Sunday, August 29, 2010

A wake-up call

Yesterday on my way in to the gym to do Zumba I had the radio on and they were playing Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."

Listening to it -- which I did, actively, even though like everyone else I have heard it a million times -- I started thinking how good Tchaikovsky was. I mean, here I am listening to this thing and enjoying it. It is such a kick, that music. And how it ends with the cannons and the church bells -- it could be awful and cloying but it is not, it works, it's fun.

But that is not really what this is about. Here is what this is about:

This is something I figured out when I was a kid and it is still true. We may call it, ahem, Kunz Goldman's Law.

The first thing that you hear in the morning will stick with you all day.

I go into Zumba class and here all this hip-hop and Latin music and whatever. And one problem with this Zumba music is how it sticks in your head. In class it is fun but when you wake up at night and this music is rolling around in your head, it can get annoying. But yesterday, the Zumba music melted away right after I left the gym and all that was left was the "1812 Overture."

After that I went garage sale-ing with my mom and we played the radio and different things came up, but when I went home there it still was, Tchaikovsky.

I went to hear Jackie Jocko down at the Hyatt but that "1812" stayed in my head.

When I went to bed it was still there!

The Germans call them "Ohrwuermer," or "ear worms," these tunes that get into your head and you cannot shake them. I think some people are more prone to them than others. I hear whole recordings in my head. It can be useful but sometimes it can drive you crazy.

And, so often, the thing on your brain will be the first thing you heard in the morning.

Be careful what you let in!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Gustav Mahler tells all!

Yesterday I took my mom to a doctor appointment and lying on a table in the waiting room was this magazine!

I looked at the headline and all I could think of was: This must be some artist or actor talking about why he left the city of Vienna. I wondered why he would leave Vienna. I wondered what had happened to him there. I was reaching for the magazine, interested, when I saw the smaller headlines, and realized my mistake.

Oh, of course, Vienna was a woman. It was not the city.

Someone named a kid Vienna.

Then I felt stupid, thinking, what did I expect? Gustav Mahler discussing discrimination he felt he suffered at the Vienna State Opera? What?

Moments like this remind me of what a nerd I am.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Choose your poison

Probably all the Mozart fans out there have already seen this, but the New York Times did a story about a guy who has catalogued all the possible theories as to what caused Mozart's death.

Howard startled me by asking, "What's your favorite?"

I did not know!

Upon reflection I was thinking it might be that the Freemasons did Mozart in. I am not saying I think that is what happened, I am just saying that is my favorite theory.

I also think, as I wrote before, that the way that anonymous man in gray visited Mozart demanding the Requiem is a very strange story. I think the Times story was remiss not to mention that. To me that hints at some kind of foul play, I am sorry. It is funny, that story is established as fact but somehow we do not think about it.

Mostly what the Times story tackles are medical theories.

Kidney failure, pneumonia, stroke, congestive heart failure. It is amazing: There are at least 118 different theories.

What's your favorite?

Whatever it is, above is a cool picture of Mozart on his deathbed.

Here is his death certificate. The New York Times linked to it and I have been studying it.

"Nerd," Howard said when he walked in and found me poring over it.

But it fascinates me!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why children can't sing

Here is something unsettling, not that there is any shortage of that these days. This folk singer and scholar Dave Ruch, whom I interviewed last week, told me most kids can no longer sing.

"What I’m finding lately, in a shocking number of schools, is that the kids can’t hold a tune," Ruch told me. "It used to be 10 years ago, if I taught them a simple chorus of “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal,” they could sing it back. In the last couple of years, I’m in 100 schools every year, I’m seeing three or four times out of five that you ask a body of students, elementary school age, to sing it, they kind of half talk it and half sing it. The whole sense of melody is getting lost. I just think kids don’t sing as much any more. Where we used to sing playing in the sand or whatever, it’s not happening in the home."

Something to think about.

Well, this kid takes a good stab at it anyway. Ha, ha! Too funny.

Ruch is an encyclopedia of New York State songs and when I called him, he was driving across the state. Where else would he be?

