Thursday, October 30, 2008

Pearls! Pearls! PEARLS!

The other night, I turned on the record player to make it feel wanted, and the disc that happened to be on the turntable was the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Recording of "Fiddler on the Roof," Side 3.
Let me tell you: if you've ever seen the musical performed by your local high school or college ensemble, you may think you know the songs, but you haven't truly heard "Tevye's Dream" until you've heard Fruma-Sarah belted out by Ruth Madoc. (I think--I've lost the original liner notes. And actually, the Fruma-Sarah at my college's production was almost better, but I can't remember who sang it.)

My parents took me along to this movie when I was 3 years old. I still remember the dried leaves swirling as Fruma-Sarah returned from the grave. Then I dove under the seat, but no sticky little fingers in the ears could keep out that mighty shriek. Had nightmares for a long time after that.

For 99 cents, the pleasure can be yours!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Violists and Editors

Yesterday evening, I gave a talk to a class of older adults. I've pasted below the text I prepared, although of course it didn't come out exactly as it is reproduced. (I neither talk like I write nor write like I talk; I couldn't stand myself either way if I did. But I did have to put my lecture into written language so that when it came time to speak, I didn't just blab on.)

How is an Editor Like a Violist?

Last year, Morning Edition, the NPR program, ran a series of essays called “Musicians in Their Own Words.” One gray morning, I happened to catch Cynthia Phelps, the principal violist of the New York Philharmonic.

Now, the viola section rarely gets the melody in orchestral music—and when they do, it’s usually just for short passages. But Phelps talked about how violas shape the sound of the entire orchestra. They play the “notes behind the notes” that provide the backdrop, the context for the melody. They influence how listeners perceive the mood and even the tempo of the music.

Cynthia Phelps didn’t hesitate to say that one of the reasons she likes being a non-melody-getting viola player is that she has control at the very foundation of the music. I don’t think she means that this control is like a dictatorship, though. The power of music is a collective power—musicians working together; it also involves the listener.

Are you starting to see where I’m taking this?

So, of course Phelps didn’t call herself a dictator, or even a leader. She called herself a mediator. The radio feature ended with her saying, "I try and create a balanced middle ground. It really resonates with the way I am as an individual."

An editor, too, is a mediator, a liaison for the readers and the writers and the publisher. If I only printed what writers wanted to write, [one of the publications I edit] would be very different. (They all seem to love to write about cancer survivors, octogenarian athletes and small business owners.) And although I’m lucky to have a publisher who truly values good writing and reporting, in general, a publisher’s concerns are not precisely the same as the readers' or the writers'.

If I only printed what readers wanted to read… well, I don’t know what Readers want, exactly, but I do know (because I’m a reader myself) that they want to be informed, entertained, and above all, respected.

So the editor is the pivot point, the mediator. The editor gets the writers to think of the readers. I hope by choosing topics and assigning articles that cover a wide range of experiences, I get readers to think about our community and our world.

There was more, but I drifted away from the violist/editor analogy. It was hard--and probably not necessary-- for me to express how epiphanic the moment was for me, when I heard Phelps declare that the role of a viola in the orchestra fits her understanding of herself as a mediator. It was deeply pleasing to hear someone else say this, the same thing I feel about my role as an editor. I had never bothered to imagine that a musician might see herself this way.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Thomas Mapfumo and Blacks Unlimited at the Modlin Center

Not one minute into this concert, I was crying from the beauty. Something about the sorrow-and-joy sound of the music caught me right in the middle of vulnerability, and it took me three songs to come round and experience the concert from other perspectives than the weepy one.

Thomas Mapfumo started making music when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia, a former British colony struggling for independence. He's credited with blending traditional Shona songs and instruments with contemporary electric rock music, and is recognized as a cultural leader in the revolution. He's now stridently anti-Mugabe, living in exile in Oregon and making music with his band, Blacks Unlimited.

As for this music, simple and complex beats are layered to produce a thick foundation of rhythm, on top of which melodic cycles and riffs flow in and out. Mapfumo's voice isn't strong, but intense and perfectly balanced with the instruments: drums, percussion, bass, tenor and alto sax, mbira and guitar. It's music to sit and soak up or to dance to, and a little bit of the latter did, in fact, occur in the sedately carpeted aisles of Camp Concert Hall.

