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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Five Years Ago

On a crisp September morning five years ago tomorrow, the unthinkable happened. I will never forget that day nor its events. Just like the day in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded before our very eyes, the television media, with their every 20 second replay of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, the images of September 11 are never too far from my mind's eye. It doesn't help much that Youtube has thousands of videos of the event posted for us to see whenever we get the urge.

I can't help but think about where we were on September 10, 2001, where we ended up on the 12th and where we are today. On the tenth of September, a minority of Americans and the Supreme Court had only recently handed the presidency to a failed businessman from Connecticut by way of Texas, who, much to his own hapless good luck, was born the son of a former not so hot president. Many of us were outraged at the outcome of the 2000 election, wondering just what the hell we were thinking to let this happen.

But the horrific events of September 11th gave the new president a chance to shine, a chance to unite the country behind a common cause, a chance to be a healer. Even I, the biggest Bush detractor on the planet, was willing to see what the guy could do in the face of disaster. After all, we didn't have the choice of replacing him with the far more competent Rudolph Giuliani.

What is striking now in hindsight is just how badly George W. Bush blew his chance at greatness. It started with the slackjawed empty looks on his face that we saw from all kinds of television images in the days immediately following the attack. His total disengagement at the National Cathedral memorial service was telling. Here was the leader of the free world, clueless as to how to handle the biggest disaster on American soil since Pearl Harbor.

"Wanted Dead or Alive!" he said. How fucking original. War on turr. Or was that tourists? Oh, yes, terror. Interesting. We have declared war on a tactic, spent gazillions of dollars on the cause and the man who masterminded the attacks on New York and Washington is still hopping around the caves of Pakistan sticking out his bare ass for the Al Jazeera cameras five years on. We have been duped into a needless war with Iraq, having been sold a bill of goods about non-existent weapons of mass deception, er, destruction and a completely fabricated connection between Sadaam Hussein and Al-Quaeda.

All the while, the White House Puppet and his thugs in the cabinet usurp the constitution every hour on the hour while we stand idly by and let it happen. Compared to Bush, Dick Nixon and his boys look like Pope Benedict and the College of Cardinals. And we impeached Clinton for a blow job.

The best news that I can think of on this September 11 eve is that Dubbya has fewer days to serve in office, and each passing sunset lessens his grip. In a meagre eight years, we have become one of the most despised nations on earth through some of the worst foreign policy in history. We have destroyed two countries and seem to be hell bent on starting yet another war, this time with Iran, when our military is already taxed to the breaking point, and we have yet to demand Donald Rumsfeld's incompetent, arrogant head to be served in soup kitchens.

On this fifth marking of the September 11 attacks, let's all take a moment to ponder that in just a couple of weeks, there's an election coming upon us that can change the course of this disaster that was bred from tragedy. Let's all take a positive step to undo the damage that Bush and his criminals have done to our country.

Vote. Do it! Before it's too late.

Some Exquisite New Chamber Music for You to Enjoy

Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Quintet for Piano and Strings in g minor, Op. 57 (1940) [31:14]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Quintet for Piano and Strings in d minor, Op. 89 (1906) [30:41]

James Dick (piano)
Eusia Quartet
Kazuhiro Takagi and Janne Tateno (violins); Yukiko Ogura (viola); Adrien Zitoun (cello)

Recorded 11-12 march 2005 (Shostakovich) and 6-7 April 2006 (Fauré) in the Festival Concert Hall at Festival Hill, Round Top, Texas.

ROUND TOP RTR 013 [61:55]

Since 1971, pianist James Dick has led the annual International Festival-Institute for Music at historic Round Top, Texas. Each year the festival produces a number of chamber music recordings and this disc is from the most recent batch.

Dmitry Shostakovich, whose centennial we celebrate this year was born in the year that Fauré composed his Piano Quintet. No two worlds could have been further apart than the early twentieth century France known to the mature Fauré, and the waning Romanov dynasty under which Shostakovich first saw the light of day.