He told me the "Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal" song was written by professional songwriters in 1905.

Whereas this song, which I have always preferred, Ruch said is a genuine folksong that was old as the Civil War and was actually sung by the canalers, as he calls them.

There was that QRS recital at Kleinhans Music Hall years ago when Thomas Hampson sang that song as an encore, in this real ruffian's voice. Everyone went wild. He did it great.

The girls are in the police gazette
The crew is all in jail

And I'm the only son-of-a-gun who's left to tell this tale!

I am not sure he sang "son-of-a-gun." I do remember everyone loved it.

It is distressing that so many kids are growing up not able to sing. Dave Ruch told me that when he runs into a group of kids who are able to carry a tune, it invariably ends up to be because there is a music teacher who has them in a chorus and bends over backwards so they learn to sing.

And you know you will hear the chorus saying see, this is what happens when budgets are cut and music programs are eliminated -- but money is not the problem and it is not the answer. You should not have to learn every little thing in school, you know? Singing should be as basic as eating or whining, which I realize I am doing now but I think this is important.

I think the problem is, and Dave Ruch thinks so to, that kids don't pick up singing around the house anymore. For years now pop music has had little or no melody. I hear this stuff at the gym. I get a kick out of a lot of the songs in Zumba class. But most of them, like this classic, are more rhythm than melody. Ha, ha! I am watching that video and I cannot believe I know this song.

The worst stuff is the pop stuff they drone at you in the rest of the gym. Try listening to this thing. It just drones! The chorus. "I'm half way this and I'm half way that and I'm half way this..." It goes on forever. All current pop songs sound like that, in my experience, which, as I said, is substantial.

That's why kids can't sing, in my not-so-humble opinion.

It's too bad.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mozart goes East

Before I go to sleep I like to read, but sometimes it is hard finding just the right book. I do not want anything associated with work. Or anything that will upset me, or rev me up.

Last night I hit on "Coffee With Mozart," by Julian Rushton.

There is a series of these little books. I am looking on the back flap and there is also "Coffee With the Buddha" and "Coffee With Groucho." Ha, ha! I can tell you right off which one I would prefer between those two. Also there is Coffee With Hemingway, Marilyn, Michelangelo, Plato and Oscar Wilde.

They do not seem to have a concrete plan with this series!

"Coffee With Mozart" should actually be "Beer With Mozart" because in the book that is what he drinks. Well, in real life that is what he drank, along with the white wine that Beethoven liked too.

Last night all I read was the Foreword, by Sir John Tavener.

It is an unusual Foreword. Tavener, the well-known mystic composer, begins by recounting how when he was a boy, his "romantic and aristocratically beautiful godmother" took him to see "The Magic Flute."

He goes on to philosophize about how much he dislikes the 18th century as an era. Not me! I would love to go back and live one day in the 1780s. I love the fashions. At least the middle class fashions, not so much the sky high-piled hair and the powder, but ... OK, I love the men's fashions. Those knee breeches! Those stylish three-cornered hats. Mozart liked those fashions too, incidentally. We have that in common.

Tavener writes: "It seems unlikely that the most 'sacred' composer of the West should emerge in that dilapidated era. Using the term 'sacred' about Mozart may elicit some surprise..."

Um, no, it doesn't ...

"...but I truly believe that Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' connects to Krishna's flute, just as his music in general can be compared to that particular kind of sacredness one finds in Persian and Hindu miniature paintings. I am not, of course, saying that Mozart himself was fully spiritually developed. God used this frail man to communicate to the world the eternal vision of childhood, and the divine world of Lila, a Sanskrit term meaning 'divine play.'"

Uh, Siddhartha?

Come out from under the banyan tree?

I am sorry but I can imagine what Mozart would say reading that foreword.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A teachable moment

Listening to Ligeti the other day got me thinking about "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" which got me thinking about that music by Dukas that went into the first "Fantasia."

I realize how little I know that movie. I know "Fantasia 2" better because that came out just a few years ago. In the second "Fantasia" I loved how they put Elgar's famous "Pomp and Circumstance" march to a cartoon showing Donald Duck assisting Noah in building and managing the ark.

