Friday, October 16, 2009

Richard Strauss, Deal Maker

Yesterday my friend Carl Herko and I got to kidding around about Richard Strauss and witty things Strauss, pictured above, said. Carl brought up the quote: "Never look at the trombones. You'll only encourage them."

After laughing about that, I was joking to him that we should come out with "The Quotable Richard Strauss."

With which, there is this site which gives you lists of people's quotes. Isn't this a tremendous era in which to live? You never have to do any work. You just hit a few computer keys.

The trombone quote is up there front and center on the Strauss page.

Then there is this:

“I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.”

Strauss was wrong about that. He was a first-rate composer. Another funny thing about that quote, I heard it attributed to W. Somerset Maugham who said it about himself as a writer. It seems to me I have heard it attributed to other composers too.

That might be one of those quotes that flies around. Like the famous, "There are just two kinds of music, good music and boring music." I have heard it ascribed to Mozart, Rossini and Duke Ellington, to name just three.

Back to the quotable Strauss. What else did he say?

“The human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all, but it is the most difficult to play.”

Fine, that sounds good.

Wait, what's this?

“Building brand name is key. That's what America is all about." I did not know Strauss had opinions about America but I like that!


“We've actually been at the low-end of the Street range for the fourth quarter ... (and) felt that we had to go even lower, so we did -- a nine percent across-the-board trimming here for the fourth quarter, ... The backlogs are still very significant, but the current environment is just not allowing deals to get done.”

Hahahahaha! The thing about the brand names I maybe could have swallowed but not that second one.

There must be two Richard Strausses and the computer could not tell that.

“It's a wonderful networking opportunity. I've definitely furthered deals. I meet high-level and influential people here, and it's a good way to touch base." That is another quote from The Other Richard Strauss.

The other Richard Strauss must be something like Bruce Wasserstein, who warranted a big obituary the other day in the Wall Street Journal. I loved the obituary's headline: "Bruce Wasserstein, Deal Maker."

That is a great way to be remembered!

Hey, you never know, maybe the two Richard Strausses are the same person after all.

I seem to recall that Strauss was a Gemini.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The magic of 'Der Rosenkavalier'

We got a question!

Yesterday, Ola Fumilayo asked:

I have an unusual (maybe) question for you - help! My fiancee's parents are taking us to the opera this weekend, Der Rosenkavalier, his step-father's favourite. I love, am moved by and perform instrumental classical music (in solitude in my home usually), and could very easily deal with a Mozart opera (who couldn't), but I've really never been interested in opera at all.

This Web log can be moody and procrastinating about answering questions but Ola Fumilayo is an important person. She lives in Toronto and she does music boxes! And I get a kick out of her blog. It is all about being a music box girl in the modern high-tech world!

To my new friend Ola, I am flying out the door but I want to say a couple of things about "Der Rosenkavalier" in case you are leaving for New York today and will not get time to read this otherwise. I am imagining you are going to the Met because that is where "Der Rosenkavalier" is on stage, with Renee Fleming and Susan Graham.

I am so jealous! I was just looking at pictures of the production the other day and it looks beautiful. There is this author I might be talking to for my book on Leonard Pennario and she lives in New York and we were discussing getting together. If she is free this week I will take that as an excuse to go there to see "Rosenkavalier." That is how much I love that opera.

With which, here is my memo to Ola on what to keep in mind when you see "Rosenkavalier."

No. 1, try to think of opera as just like any other kind of music you listen to. It requires no special skill to enjoy. Approach "Rosenkavalier" as you would anything else -- a symphony or a Broadway show. The only secret is to be open to it.

Ola mentioned that she would probably be OK with a Mozart opera. It might help to keep in mind that Richard Strauss was inspired by Mozart when he wrote "Der Rosenkavalier." The tender 18th century atmosphere was a response to "The Marriage of Figaro." The whole opera reflects "Figaro" in a few ways. It is kind of genderbending -- you have a woman playing Octavian in "Der Rosenkavalier" the way you have a woman playing Cherubino in "Figaro." And the character of the Marschallin was inspired by the Countess in "Figaro." They are both worldly women, complicated, with a tendency toward brooding and melancholy.

That leads me to something I love about both operas: Both of them are bittersweet in a way that I think is very difficult to achieve. You have to achieve it without trying, I think. The thing about "Figaro" and "Rosenkavalier" is, when I watch either of them, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. It is the way life is a lot of the time.

"Der Rosenkavalier" is, like "Figaro," full of rich music, but a lot of the music is shot through with a bittersweet quality. The famous "Rosenkavalier" waltzes -- that is something to listen to -- have a nostalgia about them. There are these sweetly dissonant descending tones you will hear when the Marschallin reflects on her life. They make you think of a clock running down, i.e. the passing of time, something we all face.

