October 30, 2015
Sometime in my mid-twenties, Gustave Reese, whose research assistant I then was, asked me if I would like to go to a private concert that evening at the Morgan Library. His wife had probably begged off at the last moment. The event is well-remembered by me for three reasons. As I left for home at the end of our work day, Professor Reese casually said, “Of course it’s black-tie.” I’m sure that I pretended indifference, but I as surely racked my brain to remember how clean or pressed my tux shirt was and remembered that I had recently lost my nice mother-of-pearl studs and cuff links in one of youth’s follies. I somehow managed, I think, to get it all together in time not to look as poor-graduate-student as I felt—or of course actually was.
The second memory took place in the elevator up to the concert hall. I heard Professor Reese say, “Miss Tully, do you know Mr. Evans?” and found myself face face-to-face with America’s leading patroness of chamber music. I thought of, but of course did not refer to, the many stories that I’d heard about her from Albert Fuller, who was later to be her biographer.
But the third recollection is the reason for this short post. The performers were the Quartetto Italiano, then at the height of their fame but near the end of their career. All I remember of the program is that they played Webern and Haydn. It was in the Haydn quartet that I had an unpleasant experience that I have never forgotten. It had to do with vibrato—not as an effect that should or should not happen in some blanket or doctrinaire way, but as something more complex and which, all during the work, had for me an enormously disorienting effect: namely with all short notes necessarily played without vibrato but all long notes heavily larded with it, a highly unpleasant dialogue emerged between the two kinds of tone production, both of which were arbitrarily decided by mere duration of the notes rather than any considered, rational expressive intention. I have rarely reacted so negatively to a performance, and the matter has interested me ever since.
Of course issues of vibrato emerged regularly in my many years of choral-conducting but never in an unpleasant or controversial way, so far as I can recall. And I have never written about the question except, in a recent book, a brief mention of “. . . the pitch ‘wobble’ that is routinely accepted in opera singers, wherein exact frequency definition is a very low priority. It is sometimes all but left to the harmonies of the orchestra to communicate to us what pitches the singer has in mind.” But, fortunately, someone else has now written on the subject in a way that I would like to have done. The wonderful singer Judith Malafronte here explains it all for you.
August 12, 2015
A famous musician whom I met only once said to me over lunch, “You have a great gift for admiration.” That proceeded from a discussion that we were having about some important figures that we had both worked with and whom he probably thought as highly of as I did. But I don’t think that I bestow my admiration promiscuously.
There are three men who have been key to whatever education I can lay claim to. One of them died yesterday and, inevitably, he is the one who lives in my daily life even more than the other two, because he was the one who taught me to play music. I know that not every teacher gets through to every pupil (and that is not necessarily the fault of pupil or teacher, but just of a misfit between the one who imparts and the learner). But Paul Jenkins could have been born to teach me. I think I must sometimes have driven him crazy with my earnest questions based on concepts that he had introduced me to. (I’ve always been the type to be partial to systems.) I remember once on a drive, in his signature Mercedes, to a neighboring city for a concert when it became evident even to naîve me that I might be driving the driver a little too hard with my pressing questions about accents in Baroque music. And there were those nights when I’d be working away in a practice room and the door would suddenly be flung open with a demand that I join him and others for a sail. How wonderfully confusing to have the person who is, in some sense, driving you to be practicing late at night, appearing to urge your doing something else entirely! But if he thought that he was going to escape from teaching mode even then, he hadn’t realized the persistence of my questioning mode. I think I must have been a true pest.
But it’s his doing that I never—literally never—play at any length without consciously invoking interpretive or, especially, technical insights that he injected me with. Some of my colleagues may not have needed what he gave me, especially in the technical realm. But he literally taught me how to use my hands. What is more intimate to us instrumentalists than our hands? That’s where he will always reside for me, and with lasting veneration.
I had arrived in his studio as a pretty blank slate. What musical knowledge I had had come from experience with top-flight choral repertory and by basically learning my way around the keyboard via a succession of piano teachers of indifferent quality. He taught me that there was no technical challenge that I couldn’t overcome, because he taught me to turn every technical issue into a musical one. And, as it happens, he was right: a doctrine that I have tested over a long career.
As I have already said on Facebook, I’m not yet ready to face a world that doesn’t have my teacher in it. How little he could have known, even as I sometimes tried to tell him, what he meant to me—and, for that matter, to anybody that I have taught.
