September 25, 2002
One not-so-short blog entry about Glenn Gould

The great Canadian pianist and composer Glenn Gould would have been 70 today. He died in 1982, at the age of 50. Gould was an eccentric genius whose revolutionary first recording of 1955, of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, made his career.

Sony Classical is re-releasing that first recording, along with his 1981 version of the work. A third disc has outtakes from the 1955 session and an interview with Washington Post critic Tim Page (yes, I realize I’ve mentioned him three times in a week). The set is offered at an excellent price.

Gould has a rather cult-like following. For something different from the veneration of the day, see my friend Kevin Michael Grace’s last column.

Michael of the 2 Blowhards has a nice item on Gould, with plenty of links. While I adore the Blowhards, I must disagree with Michael on Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould. I just saw this film last night. Michael calls it a “fab intro” to the pianist. I watched it partly to learn more about the man on the eve of his birthday, but found myself disappointed.

The 32 shorts are modelled on the Goldberg Variations. There is a theme, 30 variations, and a recapitulation of the theme, which I take to be solitude. The movie opens on a snowy, barren landscape, the barely-visible figure of Gould (played by Colm Feore) moving slowly toward the camera. It ends with the same terrain. Yehudi Menuhin, the great conductor and violinist, interviewed during the movie, declares, “I can’t make a life for myself on my own, excluding everyone else and concentrating on this intellectual exercise.” Gould, apparently, could.

The movie is Canadian, and it shows—it’s unconventional. Some of the films contain no action, for example. “Forty-Five Seconds and a Chair” comes early on, with Gould in a chair looking at the camera while we listen to Bach’s 2 Part Invention #13. “CD318” features Bach’s Prelude #2 from the Well Tempered Clavier Volume 1 while we see the inner workings of a piano being played. Another section features the 1969 animated short Spheres. These odd interludes are not such a bad idea. They are striking, and the emphasis on the music helps get the viewer in a receptive mood for a movie about someone for whom music was all. But the rest of the films don’t have the substance to sustain the movie.

We do get some picture of the man. He wore heavy coats and scarves, even in 90-degree weather. He could be cleaned up and charming. He took a lot (a lot) of prescription drugs. A short I found particularly illuminating was “Questions with No Answers.” These include: As someone so obsessed with musical perfection, why do you hum and pay no heed to noisy chairs during recording? What aspect of your life has nothing to do with classical music? Have you ever thought about children? Are you homosexual? The questions tell us a great deal, but still leave us with only a hint of a personality. The best short, I think, was the first variation, “Lake Simcoe.” Feore does a voiceover, and we learn about Gould’s childhood, with three boys playing the young artist at various stages. Here we really do learn, about how he was surrounded by music at a young age, intently encouraged by his mother. It’s a good beginning, and the vignette style works well. The promise, however, is not fulfilled.

The movie is really an impressionistic portrait, but the viewer is left wanting more—more knowledge, more detail, more experience of the man. We never really see Gould interacting with other people—barely even on the phone, on which he was notorious for having long conversations with his friends. At one point, he says, “I just don’t like the sound of piano music.” Well, this is damn intriguing—what does he mean? So much terrain is left untouched in this film.

The Glimmer Twins

Martin Amis' latest book, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, takes to task intellectuals—including his father, Kingsley Amis, and best friend, Christopher Hitchens—who excuse the atrocities committed by Stalin. Hitchens responds in an Atlantic Monthly review. Lucretia Stewart recalls when they were still the best of friends. (last link via Bookslut)

September 23, 2002
Commitment at the movies

I saw High Fidelity this past weekend for the second time. An entertaining film.

You likely know this movie already. It’s based on the novel by Nick Hornby. John Cusack (with his usual cool ease) is Rob Gordon, a record shop owner and consummate top-five list-maker, whose live-in girlfriend Laura has just left him. Trying to figure out what went wrong, he reconnects with his other top-five breakups while trying to win back Laura.

At the time of its release, I remember hearing people call it a “date movie for guys.” Gosh, I hope that’s true, because it’s all about commitment.

This exchange between Rob and his mother occurs near the beginning of the movie:

Mom: Do you know why she left?
Rob: It’s got nothing to do with marriage.
Mom: So you say.
Rob: Laura didn’t even want to get married. She’s not that kind of girl That’s not what happens now.

True enough on the last point. But is he so sure that’s not what Laura wants? And has it made either of them happy? Rob finally learns it hasn’t:

I can see now I never really committed to Laura. I always had one foot out the door, and that prevented me from doing a lot of things, like thinking about my future and... I guess it made more sense to commit to nothing, keep my options open. And that's suicide. By tiny, tiny increments.

At the end of the movie, Rob proposes to Laura. It’s not the most romantic of proposals, but it’s strangely sweet. He has grown up and discarded the fantasies of youth. You can refuse to commit, thinking that something better might come along—which leads to unhappiness and an endless string of failed relationships. Or you can recognize when you have something really good and work at making each other happy. “Should I bolt every time I get that feeling in my gut when I meet someone new?” Rob wonders. “Well, I've been listening to my gut since I was 14 years old, and frankly speaking, I've come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.” Laura doesn’t accept, but she thanks him for asking.

