When I hear people complain that their kids are interested in making music but not the “right kind” of music, I think along the lines of Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s conclusions here. One thing can definitely lead to another.

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It is good to keep in mind that not all significant — even great — figures in the musical art become household words. This notice has arrived today on the e-mail list of the American Musicological Society:

BARBARA HOLMQUEST, PIANIST
DIES AT 88

BEGAN MUSIC THERAPY FOR WWII SOLDIERS AND FORGED LINKS WITH MAJOR 20th-CENTURY COMPOSERS

Barbara Holmquest, a pianist who was born and trained in America and exemplified the highest ideals of music-making from her training with the legendary Carl Friedberg, friend and pupil of Brahms and Clara Schumann, died on July 24 in Winthrop University Hospital, Mineola, NY. She had fallen ten days earlier at her home in Amityville, Long Island.

Holmquest, whose repertory and interests were often decades before others, initiated or co-initiated several areas of endeavor that blossomed into valued and substantial studies over the last fifty years in the worldwide music scene.

Born in Brooklyn in 1921, Barbara Holmquest at the age of seven entered the Institute of Musical Art in New York City (which later became the Juilliard School) and soon distinguished herself. When the Institute’s director Frank Damrosch, challenged the students to compose a song for which he would give a prize, Barbara submitted thirty songs and naturally captured the award. Her success there continued and, upon graduation from the Juilliard Graduate School, she was given the Morris Loeb Memorial Prize for the most outstanding and gifted student in the School. Later she taught at the Juilliard Summer School as well as holding appointments at the University of Michigan, University of Surrey (UK), Montclair State University (NJ) and Kneisel Hall in Blue Hill, Maine.

Her career being interrupted during the Second World War, Holmquest joined Frances Paperte to administer musical therapy, a then-undeveloped concept to aid shell-shocked and wounded soldiers at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C. Today the field of Music Therapy is a formal discipline studied and practiced throughout the world. She also gave many USO and Victory concerts during the war years.

Barbara Holmquest sought out living composers, particularly American but also European, and played many of their works in premieres or regional first performances. She performed the Seventh Sonata of Prokofieff two weeks after it was available in the United States in 1944. With Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata (1950), she accomplished an even more arresting feat: a couple weeks before the formal premiere by Vladimir Horowitz, for whom it was written, Holmquest obtained the brand new score, learned it in a week and gave its first performance on the University of Michigan Radio Station, WUOM. At WUOM, over the twenty years she lived in Ann Arbor, she logged nearly 400 hours of performances and commentary covering the entire range of keyboard literature.

She played other works of Barber and was in touch with the composer when he shared with her that he found it impossible to complete his new Piano Concerto, which was scheduled for its first performance with John Browning and the New York Philharmonic. Having a case of writer’s block, the composer desperately needed to find a suitable haven to isolate himself and work. Holmquest introduced Barber to the eminent Swedish composer Dag Wiren whose Piano Concerto she had recently given the first performance of in Detroit. Wiren had a beautiful island retreat in Sweden and offered it to Barber, where he happily and successfully finished his Concerto.

Barbara Holmquest’s lifelong fascination with pianos led to her performance at New York’s Town Hall on a new type of instrument which could be “tuned” to a hall’s acoustics. The piano, created by Georg Bolin of Stockholm, had a striking Scandinavian modern design and was featured at the New York 1964 World’s Fair. While the piano was in New York, jazz great Bill Evans was performing on it at the Village Vangard until Holmquest’s October recital. When the day came to move it to Town Hall, Evans refused to let it go, so Holmquest and her agent had to get a Court Order to get possession of the now cigarette-burned instrument for her evening performance. The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune responded to the new piano most positively but noted that “No one should think that because of the new piano, attention was drawn from Miss Holmquest. On the contrary, she is so intelligent and accomplished a player that her recital was a pleasure throughout.”

