Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nightmare at Covent Garden

Weirdo Wagner staging is something we do enjoy chewing on from time to time. So I ate up this commentary on the performance of the "Ring" cycle conducted by Valery Gergiev going on right now at Covent Garden in London. That is a slice of it pictured above.

How can you take an opera seriously when characters are wearing floor-length fluorescent wigs?

Can't they just let us enjoy the opera, you know?

I know Wagner was a mean man but we can still enjoy his creations. Please just let us enjoy them. But oh, everyone has to get in the way. Everyone wants to be new and different.

Got to at least get Wotan into a business suit.

Ha, ha! See, I just got on Google Images and did a search for "Wotan Business Suit" and all these pictures come right up! The above business suit is from once when Pierre Boulez conducted a "Ring" at Bayreuth.

Wagner takes the biggest hit in this department because he was a baddie and I believe people feel guilty encouraging other people to enjoy his music. But this sort of thing happens occasionally to other composers too.

Once I dragged my husband, Howard, to "Salome" at the Canadian Opera Company. He was new to opera and I thought, this would be a good first. It's only 90 minutes long, it's a Bible story everyone knows, it's taut and violent and the music is arresting. I love the music of Richard Strauss and I cannot imagine anyone else not loving it.

Guess what happened?

They managed to make the thing so confusing that even I had trouble following it! Some figures were in robes, some in modern dress, a video screen took the place of the "Dance of the Seven Veils." I have seen good production at the Canadian Opera Company but this was not one. The whole thing was pretentious and silly.

Result: Howard is still new to opera.

These wacky stagings, they are everywhere. It is an annoying and boring situation.

I do not see it getting better in our lifetimes.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Baby steps

How many minutes till that August 2 announcement from the Mozarteum? I can't wait to hear about those newly authenticated Mozart pieces.

They are supposed to be piano pieces he wrote when he was a kid.

I wonder if they are anything like his famous first minuets. I love those minuets!

It is a thrill in life when you first run across K. 1. The first piece of music in the catalog of Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart. The absolute first, in that historic catalog that ends with K. 626, the Requiem.

Then there is K. 2. So lovely in its own little way.

These minuets are so good, is what I cannot get over. They already have that certain something that I am sorry, many other 18th century composers did not have. This is how you know that Mozart wrote them himself and they were not written by his father, Leopold. Leopold did not have that peculiar certain something.

I cannot quite put my finger on it and I do not quite want to. But the music just flows.

I just went wading through YouTube looking for someone good playing these Mozart minuets. Most of the recordings you find are of amateurs with terrible sound quality and apostrophes in the wrong place. They get thousands of views! I cannot figure that out. There are also lots of videos of annoying little "prodigies" playing them. We do not want those.

OK, finally, here is Edwin Fischer playing K. 1. He plays it as if it is made out of glass but the grace shines through.

Here is someone named Cubus playing K. 2. I like the wacky video quality and it is a nice, straightforward performance.

Cubus also does K. 1.

Oh, this is so sweet. Someone made this little video with K. 1 and a grainy home movie her father took of her when she was a little girl. I thought at first it was the Fischer version, the one we just heard. But it is Ingrid Haebler.

Here are harpsichord performances of K. 1 and 2 and three other early Mozart minuets.

If these two "new" pieces are anything like these, I just have one question:

Why did it take them so long to figure out that Mozart wrote them?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The nuns' story

Lastnight, as I wrote on my other Web log, I went out to Artpark to hear Laura Aikin, the soprano from Buffalo who has achieved great success on opera stages around the world. She gave a tremendous performance as I wrote in The Buffalo News.

Aikin brings a real intensity to the stage. Sometimes she is very funny and sometimes she is tragic. She sells you on the music, is what I kept thinking.

Above is a picture of Aikin, at the piano, coaching a bunch of girls at the Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart. I am a Sacred Heart girl myself so I could not resist including that shot! That is our auditorium. I sat at that piano many times. My husband, Howard, sat at it a few weeks ago when we went there for my reunion.

I heard Laura Aikin in Buffalo one other time and that was two years ago. She was singing a program of mostly Lieder. She did a set of songs by Richard Strauss and a set by Ned Rorem and they were lovely. I love those Strauss songs especially.