At the end of "Figaro," you have the Count forgiving the Countess. And at the end of "Rosenkavalier" you get the enchanting love duet between Octavian and Sophie, the young woman he grows to love.

There is a famous moment in that duet when the Marschallin has to give up Octavian. She walks in with Sophie's father and he says, "That's the way young people are." And she says, "Ja, ja." That is very famous. For every singer who sings the Marschallin, that is a big moment, how she crafts that simple "Yes, yes."

You can see that in that clip above.

Oh, and one more thing. My mother said to tell you that you have to listen up to the last few seconds of "Rosenkavalier." And she is right. It is magical. Do not slack at this point! Do not try to beat the traffic to the restroom!

I am going to try to get back to this later and add a few more things. In case I do not get to, here is one story that just came into my mind as I thought about this.

I read that the great conductor George Szell was once rehearsing the Cleveland Orchestra in Wagner's "Die Meistersinger." (Another opera, by the way, with that peculiar bittersweet quality.) And one of the musicians made a mistake. He apologized, saying it was his first time playing the piece.

All the musicians held their breaths, expecting Szell to blow up.

But Szell surprised everyone. He said quietly, "What I would not give to be hearing 'Meistersinger' for the first time."

That is how I feel about "Der Rosenkavalier."


Saturday, October 10, 2009

The lady in red

Today in between running errands I caught the part of "Tosca" that is close to the end, when Mario is about to be shot by the firing squad, and then Tosca shows up and tells him about how she has killed Scarpia and everything is about to be all right.

That is just like a woman! I almost had to laugh about that even though I knew the tragedy that was about to unfold. Tosca is like me! I am always breezing in telling people everything is going to be fine, I have fixed everything.

I hate that part of "Tosca" where you hear that calm music as Mario is led to the scaffold, or whatever it is called where they execute prisoners by firing squad.

Those calm rhythms. Everything is taken care of ... at least we think so, is what the music is saying. He is going to fake being killed. Everything is going to be all right. And Tosca is watching. There is this awful moment when she says to herself how handsome Maria looks.

And that calm phrase in the music just keeps repeating. Noncommittal.

Then you hear the shots.

This is awful but I had tears in my eyes.

That opera gets me!

I understand the Met production, which stars Karita Mattila and Marcelo Alvarez, raised eyebrows production-wise and got a few boos. For one thing the sets were "spare and soaring," according to Vogue magazine. Joan Juliet Buck, writing in Vogue, defended it. In England the Guardian also blames the audience for being provincial and too set in its ways to accept the staging.

Here is what I think though: isn't it funny that sets always get more spare? They never seem to grow more lavish. I would like to see a set designer make news by being more lavish and detailed than any set before. This minimalist stuff, we've seen it. It has been done.

That is Miss Mattila up above as Floria Tosca. Here is another picture that shows the set. It looks like "West Side Story." As if Tosca is sitting on a fire escape!

Both the writers I just linked to also speculated that the audience may have been offended by the half-nudity of the painting. Oh, please. That is all I can say to that.

Another thing about this "Tosca" is the director removed religious references. The church in Act I, I read, looks like a prison. And when Tosca kills Scarpia, she does not lay a crucifix on his chest the way the opera calls for her to do.

That is too bad. Getting rid of the Catholic references would take away from "Tosca"'s peculiar haunting quality. That part in "Vissi d'Arte" when she talks about leaving the flowers for the Blessed Virgin, are they going to take that out too? That is another part of the opera that gets me.

Everyone is out to make everything secular and the world is not the better for that.

Here is something funny about "Tosca." Mario ... quick, what is his last name? Cavaradossi.

It takes me forever to get that right.

And on the Huffington Post, lo and behold, the caption reads "Caravadossi."

No one can get it right!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Out of the mouths of babes

We have heard this before but still. Every once in a while it knocks you over the head, how so many young pianists these days are Asian.

I was just looking at the Stecher and Horowitz Web site because one of their Young Artists, Jonathan Coombs, is coming to Canisius College for a recital on Oct. 25. I do not know if Coombs is in the picture above or what. But if he is, we can be pretty sure he is in the bottom row, either on the left or on the right.

Six of the nine artists are Asian.

Six of them, although not quite the same six, are girls.

That isn't surprising. When you go to a piano recital at the University at Buffalo, there is always a large number of young Asian women in the audience. That is what Howard pointed out when we went to see our friend Stephen Manes. Howard said, he seems to have a strong following among Asian females. That is the situation at many piano concerts.

