Watched the first two acts of the Met’s Fleming/Scholl “Rodelinda” last night

The third act will start in a second once my coffeemaker finishes.

God, I love this opera. The music is fabulous, the costuming, the singing, everything. And the story! No more “then the chick dies, the end!” Ooh, I looooove it! That’s the best part!

No. It’s not the best part. It sucks. Watching most operas is like being a gay guy and watching “Brokeback Mountain” sixteen times in a row. No, it’s not the “best part” when the gay dude dies. It’s the sickest, saddest part. I’m reminded of one of the characters in the stage play “The Boys in the Band” who cynically remarked to a friend, “You know, the fag doesn’t always die at the end.”

Well, the chick doesn’t always die, either. Sometimes she kicks all kinds of ass and sings like a bird in the process. No wonder this is, as stated in the intermission interviews that took place during the HD broadcast that made this DVD, Renee Fleming’s teenaged daughter’s favorite opera. The chick kicks ass, wears fantastic gowns in the process, and gets to land Andreas Scholl at the end. (Who by the way has long hair in this. And thigh-length leather boots. He’s about nine feet tall. Those boots go on for a while.)

Go buy it. Now.

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The WSJ is staffed by idiots.

I won’t link to their “Enchanted Island” review out of spite, but I suppose you can find it if you google. A representative quote: “The theory behind the Metropolitan Opera’s The Enchanted Island is that modern audiences don’t have the patience for actual Baroque opera.”

No, the theory behind the thing is that, back in the day, Baroque opera was an all-singing-all-dancing half-vaudeville/rock concert variety show that billed itself as the puppy’s nuts, so come on in and have a good time. And oh, that heartthrob with the high notes is singing lead, the diva’s costumes are fab, and there’s some really cool special effects.

Seems to me that’s precisely what they ended up with — a true-blue recreation of what Baroque opera looked, sounded, and felt like to an audience. The problem with this idiot reviewer is that she has developed a very tight 19th/20th century opera sensibility without even realizing it. Opera, she tells herself, is By The Book — candles and crucifix in place, and you sit down, shut up, and listen or else — because it’s always been like that for as long as she’s been alive. Verdi and Wagner are opera to her, and she’s expecting an artistic sensibility of several hundred years prior to behave the same way. It’s as if she’s gone to see a Buster Keaton movie and gone away complaining because someone forgot to turn the sound system on.

I’m also amused that she seems to think that the audience for this thing isn’t exactly the same as the audience for Real™ Baroque Opera. Is she on another planet? The same people who are going to see the Haendel biggies (and eagerly awaiting the renovation of Vivaldi’s opera as well) are in the audience for this. Given the popularity of Baroque nowdays, this thing is an experiment to determine whether or not a real Real™ Baroque Opera — singing, dancing, puppy’s nuts and all — is still appealing to today’s audiences.

Plainly, it is.

Which is just driving her up the wall. How dare they let in the barbarians. If classical music and opera are dying because their audiences are dwindling, then better they die than she has to sit next to someone who isn’t part of the cognoscenti. The fact that anyone familiar with the history of Baroque opera would recognize this thing instantly as probably closer to any actual 16-1700s staging only magnifies the irony of her complaints about Real™ Baroque Opera. (For crap’s sake, she’s complaining about dancing in a pasticcio? That’s what they did! What does she think Baroque opera is — Puccini without balls?)

Next up on the chopping block is her canned complaint about the short attention span of Today’s Young People. Ignore that some of the most popular movies of the past decade clocked in at over 3 hours long. Ignore the fact that Real™ Baroque Operas are roughly the same length and still wildly popular today. Ignore the popularity of movie serials that take a decade to be produced and multi-part book series that span thousands of pages. Kids Today Can’t Sit Still … or something … so she’s just using this thing as an excuse to channel Andy Rooney and get some of her old-grump mojo on. I can sympathize. I’ve got some old-grump mojo myself.

But the ADHD tendencies of today’s youth is not one of my favorite targets, mostly because it doesn’t exist. Today’s audiences have the tenacity of lobsters when they latch onto something they like, and they’ll sit still for movies that run considerably longer than a Baroque opera. And they don’t come with intermissions, either.

