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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A Remarkable Chopin Set

This review originally appeared on on Wednesday, December 8, 2010.

CHOPIN: His Contemporaries and His Instruments
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849) John FIELD (1782-1837) Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888) Friedrich KALKBRENNER (1785-1849) Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896) Louis LEFÉBURE-WÉLY (1817-1870) Edmund WEBER (1766-1828) Mikhail GLINKA Maria SZYMANOWSKA (1789-1831) Ignacy Feliks DOBRZYNSKI (1807-1867)Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Recordings Historical - 2003 CLASSICS 94048 [6 CDs: 66:30 + 58:21 + 49:31 + 66:58 + 72:09 + 77:29]

CHOPIN: His Contemporaries and His Instruments
CD 1
John FIELD (1782-1837) Nocturnes, Complete [66:30]
CD 2
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849) Nocturnes, Complete, Volume I [58:21]
CD 3
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849) Nocturnes, Complete, Volume II [49:31]
CD 4
Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888) Nocturne alla Field in B-flat [4:38]; Nocturne in B, Op. 22 [5:40]; Notturnino innamorato in f-sharp minor, Op. 63, No. 43 [2:10]
Friedrich KALKBRENNER (1785-1849) Les Soupirs de la Harpe Eolienne: Nocturne in A-flat, Op. 121, No. 1 [4:12]; Nocturne in F, Op. 121, No. 2 [4:03] (a trois mains)
Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896) Nocturne in F, Op. 6, No. 2 (Soireés musicales) [5:09]
Louis LEFÉBURE-WÉLY (1817-1870) Nocturne in D-flat, Op 54 (Les Cloches du monastère) [5:14]
Edmund WEBER (1766-1828) Nocturne in D-flat, Op. 1 (Première pensée) [3:46]
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857) Nocturne in E-flat [5:45]
Maria SZYMANOWSKA (1789-1831) Nocturne in A-flat (La Murmure) [3:02]
Ignacy Feliks DOBRZYNSKI (1807-1867) Nocturne in g minor, Op. 21, No. 1 [4:55]; Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 21, No. 2 [6:08]; Nocturne in f minor, Op. 24, No. 1 [4:05]; Nocturne in D-flat, Op. 24, No. 2 [5:25]; Nocturne in g minor (Pozegnanie) [2:41]
CD 5
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849) Early Works: Polonaise in A-flat, dedicated to Zywny (1821) [4:32]; Rondo in c minor, Op. 1 (1825); Mazurka in G (1825-6) [1:06]; Mazurka in B-flat (1825-6) [1:33]; Polonaise in B-flat minor (1826) [6:20]; Rondo à la Mazur in F, Op. 5 (1826) [10:35]; Three Polonaises, Op. 71 (1827-9): in d minor [6:31]; in f minor [10:10]; in B-flat [7:03]; Polonaise in G-flat (1829) [8:22]; Variations in A (Souvenir de Paganini) (1829) [3:45]; Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma (transcription for P. Viardot) [3:00]
CD 6
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849) Mazurka Op. 7, No. 1 in B-flat [2:26]; Mazurka Op. 17, No. 4 in a minor [4:25]; Mazurka Op. 24, No. 1 in g minor [2:58]; Mazurka Op. 30, No. 3 in D-flat [3:00]; Mazurka Op. 50, No. 3 in c-sharp minor [4:57]; Mazurka Op. 59, No. 2 in A-flat [2:46]; Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826) Piano Sonata No. 3 in d minor, Op. 49 [27:26]
Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888) Barcarolle [3:34]; Petit Conte [3:57]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) Études d’exécution trancendante: Ricordanza [11:38]; Harmonies du soir [10:22];
CD 1: Bart van Oort (Broadwood piano 1823 from the collection of Edwin Beunk); CD 2: Bart van Oort (Pleyel piano, 1842 from the collection of Edwin Beunk); CD 3: Bart van Oort, (Érard piano, 1837 from the collection of Edwin Beunk); CD 4: with Agniezska Chabowska, (Erard piano, 1837 from the collection of Edwin Beunk); CD 5: Constantino Mastropirmiano (Graf piano, Vienna, 1826); CD 6: Cor de Groot (Chopin) (Pleyel piano 1847, Collection Haags Gemeentemuseum); Jan Vermeulen, (Weber) (fortepiano, Tröndlin, 1828, Leipzig); Stanley Hoogland (Alkan) (Pleyel piano 1828, from the collection of Edwin Beunk); Fred Oldenburg (Liszt) (Erard piano, 1842 Collection Haags Gemeentemuseum).
rec. CD 1: 26-29 June 1995, Doopsgezinde Kerk, Haarlem; CD 2: 1-2 September 1998, Maria Minor, Utrecht; CD 3: 25 June, 30 September, 1 October 1998, Maria Minor, Utrecht; CD 4: 23 January, 23-24 June 2003, Maria Minor, Utrecht; CD 5: 16-18 October 2009, Palazzo Contucci, Montepulciano, Italy; CD 6: October-November 1988, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague; 1991-92 Steurbart Studios, Ghent; 16-18 September 2002, Maria Minor, Utrecht; September 1990, English Reformed Church, Begijnhof, Amsterdam.

