Holliger Completes his Schumann Series

Schumann Vol 4 front cover

Schumann Vol 5 front cover

Schumann Vol 6 front cover

ROBERT SCHUMANN COMPLETE SYMPHONIC WORKS:

Vol. 4: Violin Concerto / Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin. Piano Concerto / Dénes Várjon, piano; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln; Heinz Holliger, conductor / Audite 97.717

Vol. 5: Konzertstücke for Piano & Orchestra: in d min., Op. 134 & G Major, Op. 92 / Alexander Lonquich, piano. Fantasy for Violin & Orchestra / Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin. Konzertstück four Four Horns & Orchestra / Paul van Zelm, Ludwig Rast, Rainer Jurkiewicz & Joachim Pöltl, horns; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln; Heinz Holliger, conductor / Audite 97.718

Vol. 6: Symphony in g min., “Zwickauer;” Overtures: “Manfred,” Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, Goethe’s “Hermann und Dorothea,””Genoveva,” Schiller’s “The Bride of Messina,” Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” / WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln; Heinz Holliger, conductor / Audite 97.705

Here, at last, are the final three installments in Heinz Holliger’s survey of the complete orchestral works of Schumann. After a hiatus of nearly two years, Vols. 4 and 5 were released in April and Vol. 6 in May. It’s rather puzzling since these recordings certainly appear to have been made early enough to have been released in 2015, and the mystery deepens when one realizes that the catalog number of Vol. 6 actually comes between Vols. 3 and 4, yet somehow it was determined that it be issued last.

All the CD covers say “Symphonic Works,” but except for the four numbered symphonies (including both versions of No. 4) and the short, two-movement early symphony stuck in the middle of Vol. 6, these are really “orchestral works” as they include all of the Konzertstücke, Concertos (excepting the composer’s arrangement for violin of the Cello Concerto), Fantasies and Overtures. It’s really quite a haul, and a real treat for those of us who recognized in Schumann a truly original and individual composer whose output, though of lesser volume than Schubert, is more startlingly original and, in many places, more modern in concept for its time. Aiding Holliger in his presentation of these interesting and sometimes challenging scores is a lean, enthusiastic orchestra who seems to revel in the conductor’s straightforward but exciting interpretations.

Judging a complete set of any composer’s works, particularly that of a famous composer whose work has been available in various recordings over the past century, is always a matter—for me, anyway—of both personal preference and a bit of compromise. For instance, I fully admit that the complete Beethoven Symphony sets of Toscanini and Michael Gielen are touchstones for me, but I also like other performances by those two conductors from different years not included in the sets as well as performances by other conductors recorded over the years. The same is true of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s magnificent set of the complete Schubert Symphonies, and the same is true, for me, of this KopatchinskajaSchumann series. I really love, for instance, Toscanini’s rendition of the “Rhenish” Symphony, Guido Cantelli’s performance with the Boston Symphony of the Fourth Symphony, Klaus Tennstedt’s recording of the Konzertstück for 4 Horns, Igor Oistrakh’s version of the Violin Concerto and both Dinu Lipatti’s and Van Cliburn’s recordings of the Piano Concerto, and for me the Holliger renditions—though very good, and certainly in better sound—seem to be just a shade below these, but if you had no knowledge of these recordings you’d be thrilled by most of these performances. Online Longquichreviews of Vol. IV have some very unkind things to say of Patricia Kopatchinskaja in particular. I found her tone a bit unusual, very lean and bright, almost (but not quite) a bit edgy, but her intensity of expression and superb control of her instrument won me over. I was less thrilled with pianist Dénes Várjon in the piano concerto; he’s a fine, clean pianist, but to me lacks a point of view in this music, which Kopatchinskaja has in spades. Apparently Holliger thought the same thing, because in the Vol. 5 Konzertstücke Várjon was replaced by Alexander Lonquich, whose warm tone, deep-in-the-keys touch and loving phrasing really makes his instrument sing. Happily, Kopatchinskaja returns for her Fantasy, and once again gives 110%. You’ve got to love these Russian violinists, regardless of age or schooling: they don’t seem to know how to play music dispassionately!

As a rule, Holliger’s approach to this music is on the brisk side (which I like) but without much in the way of rubato or other tempo modification. This is in keeping with the modern view towards Romantic music, a trend that started with Roger Norrington’s Beethoven Symphonies way back when (a set that I actually liked, though not as much as Toscanini or Gielen). Within these parameters, however, I do hear some occasional moments of interest—not moments in which Holliger pulls back on the tempo, but moments when he ever-so-slightly abbreviates the note values to make it sound as if he is temporarily playing faster. It’s the kind of approach that works well in not only Schumann but also in Beethoven and Berlioz. I wonder if Holliger has any plans or ideas to work on Berlioz next? We could certainly use a great modern recording of Harold in Italy or the Symphonies Funèbre et Trionphale.

Despite the slight nits I have picked in the above review, I still come down on the side of this series of recordings as being benchmark Schumann. I can say without fear of contradiction that anyone coming to the composer’s orchestral scores for the first time will not be at all disappointed by any of these performances, not even Várjon’s piano concerto, although he or she will certainly be more enthralled by the concerto recordings of Lipatti, Cliburn, or Annie Fischer. What I mean by this is that although there are better recordings of some of these works out there, none of these performances are so poor as to let the music down or misrepresent it. Moreover, the almost explosive performances of the Overtures in Vol. 6 will have you on the edge of your seat from first note to last. And that is a compliment I cannot better.

One final thought in closing: it seems to me a bit ironic that a man who was part of the original “historically-informed” movement of the late 1960s-early ‘70s, as the world’s leading oboe virtuoso, should eschew the constant use of straight tone that his successors all seem to think is the only way to play music nowadays. In its place, what I hear is a fast, tight vibrato in the playing of all concerned (which is probably why he so enjoyed using Kopatchinskaja as a soloist—her conception of string tone fits right in with the orchestra’s, as does the wonderful playing of Oren Shevlin in the Cello Concerto on Vol. III), which achieves much the same effect without making the orchestra sound like a bunch of anemic, whining snivelers. I say bravo to Holliger for having the courage to stick by his guns on this issue, and I hope that others in the HIP movement—at least, those who remember Holliger when he was the world’s leading early-music virtuoso on oboe—will take a cue from him. But somehow, I doubt it.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Maria Divina, Regina dell’Opera

Well, of course I’m referring to the one and only Maria Callas, the Greatest Soprano in the History of Opera, “Prima Donna Assoluta” and all that nonsense. I know some critics who absolutely detest her voice and won’t even listen to her. Ironically, Callas was among those who didn’t think very highly of her voice, which she described as “sulphuric,” preferring the silvery timbre of her rival, Renata Tebaldi. But typical of Callas, she made the comparison work in her favor. “My voice is a crude instrument of unknown manufacture played by a virtuoso,” she once said. “Tebaldi’s voice is a Stradivarius played by an amateur!”

To a certain extent, however, the comparison was fair. Without a strong conductor to draw her out, Tebaldi didn’t give very much, and even with a strong conductor she generally went flat on her high notes (listen, for instance, to the 1950 Verdi Requiem with Toscanini or the 1958 TV production of La Forza del Destino with Molinari-Pradelli). In addition, from about 1957 onwards her voice took on a gray quality that made her sound matronly, though she was only 35 years old. I have only three Tebaldi recordings in my collection: the very early (1951) performance of Spontini’s superb but seldom-performed Fernando Cortez, the 1962 Deutsche Oper Berlin video of Otello with Hans Beirer, and the 1967 studio recording of Verdi’s Don Carlo. The second of these shows her maintaining good pitch throughout the performance (miraculous!) and the latter is not so bad in terms of the “grayness” of the voice.

But to return to Callas: it was a strange voice and one that clicked in and out of wobble and tonal allure throughout her career. Some days she was tremulous, other days she sounded acidic and nasty, other days she was dead on pitch and/or could project a tonal allure that escaped her most of the time. Remember that when she came back from Greece to New York around 1947, she auditioned for two major operatic tenors who were then teaching in that city, Giovanni Martinelli and Giovanni Zenatello. When she sang for Martinelli the voice was out of sorts. He recommended that she study assiduously for two or three more years and then come back. When she sang for Zenatello, the voice was locked in and sounded fantastic…so much so that the veteran tenor, then 71 years old, sang along with her in a scene from La Gioconda and then hooked her up with conductor Tullio Serafin, who became her mentor. You just couldn’t tell what she was going to sound like from day to day.

She also was not always the best or most dramatic singer in a lot of repertoire for which she is considered “classic.” To my ears, she never really gave 100% in her performances of Il Trovatore, although she is pretty good on the commercial recording, and her voice simply wasn’t the right quality or heft for either Norma or Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera. As for Tosca, one of her “signature” roles, she actually didn’t like it very much, but for me her 1953 studio recording—though the best sung—is one of the least interesting dramatically. I much prefer her late stereo recording with Carlo Bergonzi as Cavaradossi, although my favorite of all her Toscas is the live Convent Garden performance from the year before.

But no one was better at creating and sustaining “the Callas mystique” than Callas herself. She almost whimsically came to think of “Callas” as a brand, something independent of her real self, something she had to sustain and promote. Thus she traveled with a band of sycophants, played the Prima Donna, flashed her eyes and glared at interviewers and fans alike. It was part of a grand put-on; but when the time came to decide whether she wanted to continue singing as a mezzo-soprano and give up the high range, she couldn’t go down. Neither could she give up singing entirely and become a stage director, as her good friend Tito Gobbi suggested. For Callas, being “the greatest soprano in the world” was more than a calling, it was her identity, and when she simply couldn’t deliver the goods any more, she crawled up inside her Paris apartment and…died. It’s a sad story, but in a sense self-fulfilling because she couldn’t escape the Callas creature she herself helped create.