She’s an idiot. But then the best way to get up the nose of some stodge someplace who doesn’t like their assumptions challenged is to do something truly positive, revolutionary, and interesting. Thumbs up for the Met! 🙂

“The Enchanted Island” — the live audio stream, Dec 31, 2011

I’m sheepish to say that I didn’t listen to the entire thing. Wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear it for the first time like this or at the HD broadcast that I have a ticket for. Ultimately, I did tune in at the very end of Act I though, coming in on the beginning of the beautiful “Chaos, Confusion,” and heard all of Act II, which concluded with a chorus number immediately after one hell of a cadenza by Danielle DeNiese. She sang a modest, fairly typical little cadenza, then paused. The audience started to applaud … and she kept going! It was great! It’s such a thrill to hear these things in a new way, when you aren’t sure what you’re going to hear. And using familiar music counterbalances that, so that you’re sure you’re going to like what you hear, whatever it may be.

It was fantastic. One of the arias they used was a favorite of mine — “Ch’io parta?” from “Partenope.” It was fantastic when I heard the opening of that from the orchestra, and Daniels sang it to bits.

They wasted no time whatsoever in getting some videos up, as well as the short doco about it on the Met’s website. Wonderful, all around. I can’t wait to see it in HD.

I hope we see more of these sorts of things in the future. And I would love to get this on DVD.

Listening to RBP doing the Bruch Scottish

— and that Guarneri is perfect for her. I’ve got another CD of hers on the old Amati she had, the 1617, and that thing sounded plasticky when she played it. She asks a lot of a fiddle; she’s a very athletic player. And that Amati used to buckle under it. The Guarneri sings more and more sweetly the harder she pushes it. I can’t imagine a better player for that thing. By rights, when she’s gone, it should be called the ex-Pine.

And it sounds like a viola on the low end — a nice, deep sound, dark and savory.

Anyhow, it’s this CD. Go get it.

BTW, the “Rodelinda” in HD …

I didn’t write a review of it but I should have. Short: it was really good.

  1. The translation of the libretto was a little fast and loose, but I think they were trying to avoid that inevitable o_O that the audience suffers at the end when Grimoaldo and Eduige pair off and the entire audience wonders how much of her jewelry they’ll have to pawn for couples therapy.
  2. Which brings me to the fact that they changed the way Grimoaldo and Eduige were interpreted from the Glyndebourne version, which is the other version I’m most aware of. Eduige was much more sympathetically drawn here — reminding Grimoaldo that she couldn’t accept his proposals because she was in mourning (as was the case, at least in the 7th century history this is taken from, which was probably about as truthful as your average newspaper). However, there was a sort of strange compensatory adjustment that had to be made to Grimoaldo, making him more manic and a bit out of control until the very end, where he was outright penitent and apologetic to Eduige. It required a huge change to the “Prigioniera ho l’alma in pena” aria, which is a favorite of mine whereby he sung it somewhat snarkily … until he found a letter written to him by Eduige, upon which point he read it and then did the A section reprise in a very melancholy way, clearly still in love with her. (And at no point in love with Rodelinda at all.) Initially, I wasn’t well disposed to the sneery way he was singing it, but when he opened the letter and changed his tone for the reprise, I realized what they had been after, and I liked it much more.
  3. Scholl had trouble filling the Met, celestial as he is. He was beyond spectacular in the smaller Disney Hall, one of the best performances I’ve ever been to. But … he had trouble filling the Met. Of course, he was still a good actor, and a big, strapping, good-looking guy can always fill a hero’s shoes with aplomb. His duet with Fleming (who was tremendous) at the end of Act II was really incredibly good. But he’s a recitalist singing opera as opposed to someone more like Daniels, who struck me in Disney Hall as an opera singer doing a recital.
  4. This was definitely a star vehicle for Fleming, and she was incredible. She really was. I hadn’t heard her prior to this and only knew that she was extremely popular. I can see why. Wow. She’s supposedly known for tics and vocal quirks, and I was practically expecting her to hiccough and belch on stage while singing. Nothing. Clean as a whistle, rich, with a nice rounded warble in the low end, and a really good handle on how to embellish this stuff for someone who claims that it’s not her strong suit. Sure sounded like it was to me.
  5. There’s always a voice that surprises me in every new performance, one person I hadn’t heard of before who shoots out above and beyond everyone else. This time, it was Iestyn Davies who absolutely must speak Welsh with a name like that. He had an extremely light, penetrating, and sparkly voice that, while not having the smoothness and darkness of Scholl’s, had a much easier time in the hall. And let’s face it, he played one of the sweetest dramatic characters ever written in any medium, except for possibly Bob Cratchit. He was so, so good.
  6. The broadcast was hosted by the world’s reigning Wagnerian Diva Deborah Voigt, who is so comfy in front of a camera that it’s almost spooky. She looked wonderful as always, and escorted the camera around backstage to where we could see all sorts of interesting things happening regards massive stage sets rolling around in slow motion, carpenters milling about, little interviews with the performers (I was in the damned bathroom for Fleming’s but saw Scholl and Davies’s interview — both men came across as very nice), etc. I actually enjoy this way of seeing an opera. I can sip coffee or eat a pretzel, plus get all the great backstage information and chats with performers and backstage crew.
  7. And speaking of the massive sets … this thing was immense. The whole set slid back and forth as we went from library to garden to stables, then the entire damned stage lifted out of the floor to reveal Bertarido in prison after Grimoaldo’s fabulous “Sospetti, affetti, e timori” aria. Talk about a huge undertaking. It went beautifully, and it looked fantastic.
  8. It’s hard for me to make a single declaration on the way it was done. Making Eduige a more sympathetic character definitely got the production on my good side, even if it did mean that I didn’t get my food pellet of a sincere and glowing “Prigioniera” nor a penitent, exhausted, “Pastorello,” a la Kurt Streit. So although I missed those two arias done the way I prefer (though they were done beautifully), it was a good trade to get a realistic Eduige out of the deal. And in general, it was a great combination of romance-novel style melodrama without insulting the living daylights out of me. Rodelinda was and remained a very strong, appealing character. Bertarido was still his generally sweet (if dim) self, and Unulfo was a sweetheart as always. Garibaldo was … well, I need to keep an eye on this Shenyang dude because he can rattle the timbers when he sets his mind to it. Helluva voice on him. (You know how contraltos are said to always play “witches, bitches, and britches?” For a basso, it should be “gods, clods, and cads.”)
  9. Hey, onstage meatball surgery, complete with yelps of pain. Unulfo got doctored up during the finale — literally during “Oh caro bene” — after having had his best friend and boss try to kill him while he was setting him free. He was on his feet and smiling by the end, so props to the surgeon. 🙂