The Nocturne as a Musical Art Form
Mention the term Nocturne to a music-lover and the name of Frederic Chopin should come almost immediately to mind. It was the Irishman John Field, however, who actually pioneered the form, and Chopin, having taught and performed Field’s music, refined it and perhaps set the gold standard for the genre. The Nocturne came about as a result of improvements on the piano as an instrument. With the advent of the sustaining pedal, left hand harmonies of a wider scope became possible since the figures no longer needed to fit under the hand to be played - like the Alberti bass prominent in the music of Mozart and Haydn, for example. Field was highly influenced by the cantilena arias of Rossini and thus imitated them at the piano. The melodies are characteristically flowing with occasional outbursts of coloratura fanciness. The accompaniments are always broken and cover a range of two to three octaves. Cast as a rule in ABA form, the middle sections are often turbulent, in surprising contrast to the languid and somewhat melancholy outer sections. These works, although often simple-sounding to the untrained ear, can require great technical prowess on the part of the pianist, due both to the wide leaps in the left hand and the demanding middle sections. Chopin’s nocturnes in particular present an added difficulty, in that he had a propensity very subtly to alter his melodies, repeating many notes but changing just a few so that memorizing the music can be a great challenge. There is also the frequent use of right hand flourishes of anywhere from eleven to fifty notes all squeezed on top of a left hand figure of six or nine notes, making hand coordination a bit of a nightmare.
The focus of this set from Brilliant Classics is the Nocturne, mainly as seen through the eyes of Frederic Chopin. The guise is to compare and contrast Chopin with his peers. Four of the six discs are exclusively dedicated to this form, including the complete outings by Field and Chopin in the genre. We then get one disc dedicated to Chopin’s very early music, and one to smaller works (mostly nocturnes) by his contemporaries. They are all performed on historic instruments that would have been familiar to Chopin, and for which he would have composed his music.
A Note about 19th Century Pianos
Pianos in the nineteenth century were not nearly as standardized as today’s modern concert grands, and each builder had a distinct and individual style. Of the many competitors, two cities became the leaders in the building of pianos, Vienna and London. Viennese instruments were lighter in touch and enabled rapid passage-work to be executed with minimal strength of hand. English pianos on the other hand were firmer to the touch. The keys sank a bit deeper when depressed and required more strength. As a result, English instruments were often favored for works with orchestra. The end result of these contrasts was the formation of two very different techniques, and the switch from the two styles of instruments was often problematic for performers.
The Music and Performances
Although he invented the genre, and his works were immensely popular during his lifetime, John Field’s nocturnes, elegantly performed here by Bart van Oort have a certain sameness about them that gets a bit tiring to the ear if you sit through an entire program of them. Having said that, it is also obvious that Field was a fine craftsman, and his pioneering techniques and his carefully studied use of rubato are signs of his complete mastery of his instrument. It just seems that he never goes as harmonically far afield as Chopin did, making for a certain sweetness that doesn’t wear well over time. Mr. van Oort coaxes a lovely tone from an 1823 Broadwood piano. There is a richness here that I didn’t quite expect to hear, particularly in the upper register. Past experience has led me to dread a tinkly and shallow sound from nineteenth century instruments. Van Oort is clearly a master of these early pianos, not just a modern player moonlighting in the museum for extra bucks.
Frederic Chopin preferred the pianos of the French firm Pleyel for their veiled tone and nuance. Bart van Oort comments in his excellent notes that it took him some time to get accustomed to playing these two lovely instruments dating from 1842 and 1837. He states that it is very difficult to make them sound beautiful. We would never know that from his elegant and graceful performances of Chopin’s Nocturnes. If one were to complain at all it would be that there is the occasional note that simply thunks a bit without having a lot of resonance. Van Oort however coaxes a rich and warm tone out of these instruments, and his command of Chopin’s style can easily be compared to that of Rubinstein. He brings out melodies most beautifully, is not afraid to let go and show off a bit in the stormier sections, and he is a master of rubato. His approach is subtle, and it is obvious that he simply knows how to play the music.
Mr. van Oort concludes his contribution to this set with a strikingly beautiful recital of nocturnes by some lesser-but-still-very-fine composers. Of particular beauty are the works by Charles Alkan, a child prodigy who later went on to compose some monumental works for piano, and whose music has been championed by the pianist Raymond Lewenthal. The brief but passionate nocturnes performed here are of a unique harmonic richness and thankfully lack the kind of meandering quasi-virtuosity so prevalent in later 19th century salon music. Works by Glinka, Clara Schumann, Kalkbrenner are noteworthy for their understated grace. Mr. van Oort plays them with particular panache. Maria Szymanowska’s single contribution to the recital is a particular delight, reminding me very much of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. The five examples by Dobrzynski were a pleasant surprise indeed. Dark in hue, rich in melodic inventiveness, one wonders why such pieces languish in obscurity when so many bad war-horses refuse to die! Of all the instruments used by Mr. van Oort, this 1837 Erard has the most rich and beautiful tone.
Most accounts of Chopin’s own playing indicate that he had a very light and delicate touch - that his playing was graceful and never thundery and that his choice of pianos would often change dependent on his physical strength at the time. When he was well, he preferred a Pleyel, but when weaker, he would return to the less heavily weighted keys of an Erard. Constantino Mastroprimiano performs these boyhood works of Chopin on a Graf piano, which is most closely related to the action and sound of the pianos Chopin would have played as a young man. As the program booklet mentions, a modern virtuoso is faced with a huge challenge when performing on a period instrument. The first of which is to find a playable piano, as of all the musical instruments around, pianos age the most poorly. Then the player is forced to do a great deal of research into treatises of the period to rediscover long-forgotten techniques of playing, techniques that would never work on the modern Steinway. Mr. Mastroprimiano’s work has obviously paid off.
These youthful works display Chopin’s early delving into the folk music and dances of his native Poland. And although the pieces presented here are of nowhere near the harmonic and technical complexity of his later ventures, they are indeed harbingers of the greatness to come. Much simpler in melody and far less well developed in structure than his mature pieces, Chopin nonetheless displays his early mastery of the keyboard. I was particularly delighted with the Polonaise in b-flat minor. It is pretty safe to say that very few modern sixteen year olds could write with such confidence and mastery. There is also ample evidence of Chopin’s ability to improvise and ornament, as we often get little versions of the kinds of pianistic coloratura that would eventually be hallmarks of the mature nocturnes.
Although I am not as much in love with the sound of the Graf piano from 1826 used here, its lighter tone and lack of bass thunder although characteristic of the Viennese style of piano building, is still missed. Nonetheless, Constantino Mastroprimiano proves himself to be master of both the instrument and the music, and these performances are packed with youthful exuberance and panache.
Finally, we are left with a recital of mature works by Chopin and some of his more significant colleagues. Cor de Groot’s sampling of the Mazurkas is beautifully played and we now see where Chopin was headed when he penned his teenage works in the genre. These are works of deep feeling and often express a kind of longing homesickness. The 1847 Pleyel piano used here has a gorgeous, sweet and resonant tone. It is no wonder that Chopin liked to play these instruments.
Weber is considered by many to be the founder of the Romantic Movement, the predecessor that allowed the likes of Wagner to come into being. Highly nationalistic, Weber first became known as a piano virtuoso and as a composer of songs. He would later go on to be a major opera composer with a dramatic flair that would inspire the likes of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. His piano sonatas were immensely popular in their day, in spite of their tendency to be a bit sprawling and over-long. This example, coming in at nearly half an hour is longer than many of Mozart’s symphonies, and does not always keep the listener’s attention. The first movement in particular rather loses it at mid-point before finding its way home at the end. Jan Vermeulen is a pianist of formidable force, and he does everything in his power to keep the music interesting. There is much to enjoy here, just be fresh when you listen.
Charles Valentin Alkan had a brief but brilliant career as a pianist, and for someone as popular as he was in his day, it is easy to wonder why he is so neglected today. It is perhaps due to the overly demanding complexity of his works, the hugeness of form that borders on self-indulgence and the harmonic language that can seem bizarre even into the 21st century that keeps him from being played as much as perhaps he should. The two brief but elegant works performed here by Sanley Hoogland should give the listener nothing to fear. I found the music to be enjoyable, but rather wanted a bit more expression. Tempi tend to be set in stone and there is certainly room for a bit more rubato. I found these performances to be disturbingly static.
We conclude with the grandfather of all virtuosi, Franz Liszt. Music’s first real superstar, Liszt was highly inspired by Nicolo Paginini, whose playing caused Liszt to disappear for weeks, sequestering himself alone with his piano until he developed the perfect technique, mastering every possible challenge and creating a number of new ones along the way. He would later go on to have a major career as a conductor, composer and, astronomically paid soloist. His later life was marked by generosity and pedagogy, and he inspired more than a generation of other composers, championing the works of Berlioz and Schumann and Chopin amongst other luminaries.
Of all the composers featured in this set, it is perhaps hardest to hear Liszt’s music on an antique instrument. These ears are just too accustomed to the likes of Van Cliburn, Lazar Bermann, Artur Rubinstein or Claudio Arrau hailing forth on the modern concert grand. Fred Oldenburg plays convincingly on this 1842 Erard, and the glittery filigree of the Ricordanza and Harmonies du Soir shines beautifully on this instrument.
Brilliant Classics is a label to be reckoned with for their inexpensive price point, and their huge span of repertoire. Although most of their catalogue is licensed from other labels, they give Naxos a run for their money, particularly in the presentation. Program notes are thorough and interesting, and the packaging is quite attractive, compared to Naxos house-brand approach to marketing.
For lovers of romantic piano music, this is a most fascinating look at the development of the romantic piano. The ample doses of Chopin are handsomely offset by the selections from his contemporaries, and overall there is little to fault with any of the performances. Not every historical piano featured here will suit every ear, but that’s OK. This set provides a remarkable look back into the history of the piano. This is a journey that most music lovers will enjoy taking, even if it takes a few days to get from one end to the other.

