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April 17, 2014

Almanac: Paul Hindemith on creation and irrationality

"The ultimate reason for his humility will be the musician's conviction that beyond all the rational knowledge he has amassed and all his dexterity as a craftsman there is a region of visionary irrationality in which the veiled secrets of art dwell, sensed but not understood, implored but not commanded, imparting but not yielding. He cannot enter this region, he can only pray to be elected one of its messengers."

Paul Hindemith, A Composer's World: Horizons and Limitations

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April 16, 2014

Snapshot: Glenn Gould plays Hindemith

Glenn Gould plays the fugue from Paul Hindemith's Third Piano Sonata:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Almanac: Paul Hindemith on composition

"The road from the head to the hand is a long one while one is still conscious of it. The man who does not so control his hand as to maintain it in unbroken contact with his thought does not know what composition is. (Nor does he whose well-routined hand runs along without any impulse or feeling behind it."

Paul Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition

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April 15, 2014

First time's a charm

061633B.jpgI first heard the music of Benjamin Britten in 1975, a year before he died. I was a sophomore music major at William Jewell College, a school not far from Kansas City. Some long-forgotten magazine piece--probably a review in High Fidelity or Stereo Review, to both of which I subscribed--had made me curious about him, so I drove to a mall in Independence and bought an LP whose first side contained a performance of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings by Peter Pears, Barry Tuckwell, and the London Symphony Orchestra. Britten himself was the conductor. The recording was made in 1963, twenty years after the piece was written, and hearing it for the first time that evening was one of the most consequential musical encounters of my youth.

The Serenade starts off with a mysterious-sounding unaccompanied horn solo, followed by a setting of part of The Evening Quatrains, a lyric by Charles Cotton, a near-forgotten seventeenth-century English writer. Britten cut the poem in half and called his shortened version "Pastoral":

The day's grown old; the fainting sun
Has but a little way to run,
And yet his steeds, with all his skill,
Scarce lug the chariot down the hill.

The shadows now so long do grow,
That brambles like tall cedars show;
Mole hills seem mountains, and the ant
Appears a monstrous elephant.

A very little, little flock
Shades thrice the ground that it would stock;
Whilst the small stripling following them
Appears a mighty Polypheme.

And now on benches all are sat,
In the cool air to sit and chat,
Till Phoebus, dipping in the West,
Shall lead the world the way to rest.

Pastoral.jpgRarely in my life have I been so instantaneously overwhelmed as I was by "Pastoral," though a few more years would go by before I attained sufficient musical sophistication to be able to fully understand why it had hit me so hard. It doesn't look like much on the page, just a simple tune shared by the singer and horn player, accompanied by four-part string chords. Yet those deceptively uncomplicated-looking chords are anything but straightforward. Here as in his other middle-period masterpieces, Britten used tonal harmony with a piquant freshness and sense of surprise that were all his own.

"I need more chords," Aaron Copland complained to Leonard Bernstein toward the end of his composing career. "I've run out of chords." To listen to "Pastoral" is to realize that there will always be enough chords. All you have to do is know where to look.

These opening bars remind me of something that Britten said a year after he recorded the Serenade:

What is important in the arts is not the scientific part, the analyzable part of music, but the something which emerges from it but transcends it, which cannot be analyzed because it is not in it, but of it. It is the quality which cannot be acquired by simply the exercise of a technique or a system: it is something to do with personality, with gift, with spirit. I quite simply call it--magic: a quality which would appear to be by no means unacknowledged by scientists, and which I value more than any other part of music.

Back then I was still grabbing at classical music with both hands, and few weeks passed without my making a major discovery of some kind or other, most of which turned out before long to be...well, something less than major. But I was certain that my discovery of the magical "Pastoral" was more than just another passing fancy. It spoke to me, as did the rest of the Serenade, with a directness and immediacy not unlike the miraculous sensation of falling in love at first sight (something that had yet to happen to me). I knew beyond doubt that whoever Benjamin Britten was, his music would henceforth play an important part in my life--and so it did, and does.

m2LZ7ZDxHyjK_rhZ2rKrO2g.jpgYears later Britten's 1963 recording of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings would become one of the very first compact discs that I bought. Not only do I still have that CD, but I played it for Mrs. T last night, and she was as thunderstruck by her first hearing of the Serenade as I was thirty-nine years ago.

"Why haven't you played this for me until now?" she asked.

"I guess I just didn't think to," I replied with a touch of embarrassment. "But I'm glad I finally got around to it."