Anyhow, it was really good. And there is one reviewer out there who wrote this up in 2006 or thereabouts who apparently wasn’t aware that Scholl even did that magnificent little bungee jump into baritone during “Infida consorte” and thought he’d slipped into chest voice by mistake and caught himself. As I’ve said previously in this blog, o_O. Oh, well.

So, “The Enchanted Island” is up next! Should be fun!

Update: Can’t believe I forgot this, but there was one more good addition to the production that nagged at me during the Glyndebourne. Before the opening scene for “Spietati,” during which Rodelinda dares Grimoaldo to kill her son before her eyes, she looked over at her son and nodded, and he nodded back, implying that they had conferred beforehand. That scene had seemed so implausible to me the first time I saw it, but just that one little signal between the two of them, and the bold way the little boy playing Flavio walked forward and put his arms out, made it clear that she had warned him ahead of time. Operas in general are not known for their realism, but that really snagged me as particularly bad characterization when I first saw the Glyndebourne. Here, it was still implausible, but much less so, and much less of a grotesque mischaracterization on the part of the librettist.

I have to wonder how much decision-making was done by Fleming to make these various changes; if they were indeed made on her suggestion, then she’s quite good and should be allowed more editorial control over her work in the future. (And possibly over others.) It’s just that many of the interpretations for this particular production all seem to head in the same direction of making it a little bit less … stupid and flimsy in general, which too many operas tend to be, and a bit more level-headed.

To be fair, Baroque operas already have less of that nonsense going on, and that’s a big selling point for them already. Even then, this particular version of an already good opera had a further huge advantage in not taking my money, insulting the shit out of me, and simultaneously expecting me to suspend my disbelief so high that my arms started to go numb. I wish they had put it out on DVD. I’d pay real money for the stream.

The Music of Henry Purcell, the English Concert with Andreas Scholl, Walt Disney Hall, October 11, 2011

It’s so easy to gush, isn’t it? So easy to breathe in and try to get enough running room to reach the heights of hyperbole that you need for an enthusiastic review. And so often it just sounds forced. It’s not here. This really, honestly was spectacular. Beyond spectacular. Of course I have to pay more mind to the voice since that was the showpiece instrument, but … damn. Scholl was flawless. He made that hall ring like a bell, with the most perfect, purest, unaffected sound I’ve ever heard from a falsettist. He really is the calibration point by which all others must be measured. I heard him once before in Santa Barbara with the ACO, and this concert blew that one away, aided no doubt by the somewhat cleaner acoustics at Disney Hall.

