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Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Art of Irony

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III AND DAVID BROMBERG are guitar-playing singer-songwriters who gained fame in the 1970s, but who, beyond that, would seem to have little in common. One was termed a “new Bob Dylan”; the other recorded with him. Both record and perform with varying configurations of ensemble; both are keen students of American songwriting traditions. Wainwright performed solo during their Nov. 10 appearance at the Troy Music Hall; Bromberg was surrounded by ten other instrumentalists and singers. And the still-hale baby-boomer audience proudly shook its whitened manes as the house commenced to rock.

Loudon Wainwright III (top)
and David Bromberg
Wainwright opened, going back to his 1973 album “Attempted Mustache” (superb title and cover art) for “Come a Long Way,” setting the stage for a thirteen-song set that would comment on family, relationships amorous and otherwise, holidays, and, briefly and memorably, politics. Bromberg’s opener, his own “Sloppy Drunk,” set us up for a different kind of set, in which lyrics of defiance and pain would be set off by blistering solos.

It’s well understood that Wainwright (by and large) is singing his own songs; Bromberg never calls attention to the songs her performs that are his own compositions, which means that they nestle amidst classics by others with similar craftsmanship and timelessness. What links the two most thoroughly is irony. Classic blues songs have that built in, and the best work of both performers tell stories of love pushed awry.

Take Wainwright’s “Donations.” It presents an “in case of accident” scenario: “I’'m an unmarried orphan whose children have scattered, / Estranged from my siblings, / close friends just a few. / And of those few friends I consider you closest. / They must contact someone. / Could they contact you?” Delivered, characteristically, with smirking awareness of the question’s craziness. The classic blues plaint casts the singer as the not-too-innocent victim, and Bromberg deftly mines that genre with lyrics like, “The first time the girl quit me – this month / She wouldn’t even tell me why. / I couldn’t eat, sleep, drink, or work; / It was all I could do to just lie across the bed and cry.”

Monday, November 12, 2018

Keep Your Temper

A RECENT ISSUE of a classical-music magazine sports a letter from a reader who is aggrieved by the practice of singers to perform Baroque and earlier works with well-tempered interval values. Dramatic impact would be heightened, she argues, if those leading tones led a little more acutely, as Nature and the composer intended. Until the composer was Bach, who created the most famous exercise in well-tempered tuning.

Mahan Esfahani
Tune a keyboard from one note to the next and you’ll end up with extremes wildly out of tune with each other. This is a simplified explanation of a natural phenomenon that didn’t bother musicians much until more sophisticated instruments allowed the ability to play in a range of key signatures. The twelve-note scale to which western listeners are accustomed produces 24 major and minor keys, so Bach celebrated this by writing a set of preludes and fugues in each of those keys. Twice.

It’s a pedagogical exercise, sure, but it’s also music by Bach, which means that it offers transcendent rewards. His preludes offer moods; his fugues fuse emotion with time. A fugue opens with a sequence of notes that’s not quite a theme because it exists in order to reflect upon itself as successive iterations of the sequence occur. Thus, there’s always a characteristic striking enough to allow even the unaccustomed ear to pick out the not-quite theme as it appears and appears again in different registers while surrounded by accompanying musings.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

The Woods So Wild

JAMES LAPINE’S BOOK for the musical “Into the Woods” drew on the work of Bruno Bettelheim and Joseph Campbell to fashion a narrative that captured a number of seemingly disparate stories and intertwined them. Seemingly, because these stories all address a handful of fundamental fears, and, like all timeless storytelling, seek to offer some manner of comfort.

Gabriella Garcia and Celena Vera Morgan
Photo by Jazelle Photography
“The woods” offers the perfect hostile environment. It’s a place beyond cultivation; its native inhabitants are untamed. It’s a place of massive growth and what seems to be tangled confusion. In short, it’s an extension of our own fevered imaginations. But where, really, are the terrors today? I’d hazard the living room as potentially nasty place, being home to domestic conflict and that greatest of fearmongers, the TV set. Certainly it was terrifying to me to grow up with parents sparring nightly in knock-down-drag-outs, and I’ve had my own share of direct participation in squabbles since.

A pleasant living room (or gallery room, or performance space – call it as you will) provided the space for nine actors and a small audience group to engage in an up-close spectacle of a journey that (somewhat didactically) reminds us that storytelling is everything. That we must guide the children we bring into this world. And that witches aren’t necessarily all that bad.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Strike Force

PICKET LINES DON’T VARY MUCH. Marchers carry signs and chant slogans, and there’s usually some speechifying and music. When the strike looks to be long-term, a lot of planning and financial backing is needed. And participants need to withstand the nastiness both of the bosses and of the ignorant who have soaked up and spout the anti-union rhetoric made more and more popular since onetime Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan wandered into the White House.  