* * *

Ian Bostridge,
Radovan Vlatkovic, and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra perform the prologue and "Pastoral" from Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings:

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Lookback: why authors should always be modest

From 2004:

I finished my breakfast and strolled over to the neighborhood Barnes & Noble to see whether A Terry Teachout Reader was on sale yet. It wasn't in New Non-Fiction, so I climbed the stairs to the arts section in search of something to read. There I found three copies of the Teachout Reader shelved under Jazz/Blues, meaning that no one at Barnes & Noble had bothered to look at the contents of my book. Only a year ago, I was basking in the red-carpet treatment at that very same store, including an evening reading and deluxe placement for The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. Now I'm relegated to Jazz/Blues (though at least I got what booksellers call "face-out" placement, meaning that the front of the dust jacket is visible). As Robert Mitchum says in The Lusty Men, "Chicken today, feathers tomorrow."...

Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: Paul Hindemith on technique

"The true work of art does not need to wrap any veil of mystery about its external features. Indeed the very hallmark of great art is that only and above the complete clarity of its technical procedure do we feel the essential mystery of its creative power."

Paul Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition

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April 14, 2014

Inner direction

Apropos of the off-Broadway transfer of Satchmo at the Waldorf, Laura Lippman recently said something that caught my eye: "I think you have to have such confidence to be a theatre critic and write a play. He's really opened himself up."

rowlandson24.jpgThis reminds me of an oft-quoted passage from Boswell's Life of Johnson:

His tutor, Mr. Jorden, fellow of Pembroke, was not, it seems, a man of such abilities as we should conceive requisite for the instructor of Samuel Johnson, who gave me the following account of him. "He was a very worthy man, but a heavy man, and I did not profit much by his instructions. Indeed, I did not attend him much. The first day after I came to college I waited upon him, and then staid away four. On the sixth, Mr. Jorden asked me why I had not attended. I answered I had been sliding in Christ-Church meadow. And this I said with as much nonchalance as I am now talking to you. I had no notion that I was wrong or irreverent to my tutor." BOSWELL: "That, Sir, was great fortitude of mind." JOHNSON: "No, Sir; stark insensibility."

As it happens, I did give some thought to what Laura said in the weeks and months before The Letter, my first operatic collaboration with Paul Moravec, opened in Santa Fe in 2009. In fact, I wrote a piece about it for the Los Angeles Times in which I pointed out that "I'm submitting myself for approval--not just from my fellow critics but from the people who read my reviews each week" and admitted to finding the experience "both terrifying and exhilarating. I've never set foot inside a casino, but I can't help but think that this must be what it feels like to place a big bet."

That, however, was strictly retrospective, at least as regards my colleagues. It simply didn't occur to me to think about what the critics would say about The Letter while I was writing it, much less to suppose that it was somehow courageous of me to offer myself up to them as a potential target. Nor did I think about it at all with regard to Satchmo at the Waldorf before the show came to New York--and that was solely because I knew that the reviews of Satchmo would necessarily have an effect on the length of its run. Until that finally became an issue, I never thought about them at all.

The truth is that I rarely spend much time thinking about what other people think of me. Of course I want my friends to like me, and I try to conduct myself in such a way as to earn their liking and their trust. But when it comes to my work, my internal compass was set long ago, and whether or not it's accurate, I don't feel that I have much choice in middle age but to follow it. I think what I think, and I trust my eye and ear. Were it otherwise, I couldn't function: I'd always be second-guessing myself.

This doesn't mean that I didn't take the counsel of my collaborators on Satchmo at the Waldorf with the utmost seriousness, just as I take very seriously the suggestions of my editors at The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and elsewhere. When it came to Satchmo, I knew that I was doing something that was new to me, and that I'd be a fool not to listen closely to the experienced professionals with whom I had the good fortune to collaborate, and do what they suggested if it made sense to me (which it usually did).

critic-Ratatouille-300x300.jpgWhen it comes to reviews, on the other hand, I try to take the advice that I give to others, which is the same advice given by André Previn in No Minor Chords: "It is perfectly correct to disregard all the bad reviews one gets, but only if at the same time, one disregards the good ones as well." As Dr. Johnson told Boswell on another occasion, there's an end on't. Sure, I love getting good reviews, but I do my best not to take them to heart. As for the pans, of which I've gotten my share over the years, I ignore them. Either way, nobody has ever said anything about me in print, good or bad, that I can quote from memory. (You might be surprised to know how many artists can rattle off a perfectly remembered phrase from a bad review that came out a decade ago.)

David Mamet, I gather, takes his reviews way too seriously, though he's capable (or was) of being funny about it. When New York held a "Best of Anything" contest back in the Eighties, he entered the following as "Best Review": "I never understood the theater until this night. Please excuse everything I've ever written. When you read this, I'll be dead. Signed, Clive Barnes." That made me laugh out loud when I first read it, and it still makes me smile. Even so, I've never felt that way about a critic--not yet, anyway.