I love Purcell’s music, and I’m not even a specialist in it. It was a DVD of ye-olde-schule falsettist standards where I first encountered him, with a smorgasbord of voices, and I noticed that every time I sat forward and thought, “Ooh hey, that one’s really good,” it was by Purcell. I fell in love with “Sound the Trumpets” and the “Evening Hymn” in particular; it took Klaus Nomi to make me fall in love with “Cold Song.” I was thrilled to learn about this concert and almost dropped over when I learned that Scholl would very likely sing “Cold Song.” (He did. Wow.)

Because of this, I freely admit that I sat in my seat last night waiting for the concert to start, amazed that I was about to hear some of my favorite stuff sung by the greatest living falsettist, backed by one hell of a band. I stand behind my incoherent gushing. Gah. Buh. Mmmmmph. It was unbelievable. Holy crap.

“Sweeter than Roses.” (With a short false start that the audience completely forgave. In small quantities, these things are charming.) “Music for a While,” which I’ll always associate with Alfred Deller. “Evening Hymn.” “O Solitude.” “The Cold Song.” “Dido’s Lament.” Just the whole top ten of Purcell, in the purest, clearest, most glittery voice. It sounds so clinical to compliment him on his intonation, phrasing, and the sheer champagne beauty of his vibrato, which is why I’m trying not to bring it up. But trust me, that all came across as well. I just don’t want to make it seem as if this is the sort of thing one should listen to with a checklist of notes in hand, waiting for errors. Classical music already has a long row to hoe fighting against that image of sourpusses sitting in the audience checking off notes.

Nevertheless.

When a group of people can lift you out of your seat with beauty and also just happen to get it all perfect, it makes an impression.

The band put a nice dark belt under it all, too — I’ll never be a huge fan of Baroque violins. Too skatey and too watercolor, not a deep enough core to the sound. (Although lots of people adore them, so that’s just a matter of taste.) But the violas were better, the cello was great (played standing up and propped on a padded piano bench, which seemed very sensible to me), and the violone was to die for. A beautiful thing as well, with one of those extravagant cornices-and-oak-leaf-lobes silhouettes that is sometimes seen on violas d’amore. Man, that thing sounded like heaven. The lutenist came out after the intermission with a little Baroque guitar, which could actually be heard — not always the case. It added a needed angularity to the music that old-style strings can’t contribute easily. Together with the harpsichord, it all was a lot meatier than one would have thought. No prissiness in this stuff, and they used the power well. The swell the band added underneath was a direct contrast to the occasionally too timid orchestration for some of these pieces in other interpretations. They filled the hall without once swamping Scholl. When I heard them a while back with David Daniels, there were more of them on the stage, and they did indeed overwhelm him a few times. Not this time. Fewer musicians, and a beautiful balance between all instruments, including the biological one.

I’ll stop. It’s just a gush at this point. Gah. It’s true — bad reviews take a lot more telling, but good ones are often boring, just “OMG GO SEE THIS.”

Well, OMG GO SEE THIS.

Geeky stuff I noticed: I only saw the first violin shift once. The reeds were fantastic — Baroque reeds really sound great. A bit of a gender swap since three of the four high strings were male, and the oboes and bassoon were all women. The trumpets were also cool; one of them had to perform some sort of emergency drainage blowout towards the end. Again, I’m glad I don’t have to clean spit out of a piano or a viola.

Non-geeky stuff I noticed: One of the violists had on the most beautifully colored long purple dress. The cellist was adorable. The cello was also nice, that gorgeous deep cherry-brown that I like so much on strings. None of the other instruments were particularly beautiful looking. Scholl looks like he’s in his early 30s, the bastard.

“Natoma” and “Into the Trees”: Zoë Keating’s stuff

A short review: both albums are worthwhile, but the second album is better music than the first. Although the first, “One Cello x 16: Natoma,” has some standout pieces on it, there are more than a few pieces that strike me as if Keating were sort of frobbing the dials on this new way of recording and making music and finding out what she could accomplish with it, very avant-garde and more interesting in an “under the hood” sense. The second, “Into the Trees,” sounds as if she had sort of settled out her toolbox and found things to say.

For anyone curious about Keating’s methods and stories, I’d recommend buying both albums. For anyone who simply wants nice music to listen to, get “Into the Trees” and leave “Natoma” for later.

Personally, I do like both, but “Natoma” is a bit more like whiskey, more interesting than tasty. “Trees” is both.

Con Gioia and Michael Maniaci — March 6, 2011 at the Reisch Residence, San Marino, CA

Michael Maniaci


A lot of things have to align perfectly in order to create a Michael Maniaci. There’s that miraculous voice of course, but in a man with no desire to perform it would be no good.

And of course the man in question, if he does wish to sing on stage, must be courageous enough to recognize that special voice as a blessing and not a curse.

Couple that with excellent musicianship and the ability to get the most out of such a voice, and the extraordinary ambition and drive needed to make an acclaimed, global career in just about anything. Much as one may love performing, no one loves an 11-hour plane flight, strange hotel food, nor jet lag.

The voice, the courage, the musicianship, and the drive. When they align, we get a miracle, and one willing to share his gift.

Add to that the manifold gifts of the Con Gioia early music ensemble, and it makes for an incredibly wonderful way to spend one’s 45th birthday. 🙂

The program consisted of the following:

By Henry Purcell:
Fairest isle
If music be the food of love
Ah! How sweet it is to love
Dear, pretty youth

By Giulio Caccini:
Amor, ch’attendi, amor che fai
Amor, io parto
Con le luci d’un bel ciglio
Amarilli mia bella

By J. S. Bach:
Schliesse mein Herze
Laudamus te

By Barbara Strozzi:
Lagrime mie

By Nicola Porpora:
Alto Giova

By Haendel!!!
Chaconne in G for Harpsichord
Cara speme(!!!!!!!!!!!!)
Che bel content sarebbe amore
Quando invita la donna l’amante
Se potessero i sospir miei
Encore: Ombra mai fu(!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

It’s hard to know where to start without exploding with joy.

The venue was nothing I had ever seen before — a very well-banked private home in an expensive area of Pasadena, with an enthusiastic hostess with a great love of the arts, and music in particular. It was attractive but not overdone, and my slight fears of feeling like rabble that had forgotten to come in through the servants’ entrance never materialized. I had fears of asking a skeptical-looking tuxedoed valet to park my dusty little Suzuki with the dinged-up right rear fender and the wine bottle bag in the back seat between a Lexus and a Mercedes.

The room was perfect for fewer than 100 people, which was about how many showed up. A beautifully decorated harpsichord stood next to an equally beautiful high-polish ebony finish parlor grand piano, and it was with a bit of a start that I realized that the Modigliani-style portrait in the corner was quite probably a Modigliani.

All in all, it was an amazing venue in which to hear one of the 21st century’s real miracle voices, and I’m extremely glad to have taken the opportunity.

I was very pleased to see the Purcell on the program; I’m more a Baroque fan than an early music fan. The Baroque music is just edging into the modern aesthetic enough that it was be enjoyed as a native tongue while the Renaissance/Elizabethan stuff takes a bit more intellectual effort to look past the quasi-Great Vowel Shift that music passed through at around the mid-1600s. However, every time I’ve heard something from that era that I’ve liked, it’s been by Henry Purcell.

It was all wonderful, especially the last one, “Dear pretty youth,” that Maniaci put a nice, petulant twist on at the end (or seemed to). The song itself had a lot of liveliness and joy in it as well and his interpretation was great — very jaunty and energetic but again, ending with a bit of aw-come-on style petulance.

The next one to catch my ear was the last one by Caccini — one of the creators of opera with Peri and Monteverdi if I recall correctly — “Amarilli mia bella.” It was again beautiful, and just like “Dear pretty youth,” Maniaci really nailed the interpretation. It was so sincere and genuine and just wah, I’m going to gush now, excuse me …

The next one to really catch me was the “Alto Giove” by Porpora, not a shock since he was one of the big teachers and composers of the golden era of the castrati, who trained up many of the best singers and worked at the best conservatories as well. If anyone would write top-flight music to exercise and showcase such a voice, it would be him, and this was a beautiful piece, beginning to move into the type of music that doesn’t sound quite so unusual to modern ears.

And of course, when I saw “Cara speme” on the program, I almost died. Tuva Semmingsen will forever own this for me, but I was already sniffling at the intro. His voice was so sweet and so rich and absolutely beautiful that he got every drop of emotion that can be gotten out of this aria and more. His vibrato, trill, the texture of his voice, the sweetness with a hint of dark bittersweet … it was all so perfect for this, a gentle and heartbreakingly beautiful song about a very ungentle vengeance.

Aside from that, it’s hard for me to single out any particular Haendel aria since Haendel for me is pretty much the acme of the genius, hook-happy songwriter/composer, but “Se potessero” was another showstopper, and again a large part of that was due to Maniaci’s interpretation, given that Tirinto is such a tragic character.

And then the encore. “Ombra mai fu,” of course. And there was me sniffling again like an idiot, but it was worth it. As I’ve observed before, Maniaci marries clarity and richness like few other singers do, all of whom are either high male or low female voices, the Best of Both Worlds type of voices. He called out the lazy sunshine, fresh air, and rippling leaves just by singing about them.

Just in general, his voice has such a ringing quality, but without the pungency of many high voices, including the voices of men who sing very high due to endocrine reasons. There is no ringtone quality to his voice, not even on that delicate, crystalline high end of his. At all times, his voice retains real darkness, richness, and warmth together with a champagne glitter. His vibrato is brilliant, quick without being intrusive, and a real signature of his. His gift with a cadenza, his rubato, his modern, slightly cheeky musical-theater way of interpreting … all of it is something I am deeply grateful to have seen live in such an intimate setting, and with so many wonderful musicians.

I don’t want to slight the musicians either, by the way. Preethi de Silva, Head Honcha of the ensemble, made the harpsichord turn cartwheels and brought out all of the roiling meatiness in Haendel’s music that had been missing for most of the overly stuffy pre-Baroque-revival 20th century, when his music was performed more like robot clockwork than living music. The violinist, M. Anne Rardin, was wonderful on a Baroque-outfitted fiddle (which always amazes me), and with a young protegee (I’m guessing) named Danielle Rosaria Cummins on a modern fiddle — or what I’m guessing was a modern fiddle given the fine-tuner that I think I spied on her tailpiece and her cambered bow. The viola da gamba, always a favorite of mine for its depth and cushiness, was played by Denise Briese (who looked very familiar for some reason), and both archlute and theorbo were played by Jason Yoshida, who according to the program materials, I’ve already heard as he was in the pit during the LA Opera’s “Tamerlano.” They were all fabulous.

All in all, it was an incredible day, and one that I am absolutely stunned and delighted to have enjoyed. After complaining for so long that I always seemed to have heard about Maniaci two months after he went anywhere, I was overjoyed to discover this performance in time to attend, and in such a wonderful, almost period setting — a wealthy patron’s parlor, filled with a cozy, intimate number of other music-lovers and amateur musicians!

A magnificent day.

“Haydn’s Drum Roll” and more — Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Alex Theatre — January 22, 2011

I love being within easy driving distance of one of LACO‘s venues. As long as they are doing something I like, it’s a simple decision to see them when they are at the Alex. I’m glad I did — wonderful as always.

They started out with Mozart’s Piano Concerto #20, which reminded me of early Beethoven in exactly the same was that early Beethoven reminds everyone of Mozart. A real showpiece, although the piano didn’t see to be quite the best match for the music. The action was a bit thunky in the treble, and I’m not sure it had the right shimmer that a piano needs for Mozart. In the bass it was fine, but the audible thunk-thunk of the action in the treble was distracting.

The playing was, however, wonderful — Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who seemed to give Mozart a type of taffy-like moldable quality that you would find in a 20th century performance. He treated it far less like clockwork than many people do, who almost use that era’s music as a sort of timekeeper. In general, the piece had the typical bounce and strange undercurrent of occasional darkness that Mozart has, overlaid with a lot of joy and innocent self-satisfaction. Mozart is a bit like watching someone who can run very fast having a tennis match with himself.

*thock!*

*dash*

*thock!*

*dash*

It sounds like it should be shallow mind-candy but somehow, it isn’t. It’s always fun, always beautiful, always deeper than you think, and always leaves you suspicious that there was more going on that you got on a first pass. His music is a bit like a bright, beautiful lake under a clear blue sky … but you wonder what’s going on under the water. The fact that he never got to mature and the world missed out on what a 60-year old Mozart might have written is one of the great cultural losses, along with the death of Henry Purcell.

There were also some points where the similarity with early Beethoven (and the germ of evolution into Beethoven’s more mature music) were very obvious, where he would move breakneck toward the end of a phrase, and then execute this little Columbo-like “oh, but just one other thing” before swerving off from where you swore he was headed. Very Beethoven-like indeed.

After it was finished, I think the stagehands discovered that the piano had been moved on stage before the risers had … because they had to execute a 17-point turn to attempt (and fail) to maneuver it off stage. They just sort of left it “parked” next to the risers with the blinkers on. 🙂 Whoops.

The second piece wasn’t something I’d heard of, Lutoslawski’s “Musique Funebre” … and I confess that when I read the description in the program of it as an atonal piece without a “home key,” I thought to myself, “Oh, great. Oh, well … you’re here, might as well just see what it has to offer.” I was surprised to find out that … well, it wasn’t as oddball and impenetrable as most atonal music fans seem to think that type of music is. It sounded like the soundtrack to a 1950s suspense thriller, which isn’t as unfamiliar to non-insiders as the insiders seem to think. It seems to go down better with eyes closed, so that the mind’s eye can spin off its own images to accompany it, given that it doesn’t stand as well on its own. Listening to this sort of music seems to be like watching clouds: shapeless swirls punctuated by moments of clarity where a particular shape will stand out. As long as you don’t expect any one thing, it’s enjoyable for a time.

I’m unfamiliar with this type of music, so I’m not sure how deeply I can talk about it. It showcased the low strings wonderfully, and the mournful quality really gave the violas a chance to shine. I haven’t a clue how it would be notated; many of the “chords” seemed to consist of notes that were about a gazillionth of a cent apart from one another, which was very evocative and demanded a resolution of sorts that was usually given, even if it wasn’t shaped like the V-I type thing that one would expect from more traditional music. I have to say that while it’s not the sort of thing I’ll be running off to Amazon to get (or rush to play anytime soon) it was worth a listen, at least for 14 minutes. The low strings really were very good.

Then the Haydn. *happy sigh* I adore high Baroque, even though this seemed a bit more soft-edged than most of that sort of thing. That may have been an artifact of having heard the Lutoslawski immediately beforehand, though — interestingly, it changed the way I heard the low strings. Following the timpani roll, the low strings and woodwinds seemed to glide in rather amorphously, and after having heard “Funebre,” I suspect that I heard them differently. It was a great example of how one type of music can change the way one hears another, and of how very important programming is at these events. You wouldn’t think of two composers being more different, but even they had their points of tangency when juxtaposed.

Other than that, it was everything that one loves in Baroque music: the dancelike quality, the occasional syncopation, the surprising capacity for melancholy, that delicious little *bip-boop* that they always do, particularly great on the cellos in the “Drum Roll” after a *bip*-sized rest. Batjer’s solo was, as one would expect from her, fantastic and a lot more soulful … as one might not expect from Baroque since it’s been a victim of offensively starchy interpretation for the past 100 years or so. I’m so glad of the Baroque revival. It’s night and day hearing this sort of music with some meat on the bones instead of feeling like one might as well be listening to a cuckoo clock. To judge from the last time I heard her — also on a Baroque-heavy program — Batjer tears into this sort of stuff like she’s tearing into a plate of ribs. I love it.

I have to say though, that the “no applause” rule really sticks out like a sore thumb when it comes to Baroque. This is music meant to be listened to by a more active audience, and the hushed reverence thing really doesn’t sit well with it. Baroque movements always seem to end on a swell that demands applause, and Haydn isn’t Wagner. The Lutoslawski was definitely one of those “hold onto the last moment of silence as long as you can” things, but not the Haydn. (And truth be told, not the Mozart.) I wish classical audiences were free to decide for themselves what the proper reaction is to a given chunk of music. We can figure that stuff out on our own, and if we can’t, then the music didn’t do its job.

Lastly, a visual rundown, because this is me and I can’t resist describing the instruments: the cellos were like a handful of jellybeans, all quite unique colorwise. One was purplish-brown and reminded me strongly of a Gagliano violin I saw for sale once in a JSI catalogue, belonging I believe to Giovanna Clayton. One sitting immediately before her was ruby, and the other two were sage and buckwheat honey. Beautiful, and all very different. Oscar Hidalgo’s double bass had that magnificent deep reddish-brown that I love to see in a bass that reminds me of Black Forest cake and port. Few of the violins made a major visual impression, possibly because many of them were edge-on to me, and one of the violas stood out as particularly pretty, played by Roland Kato’s (quite nice-looking but stratospherically tall) stand partner. (The prettiest viola I’ve ever seen in my life, hands down, belongs to Renard Edwards of the Philadelphia Orchestra and is a dead ringer colorwise for Hidalgo’s bass.)

Also, bassoons? Steampunk ductwork.

A great night all around. LACO bats 1,000.

“The Wrecking Crew” by Denny Tedesco

Back in June 2009, I talked a bit about a group of session musicians I had never heard of that became informally known as “The Wrecking Crew.”

Last night, I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of the movie itself. I am still shocked and delighted. The article linked above should give you all the information you need to know about these fine musicians, but I can’t emphasize enough that any lover of music — of any genre — must see this movie. If you speak any English at all, this music has been a part of your life — and probably even if you haven’t.

The audience was as interesting as the movie in some ways. There were plainly many professional session musicians and others there with an emotional investment in the subject matter although many people were simply music lovers. (The fellow sitting next to me — if the fingernails on his right hand were any indication — was a guitarist.) Their reactions to the movie were fun to watch in and of themselves. A few examples:

1) Herb Alpert’s “The Lonely Bull,” his first album which subsequently netted him a ton of money, was made on a very frayed shoestring. He was a lone trumpet player who had no money at the time, and the session players he chose were asked to do the job as a favor. It was, as one musician named Julius Wechter said candidly, a “scab date.” The record was released and went through the roof … and Alpert promptly went to the union, paid the fine, and had checks mailed to all of the musicians for what they would have been paid had it been above-board. Spontaneous, generous, and very heartfelt applause greeted this. As I learned later in the Q&A session with producer/director Denny Tedesco (with Don Peak and Don Randi, OMG yes that Don Randi), Alpert very generously allowed Tedesco to use the clips of his music in the movie for free. If Herb Alpert ever needs a kidney later in life, he can probably count on a number of donors thanks to this film.

2) Bass player Joe Osborn is, like the great Carol Kaye, one of the best in the business. One of the simplest, most moving little pieces of film I’ve ever seen featured Osborn sitting with his bass guitar in his lap and wearing headphones, playing a lovely, bare bass line. As he progressed, the music of 60s pop vocal group 5th Dimension slowly faded in over the bass line … and the entire audience suddenly realized in delighted amazement that we were listening to mega-hit “Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” Then, the music slowly faded away and we were once again left with the virtuoso Osborn playing along to the music in the privacy of his own mind. Once again, spontaneous and very moved applause. Absolutely lovely. Earlier in the movie, something similar had been done with drum legend Hal Blaine and the Elvis Presley classic “A Little Less Conversation,” which has always struck me as a catchy but unfortunate song.

3) Mickey Dolenz, Monkees real vocalist and faux drummer, stating bluntly that the Monkees was simply a television show about a fake band. Evidently, people needed to be told. His judgment on those who think that rock and roll shouldn’t be fun! — “It’s very serious! You’re not supposed to enjoy it!” — complete with mock Sgt. Schultz accent, got guffaws. As did Cher’s hilarious observation that while the musicians respected producer Phil Spector’s talent, “they thought he was nuts. Of course he was nuts … ”

Great moments in the movie itself included:

1) The completely honest awe and admiration that all of the musicians had for Beach Boys’ lead composer Brian Wilson, who was widely regarded by everyone who worked with him as a genius. Carol Kaye’s demonstrations of his innovative bass lines were a very memorable part of the film.

2) Drum legend Earl Palmer discussing the volatile Phil Spector’s behavior toward him. Spector had already irritated Hal Blaine to the point of no return and feared that a walkout by Palmer would leave him without either of the two best people behind the drum set. Palmer’s deadpan statement: “So we got along just fine.”

3) Palmer’s statement that one should never consider any type of music “beneath you. It’s not beneath you if it’s supporting you. If it’s beneath you, don’t play it.” He made a statement that all musicians everywhere can take to heart when he observed that he wasn’t a fan of rock and roll but instead preferred jazz. However, if he was asked to play rock and roll, he had to play it “as if that was my favorite music.”

4) Brilliant saxophone player Plas Johnson talking about playing various clubs with his brother, also a musician. “We played blues, boogie … We wanted to play bebop but nobody wanted to hear it.”

5) In general, the number of these people who started later than the ridiculous kindergarten ages considered mandatory by classical music lovers was very large. Kaye began at age 13, and Tommy Tedesco, an awe-inspiring deity on nearly anything with fretted strings, began well after his teens — at least, to hear him say it. “You hear people who say, ‘I had […] chops […] when I was twelve!’ I don’t know about you, but when I was twelve, I was playing marbles, y’know?” Blaine, considered to be the greatest drummer in the history of music, began formal training after leaving the armed forces on the GI Bill.

6) However, the number of these people who had musician parents was enormous. Strangely, their kids often did not play themselves. But so many of them had parents who played instruments and worked as jobbing musicians that it became quite clear that a strong family support system and expectation of musicality was far and away the most important thing, well beyond beginning out of the crib. The late starter isn’t a strange event. The lone starter is. Where there is family music, there will always be music.

7) The single most important piece of advice to be gained for anyone looking to make a living from music: Take the job. As guitarist Al Casey said, “If you sit at home and wait for the phone to ring, it won’t.” It doesn’t matter if a musician dislikes a certain type of music. If they turn that job down, someone is waiting behind them is salivating to play just that sort of music, a fact stated by Casey’s guitar colleague Bill Pitman. This ecumenical attitude gave these fine people a far more important quality than mere virtuosity. It gave them versatility. Nothing matters more than playing. Play, anything, everything, any time, anywhere. Just play.