton of fun. Beckmesser must be a great part to play because you know at the end you will get the biggest hand. Another Wagner role like that is Hunding. I was thinking that the other day watching "Die Walkure." Hunding is a great thug. "Bring us men our meat." "Sacred is my hearth." There are a million ways a guy can take that part, starting for when he just walks onto the stage. The Hundings and the Beckmessers, they rule the world. Got to love them.

Since I watched "Meistersinger," the themes have taken up residence in my head. Along with the scene from "Die Walkure" between Brunnhilde and Siegmund, but that will have to wait.

I was thinking, as long as I'm home all the time, I might learn one of Liszt's Wagner transcriptions. I think he did one of Meistersinger.

The book is sitting on the piano.

I think I will go right now and look.