By 1940, Shostakovich had begun to recover from the stern official rebuke that his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had brought down upon him. His fifth symphony was a populist hit, and he was even awarded the very first Stalin Prize for the Quintet recorded here. It is work much patterned after the keyboard partitas of Bach, cast in five movements, rich in tonal harmony and interesting folk melodies. To put it simply, this is hauntingly beautiful music, infused with thick textures stacked layer upon layer, with contrasting fast movements full of rhythmic interest and vitality. At times this music is downright sunny in nature, and the bouncing scherzo is vigorous and dancing.

Our ensemble is of one mind about this music, and play off each other in a most collegial manner. James Dick plays with precise rhythmic clarity and a warm rich tone, which never becomes brittle in the upper registers. The Eusia quartet, while still fairly young, play with a strong sense of ensemble, and provide some beautiful amber tones. Although the ensemble’s playing is incredibly atmospheric, I sometimes wondered if a slightly faster tempo would have benefited the music here and there, particularly in the last movement which seemed to me to lack forward motion. The highlight of this performance is the splendid Fugue, which is masterful in its structure and played to perfection.

Gabriel Fauré’s Quintet, composed 34 years before Shostakovich’s is a horse of a completely different color. Dreamy and sunny, this work lay on the composer’s desk for some time as a sketch for a third piano quartet, before it was expanded in its instrumentation. The only work of Fauré’s to be published in the United States; it was first performed from hand written parts due to the state of flux with publishers in which the composer found himself when the work was finished. That it saw print at all is due in large part to Charles Martin Loeffler, who, while living in Boston, arranged to have the work published by the American firm of G. Schirmer. This American publication is most likely the reason that the work went underperformed for so long. Early twentieth century Americans were less enthusiastic about fine chamber music that their European counterparts and it took some time for the parts to become available in the Old World.

This is a work of sublime serenity, opening with a rhapsodic movement that is awash in melody, lush proto-Ravellian harmonies, and robust sweeping textures. In spite of the small ensemble, the sound plate is all but orchestral in nature. The second movement is quite romantic and is rife with one gorgeous melody after another. The final movement is peaceful and sunny, rolling along like the view from a carriage on a country ride.

There is practically nothing to fault in this performance. Balance and ensemble are dead on; tempi are carefully chosen and fit the music like a glove. The string playing is warm and spacious and Mr. Dick piano shines in a glow of silvery elegance. This is some of the most cooperative chamber music playing that I have ever heard, totally devoid of needless show and pretense. It is what fine music making should be: playing in service to the music for the purpose of edifying the listener.

Program notes are concise and contain just the right balance of anecdotal interest and scholoarship. Sound quality is rich and warm and always beautifully balanced, and there is thankfully no extraneous performer noise (read grunting and sniffing) that mar so many chamber music recording. This is a recording worthy of pride of place in any collection.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Ten Books that You Might Enjoy

Kent Haruf: Plainsong

This is a lovely story about the adventures of the good folk of Holt, Colorado. Haruf paints a vivid portrait of rural life, and is amazingly able to turn everyday life dramas into arresting reading. The sequel is called Eventide and I look forward to reading it soon. With titles like those, Haruf must either be a musician or an Episcopalian or both.

John Irving: A Prayer for Owen Meany

This is undoubtedly the most poignant book I have ever read. A true tale of selfless love and friendship, told as only the American Dickens can tell it. A must read for all literate people

Armisted Maupin: The Night Listener

Maupin is one of the only authors I know who can be equal parts sad, funny and mystery writer. The master of the plot twist, this book is a total mind fuck, but it is also one of the most memorable books I have every read.

Sheri Reynolds: The Rapture of Canaan

Though I am utterly loathe to admit that I loved one of Oprah's book selections, this is a real winner of a tale, especially if you're a liberal in the conservative dungeon of the south like I am! A wonderful tale of a young girl who overcomes the brainwashing of her near cult-like religious community to find true redemption and salvation. Fabulous.

Alice Walker: The Color Purple

Perhaps it's a bit of a cliche to list an Alice Walker tome, but she is one of the finest writers in print and this is masterful story telling. One of the few times when a movie is as good as the book, this series of letters to God is a profound portrait of the African-American experience in the old south.

George Orwell: 1984

Unquestionably the most terrifying book I have ever read. I can't remember when a story stuck with me for so long, or disturbed me so deeply. Not for the weak-kneed!

Liam Callanan: The Cloud Atlas

This book was one of those splendid little accidents that I found at the public library. Set in Alaska during the Second World War, it is a fictionalized account of the balloon bombing campaign, wherein the Japanese attempted to bomb the US west coast by means of bombs attached to hot air balloons. It's a great tale coupled with some rather fascinating history.

Peter Ostwald: Glenn Gould: The Ecstacy and Tragedy of Genius

Psychiatrist and long-time Gould friend has written a fascinating biography of one of the twentieth century's greatest and most controversial musicians. In spite of his profession, the book is thankfully sparing of too much psychoanalysis. Rather, Ostwald tells the story of his friendship with the Canadian pianist, relying on his profession only to add insight into one of the most eccentric personalities in music. A great read, and a sad story indeed.

Christoph Wolff: Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician

Without a doubt, this is the most readable indepth biography of the greatest of all composers ever written. Wolff approaches his subject from the point of view of Bach's amazingly well-rounded personality. From his authority in the field of organ construction to his foibles at diplomacy and church politics, Bach was a man of thorough learning and scholarship. A must read for all music lovers.

Grahame Green: The Power and the Glory

A true classic, this tale of a priest in troubled times is so real that you almost feel the need to shower after you have read a chapter. Beautifully descriptive, and powerful to the last word, this is a book that deserves a shelf life outside of high school literature classes.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

A Fine New CD from the Dallas Symphony

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra in B-flat major, Op. 83 (1881) [46:09]
Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119 (1891-93) [15:25]

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Litton

Recorded 12-15 January 2006 at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, TX and 11 February 2006 at the Poston Hall, Suffolk, England.

HYPERION CDA 67550 [61:41]

Brahms autumnal second piano concerto stands in rather stark contrast to his tumultuous first, perhaps reflecting the life experiences of the twenty-three years that lay between their composition. The second concerto, although by no means short of virtuoso display, is much more closely related to chamber music. And yet, Brahms cannot separate himself from the orchestra, casting the work in four instead of the traditional three movements, and making both outer movements far more expansive than was common for the concerto of the period.

In a performance that is the amalgam of a weekend of concerts, Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, no stranger to big romantic literature turns in a solid, well paced and controlled performance. This was a bit of a surprise to me I must confess, since I had attended one of the concerts in question in person and was under whelmed with Mr. Hamelin’s performances. Andrew Litton is, however a real master in the recording studio, and through some good editing on Hyperion’s part, we have a final product that is very fine indeed.

The chamber music nature of the opening movement is not lost on Mr. Hamelin. He and Maestro Litton work well together as a team, and we never get the impression that there is anything but collegial music making happening here. Litton lets the orchestra sing where it needs to, and Mr. Hamelin is careful never to just thunder through the louder passages for the sake of virtuosity. It is always a surprise to hear the burst of energy that is the second movement, and Hamelin tears into the music with abandon. The third movement is a beautifully reflective dialogue with some magnificent cello playing from Dallas symphony principal cellist Christopher Adkins in the famous solo. It all comes to a fine close in the finale, in which Hamelin keeps everything under firm control, never beating up on the piano. Instead, he is ever at one with his instrument, and with the music.

Of particular merit is the rich, singing tone that Maestro Litton gets from the Dallas symphony string section, and some nice playing as well from the horns, whose prominent part is played to perfection. It is music making of this quality that makes us grateful that Andrew Litton loves to record, and sad that he no longer heads the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. This is very satisfying music making all round, and it is particularly rewarding to hear this piece played at just the right tempo, not too fast like the old Serkin recordings of your, and thankfully not lugubrious as in later Bernstein with Krystian Zimmerman at the keyboard.

Mr. Hamelin rounds off the program with the four shorter works from Op. 119, which he plays with depth, passion and sensitivity.

Kevin Sutton