Patrick Meyer energizing the picket line.
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
An enthusiastic supporter of the Hollywood Blacklist, Reagan remained a tool of Hollywood forces who sought to do away with hard-won union jobs. But the cause of anti-unionism has its most ardent champion in the current White House occupant, who has redistributed Labor Department forces to exponentially increase the resources available to dismantle organized labor.

The Screen Actors Guild picket line that formed outside the Tribeca headquarters of ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty numbered about 400, most of them actors, but with support from several other unions. The Guild’s recent consolidation with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists six years ago created the more powerful bargaining unit SAG-AFTRA, which has seen much success in negotiating its way around the dizzying changes in entertainment technology, but will forever face the greedy forces of bosses crying poor-mouth.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Alls Wells in Williston

“LET ME SHOW YOU HOW COUNTRY FEELS,” sings Randy Houser before the lights dim for the start of “Williston,” a new play by Adam Seidel. And then we’re in that kind of country, in a mobile home, a one-room misery in an oil town in the northwest corner of North Dakota. A real town that suddenly turned expensive thanks to its oil resources.

Robert LuPone, Drew Ledbetter, and Kate Grimes
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
It’s the headquarters for three representatives of Smith Oil, a small, family-run business that stands a chance of leasing the last remaining chunk of oil-rich land in the area. Enough of a deal is at stake to give Larry, the oldest of the group, visions of a magnificent commission – and he’s enough of an old hand at this process that success is all but certain. If “Indian Jim” is as ready to sign as he seems.

The only hitch, as Larry sees it, is the possibility that the new guy, Tom, might screw things up. Tom has never been on this kind of mission before and, at 34, he still seems (to Larry, at least) green around the edges. Which puts Barb, their third, uncomfortably between them. It’s not a position Barb enjoys – she was barely civil to Tom at their first meeting – but her crankiness is nothing compared to Larry’s foul-mouthed, know-it-all, high-energy rancor.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Working in Coffeehouses, Part 119

IT IS EASILY ARGUED THAT, more than ambiance, a coffeehouse needs wifi and enough room on the table for your computer, coffee, and cellphone. Of course, we’re far from the days of Addison and Steele, when a single, notable newspaper might be produced: now the coffees have designs etched in foam and the writing contributes to the solipsistic howls of a million little blogs.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But that doesn’t make it any less fun to work in the right place. I don’t require much. It’s nice to be considered a regular, at least when it gets you a free beverage now and then, but it’s nicer to find an electrical outlet yawning near your seat. As one for whom caffeine is forbidden, I have no patience with the snob joints that eschew decaf roasts. What may seem trendily arrogant from your Brooklyn-aping perch is a serious health issue for me. And I think your tattooed forearm looks silly.

I’d like the background music kept interesting and quiet. It doesn’t have to be classical – I subject myself to a sufficiency at home – but good taste in jazz counts for a lot, so how about a Bill Evans track or two? And please don’t try to imitate Starbucks. That pretentious, labor-hostile chain is annoying enough on its own. Be different. Call it a “large.”

Nothing furthers the cause of atmosphere more effectively that age, and there’s a spot in Manhattan’s West Village that is the hands-down champ of coffeehouse ambiance: Caffè Reggio at 119 MacDougal Street. I’ve written about the place before, but it’s worth revisiting, which I had the chance to do this evening.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Occupation: Conductor

AT THE CENTER OF THE DISCOGRAPHY of conductor Charles Munch are his many recordings with the Boston Symphony, which he music-directed from 1949 to 1962. A new 13-disc Warner Classics set bookends that era. While it far from completes Munch’s extensive discography (he recorded for many labels not included here), it does give us his first and final recordings and presents a fascinating look at his wide-ranging programming style.

Munch was unique. A renowned violinist who began his professional career as concertmaster of several significant European orchestras, he came to conducting with no specific schooling other than what he gleaned from playing under the baton of others. Never one to over-rehearse a piece, he was beloved by musicians who played for him because of his comparatively relaxed attitude and the passion he’d summon in concert, where the unpredictable result were typically triumphant.

He was born in 1891 in Strasbourg, in an Alsatian region that was variously claimed by Germany and France. Both languages were spoken in his house. During World War I he was conscripted into the German army; when Nazi Germany occupied Paris, he was conductor of two top orchestras in that city and contributed greatly to the French resistance, both financially and in the programming he selected.