One last remark from the ever-relevant Dr. Johnson: "It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck only at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends." Anybody who gets reviewed should keep that wise counsel firmly in mind.

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Just because: Paul Hindemith conducts Brahms

Paul Hindemith conducts the Chicago Symphony in a 1963 performance of Brahms' Academic Festival Overture:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Almanac: Paul Hindemith on inspiration

"If we cannot, in the flash of a single moment, see a composition in its absolute entirety, with every pertinent detail in its proper place, we are not genuine creators."

Paul Hindemith, A Composer's World: Horizons and Limitations

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April 11, 2014

Bulletproof on Broadway

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I review two New York openings, Bullets Over Broadway and The Heir Apparent. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

How good can a jukebox musical be? As good as "Bullets Over Broadway," Woody Allen's new stage version of his 1994 film, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman ("The Producers"). The book is funny, the staging inventive, the cast outstanding, the sets and costumes satisfyingly slick. All that's missing is a purpose-written score, in place of which we get period-true arrangements of pop songs of the '20s and '30s. Does that matter? It did to me--a lot--but I doubt that many other people will boggle over the absence of original songs from "Bullets Over Broadway." Except for a flabby finale, it has the sweet scent of a box-office smash....

Zach-Braff-Helene-Yorke-a-011.jpgMs. Stroman hasn't rung the bell on Broadway since "Young Frankenstein," but she remains peerless when it comes to comic choreography, and "Bullets" overflows with clever dances, including a feature for Heléne Yorke set to a 1927 double-entendre ditty called "I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll" that's as naughty as you'd expect. Here and elsewhere, the gorgeously brassy Ms. Yorke steals the show from her better-known colleagues, but she has plenty of competition...

What about the score? Glen Kelly has written additional lyrics whose purpose is to integrate the musical sequences more smoothly into the plot, but the dramatic fit is never tight, and it doesn't help that so many of the songs, in particular "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You?" and "Up a Lazy River," are so very familiar in their own right. Because of this, the momentum falters whenever the actors start to sing, though Ms. Stroman usually manages to get things moving again in reasonably short order....

"The Heir Apparent," David Ives' English-language version of Jean-François Regnard's "Le Légataire universel," is the latest of his brilliant "translaptations" (his word) of classic French verse comedies, in which Mr. Ives recasts the original text in briskly contemporary iambic pentameter and tinkers with the plot at will. It's as elegantly wrought as its predecessors, "The Liar" (after Pierre Corneille's "Le Menteur") and "The School for Lies" (after Moliére's "The Misanthrope"). Classic Stage Company, which brought "The School for Lies" to New York three years ago, has now done the same thing with "The Heir Apparent," in which M. Regnard and his translaptator tell the cautionary tale of Geronte (Paxton Whitehead), a miser whose impecunious nephew (Dave Quay) endeavors by any means necessary to become his sole legatee, aided and abetted by Geronte's scruple-free manservant (Carson Elrod). Mr. Ives' couplets glitter with close-packed virtuosity: "That pillar of the church, that foe of whoredom,/That undisputed lord of bedroom boredom." The cast is perfect, and John Rando's staging is a slapsticky riot....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

A scene from the original 2011 production of The Heir Apparent by the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, D.C.:

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TCM at 20

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column I take note of an important cultural anniversary. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Twenty years ago next Monday, Turner Classic Movies went on the air, and the lives of film buffs were instantly improved almost beyond recognition. TCM is a basic cable channel owned by the Turner Broadcasting System that shows old movies, most of them released prior to 1970, around the clock. Some are familiar, others obscure, but all are uncut, uncolorized, uninterrupted by commercials and otherwise unaltered. No other enterprise has done more to make such films widely accessible to the general public....

501073d0dee26.preview-620.jpgI doubt I'm the only viewer who routinely flicks through the coming month's fare and earmarks a half-dozen films at a time for future recording. I am, in short, an ardent fan--but I wonder what the future holds in store for the channel that made Robert Osborne, TCM's host-in-chief, a star. Will it continue to prosper? Or is TCM's business model flawed in ways that could lead to its decline and fall?

To answer these questions, it's necessary to reflect on the way in which TCM transformed the culture of film in America. By 1994 the VCR had made it possible for most Americans to view movies in their living rooms, but few video stores carried a wide-ranging inventory of older films, nor were they shown other than sporadically on television. If you wanted to see or study the great films of the past, you usually had to buy your own copies. Then TCM came along and changed everything, quickly became indispensable to movie lovers everywhere.

That's still true. Most of the old movies that I watch in any given week come from TCM. But the rise of on-demand TV is changing the viewing habits of film buffs. Why wait for TCM to show "Grand Hotel" next Thursday when Amazon Instant Video will stream it to your iPad right now for $1.99?...

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: Ivy Compton-Burnett on plots

"As regards plots I find real life no help at all. Real life seems to have no plots."

Ivy Compton-Burnett, "A Conversation Between I. Compton-Burnett and M. Jourdain"

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April 10, 2014

So you want to see a show?

Here's my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

BROADWAY:
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
A Raisin in the Sun (drama, G/PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Rocky (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON OFF BROADWAY:
London Wall (serious comedy, PG-13, closes Apr. 20, reviewed here)

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Almanac: Edward Albee on fiction

"Fiction is fact distilled into truth."

Edward Albee (quoted in the New York Times, Sept. 16, 1966)

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April 9, 2014

Split decision

14.jpgNot long ago I was introduced to an audience as an "intellectual." Though I didn't beg to differ, I entered, as I always do, a silent demurrer. To me, an intellectual is a person who is primarily interested in ideas. What I am, at least to my own way of thinking, is an aesthete, a person who is primarily interested in artistic beauty.

It's also true, though, that I probably spend more time thinking about non-artistic ideas than your average aesthete, if there is such a thing. I just finished reading a book about Brian Friel's plays and am about to start reading a biography of Lincoln. My impression is that most eggheads don't jump around like that: they're usually one thing or the other. And even within the realm of art, I range more widely afield than is typically the case. I'm as likely to be reading about (say) George Balanchine or Milton Avery or Emmanuel Chabrier as I am about a playwright, or any other kind of wordsmith.

I've been that way for as long as I can remember, and I understood early on that it was a peculiar way to be. What's more, my whole life has been shaped by this peculiarity. For a long time I expected to be a musician when I grew up, but I finally figured out that while I had enough talent to pursue music as a career, it would be a mistake for me to do so. To be a successful performing musician requires a singlemindedness of artistic purpose that I've never had. While I loved playing music, I'm sure I would have found it frustrating to do that and nothing else, just as I found it frustrating later on when I spent a few years paying the rent by writing newspaper editorials, mostly about foreign policy. The job didn't bore me in the least, and I think I did it pretty well, but it didn't fulfill me, either.

After a lifetime of puzzling over this bifurcation in my nature, I've decided that it arises from the fact that even though I'm a fundamentally verbal person, I spent much of my youth making and thinking about music, the least verbal or representational of art forms. As Igor Stravinsky famously said in Expositions and Developments, music is "supra-personal and super-real and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions." He was exaggerating for effect, but at bottom he meant what he said, and I think he was more or less right.

Paul%20Cezanne%2C%20The%20Garden%20at%20Les%20Lauves%2C%20c.1906%2C%20oil%20on%20canvas%2C%2026%20x%2032%20in%20%28Phillips%20Collection%29.jpgThe fact that I came to music so early, and immersed myself in it so fully, undoubtedly explains why I happily embraced the other non-verbal forms of expression that I encountered later on. Abstract art and plotless dance made immediate sense to me, the same kind of sense that music had previously made. And while I get little or nothing out of the "abstract" prose of writers like Gertrude Stein, my tastes in the verbal realm also appear in some cases to bear a recognizable relationship to my musical inclinations. I tend not to care for plays of ideas--Ibsen bores me stiff--whereas I have a special liking for playwrights and filmmakers who, like Chekhov and Jean Renoir, care more about mood than plot. By the same token, I scarcely ever worry about whodunit when I read a mystery. It's the characters and their quirks that carry me from page to page, just as my own biographies concentrate more on personality than ideas.

I hasten to point out that this is a general preference, not an iron disposition. I love the plays of Bertolt Brecht, for instance, and I have a more than casual interest in constitutional law, about which I've read far more than you'd expect of a card-carrying aesthete. But I incline as a rule to the mode of thought and feeling implied by T.S. Eliot's remark that Henry James had "a mind so fine that no idea could violate it." All history, especially the history of the twentieth century, argues against placing ideas in the saddle and allowing them to ride mankind. Too often they end up riding individual men and women into mass graves. As Irving Babbitt pointed out:

Robespierre and Saint-Just were ready to eliminate violently whole social strata that seemed to them to be made up of parasites and conspirators, in order that they might adjust this actual France to the Sparta of their dreams; so that the Terror was far more than is commonly realized a bucolic episode. It lends color to the assertion that has been made that the last stage of sentimentalism is homicidal mania.

That's one of many reasons why I choose not to call myself an intellectual. "How many intellectuals have come to the revolutionary party via the path of moral indignation, only to connive ultimately at terror and autocracy?" Raymond Aron asked in The Opium of the Intellectuals (a book that John Coltrane, of all people, can be seen reading in a little-known snapshot). To be sure, musicians do tend as a group to take an innocent view of human possibility, but you rarely see them escorting anyone to the guillotine. They're too busy trying to make everything more beautiful, one thing at a time.

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Snapshot: Lawrence Tibbett sings Pagliacci

From the 1935 film Metropolitan, Lawrence Tibbett sings the prologue from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Almanac: Shakespeare on music

Preposterous ass, that never read so far
To know the cause why music was ordain'd!
Was it not to refresh the mind of man,
After his studies or his usual pain?

William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

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April 8, 2014

Mack the Butter Knife

Because of the crush of New York openings this month, The Wall Street Journal has given me an extra drama column today in which to review the Atlantic Theater Company's revival of The Threepenny Opera and the New York premiere of Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Anybody who feels like sticking it to capitalism couldn't do better than to revive "The Threepenny Opera," the 1928 Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill masterpiece whose murderous anti-hero justifies his criminal career by asking this pointed question: "What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?" By coupling such sentiments with a jaunty, sharp-cornered score that is equally indebted to early jazz and modern classical music, Brecht and Weill pulled the pin on a theatrical time bomb that has been going off at regular intervals ever since. Marc Blitzstein's English-language adaptation, which opened Off Broadway in 1954, ran there for six years, and "The Threepenny Opera" has since been mounted three times on Broadway. No pre-"Oklahoma!" musical has had a more enduring stage life--proof that American theatergoers like nothing better than to be told what greedy bastards they are.

ThreepennyOpera_web_select_03.jpgThe economy being the way it is, I suppose it was high time for somebody to tell once more the tale of Mack the Knife and his crooked cohorts. Hence the Atlantic Theater Company's Off-Broadway revival of Blitzstein's pungently singable version, directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke. But Ms. Clarke, who came to fame as one of the founders of Pilobolus Dance Theatre and has since specialized in dance-driven performance-art works, is less at home with words. Not only do the dialogue scenes lack bite, but the staging is unfocused (too much stylized group movement, not enough here's-who's-talking clarity).

While I've never heard a "Threepenny" production that was better sung or played, the rough edges of Weill's score have been blunted in the process. It doesn't help that the cast is for the most part both smooth-faced and pretty-voiced...

Will Eno is the male Sarah Ruhl, a postmodern semi-surrealist who specializes in coyly metatheatrical comedies. Such flyweight folk cannot but prosper in the age of Irony Lite, and "The Realistic Joneses," which has moved to Broadway after a run at the Yale Repertory Theater, is surely destined for similar success there and elsewhere.

The cast consists of two married small-town couples, both named Jones, who live next door to one another. Bob and Jennifer (Tracy Letts and Toni Collette) are older and sadder, John and Pony (Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei) younger and seemingly more frivolous, but they're all stuck in the same leaky boat. Bob and John, it turns out, are both afflicted with an "irreversible and degenerative nerve disease" called Harriman Leavey Syndrome (yes, it's fictional) that is gradually gnawing away at their language skills and motor functions, and Jennifer and Pony are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with their slow but inexorable disintegration.

That's a familiar but nonetheless promising premise for a black comedy. Unfortunately, Mr. Eno, as is his wont, has swathed it in cute repartee...

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

Lotte Lenya sings "Pirate Jenny" in G.W. Pabst's 1931 film version of The Threepenny Opera:

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Lookback: some thoughts on the answering machine

From 2004:

"The only modern inventions that have been of any real use to me are the typewriter and the Pullman car," H.L. Mencken told a reporter for Life in 1946. Kurt Andersen asked me the other day whether I thought Mencken would have taken to blogging. I think it's possible (just), but I'm absolutely sure he would have bought an answering machine. I've used one for the past quarter-century, and I can't imagine how I ever got through the day without it. I even bought my septuagenarian mother her first answering machine...

Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: Kierkegaard on music

"Music exists only in the moment of its performance, for if one were ever so skillful in reading notes and had ever so lively an imagination, it cannot be denied that it is only in an unreal sense that music exists when it is read. It really exists only being performed. This might seem to be an imperfection in this art as compared with the others whose productions remain, because they have their existence in the sensuous. Yet this is not so. It is rather a proof of the fact that music is a higher, or more spiritual art."

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

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