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Monday, July 26, 2021

Staying Sharp

From the Vault Dept.: Here’s a piece I stumbled across while seeking something else on the internet, reminding me that somem of the goodies strewn across its fabulous breadth years ago may still be there to haunt you. This appeared on a Metroland magazine blog.

                                                                                           

I AM TRENDY only by accident. Sometimes I’ve been in a place for years and the retro-seekers catch up. (Hats, for example.) Sometimes we arrive independently. It seems that I am no longer as alone in my passion for the Blackwing pencil as I was when its manufacture was ended. The choice of many illustrators from the 1930s on, it also attracted a fan base of writers (Steinbeck among them) and composers (Bernstein, Sondheim).

They are now manufactured by Palomino, and I have stocked up. I like to draft the stories I write by hand. As Sondheim points out, the soft pencils need frequent-enough sharpening to keep you from drowsing. And the sharpener itself is an impressive two-stage affair in which you first achieve a rough-hewn cone, then, in the second hole, hone it to a potentially lethal point.

I can’t say that it’s improved my writing. But it feels good to get away from the computer every now and then.

Metroland Tech Life Blog, 17 September 2015

Friday, July 23, 2021

Grandma

WHAT DO WE KNOW about H. W. Hanemann? That he lived from August 8, 1895, to September 2, 1968. That he wrote the screenplay for “Flying down to Rio,” as well as “The Great Jasper,” “Rafter Romance,” and “The Meanest Gal in Town,” all from the 1930s, but only the last-named offering the – what’s the opposite of “timeless”? Whatever it is, that’s what describes Swedish-dialect comedy of El Brendel. We know that Hanemann wrote books, and that two of them are “As Is, a Book of Miscellaneous Revelations” (1923) and “The Facts of Life, a Book of Brighter Biography.” And that he wrote songs, many of them spoofs of past-century weepers. The songs appeared in “Judge” magazine, and were collected in a volume titled “Heart-Wrecking Songs.” The most enduring of them seems to be the one performed below, which I first heard in a lively Spike Jones version.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Opera on the Grass, At Last

WHILE SOME MUSIC VENUES are opening to audiences, opera – especially as presented by an institution like The Glimmerglass Festival – needs to plan ahead. Way ahead. They lost a year, of course, as did we all, but they spent it planning a careful return to live programming that could take advantage of the Festival’s beautiful grounds.

Eric Owens and Lisa Marie Rogali
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

And as music by Mozart filled the air, as a dignified and friendly Sarastro settled into a fancy chair, we were ushered into a new Glimmerglass era. “Glimmerglass on the Grass,” in fact, featuring a season presented on a specially built outdoor stage, with socially distanced seating on the facing lawn.

An ever-changing forecast was borne out by the mix of sun and clouds that greeted the 11 AM “Magic Flute” performance last Saturday, but it was a good backdrop for a fast-moving production that came with its own plentiful thunder. Glimmerglass resident artist Eric Owens – who has been a great success in productions from several previous seasons here – sang and spoke the role of Sarastro, also offering narration that helped trim the piece down to the 90-minute, intermission-free length that characterizes all of this summer’s productions.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Blow, Ye Winds

I HOPE THAT COMPOSER JOSEPH FENNIMORE has still more recordings that have been made of his works over the years. Every so often, but not often enough, a CD is released that offers another handful of those gems. The latest, “Blow,” is a collection of works for winds and piano. As Fennimore writes in the accompanying notes, “Winds marry better with piano than strings ... Strings have their undeniable place in the instrumental Pantheon given the repertory they command but it takes at least three of them in unison to mitigate one player’s monotonous vibrato.” Take umbrage as you will, cat-gut scrapers, but Fennimore’s music makes convincing arguments in favor of reeds, horn, and flute.

His Clarinet Sonata dates from 1968 and was recorded eight years later. It’s a twelve-minute piece that kicks off with Poulenc-like merriment; the movement that follows, marked Moderate, is a captivating byplay between clarinet and piano as they trade wistful phrases, seeming to dance away from the resolution that, of course, overtakes their tired selves at the end. They recover for a fast finish – it is, in fact, marked Fast – characterized by the deliberate uncertainty of trills and truncated phrases. But it is, again, a dance that gives way to a dreamlike middle before whirling us to a delightfully syncopated finish with a wistful tag. Clarinetist David Niethamer and pianist Charles Schneider were the worthy interpreters here.