But that is a whole other story. Back to "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." In "Fantasia" they had the famous cartoon of Mickey Mouse as the poor apprentice who thinks he can get the brooms to do his work for him.

When I see that cartoon now I think how it is wasted on the young.

You have to be grown up for that cartoon really to terrify you. You do not have to be that grown up. Fifteen or so will do it. But you have to have been in a situation where things got seriously out of control. A time when you thought you were smart and turned out you were not.

Maybe you lied about something and it grew and you could not get out of it.

You cheated on someone.

Or here is a good one: Maybe, like the music suggests, you got into the occult. Once on Catholic Radio this priest told this story about a group of kids who were messing with a Ouija board and they hacked into something that terrified them and they all showed up at the rectory begging for help. O, to be a bug on the wall when they had to make that call. "Guys, there's this church down the street..."

That is a "Sorcerer's Apprentice" moment!

A teachable moment, we would call it now. Mickey Mouse gets his teachable moment!

The cartoon is so vivid. The shadows at 1:32. The look on Mickey's face at 1:40. Such care went into it. I remember reading how an animator who had worked on "Snow White" said that he and a whole team of people spent months working on just a brief clip that showed the Seven Dwarfs marching home from work and their shadows on the mountains. This clip must have taken the same kind of work.

The music is so vivid too. It is great how Dukas sets that theme up right away, in the first bars.

The best, or the worst I should say, is when everything seems to subside and Mickey chops up the broom and he thinks he has the problem taken care of. But then that theme gets going again, a couple of notes, then a couple of more notes -- and at 6:22 I believe it is, there's that rhythm back, and there's a whole army of brooms marching. I love that part!

As long as it is not about me.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Pedal to the metal

Yesterday I was underslept and punchy and began listening to this thing by Ligeti. The reason was, I got the schedule for the UB music series and I am serious, it was loaded with Ligeti. You can say this for Ligeti, he gets his share of the spotlight. You can not say that he died forgotten.

Gyorgy Ligeti, by the way, died in 2006. Here is a picture of the weird-looking old man.

You know you are punchy when Ligeti is sounding good to you. This one crazy video, I watched it twice. Then I watched it a third time.

Is this what music has come to?

What a crazy, absurd, robotic piece!

And a robotic pianist. She just sits there, her eyes half closed, punching away like a little machine.

Still there is something I like about it, albeit on a strictly mental level. I cannot agree with one commenter who calls it "divine." But her detached involvement with the piece, and the patter of her fingers over the keys -- I just can't look away, you know? The pianist's name by the way is Ching-Yun Hu. The etude is "Der Zauberlehrling" which means "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

I could see myself taking this piece on. That would be great for when it comes time, and it will come time, for me to make my comeback at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. I have the sneaking suspicion that in all competitions, if you play contemporary music, you have an edge. I should learn a Ligeti etude and polish it up like a sports car.

Ha, ha! Ligeti, it even sounds like a sports car. "I've bought this brand-new, high-performance Ligeti. It's gunmetal blue and it goes up to 150 miles an hour. I'm taking it down to Texas."

That is an idea!

I will be unstoppable, with my Ligeti.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ellen's songs

Also at Mass yesterday they did an organ version of Schubert's "Ave Maria." Classical music nerds, of whom I am one, we know it is one of three songs set to German translations of Scottish poetry from Sir Walter Scott's "The Lady of the Lake." The "Ave Maria" is Ellens Gesang III, or Ellen's Third Song.

Here is Ellens Gesang I. I think it has a peculiar haunting quality. "Rest, warrior, the war is over." In this video, which is very well made with a translation, it is sung by Dame Janet Baker.

Here I sit, watching this song and sighing. Sometimes I think I have not matured beyond, oh, 16. I am not sure that Schubert ever did, either. Well, at least Schubert died at 31. At least he had an excuse never to grow up.

It is funny to think of Schubert, frozen in adolescence, in love with the stuff kids -- smart kids anyway -- are still in love with. When I was a girl at Sacred Heart there were friends of mine into Walter Scott who read all his stuff. Being a loser I only listened to music. But they read Sir Walter Scott and I remember it affected them deeply.