The main thing most Callas fans don’t realize, because most of them don’t know about divas who preceded her, was that although Callas was a fine artist she was not unique or the first to do what she did. Antonina Nezhdanova was a soubrette-coloratura who sang her roles with dramatic feeling, as was Pierette Alarie. Rosetta Pampanini was a superb vocal actress whose recording of Madama Butterfly is justly considered a classic, and in fact better than Callas’ recording. Likewise, what Gina Cigna did in Aida (two live performances, my preference being the Met broadcast with Giovanni Martinelli), Norma, Turandot and La Gioconda is very similar to Callas, and in my view Maria Caniglia (Aida, Un Ballo in Maschera, La Forza del Destino and Andrea Chenier) was a much more exciting singing-actress than Callas. Licia Albanese’s Mimi in La Bohème was better than Callas’, and Magda Olivero’s Tosca, Adriana Lecouvreur and Violetta are far better than Callas’. And oh, yes, for a brief period of time there was also Anita Cerquetti, the great Montecosarian soprano, whose Norma, Aida, Donna Elvira in Ernani and Gioconda were easily the equal of Callas in interpretation and far better than her vocally.The one field in which Callas was a pioneer in the 20th century was in injecting some drama into bel canto operas such as Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto and La Sonnambula, with two caveats: she often slithered through downward coloratura passages without bothering to sing every note separately as she should, and she had a bad habit of distending phrases to show off her breath control while imparting a downward portamento to certain held notes. But by the late 1950s Anna Moffo and young Renata Scotto were already surpassing what Callas did in these operas, too. And let’s not lose sight of the fact that Callas shunned any modern opera like the plague, and in fact refused to sing any British or American opera because she didn’t like singing in English!

Callas gained her legendary status due to her ability to sing such dramatic roles as Isolde, Kundry and Gioconda on the one hand and bel canto roles like Lucia, Adina and Rosina on the other. In between she sang some of the great classic roles in the Gluck-Spontini mold that, in my view, represented her greatest contributions to opera, such as Iphigenie, Medea and Giulia, as well as the mainstream Italian roles, Gioconda and the Verdi-Puccini axis. What her legion of fans neglect to notice is that she sang these “huge” roles in small operatic venues where she didn’t have to push the voice very hard. I heard here in person once, at one of her Master Classes at Juilliard, and was surprised by her voice. What surprised me was this: the basic size of her voice was average lyric soprano, but she had this metallic (sulphuric) “core” to the voice with a “halo” of suffused sound (ambient beauty) that hovered around it…almost a mixture of two different voices. I would say that 99% of her recordings, even (perhaps most especially) her EMI commercial recordings, never captured this sound. You can only hear it on two performances, the studio recording of La Sonnambula and the live 1959 Covent Garden performance of Medea.

In preparing this recommended Callas list I’ve chosen some recordings in which she is heard at her very best, and her surrounding colleagues are also mostly heard at their best, but not all would be recommended versions of those operas above all others. A few, yes, and I will simply list them here and reserve a detailed description for my list of those operas within their time and class; but several are really just “Callas recordings,” meaning that they are highly recommended for her fans but not necessarily first choices for those specific operas in your collection.

MacbethVERDI: Macbeth / with Enzo Mascherini, baritone (Macbeth), Gino Penno, tenor (Macduff), Victor de Sabata, conductor / EMI Classics 66447

A great performance by the three principals listed above and conductor de Sabata, whose pacing and shaping of the work is superbly ominous and has real backbone, but the stereo recording with Sherrill Milnes, Fiorenza Cossotto, and conductor Riccardo Muti is even better acted, just as well sung, and in stereo to boot.

IphigenieGLUCK: Iphigenie en Tauride / with Fiorenza Cossotto, mezzo (Diana), Anselmo Colzani, bass (Thoas), Nino Sanzogno, conductor / Opera d’Oro 7085

A performance in Italian of Gluck’s great classic, with Callas and Sanzogno driving the opening scene hard, as I prefer to hear it, but in this opera it is Pylades and Orestes who are the stars of the show, not Iphigenie, and Francesco Albanese (Pylades) and Dino Dondi (Orestes) are pretty miserable. Worth hearing for its historic value and Callas’ Iphigenie, but that’s all. The best recording is the one with Carol Vaness, Gösta Winbergh, Thomas Allen and Riccardo Muti on Sony-CBS.

SPONTINI: La Vestale / with Franco Corelli, tenor Vestale(Licinio); Ebe Stignani, mezzo (Gran Vestale); Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, bass (High Priest); Antonino Votto, conductor / La Scala Records 1

Despite the fact that this is a truncated performance with barely adequate sound—there is a low-level hum that runs throughout, and although the orchestra is recorded perfectly the voices sometimes sound a bit tinny—this is only one of two really great recordings of Vestale (the other is the performance in French, also abridged, with soprano Michéle Le Bris, mezzo Nadine Denize, tenor Robert Dumét, bass Jacques Mars and conductor Roger Norrington on Ponto PO-1038). Franco Corelli, whose later proclivity to drag out every high note as if it were the last he would ever sing, was a much cleaner tenor in 1954, and Votto’s conducting is splendid. An interesting historical footnote: Arturo Toscanini was in the audience.

LuciaDONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor / with Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor (Edgardo); Rolando Panerai, baritone (Enrico); Herbert von Karajan, conductor / EMI Classics 66441

Despite the fact that it’s in mono sound, and a lve performance at that, this is still my favorite Lucia, and Callas is only a part of the reason. The soprano is in great voice here and delivers one of the most moving performances of her life, but she is aided by conductor Karajan, who combines Italianate lyricism with a dark, brooding Germanic quality that greatly enhances Donizetti’s fluffy operatic souffle. The only other recording of this opera that I like, though not as much as this one, is the studio performance with Anna Moffo, Carlo Bergonzi and conductor Georges Prêtre on RCA.

PUCCINI: La Bohème / with Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor (Rodolfo); Rolando Panerai, baritone (Marcello); Anna Moffo (Musetta); Anntonino Votto, conductor / EMI Classics 66670

As Callas’ Trovatore, Ballo and Norma are overrated, her Mimi in La Bohème is underrated. Votto conducts the opera rather slowly, much like Sir Thomas Beecham the same year (1956), but whereas the Beecham Bohème is considered classic the Votto Bohème generally only appeals to Callas fanatics. This is a shame. She seldom sang more purely or more affectingly, and although I still like Albanese’s Mimi a bit more this is certainly a haunting performance. More to the point, her supporting cast—di Stefano, Panerai and Moffo—are miles above Björling, Merrill and Lucine Amara on the Beecham recording in terms of characterization. My preferred Bohème recordings are the live performance with Ileana Cotrubas, Luciano Pavarotti and Carlos Kleiber and the studio recording with Kiri te Kanawa, Richard Leech and Kent Nagano, but as a “historic” Bohème, this one has it all over any other mono performance.

SonnambulaBELLINI: La Sonnambula / with Cesare Valletti, tenor (Elvino); Eugenia Ratti, soprano (Lisa); Leonard Bernstein, conductor / EMI Classics 67906

The 1957 studio recording catches the sound of Callas’ voice better than this 1955 live performance from La Scala, but if you listen to opera because it is sung drama you won’t get very much out of that version. Here, spurred by conductor Bernstein, tenor Valletti and a live audience hanging onto every note, Callas and company make you understand something that is often lost in modern performances of this opera: that 19th century audiences actually considered La Sonnambula a dramatic work. If Callas was not, as so many claim, the ultimate Norma, she was certainly the ultimate Adina of recorded history, in line with the role’s creator, soprano Giuditta Pasta, who could actually bring tears to the audience’s eyes every time she sang the role. Callas was also in excellent voice for this performance; 1955 was obviously a good year for her.

RigolettoVERDI: Rigoletto / with Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor (Duke of Mantua); Tito Gobbi, baritone (Rigoletto); Tullio Serafin, conductor / EMI Classics 0825646340958

This isn’t my favorite historic Rigoletto; that honor goes to an incendiary live Met performance from December 1945 with Bidú Sayão and Jussi Björling in top voice and baritone Leonard Warren absolutely, positively devastating as the cursed jester (conducted well by Cesare Sodero). One reason why this recording doesn’t sit well with me is di Stefano, who pretty much slops up the music of the Duke, particularly the end of Act 1, Scene 1 where he is supposed to be singing in counterpoint but instead sings on the beat, thus ruining the music’s effect. But Callas proved what Toscanini was getting at in 1943 and ’44, when he performed the last act of this opera with sopranos who were famous for singing Leonora and Aida, Gertrude Ribla and Zinka Milanov. Milanov was more famous, but Ribla did the better job. Yet since Toscanini didn’t record the whole opera with Ribla, this is the one that proves his point, that Gilda doesn’t need to be sung by a light soubrette and in fact probably shouldn’t. In later years both Margherita Rinaldi and Christine Schäfer recorded the role, but only Schäfer captures the tragic sadness of the character as well as Callas does here. Again, it’s not a benchmark recording of the complete opera but a benchmark recording of the soprano role.

MedeaCDCHERUBINI: Medea / with Jon Vickers, tenor (Giasone); Joan Carlyle, soprano (Glauce); Fiorenza Cossotto, mezzo (Neris); Nicola Rescigno, conductor / ICA Classics 5110

Although for sheer, overpowering drama, the Houston performance of this opera given the previous year is more intense, I personally prefer this version for two reasons. For one, Callas “builds” her character more subtly and skillfully, not really blowing up until her last scene; and for another, the sound quality is superb, almost as good as the studio recording for Mercury but with a better supporting cast. One must also say a word here about the edition used. This is not Cherubini’s original Medée as presented in French at the Paris Opéra—for that experience, you must have the recording by soprano Jano Tamar, mezzo Magali Dalmonte, tenor Luca Lombardo and conductor Patrick Fourmillier on Nuovo Era, which will also have you on the edge of your seat. This is the performing edition that Callas helped create back in 1953 with Leonard Bernstein, in which certain music was scraped away to focus in on and intensify the drama. Also, for a prime example of what Callas really sounded like in person this June 1959 performance is Exhibit A.

ToscaPUCCINI: Tosca / with Renato Cioni, tenor (Cavaradossi); Tito Gobbi, baritone (Scarpia); Carlo Felice Cillario, conductor / EMI Classics 62675

No, I don’t like Tosca very much. I concur with the late musicologist Joseph Kerman, who called it a “shabby little shocker.” But in this performance, given at a time when Callas was being betrayed by her lover, Aristotle Onassis, and evidently lived vicariously through the character in getting even with him during the stabbing scene, this is a hair-raising experience. The reason I choose it over the studio recording from a year later is because she was in absolutely horrible voice for that later version, whereas she is in surprisingly good form here. Also, it is my opinion that Cioni gives more as Cavaradossi than Bergonzi.