I am not sure why Asians dominate this field the way they do but I have a guess. I think that being relatively new to this country they have not yet been caught up in the general dumb-ing down of America.

So that is one reason. The Asian cultures seem to have a big love for Western classical music and they hold on to that.

We still have the question of why more girls than guys. Perhaps the girls are more resistant to slug culture. Or maybe it is that girls get the inside track. I am allowed to say this. Affirmative action gave me my first newspaper job, at the Niagara Gazette. The Gazette got some kind of kickback for hiring me instead of some guy.

On the other hand maybe no one is resistant to slug culture. I am watching this video on the Stecher and Horowitz Young Artists.

"It allows me to be in some place, like, that I cannot be anywhere else in the world. And just like, it's so sublime, like, it's just so great."

I don't care if you are a teenager. Learn to talk, you know?

The kid they are sending to us had better not talk that way.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

By George

Today I came across a beautiful Kyrie by the English composer George Malcolm, pictured above. It was sung by the Westminster Cathedral Choir. I am trying to find it.

While I was looking for it I found George Malcolm's obituary.

This is a very personal obituary. It includes the memorable line: "George Malcolm was a devout Catholic, and he never practised the homosexuality I am certain was part of his nature."

I wonder what made the writer so certain that he printed that! One thing I have learned in life is you cannot be sure that someone is homosexual. You can be totally sure, you swear it, your friends swear it, and then you find out you are wrong. That has happened to me many times.

Back to George Malcolm's obituary. Here is a tremendous paragraph:

At Balliol College, Oxford, Malcolm become famous as a roof climber, indeed notorious when he nicked a Christopher Wren-designed bauble from the roof of a rival college. Came the Second World War and he directed a RAF band, conducting a lot of light music and becoming a heavy drinker. In the 1940s, he fell from a second floor window, surviving with difficulty and facial surgery.

Also I see Andras Schiff...

.. left Hungary so he could study with George Malcolm. Wikipedia says so. What would we do without Wikipedia?

Darn, I cannot find that Kyrie! Well, here is George Malcolm playing Bach's Italian Concerto. It is better than nothing though the harpsichord sounds loud and jangly which, alas, harpsichords sometimes do. The recording process is not kind to them!

My search for the Kyrie continues.

Friday, October 2, 2009

From Australia to Russia

Today I found myself reading the obituary of the Australian pianist Geoffrey Peter Bede Hawkshaw Tozer. That is a picture of him up above.

Most people know him as Geoffrey Tozer but that is his full name, Geoffrey Peter Bede Hawkshaw Tozer. It says so in the obituary I just linked to. You have to get to the end to find it out, but that is what I did.

That is as good as Alicia de Larrocha y de la Calle.

It might even be better!

Mr. Tozer was only 54. He is not a big name on our shores but in Australia he is apparently huge. The obituary in the Australian is the longest obituary I have ever seen. And that includes former presidents. The writer was a former prime minister of Australia who as I understand it did a lot to forward Mr. Tozer's career. He obviously loved the artist deeply and there is something endearing about that.

The obituary gave me a lot to think about. Here is one phrase I love.

When the pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva, a mistress of Shostakovich, came to Australia in the 1990s, she said to her tour promoter, 'I want to hear the one who plays like a Russian’. And, of course, she meant Geoffrey.

"The pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva, a mistress of Shostakovich."

I love that!

First of all I get a kick out of how these days, you never write, "Pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva." It is always "the pianist." As if, of course you have heard of her.

Sometimes in newspapers it gets so pretentious, as you read a long list of the pianist so-and-so, the painter so-and-so, the sculptor John Doe, the dancer Jane Doe. All those "the's." Think of the space you could save without them!

Back to the pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva. I love also the part about "a mistress of Shostakovich." As if, that qualifies her.

She slept with Shostakovich!

And Shostakovich would never have slept with her had she not been a great pianist, now, would he have? Therefore her opinion counts for something.

That is great old-fashioned thinking.

Here is a picture of the pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva who slept with Shostakovich.

Here is a severe Soviet picture of her.

I cannot stop looking at that picture! It is fascinating to imagine Tatiana Nikolayeva as one half of a smoldering Russian romance. I wonder when it was that she and Shostakovich looked at each other and something just happened.

Tatiana Nikolayeva died in 1993 in San Francisco after being stricken while playing Shostakovich preludes and fugues.

That is a most dramatic way to go.

I am not sure what Geoffrey Peter Bede Hawkshaw Tozer died of. The obituaries do not say.

Condolences to Australia.