Schubert loved "The Lady of the Lake" and I believe he also read "The Last of the Mohicans," by James Fenimore Cooper. I do know for sure that when he was dying he was asking his friends to get him more books by  James Fenimore Cooper. Doesn't it break your heart to hear that?

On a brighter note ... I am still looking at "Ellens Gesang I." Someone has written as a comment: "What record were these songs taken from? I don't want them. I NEED them!!"

I need them too!

I love the turn the song takes at 5:26.

Here is Ellens Gesang II. This is beautiful and haunting, too. That stark horn call.

The Internet is wonderful, you know? These videos are made by this woman -- somehow I know it is a woman -- who signs herself FiDiTanzer. I recognize that as being shorthand for Fischer-Dieskau Tanzer, Tanzer being "Dancer." She dedicates a lot of videos to him. I hope he at least acknowledges her sometime. I hope he writes her a little note and says thanks. Her videos are beautiful.

She also did that video of "Normans Gesang" that I love, also from "The Lady of the Lake." This galloper, as someone put it, is one of my favorite songs in the world. I loved it when I was a kid, my name being Mary and everything. And as I said, I never progressed past 17.

Back to Ellen's Songs. Here is what everyone is waiting for: Ellens Gesang III, "Ave Maria."

It is so sweet in German. I am a big lover of Latin and I respect that this song has taken on religious significance. It is such a reverent melody. And I love hearing it in church. But the Latin words just never scan right to this thing.

It sounds perfect just the way it is.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hymns, hers

Today was the Feast of the Assumption which means we got to sing a hymn dedicated to Mary. We sang "Hail, Holy Queen" which is a song I love. It got me thinking of the Marian hymns I love and that we really do not get to sing that much.

The hymn the organist played as the Mass was ending was "Daily, Daily Sing to Mary." This is such a square old hymn I could not even find a decent version on YouTube. This was the best I could do. But I like it faster and lustier. Are you allowed to say you want a hymn to sound lusty? You know I do not mean it in that way.

This is an old Bavarian melody. The Bavarians and Austrians came up with great church melodies. One of my all-time favorites, one I loved to rip into in my church organist days, is "God Father Praise and Glory." I just had to do research and the only way I could find it is by the German title, "Gott Vater Sei Gepreisen." Check it out. The chorus is great. "Holy God/Mighty God/God immortal be adored!" I used to love to sing that.

It is just a darn good melody, you know? Bouncy. Not boring!

I can say that also about "Hail Holy Queen," the old chestnut we sang at the end of Mass. It is hard to find any recordings on YouTube that are not kitschy or is not just some organist playing somewhere but here is one that at least shows what this song sounds like.

Before anyone else can throw this up at me, here are CPDRC Inmates singing "Hail Holy Queen." Hilarious! Millions of old Germans turning over in their graves.

And there is also this punk rock version. Ha, ha! There is something sweet about this thing. I know a lot of people would consider it disrespectful but I think the Blessed Mother is smiling on these kids. The way they do the last verse.

This being a classical music Web log now I am going to get nerdy. There is a song about Mary I really love and it is Hugo Wolf's "Nun Wandre Maria." It talks about Mary and Joseph on the donkey plodding toward Bethlehem. And you can feel how tired they are. I think Hugo Wolf gets that spirit across so beautifully.

Are we there yet? That is kind of what the song says. It keeps saying, soon you will be in Bethlehem.

Earlier when I checked there was no "Nun Wandre Maria" -- it means, "Now, wander, Mary" -- on YouTube but now there is! Honest, this song makes me cry. The real weariness is in the piano part. You can feel them stumbling, feel how tired they are -- man, woman and donkey. It is from Hugo Wolf's "Spanish Song Book." It is so beautiful. I think it is one of the greatest of German lieder.