That was a beautiful week in my life. A few days after her recital was when I met Leonard Pennario and I ended up doing that book. It is funny how often you relate your memories to what music you were listening to at the time! Anyway, I remember sitting at UB that week, listening to Laura Aikin sing.

Just now I was looking around on YouTube to see if I could find her there. I wound up watching this clip of her in the last segment of Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites."

This is the harrowing scene when the nuns are singing the "Salve Regina" and they go to the guillotine one by one until at last only one -- Aikin, in this case -- is left, and then she dies too. The opera is based on a true story.

The French Revolution. I cannot imagine it!

And here we are in America beating ourselves up over mistakes we have made. We are in the kiddie pool next to this, I cannot help thinking.

Well, back to the YouTube clip and to Buffalo's own Laura Aikin. It is genius how Poulenc handles this scene. He has the nuns singing this haunting hymn with almost a medieval ring to it. From time to time it is punctuated by the noise of the guillotine. And the voices are silenced one by one.

This particular staging unfortunately is not genius. They have the nuns lying down one by one on stage. Which, if you ask me, it makes no sense. It weakens that harrowing drama. I have never had the good fortune to see this opera live, but all I can imagine is that the nuns should be walking off stage one by one and then you hear the guillotine. I mean, let us not sugar coat what is happening here.

The thing to do is listen to this clip, not watch it.

Aikin's high notes, glorious.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rubinstein's romances

The other day after the post about Arthur Rubinstein and his late-in-life girlfriend, Annabelle Whitestone, we got the most interesting comment. The person said that he/she knew Miss Whitestone personally. Which I believe.

Isn't the Internet funny that way? Here we are just sitting around killing time, Prof. G and Larry C and I, and we do not know who is reading this stuff.

That is a picture above that I found of Rubinstein and Whitestone. It is a cute picture! Rubinstein and his cigar.

The other day we ran a picture of Rubinstein kissing Tallulah Bankhead. And now is where things get interesting. The comment writer suggested that Rubinstein was probably kissing Tallulah Bankhead reluctantly. The comment ran: "I don't find him looking very enthusiastic in your photograph; he was a very polite man and being offered a mouth he probably did his best."

That is a sentence I love! But it is also where this writer and I part ways.

I will tell you this right now, I think Rubinstein enjoyed kissing Tallulah Bankhead.

I do not think he minded kissing Tallulah Bankhead one bit!

Let us re-examine the picture of Rubinstein kissing Tallulah Bankhead. I am right, am I not?

No guy would mind kissing Tallulah Bankhead. My father would not have minded, I will say that. He loved her in "Lifeboat."

Besides which, Rubinstein's first book, "My Young Years," is full of amour. I mean, ridiculously so. I started reading it to my husband, Howard, one night, and we were laughing and laughing.

"My Many Years," the book that Annabelle Whitestone helped him write, is less so. Because, I mean, he could not dictate this sort of stuff to her.

But the old man sneaks in what he can. I am on page 146. "The owner of a department store and his lovely wife invited me for supper after the concert. During this meal at a small table, the beautiful leg of the lady and my own nervous one were drawn magnetically toward each other...." Ha, ha! It ends up with Rubinstein kissing the woman in a car the next day "It became evident that it was her first experience of this kind. She let go of the wheel and closed her eyes, and the car, with us inside, fell on its side into the thick snow."

That is great! It sounds like Buffalo!

Hmmm. Just now I was checking on Amazon for Rubinstein's memoirs, either book, and it seems both are out of print. That is a pity! You would think everyone would want to read them.

Speaking of which, I do want Mr. or Ms. Anonymous Commenter to know I meant no disrespect to Annabelle Whitestone. I was just quoting People magazine. I am grateful to her for seeing Rubinstein's book through and being around for him in his last years. There is the question of morality but from what I have read in Rubinstein's lengthy kiss-and-tell memoirs, he was hopeless in that department anyway. It is hard to see her as much of a homewrecker.