Some Fine Mendelssohn

This review was first published on on Tuesday December 6, 2010

Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Lieder ohne Worte (Songs Without Words)

Disc One [66:53]
Book One, Op. 19 (1829-30)
Book Two, Op. 30 (1833-34)
Book Three, Op. 38 (1836-37)
Book Four, Op. 53 (1839-41)

Disc Two [54:38]
Book Five, Op. 62 (1842-44)
Book Six, Op. 67 (1843-45)
Book Seven, Op. (1834-45)
Book Eight, Op. 102 (1842-45)

Roberte Mamou (piano)
Recording dates and locations are not listed.

MERIDIAN CDE 84576/7-2 CD I [66:53] CD II [54:38]

Felix Mendelssohn’s forty-eight exquisite Songs Without Words met with mixed opinion when they originally appeared. Composed throughout the 1830s and into the early 1840s, Mendelssohn seemed to defy the penchant of the day to compose the kind of ultra-virtuoso works that had made Franz Lizst and the like international sensations. These little gems are certainly based on the lied, and often take on the typical three part song form in which the opening material returns with some sort of variation. Also as in many songs, Mendelssohn provides an introduction and a postlude (the lovely Op. 30, No. 3 is a fine example.) Schumann was led to speculate that the composer might have even had a text in mind when he conceived the pieces and simply left it out when he composed the music.