Holmquest began broadcasting performances on her 1817 Broadwood Grand Piano from her studio in Ann Arbor through the University in the early 1960s, after which Paul Badura-Skoda urged her to join him in his efforts to record on the Colt Clavier Collection in Kent, England. Her recordings for Oryx on authentic period pianos were among the first and paved the way for the now thriving field of period instrument performance. Her performances of Beethoven’s Opus 109 and 110 Sonatas were commissioned for the Beethoven Bi-centennial celebrations in Tokyo and were highly praised.

Barbara Holmquest is survived by her son, Thomas A. Gotz of Amityville, and son David M. Gotz, his wife Vickie and their children Alex and Catherine of Tiburon, California. She was predeceased by her son Alexander Holmquest Gotz in 1973. Her marriage to Dr. Alexander Gotz of Ann Arbor, Michigan ended in divorce in 1967.

Tip of the hat to Steve Cohen

The Sunken Garden on the Caramoor estate in Katona, New York

When I couldn’t go to the first performance of Norma at Caramoor, my intention to go to the next one was intensified by the rave reviews it garnered. So, on Friday afternoon, I hopped the “Caramoor Caravan” outside Grand Central Station (three big buses) and got to that heavenly spot in time for Andrew Porter’s predictably satisfying pre-show lecture.

The performance was as the reviews promised, or somewhat better. Not only is Angela Meade the real thing, but Keri Alkema’s Aldagisa was, in its own way, just as remarkable and more than fulfilled the promise of her well-received Donna Anna in last fall’s hit Don Giovanni at the New York City Opera. These young women were not the only virtues — the Orchestra of St. Luke’s sounded rich in the surprisingly fine acoustics of the Venetian Theater — but the well-matched pair are what people will talk about most. The invaluable Will Crutchfield’s next offering in the “Bel Canto at Caramoor” project is already coming next Saturday, and I understand that there are still some tickets. It’s a rare chance to hear Donizetti’s late opera Maria di Rohan.

There were plenty of good reasons to go back up (this time via Metro North, since the Caravan runs only for operas) on Sunday for the Schumann-Chopin celebration, but I admit that the main draw for me was Sasha Cooke. Ever since I first encountered her remarkable art, she has had no rivals in my expectations of the next superstar mezzo-soprano. The last time I heard her was last January in the annual Marilyn Horne festivities at Carnegie Hall. She and her new husband Kelly Markgraf (the Masetto in that same NYCO Don Giovanni) had given an unforgettable duo recital then. While these two are wonderful individual artists, I do hope they will continue to give us such evenings as that one; but yesterday offered Sasha Cooke’s solo majesty in Schumann’s evergreen Frauenliebe und Leben with the eloquent pianist Michael Barrett. Anybody who was in the rapturous audience will tell you that they gave us an experience of that cycle that won’t be forgotten.

But the concert had another memorable highlight as well: the rarely-played Schumann Andante and Variations for Two Pianos, Two Cellos, and Horn was a revelation, even to a big Schumann fan. It of course didn’t hurt to have virtuosos of the level of hornist Stewart Rose, cellists Edward Arron and Alexis Pia Gerlach, and pianists Ken Noda and Michael Barrett. If you don’t know the work, get a recording. But even then you may miss the enchanting spacial effects that Schumann achieves in the subtle interplay of instruments. And there was that memorable phrase in which the first cello and the horn play in a perfect unison that produced a sound I’ve never heard before and yearn to hear again.

The secret of Caramoor’s charm is too multilayered even to attempt an analysis here. But it occurred to me yesterday that the musical personnel were of a quite unusual character. Everyone on that stage was doing something that they do very, very well. But they are all people who do many other things in our musical life and are thus well-rounded in a way that not all concert artists can be. Barrett, Arron, and Noda are well known as administrators and curators of musical series and events at the pinnacle of our musical life without in any way diminishing their primary means of communication: the music itself. Sasha Cooke, despite being such a dazzling recitalist, has already proved herself internationally as a dramatic star of the opera stage. Stewart Rose pops up everywhere from the Philharmonic or Met orchestras to a Paul Simon recording or the David Letterman show. That one of these is the Chief Executive and General Director of Caramoor itself is doubtless one of the reasons that the musical experience there is so rich.

The Dream of Gerontius by Sir Edward Elgar is an acquired taste — a taste that it took me a long time to acquire despite the fact that I first heard it in the Royal Albert Hall with Sir Adrian Boult conducting. Even those favorable circumstances left me cold. Some attribute comparative lifelessness to recordings, but it is to them — and possibly a kind of musical maturity — that I am indebted for my love of that work.

The oratorio sets the text of what was once a hugely popular poem by John Henry Cardinal Newman, one of the most eminent of the Eminent Victorians. A new play, starring Derek Jacobi, is available for the next six days on the Web site of BBC Radio 4. It is not to be missed. Called Gerontius, it plays somewhat on the death-scene in the poem to explore a crisis in the life, and post-life, of Cardinal Newman and his companion Father Ambrose St. John. The play and its broadcast are occasioned by the expected canonization of the former and the highly controversial disregard for “my last, my imperative will” that he be allowed to lie in the same grave with Father St. John. After more than a century of doing so, his body has been exhumed and moved to what, for whatever reason or reasons, is considered by authority to be a more appropriate place. The production uses music from Elgar’s oratorio in a very telling manner.

A fine celebration of his birthday, with lots of biographical information, here.

I have never met the paragon (though I was present for his Met debut), but we have had so many friends in common — all of whom adore him — that I almost feel that I have. What a model he is in so many ways!

Today we observe an anniversary that, among other things, celebrates a great piece of writing.

Thomas Jefferson, whose mother was born in London, and whose ties with England were strong, nevertheless wrote these later-excised words of both recrimination and longing with respect to the British people in his draft of the Declaration of Independence:

… and when occasions have been given them, by the regular course of their laws, of removing from their councils the disturbers of our harmony, they have by their free election re-established them in power. At this very time too they are permitting their chief magistrate to send over not only soldiers of our common blood, but Scotch and foreign mercenaries to invade and deluge us in blood. These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren. We must endeavor to forget our former love for them, and to hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends. We might have been a free and great people together; but a communication of grandeur and of freedom it seems is below their dignity. Be it so, since they will have it; the road to glory and happiness is open to us too; we will climb it in a separate state, and acquiesce in the necessity which pronounces our everlasting Adieu!

WUMP!

July 3, 2010

I want — I really want — to respect (even like) the current fiction that we’re told is of high literary quality. But those in the know just aren’t helping me at all. My heart leaps up when I hear of a writer who is turning out treasurable sentences. Then I feel like Charlie Brown in his encounters with Lucy and the football when I read the promises of a review like this, and then come down to earth with a thud when reading the sample of supposed greatness.

To me this reads like one of those entries into parody contests, such the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest:

Hollows from the fingers of Aibagawa Orito are indented in her ripe gift, and he places his own fingers there, holds the fruit under his nostrils, inhales its gritty sweetness, and rolls its rotundity along his cracked lips. I regret my confession, he thinks, yet what choice did I have? He eclipses the sun with her persimmon: the planet glows orange like a jack-o’-lantern. There is a dusting around its woody black cap and stem. Lacking a knife or spoon, he takes a nip of waxy skin between his incisors and tears; juice oozes from the gash; he licks the sweet smears and sucks out a dribbling gobbet of threaded flesh and holds it gently, gently, against the roof of his mouth, where the pulp disintegrates into fermented jasmine, oily cinnamon, perfumed melon, melted damson . . . and in its heart he finds 10 or 15 flat stones, brown as Asian eyes and the same shape. The sun is gone now, cicadas fall silent, lilacs and turquoises dim and thin into grays and darker grays.

Here’s my high-fallutin’ critical aperçu on that one:

Yikes!

I will only add that I LOLed (to use a technical term) at “the planet glows orange like a jack-o’-lantern.” Heaven help us if this is what our masters consider even decent writing.