One thing about Rubinstein's memoirs: They can drive you crazy, but reading them, I get the idea I am hearing the real Rubinstein. From what I have heard about him and read about him, this sounds like what he was like.

There is an interesting interview by Norman Lebrecht with Annabelle Whitestone here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Another Mozart myth

They are going after Mozart, above, again.

Mozart is in the news a lot. There is this announcement that they have identified a couple of early pieces of his in the Mozarteum. I am excited about that! They are piano pieces and I guess they are early works. Details will be forthcoming.

But on a sillier note, today I had reason to watch this trailer for this stupid-looking movie called "Adam."

You hear that gloating trailer-guy narrator voice and the usual forgettable movie-theme pop song...

"I've got a lot of things to say... na na na na na..."

... and you learn that the movie is about a woman who falls in love with a guy with Asperger's Syndrome. Which is fine. But you hear him saying: "I have this thing called Asperger's Syndrome. Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, Mozart..."

She: "They had Asperger's?"

He: "Probably."

Can't they leave Mozart alone for once?

Next thing you know this will be accepted as fact and everyone will be thinking Mozart had Asperger's Syndrome. Which, it would be fine if he did, I mean I would not care if he did. But it would just be another untruth piled upon other untruths. There is no evidence that Mozart had Asperger's. I am sorry, but there is not.

This whole thought is probably an offshoot of the "Amadeus" way of thinking that holds that Mozart behaved like an idiot in public which, that is a fiction too.

Allow me to introduce my authority, Muzio Clementi.

Look at him. He looks like a guy you could trust, right? He was up against Mozart in a pianist contest and he wrote a letter about the experience. He wrote that he ran into Mozart before the contest and did not know who he was. And because of Mozart's fine clothing and deportment, he thought Mozart was a high-ranking nobleman.

Mozart did not care for Clementi and wrote one of his blisteringly honest letters about that. But he did not blurt out those feelings in public. He behaved beautifully. Why wouldn't he? What, did he just fall off a turnip truck?

There is also a letter Mozart wrote shortly before he died, about seeing to his older son's boarding school. He visited the school and complained, "All the children do is run wild."

That does not sound unusual to me.

I am glad Mozart now occupies the throne of the world's greatest composer. I am glad everyone knows his name. I am glad he is being mentioned in this mainstream movie along with Einstein and Jefferson.

But why does everyone have to think of him as Tim Hulce, with that shriek of a laugh? And now people think they can pin whatever condition they want on him, he was a weirdo, right? And he could not control his behavior, right?

Not fair.

And not true.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Winners on parade

I am writing a letter to Van Cliburn so I can talk with him for my book. And coincidentally, on the heels of my invite from the French piano competition, I got my Special Issue of the Cliburn News. They have pictures of all the winners of the 2009 competition.

All the gold medalists, Asian. I know I am not the first to point this out but you gotta wonder, you know?

There is an awful lot of money flying around this competition. That is for sure. Eduard Kunz, my so-called cousin, he got $5,000 for being a semifinalist, plus he got $4,000 because he won the Jury Discretionary Award. That is a cool $9,000! Not bad.

There was no Crystal Medal awarded. I wonder why. Was there no pianist who had that elusive crystal personality?

Or maybe they did not award the Crystal Medal because the gold medal was split.

The John Giordano Jury Chairman Discretionary Award is $4,000 too. Every medal has a nice purse attached to it. Conductor and longtime jury member John Giordano is from the Buffalo area and his father painted the murals at the Buffalo Zoo. He told me that! That is John Giordano pictured at left. He grew up in Dunkirk, N.Y. but nobody knows that but me.

How small the world is.

I got the picture of Van Cliburn up at the top from Life magazine, via Google Images. It shows Van Cliburn riding in his ticker tape parade! Check out the guy in the front seat of the car. I love the blissful look on his face.

Life magazine has 98 pictures of Van Cliburn!

Guess how many pictures of Leonard Pennario they have? 0. Oh, well, I like a little bit of mystery in a man.

Now the Cliburn Competition enters its deep sleep until four years from now, when we get another competition.

I wonder if it will be all Asians again?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Meet the Rubinsteins

Les Grands Amateurs de Piano wants me. They are a big amateur piano competition in France. I get mailings from them soliciting my performances. That makes me feel good, I have to say that!