May 19, 2014
It is an exceedingly rare thing for Google to let me down — or, put another way, for my skill in wielding Google to let me down. But yesterday I typed the words, “vintner and producer of olive oil,” and I have ever since wondered what you call a person who makes that ancient elixir from the olive. Living in Catalonia, where olives are such a fact of life, words derived from the fruit’s name abound, as I’m sure is the case in all other Mediterranean languages. (Joan Plowright’s married name, after all, means “Lady Olive Tree” in French.*)
In Catalan, an olive tree can be masculine (oliver) or feminine (olivera), but the olive itself is always feminine (oliva). A true indication of the penetration of olives in daily life is the fact that there are no fewer than three adjectives for things pertaining to olives: olivinc, olivós, and olivaci. (Spell check is struggling mightily against me in this post.) The drab green color sometimes known as khaki in English is verd d’oliva on army uniforms in Catalan. You don’t need two words to designate an olive grove; either olivar, oliverar will do.
But I still haven’t found a word for the man or woman who turns the olivers into olives (the plural of oliva in Catalan looking identical to the English plural), and then into the treasured oli d’oliva. Thanks to one of my favorite dictionaries, I know how to hold out the olive branch to someone (either ram or branca d’oliver). But I’m convinced that one of you will tell me a one-word occupational name. I have always assumed that the cognom of one of the most important Catalans in history, Abbot Oliba, might be a clue, but as a I think about it now, the instability and interchangeability of Bs and Vs in Iberian languages probably just makes his name mean olive.
So come on, readers: do for me what Google didn’t do this time!
* Typing that made me curious enough to check, and (thanks, Google) Lord Olivier was indeed of French ancestry.
April 28, 2014
It is a commonplace, almost a reflex, in criticizing institutions like the Vatican, to ask why they don’t sell their artistic treasures and give the money to the poor. That would certainly seem to answer a direct suggestion of the church’s founder to “go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor” (Matthew 19:21). On the other hand, I once read an economist’s calculation of how many seconds of relief the world’s poor would gain from selling off all the art in the Vatican museums. It wasn’t much. Without devaluing even the smallest respite to such suffering, an enlightened view of human nature might recognize other kinds of hunger apart of the merely nutritional — hunger that art has its own way of satisfying with a nurture beyond the physical. Besides which, an institution like the Vatican Museums (and other great ones) deliver value to great sections of humanity that the sale of the works to a few billionaires would hardly effect.
It may surprise those well-meaning critics that these issues are at least as controversial in the church as they are among the church’s detractors. A recent article on a significant blog, frequented largely by Catholics of a reflective, culturally-aware kind, has taken up a concrete instance in which an American archdiocese found itself in possession of minor works by a historically significant American artist at the same time that they wanted money to renovate some buildings. The works, by a young Thomas Eakins, documented relationships that he formed as a non-Catholic seeking solace in conversations with clerics at the Philadelphia seminary. He gave the portraits of these men as gifts reflecting his gratitude. While these are not works of art recognized as having significance for the whole of humanity, they instance a stage in a significant painter’s journey through grief, consolation, faith, and doubt. The comments to the article (whose contents will surprise many — among whom I include myself — in the extent to which the hierarchical church has thought through the issues occasioned by artistic possessions) show a vast panorama of thoughtful responses to the problem.
Eakins’ only religious work, a “Crucifixion” painted in 1880, could not attract a buyer because it was deemed “too graphic.” It was donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by the Eakins family in 1929.
And, as an illustration of how many considerations may come into such a discussion, a British commenter even enters charges of homoeroticism in Eakins’s art as a consideration.
While, in the reaches of eternity, we may well feel that all the great art in the history of what used to be called Christendom is of less value than the peace of mind of a single abused child; and while we should not over-value what “moth and dust doth corrode and thieves break in and steal,” art is not just a piece of merchandise. It records and contains pieces of the human spirit, which is also a legitimate concern of the church.
September 21, 2013
The three hundredth anniversary of the horrible end of the Siege of Barcelona approaches. It brings with it vivid recollection of an almost unbelievably bloody genocide against a people who, suddenly abandoned by the English allies who had encouraged Catalonia to resist the imposition of a monolithic Bourbon government, fought off the combined armies of France and Spain for over a year. The genocide was pointedly cultural as well as corporal, and the inhabitants of Catalonia are keenly conscious of their ancient proto-democratic institutions that were then destroyed and have never been fully restored. Even worse, the rights that they have achieved since the death of the last dictator that Spain imposed on them are every day being whittled away more. A Web site called “El món ho ha de saber” (The world has to know it), has this admirable short summary of the challenge to let the world know Catalonia’s intentions, which are being carefully distorted by powerful interests. I thought it worth translating for the English-reading sector of that greater world:
Catalonia is getting ready to commemorate the tercentenary of a defeat. It was a huge defeat that led to the loss of the nation’s liberties, the extinction of the country’s institutions, and an enormous crackdown on all levels aimed at destroying us as a people.
