Yesterday was a red-letter music day for me. I heard two things I just loved.
One was Janine Jensen’s recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I was interested in it because Universal, which released it, has been successfully marketing it on iTunes, and selling a lot of downloads. That got me curious.Turns out it’s a sensational performance, alert, vivid, sweeping, fun. It’s done as chamber music, with only one string player per part in the ensemble, which gives it extra intimacy. Plus some very lively continuo playing, using harpsichord, theorbo, and a small organ. This is the kind of performance that could revitalize classical music. Everything in the music — phrasing, dymanics, pure sheer musicality, Vivaldi’s scene-painting special effects — is realized about 125%. But it’s never fancy, posed, or overbearing. It’s just music, the way I always long to hear it.
Then in the evening I went to see Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young movie, Heart of Gold. Mostly it just shows a concert Young gave to launch his current album, Prairie Wind. And it couldn’t be finer music, or be more life-affirming. The experience and wisdom in every moment of the music, and in the lyrics, and on Young’s face; the friendship among the musicians; the obvious delight they have in just about every moment of the show; Demme’s fluid filming, which somehow, I’d swear, followed the path of my listening; it all adds up to something really deep and at the same time (like Janine Jensen) very natural and relaxed. You had to love (just for instance) Young’s love song to his daughter, who’s leaving home for college. “I used to sing songs like this to women my own age.” “You’ve still got a few of ’em in you,” calls out one of the backup singers, a woman who looks around 50. “I call this empty nest music,” Young says. “It’s a whole new genre. Maybe there’ll be radio stations that play it.” And then the song, so full of affection and respect. The songs are wistful, looking back toward the past (Young’s father had just died, one more clump of feeling to throw into the mix).
Great musical moment: He’s singing “Harvest Moon,” in what strikes me as a far richer version than the lighter (but still pretty wonderful one) on the old “Harvest Moon” album. Twice the camera moves in on the backup singers (one of whom — and looking drop-dead gorgeous, too — is Emmylou Harris). The first time, they’re simply rapt; everybody, obviously, is caught up in the mood of the song. The second time, they’re grinning; they’re having fun. That’s what the whole show is like; full of moments I can’t forget.
My friend and I had two reactions, both of us simultaneously, when the film was over. First, if now we’re going to see DVDs released in stores on the same day movies get released in theaters, this film would have been a perfect candidate. You walk out of the theater, and you want to buy the DVD, immediately. And second, we wondered what would happen if Jonathan Demme filmed an orchestra, not just moving in on an instrument because it happens to be playing, but finding the genuine, surprising, completely human moments that happen unpredictably during the performance, even when you’re not playing the main melody. Plus, of course, bringing the touch of a major filmmaker to the work. I’d love to see that!