CarmenBIZET: Carmen / with Nicolai Gedda, tenor (Don José); Robert Massard, baritone (Escamillo); Georges Prêtre, conductor / EMI Classics 56281

Nicolai Gedda isn’t in very good voice on the Callas Carmen (it was recorded in Paris during a summer heat wave, and no one was really comfortable), and yes, there have been other interpretations as good as hers since, but no one before Callas got as deep into the character as she did. The downside is that she, too, was in mediocre to poor voice for these sessions, but if what you’re looking for is a commanding, sultry Carmen, a non-nonsense woman who knows what she wants and how to get it, this is your meat.

So, there you go. This is my take on Maria Divina. Of the above recordings, I’ve gotten rid of some of them from my collection as better recordings supersede them (Macbeth, Rigoletto, Iphigenie, Bohème and Carmen), but if you want to understand the essence of Callas, these are the recordings to hear. She was a moment in time, a meteor who streaked across the operatic sky, burned out and disappeared, but although she cannot always be enjoyed she should not be forgotten. She had her faults, but she had her good points, too.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Far-Out Jazz From Ivo Perelman and the Sirius Quartet

Passion According to GH

PERELMAN: The Passion According to G.H. / Ivo Perelman, tenor sax; Sirius String Quartet (Fung Chern Wei, Gregor Hubner, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; Jeremy Harman, cello) / Leo Records CD LR 642 (available at Amazon) (Recorded November 21, 2011 in Brooklyn)

  1. Part 1 7:19
  2. Part 2 7:55
  3. Part 3 15:33
  4. Part 4 6:16
  5. Part 5 3:37
  6. Part 6 8:45

I really must thank jazz singer Sophie Dunér for introducing me to the music of the Sirius Quartet. She has just finished making an album with cellist Jeremy Harman of that group, who is utterly fantastic on it (I thought at first he was a jazz bassist), and she told me via e-mail that he is a member of this quartet. I investigated online and, voilá, ended up here with The Passion According to G.H.

This is about as far out jazz as I can tolerate and still consider music. I like, to a certain extent, the World Saxophone Quartet and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but not Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, or most of the squeal-and-scream jazz saxophonists (or trumpeters). I’m not certain if Perelman (like Ayler) knows exactly where he is, musically speaking, some of the time, where he’s going, or what he’s doing other than squealing and hoping his overblown high notes fit into the overtone series. By this I don’t mean that Perelman doesn’t understand harmonics, just that when screaming on his instrument he takes leave of musical rules in trying to express “emotion.” Nonetheless, I found about 90% of what he played to be musically valid, which gave a good basis for all to improvise on.

Some critics have questioned whether or not the Sirius Quartet really improvised around Perelman’s playing, since several stretches of it sound composed. These writers possibly don’t know much about the fine honing classical musicians give to their skills; they’re comparing apples to organges if they think that because the music is complex and at times polyphonal, that some of it had to be written. Anyone who has played the string quartets of Bartók and possibly Elliott Carter can certainly improvise figures behind Perelman’s lines on tenor. In fact, I would go so far as to wager than none of the critics who question the Sirius Quartet’s ability are even familiar with the works of Bartók or Carter. In essence, what the quartet does is mighty impressive but not at all impossible for musicians of their high caliber. Hearing the general mode or key that Perelman is in, they improvise polyphonically around him, at times combining bowed and pizzicato figures simultaneously. Once in a while the viola and/or one of the violins plays an arching, sustained passage, but only when Perelman slows down. They employ a lean, fast vibrato and tend towards a bright sound as a quartet, which is ideal for both modern music and jazz.

And please don’t forget that Perelman is listening to them as much as they are listening to him. This work is a two-way street, and the fact that it is the quartet that occasionally drags Perelman back to tonality tells me that everyone’s ears are a-buzz in this session. As a matter of fact, second violinist Gregor Hubner has uploaded Part 1 from this suite on YouTube, including video footage from the recording session. There isn’t a music stand in sight, so either everyone memorized every note or phrase of this ever-evolving and highly complex music or they were winging it. My money is on winging it.

Perhaps one reason why some listeners are skeptical that this music is improvised is that, although there is rhythm, the rhythms are irregular, asymmetric, and often tend towards the slow side. This, of course, gives the strings more of an opportunity to play legato, but it can easily distract the listener who wants or needs tempo guideposts in their jazz. Even the faster sections of The Passion do not really acquire a “jazz beat;” even Ornette Coleman’s jazz-classical works, George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept and Henry Threadgill’s multi-layered jazz compositions (in which different instrument are sometimes a half-beat behind others) have a more regular pulse than this. I personally found it fascinating, but also admit that it’s not easy music to absorb and certainly has zero entertainment value.

Indeed, it’s difficult to say what this music would sound like if it did have more structure, if parts of it were written out. Perhaps the closest any section of it comes to sounding thorough-composed, to my ears, is Part 4, one of the most relaxed and lyrical sections. Otherwise, I can’t hear this music as being preconceived in any way. The constantly-moving lines within the string quartet, often independent of one another and sometimes in counter-movement, are obviously the result of many hours of woodshedding, not only in jazz but also in the kind of modern classical music cited above. (The string quartets of Leif Segerstam, far less well known but equally challenging, would also provide the kind of “homework” this kind of playing calls for.) The string quartet’s soft voicings at the beginning of Part 6, possibly using mutes, sound the most like wind instruments (oboes, to my ears) for a brief time. Again, this is the result of pre-practice and, perhaps, advance woodshedding, with Perelman and the string players getting to know each others’ proclivities and strengths.

In short, The Passion According to G.H. (Gregor Hubner?) is a one-of-a-kind tour de force. I wonder if there were any rejected takes or sections left out of the finished product…you never know with a free-form session like this. But what is here is certainly challenging and meaty, well worth listening to.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Late, Live Kenton Surprises and Thrills

Kenton 01

THE STUTTGART EXPERIENCE / H. LEVY: Chiapas; Ambivalence. LOI: Theme from “Love Story.” SIMÓNS: The Peanut Vendor. GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue (excerpt). B. HOLMAN: Malaga. WETZEL: Intermission Riff. WEBB: MacArthur Park. LECUONA: Malagueña, KENTON: Artistry in Rhythm / Stan Kenton and his Orchestra: Mike Vax, Ray Brown, Dennis Noday, Jay Saunders, Joe Marcinkiewicz, tp; Dick Shearer, Mike Jamieson, Fred Carter, tb; Mike Wallace, bs-tb; Philip Herring, bs-tb/tuba; Quinn Davis, a-sax/fl; Richard Torres, t-sax/fl; Kim Frizell, t-sax; William “Willie” Malden, bar-sax; Chuck Carter, fl/bs-sax/sop-sax; Kenton, pn; John Worster, bs; John von Ohlen, dm; Ramón Lopez, conga / SWR Jazzhaus JAH-457 (live: Stuttgart, January 17, 1972)

It’s extremely rare that I review two recordings by the same artist within a week of each other, particularly a deceased artist (and a controversial one) such as Stan Kenton, but this new release of an old concert was just too good not to write about. It’s intersesting to compare the band’s lineup here to the one he used in December 1967. just slightly over four years earlier, on his Jazz Compositions of Dee Barton disc. The only two musicians in common between the two albums are Kenton on piano and trombonist Dick Shearer. Even drummer Dee Barton, who contributed the arrangement here of MacArthur Park, has been replaced.

Considering that the 1960s and ‘70s saw Kenton fall out of favor in the jazz world (because he didn’t keep up with the newest trends), plus the fact that his band had bombed twice earlier in Germany (a poorly attended 1963 concert tour and a lukewarm reception at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1969), his success on this January 1972 evening in Stuttgart is amazing. I would say it was doubly so when you consider that, for whatever reason, Kenton decided to play it safe with a repertoire split equally between new material and old chestnuts from the 1940s. What is interesting here, however, is that the poorest arrangement and performance is of one of the new pieces (Jim Webb’s Hippie-era surprise hit MacArthur Park, surely one of the worst pieces of dreck ever penned by a human being), while each of the earlier works—The Peanut Vendor, Rhapsody in Blue, Intermission Riff, Malagueña and Artistry in Rhythm—is re-imagined in a fresh, new way (Rhapsody in Blue given a facelift by arranger Bill Holman), and the solos are considerably lengthier, and more integral to each piece, than on the old recordings.

Indeed, I couldn’t help but feel that the Kenton band simply felt euphoric on this day. You really can’t tell from Kenton’s reaction: though he thanks the audience for their applause, and is gracious as always, he really doesn’t sound particularly upbeat (in fact, he had just recently overcome a serious illness and was probably a bit dragged out). Yet his own solos, and the playing of the band, have a relaxation that simply was not evident in every edition of the Kenton band. Granted, he had undergone several facelifts over the decades, his most swinging bands generally being regarded as the 1953-55 group that included arrangements by Gerry Mulligan and the early-‘60s Mellophonium band, but this group has its own identity. Moreover, the usual screeching of the trumpets is minimized somewhat by the spacious sound in the Beethovensaal where the concert took place. One can, at last, fully appreciate the Kenton orchestra’s good qualities and focus less on the annoying aspects of the orchestra.

And make no mistake, these are truly great performances. I’m not certain if the flute soloist on The Peanut Vendor is Quinn Davis, Richard Torres or Chuck Carter, but whoever it is really flies here and adds greatly to the overall quality of the playing. Likewise, nearly every trumpet, saxophone and trombone solo is a jewel as well. For whatever reason, the band was in extraordinarily good spirits that night, possibly due to the rocket-like propulsion of powerhouse drummer John van Ohlen. It also didn’t hurt to have two new pieces by the gifted and often-underrated jazz writer Hank Levy in their book at the time (Chiapas and Ambivalence), a great new piece by Bill Holman (Malaga) and an arrangement of that stupid Love Story theme by Willie Malden that actually made good music out of it. Malden took the insipid five-note repeated motif (you really couldn’t even call it a “theme”) and used it as a riff behind the soloists, who in turn improvised on it, thus knitting the piece together. It’s an astonishing transformation.

Among the credited soloists are baritone saxist Chuck Carter on Rhapsody in Blue and Carter on flute in Ambivalence and bassist John Worster in Intermission Riff, and they are splendid. Kenton is also in rare form, sounding relaxed for a change (he was often stiff in performance), expanding his opening solo in Artistry in Rhythm to considerable lengths.