This recording is not my particular favorite. I like the song to be more plodding, more inexorable. Well, that is the way we get about songs we love. It is better than nothing. I got to know this song from a recording by Judith Blegen. I bought this one Judith Blegen record when I was a teenager and it is still a record I love. That is it pictured above! I found a picture on the Internet.

Once I was interviewing this one singer and I told her, "You know what, your voice reminds me of Judith Blegen's." Because it did.

She said: "Oh, thank you! A few other people have told me that and it made me so happy!"

My, how way leads on to way! I never thought I would get onto all this today.

Happy Feast of Assumption, everyone!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Portrait of Fanny

Yesterday I began thinking about Felix Mendelssohn and then about his sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.

She married a painter named Wilhelm Hensel and here is what has always struck me about that: She was loved.

Wilhelm Hensel loved her.

He sketched portrait after portrait of her and in each one you can tell he could not get over her eyes. Above is one of his pictures of her. Here is another.

And another.

Fanny was a very gifted musician and it is strange to contemplate what her father supposedly said, that for Felix, music could be a life, but for her, it was an ornament.


Her middle name was Caecilie, and St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music.

In a way her parents must have known what they were getting into.

Here is a nocturne by Fanny Caecilie Mendelssohn Hensel.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Today I was listening to Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade" -- or, if you want to sound like someone out of the Victorian age, which I often do, "Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel." Schubert wrote this song when he was 17 and it is all about hormones gone wild. Gretchen is sitting at the spinning wheel and thinking about this guy who has knocked her socks off and she gets carried away and when she thinks of how he kisses her the spinning wheel stops. Then it picks back up, bit by bit, as she recovers herself.

Goethe wrote the poem but that was Schubert's idea, the sound of the spinning wheel and then the spinning wheel stopping. Above is a picture of the young Schubert. He has rather a charming look.

Renee Fleming does a good job with it. I like that spinning wheel moving fast. I don't like it when people drag this song. And here is old-time soprano Emma Eames. I am throwing this in because it has the poem and the translation.

I love how this girl sings it, when she gets to the part about "und ach, sein Kuss!" His kiss! The way she stands there. This is like a play. You have to feel the character. Which, let us not be naive, we all have. The pianist does a great job, too, with the last note.

This is a great song for young singers because Schubert was only 17 when he wrote it and it is about that time in your life. Here is a Russian girl singing it.

You have to wonder what Schubert would have thought at the idea of the song he wrote when he was 17 being sung 200 years later in Moscow, in America, everywhere.

You have to wonder what Schubert's family thought when they heard this song. His father, a schoolteacher, he was no dummy. He must have recognized something in it. Imagine how they looked at it going, holy cow.

What have we got here.

I am not giving this exhaustive thought today but it seems there were two composers who were perfect at 17, they were fully formed. Schubert was one and Mendelssohn is the other one I am thinking of. Mozart was great at 17 and wrote some beautiful things but he still had growing to do. Mendelssohn ...

... was himself.

To have written the music for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at 17. That famous Wedding March.

His parents were more sophisticated than Schubert's parents but there must have been that look in their eyes too. Holy cow. What have we got here.

It boggles the mind.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Showdown in Toronto

To my ears comes news of a new piano competition in Toronto. It is the Chinese Cultural Centre Piano Competition! The sponsor is Yamaha. The big question is whether you have to be Chinese to enter. Every contestant they mention seems to be Chinese.

Rounds I-III take place in November in the P C Ho Theatre in Scarborough. That is a name I love, the P C Ho Theatre.

One of the jurors is John Giordano. I would love to go up to Toronto just to meet him. He has been the chairman of the jurors of the Van Cliburn Competition forever and he is from the Buffalo area. I spoke with him for my book about Leonard Pennario because Pennario judged that competition for so long. It is great, the thought of the Cliburn Competition being under the control of these two guys from Buffalo.

But back to the Chinese Cultural Centre Piano Competition. I am saving the best for last. The vice president of the competition has the most wonderful name.

It is Dr. Dong-Dong Dong!

Here is a picture of her. Dr. Dong-Dong Dong received her doctorate from Eastman.

As one of my friends says, it sounds like a doorbell.

Opportunity knocks!