Thursday, October 29, 2009

Part Four - Conversations I Would Love to Have With Living Greats

As you know, I have an assiduously strong attachment to the historical aspects of any issue dealing with the arts, and I'm quite sure that I would have taught and/or researched history, were it not for my first love; namely, music.
I will digress, for the moment, with my first love in order to nominate two great historians, with whom I would love to engage in conversation, and more importantly, listen avidly to their perspectives about their work and research techniques.
Robert Dallek and Michael Beschloss are great presidential historians. Dallek retired from teaching recently, while still writing and publishing . Beschloss is active in his intellectual pursuits at this point in time, and continues to publish during this period.
My primary reason for choosing Dallek was his monumental work on Kennedy, and the vital perspective on John Kennedy's health, enumerating the many serious issues that Kennedy had to contend with veritably his entire adult life, which reminded me of the same kind of ongoing health issues that Franklin Roosevelt underwent before and during his presidency. Dallek brings to life in unprecedented detail the personal struggles which Kennedy dealt with each and every day.
Beschloss gave me an equally unprecedented perspective on the relationship between Roosevelt and Truman, his successor in 1945. These two men, one born into wealth and the other attempting to carve a living, at least for a time, out of a clothing store he co - owned, ended up on the same political ticket in FDR's final run for the presidency, with Truman being chosen as vice presidential nominee out of nowhere, with Roosevelt and Truman having met, I believe, only three times before the election. Beschloss brilliantly relates to us not only the relationship between the two men, but also the emergence of a total unknown having to fill Roosevelt's shoes after his death, to a president of historical stature, whether one agreed with him or not. The Truman Doctrine is one example of where this unknown took himself.
You will note that I take no side politically - I merely am choosing these two historians for their important work and their wonderful communicative strengths. I think that it would be great fun being in the same room with them.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

"The Art Of" - How About Two Movies ? (my first blog dealing with the subject) -

Two movies, diametrically opposed - one, a comedy; the other, a dark view of the human condition - both nominated for Oscars, with "Hulot's Holiday" winning at Cannes, as well.
My reason for these choices is that, oddly, one must look at these masterpieces with the same attitude.
The comedy, "Hulot's Holiday," released in 1953 through 1955, was made in France, and stars Jacques Tati, one of the great mimes. If you do decide to watch Jacques Tati in action, please be reminded that he was considered, along with Chaplin, Marceaux and Stan Laurel, as one of the prime mimes in modern history.
The one published novel by Oscar Wilde, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" was released in 1945 out of Great Britain, one of the stars being a teen-aged Angela Lansbury (her first major role).
The common essence of these opposites is the almost incredibly low pace of event production coupled with an exquisite level of character development and portrayal.
To explain: "Hulot's Holiday" has no script, only an occasional word, with the building of this delightful story centered around the brilliance of Tati's character through unseemingly low-level mishap after mishap and such sound effects as a swinging door leading into the hotel restaurant, used throughout the movie in a wonderfully tasteful array of placements, tactically.
In "The Picture of Dorian Gray," the sense of pure evil and nihilism is set at such an unexpectedly low level of intensity, one realizes that the kinetic in this unique piece of cinematic art is the slow poisoning of the human spirit through the compelling level of conversational brilliance which was one of Wilde's central facets of his genius. There is but one act of violence, in the traditional sense, in this film; however, the portrayal of the frightening level of overriding evil is by way of the quiet word. Enhancing the nucleus of this unique movie is the striking portrait of Dorian Gray, in a setting of unremitting cohabitation with Faustian commitment. The painting was done in 1943 by one of America's most brilliant realists, Ivan De Lorraine Albright, out of Chicago, who sometimes used one hair(!) as a brush, and took more time to do a painting than Brahms took to write his music. The painting resides in an art museum in Chicago, I believe.
Watch both movies, back to back, with same attitude of observation; and that is, to "shrink down", as it were, to the size of a window you are looking through, with nothing in mind except to become a kind of voyeur as regards that "window", and with nothing else in mind.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Beethoven - the Unanswerable Question...