All in all, a truly surprising and excellent concert from a bandleader often maligned and neglected nowadays.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Klára Takács’ Recital Reissue a Gem

Takacs CD cover

SONGS BY LISZT, VERDI, STRAUSS & SCHUMANN / LISZT: Mignons Lied / Hungarian State Orch., András Koródi, conductor. VERDI: Six Romances: No. 6, Deh, pietoso, oh Addolorata; No. 2, La Zingara; No. 3, in solitaria stanza. Il poveretto. L’esule / Sándor Falvai, piano. STRAUSS: Du meines Herzens Krönelein; All mein’ Gedanken; Das Rosenband; Nichts; Ich trage meine Minne; Morgen. SCHUMANN: Frauenliebe und Leben / Jenö Jandó, piano; Klára Takács, mezzo-soprano / Hungaroton HCD32769

The great Hungarian mezzo Klára Takács first came to prominence in the West through her complete recording of Goldmark’s opera The Queen of Sheba with Magda Kalmár and Siegfried Jerusalem, a recording so good (of a somewhat mediocre opera) that it has never been challenged, let alone surpassed. She continued to enthrall Western audiences, during those Iron Curtain years, via further Hungaroton recordings of lieder such as this one and her performances of the Mahler song cycles Songs of a Wayfarer and Kindertotenlieder. After the fall of the Soviet Union, she was finally able to accept engagements at her leisure. Although her career in the West seems to have ebbed after the late 1990s, she was still giving recitals in Hungary as late as 2014.

The recordings selected for this recital, culled from 1980-86, catch her at her considerable best. Takács was a mezzo I could best describe as being in the Janet Baker mold, and the comparisons are not casual or unjustified. Like Baker, Takács was noted for being an exceptional stage actor; Both mezzo had lean tones with laser focus and ringing high notes with plenty of metal or “squillo” in them. Both could drop to a whisper or open up with thrilling, almost dramatic effect (I heard Baker live, just once, but it was one of the most unforgettable concerts of my life), and both spent at least half of their career singing lieder.

Takács is reportedly very proud of these particular recordings and felt that she chose her program well. Certainly, her approach to the music strongly reflects the Hungarian musical ethic, which is a fairly strict, by-the-score reading of every note and every phrase of every song, yet also one in which every note and every phrase is alive with feeling, almost crackling in its electricity. This, too, is much like Baker, particularly Baker live. One of the pieces I heard Dame Janet sing was Beethoven’s Ah, perfido!, and it was a completely different reading from her nice but somewhat held-back studio recording, a hell-bent-for-leather performance in which she let all her emotion hang out to dry.

In this recital, Takács gives just such a reading of one of the most overdone and oft-ruined song cycles ever written, Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben. This is no wussy housewife here, but one of strong-willed determination. Takács sings every piece in this cycle as if her life depended on it, and in fact one of the songs (“Er, her Herrlichste von allen”) contains her only overblown high note. It’s not off-pitch, just a bit strained, yet in character for the song and the words, an indication that Takács was willing to let “pure” vocalism go in lieu of strong feeling.

I was a little taken aback by her singing of the Verdi songs, not being used to the “Hungarian way” with this composer. She certainly respects the lyric line, but there is a certain continuous forward pressure in the music that does not allow for lingering. This is especially noticeable in the first Verdi song she performs, Deh, pietoso, oh Addolorato, with its second section eerily prescient of Saint-Saëns’ “My heart at thy sweet voice” from Samson et Dalila. Yet this is not to say that Takács doesn’t know how to caress a line when the situation calls for it. Just hear, for instance, the way she limns Strauss’ gorgeous Morgen, a piece I wasn’t so sure she’d be able to do full justice to. But I was wrong, and gleefully admit as much.

Takács’ voice, like Baker’s, was a “true” mezzo, meaning that although she had a good low range and could get down there, it was not her glory as it was with Marilyn Horne or Christa Ludwig. It was a voice, however, that was perfectly even in quality from top to bottom, a rarity in almost any singer. Her low notes were as beautiful as her high range, but as I said, they had more ring to them. Her accompanists here are also quite good, particularly Jenö Jandó, whose playing has (to me) more feeling and imagination than that of Sandór Falvai, but there are no poor or uninteresting tracks on this recital. It is solid gold from start to finish.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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The Amazing Bertons, Part 3: Vic

vicberton01

Of the three Berton (Cohen) brothers, Victor was unquestionably the most supremely talented and, more importantly, the most dedicated to his craft. Although he lived a shorter life than either Eugene or Ralph, he left a strong imprint in the form of recordings, which he made between 1924 (his first, I believe, with the Wolverines) and 1935. He was generally well-liked and highly respected by all his peers in the jazz world. And yet he, like Eugene, left little in the way of personality markers or remembrances. In the early 1970s, listening to some of his recordings, Eddie Condon recalled him as “a very good drummer—fast and flashy,” but not one further word on him. At a reunion of all the “Five Pennies” they could assemble for the TV program This is Your Life, the show honoring Red Nichols had Jimmy Dorsey talking about the Pennies who had already passed on, and Vic was prominently named—but again, not a word about his personality.

After numerous conversations with Ralph, who was quite obviously in awe of Vic (as were many drummers), the impression I got was that his older brother had a hot temper, a short fuse, and a view of other people strictly in terms of black or white. There were no shades of gray with Vic. If he liked you, he would fight to his dying breath to promote you; if he didn’t, he’d bad-mouth you to everyone and anyone he met. Yet he was so extremely talented that he constantly found work.

He was born in May 6, 1899 (not 1896 as claimed on Wikipedia) in Chicago, Illinois, where his father was a violinist. Vic started on string instruments but quickly switched to the drums, at which he was very adept. In 1903, when he was only four years old, he was hired as a percussionist at the Alhambra Theater in Milwaukee. By age 13 he was playing with the Milwaukee Symphony and Chicago Symphony Orchestras. While serving in World War I, he played the drums for John Philip Sousa’s Navy band. Ralph told me that Vic was the reason why John Philip Sousa, then in his sixties and having spent his entire life writing and playing marches, became interested in jazz. Vic explained to him that it was not only music, but that the musicians were very sincere in what they were doing, so Sousa listened. In 1924, Sousa wrote an article for Etude magazine in which he kept an open mind about this “radical” music that most other musicians his age were demeaning as trash.

In the early 1920s, Vic played with various Chicago-area bands, including those of Art Kahn, Paul Beise and Arnold Johnson, and led his own group as well at the Merry Gardens club. In 1924 he became the manager and part-time drummer for The Wolverines when they had Bix Beiderbecke on cornet. He was the regular recording drummer for Red Nichols’ various recording groups—The Red Heads, The Six Hottentots, Red & Miff’s Stompers and Red Nichols and his Five Pennies—from 1925 to 1927. In the latter year he was briefly the percussionist for Paul Whiteman’s famous orchestra, following which he worked for Don Voorhees and Roger Wolfe Kahn through 1928.

Vic was a virtuoso drummer with extraordinary skills. Louis Armstrong once said he was the greatest jazz drummer in the world. Vic invented the hi-hat cymbal but didn’t bother to patent it—someone else did, and made a fortune from it. He was also the greatest virtuoso of the “hot tympani” in all of jazz. Vic could play a conventional drum set in front of him with one hand and tuned tympani behind him with the other hand! The reason it is so difficult to play jazz tympani is that the drums lose pitch throughout the evening and have to be constantly re-tuned. Vic could actually tune the tymps while playing them at the same time. You can hear his “hot tympani” on several of the records below, particularly Boneyard Shuffle, That’s No Bargain, She’s a Great, Great Girl and Honolulu Blues. Another one of his tricks, which he would display in public but not on records (it didn’t have much “flash” effect), was to tear strips off a large piece of newspaper in rhythm to accompany a singer or instrumentalist. You can see him do this in an excerpt from a Movietone sound short here.

To the best of my knowledge, this is Berton’s only sound film. In it you also see three full-time or part-time members of Nichols’ Five Pennies: pianist Rube Bloom, who sings Dinah while Berton (wearing a horrible false mustache!) rips the paper, trombonist Miff Mole (also wearing a false mustache), and alto saxist Jimmy Dorsey (un-mustached). But the band isn’t a famous one, but a group called “Walter Roesner and his Capitoleans”—a band so obscure that you can’t even find any information about them online. Some viewers claim that it isn’t Vic Berton, but it is. Watch the section of the film where he’s playing a snare drum and cymbals in front of him and “hot tympani” behind his back. No one else in the world could do that except Vic Berton.

Ralph used to talk about “Berton luck,” which wasn’t good luck. It consisted of two things: either being in the wrong place at the wrong time or not having the business sense to immediately patent something you came up with. In Ralph’s case, it was, in particular, his Bridge story about Sonny Rollins. In Vic’s case, there were three such moments. His first bit of “Berton luck” was to sign on as manager of The Wolverines because he so admired Bix Beiderbecke, but he forgot to become Bix’s personal manager. When Beiderbecke left the Wolverines in the fall of 1924 to join Charlie Straight’s Orchestra, the band replaced him with the young and unknown Jimmy MacPartland, who was pretty good for a young guy but no Beiderbecke. Both the Wolverines and Vic lost money on the venture. The second came around 1925 when he decided to hang a cymbal freely on a leather thong from his drum kit, thus inventing the “sock cymbal” which he called the “lo-hat” or “lo-sock.” Other drummers admired it, several stole the idea, and one in particular had the good sense to do what Vic didn’t, which was to patent it. He made a fortune from it, particularly in the mid-1940s when Kenny Clarke began using it as the principal method of time-keeping.[1]

The third bit of “Berton luck” was his own doing. In the spring of 1927 he and two other members of the Five Pennies, cornetist Red Nichols and clarinetist/alto saxist Jimmy Dorsey, joined Paul Whiteman’s prestigious orchestra, but unfortunately this was a period in which Whiteman, then at the height of his fame, spent more time hobnobbing with notables in the audiences than leading his orchestra on the bandstand. He trusted Nichols enough to put him in charge when he was doing so, but Red also resented being taken advantage of. At one point both Berton and Whiteman were in the men’s room at some venue at the same time, Whiteman accidentally bumped Berton, and Vic responded by calling him a “fat tub of shit.” Shortly thereafter Vic gave his notice and went on to join the good-paying band of millionaire Roger Wolfe Kahn, where he stayed through 1928.