In spite of their simplicity of harmony and clarity of melodic line, there are many technical challenges in this music. Left hand accompaniments are often made of wide leaps that begin with a low octave followed by a full chord some distance away. This is not an easy thing to execute even for the finest pianist. Mendelssohn was himself a first rate pianist and many of the songs require fleet finger work and the ability to fly through note-laden passages with deft ease. Yet even in the more speedy works, there is never a lack of beautiful melody. The slower works are almost hymn-like in their serenity.

Roberte Mamou is new to me, but certainly no disappointment. She has ample virtuoso technique and displays a sensitivity to balance and inner voices that is quite refreshing. There is the occasional tendency in this performance to over-use rubato, making Mendelssohn’s more classically oriented style come across too much like the more blatantly romantic works of say Schumann or Chopin. But that is a small complaint in what is on the whole a splendid two hours of music making. It would be easy enough to fall into a sort of sameness trap in these works given their similar style and structure. Ms. Mamou, however finds the individuality in every song making each little moment fresh and pleasant.

Meridian does not provide recording dates or locations, and the program notes are, well, long. Of course there is a lot to cover, but I have never been fond of blow by blow descriptions of music. I find that most listeners are smart enough to figure out what is going on by using their own ears, and I confess that it was a labor to get through all the descriptions. A good proof reader would have been nice too as the typos are fairly abundant.

Recorded sound is of the first order. There is plenty of warm reverberation and yet there is perfect clarity as well, nicely accenting Ms. Mamou’s fine ability to sing with her instrument. Her biography touts her recent Mozart sonata recordings, comparing them amusingly to those of the late Glenn Gould. One can’t quite imagine how anyone could perform Mozart and remind the listener of Gould’s highly idiosyncratic playing, but that’s a discussion for another page.

In all, this set is a worthwhile investment, an ample helping of beautiful music played beautifully.

Farewell Reb Tevye

It is with the greatest sadness that I tell you of the death of my longtime student and friend Nash Long. Nash died on Sunday after valiantly battling ALS, or Lou Gherig's disease.

Nash was one of the most gentle, sensitive and kind men I have ever known. Although he had a lengthy career in city government, his first love was music. Nash was a member of the Dallas Symphony Chorus, and the choir of First United Methodist Church of Garland, institutions which he loved dearly and served faithfully for decades. Nash loved to sing, and continued to study singing and learn new vocal literature right up until the time that his health condition made it impossible for him to sing anymore. Of all the things that ALS took from Nash, the loss of his ability to sing was the greatest blow.

Of the many fond memories I have of Nash, the fondest are from our annual "geezer" recitals, in which all of my shall we say, more mature students would gather at the home of Russel and Marion Young for an evening of singing and dining. One of Nash's favorite musicals was Fiddler on the Roof, in which he played the role of Tevye on a couple of occasions. He loved to sing "If I Were a Rich Man" complete with fantastic animal impersonations.

Nash was taken from us far too soon. But if there is comfort to be had in such a loss, it lies in the fact that Nash is with the Lord he loved so much, full and whole in body and spirit, singing in the heavenly choir. I rather envy him actually. For now, he is singing music more beautiful that we can even imagine on earth, and he's singing it in the very presence of God.

You will be sadly missed Nash. You were not just a nice guy and a good friend. You were truly the embodiment of good. Thank you for all the music you shared with us, and thank you for all the good deeds which you modestly and quietly went about doing every day. You made the world better and kinder by being here, and I know that your generous spirit will live on in the hearts of all of us who knew you. I hope that we all remember how kind and generous you were, and live by your example.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Big Brother Is Watching

I encourage all of my readers to read the following article:

It seems that big brother is watching us even more than we care to think, and now the government is trying to censor what we can read on the internet. It's not a pretty picture, and this article from Alternet will fill you in on the details. I encourage you to read it, take it seriously and write to your elected officials demanding a stop to yet another government invasion of privacy.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Serious Topic for All My Younger (and older) Gay Friends

Guys, most of the time you'll see me spout off here in my best imitation of David Sedares. I try to be witty and sarcastic even when I am wanting to get a serious point across. But this next topic is one that can stand no bullshit, so I am going to be direct. I hope many of you read this and take it to heart.

In the past year, I have seen two of my friends, under the age of thirty, die because of their involvement with drugs. I know that the gay life is often synonymous with the party life, and no one likes to stay out all night having a good time more than I do. But let's sit down together here and take long look at why so many in our community see the need to escape into a world of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and other illicit substances. Hey, it's bad enough that we drink ourselves silly every other night on Cedar Springs isn't it?

I know it's cool to party. But the consequences of drug use are substantial. They include excessive wear and tear on your heart, a wasting of your facial muscles which makes a 29 year old look 50, permanent brain damage, the possibility of getting yourself or someone else killed in a car accident, or, in the worse case, landing in a copper box before you're thirty. Drug use lowers our inhibitions and it dulls our common sense. Far too many of my gay brothers (and some sisters) are fighting HIV infections because they made stupid choices while under the influence of drugs.

In addition, you risk jail time, an end to your career and the loss of your friends and family.

Let me say here that I am the most liberal person in the world when it comes to altering your state of being. I do not believe that mind altering substances should be illegal, and I believe that our government, with its medieval political mindset is fighting a losing and costly battle in its so-called war on drugs. Having said that, I also believe that it is our individual responsibility to look after our own well being and the best interests of all of us in our community. The excessive and careless use of substances which have no oversight as to their content, safety or dosage is irresponsible behavior, period. It is a risk that could cost you your life.

Our gay community is full to the brim with brilliant, talented, beautiful and gifted men and women. We have so much to offer a world that needs change and good leadership and direction more than it ever has before. We need each and every mind and body to help us win our fair rights as citizens,We need every talented person to continue to create the world's most beautiful art, music, design and architecture. We need the scientific and medical genius that runs like a river through our community. How can we possibly know what we've missed when a life is cut short at twenty-three because of a bad choice with drugs? We will never know what potential might have lain ahead. We will never know, because those people are gone, forever.

Please take a moment to think about what I have had to say here. Think twice before you do that bump or decide to spend the night rolling in the bars. Think about who you are and what you have to give. Think about how much better we all can be if your talent, your gift, your genius is allowed to mature into its full fruition. Think twice before you succumb to unfettered hedonism. Your worth lies in your potential, please don't kill it before it blossoms.

Dos and Don'ts for a Happy Gay Life

I have been thinking recently about some of the little quirks that exist in the gay community that make us look, well, stupid. And I thought I might put together a little list of things that might enhance the experience of being out and gay in the big D. Here we go:

1. Don't brag about living at the Illume. It is a shabbily constructed architectural abortion with beautiful balcony views of parking lots. And face it, if you live there, you are likely to drive a leased luxury car. Between the car payments and the rent, you are not likely to afford furniture on your salary.

2.When creating a profile on a dating or networking site, don't tell us that you want to meet an intelligent person who can hold a conversation if your profile is then filled with grammar errors and misspelled words. Know the difference between dominate, the verb, and dominant, the adjective. Know that your is possessive and you're is the contraction for "you are." Know that their, they're and there are different words with different meanings. Know that apostrophe s shows possession, not plurality. Sheesh. Didn't any of you make it out of third grade?

3. Never piss off the doorman at the Drama Room. He'll grab you by the tits and kick your ass if you cross him.

4. To my young friends: not everyone is 22, an Abercrombie model and hung like a grandfather clock. Branch out a bit. Some off sizes can be loads of fun.

5. To my older friends: If you're into younger guys (and I am), most of them will want your money before your love. Those that claim otherwise probably have some serious issues with their biodads. Remember that boys under twenty-five can't see beyond their next cocktail and not only won't, but can't understand how their disregard for your feelings could really hurt you. If you can live with that, then by all means shop in the kids department. But if you can't, prepare to be hurt and lonely and consider a hunk over thirty.

6. Remember that life is a time line. What you did in the past cannot be changed, what lies in the future is unknown. Be a good Buddhist and live in the present, rejoicing in who you are and what you have to offer. The moment you radiate that confidence in yourself is the moment when that man of your dreams will be attracted to your aura.

7. Most people, if given half a chance, are pretty nice. On the other hand, there are lots of arrogant bitches out there too. Give most people half a chance. Slap the bitches and move on.

Happy Hallowe'en.

Friday, September 10, 2010

My Grandmother's Eternal Vigilance

My Grandmother left us in March of 2008. She lived a very productive ninety-one years and was a huge influence in my life. She taught me all the good stuff in life, like how to drive in big cities and how to bargain shop! She rescued me countless times from both financial and moral ruin.

I was always amazed at how in spite of her limited means she always managed to find the funds to bail our family out of any financial disaster we came across, and they were legion.

I was amazed today when the executor of her estate contacted me to tell me that a refund check from an insurance company had come in some two years after her death. It wasn't too much money, but both my mother and I benefited from the little surprise gift. It seems that even now, she's looking down on us and finding little ways to help from beyond the great divide.

I don't know if there's anything profound in this story, but it's interesting that just when it was most needed, we discovered the checks just one day before the post office would have returned them to sender! Thanks Granny. I love you and I miss you very much.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Daron Hagen Shines as a Composer of Chamber Music

Daron HAGEN (b.1961)
Complete Piano Trios

Piano Trio No. 3 “Wayfaring Stranger” (2006) [17:56]
Piano Trio No. 1 “Trio Concertante” (1984) [14:40]
Piano Trio No. 2 “J’entends” (1986) [17:02]
Piano Trio No. 4 “Angel Band” (2007) [22:10]

Finisterra Trio
Kwan Bin Park (violin)
Kevin Krentz (cello)
Tanya Stambuk (piano)

Recorded at The Seasons Hall, Yakima, Washington, 24-27 April, 2008

NAXOS 8.559657 [71:48]

Daron Hagen is a prolific American composer whose music was until now, completely unknown to me. Educated at The Curtis Institute and at the Juilliard School, Hagen has an impressive catalogue of works that range from operas to songs, to chamber and orchestral works. He has taught on the faculties of several prestigious institutions and his works have been commissioned and performed by many of the major artists and ensembles active today.

The 2006 trio, subtitled “Wayfaring Stranger” was doubly inspired by the composer’s late brother and by a trip through the grounds of the civil war battle of Bull Run. While passing through the historic site, the composer heard the American folk hymn and was inspired by the tune. All four movements have some element of the tune in their fabric, but it is in the beautifully lyrical second movement that the tune is most prominent. At times quasi-impressionistic, at others rather shamelessly romantic, this brief but substantial four movement work is full of contrasting colors, such that the ear is always piqued with interest. The Finisterra trio delivers a confident and well balanced performance.

The “Trio Concertant” is a much more academic work, composed while Hagen was a student of David Diamond. Considerably more serious than the folksy third trio, this student work is more of a challenge to the ear. More dissonant, it is obviously geared toward pleasing the jury more than the audience. Having said that, it is a piece that is filled with creative gestures and original thoughts. In spite of the generally tangy harmonies and angular rhythms, there are lyrical moments of repose, and these moments are what save the work from the ivory tower.

Inspired by the last words of Nadia Boulanger (“I hear a music without beginning or end.”), Hagen’s Second Trio from 1986 is both angular and lyrical, dissonant and melodic. Even though some of the terse harmonies are a bit challenging to the ear, the use of intricate counterpoint and some wonderfully virtuoso writing for violin harmonics in the second movement make this work a fascinating listen.

Perhaps my favorite of the program here is the Fourth Trio, “Angel Band” from 2007. Based on an blue grass hymn tune and further inspired by Appalachian folk instruments, the work is a tribute to Joyce Richie Stosahl, a violinist and impresario who grew up in Kentucky during the depression and went on to have a remarkable career as a soloist and orchestral musician. Set in five movements, the work is full of folksy color while still maintaining Hagen’s unique harmonic voice. It is evident though to these ears that the older Mr. Hagen gets, the more lyrical his music becomes. Some of the melodies in this, the newest of the works presented here are downright gorgeous; a trait that sharply contrasts the more academically oriented pieces from the 1980’s.

This is one of those discs that present both challenges and delights. And it is a happy occasion to report that the Finisterra Trio performs it all with a deft hand. The trio is obviously committed to the music and they perform with a fine sense of ensemble and balance. It is difficult to comment on interpretation when these works have had little recorded exposure, so I will simply say that these are convincing performances that sell the works quite well. They definitely merit repeated listening.

As for Hagen, this is my first exposure to his music, and with all first hearings, my first tendency is to ask “do I wish to hear more?” The answer is definitely yes. If Mr. Hagen can compose music this diverse for just three instruments, it will be a very exciting adventure to hear what he does with a full orchestra. Viva Naxos for their continuing commitment to bringing out the best music, whether it be widely known or not!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

My Evening with Sebastian

I have never been the kind of person who particularly enjoyed practicing the piano. That I ever became a decent pianist is amazing in its own right, and thank God my skills as a singer and conductor have been such that I could make a living in music. If I were dependent on the piano, I would surely have starved years ago.

But on rare occasions, I get into just sitting at the keyboard and actually practicing, slowly and methodically practicing a piece of music. Such was my encounter yesterday evening with Sebastian Bach.On some inexplicable whim, I opened the score to the Well-Tempered Clavier, turned to the fugue in C minor and began to play. The preludes and fugues in the WTC are some of the most intricate and perfectly elegant pieces of music ever written for the keyboard. At the time of their composition, the practice of tuning an instrument to equal terperament, a system in which you may play in any key without retuning the instrument, was relatively new. Bach set out in his twenty-four preludes and fugues to show off the new system. And in typical fashion, he created a masterpiece of perfection.

There is something about Bach's music that is medicinal to me. The often irascible and defiant kappellmeister of Leipzig was so attuned to all things spiritual, so in touch and confident in his personal faith, that his music, practically every piece of it, is infused with a sublime serenity. As I sat at the keyboard, I started by slowly playing each of the three voices of the fugue alone. I wanted to hear the contour of each line; to discover where and when that individual voice should be in the forefront or the background.

As I began to put the voices together, the most wonderful, peaceful feeling came over me. It was as if time had stopped and I was floating in the air, suspended by the power and perfection of these brief two pages of music; pages which seemed at the time to hold the secrets of the universe.

Perhaps this isn't much of a story, but the place to which I was taken yesterday by my old and trusty friend Herr Bach was a beautiful one, and I want to go back there soon. And if you, dear friends, are not piano players, perhaps you would enjoy listening to someone like Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt or Andras Schiff display the wonders of this marvelous music for you.

I wish you peace!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Farewell to Dallas' Master of Good Times

Dallas' gay community has lost one of its stars  with the sudden and untimely passing of Marty Hershner. Marty owned one of Dallas' most popular night clubs, The Tin Room, and had just recently opened a second venue on the Cedar Springs Strip, The Drama Room, a club that is fast gaining in popularity. Marty left us while in full stride. He loved what he did, and never ceased to have a good time doing it.

Dallas bar owners and their patrons can be notoriously bitchy, and as Marty's success grew, so did the gossip, back biting and rumors of the demise of his clubs. I'll even admit that when BJ's NXS opened last spring, that I predicted the end of The Tin Room. I couldn't have been more wrong. Regardless of what was said behind his back, Marty kept a genuine smile on his face and never let the bastards of the world get him down.

Since he opened The Drama Room, I was becoming one of Marty's bigger fans. He took a less than stellar venue and turned it into a great party spot by hiring a first rate, friendly and attractive staff, keeping his prices within reason and making it his personal mission to see to it that every patron that walked through the door had a good time. I even once overheard him chastise a bartender for speaking about business matters in front of a patron.

It was Marty's mission to throw a good party, and at both The Tin Room and The Drama Room, the party never stopped. He was a hands on owner. You would see him dashing in and out of both clubs at all hours making sure that everything was running to his satisfaction. And he wasn't all that easy to please!

That he has died at such a young age (he was only thirty years old) and while he was standing at the threshold of major success in the community is sad indeed. I will personally miss his laugh, his wry sense of humor and the gentlemanly way that he treated all of us who patronized his clubs.

One of his employess  told me that Marty would roll over in his grave if the clubs were closed today. And so, the party continues, even  in less than twenty-four hours of his passing. I have a feeling that Marty has found the party on the other side, and is redecorating some gay bar in heaven.

Marty, we'll miss you very much. Thank you on behalf of all the people that you've entertained over the years, for being the master of the good times, the proprietor of the party, and most importantly, the fun loving, compassionate good friend that you were to so many people.

And as tough as it is to say goodbye to someone who should still be with us, I will do so in the way he'd want me to. I'm headed to The Tin Room, right after I hit "send."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Good Things from Transfiguration

As many of you know, I am an Episcopalian. You know, Catholic lite, all the ritual half the guilt.I am very fortunate to belong to a wonderful parish here in Dallas, The Church of the Transfiguration. It's the kind of place where you don't have to check your brain at the door, you know? We have wonderful clergy, dozens of active groups and a great music program, complete with a brand spanking new Richards and Fowkes organ that will blow your socks off!

What's best though about this wonderful church is not that we have great facilites or world class music or gorgeous art work in the building. Rather, what makes this place stand out from all of the other churches that I have served or been a part of (and as a professional church musician, there've been a lot of them) is the way that the people of the parish take very seriously their duty to serve Christ in the church, the community and the world at large. They don't do it with much fanfare either. Rather, the obey Jesus' command to keep their prayers private and not to demonstrate on the street corners as the hypocrites do.

Last night, at our weekly compline service, a group of about fifteen of us gathered to pray, sing and end the day in a spirit of peace and repose. Before the service, a class had met, and there were leftover refreshments. Any Anglican reading this will know what I mean by that, and the compline folk were invited to hang out and finish them off.

Ours is a church where not only can you have the best worship and music and liturgy, but you can also find the best parties as well. It's not at all uncommon to find us hanging around the church well after midnight enjoying each other's company and friendship after an evening service.

Anyway, for some time now I have been struggling a bit through a tough personal situation, and because of the financial stress it's put on me, I have had to be away from "the fig" as we call it, more than I care to in order to sing in other churches for pay. I have felt a bit out of touch with my friends and church family. Last night, by really doing nothing other than what this wonderful group of peolpe does naturally, I felt an overwhelming sense of community, of the presense of the God the Spirit, and of love, understanding and acceptance.

I am normally not the type to preach from the rooftops, but last night was really special, and Iwanted to share it. I invite anyone who lives in the Dallas area to join us for one or more of the many services at Transfiguration. Visit our website at If you are seeking a spiritual place to call home, I think you might just find what you need with us!

Crowding In Los Angeles

A report yesterday on NPR's All Things Considered explained how many jail inmates in Los Angeles are being released after serving only ten per cent of their sentences due to drastic budget shortfalls and overcrowding in jails. Perhaps this situation should lead us to rethink our sentencing guidelines and to reevaluate just what infractions deserve jail time.

I propose that only violent offenses be punishable by incarceration. Only those people who are a real and present danger to society should be locked away. Other offenses, such as white collar crime, non-violent theft, fraud, forgery, and especially recreational use drugs offenses, should be punished by requiring the offender to restore to society what he took.

For example, if you steal from your company, you should be required to work for that company with only subsistence wages until you have repaid in time and productivity, the value, plus damages of what you stole. If you forge a check, then you should be required to perform such community service that would both enhance the public good (repair a dilapidated school, for example) and suitably atone for your crime.

The fact that the most advanced civilization in the world has more than ten per cent of its population in cages is obscene. Add to that that a hugely disproportionate amount of those locked up are black or Hispanic, and we have an even bigger inequity that needs must be addressed. Let's start by looking at the practical ways that we can reduce the prison population while at the same time repairing and restoring our crumbling infrastructure. I believe that a work release program for non violent, non repeat offenders is an excellent way to start. The streets around my house need repair.....just a thought.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Three Hours of Slow and Pretty

Complete Tranquility
Disc One

Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782)
Concerto in c minor for cello and orchestra (Adagio molto espressivo) [7:04]
Count Unico Wilhelm van WASSENAER (1692-1766)
(formerly attributed to Pergolesi)
Concerto armonico No. 3 in A (Largo, andante) [3:55]
Concerto armonico No. 4 in f (Largo) [4:19]
Concerto armonico No. 1 in G (Grave, staccato) [4:57]
Concerto armonico No. 5 in B flat (Largo, andante) [4:25]
Concerto armonico No. 4 in f (Adagio) [2:50]
Concerto armonico No. 2 in G (Largo affetuoso) [4:35]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Concerto in C for Recorder and Orchestra, RV444 (Largo) [4:14]
Concerto in C for Oboe and Orchestra, RV449 (Largo) [2:44]
Concerto in A for Strings, RV158 (Largo) [3:24]
Concerto in g for Two Cellos and Orchestra RV531 (Largo) [3:31]
Concerto in F for Flute and Orchestra RV433 (Largo) [2:14]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Concerto in D for strings (Arioso) [2:35]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Concerto No. 2 in F for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 102 (Andante) [6:01]
Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743-1805)
Concerto in B-flat for Cello and Orchestra, G482 (Adagio non troppo) [6:34]