I have not yet read anything about the issue that confronted me this week; so, please contact me through "comments", if any of you know of any paper or thesis written about this:
It occurred to me that the issue of Beethoven's music poses an unanswerable reality; and that is, during the extended period of total deafness, which contains the Master's greatest incarnations, he could not have heard his own creations as you and I have, let alone countless others through the generations who have heard and lived with them.
In his insular world devoid of any outside sound, his music came back to him in a way we could not possibly grasp; on the other hand, Beethoven could not possibly have known the precise entity of his creations as we have heard them; as these creations have had to travel through the air and reach our ears and inner spirit in the manner known to us, simply by our listening.
So, unlike any other great composer, his music reached him and us in the most disparate manners known to the world of music - how strange; and yet, compellingly beautiful is the arcane nature of this unique reality.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

24 Pieces - a Musical 'Albumblatt'

In the not - too - distant future I'll be doing a recital of various works for the piano, centering around my two grandchildren.
What I did when the first was born was to write a set of twelve short pieces, each representing a month of her first year of life. For the most part each is a brief memoir of an event during that first year; such as, her fascination with tiny chimes hanging from the ceiling in the kitchen - and so I wrote a representation of those chimes on the upper part of the piano, with a resounding and unheralded increase in sound, ending with a bang on the final note; a reflection of the fact that the little lady took a swipe at the chimes from her position on her father's shoulders, actually striking those chimes, causing her to grin a toothless grin.
Another piece represents Mother's Love; another, her first autumn, and so on.
The second child came along a couple of years later, upon which I again wrote a set of twelve pieces depicting, for example, elation upon the reality of "my first smile" - or; " I can stand!"
In both of these sets, I reserve the twelfth and final months of their first year with "Happy Birthday," one, in the style of a regal march depicting her status as a little princess; and in the second set, "Happy Birthday" is cast in the style of Beethoven's Second Period.
I expect this recital to be set in the memory of these two wonderful young ladies for some time to come (hopefully!), especially if the pianist involved plays all the correct notes.
By the way, when the parents announced the coming of their second child, I said that I WOULD write a set of twelve pieces for her first year; however, I warned them that if a third child was ever announced, that I would go on strike.


Monday, October 12, 2009

I Called Him "Dr. Nemesis" - a Yearly Excursion into Fear...

During my late elementary and early high school years, I underwent a brilliant scrutiny by wonderful musicians at the Eastman School Preparatory Department, and in those days, at the end of each year we were required to perform for the head of the department, the result being an advancement in grading, no advancement, or utter failure. I must say that some of the best training I ever received was during these years, for which I am eternally grateful.
Now, the person for which we had to perform was, as I recall, the head of the Preparatory aspect at Eastman, and his name was Dr. Raymond Wilson.
I still vividly remember the end of my first year, when I was ushered into a large room, with no or little furniture. At one end of this room was a piano, and directly to its left sat a gentleman behind a desk.
I approached the desk, whereupon this gentleman, wearing a dark suit and glasses, and without looking up, quietly said, "You will now please perform."
After a halting second or two, I went over to the piano, started to play the first of three or four prepared pieces, with hands shaking as if I had come down with Yellow Fever. Each piece was interrupted about a third or halfway through by the quiet, expressionless command, "Please go on to the next piece."
When done, I simply sat there motionless, totally drained, mostly by a fear that suddenly overtook me. He then said something like "thank you - you may now leave" - and without looking up.
Now this experience repeated itself at the end of each year I was in the Prep Department, and with the same words coming out of what I now considered a kind of monster droning the very same commands. I cannot remember the color of his suit or his commands ever changing, from year to year. And he invariably struck the same kind of fear within me, from year to year.
I cannot remember the advancement levels I had attained during those times, except for my final year there. I DO know that I had always advanced, never having been pushed back in my grading experience.
Now, the final year, one of my prepared pieces was a Czerny Etude, I think the one in octaves, a really difficult piece. Well, after several years of having to have faced whom I privately re-named "Dr. Nemesis," I was still filled with fear, so much so, that I took the Czerny at a pace I had never intended for it to achieve.
After it was all over, I was crestfallen, thinking that this apparition in human form would probably demote me - how will I EVER face my piano teacher the following Thursday??
Thursday came, as it always does, and it was one of the longest days of my young life, having to wait until 4P.M. for my lesson. As I trudged up the stairs to the third floor, I asked myself "how can I EVER explain to Mr. Diamond what happened??"
When I walked into the room, the first words I heard from Diamond were in the form of a question; namely, "What happened??" I thought my experience with music was about to end permanently, when Diamond blurted "Dr. Wilson exclaimed to me that your Czerny was extraordinary. and he advanced you a full grade, which is almost never done!"
Even to this day, whenever I think of my young years, I still am filled with consternation about this experience, most especially the result.


Friday, October 9, 2009

An Hour With Stan Kenton

During my early days as an educator, I made a point of learning as much as I could about what we call "popular "music, as it was not a part of my pursuit; namely, what we call "classical" music - I have always had a curiosity about the great artists in the pop field, and continue to learn about this form of music through personal research and as much listening as there is time for.
As my readers know, I have already discussed my personal encounters with such giants in the popular field as Thelonius Monk and George Shearing; however, today I realized that I have never written about my meeting with one of the pioneers of Big Band history, Stan Kenton.
For those of you not familiar with Kenton, he was one of the developers of new approaches to the so-called "big band" sound after the great bands of the World War II period. He dealt in experimentation with large string sections and French horns in many of his arrangements, and used the mellophone, a kind of "bastardized" variation of French horn and trombone, let alone trumpet, all in one instrument, used primarily in military music. He was intrinsically involved with an admixture of both pop and classical forms in many of his compositions; for instance, one of his works is a "Passacaglia and Fugue", which is one of his lasting works, recognized by the Kenton cohorts even to this day.
One can, I'm sure, find much material on Kenton on the internet.
Well, one day, while he was appearing not far from where I live, I arranged to meet him, and, once again, he was another example of powerful and singular musicians with great humanity and a large capacity to listen to others less gifted than him.
He appeared, I well remember, in a very informal manner, wearing a white shirt with open collar and no tie. This was in the morning, just a few hours after his performance the night before. He could have slept in, but most graciously greeted and welcomed me, making me comfortable immediately. We discussed music in general, and I asked him many questions concerning his particular philosophical tactics concerning the fusion between pop and classical forms and styles, and he was simply quite wonderful in his eloquence and quiet manner.
After about an hour, I took leave, and I will never forget his final words; namely "bless you, for being a teacher in this field".
A most fulfilling experience in my young years - for all the controversy which still surrounds his approach to the art, he was, at least to me, an unassuming and empathetic gentleman who had a world of knowledge to share.


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Part Three - Conversations I Would Love to Have With Living Greats... Seiji Ozawa

As I return to my adding to the list of contemporaries I would enjoy conversing with, my thoughts go to Seiji Ozawa.
As one who has gone many times to Tanglewood, I always enjoy visiting Ozawa Hall, an exquisite recital hall, built not too many years ago, which bears the name of a musician I have seen there and in Boston as well many times.
Ozawa holds the record for longevity, as regards his being Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He actually exceeds by four years the legendary Serge Koussevitsky as regards the post of Music Director, a feat that may not soon be equaled or bettered.
One of the more important reasons for my interest in simply listening to the way his mind works is his love for both music and baseball(!).
As I have written before, baseball was a love I held, and continue to hold, which is almost as strong as my primary love; of course, Music. In my young years, I was actively involved in the sport, as a pitcher, much to the horror of any teacher of music I may have had during that period. I continue to follow the daily goings -on of the sport each and every summer.
I would love to hear Ozawa's musings concerning the sport, let alone his thought processes, both philosophical and technical, concerning his particular paths of connection with music.
I have more than once seen photos of Ozawa with a baseball hat on, and have heard of his many visits to Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox. There has been for me, from the beginning, an ongoing fascination of the connection between sports and music, primarily the issue of athleticism as it pertains to both pursuits. More than once I have called sports programs on the radio to discuss that strangely interesting connection, and I have found intrinsic interest on the part of the radio hosts, in this subject. I think occasionally of David Robinson, recently retired from professional basketball, when I took notice of his playing of "Fur Elise" of Beethoven, on the radio, a few years ago, and at the present time there are CD's of professional sports figures doing musical numbers, some really quite well; most notably Bernie Williams, recently of the New York Yankees, playing guitar on TV.
And so, it would be truly beguiling for me to hear the make-up of a world-famous musician , such as Ozawa, as he unravels his thoughts in my presence - I'm confident that it would be an experience for me not easily forgotten.


Monday, October 5, 2009

Another Mozart in the 20th Century?

When Mozart was eight, he was already heralded throughout portions of Europe, and by age eleven had been established as a major force in music.
I can remember, as a youth, the same kind of furor evolving around another child - I had just finished reading Marcia Davenport's biography of Mozart when another sensational child appeared before my consciousness. Her name was Ruth Slenczynska, who dazzled the concert world with her debut at age eight, and by age eleven had already performed with an established symphony orchestra.
So, in my mind, I was seeing the revivifying of the Mozart legend before my very eyes. This young girl was being rapidly recognized as a coming major force in the world of music, much in the same manner as I witnessed in the ascent of the tot Mozart in Davenport's book.
As a child, Slenczynska studied with some of the world's great musicians, as well as receiving a statement of the highest praise from the likes of Artur Rubinstein - she actually performed for the legendary Rachmaninoff.
But, by age fifteen, she had retired from the concert stage; totally "burned out", chiefly as a result of the veritably tyrannical pressures inflicted upon her by her father during the formative years, much in the manner of the treatment inflicted upon the young Beethoven by his father (though she was not beaten, such as was the case with the young Beethoven) - it was too much for her, and she disappeared. The fair hopes for an unparalleled career disappeared.
Later, she re-appeared at the University of Southern Illinois, and eventually settled in Japan, where recordings have been made. I believe that she is still with us.


Friday, October 2, 2009

Dr. Kissinger and I - A Totally Unexpected Experience...

The setting - a restaurant called Osaka (long gone), in Cambridge, Ma -
The characters - three music educators and Dr. Henry Kissinger -
The time - shortly before noon on a weekday -
During a lunch period, two colleagues and I decided to try the Osaka restaurant, which had a solid reputation for good food; and so, we entered, noting that we three were the only people there. A waiter appeared, looking rather flustered and speaking veritably no English, and immediately put his arms up, then pointed to the door in a fashion that appeared to ask us to leave. We were completely confused, wondering what on earth was going on - after all, the front door WAS open, with no sign posted about a party taking over the restaurant in sight, or anything of the sort. Then another gentleman appeared, and in a hesitant form of English, apologized, stating that there would be no service available. One of us was about to ask the reason for all this, when the door opened, and in strode a man and two children. I was absolutely stunned upon noting that the man was Dr. Henry Kissinger, who came over to our little group. He obviously knew the man we had just confronted, and asked some questions in a low voice, then turned to the three of us, smiled, and explained that the place was reserved just for him and the children during the lunch period, and that we had come just moments before a sign was to have been put up to signify a particular time that there would be no service - it was really an awkward situation for the restaurant, Kissinger, and the three of us.
Well, Kissinger totally stunned us by telling us that he felt strangely about the situation, and invited us to remain in the restaurant.
The result: two circular tables, near the window - we three at one table, and Dr. Kissinger, incredibly gracious, sitting not on the far side of the restaurant away from us, but directly adjacent, my being not a foot away from him.
He immediately asked about us and who and what we were, whereupon he demonstrated solid interest in our profession, and how much importance he attached to the art.
This was just about the time he was assuming power in the Nixon White House, and I was completely at a loss as to why there was no visible security - to this day I have wondered where the security force was - there HAD to be, it seems to me.
At any rate, we all ate and exchanged pleasantries, probably for about 45 minutes - I believe that he DID introduce us to the two children of his, and I am quite sure (it was so long ago) that he mentioned some musical involvement on the part of the youngsters.
When it was over, we arose, and he shook hands with us, wishing us continued good luck(we were quite young then), and, as I recall, the three of them left first.
It was a period of veritable disbelief for us, and we were in a daze as we left the place, asking "did this REALLY happen??" - for about a week.
The reader may wonder if all of the above is merely an example of fiction on my part - all I can ask for is verification, if the reader desires, and the ONLY thing I can think of is:
I hope that in some way, either Kissinger himself happens to peruse this blog, let alone one of his friends or associates, so that in some way by answering this blog through "comments" (always available to you), or some other way, official verification can take place. I'm quite confident that Kissinger will remember the Osaka restaurant, as it appeared that he was familiar with the people inside.
Well; "there you have it", as the Emperor was reputed to say to the upstart Mozart.