In the fall of 1928 Vic moved to Los Angeles, where he worked with various West Coast bands (including that of popular Abe Lyman) and also found work in the fledgling Hollywood sound film industry. He worked as director of Paramount Picture’s music division for a time, returned to the East Coast to briefly lead a swing band that didn’t catch on, and then worked in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. In the 1940s he also worked as a percussionist for 20th Century Fox. In the late 1940s, Whiteman reassembled a working band to play his old hits from the 1920s, which were suddenly becoming “nostalgia,” and asked Vic to return as drummer. For once, Vic was charitable towards his old boss, reminding him that he was older and settled in at a good gig with the LA Philharmonic. Vic Berton died in Hollywood on December 26, 1951. The official cause of death was listed as lung cancer, and that may have been so, but according to Ralph, he died from having too much sex. No, those weren’t his exact words, but this is a family-friendly blog and so I am softening them down for you.

Berton - Devil's KitchenYou can hear what I consider Berton’s very finest recordings among the many that he made. The early (1926) Brown Sugar shows him playing only the cymbal, snare drum and woodblocks, but listen to the way he “dances” on woodblocks in the final chorus…it’s a testimony to his superb sense of rhythm. The “hot tympani” can be heard throughout these records, including nearly all the 1935 tracks. Incidentally, the trumpet player “Benny Bell” on the last three tracks is not the same Benny Bell who later made slightly racy records, but a shortened form of his original name, Benny Belluardo. They can be accessed for listening here.

  1. Brown Sugar (Harry Barris)/The Red Heads: Red Nichols, Leo McConville, tp; Miff Mole, tb; Jimmy Dorsey, cl/a-sax; Alfie Evans, cl/t-sax; Arthur Schutt, p; Dick McDonough, bj/gt; Vic Berton, dm. (9/14/1926)

     2.  Stampede (Fletcher Henderson)/Red & Miff’s Stompers: As (1), but omit McDonough;  add Joe Tarto, tuba (11/10/1926)

  1. That’s No Bargain (Red Nichols)/Red Nichols & his Five Pennies: Nichols, ct; Mole, tb; Dorsey, cl/a-sax; Schutt, p; Eddie Lang, gt; Berton, dm. (12/8/1926)
  1. Boneyard Shuffle (Hoagy Carmichael)/same as above, but add Miff Mole, tb.
  1. Hurricane (Paul Mertz-Red Nichols)/same personnel as above (1/12/1927)

6. Delirium (Arthur Schutt)/Red & Miff’s Stompers: Nichols, Mole, J. Dorsey, Schutt, Berton; Tony Colucci, bj. (2/11/1927)

7. Bugle Call Rag (Pettis-Meyers-Schoebel)/Red Nichols & his Five Pennies: same as Boneyard Shuffle, but add Joe Venuti, vln. (3/3/1927)

  1. Memphis Blues (Norton)/The Six Hottentots: Nichols, Mole, J. Dorsey, Schutt, Berton; Fred Morrow, a-sax (5/10/1927)
  1. Melancholy Charlie (Crum)/The Six Hottentots: as above, but Morrow out; add Tarto, tuba (5/16/1927)
  1. Eccentric (J. Russel Robinson)/Red Nichols & his Five Pennies: Nichols, Leo McConville, Manny Klein, tp; Mole, tb; Pee Wee Russell, cl/a-sax; Fud Livingston, arr/t-sax; Adrian Rollini, bs-sax; Lennie Hayton, p/cel; McDonough, gt; Berton, dm. (8/15/1927)

11. Feelin’ No Pain (Fud Livingston)/Miff Mole’s Little Molers: Nichols, Mole, Russell, Livingston, Rollini, Schutt, McDonough, Lang, Berton (8/30/1927)

  1. Imagination (Fud Livingston)/The Charleston Chasers: Nichols, McConville, Mole, Russell, Livingston, Hayton, McDonough, Berton; Carl Kress, gt. (9/8/1927)
  1. Everybody Loves My Girl (Lewis-Young)/Meyer’s Dance Orchestra: Nichols, Schutt, McDonough, Berton; Jimmy Lytell, cl; Fred Morrow, a-sax. (10/10/1927)
  1. Feelin’ No Pain (Livingston)/Red & Miff’s Stompers: Nichols, Mole, Russell, Livingston, Hayton, Kress (10/12/1927)
  1. She’s a Great, Great Girl (Harry Woods)/Roger Wolfe Kahn and his Orchestra: Tommy Gott, Manny Klein, tp; Jack Teagarden, tb; Alfie Evans, cl/a-sax/bar-sax; Arnold Brilhart, cl/a-sax/fl/oboe; Joe Venuti, Joe Raymond, vln; Arthur Schutt, p; Tony Colucci, bj; Eddie Lang, gt; Arthur Campbell, tuba/bs; Berton, dm. (3/14/1928)
  1. Honolulu Blues (Goldstein-Gunsky)/Red Nichols & his Five Pennies: Nichols, J. Dorsey, Venuti, Lang, Berton; Fulton McGrath, p. (9/16/1931)

17. Dardanella (Fred Fisher)/Vic Berton and his Orchestra: Sterling Bose, tp; Art Foster, tb; Matty Matlock, cl; Spencer Clark, bs-sax; Irving Brodsky, p; Darrell Calker, gt; Merrill Kline, bs; Berton, dm. (2/1/1935)

  1. A Smile Will Go a Long, Long Way (Harry Akst-Benny Davis)/same as above.
  1. Mary Lou (Abe Lyman-George Wagener-J. Russel Robinson)/Vic Berton and his Orchestra: Bose, Henry Levine, Louis Garcia, tp; Foster, tb; Matlock, cl; Jimmy Granada, cl/t-sax; Pee Wee Russell, cl/a-sax; Clark, bs-sax; Brodsky, p; Calker, gt; Kline, bs; Berton, dm; Chick Bullock, voc. (3/25/1935)
  1. In Winky Blinky Chinky Chinatown (William Jerome-John Schwartz)/same as above.
  1. Blue (And Brokenhearted) (Clark-Leslie-Handman)/same as above, but no vocal.
    2 Rivers Berton
  1. Lonesome and Sorry (Con Conrad-Benny Davis)/same as track 19.
  1. I’ve Been Waiting All Winter (Oakland-Drake-Mills)/Vic Berton and his Orchestra: Vic d’Ippolito, Archie Jarry, Benny Bell, tp; Blue Barron, tb; Sid Trucker, cl; Rube Lerner, Joe Colon, Walt Dorfus, a-sax/t-sax; Mary Dale, p; Calker, gt; Cal Stump, bs; Berton, dm; Bullock, voc. (6/14/1935)
  1. Two Rivers Flow Through Harlem (Bert & George Clarke)/as above.
  1. Devil’s Kitchen (Will Hudson)/same as above, but Bullock out.

Enjoy!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] See article at http://www.drummagazine.com/gear/post/5000-years-in-3000-words-cymbal-history/P3/

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The Amazing Bertons, Part 2: Eugene

Eugene Berton

Unlike Ralph, who lived a long time and had many friends over the years, or even Vic, who had well-known jazz musician friends who remembered him, in the case of baritone-matin Eugene Berton (1903-1969) we only have Ralph’s recollections to go on. Vic died 18 years before Gene, and this middle Berton brother, though well-known at one time, left no footprints in the sand.

Eugene, like Vic, was musically precocious, being drawn to playing piano (by ear, with no formal training) and singing very early on. He played in vaudeville starting at age 6 with his cousin Lilly, later part of a slapstick comedy act with Vic. Gus Edwards teamed Gene up with six-year-old Lila Lee and they were a sensation. Eugene later earned up to $3,000 a week under Edwards’ management, playing piano, singing, and doing female impersonations. Gene drifted towards classical music by inclination. Two elderly spinsters, Marie and Esther Blanke, helped tutor him in classical piano and voice. Gene later went to Europe and studied voice with none other than the former great Polish tenor, Jean de Reszke.

In France after World War I, Gene was recommended by Nadia Boulanger to the group of composers known as “Les Six”: Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger and Francis Poulenc.

Back in the U.S. in the early 1920s, he continued his classical concert career for a while, but by 1930 he moved to Hollywood to join his older brother Vic and become part of the Hollywood film industry, writing scores and occasionally selling them to major studios.

eugene-bertonEvery time he came home from Europe, according to Ralph, he arrived “dead broke; if we hadn’t met him at the depot he owuldn’t have had enough American money on him for a taxi home.”[1] But when he got home, they understood why he was broke. He generally brought home a “trunkful of goodies for everyone, from London, from Paris, from Berlin, from Budapest, from Brussels—agorgeous Spanish shawl for Mummy…a handcarved chess set for me, a set of pronographic photos for Vic—and about fifty pounds of new musical scores and libretti from a dozen Continental opera houses.” And stories: stories of what unbelievable outfit Jean Cocteau was wearing, the bowl of pills on the library table in the home of the Comtesse de Noialles, of seeing Orpheus in der Unterwelt at the Kaiser Wilhelm Theater, of singing Debussy for the famous and well-connected.

So where did it all go? What happened to Eugene Berton? For one thing, he became more and more enamored with show music—first, the operettas of Lehár, Kalmán and Leo Fall, then the musicals of Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwin brothers, etc., and finally movie music and Broadway—and in the translation, his classical interests slowly fell by the wayside and his singing skills, which he didn’t keep up, deteriorated. Years went by, then decades. In the 1950s he and Ralph wrote a Beatnik adaptation of Puccini’s La Bohème, some 40-odd years before Rent, which only got two performances in a small off-Broadway theater. Then Gene and Ralph wrote what had to be one of the most preposterous musicals in the history of show business, titled Marie Antoinette in Pennsylvania. The premise of this was not only that the French Queen escaped France and the guillotine by fleeing to Philadelphia, but that she also somehow became embroiled in putting on a show. Of all the things I’ve heard about, and from, the show, the single most striking was one of Ralph’s most ingenious rhymes in Marie’s opening song:

France is gripped by a homicidal mania
Think I’ll travel to Pennsylvania

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard, or seen, the words “homicidal mania” and “Pennsylvania” made to rhyme (well, why should they?), but there you are.