Music, of course, plays a big part in the movie. I particularly enjoyed how it shows the romance of sharing the music you love with someone else. When Dick plays the Stiff Little Fingers for Annaugh, there is a nice shot of the record player in the background and Annaugh’s slightly bare midriff and hips in the foreground. They are in the middle of a busy record store, but for them, there’s not another soul in the world.

Afternoon Anguish

Norman Lebrecht’s latest Evening Standard column is on the death of classical music. He notes he has been “attacked as a prophet of classical doom,” but in this piece, he sees small signs of hope.

British radio station Classic FM’s audience has increased from four million to 6.8 million in its first 10 years. Almost half a million of those are under the age of 20. But for Lebrecht, this is no cause for celebration: “Great music exists to stimulate the senses, challenge the mind and provoke self-contemplation. Classic FM exists to numb the mind and induce a mood of self-satisfaction.”

I haven’t listened much to Classic FM, but it sounds like WGMS here in Washington takes a similar approach. I was quite delighted to discover the station when I first moved here—particularly that it was a commercial classical station. But with some recent changes, they seem to be pioneering a dumbing down of classical radio in this country. They now have “Mozart in the Morning,” “guaranteed to perk up your morning commute and get you to work fully charged,” and “Rush Hour Relief,” with “classical selections perfectly suited to calming your frazzled nerves.” I guess I wouldn’t mind this so much if they also had “Afternoon Anguish,” “guaranteed to push you into the depths of despair and back again.”

Many stations now tout classical as music for relaxation. Yes, it can be relaxing, but it can be so much more. Art music is, to some degree, an acquired taste, and classical radio used to educate. People would hear entire symphonies and concertos and learn how a work develops. They would be exposed to new music. Stations aren’t doing the cause of great music any service by playing only “soothing” snippets. (How many times a week is Pachelbel’s Canon played on classical radio in this country, anyhow?)

This reminds me of the time I bought a friend a CD of Mozart’s 40th and 41st Symphonies, hoping to inspire an interest in art music. “Thanks,” he said. “The problem is, I wonder when I’ll ever be in the mood to listen to classical music.” As if there is but one mood for such an incredibly rich art form.

I’m not so optimistic as Lebrecht. Scanning the audience at concerts, I am always saddened to note that most of the heads are gray. I know very few young people who listen to classical music. I once asked Washington Post classical music critic Tim Page about this in an online chat. His response:

There are two schools of thought on what is happening to the classical music audience. One says that the last living fan will die out about 2025 and our concert halls will disappear. The other opinion holds that classical music seems to be something that people turn to increasingly in later life, when the body chemistry slows down a bit and the bankbook gets a little fatter. I tend to agree with this second opinion. People have been predicting the imminent demise of classical music for at least 30 years, and it seems to roll on.

I’m rather more skeptical. Are the people who are listening now to Shakira and Snoop Doggy Dogg really going to start listening to Schubert and Shostakovich when they turn 65?

As for the line that only the older and richer can afford art music— Sure, tickets at the Kennedy Center can be steep. But there are a myriad of options. Last season, I attended an all-Mozart program at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. Christopher Hogwood conducted the Academy of Ancient Music. Tickets were a mere $5 for students of any school—an amazing price to see one of the premier interpreters and orchestras of period instruments. Still, I saw very few young people. (The one sitting beside me arrived in the middle of a piece and then promptly went to sleep.) And this was right on a college campus.

Good recorded music is also inexpensively available. CDs in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series have a list price of $11.98. You can buy the aforementioned Mozart symphony pairing conducted by Karl Böhm in Deutsche Grammophon’s budget Eloquence series for $7.98. These are great performances at great prices.

And, of course, there is Naxos, the world’s leading classical record company. The list price for CDs on this budget label is usually $7.98. You can often get these at your record store for less. The recordings are digital and the performances are often excellent. They have 20 rosette titles in the Penguin Guide and over 60 Gramophone Editor’s Choice discs.

By the way, if you’re clamoring to hear a certain piece while you’re at work and away from your CD collection, or you just want to explore, check out Naxos’ web site. You can listen to just about anything in their catalog, free. Just register (free), search the catalog, and click.

September 22, 2002
Counterpoint in Upstate New York

I finally watched You Can Count on Me. This small movie came out a couple of years ago to much critical acclaim.

It’s a very good film. It centers on Sammy (Laura Linney, who looked lovely receiving an Emmy tonight), a young single mother to eight-year-old Rudy (Rory Culkin). Rudy is sheltered by his mother, yet he’s a precocious kid. One of the funniest scenes of the movie comes early, when Sammy asks Rudy how his school day was. Rudy is not happy: he has to write a story—on any topic he wishes. “What’s wrong with that?” asks Sammy. “It’s too unstructured,” Rudy replies.

The two are fumbling, but they’re getting by. Enter Terry (Mark Ruffalo), Sammy’s errant brother. He pops back into their upstate New York town only now and then, but the two are close—their parents died in a car crash when they were children. Sammy seems surprised by how quickly Terry and Rudy bond. Terry treats Rudy like an adult. Not just by taking him to a pool hall late at night, where they clean up, but by talking to him like one. This isn’t all good, of course—Terry is, unsurprisingly, rather cynical.

Terry’s time spent with Rudy frees up the more straight-laced Sammy, who takes the opportunity to go a bit wild. Sammy is having a sort of life crisis. Much of the mess develops because of her great capacity for pity. She feels sorry for others, with their misery, and offers up herself for their contentment.

There is a significant religious element to the movie. All the characters are looking for guidance. The director, Kenneth Lonergan, is hilarious as Father Ron. His scenes are not only funny, but really quite profound. Sammy is having an affair with her boss (Matthew Broderick, as usual, irresistible) and visits Father Ron to find out “what the church’s stand on adultery is these days.” Father Ron reluctantly replies, “Well… It’s a sin.” But the church, he says with lots of shrugging and “Well…”s, prefers not to dwell on that part. Sammy is indignant—“Maybe it’d be better if you did, yelled at me, and told me I’m going to hell.” Touchy-feely religion doesn’t encourage virtuous behavior.

Sammy also asks Father Ron to visit Terry, who has long since left the church. Sammy recognizes that Terry’s problems result, in part, from not feeling that he’s a part of something greater than himself. Father Ron tells Terry that until he sees that his life is connected to that something greater, and through that, to the lives of those around him, his destructive behavior won’t stop.

Both are important lessons. I admit I was a bit surprised to see them in a movie almost universally celebrated by the critics.

One of the things I really liked about this movie was its use of Bach. This is a nice counterpoint—Bach belonged to a much more judgmental church and time. An aria from the St. Matthew Passion is played against the pastoral beauty of small-town, upstate New York. And the Cello Suite No. 1 in G major recurs throughout, austere yet hopeful. A fitting soundtrack to a movie about people trying to figure out what to do with their lives.

September 20, 2002
A splendid evening at the NSO

On Wednesday night, I attended the National Symphony Orchestra's opening night concert, with Music Director Leonard Slatkin conducting.

After the national anthem, the program proper began with Dvorák’s rousing Carnival Overture. A fine, celebratory start to the evening.

German soprano Diana Damrau made her American debut with two Mozart arias, a concert aria and the famously difficult Queen of the Night aria from Die Zauberflote. Her voice was controlled, but expressive. Quite beautiful.

The highlight of the evening was Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with Yo-Yo Ma the soloist. This is one of my favorite works of music, painfully beautiful, filled with melancholy, despair, and sometimes, it seems, resignation. I went in wondering how Ma’s performance would compare to that of the late cellist Jacqueline du Pre, who really owns this piece. He somewhat lacked du Pre’s spontaneity. But that is likely an unfair comparison and certainly not harsh judgment. Ma’s sublime work seemed flawless and was infused with real feeling. The NSO was a worthy accompanist. I was left breathless by the electrifying final bars. A brilliant performance by both soloist and orchestra I feel lucky to have witnessed.

If only the evening had ended that way. Instead, there was an intermission, followed by a much lighter second half. Suppé’s Dichter und Bauer operetta overture was an enjoyable beginning. But the rest of the works, all by American composers, seemed played mainly for laughs. Damrau returned, sans wrap, and with long gloves and sparkling jewelry, for “Glitter and Be Gay,” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. She was technically impressive, but did not thrill as she did in the Mozart arias. The audience found the display charming, however, as they did the rest of the pops program.

Bernstein was followed by three miniatures by Leroy Anderson: Belle of the Ball, The Syncopated Clock, and The Typewriter. (Anderson’s best known piece is probably the charming Sleigh Ride, which I always enjoy hearing at Christmastime, with the added lyrics.) The Typewriter features a solo by the title “instrument.” Slatkin did solo duty with a sense of fun, and listeners were delighted.

Last on the program was an orchestral arrangement of Charles Ives' irreverent Variations on “America,” originally written for organ when the composer was 17. As it was begun, the evening ended on a patriotic note, with an encore of Stars and Stripes Forever.

The audience left entertained, talking mainly of the Ives--the tick-tock and the gimmicky typewriter. I don’t understand why the NSO would want patrons to leave amused, rather than moved. The first half of the evening was heavenly, the second, decidedly down to earth. I prefer to remember the exalted.

For a different view of the evening, see Tim Page’s review in the Washington Post.

September 19, 2002
Welcome.

Something of myself. I live in the Washington, DC, area, where I direct public policy and journalism internship programs for a think tank. I also edit a review of books. Previously, I was a newsmagazine reporter and a graduate student in philosophy. My great love is culture--literature, music, film, and the visual arts--and this blog is a vehicle to share my interests with others similarly minded. I look forward to hearing from you.