Three hundred years later, however, this defeat, which has caused so much suffering to so many generations of Catalans, can only be seen as a great victory. This is because, three centuries after the disaster of 1714, not only has Catalonia not lost its national consciousness, but, on the contrary, that consciousness is more alive than ever, since our country is now close to deciding, freely and democratically, our future.
At the very gates of this decisive process, it is essential to let the world know that the desire of Catalans to be masters of our own fate is not just a bolt out of the blue caused by a brutal economic crisis. The greater world must be aware that our nation has a thousand of years of history, and that the desire for the freedom has endured ever since the defeat of that fateful September 11, 1714.
The world must know that the future of Catalonia is not against anything or anyone, and that Catalonia’s liberty will help to make the world a little more free.
September 19, 2013
The vast expansion of social media has changed the role of blogs drastically, and there are those who now consider blogs to be obsolete. When I began this site in 2008, it certainly loomed much larger in my confrontation with the world than it does now. Longtime readers will have noticed the much-decreased frequency of posts here as Twitter and Facebook have become quick and easy release-valves for ideas, links, questions, and general contact of a virtual kind.
However, as some of you will know already (thanks to those very same media, in which my reach has, like that of many, grown almost shockingly large), I have changed my base of operations to a spectacular seaside town in Catalonia. The cultural impact of this may cause me to post more in this space, since the stimulus of the environment may call for this kind of outlet more often.
For example, I can’t avoid commenting on the irony of my new street address (a ceramic sign for which can be seen at the head of this post). The complicated relationship between Cuba and the United States did not by any means begin with the deranged state of affairs of the last half-century. The results of the Cuban revolution that are unhappy have sometimes been taken personally by me. As the person responsible for the current-events bulletin board in my sixth-grade class at Miller-Perry Grammar School, I plumped vigorously for the victory of that pro-American democrat, Mr. Castro. He was even a guest on Edward R. Murrow’s indispensable television show, Person to Person, in which the t.v. cameras went into the celebrity’s home and talked with him informally. Castro’s good English and calm demeanor soon became much less in evidence, of course — not to mention his hospitality to media, except that controlled by him and saturated with his phenomenally prolix orations.
But other countries, without condoning the darker side of Castro’s rule, have had a much saner relationship with that remarkable island and its people. That doesn’t mean that their relationship was less complicated, however. One of the greatest blows that Spain has ever felt was over the loss of Cuba as a prime colony. That deprivation was felt differently in Catalonia, where the loss was not one affecting national pride so much as the pocketbook. For Catalans were heavily invested in Cuba, and in more than one sense. They not only were exploiting Cuba for financial gain, resulting in massive fortunes, but many Catalans developed a deep love for the Cuban people and their ambience. Thus, with the Americans driving out citizens of Spain, these magnates returned to Catalonia determined to recreate, back home on the Mediterranean, their prized Caribbean felicity. They built elaborate villas with romantic walled gardens refreshed by both Mediterranean breezes and the sound of habaneras. This development coincided with the climax of a historic renewal of specifically Catalan cultural vigor known as their Renaixença.
In the biography of Xavier Montsalvatge that I published last year, I commented on this fact (so important to Montsalvatge’s use of Cuban culture as a way of being Catalan under the watchful eye of Francisco Franco’s minions). One of the great ironies of my new residence is highlighted by the underlined sentence, in which I mention the very street that has now become my home:
The dictadura of Franco complicated every aspect of Catalan culture, symbolized by the fact that immediate decrees making all public signs in Catalan illegal conspicuously affected street signs. Thus all street signs had to be torn down and replaced with signs only in Castilian:
A Catalan friend who lived through those times has sometimes mentioned to me this matter of pride for him: while the fascists tore down the Catalan signs in the late Thirties, the restored public use of the language has resulted in street signage in both languages — the dictatorship’s signs simply being supplemented by the Catalan ones. It might have been perfectly understandable if the previously imposed signs had been torn down, even as a sort of symbolic revenge after years of cruel repression; but that did not happen. This is more than a statutorially monolingual culture being replaced by an actually bilingual one; it is the difference between intolerance and tolerance. And it implies much else that makes it a joy to live in this place, among these people.