It’s not quite clear what, if anything, Eugene lived on in his later years other than teaching voice and French song interpretation. Unlike his famous older brother Vic, who recorded prolifically between 1924 and 1935, Gene purportedly made but one 78-rpm record in the acoustic days (c. 1924), but Ralph could never remember what the selections were, the label, or whether or not any copies existed. I don’t think a single copy has ever been found. As a result, all we have of Eugene Berton id a private tape made at his studio of him practicing Debussy songs over and over and two segments where he tries to pound some musicianship into the head of a young soprano with neither musical skill nor much voice. It would be nice to say that these recordings perfectly support the high reputation that Gene had in the late 1910s and early ‘20s, but they don’t. In addition to his voice sounding rough and unpolished, he plays fast and loose with the note values of the songs. I think he wasn’t reading any scores, but rather playing and singing what was in his head, and decades of zip-a-dee-doo-dah show music had corrupted his memory somewhat. Parts of the tape include Berton accompanying a fairly bad soprano in Rachmaninov’s Lilacs and Lia’s aria from Debussy’s L’Enfant Prodigue.

Nonetheless, they are still fascinating to hear, representing a time when singers could and sometimes did play fast and loose with note values in the pursuit of the poetic meaning of a song or aria. Eugene was quite obviously a creature of deep feeling and emotion; despite the mistakes, you can hear it in his singing and playing; and it’s a bit of a shame that after his death in 1969, he was forgotten as if he never existed.

Since these are his only surviving recordings, I believe they deserve to be preserved for posterity. All of the songs are by Debussy except, of course, for the Marie Antoinette in Pennsylvania excerpts, which were taped around 1958 or ’59 with his brother Ralph. You can listen to them here:

Track details:
1) C’est l’extase (from Ariiettes oubliées)
2) Romance
3) L’Enfant Prodigue: Lia’s aria/unknown soprano; Eugene Berton, piano
4) La belle au bois dormant (from Trois Mélodies)
5) Paysage sentimental (from Trois Mélodies)
6) Voici que le printemps (from Trois Mélodies)
7) Paysage sentimental, alternate take
8) L’ombre des arbres (from Ariettes oubliées)
9) En sourdine (from Fêtes Galantes I)
10) Pour ce que Plaisance est morte (from Trois Chansons de France)
11) Colloque sentimental (from Fêtes Galantes II)
12) Excerpts from Marie Antoinette in Pennsylvania (1958 or ’59)

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] Berton, Ralph: Remembering Bix (Harper & Row, 1974), pp. 208-09.

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The Amazing Bertons, Part 1: Ralph

bertonralph_1

In the spring of 1972, just before my senior year ended, I was at the radio station on the campus of my college while this old geezer named Henry Scarborough was preparing to air one of his programs. For whatever reason, Scarborough was a college student while in his late 60s and, because he had a basic radio engineer’s license, wangled his own half-hour weekly program which he called “Scarborough Fair.” Now, believe me, this guy was about as hip as a lukewarm glass of prune juice, but that didn’t stop him from trying to be hip. He started each program by playing Simon and Garfunkel’s recording of Scarborough Fair, interrupting it after the first two lines to interject his own spoken opening:

Simon & Garfunkel (singing): Are you going to Scarborough Fair? / Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…

Henry S: “Welcome again to Scarborough Fair!”

S&G: Remember me to one who lives there / She was once a true love of mine.

Henry S: “Don’t stop now, you’re almost there!”

Well, a lot of people stopped right there and turned their radios off or at least switched stations. I used to tease him because he was so un-hip in the “Hippie Era.” But today, of all days, he had a man on his program, nearly as old as he was (60 going on 61), who was there to talk about a book he had written on jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke which was about to be published by Harper & Row. His name was Ralph Berton.

Since I was a huge Bix fan, I stuck around to hear him talk. And I’m glad I did, because Ralph Berton was one of the hippest, most interesting people I ever met in my life. In the long run, he turned out to be one of my best friends for the next 21 years.

Ralph read part of the preface to his book—not only well written, but with poetic alliteration that really impressed me. And he evidently knew his subject, having spent several hours with Beiderbecke when the famed cornetist was 21 years old, then again a few sporadic hours with him in 1927 and ’28 when both of them were in New York. Ralph was the one who introduced me to the music of Chet Baker, introduced me in person to Maynard Ferguson, enhanced my opinion of Bobby Hackett, and told me wonderful stories about Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and dozens of other jazz musicians he had known through the years. He was a walking, talking jazz encyclopedia.

As it turned out, however, Ralph wasn’t the only talented member of his family—not even the most talented. He raved to me about his older brother Eugene, a classical baritone-matin who studied with Jean de Reszke and had been recommended by no less than Nadia Boulanger to perform the songs of the French composers known as “Les Six,” and introduced me (on records) to his even more talented older brother Vic, a virtuoso drummer who was working professionally at the age of six and could play jazz tympani. Of course I never heard Eugene sing—he had died in 1969 and, although Ralph had a recording of him “somewhere around my apartment,” he never could lay his hands on it—until a year after Ralph’s own death, when the tape was finally unearthed, but I heard plenty of Vic and was suitably impressed.

Also as it turned out, Ralph was very controversial within the jazz community, but I only learned this by degrees. Insofar as the Beiderbecke book (Bix: Man and Legend) was concerned, it ticked off a great many trad-jazz buffs and musicians because he suggested that Bix had an affair with his gay brother Gene, and in the jazz world admitting that someone was gay was strictly taboo (to a certain extent, political correctness or not, it still is). But Ralph was also ostracized by his peers because he cut off all development in jazz from 1961 onward. He was diametrically opposed to Ornette Coleman’s and Don Cherry’s “open harmonics,” the Lydian jazz of George Russell, the “free jazz” of late John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders etc., and of course to Miles Davis’ fusion. He once asked me what I thought of Bitches’ Brew, and I said I didn’t know because I hadn’t heard it, so he played it for me. I tried to like it but couldn’t, and he said that was OK because he didn’t like it, either.

As the years rolled on and I eventually worked with Ralph as editor of my own little homemade jazz and classical music magazine, I came to learn some of the reasons why he ticked people off. For one thing, he bristled at the idea of an assignment; if he didn’t want to write about someone he wouldn’t, even if it was someone he liked, because at the moment he was excited about someone or something else. He also had quirky ideas about who was important in jazz and who wasn’t, and in many cases his friends came first. I still recall him insisting on writing a feature article on the obscure trad-jazz trombonist, Big Chief Russell Moore, simply because Moore was an American Indian in jazz and there were very few of them. Forget the fact that Moore made few recordings, and wasn’t considered a really great trombonist; Ralph was an inspirator of political correctness, Russell Moore was one of his pets, and he was going to write about him. I used to send him CDs (at his request) to review, only to get nothing back or not get the review until past the deadline.

So yes, he had his faults. But I’m here to tell you that over the 21 years I knew him, Ralph was not only a staunch and true friend who really cared but also a pretty sharp tack with a terrific memory who had known and talked to a great many jazz giants (and some classical people, too, like the great contralto Marian Anderson, whom he once told at a NAACP dinner that she sang “blanched spirituals”), and he didn’t always paint himself as the hero or the winner in these exchanges. He told me the story of Duke Ellington’s Carnegie Hall premiere of his huge jazz suite, Black, Brown and Beige, which he panned in a newspaper review as being overblown and pretentious. Riding in a cab with Ellington the next evening the great bandleader, not even looking at him but appearing to be looking out the window, said, “If I had been told that Ralph Berton would want me to go back to the plantation, to play the fool in the Cotton Club again, I would never have believed it…” Ralph said that although Ellington was cordial to him after that, their relationship was never the same again. It took guts to admit something like that. He didn’t have to admit it at all.

But this attitude towards a composed suite was symptomatic of one of Ralph’s blind spots in jazz. He wasn’t a huge fan of complex or sophisticated jazz as a rule. He didn’t much like orchestral jazz unless there was a really hot solo on the record (one of his favorites was Roy Eldridge’s opening solo on the 1936 Fletcher Henderson disc of You Can Depend on Me), on which he would focus his entire attention. He didn’t like subtle musicians like Bill Evans, who he complained didn’t swing. And he had an almost “Harlem Renaissance” view towards black jazz and blues records. The more they were “down and dirty,” the more he liked them. In his mind, Ralph still equated jazz with “jass,” the black music of the whorehouses and ghettos, and yet he perfectly described Thelonious Monk as “the Stravinsky of jazz,” referring to his angular rhythms and asymmetric phrase shapes, and was a huge fan of Lester Young and Stan Getz (though he despised Getz for his abrasive personality and his refusal to work with gifted women jazz musicians).

And Ralph really did know his music, from Bach to Bartók. He was a huge fan of Stravinsky, who he called the single most important composer of the 20th century (he also introduced Bix Beiderbecke to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps in 1929), and an early defender of his music against Philistines who he felt were condescending towards it. Thanks to his brother Gene, he was also an aficionado of lieder and French chansons. And once in a while I could get through to him what it was that I liked in the sophisticated scores of Ellington or Boyd Raeburn. He wasn’t averse to orchestral texture, but it wasn’t what drove him. The “hot solo,” the “irony of a black man in white society” were his horses, and those are the ones he rode.

We should also not forget that Ralph was a pioneer: the first pure jazz radio show host in American history. This came during the period 1940-42 when Berton hosted WNYC’s Metropolitan Review, dedicated to the “finest in recorded hot jazz,” in addition to occasional interviews with old-timers and young jazz and blues musicians. The May 11, 1942 issue of Newsweek opined that “Berton converted listeners by the thousands. His fan mail pyramided to 8,000 letters, outstripping all other regular shows.”[1] Ralph was the pioneer of WNYC’s live jazz programming, bringing the Benny Goodman Sextet into their studios and the Lester Young group to Manhattan Center for a remote. You can listen to the Lester Young aircheck, with Ralph’s announcement, here.

 

 

In later years he also broadcast over WINS, WBNX, KJAZ, WBAI and WFMU on an irregular basis. He edited the music magazine Sound and Fury during the 1960s, where he had the foresight to hire the distinguished classical music critic B.H. Haggin to write for him—and also turned Haggin on to jazz. In his later Listener’s Guides, Haggin made sure that he got a few words in on Bix Beiderbecke and young Louis Armstrong, both of whom impressed him greatly. You can listen to the only known surviving recordings of Ralph Berton on the air by clicking here.

Another of his pets was Marilyn Moore, a white jazz singer who unfortunately sounded like Billie Holiday at a time when Holiday was still alive. (Billie didn’t mind and found it touching, but the jazz critics savaged Moore.) He played me one of her albums once. To be honest, I didn’t care for her much, whether or not she sounded somewhat like Holiday (which she said was inadvertent), but that didn’t stop him from making me listen to the whole album! And if I knew more about someone he was big on and thought was an “unknown” musician, he sloughed it off. Like the time he played me Lionel Hampton’s 1939 pickup band recordings of Rock Hill Special and Down Home Jump featuring the (to him) “unknown” drummer Alvin Burroughs, who really excited him. I pointed out to him that Burroughs wasn’t unknown at all, that he was the star drummer of Earl Hines’ great Grand Terrace band of that time, and in fact could be heard on a number of Hines Orchestra recordings. “Well, I guess he was famous in Chicago,” Ralph conceded, “but I never heard of him!” Well, yeah, Ralph, but the rest of the jazz world did.

Still, I found Ralph to be an absolute fount of information, and in later years when I double-checked his stories, I discovered that he was telling the truth 95% of the time. Like the time he ran across tenor saxist Sonny Rollins, who at the time had dropped out of sight, practicing by himself late at night on the Williamsburg Bridge. This led to Ralph’s famous short story, The Bridge, which he changed to the Brooklyn Bridge in order to keep others from bothering Rollins. Or the time he told me about sitting in on a Jelly Roll Morton recording session when he was about to cut The Pearls. Morton looked up from the piano, winked, and said to him, “This one’s gonna kill ya, kid!” just before giving the downbeat. Or the time he went to interview Miles Davis in the early 1960s and Davis, in one of his ticked-off moods, met him at the door wearing nothing but a chain around his neck. Ralph pretended that everything was normal, went through the whole interview, and then, when Davis saw him to the door, casually remarked, “Oh, by the way, Miles…your fly is open!”

Ralph taught jazz classes sporadically at such venues as the Metropolitan School of Music, Bloomfield College and Middlesex County College. In between he was often unemployed, although he did take temp jobs writing ad copy over the years. But he did his share around the house, being a first-class chef (especially salads…he introduced me to garlic presses and Grey Poupon mustard at a time when they were not yet “hip”) and a (kind of) housekeeper, though he always liked having his apartments look as if a bomb had just hit it. He was definitely a proponent of the saying that “Creativity is better than a neat desk.”

All the members of the Berton family (original name Cohen) had heart problems. Brother Eugene did little or nothing to help himself and died at age 66. Brother Victor burned the candle at both ends, never stopped smoking or having sex with women, and died at 52. Ralph was a health food fanatic, had once been a professional bantamweight boxer, and played tennis into his late years. When he took ill in early 1993 he was convinced that he would pull through, but he didn’t. Say what you want about him, good or ill, but I still miss him terribly. His friendship meant a lot to me, who always struggled for recognition and was rebuffed more often than I care to remember. And now I will endeavor to do justice to his brothers in the next installment.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] https://www.wnyc.org/story/212476-ralph-berton-university-jazz/

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Regietheater, The Ruination of Opera

walkure

That ever-popular, well-loved operatic scene, the Ride of the Valkyries.

It began, actually, way back in the 1920s with the experimental Kroll Opera in Germany. Artists, painters, dancers and theater directors all came together with the intention of presenting opera in a way that was dramatically impactful and had less of a “stuffed opera costume” image. Both sets and costumes were lean and sparse; movement, or non-movement, of the artists conveyed a use of space that was interesting and creative. After the distraction of four monstrous dictators and a World War, the experiment resumed, mostly in Germany. Wieland Wagner presented stark stagings at Bayreuth and, a bit later, Rolf Leibermann presented more creative, almost realistic sets and costumes at the Hamburg Opera. The Berlin State Opera also launched its own brand of “new theater” with creative productions of Berg’s Lulu and Beethoven’s Fidelio.

But somewhere along the way, what began as a creative endeavor with real integrity morphed into shock-value productions. One of the first was a German production from around 1972 of Rossini’s Barber of Seville in which the protagonists entered and left Seville through the crotch of a huge, headless female torso. Those of us in America and England who saw the photos laughed at it as an example of gutter trash invading the opera house. We had no idea it was the trend of the future!

The real explosion came during the early 1980s. Some of the things these new directors, who called their productions “Regietheater” or director’s theater, did were interesting, but even within the same production there were elements that could only be described as gauche or insane. Like Harry Kupfer’s Bayreuth production of Der Fliegende Holländer, where Senta is depicted as an emotionally isolated, withdrawn young woman who lives in the world of her own imagination. Fixated on the idea and image of the Flying Dutchman, she eschews all contact with the world of reality and rejects the overtures of the young hunter, Erik. When the Dutchman arrives on the scene, Senta imagines that she is singing a duet with him—Kupfer shows us the “real” Dutchman looking on from the side of the stage while they perform. Later on, the chorus of sailors shows them all wearing white pancake makeup and eye masks, apparently (I guess…I never asked Kupfer and he didn’t bother to tell me) to show that they are phantoms. It all becomes so jumbled and confused that by the end of the opera, you as an onlooker almost feel like jumping off the parapet to your death along with Senta. And let’s not forget the “clown prince” of opera directors, Peter Sellars, who staged Le nozze di Figaro in a New York penthouse, with Susanna as the Count’s maid and Figaro as some sort of undefined servant guy. It made no sense, and was completely ridiculous, but that didn’t stop Sellars from being taken seriously.

Another influence on the development of Regietheater was American movies, particularly gangster films like the Godfather trilogy and Goodfellas. This led to such splendid examples of stupidity as England’s “Mafia Rigoletto” of the early ‘80s. But I also think that a major influence on the growing insanity of such staging was the film Aria, in which standard operatic scenes were played on the soundtrack against incongruous and often unrelated images onscreen: Elvis Presley in Las Vegas singing “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto (why?), and a young woman riding in a car in the rain, her mouth not even moving, while a soprano intoned “La vergine degl’angeli” from La Forza del Destino. What was the point of all this? Only novelty. It was different, even if it had absolutely nothing to do with the plot or the characters.

Name That Opera...I dare you

Name this opera. I dare you.

All of these things opened the doors—one would say they were kicked in and destroyed—by a bevy of stage directors whose primary function seems to be to exacerbate the brutal or grisly elements of an opera as well as tacking on as much unrelated nonsense as they possibly can. Before long, inserting Nazis or Nazi-looking characters into Wagner productions became so common that I doubt that there is anyone under the age of 40 who even knows what a real Wagner production is supposed to look like. One of the real gems I recall reading about was a production of Parsifal in which huge images of dead rabbits were projected onto a screen during the final scene, but there was also a Die Walküre set in an insane asylum with Wotan and Brünnhilde depicted as inmates in straight jackets. And it just got sillier and sillier as time went on—not just in Wagner, but in Mozart (the Zurich Die Zauberflöte with Papageno wearing a black suit covered in birdshit and stuck in a cage, and the Queen of the Night as a blind, mole-like creature feeling her way along a wall), Puccini and Verdi.

But if you think that audiences and critics would complain and throw rotten vegetables at the stage, you are sadly mistaken! These people take this crap seriously. They acquire Doctorates in Psychology to write articles pontificating on these productions’ greatness. Critics sit around, rubbing their hands on their chins, trying to “unlock” the mysteries that these “genius” directors have thrown up there on stage. I kid you not! A perfect example was Hans Neuenfels’ 2011 Bayreuth Lohengrin designed as a giant laboratory rat experiment. HONEST TO GOD! I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP!!! Here, look for yourself:

rat food anyone

“M-I-C….K-E-Y…..M-O-U-S-EEE! Mickey Mouse…” “LOHENGRIN!” “Mickey Mouse…” “LOHENGRIN!” “Forever let us hold our Swan Boat high!”

So what would you call this kind of production? The product of genius? Well, yes, folks, that’s exactly what Europeans are saying about it. Herewith are two such nutcases’ evaluations of this insanity. First, the opinion of a 40-year-old trauma surgeon from Denmark (italics mine):

“We are inside a white laboratory. The people are rats. The protagonists seem to be super-rats. Or perhaps not all of them. Lohengrin, who struggles in vain to enter the lab during the vorspiel, and Telramund, whose narration is accompanied by a projection of ‘wahrheit’ may have be placed in the lab as part of the experiment to see what reactions they provoke. Or maybe not. Because nothing is entirely clear in this challenging production. The lab technicians seem to be always in control, entering and exiting the laboratory manipulating with the rats. Black-white, action-reaction, the people are rats and they are followers. And they choose to follow Lohengrin, gradually changing their rat-like appearance into human shape. And who should Elsa follow? Brought in by the rats, covered in arrows, she takes shape according to her surroundings – rats, swan, Lohengrin. Love is not an ingredient in this experiment.

“A tilted wagon, a dead horse, rats escaping with gold bars and money: Ortrud and Telramund are caught by the rats when trying to escape. But why exactly Telramud becomes a rat after his failed attempt to kill Lohengrin is less clear to me. And who is this Schützer von Braband? An embryon capping his umbilical cord? As a reaction to the experiment, perhaps?” (from http://mostlyopera.blogspot.com/2012/05/bayreuth-lohengrin-rat-experiment.html)

mr naturalLady, get a grip on yourself. As Mr. Natural said to Flakey Foont in the old R. Crumb cartoons, when Flakey would ask him, his voice shaking with fear and angst, “Mr. Natural, what does it all mean?” Mr. Natural answered, “It don’t mean shee-it.” And that’s what this production is all about. It’s shit. Rat shit.

Ah, but here is an even more profound analysis of this same production by the ever-so-clever Nila Parly, Ph.D. at http://www.wagneropera.net/DVD/Lohengrin/DVD-Lohengrin-Neuenfels-Parly.htm:

“The mad genius – Heinrich – is standing with an apple in either hand. The apple has, due to Genesis, become the Western mind’s most fundamental symbol of divine insight into the conditions of life, the symbol of the Christian civilization’s sinful yearning to know ‘the truth.’ But the apple also plays an important part in Norse mythology, where the apples of Freia provide the gods with eternal life. The apple is here, too, connected to ‘the truth,’ the truth which only immortal gods are able to perceive.

“During the performance we are confronted with three ‘truths,’ displayed in animated cartoons (each is presented twice). The first ‘truth,’ stemming from the fantasy of Heinrich the scientist, is the ‘Old Norse truth.’ It is shown for the first time during the overture and reveals itself, through repetition, as the truth which the adherents of Telramund and Ortrud propose as the explanation of the miserable condition of the realm.

“The second ‘truth,’ the ‘Christian truth,’ is displayed for the first time in connection with the fencing match between Lohengrin and Telramund in Act One and repeated during the overture to Act Two. This ‘truth’ is how the adherents of Elsa and Lohengrin explain the German misery. [Ah, yes, let us never forget “the German misery.”]

“The third ‘truth’ expressed in a cartoon is the result of Heinrich’s reckless genetic experiment, and contradicts his own positive conclusion. As he rejoices, textually and musically, in his belief in the successful outcome of his engineering, we see a film showing the result to be disastrous and self-destructive.

“The whole chorus, at times dressed in impressively well-designed laboratory rat costumes with long rubber toes and tails, was almost impossible to take one’s eyes off. [Well, Jeezis Christmas, lady, they’re GIANT RATS! How on earth could you NOT keep your eyes on them??] Only when one of the chorus members during the wedding scene happened to step on another chorus member’s tail, so that the tip of the tail came off and was left lying around on the stage, did my focus shift from the chorus to the tail.”

Sometimes I really do think that these people with their Advanced Edumacation, sitting around in their palatial estates hammering out this crapola on their keyboards, need to have their heads examined as much as the psychotics who mount these idiotic productions.

My one-word review of this Lohengrin production? CHEESY. There ya go.

But those with advanced degrees aren’t just the ones who like these productions, they’re often the perpetrators. Like Peter Sellars, a raving lunatic who even looks insane, and thinks his childish daydreams are valid. What’s his full-time position? Why, Professor at UCLA where he teaches Art as Social Action and Art as Moral Action. Say what?? There’s no doubt about it, the world is doomed because drooling dolts like this are not only in charge but reshaping the arts to suit their own personal psychoses.

Now, mind you, I don’t dislike all modern productions. Sometimes, when the opera is silly and comic enough, a little modern-day levity can work wonders to hold your attention. A good example is the 2007 Théâtre du Châtelet production of Rossini’s La Pietra del br_strav_rakesParagone, in which the director used several “optical illusions” using blue screens and projected images on the performers to enhance the laugh quotient. One of my favorites is the scene in which Clarice (Sonia Prina, a simply astounding singer) is shown in the kitchen of the wealthy Count Asdrubale, popping in and out of the trash bin. Another is the scene in which Clarice, disguised as her long-lost “brother,” an African explorer, arrives in a Dr. Seuss-like cardboard jeep and sings an aria of almost impossible technical difficulty, assertively nodding her head to the audience at the end of each roulade-filled phrase. It’s a laugh riot. Also effective was the 2007 Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress set in Las Vegas of the 1950s. You can do this with comedies, particularly those that really don’t need a fixed locale or date.

But please note what I just said. Many, many operas do have a fixed locale and/or date. You can’t update things like Guillaume Tell, Don Carlo, Die Meistersinger, Falstaff, Rigoletto, Don Giovanni (what sense would updating make since we don’t have masked balls nowadays, and everyone could tell Giovanni from Leporello using spectral imaging?), Contes d’Hoffmann or Simon Boccanegra, but damn it, they do it anyway—and ruin our enjoyment in the process. I’m not going to the opera to wonder what psychotic nightmare was going through the head of the director when they decided to do this weird nonsense. I don’t need to see Les Troyens with a giant Trojan horse that looks like an Erector set or a Guillaume Tell in which plastic chairs come and go onstage almost as frequently as the chorus and Jemmy stands between two toilet seats while Tell shoots the apple off his head. I’m not into psychoanalyzing the director. I just want him or her (yes, Virginia, there are women who do this nonsense, too!) fired and possibly committed to an asylum. As Heather Mac Donald put it in a famous critique of Regietheater from 2007, “The Abduction from the Seraglio does not call for a prostitute’s nipples to be sliced off and presented to the lead soprano. Nor does it include masturbation, urination as foreplay, or forced oral sex. Europe’s new breed of opera directors, however, know better than Mozart what an opera should contain. So not only does the Abduction at Berlin’s Komische Oper feature the aforementioned activities; it also replaces Mozart’s graceful ending with a Quentin Tarantino–esque bloodbath and the promise of future perversion.” (http://www.city-journal.org/html/abduction-opera-13034.html)

The bottom line is that, for the most part, no director has any right to stage an opera in a way foreign or counter to the historical setting and/or the specific set descriptions of the composer or librettist. You want to mount some nightmare production with Nazis, mutilated women (I purposely avoided discussing all the female mutilation imagery in opera productions nowadays), insane people, giant rats, bloody bunnies etc.? Fine. Write your own damn opera and leave the classics alone. You have no right to change what someone else already staged to such a degree that your production has no relationship to reality. As a verification of what I’ve just said, lo and behold, here is a comment from composer Ned Rorem:

Rorem on Regietheater

If you want to see truly effective theater, watch the scene from Boito’s Mefistofele, set on a bare stage, in which soprano Magda Olivero and bass Jerome Hines create unforgettable images (watch here)—and sing unforgettably as well to create full characters. I have a perfect occupation for these Regietheater directors once we ban them completely from the opera house: put them in charge of publicity images for Socialist Parties around the world. Socialists are insane and destructive anyway and live in their own world of unreality, and so are these directors. It’s a perfect fit!

[P.S.: If you like this article, you may also line my somewhat expanded, more academic version of it: Eurotrash Revisited: The Academic Version.]

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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No Kidding: This Kid’s a Genius!

Joey Alexander 1

When I woke up this morning I saw a blurb on MSN news saying, “Jazz Prodigy, 12, Stuns World.” Oh yeah, sure, I said to myself. I’ve heard this song before, it’s from an old familiar score. Remember some of the other “prodigies” of the past decade? How did they work out for you? Yeah, that’s what I thought. So I went to YouTube and watched-listened to this child prodigy—Joey Alexander—play My Favorite Things.

No joke. This young man has talent. He also has superb left-right hand coordination, which allows him to play divergent lines against each other. He uses many “rootless” chords, as did the late Bill Evans. And he swings. Put it all together, and you have a fully mature jazz pianist who isn’t even fully developed physically.

You talk about a phenomenon. Josiah Alexander Sila—his full name—was born on June 25, 2003 in Bali, Indonesia. His father, an amateur musician, introduced young Joey to jazz from classic albums he had in the house, and Joey taught himself to play piano on a miniature electric keyboard his father bought him. Joey cites his main musical influences as Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Harry Connick, Jr. and Herbie Hancock, but also loves the music of Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Horace Silver and McCoy Tyner.

Listening to young Alexander play is simply astonishing. I first sampled him in the YouTube video of My Favorite Things, but then moved on to a live concert from July 2014 in Denmark (when he was only 11 years old!) with bassist Matthias Svensson and drummer Anders Mogensen, two of Scandinavia’s top-drawer professionals, and was convinced. This young man is the real deal. He’s at a level that many a grown jazz pianist with decades of training and experience are, and to my ears he can only get better…which is like saying that Beethoven at age 12 wasn’t quite as great an artist as Beethoven at age 27.

In the live set, taped at The Standard Jazz Club in Copenhagen, Alexander plays a number of jazz standards, several of which are at a very demanding level of one’s knowledge of harmony and how to improvise, particularly Joe Henderson’s Inner Urge and Coltrane’s Giant Steps. These are not easy pieces for many pianists to improvise on, regardless of age or technical level, but Alexander does so with precocious ease. Except on loud, uptempo numbers, his hands remain fairly flat, the fingers even with the keys as he plays. He uses a flat-hand approach to chords, a curled-finger approach to single-note runs. He uses little or no pedal, preferring a crisp, clean sound—but then again, in the video I saw, I’m not even certain that his legs are long enough for his fet to reach the pedals with regularity. Moreover, his improvisations make logical sense; they don’t just ramble via flashy passages. His playing has real substance. Each chorus is not only well constructed in and of itself, but builds on the chorus(es) preceding it. Thus I hear in young Alexander not only a finer pianist in the future, but also a potential jazz composer.

Joey Alexander 2Without having had the chance to interview Alexander, I don’t know if his grasp of music is entirely intuitive, i.e. by ear, or if he studied harmony somewhere along the way and worked on it. Certainly, his grasp of this aspect of improvisation is at an extraordinarily high level for his age, although not at quite the level of proficiency of such mature masters as Earl Hines or Art Tatum. But our first exposure to Hines on recordings was at age 18, seven years older than Alexander is here, and our first exposure to Tatum at age 22! That’s quite a difference in both the level of their experience and their intellectual maturity. What Alexander does may be instinctive, but if so he is miles ahead (no pun intended for Miles Davis fans) of anyone I can think of at this age of development. Was Bill Evans this good at age 11? Or Oscar Peterson, or Lennie Tristano? Were you? We’ll never know for sure, but somehow I doubt it.

And think of this from a physiological perspective: at age 12, his muscles and bones aren’t even fully developed yet. He hasn’t finished going through puberty. Yet here he is, a superb jazz improviser able to play with seasoned professionals.

Where Alexander goes from here is anyone’s guess. Remember that many child prodigies, particularly pianists (even in the classical world, like Shura Cherkassky), never explore more harmonically advanced music as they grow older. They stay within their comfort zone, what made them famous. But young Alexander is already more harmonically advanced than Grace Kelly was, or is today, and a full understanding of harmony is always the key that unlocks the doors of composition and more adventurous improvisation for a young talent. Hines and Tatum never really had “stages of development,” as they arrived fully-formed as geniuses on the scene. But again I ask: who knows what they were like at age 11? I sure don’t. And it will be at least another five years (Alexander turns 13 on June 25 of this year) before Joey is 18. A lot can happen in five years.

The bottom line is: I don’t see him being a flash in the pan; he’s already too good for that. This young man is a first-class musician you need to keep your eye on.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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