Disc Two

Giuseppi TARTINI (1692-1770)
Concerto in D for Cello and Strings (arr. Louis Delune) (Grave espressivo) [6:17]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Concerto in F for Violin, Organ and Strings RV542 (Adagio) [3:39]
Concerto in D for Two Violins, Cello and Strings, RV565 (Largo e spiccato) [4:11]
Concerto in G for Two Violins, Two Cellos and Strings, RV575 (Largo) [2:56]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Divertimento in B flat, KV 137 (Andante) [4:09]
Church Sonata in F, KV224 [4:24]
Divertimento in F, KV 138 (Andante) [5:56]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Minuet No. 3 in d, D89 [5:40]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10 (Romance) [1:37]
Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Concerto grosso in a, Op. 6, No. 3 (Larghetto affetuoso) [2:33]
Concerto grosso in e, Op. 6, No. 3 (Larghetto) [1:31]
Concerto grosso in B flat, Op. 6, No. 7 (Largo e piano) [2:43]
Concerto grosso in c, Op. 6, No. 8 (Adagio) [1:27]
Concerto grosso in b, Op. 6, No. 12 (Largo) [1:12]
Rodion Konstantinovich SHCHEDRIN (b. 1932)
Carmen Suite (Second Intermezzo) [1:59]
Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Serenade in E-flat for Strings, Op. 6 (Andante con moto) [6:10]
Camille SAINT- SAËNS (1835-1921)
Carnival of the Animals (The Swan) [3:31]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Album for the Young (The Old Nanny’s Tale) [2:54]
Franz Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
Divertimento in D for Cello and Strings (arr. Gregor Piatigorski) (Adagio) [5:23]

Disc Three

Antonin DVORAK (1841-1904)
Serenade in E for Strings, Op. 22 (Moderato) [4:54]
Waltz No. 1 in A, Op. 54 [4:46]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Serenade in G for Strings RV525 (Eine kleine Nachtmusik) (Romanze, Andante) [5:44]
Marc-Olivier DUPIN (b. 1954)
Fantasia on Arias from La Traviata (Allegretto, Andantino, Allegro Brillante) [11:22]
Franz Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
Twelve German Dances, H. IX: 12 [8:32]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Liebeslieder Waltzer, Op. 52 (Arranged for strings by Friedrich Hermann) (No. 6, No. 1 and No. 9) [4:43]
Alexander Porfir’yevich BORODIN (1833-1887)
String Quartet No. 2 in D (Notturno, Andante) (arranged for String Orchestra by Lucas Drew) [9:09]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Adagio for Strings [10:17]

Yuli Turovsky (cello)
Timothy Hutchins (sopranino recorder, flute)
Theodore Baskin (oboe)
Alain Aubut (cello)
Dmitri Shostakovich, Jr. (piano)
Elenora Turovsky (violin)
Geneviève Soly (organ)
Edvard Skerjanc (violin)
Christian Prèvost (violin)
Lucia Hall (violin)
Benoit Hurtuboise (cello)
David Owen Norris (piano)
Gregory Shaverdian (piano)
Alexander Trostiansky (violin)

Ensemble Repercussion
I musici de Montreal

Yuli Turovsky
Maxim Shostakovich

Recording locations and dates are not given.

CHANDOS 10565(3) Three Compact Discs [64:32] [73:05] [60:03]

Cellist Yuli Turovsky founded I musici de Montreal in 1983 and since that time has turned the fifteen member chamber orchestra into the Canadian version of Britain’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, racking up more than forty recordings and presenting more than one hundred concerts each season throughout the world. In this collection of sedate slow movements, the orchestra has compiled more than three hours of down-tempo excerpts sure to be a hit in doctors’ offices all over the globe.

There is a great deal in these full discs to enjoy. In particular, Turovsky’s amber toned cello playing, featured in a number of concerto movements is worth the price of admission. There is quite a lot of Baroque music featured, some of it adapted for modern forces by various skilled arrangers. I musici de Montreal is a modern instrument band, and although they perform with great sensitivity and taste, there is a good deal more vibrato in the string playing than is allowed by the period folk. Frankly, this richness of sound is rather refreshing to these ears and I am reminded of the great body of recordings made by Sir Neville Marriner and the ASMF, Jean Francois Paillard and his chamber orchestra, and the Italian ensemble, also known as I musici.

Other fine solos are delivered by Timothy Hutchins, particularly in the gorgeous Largo from Vivaldi’s Concerto in C for Sopranino recorder. Theodore Baskin also turns in some luscious playing in another Vivaldi work, this one an Oboe concerto, also in C. We get a goodly chunk of van Wassenaer’s Concerti armonico, works that for years were attributed to Italian boy genius Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, whose brilliant reputation led to all kinds of misleading publications after his tragic death and the tender age of twenty-six. These are lovely concertos, brimming with melody and rich harmonic suspensions, and the slow movements presented here are lovingly phrased.

Disc two is an interesting hodgepodge of old and new(er) music with items from the baroque sharing the stage with classical period, romantic and even a piece or two by more or less contemporary composers. Each selection, however is geared toward the theme of tranquility, and after a couple of hours of straight listening, I found myself going a bit numb from all the pretty slowness. With many of the excerpts coming in at under two minutes, I found that I barely had time to enjoy the music before it was over. Perhaps fewer works of somewhat more substantial length would have been a bit more engaging, but then again, that is a rather minor quibble.

Other highlights include a beautiful rendition of the Andante from Josef Suk’s E-flat serenade for strings. Suk is a composer that deserves to be heard more often in the concert hall, and this lovely excerpt is proof of that assertion. Borodin’s gorgeous Notturno from his second string quartet, here arranged by Lucas Drew for string orchestra receives a fine reading as does Samuel Barber’s ubiquitous Adagio, in a performance that spares us the gushy hyper-emotionalism of Leonard Bernstein’s lugubrious old recording.

Serious music buffs will likely thumb their noses at this compilation that is obviously designed to appeal to the “pretty music” set. But, for a long evening of peace and quiet, an elegant dinner party or a romantic encounter with one’s significant other, this attractively packaged set contains a lifetime’s worth of mood music, performed by a superb ensemble in top form. One can hope, however that the buyer will be inspired to explore the complete works from which these excerpts are taken. Slow and pretty is all fine and good, but the composers put forth complete sets of ideas in the works represented, and they are deserving of a full hearing.