Just a few weeks before I was going to try a rather thrilling new technological tool in a recital — an innovation that I thought would probably impress my audience with the preternatural with-itness of this guy playing old music with the latest wireless page-turning technology — The New York Times rather stole my thunder in an article about a Carnegie Hall performance that used those very tools.

Now the TED Talks present the pianist reviewed in that article talking about and demonstrating the Bluetooth-enabled procedure that I am finding so helpful:

UPDATE: A friend who was in the audience sends this photo of the iPad/AirTurn combo in use on December 8. (Since the picture was taken on an iPhone, and in the foreground you see a MacBook Pro making an audio recording of the music, Apple should be paying me.)

ANOTHER UPDATE: Of course there are other ways to turn a page.

Loss and Gain

January 10, 2012

As even the general-interest secular press has been noting, the whole English-speaking Catholic Church (at least that majority of it that follows the Latin Rite rather than the various Eastern Rites), has been more or less convulsed by the introduction before Christmas of an entirely new English translation of the Mass, both of the invariable and of the immense body of daily variable texts (except for the biblical readings, which have their own translations). The nature and quality of the English had been much discussed over the past four decades, as well as attendant musical issues — prime among them the place of Gregorian chant in the modern world.

Loss and Gain, the title, as it happens, of a remarkable novel by John Henry Newman, is the theme of so much development in human affairs. A much-forgotten passage by Pope Paul VI in 1969, it seems to me, sums up much in this and other questions of human culture:

Clearly the most noticeable new departure is that of language. From now on the vernacular, not Latin, will be the principal language of the Mass. For those who appreciate the beauty of Latin, its power, and aptness to express the sacred, substitution of the vernacular certainly represents a great sacrifice. We are losing the idiom of the Christian ages; we become like profane intruders into the literary sanctuary of sacred language; we shall lose a large portion of that wonderful and incomparable, artistic and spiritual reality, Gregorian chant. We indeed have reason for sadness and perhaps even for bewilderment. What shall we put in the place of this angelic language? We are sacrificing a priceless treasure. For what reason? What is worth more than these sublime values of the Church? The answer may seem trite and prosaic, but it is sound because it is both human and apostolic. Our understanding of prayer is worth more than the previous, ancient garments in which it has been regally clad. Of more value, too, is the participation of the people, of modern people who are surrounded by clear, intelligible language …. If our sacred Latin should, like a thick curtain, close us off from the world of children and young people, of work and the business of everyday, then would we, fishers of men, be wise to allow it exclusive dominion over the speech of religion and prayer?

— Paul VI, Address to a general audience, on the new Ordo Missae, 26 November1969: Notitiae 5 (1969) 412-416 (Italian) English translation, Documents on the Liturgy, 1963-1979 [ICEL] (The Liturgical Press, 1983)

If you don’t know the finale of Poulenc’s stupendous opera Dialogues des Carmélites, I can’t imagine a fuller introduction to his art — varied though it can be, often treating the most frivolous of themes or, as here, the most profound. This passage represents, among other things, as great a final scene to a majestic tragedy as can be imagined. You might like to watch that guillotine scene in one or more of the recordings below. Not only does the composer get the historical drama just right, but it’s also echt Poulenc at the same time.

Having the Carmelites go to their deaths singing Salve Regina, just as they would once have been accustomed to doing before going to sleep at night, safe in their cloister, would have tempted many composers to gussy up the traditional plainchant or to write something pseudo-Gregorian or otherwise archaic-sounding. Instead, Poulenc writes in his own personal expressive manner, having the persecuted 18th-century contemplatives go to their deaths singing to the Virgin Mary in worldly 20th-century Parisian harmonies. Not a single measure of it could possibly have been composed by anyone else. It’s utterly unmistakable as Poulenc but also manages to embody the tragic-yet-serene moment to perfection.

The last young woman to die is one who had escaped the death-sentence but was in the crowd at the scaffold and voluntarily joined her sisters in their fate at the last moment. A synopsis can be read here, but a synopsis may not be essential to understanding what is going on in the riveting dénouement.

Two very different stage productions of the scene follow:

and

And here’s a better musical performance, but without the staging:

Violinist with hula hoop in the Columbus Circle subway station

¡Hola, YOLA!

January 6, 2012

Since we have long celebrated Venezuela’s phenomenal El Sistema on this site, it is a joy to see Time magazine jumping aboard. Even better news is their reason for doing so: the burgeoning derivative of El Sistema that is doing its work in Los Angeles. That program, called YOLA (Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles), is tackling some of the worst urban situations in the United States, so it could be a light to the whole nation if those with the power in such matters will pay attention.


Yes, as is so often true, George and Ira made the case very well indeed.

As I child I seem to have had an over-developed desire to observe ceremony and preserve mementos. It was a family joke that, as the Christmas ornaments were packed away one January for another eleven and a half months or so, I had written on a box “These Are the Holiest.” What I was sanctifying were the Christmas tree ornaments that my young parents had used on the first tree they had set up after their marriage. Despite special care, the number of these baubles had decreased over the years in a household full of children and even lesser animals. After my reverential labeling of that box, these most venerable of our household collection of ornaments, presided over by an increasingly frowsy angel, went into that same box. (The celestial being floated on something called “angel hair,” which I should tell younger readers had nothing at all to do with pasta but was a spun-glass confection that we were constantly warned would cut us if we let it. In these enlightened times, of course, it has been taken off the market, presumably because parents’ warnings can no longer be counted on or because other children were more disobedient than we were and got maimed by the stuff.)

By the time my parents’ establishment was broken up towards the end of their lives, I was offered those ornaments, presumably because of my remembered piety towards them that was still testified to by the writing on the box. The number of the original balls was by now down to two, which isn’t so bad for ultra-fragile items that had seen more than a half-century of Christmas trees of all species and sizes and had been packed and moved into other houses than that first red-brick one of a neat kind that citizens of a grateful nation had built for “returning heros” from the Second World War, of which my father was one.

Today, through no carelessness of my own, a heedless object fell on one of the two remaining ornaments. Now only one remains. I’m surprised at how little disturbed I am by this accident. After all, many people lose every material object they have in our race’s bent for such things as genocide, ethnic cleansing, and “collateral damage” — if not through earthquake, fire, and flood. I, on the other hand, have many a relic to serve as remembrance of times past. My friends who think that I hold on to too many things are probably right. But the continual decay or loss — as today — of old things from days that are gone serve to remind me of the things that we can’t lose.

Nadia Boulanger, greatly advanced in years, reflected on how fortunate it was that she had memorized so much music. That she could still play the entire two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier despite her blindness was better to her than palaces or laurels or ancient bloodlines. Memories of kind hearts, happy times, and even profitable painful ones, are far more valuable than any number of revered Christmas decorations. And, after all, I still have one left. Soon it will go back, all alone, into the box where it resides most of the year.

Last week I posted an account of a musical event in which the listeners were given the liberty of non-disruptive behavior, as it came naturally to them, in a large and evocative space. This is a subject very dear to me and one on which I have written extensively in the past.

Now comes Mark Wigglesworth, bearing thoughtful concerns of his own about concert-hall orthodoxy, in which the paying public is patronized by demands that its behavior conform to the players’ presumed needs. He suggests that a suffiently compelling performance might not need such strictures.


On the principle of starting as I hope to go on, I begin the year by posting Bach’s Toccata in D Minor (BWV 913), which I recorded on Christmas Day on a single choir of strings of my Dupree harpsichord. Such music represents the best I can send you along with my best wishes for 2012.

Click to play.

And, if you want to follow a score, click here.