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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Barricades of Mystery

PIANIST SIMONE DINNERSTEIN set the stage well before she entered. Her piano sat on a darkened stage at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, with candles flickering on the soundboard and floor. The program notes – and you really have to read such things at an event like this – promised an intermission-free concert the components of which were organized into two sets, with applause requested only after each set.

 Simone Dinnerstein | photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco
And then there were the sets. It was one of the most creative and satisfying arrays of pieces I’ve ever enjoyed in concert, each juxtaposition as powerful as the pieces themselves. The house was almost full on this cold, cold night. Dinnerstein swept in, acknowledged her greeting, and set to work, opening with one of the more overplayed and under-understood works in the repertory: François Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mystérieuses.” Written for harpsichord, it has traveled to many other instruments and feels very at home on the piano.

It’s a haunting, recursive work. As Tom Service wrote a few years ago in The Guardian, “The four parts create an ever-changing tapestry of melody and harmony, interacting and overlapping with different rhythmic schemes and melodies. The effect is shimmering, kaleidoscopic and seductive ... ” The lavish romanticism Dinnerstein imbued may send Baroque specialists screaming back to their cells, but it made great sense in the context of what followed: Schumann’s Arabesque, Op. 18, another work that conveys a sense of yearning. Its left-hand figurations seemed to pick up where Couperin’s left off, but in a voice that had harmonically advanced by a century. Like the Couperin piece, it’s in the form of a rondo, but its other-than-A sections are more obviously emotionally ravaged. Which is not surprising, coming from Schumann, who wore his heart on his keyboard.

Friday, December 07, 2018

The Art of the Cello

THERE’S A SCENE in the 1947 movie “Carnegie Hall” in which cellist Gregor Piatigorsky performs Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan” while surrounded by a half-dozen lady harpists plucking the accompaniment. He was a star cellist at a time when the instrument was still struggling to assert star status. And, as with all great soloists, he made it look easy. He was tall – tall enough to pose for a gag photo with the cellist hoisted under his chin like a fiddle. He had a chiseled face that seemed austere in repose, but lit up with his native merriment when he was at his ease.

You’ll get an excellent idea of the look of the man by browsing the photos at the Piatigorsky Archives at the Colburn School. Although the cellist died over 40 years ago, his widow lived to be 100 – and it was only after her death in 2012 that his collection of photos and letters; transcriptions, original compositions, and scores; books, concert programs, and audio – and more – went to the school thanks to the Piatigorsky Foundation, an organization founded by the cellist’s cellist grandson (and which also performs the admirable mission of offering live performances to underserved areas).

With some 19,000 items to deal with, the Colburn School put to work “a team of experts consisting of two archivists, two musicologists, a Russian translator, and a French translator” who collected their results in a 200-page inventory. Some 3,000 of those items were digitized, and the website gives an excellent taste of the breadth of those holdings.

Monday, December 03, 2018

A Precautionary Tale

PREACHING PRECAUTION isn’t often the same as practicing it. The “ounce of prevention” principle, seemingly instilled in us at birth, has long gone out the window where pesticide use is concerned. Touted as the farmer’s salvation before their risks were revealed, pesticides spawned a massive industry that flourishes, like any drug dealer, by keeping its users hooked.

As a political device, the Precautionary Principle – so named in the late 1980s – found a more secure footing in the European Union than it has in the United States. “In Europe the precautionary principle serves as a fundamental basis for generating sound public policy; public health and safety generally trumps potential threats to it. In the United States, however, dangers have to be established through what is generally termed risk analysis, meaning that ‘acceptable levels of risk’ are established. ... Precaution tends to be more of an afterthought than a guiding principle in the United States, and more of a guiding light in Europe.”