June 10, 2013
THE MAGIC FLUTE: A Film by Kenneth Branagh
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sung in English | Running time 134 minutes
Lyubov Petrova – Queen of the Night
René Pape – Sarastro
Tom Randle – Monostatos
Joseph Kaiser – Tamino
Amy Carson – Pamina
Ben Davis – Papageno
Teuta Koço – First Lady
Louise Callinan – Second Lady
Kim-Marie Woodhouse – Third Lady
Silvia Moi – Papagena (young)
Liz Smith – Papagena (older)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Libretto: Adapted by Stephen Fry
Producer: Pierre-Olivier Bardet
Costumes: Christopher Oram
The Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Music Arranged and Conducted by: James Conlon
Last month I attended an assaig general (i.e., dress rehearsal), at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. The opera was a new production (new for them; it had seen the light in Munich) of It turco in Italia. It was delightful. Rehearsed to a fare-thee-well, with action that seemed motivated rather than pasted on, it was blessed with comedy that was actually funny. Every tool was pressed into the service of characterization. (For example, the trampish tendencies of a married character were efficiently communicated when she even flirted with stage hands.) The question kept arising in my mind: did the director devise action that skilled singing actors were realizing, or did he call forth behavior appropriate to these particular singers? Rarely having seen anything approaching this level of precision of stage-work in New York opera houses, I was mostly asking myself: how can we more consistently get this level of professional acting out of first-class singers, in well-prepared ensemble productions?
Well, Sir Kenneth Branagh has an answer. Bring to bear on opera the techniques of film-making, with its multiple takes, the luxury of directorial nursing in the midst of actual performance, and the lack of necessity for repeat performances every few nights. Now, of course, Branagh is not the first to take opera to the medium of film — nor even the first top-drawer director to do it for Flute. Igmar Bergman of blessed memory did that unforgettably, and in his country’s Swedish vernacular. Branagh’s movie is in English that Stephen Fry came up with (who, being a master of so many trades, probably wouldn’t have fatally shocked us if he had imitated Mozart’s original librettist and sung the role of Papageno too).
The story is moved to World War I and loses little or nothing by the transfer. The original plot is murky at times, and though this rendition is sometimes mystifying, too, its vitality and general entertainment value are never in question. If you like Branagh’s Shakespeare, you’ll like his Mozart.
As for the cast: admirer of Joseph Kaiser’s singing though I’ve been, I’d never have thought he would inhabit the screen as though he’d been playing leading-man roles for years, while all the time singing with a consistency and clarity that do him and his teachers and mentors great credit. His performance is above praise in every respect.
Another advantage of a film is that luxury casting of a sort uncommon in a chain of performances in an opera house becomes feasible: hence the welcome appearance of a major star like René Pape as Sarastro.
With regard to the rest of the singing: the level is remarkably high all through by the singers not otherwise singled out here. Of course certain things become easier on film than in the opera house (Sarastro’s lowest notes and the boys’ trio often not being up to an ideal volume in many live stagings), but one never feels that there is undue manipulation or that any vocal effects are owed to switches and dials.
The orchestra employed is of course one of the world’s virtuoso ensembles, but even at that its eloquence here is constantly striking. There simply doesn’t seem to be a false move musically. (And it’s lovely to have another crack at the overture during the closing credits. It almost sounds new after all the action that has transpired since its first hearing.) Though the scenery ranges from battlefield to field hospital to all kinds of outdoor realistic and imaginary locations, the acoustic for the music is, wisely, kept as that of a particularly elegant concert hall.
There are things that any hardened opera fan will bridle at here and there, but no matter; this is a perfectly valid retelling of a story that has always been a little problematic outside the house and atmosphere of its premiere. It is playing in cinemas around the United States this week, and I hope that the comparative neglect of it in this country so far will be overcome, if only by word of mouth from the people whose ears and eyes have been charmed by this consistently entertaining film. It takes its noble music seriously and always renders justice to Mozart’s miraculously expressive achievement.
December 28, 2012
With minimal choir available for Christmas, this is what we did. It was glorious.
UPDATE: A number of people on the PIPORG-L have asked me if I could post, as one of them put it, “even a verisimilitude” of what the instrument sounds like in the room. So today between liturgies I quickly played through a little music to give some idea. It’s recorded simply via the internal microphone of a MacBook Pro and from the organ loft very near the console (as you can tell when I sneeze), so it doesn’t get the full effect of the space. But you get the idea, I believe, that it’s a pretty grand sound in there. These are off-the-cuff performances with flaws, but you’re interested in the sound, not in the artistry. Organists will hear an occasional pipe not speaking in time, and for the “Greensleeves,” I had to alter the registration on account of dead notes and even rearrange a few of the notes to accommodate the fact that the combination action is, well, out of action. But, again, I think you get an idea. It is very much to be hoped that this 89-year-old instrument, unaltered except by much wear and tear, will soon be brought back to its pristine state.
The samples are these. Click on each to hear: