Two Short Martinů Operas Reissued

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MARTINŮ: Les Larmes du Couteau (in Czech) / Hana Jonášlocá, soprano (Eleonora); Lenka Šmídová, mezzo-soprano (The Mother); Roman Janál, baritone (Satan) / The Voice of the Forest (Hlas Lesa) / Helena Kaupová, soprano (The Bride); Jaroslav Březina, tenor (The Young Forester); Lenka Šmídová, mezzo-soprano (The Hostess); Roman Janál, baritone (Bandit 1/Reciter); Vladimir Okénko, tenor (Bandit 2); Zdenèk Haravánek, bass (3rd Bandit); Chamber Chor/ Prague Philharmonic Orchestra; Jiří Bêlohlávek, conductor / Supraphon SU 3386-2, second opera available for free streaming by clicking on title

It still rather amazes me, considering the proliferation of performances of Leoš Janáček’s operas (The Cunning Little Vixen and Jenufa), that the operas—and other great works—of Bohuslav Martinů are barely known in the United States. Perhaps it is because his operas have less gripping plots than Jenufa, but although I am writing about the operas here I am not confining my frustration to them. I’m talking about so many pieces by this great composer: the ballet The Butterfly That Stamped, his Estampes for Orchestra, the great cantata The Epic of Gilgamesh, his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, his Cello Sonata No. 3, the Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 4 (particularly in the superb performances by the late Rudolf Firkušny) and his jazz-based works, the Jazz Suite and the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. And it’s not as if his music were forbidding or cold; on the contrary, despite its modern bent his music is gentle and lyrical, so much so that one begins to sing some of the phrases in one’s mind even when the piece is an instrumental one.

Here we have two chamber operas, Les Larmes du Couteau of 1928 and The Voice in the Forest of 1935, in superb performances—vocally and orchestrally—led by Jiří Bêlohlávek who has made rather a specialty of this composer’s works. He is a thoroughly modern conductor in the sense that his musical line is crisp and forward-moving, but ethnically authentic in his choice of musical accents. Moreover, he has an all-Czach cast of singers with superb voices: not a wobble or an ugly timbre in sight.

Interestingly, the earlier opera is the more “modern” in the sense that it is heavily influenced by both Stravinsky and ragtime/jazz, whereas the second is more conventionally melodic but not so much so that it sounds banal or formulaic. Martinů maintains the listener’s interest because he is always engaged in his creations; his mind is always working, trying to see where the music is going and making sure it gets there with some interesting side-trips along the way. Nevertheless, neither piece is really forbidding to the average listener the way Ginastera’s Bomarzo is, though the first of these may put off more listeners than the second.

Since I had no booklet to download with the audio tracks, I had to search online for plot synopsis of these operas. The Dadaist libretto of Les Larmes du Couteau or The Knife’s Tears revolves around Eleonora’s strange desire to love a hanged man—she kills herself when he doesn’t reciprocate (it was so strange that a jury in Baden-Baden turned it down and it was never performed in Martinů’s lifetime). The Voice of the Forest is identified as a surrealist radio drama in one act, commissioned by Prague radio and broadcast in 1935. The Bride sings a lament that she is being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love. Captured in the forest by not-so-menacing bandits, she learns that one of their captives is the man she does love and manages to release him. But since I am a music critic first and a drama critic only by relation to operas I write about, I can attest that the word-flow is perfectly matched by the flow of the music. If you have an open mind and open ears, I recommend that you investigate these recordings.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Björling’s and Tebaldi’s Neglected “Cavalleria” Reissued

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MASCAGNI: Cavalleria Rusticana / Renata Tebaldi, soprano (Santuzza); Jussi Björling, tenor (Turiddu); Ettore Bastianini, baritone (Alfio); Lucia Dani, mezzo-soprano (Lola); Rina Corsi, mezzo-soprano (Mamma Lucia); Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Chorus & Orchestra; Alberto Erede, conductor / Decca 28945822426

Decca has now reissued its 1998 reissue of the early-1980s reissue of this 1957 recording of Cavalleria Rusticana. (Do you have the chronology right?) Oddly enough, despite its being the best-selling stereo Cavalleria of its time, it somehow slipped through the cracks and disappeared within five years, not to resurface until the 1970s, and by then it was marginalized and written off as not well sung or exciting enough.

Part of this had to do with the original sound. Recorded in an extraordinarily dry acoustic, as was an “operatic recital” by Björling that filled out Side 4 of the two-LP release, it made the voices, and particularly the tenor’s sound not only dry but a bit abrasive. Indeed, the sound was so problematic that even John Steane, in his 1970 book The Grand Tradition, panned the recording as showing (in his words) “surface wear” on Björling’s voice at the time. But Steane, a very knowledgeable man, should have compared this recording to the live 1959 Met performance of the same opera, where Björling’s voice showed no surface wear whatsoever.

But to get to the actual performance and what it contains, this is a moderately exciting Cavalleria taken at a slower tempo than I normally like. True, as one reviewer has stated, Erede and the orchestra has this music “in their blood,” and that helps a lot, but there are moments—particularly in the Santuzza-Turiddu duet—where you wish for a bit more propulsion.

The real frisson in this performance comes from Björling, who is much more dramatic here than he was in his 1953 mono recording with Zinka Milanov, and baritone Ettore Bastianini, surely the greatest Italian baritone of his time, as Alfio. This is the only recording that Björling and Bastianini ever made together as well as the first of only two Tebaldi-Björling collaborations on records (the other was the famous 1959 RCA Turandot). Tebaldi is moderately dramatic, but not as good as Milanov was in 1953, and she doesn’t hold a candle to the two greatest Santuzzas on record, Lina Bruna-Rasa (with Gigli and Mascagni) and Renata Scotto, who basically copied Bruna-Rasa (with Domingo and James Levine).

But why was this recording so quickly forgotten? In large part, it was due to the strange arrangement that produced it in the first place. It was the first of a series of “swaps” between American RCA and British Decca involving Tebaldi and Björling, and part of the arrangement was that although the recordings were made in Europe under Decca’s auspices, they would have a limited shelf life on the RCA Victor label. Thus this recording cav-rcawas initially issued on RCA Victor with a shocking pink cover (see right), but it was pulled from the shelves by the time Björling died in 1960. A similar fate met the 1960 Leontyne Price-Björling-Fritz Reiner recording of the Verdi Requiem. It was issued in the U.S. on the RCA Victor “Soria Series,” yet was pulled from circulation by abount 1962 because by then the reciprocal agreement between RCA and Decca had expired. Yet, for some strange reason, the 1959 Turandot remained steadfastly on RCA Victor, despite the fact that they used not one but two of Decca’s hottest properties, Tebaldi and Birgit Nilsson. In the end, Decca definitely got the short end of the stick because the only recording Björling lived to complete (if you could call it “complete”) was a single operetta aria, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” as an insert on the Herbert von Karajan “gala edition” of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Björling was scheduled to record Un Ballo in Maschera at the Sofiensaal in Vienna with Tebaldi, Bastianini and Georg Solti, but except for a few incomplete run-throughs of snippets from the opera nothing exists on tape of him singing that opera. Björling died suddenly of a heart attack in September 1960 and was replaced in the recording by Carlo Bergonzi.

Somehow or other, Decca managed to extract a release from RCA to reissue the recording on its full-priced London label in the 1970s…possibly because Decca let RCA keep that Turandot on Victor. But the Verdi Requiem—which, incidentally, met with poor reviews because of Reiner’s strange, slow tempos—sunk under the waves for decades, and so may truly be said to be the forgotten Björling recording.

If the reader feels I have spent way too much time going over the copyright squabbles of this recording and not enough on the artistic merit, I apologize, but to a certain extent it was the disappearance of this recording for more than a decade that led to its being forgotten by many opera lovers. In its wake, Decca-London issued another Cav with Mario del Monaco as Turiddu, and the critics just went ape over it. So too did they go ape over the Angel-EMI Cav with Franco Corelli. To a certain extent, Jussi Björling suffered a long-term lapse in public appreciation in the decade following his death.

The bottom line is that this isn’t a bad recording of Cav, and if the Levine performance did not exist I would have no hesitation in recommending this as the best stereo recording of the opera available. But you still may want it for one simple reason, and that is that the reissue has managed to clean up the sound. Neither Tebaldi nor Björling now sound dry of throat as they sing, but ring out their voices brilliantly. So if you like these singers, by all means, go for it!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Hill’s and Shimada’s Surprisingly Great Prokofiev

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PROKOFIEV: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3* / Daniel Hill, *Ayano Shimada, pianists; Sydney Symphony Orchestra; Janos Furst, conductor / ABC Classics 28948134380

This is one of those “sleeper” recordings that crop up now and then, promising nothing really extraordinary yet delivering something quite special. I wouldn’t know either of these pianists, or conductor Furst, if I tripped over them in the dark. I’ve never heard of them in my life. Yet their performances here of these two Prokofiev Concertos—the ever-popular Third and the much lesser-known Second—are among the finest I’ve ever heard and well worth your checking out.

It would be easy to say that the performances are merely good, clean and professional, which is what I expected. It’s harder to admit that your initial assessment was wrong and that what you are hearing is outstanding. Perhaps Hill’s success with the thorny, more rambling second concerto is more of a surprise, but succeed he does. His playing is meaty, virtuosic and exciting all at the same time. In fact, I would place his performance of this music at or near the very top of recordings I’ve heard of the work. In addition to having a “big” technique, Hill also has a rich, deep-in-the-keys tone, drawing out some of the most splendid piano sound I’ve heard in many a year. He almost sounds as if he’s having fun with the music, which is difficult to achieve in a score this thorny, particuarly the huge, technically involved first-movement cadenza. Yet he pulls it off.

To a certain extent I must give much of the credit for this to conductor Janos Furst, whose idiomatic grasp of the score is beyond criticism. Furst knows exactly what this music is about; he brings out tremendous clarity in the orchestral part, always vitally important in Prokofiev, and imbues the music with both atmosphere and drive. These are live broadcast recordings from the Australian Broadcasting Company, yet the mike placement is perfect. Any studio recording engineer would be envious of the perfect balance achieved here between soloist and orchestra.

Indeed, because Furst is the conductor in both concertos, I would say that perhaps it was he who led the artistic vision from the podium. In any case, Shimada’s performance of the Third Concerto is simply fabulous, on a par with William Kapell’s legendary recording under Antal Doráti. It’s such a pleasure to hear a pianist and conductor work so well together as this. So many little details leap out at you that, after a while, you just lean back and relax, enjoying the involvement and interplay of these two splendid artists—and true artists they are.

Definitely worth your checking out!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Pahud Explodes in Bach Concertos

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C.P.E. BACH: Flute Concertos: in A min., Wq 166/H 431; in G, Wq 169/H 445; in D min., Wq 22/H 425 /Emmanuel Pahud, flautist; Kammerakademie Potsdam; Trevor Pinnock, conductor / Warner Classics 825646496433

Apropos of my last article regarding the dearth of exciting or challenging music on classical radio stations,I double dog dare any classical station in America to play the first flute concerto on this record on the air. And not just in the morning drive-time slot, but any time during the day. They won’t because it’s the kind of music to give the average classical radio listener coronary arrest. The manic tempos, the jagged rhythms, the harmonic daring of this work are almost on a par with some of the most outré compositions of today. But as I’ve said many times, that’s how far ahead of his time C.P.E. Bach was.

Indeed, the general contours and direction of this concerto,and most of the movements that follow, are more on a par with many of his Hamburg symphonies (groundbreaking works that are still not fully appreciated or well known) than anything he wrote in his earlier years for the flute-playing King Frederick the Great. But then, Frederick, while a pretty good flute player, could never have kept up with the almost manic technical demands of this concerto. I was absolutely amazed at Pahud’s technique, particularly his rapid staccato playing, which he kept under perfect control, articulating cleanly and producing a good music flow while still exploding the notes at an incredible speed.

Pahud’s tone is not a sensuous one, like those of Claude Monteux or James Galway, but rather a lean, bright sound, but his high range has its own unique prettiness about it. More importantly, judging from the liner notes, Pahud is deeply committed to playing out-of-center flute repertoire and he, like myself, sees the connections between this music and that of modern scores.

Happily, his accompanying conductor is Trevor Pinnock, one of the few no-nonsense HIP conductors of our time. Pinnock’s only real failing is that he sees no room for even occasional and subtle modifications of the tempo; for him, every piece and every movement he conducts is as rigid in tempo as a metronome. On the other hand, his phrasing is extraordinarily musical, and he manages to get the Kammerakademie Potsdam strings to play in straight tone (which I normally abhor) with a lovelier tone and sweeter timbre than most other HIP orchestras, so in this case the accompaniment does not grate too much on the ear. Only in the “Largo” movement of the Concerto in G did I yearn for a lovelier sound with a bit of vibrato. Be grateful for small favors!

In such passages as the one between the 8 and 9-minute mark in the first movement of the Concerto in G, Pahud evidently indulges in circular breathing, because his line is unbroken over that span while emitting a long string of notes. As already mentioned, the anemic string tone annoys a bit in the “Largo,” but once Pahud enters—even though he himself uses only a very light vibrato on some sustained notes and none on shorter ones—the ear gratefully receives his splendid sound. Not to put too fine a point on it, but while Pinnock’s musical treatment is good, Pahud’s is beter than good. It is artistic. He employs ever-so-slight gradations of volume within the musical line to emphasize the music’s shape. Were he more of a colorist on his instrument, the effect would be perfect. Harmonically, this concerto isn’t nearly as daring as the first, but at least in the way Pinnock treats it, it has a similar rhythmic thrust and drive. The last movement of this concerto contains some particularly odd, jagged lines for the solo flute, which Pahud again dispatches with consummate ease.

The opening movement of the Concerto in D minor has an odd meter, almost an 8-to-the-bar, yet syncopated rather than straight. The strong rhythmic undercuttent abates somewhat for the flute’s entrance, yet comes back now and then to emphasize the rhythm on certain beats and phrases. By the end of the the flute’s first solo we are in F major, moving around harmonically in a most audacious manner, only getting back to D minor around the 5:30 mark (but not staying there for long). Small wonder that Mozart commented that C.P.E. Bach was ”the father, and we are all children.”

In terms of form, however, this concerto is the closest to conventional Classical-era construction. This doesn’t mean it is easy to absorb or pick up on, only that it is the least radical of the three. Indeed, the flute solo in the “Un poco andante” is probably the closest thing to songfulness you will find on this record, a truly Mozartian melody that remains in the memory. Yet this doesn’t preclude Bach’s dramatic use of sharp, stabbing string chords to emphasize a dramatic shift of mood, after which he returns to the lovely melody—yet once again shifting the mood with subtle changes in orchestration and harmony. I should mention that all of the cadenzas played by Pahud on this recording were written by the composer himself.

Well, perhaps I spoke too soon about how this concerto was more conventional than the others, because the last movement explodes like a musical tsunami, once again throwing caution to the winds as the strings and solo flute skitter in and around the home key of D minor as if trying to hang on to anything as an anchor to keep them grounded. It is a perfect musical storm, and both Pinnock and Pahud are hanging on for dear life as they propel themselves towards the finish line. How on earth Bach dreamed up such intricate, almost violent music for the flute, of all instruments, boggles the mind. This is the kind of score that one could perhaps imagine a keyboard instrument playing, but certainly not a wind instrument! The best description I can muster of this last movement is “feverish,” and even that is inadequate.

This is a simply stupendous recording, one that I cannot imagine being bettered, at least not in the solo flute performances. As an overall listening experience, I would rate it one of the best C.P.E. Bach recordings ever made.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Killing Us Softly: Classical Music Radio

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I’ll be good and not give the call letters of my local classical music station, not because I fear retaliation but because it doesn’t matter. They’re ALL the same, and that is exactly why I’m writing this rant. Classical music radio has been killing off interest in classical music for the past 40 years, and there doesn’t seem any sign that it will stop any time soon.

What am I talking about? Any first-class musician—meaning a musician who really understands and loves the music, and doesn’t just play it to make you feel soft and comfy in your life—known what I mean. The sole purpose of this reprehensible carrier of psychological Sominex is to STOP you from thinking about the music you listen to, to just enjoy the “feelings” and thus in turn de-stress you. In short, they are using classical music as one of the many weapons now used by the American education system to unplug thinking from the brains of our youth.

Add this to the reprehensible use of classical music by large pubic libraries (again, including mine) as a weapon to discourage people from loitering outside. How nice is that? “Get the hell out of here, you rabble. We know you’re too stupid to appreciate classical music, so we’ll blast it through these cheap speakers until we know you’re all gone.”

Thomas Sowell said it best: “The problem isn’t that Johnny can’t read. The problem isn’t even that Johnny can’t think. The problem is that Johnny doesn’t know what thinking is; he confuses it with feeling.”

Compare this to the famous creed espoused by the late Jon Vickers, often described as the thinking person’s tenor: “Art is not easy. Art is not comfortable. Art asks questions—important, difficult questions—but it does not provide answers.” And another of his famous quotes: “I don’t think of opera as a form of entertainment. If I want to be entertained, I’ll go to a dinner theater and watch Brigadoon.

But does the management and do the owners of classical radio stations view their mission as one to mind-numb that segment of the population who listens? That’s difficult to say. If you talk to them, or to the mellow, soft-voiced announcers who work for those stations, you’ll find that deep down they are incredibly cynical. One went so far as to tell me that classical music means one thing when people actually go to concerts, “Cold drinks and hot prospects.” That’s all he views it as: a high-class seduction tool. In short, classical music is a way for a guy to pretend he’s cultured in order to seduce a higher class of woman. So much for the liberals’ real view of male-female relations.

Frankly, I can’t see it as anything but brainwashing. Never in my life have I heard performances of even such exciting works as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture that sound like a soporific (in case you’re interested, the Mariss Jansons recording). Even the cannons and bells sound limp and flaccid. The performances they play are classical music on Ritalin. The performers all sound as if they had a lobotomy before playing or conducting the music.

Moreover, having had some first-hand experience inside a classical music station, I know that this is their goal. They go out of their way to audition literally hundreds of recordings to find the ones that are the softest, warmest, most soothing of every piece they play. And of course everyone knows (I hope!) that they have strict musical rules about what is played: no modern music if it goes beyond diminished chords, nothing that has strong or varied rhythms, absolutely nothing by Schoenberg except perhaps a really relaxed version of Verklärte Nacht.

Of course, the audience for this pap eats it all up as if it were a five-course dinner at a four-star restaurant. But beyond old fogies who don’t want their feathers ruffled too much, who is this audience? The demographics show a large number of young urban professionals and a few Hipsters, who I prefer to call Nocturnivores (after that McDonald’s ad where a young male snot says he will not go to bed early and will wear shorts in the wintertime because he is a Nocturnivore). It’s certainly not a large audience, but for the most part it’s an affluent one. And this is why and how they manage to continue their desecration of classical music and, with it, the further dumbing down of people’s minds. “Mellow With Mozart” may sound alluring and nice, but I’m not so sure Mozart would prefer his music played that way. Nor do I particularly agree with “Brunch With Beethoven” or “Zone Out With Zemlinsky.”

Many classical composers, old and new, write their music because they have something important and interesting to say. Even when they miss the mark, as for instance Kaija Saariaho did with her opera L’Amour de Loin, they are usually at least trying to say something bold and intriguing. Very few composers actually set out to write music that will seduce listeners into a semi-trance state. Remember that Henryk Górecki was absolutely flabbergasted when he learned that his Symphony No. 3 was being used to relax American commuters during rush hour drive time. His symphony was written as a sincere expression of grief for all those who had lost their lives in World War II. He never allowed another work of his to be recorded by an American label ever again.

An analogy to this purposeful misuse of classical music is the purging of any books considered “controversial” from school libraries. How many of you remember the 1980s TV show, Family Ties, in which the dad in the family bristled against schools banning The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because of its supposedly racist language? And then sitting down and reading the book aloud to his family? Well, guess what? The fictional Keaton family lost that battle, because the schools have banned Huck Finn from their libraries…or, which is worse, there are now bowdlerized editions of Huck Finn out there in which all the “offensive” words and phrases have been removed.

Such is the case with classical music stations playing watered-down classics. Having already lost the battle for offering intelligent, challenging music through the airwaves, they have embraced happiness and light as their audio pabulum for Americans. I weep for those composers who struggle to be heard and thus have no venue for it other than YouTube. They have no path to being exposed to the ears of most Americans. Unlike talk radio, which proliferates like lemmings, classical music radio has no viable competition. Since they all play the same pap, your only choice is to listen or turn it off.

So…turn it off. To quote the late Frank Zappa, “Go to a library and educate yourself.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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“Greetings, Music Lovers…and The Rest of You, Too!”

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The Chamber Music Society hep cats, flanked by Levine (left) and Laval (right)

Unlike most young people nowadays, I kind of grew up with radio programs. Most of the “classic” shows were off the air by then (the mid-1950s) or had switched to television (Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Fibber McGee & Molly, Burns and Allen), but I still heard about them and others, too (Lights Out, Inner Sanctum, The Shadow) and there were still some shows on the radio like Highway Patrol, You Bet Your Life (on both radio and TV!) and local New York-area shows like The Breakfast Club. So I had a pretty good knowledge of what had been on the air and what hadn’t.

basinstreet-1941Imagine my surprise, then, to be in a Greenwich Village used-78-record shop in 1968 and seeing an album of records with a cartoon drawing of a guy in a powdered wig playing the trumpet on the front cover. The title of this was The “No Doubt Famous” Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, and when I bought the records, took them home and played them, I was immediately in thrall of the bizarre, tongue-in-cheek description of the opening selection, the old ODJB standard Satanic Blues:

Greetings, music lovers! Welcome to a recorded concert of the no-doubt world-renowned Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street—than which…you won’t believe it ‘til you’ve heard it…right now Dr. Henry “Hot Lips” Levine and his Barefooted Philharmonic will play one of the earliest works from the literature of the American “jump”: the Satanic Blues. The work opens with a tailgate sludge-pump smear, and from there on is, to use a technical expression, “solid in the gutter”…er, groove. In true Dixieland style, each instrument then takes a chorus, Dr. Levine’s trumpet takeoff being just as Professor Nick LaRocca played it in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

Following which we got, indeed, a trombone or “sludge-pump” smear, followed by a hot Dixieland band. The introduction was obviously a farce, but the music was played straight. And this at a time when the Dixieland revival was still a few years away.

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Paul Laval in 1950

I was also enthralled by the imaginative, soft-grained arrangements of pop and jazz tunes by “Dr. Paul Laval and his Ten Picked Woodwinds.” Laval’s real name was Joseph Usifer, and he made two rare recordings for Brunswick under that name in 1938 (The Jockey on the Carousel and In the Hall of the Mountain King), but it was The Chamber Music Society that made him famous. Almost a decade later, he added two letters to the end of his last name, became “Paul Lavalle” (to avoid being associated with notorious WW2 criminal Pierre Laval) and embarked on a lengthy career as director of the Cities Service Band of America, playing marches.

On the flip side of each jazz record was a pop ballad crooned by none other than Dinah Shore. I didn’t know she had gotten her kickstart to fame and fortune as a singer on this show. Many years later, when I finally got to hear transcripts of the original programs, I learned that none other than Milton Cross, NBC’s stateliest announcer (he was the voice of the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts from their

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Henry “Hot Lips” Levine

inception in 1932 until his death in the mid-1970s) was the emcee for the show, and that the voice I heard on the record—Gene “Dr. Gino” Hamilton—was the first announcer for Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony broadcasts. Henry “Hot Lips” Levine was born in England in 1907 as Harry Lewis, and had actually replaced Nick LaRocca as first cornet of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1928. Moreover, I also discovered that some comedians gave ersatz “musical lectures” in the course of each show. Two such comedians who got their starts on the show were Jackie Gleason and Zero Mostel. Dinah Shore left the program in late 1941 to be replaced by a series of chanteuses, among them Lena Horne, Dolores “Dodie” O’Neill and Diane Courtney, “the poor man’s Flagstad.”

basinstreet-1940The show was a full-blooded parody of the stuffy “music appreciation” shows that presented classical music in a similar vein. It grew out of a quarter-hour series called Bughouse Rhythm and was described by Radio Life as “one of radio’s strangest offspring…a wacky, strictly tongue-in-cheek burlesque of opera and symphony.” Even Milton Cross got in on the act with his opening announcements, describing the musicians on the show as having “consecrated their lives to the preservation of the music of the Three Bs: Barrelhouse, Boogie-Woogie, and the Blues. Present with us on this solemn occasion:

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Diane Courtney

Mademoiselle Dinah (Diva) Shore, who starts fires by rubbing two notes together; Maestro Paul Laval and his ten termite-proof woodwinds; Dr. Gino Hamilton, as our chairman and intermission commentator; and Dr. Henry Levine, with his Dixieland Little Symphony of eight men and no!” Once the program began admitting a live studio audience, the musicians also dressed up in powdered wigs and 18th-century clothing. One of the great secrets of the show, which only studio audiences got a chance to see, was that the musicians in these two bands playing completely opposite musical styles were often the same. Alfie Evans played clarinet in both bands, Mario Janarro was the pianist, Harry Patent the bassist and Nat Levine the drummer, Tony Colucci (billed as “Prof. Antonio Respighi Colucci”) was the guitarist, while Rudolf Adler played tenor sax with Levine and oboe, English horn and clarinet with Laval.

In addition to the house band(s), the program featured a big-name guest musician and/or small band every week. Among the musicians who appeared on the show were the Lionel Hampton and Joe Marsala Quartets, Earl Hines, Jelly Roll Morton, Jack and Charlie Teagarden, Harry James, Benny Carter and Bobby Hackett. This cross-section of name jazz talent gave the show some stylistic diversity, though the musicians almost never spoke on the air. The program usually ended with Levine’s band playing Basin Street Blues. As Hamilton told listeners, “the closing opus is played in a Haydn Farewell Symphony arrangement, with the musicians leaving their stands one by one until the double bass player is finally left alone, dolefully drumming on his doghouse.” A final word from Cross: “As Dr. Gino Hamilton has so pointedly put it, at the end of each discussion, on such a matter as the matter just discussed, this is the National Broadcasting Company, RCA building, Radio City, New York.” Three chimes and out.

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Milton Cross

Musicians got the jokes (nearly all of them scripted by Welbourn Kelley) and appreciated it more than general audiences, who couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It wasn’t just because all the hip musical jargon was insider slang, but also because most jazz fans of the time weren’t used to polyphonic New Orleans jazz and the Laval arrangements were over their heads. When the radio ratings came in and showed the program polling third in that time slot, NBC announced plans to cancel it. Almost immediately, they were deluged with 20,000 angry postcards and letters from listeners saying that this was their favorite program and if they canceled it they would never listen to NBC again. It took years for the studio brass to learn that these missives came from 4,000 people, mostly musicians in New York, using different names and sending the letters and cards from mailboxes all over the New York-northern New Jersey area. Among the bon mots delivered by Hamilton (who also left the show in late 1941, replaced by Jack McCarthy):

A Bostonian looks like he’s smelling something bad. A New Yorker looks like he’s found it.

There are those critics of the saxophone who say it is merely an unfortunate cross between a lovesick oboe and a slap-happy clarinet. To those critics we must say, “Kindly step outside with us a moment” and “Is there a doctor in the house?”

gene-hamilton

Gene Hamilton

Even with the loyal following from musicians, CMSLBS went off the air in October 1944. Yet NBC mysteriously revived it in 1950 as a summer replacement for the Judy Canova program. Levine was back with a revamped dixieland eight, including former regulars Fletch Philburn on trombone, Harry Patent on bass and Nat Levine on drums, and new pianist, Frank Signorelli, with blues vocalist Martha Lou Harp. Each Saturday half-hour was presented before an enthusiastic studio audience. “Dr. Gino” Hamilton returned as host. The scripts, again written by Welbourn Kelley, had the same jazz slang couched in dignified language. British character actor Arthur Treacher was the guest commentator, delivering pompous dry humor. Comedian Orson Bean became the new and final host of the series in 1952, for a 13-week run. Bean caught the spirit of the series completely, delivering Kelley’s humorous scripts with his own New England accent and droll diction. He assumed the mantle of “Dr. Orson Bean,” assuming a professorial tone for Kelley’s prose, punctuating his remarks with exclamations, and muttering ad-libbed asides. NBC announcer Wayne Howell joined in the fun, introducing the Society’s chairman as “Boston’s half-baked Bean.”

cmslbs

Nearly 80 years after it first hit the airwaves, many listeners are still not sure what to make of the show, yet it was because CMSLBS walked such a fine line between cutting satire and serious musical discussion that the show had such a devoted if limited audience. The majority of those tuning in probably hadn’t the slightest idea what the jokes meant or what the whole concept was really about, yet the show did its work well. Using deadpan humor and satire of upper-crust entertainment, it pointed out that despite jazz’s venues, this music was art, too.

Perhaps, however, it did its work too well, for a similar basic approach—with less humor and more seriousness—was co-opted by academics in music conservatories to show that rock music was art, too. Of course there are a few exceptions to the rule, but by and large it is only the minority of rock that is art, whereas it is the majority of jazz.

To appreciate the program, you really need to hear complete shows with all their inserted comments and the progression of musical numbers. Here is a link to five unedited programs:

https://archive.org/details/ChamberMusicSociety

The musical guests on these shows are as follows: May 5, 1940, Benny Carter; June 13, 1940, Bobby Hackett; July 14, 1940, Jelly Roll Morton; February 17, 1941, the Joe Marsala Quartet (with Adele Girard on harp, Carmen Mastren on guitar and Dave Tough on drums); and May 26, 1941, Earl “Fatha” Hines (with Loulie Jean Norman as vocalist).

Dig it, man. Bon appetit, or whatever.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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No Phony Awards Here!

awardIt happens every year in numerous classical and jazz magazines: the End-of-Year picks for Best In Show. Best Performance by a Chamber Group from a Balkan Country. Best Recording by a Pianist Playing With a Zither. Best Opera Recording (is the award for the opera or the performance? or both?). Best Jazz Performance by a Group Larger Than a Trio Yet Smaller Than a Breadbox. Best Jazz Vocal Recording. Blah, blah, blah. In some publications, each reviewer is asked to whip up a list of recordings they would desperately want if they didn’t already have them or choose which ones from the year they’d take to a desert island.

But the Art Music Lounge holds its head up high. No phony-baloney awards, recommendations, desert island lists or best-in-show selections here. Why?

Several reasons, really. First of all, everyone’s taste is different. If I happen to think, for instance, that a vocal recital by a singer doing modern and avant-garde music is better than one by a singer performing standard repertoire, how is that going to sit with you? If you have a proclivity towards out-of-center material, probably pretty well; but if you don’t, you’re going to be ticked off, the same way I am when Gramophone or BBC Classics picks a new recording of the Beethoven 7th or Puccini’s Tosca as a top recording of the year. I like the Beethoven 7th, but for crying out loud, what’s in this new recording that makes it so special? Does it top every Beethoven 7th recorded since Felix Weingartner first laid it down on wax in 1923? Somehow I doubt it.

Second of all, and probably more importantly, such awards—and the recordings that receive them—are ephemeral. How many of you can remember, without Googling it, what the Grammy-winning jazz or classical recording from 1983 was? Or 1991? Or five years ago? Yeah, that’s what I thought. And if you do remember, did you buy that recording because it won a Grammy? And if you bought it, do you still have it in your collection? I think you see where this is headed.

I look back on the voluminous pile of reviews I’ve written over the decades and see quite a few for recordings that, at the time of listening, really tickled my fancy. I gave them rave reviews. But then I look through my catalog of records I own and see that I didn’t even keep half of them. And those were my OWN recommendations of things I liked! And in their place are—are you ready for this?—recordings I discovered on my own, without being sent a copy for review. Things I heard on Freegal, YouTube, Spotify or the Naxos Music Library. Recordings or composers I didn’t even know existed at the time I raved about so-and-so. There were also a lot of recordings of new material that I absolutely loved at the time I auditioned them, like the music of Jane Cornish, which when I went back and listened to it made little or no impression on me. There were also older composers, like Johann Joseph Fux, whose stuff I thought was the bee’s knees that I now scratch my head and ask myself, What on earth was I thinking of?

A third reason for not giving out awards is that I am aware that many of them handed out by the slick magazines are politically or financially motivated. The artist received the award because he or she was old and getting up in years, had never gotten an award before, so it was their turn. Sometimes the decision is gender or race-influenced, which to me is worse. And in many cases, the awards are governed by which artists made the most money over the year, clicked with the general public, and/or spent the most on advertising in that magazine.

So we will not set a precedent on this blog by awarding anyone anything. Just read through all of my reviews for the year and make your own decision based on what your tastes are. I would, however, like to mention in passing that I personally think the recordings of Claude Debussy’s Edgar Allan Poe operas, completed by Robert Orledge, are of surpassing and lasting interest because 1) Debussy was a major composer, 2) Orledge knows his style better than anyone else now living, and 3) the performances are first-rate. But that is just my opinion, and I won’t use that to proclaim it a Record of the Year. It’s just a recording of works I find fascinating and extremely well-written, representing the music of a composer I greatly admire, and unlikely to be re-recorded any time soon.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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