The quote comes from Philip Ackerman-Leist’s A Precautionary Tale, which tells the story of the small European village that took on and bested a corporate assault that would have spelled doom for small subsistence farmers – which was pretty much everybody not growing pesticide-anointed apples.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Russian Carnival

From the Vault Dept.: One of a series of liner notes I wrote for the sadly defunct Dorian Recordings label, although I swear my involvement with the concern had nothing to do with their downfall. This was for a CD of works by Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, and Anthony DiLorenzo, lovingly described below – and with notes on the DiLorenzo piece by Tony himself..


BACK IN THE LATE ’60s, after conducting a rip-snorting performance of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” conductor Leopold Stokowski turned to the applauding Carnegie Hall audience and shouted, “Wonderful Russian music!” At which the audience stood and cheered.

In the late ’70s, while airing a recording of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a radio announcer in Connecticut got a phone call from an angry listener who berated him for playing commie music – the same piece that has reduced an audience to tears with its trenchantly mournful slow movement.

Russian music has excited similar passions for centuries, politics aside. With a thousand-year-old history behind it that includes an Orthodox singing traditon, strong Byzantine and (in the 18th century) Italian influences, not to mention a varied and rhythmic folksong heritage. It’s well known that Stravinsky’s sensual “Rite of Spring” inspired rioting at its 1913 Paris premiere, but even the relatively staid Tchaikovsky inspired howls of nervous derision at what was then judged to be the barbaric nature of his music.

This recording collects music by some of the best-known Russian composers of the 19th and 20th centuries – and adds a new work by an American composer strongly influenced by the Russians.

Monday, November 26, 2018

When Genius Remained Your Humble Servant

Guest Blogger Dept.: Here’s Robert Benchley, back to set us straight about the travails of correspondence, which clearly was in a parlous state even in those dark old pre-e-mail days.


OF COURSE, I REALLY KNOW NOTHING ABOUT IT, but I would be willing to wager that the last words of Penelope, as Odysseus bounced down the front steps, bag in hand, were: “Now, don't forget to write, Odie. You'll find some papyrus rolled up in your clean peplum, and just drop me a line on it whenever you get a chance.”

Drawing by Gluyas Williams
And ever since that time people have been promising to write, and then explaining why they haven’t written. Most personal correspondence of to-day consists of letters the first half of which are given over to an indexed statement of reasons why the writer hasn’t written before, followed by one paragraph of small talk, with the remainder devoted to reasons why it is imperative that the letter be brought to a close. So many people begin their letters by saying that they have been rushed to death during the last month, and therefore haven’t found time to write, that one wonders where all the grown persons come from who attend movies at eleven in the morning. There has been a misunderstanding of the word “busy” somewhere.

So explanatory has the method of letter writing become that it is probable that if Odysseus were a modern traveler his letters home to Penelope would average something like this:

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thai to Remember

OUR THAI CUSINE-INSPIRED Thanksgiving dinner had a preparation of khao soi, a wonderful coconut milk-based soup, as its centerpiece. Turkey appeared in the curry; an a-la-minute pad Thai satisfied the need for rice-stick noodles. The menu is below. Here's what we did in 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and 1990 to 2012.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Carnival of Animals

HOW SENTIENT ARE OUR DOMESTICATED BEASTS? How about beasts in general? We’d like to think that those creatures we take into our houses and hearts, at least, have a capacity to reckon – but for many years we’ve been accused of anthropomorphizing the animals: informing them with human characteristics they can’t possibly have.

Isabella Rossellini and Pan
Isabella Rossellini knows otherwise, and science has been catching up with her. Her show “Link Link Circus,” which played at Bard College’s Fisher Center last Saturday (following acclaimed runs in Manhattan and throughout Europe), presents a cheerful array of lectures, sketches, films, animations, and circus tricks all in the service of animals.

One of which, a dog named Peter Pan, considerably ups the “awww” factor. Like Liberace, the dog goes by its surname; unlike the pianist, Pan doesn’t rely on costumes for effect. But that didn’t stop him from appearing in a dazzling array. Pan is a rescue dog, and we learned that Rossellini is deeply involved with animal rescue and training. In addition to dogs, her Long Island farm accommodates populations of chickens and bees.