It started when I was a competitor in the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in 1999. I did not advance past the first round but apparently my Schubert and Bach were good enough for these French folks.

Merci beaucoup, Les Grands Amateurs de Piano!

I am getting to my point. Today my mailing from the French piano types contained this paragraph:

One of the Competition's most faithful members has, without doubt, been Mrs. Arthur Rubinstein. Closely associated with our competition since 1989, she has offered unflagging encouragement and support, and been a regular member of the jury. Her presence at our side has been continuous and always enthusiastic. "Arthur would have liked it," she once confided.

Wow, I thought, reading that.

Was Nela Rubinstein still alive?

It seemed impossible. But it sure sounded that way. And all I was thinking was, it would be nice to talk to her for my book on Leonard Pennario. Because he knew her, and he played for her once in Paris after Rubinstein died when she asked Leonard to come to the house.

Well, the bad news is, something must have been lost in translation, because Aniela "Nela" Rubinstein is no longer with us. She died age 93 in 2002.

The good news is, there is this sweet obituary which her family ran. It is more touching than the actual obituary which you can read here.

The other good news is, reading up on all this, I ran across this quote from old Arthur. Who, incidentally, is Arthur with an "h," not "Artur." I have a letter from him to prove it. He signed it Arthur. I am telling you.

Anyway, the quote. It is from a 1983 article in People magazine.

In his 93rd year, nearly blind and an invalid, Arthur Rubinstein, perhaps the most renowned pianist of the modern era, left his longtime wife, Nela, for Annabelle Whitestone, a petite blond secretary 50 years his junior. "To get to be as old as I am," Rubinstein said, "one must drink a glass of whiskey every day, smoke a long cigar and chase beautiful girls." His wife, the maestro complained, "kept telling me what not to do—don't eat this, don't smoke that. I was fed up."

"I was fed up." Can you believe that?

I could not find a good picture of Arthur and Nela Rubinstein but I did find a good one of ol' Arthur kissing Tallulah Bankhead while gossip columnist Hedda Hopper looked on. That is the picture up above!

Here is a picture of Aniela in the kitchen, probably while her husband was kissing Tallulah Bankhead. It makes me like Rubinstein's wife. That is my idea of a good time, too, hanging out in the kitchen.

Rubinstein died at 92. Nela made it to 93.

Whatever their difficulties, they must have done something right.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Faking it

Lots of entertaining talk is filling the Internet about an upcoming BBC documentary about the Joyce Hatto scandal. That is Hatto pictured above. She is the British pianist whose many recordings were later proven to be fakes.

The New Yorker ran what I consider to be the definitive account of the whole fantastic story which you can read here.

In this piano group on Yahoo! that I peek in on now and then, everyone is wrangling about whether this documentary should be made. The fakes were perpetrated by Hatto's husband, William Barrington-Coupe, and the question is whether the documentary glorifies what are, in effect, his criminal actions. Another question is whether Barrington-Coupe, now a sick old widower, should be prosecuted.

I am not interested in sorting all this out. I do know, working for newspapers, that a good story is a good story and this is certainly one.

Another thing, I think the scandal did nothing but good for the pianists whose recordings were cribbed. The one mentioned the most is the Hungarian pianist Laszlo Simon. He records on Naxos and because there are so many recordings to get through, I do not know if I looked at some of them twice. I sure will now!

What fascinates me is that Barrington-Coupe and Hatto were just so flagrant about this. Asked about how she could invariably do her recordings in one take, Hatto would huff, "I do my practicing at home." And it kills me how Barrington-Coupe, on the CD covers, would name orchestras and conductors who did not exist. It is like what we used to do in high school, writing term papers! We would make up books and authors who did not exist.

People are slinging around a lot of blame now, saying critics a long time ago should have known something fishy was afoot. I don't know, I tend not to blame them. You have a lot to listen to, you trust that the recording is genuine, nothing like this had ever happened before. These critics did what critics are supposed to do: They gave the music an honest listen. If all critics did simply that, the world would be a better place.