If you're not familiar with Zimbabwean music in particular, or African music at all, this is an excellent show to start with. Good thing they're playing again, Saturday night... get a ticket now!: Thomas Mapfumo and Blacks Unlimited

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Richmond Symphony: Brahms's Butter & Barber's Brilliance

My older daughter says she once saw a cooking show in which Paula Deen mixed butter, mayonnaise and breadcrumbs, rolled something in the mixture, deep fried it (whatever the base food was didn’t seem to be the point), then dipped it into mayonnaise to eat it.
Brahms’s cooking show—I think he had one—was similar. If he didn’t, his music, at least, was created on the principle, “Try more butter.” This is why you should never listens to Brahms on a Sunday afternoon without a pot of coffee and an open window.
But I like Brahms, even in serving sizes as large as a symphony, such as his Number 2 in D major, with which the Richmond Symphony ended its performance last night at St. Michael’s. I could have used even more butter, so to speak. Partly that’s because I think any time the cellos get a gorgeous melody, as in the first and second movements here, everyone, including the conductor, should drop to his knees and weep.
Daniel Meyer, auditioning conductor #2, (who did not drop to his knees) was an expressive but not excessive director for the whole program, which began with a piece from 1994, “Javelin” by Michael Torke.
This sprightly music was full of shapes and gesticulations; the only melody of more than a few repeated notes was inspirational in nature. As a whole, it was a pleasantly invigorating listen. Lest you think this too much faint praise, here are Torke’s words, which I saw in the program notes after the piece was over: “What came out was a sense of valor among short flashes and sweeps… The piece’s fast tempo evokes the generally uplifting, sometimes courageous, yet playful spirit.”
So, in fact, the composition and its performance was a rousing success, as defined by communication of intent.
Second on the program was Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (Op.14); concertmistress Karen Johnson soloed. (I had never heard this piece before, but I like the Barber music that I know.) As at times in the Brahms, it seemed as if the orchestra wasn’t responding the way Meyer wanted. Especially in the first movement of the Barber, a lush Allegro, the big parts could have been bigger, the small parts smaller.
I think, however, this was mostly a factor of the St. Michael’s in-the-round arrangement and compartmentalized ceiling. When the average audience member is only 12 feet away, it’s practically impossible for an orchestra to play a good piano or pianissimo. And—though I don’t know much about acoustics—the forte parts seemed to go straight up and get stuck in the cross-shaped ceiling.
Also, Johnson had her back to my section, and it was sometimes hard to hear her. (This was my first ever and last ever St. Michael’s concert.)
In the second movement, Andante, the music descends from introspection into lethargy. You hear the self trying to rouse; by the end of the movement, resolution is reached, but it seemed like Meyer wanted to get to that point of awakening sooner than the RSO.
"Presto in moto perpetuo” is as brilliante as it sounds on paper. Listening to the third movement is like a riding full-tilt up the Empire State Building in a glass elevator with a fast-talking Manhattanite jacked up on sugar pointing out representative bits of American culture.
Just when you think the elevator and your tour guide couldn’t possibly go any faster, you smash through the roof and everyone jumps to their feet clapping.
In the music, snatches of vernacular whip by, a whirlwind tour of American music up to 1939. It’s truly giddy, and about half a minute before the end I did worry that something was going to fly apart. When Karen Johnson started her last lick, I thought, “My god, I don’t think her fingers are going to make it!” But they did, and so did she!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

"Eurydice" at the Firehouse

"Eurydice" is nearing the end of its run at the Firehouse Theatre, and if you missed it, that's a shame, because it really is that good. The acting was wonderful, but I suspect they were inspired to greatness by Sarah Ruhl's script, which I thought was flat-out good writing. (Although I wanted the play to be a little longer, with a little more development given to Eurydice's individuality, I figured Ruhl wanted to keep the pace fairly brisk in the middle.)

I took my 11-year-old daughter tonight, and because I was lame and didn't buy tickets ahead of time, we almost didn't get to see the show. We had to sit on opposite ends of the theater and I felt sad that I couldn't see her reactions as the play progressed. Afterwards, she said she was glad we went. Maybe she was just as happy not sitting with me.

P.S. Only in the Underworld do fathers and [absent] brides walk down the aisle to Glenn Gould's meditation on corporeality that is the Goldberg Variations Aria. Thank you, Bryan Harris, for teaching us this. In fact, I think it was the Bach that called Eurydice to her father.