Here is what I am wondering about. I wonder if we will see more fakery in competitions.

I saw the movie "The Competition" ...

... only once a long time ago, but one thing I remember is that Amy Irving's teacher makes the recording that is sent in and gets Irving the spot in the competition. After that, Irving wins it on her own, but my point is, she gets in because of this scam.

All I can think is that with increasing reliance on the Internet, we will be seeing more of this kind of faking.

They will also have to figure out ways to guard against scams in e-competitions.

All kinds of things to wonder about, as you enjoy your Hatto recordings.

Now I am sure wishing I had one!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Moonlight and the Moonwalk

I had fun the other day writing on The Buffalo News' Artsbeat blog about how everyone is comparing Michael Jackson to Mozart, but it is more fun to compare him with Beethoven.

Let me say this: I do not actually think he should be compared to either one.

Please, I want everyone to understand this.

Michael Jackson was one part talent and a whole bunch of parts marketing and producers and packaging. I mean, Quincy Jones. Mozart and Beethoven got to be who they are without benefit of Quincy Jones and that is a big thing.

Plus as far as his songs go I just do not get it.

But as a game and a puzzle it is fun to draw up these comparisons. And on Facebook one of my Facebook friends added that Beethoven is famous for the Moonlight Sonata and Michael Jackson is famous for the Moonwalk!

Plus, Beethoven wrote the Emperor Concerto and Michael Jackson was the Prince of Pop! Someone else pointed that out.

Michael Jackson received advice on his career from Prince. Beethoven received advice on his career from Prince Lobkowitz! That comparison just occurred to me. It is eerie!

We could go on and on!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Music box magic

After writing about Orli Shaham the other day and linking to the Mozart E Minor Violin Sonata I found myself thinking about music that sounds like a music box.

That is because the theme of the second movement of that sonata, it is haunting in that peculiar simple, bell-like, singsong way. The main theme of the movement sounds like that and so does the middle section.

Saying that something sounds like a music box can be a compliment. There is something poignant about music boxes. Not all! But some. That is why music boxes appear in movies and dramas, often about the supernatural.

Here is Pennario playing the Chopin B minor waltz, Op. Post., which can remind me of a music box.

Here is a rondo that always makes me think of a music box. It is Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata. Wilhelm Kempff is playing it here -- beautifully, I think.

Kempff, you will notice in the notes to that video, was born in the town of Jueterbog, Germany. That is the town that lent its name to the jitterbug!

Joke, joke!

Rondos sometimes have that music box thing going on because of their repetitive, turning nature. The last movement from Mozart's A minor sonata is music-box-like.

Look, in that video whoever writes the notes even comments on the music's haunting quality.

It is not only me!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The voices of virtuosi

So nice of Virtuoso Voices yesterday to mention what I wrote about Orli Shaham to all their followers, or whatever you want to call them, on Twitter! Every day I find myself thinking how small the world is getting.

Yesterday I had not quite grasped what Virtuoso Voices is. I thought it was someone like me sitting around in his or her pajamas finding quotes from musicians and zinging them around the Internet. But it turns out Virtuoso Voices is a kind of interesting business. They interview musicians and make the interviews available by subscription to classical music radio stations.

They also do promo spots.

That must explain when I tune in to WNED-FM and hear, "This is Thomas Hampson and you are listening to WNED-FM in Buffalo!"

And I am thinking: Wait, Thomas Hampson ...

... has not been here since I was 18!

It is fun to browse the Virtuoso Voices Web site. One thing they have is an extensive document on the do's and don'ts of interviewing musicians, which, I printed it out so I can keep it and refer to it. I am in print and they are in radio but it is nice to be able to learn from others' experiences.

They also have a long list of performers you can scroll down, and you will find little clips of them talking. It is fun just to hear their voices. You can occupy yourself for hours this way!

You can hear Leif Ove Andsnes, for instance, talking about Mozart: "There are so many voices, there is such energy."

And the site suggests: "Use this clip to enhance your introduction to Leif Ove Andsnes playing Mozart." That is a picture up above supposedly of Leif Ove Andsnes that I grabbed from some British singer's Web log because I could not resist it. This is a cute Web log! It is called Intermezzo.

Back to Virtuoso Voices. Here is Vladimir Ashkenazy sounding like quite the smoothie talking about Beethoven: "I am overwhelmed." That is what he says at the end, his voice trailing off.

Now if you hear that on your classical station you will know where it came from.

I love finding out how the radio business works.

And reflecting on how, every day, the world is getting smaller.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Silence in the hall

Cute quote from pianist Orli Shaham I picked up on Twitter:

"One time I would like to do like they do in figure skating. I want the audience to applaud every time I nail a difficult passage."

Ha, ha! I feel that way sometimes sitting at my desk. I want the audience to applaud every time I nail a difficult paragraph. I had a friend Rose who, we used to have a joke about that. We used to joke about people applauding us as we did our jobs.

Orli's quote came from a Twitter entity called Virtuoso Voices that sends you musician quotes. I know I should write Miss Shaham but "Orli" is just so much fun to write instead! It is even fun to type. Orli.

Just now as I got my coffee I was thinking about what she said. I know that feeling. When you are playing the piano and you nail something, you would like affirmation in a way. After all they do that at pop concerts -- jazz, rock, blues. Except in rock or blues it does not matter how difficult the passage is, in my experience. A Hammond B3 player just holds that note and holds it, and people go nuts. I am not blaming them. I do, too. It is just one of those things.

One musician I interviewed, I forget who, told me there is evidence that suggests people behaved that way when Mozart played. They would be egging him on, yelling at him, "Go, man, go!" I will have to look up who it was that told me that.

So that kind of affirming behavior is appealing in a certain respect.

But I think we should in general keep things the way they are. Because if you open the door to spontaneous applause while the music is going on, you open the door to all kinds of annoyance, is the problem.

Who has not been to a jazz show where you have a know-it-all at the next table who has to applaud or go, "Oh, yeah," at everything? My friend Jeff Simon at work once nailed that in a review, how annoying that is. Someone by pianist Tommy Flanagan's elbow kept smiling and going, "Oh, yeah." Just to show off that he knew what was going on.

I applauded Jeff out loud for that one, I will tell you that!

Then at the blues shows I used to go to at the Lafayette Tap Room in downtown Buffalo there was a doofus who, when he wanted to express appreciation, used to raise his voice and wail like a fire siren. He would hold this high note forever and it would be right in your ear and all I can say is, good luck savoring a solo by Johnny "Clyde" Copeland while you are listening to that.

So, I'm sorry, Orli. All other things being equal I would just prefer to listen to your fine self instead of a lot of interference. With which, we celebrate you in this performance of the haunting second movement of the Mozart E minor piano/violin sonata.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

One weird piece

It is not every day that you hear something that truly amazes you. Yesterday for work I listened to a new CD of a piece I had always known existed but had never heard.

It is Grieg's two-piano arrangement of Mozart's C minor Piano Fantasy!

You would not believe this thing!

I kept wanting to adjust my set! I thought there was a problem with the CD.

I mean, this piece is crazy-weird. Periodically over the years I had wondered about it, what it would sound like, and I always thought: well, whatever it is, it cannot be that bad. How bad could it be? I have turned out to be not much of a purist about this kind of thing. I have an open mind.

Then I find out, it is bad! Part of the problem is that this fantasia is so magnificent on its own and anyone who plays it develops deep feelings for it. The idea of tampering with the Sonata K. 545, as Grieg also did, is not as inherently offensive. I do have deep feelings for the slow movement of that sonata but that is a whole other story.

Listening to Grieg's take on the Fantasy, it is as if Grieg did not have the foggiest idea what Mozart was getting at. And I love Grieg! Furthermore the liner notes said that Grieg was very satisfied with how the piece turned out.

The brand-new recording I heard for work is not on YouTube as far as I could tell. But here is Sviatoslav Richter and Elisabeth Leonskaja. That is Richter in the picture above. I run that picture whenever I get a chance because I cannot get over it.

Hmmm. Oddly enough these recordings appear to have been posted only a couple of days ago. Someone else is thinking about this!

Listen for yourself.

Very strange.