Given the grab-bag nature of this collection, it’s no surprise to find a variety of performers represented. What’s surprising, however, is the protean nature of Fennimore’s voice. The Sextet for Woodwind Quintet and Piano premiered at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1985, the year it was written; what’s on this disc was recorded two years later at Loudonville’s Siena College. Fennimore’s voice changed during the 17 years that separate this from the Clarinet Sonata – or he at least consulted a contrasting muse.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Benny Rides Again

From the Music Vault Dept.: We just enjoyed a performance in my town by Dan Levinson and His Palomar Trio with superb vocalist Molly Ryan – their first live gig since the start of the pandemic shut-down. Which got me nostalgic for a big-band appearance Dan and Molly – and fellow Palomarians Mark Shane (piano) and Kevin Dorn (drums) – made in the area in 2009.

                                                                              
      

DOESN’T IT SEEM LIKE ONLY YESTERDAY when Benny Goodman and his band scored such a success at the Palomar Ballroom that the Swing Era officially started? All right, then. Maybe I live in a different era. But whatever your perspective, music of the late 1930s was characterized by the punchy, brassy arrangements of the likes of Fletcher Henderson, himself a bandleader, and Jimmy Mundy, and played by the bands of Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and many, many others.

Dan Levinson
Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Performing the tunes called for tremendous virtuosity, and gave us a generation of players still revered for their skill. It’s something of a shock to realize that there’s a current generation of musicians able and eager to play in that style, and can bring to life music heretofore trapped on decades-old recordings.

Clarinetist Dan Levinson is a musical chameleon whose specialty is channeling styles as far back as the ’teens. His heart seems to be in the ’30s, though, and he plays music of that era both with a small group (his Swing Wing) and large ensembles like Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks.

For this event, he fronted James Langton’s New York City All-Stars, a fifteen-piece band sporting the caliber of player Goodman would have been delighted to hire. The program opened as Goodman would have opened it, with a short, rousing “Let’s Dance” that he took almost immediately into “Bugle Call Rag,” a Mundy arrangement that quickly showcased many of the individual players.

Friday, July 09, 2021

The Spirit of Philidor

HERE’S ANOTHER of my video collaborations with Musicians of Ma’alwyck, in which we imagine a visit by composer-chessmaster François-André Philidor to Albany’s Schuyler Mansion to meet General Lafayette – where he meets a more portentous personage instead. With Ethan Botwick as Philidor and Steven Patterson as du Mortier.

Monday, July 05, 2021

Back to Tanglewood

From the Classical Vault Dept.: More summer venues have announced their 2021 seasons, and Tanglewood will be back with the kind of programming you expect – the kind of programming that drew me there 35 years ago to write the review that follows.

                                                                                

The lush lawn at Tanglewood just got its summer crewcut as the Boston Symphony Orchestra season got under way with two concerts by guest conductor Charles Dutoit. Saturday’s was a slam-bang beginning.

Charles Dutoit

The 200th birthday of composer Carol Maria von Weber was saluted with the overture from his opera Der Freischuetz and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in E-flat. The overture is a staple of the orchestral repertory and offers the better groups a display of dynamics and color. Dutoit, best known as music director of the Montreal Symphony, has a terrific hand for bringing out just those characteristics.

The drama of the overture was brought out nicely by Dutoit’s treatment of the piece as a voiceless aria; like Mozart, Weber informed his melodies with a singing quality. A thickly textured sequence for horn quartet is a mean thing to hand the horn-players so early in the concert but these players were superb.

Malcolm Frager was the concerto soloist. A Tanglewood favorite for more than 20 years, he brings a zest to his playing that is the true essence of virtuosity. The Weber concerto provides plenty of opportunity to strut the technical stuff and Frager pulled it off pretty much without a hitch –  the bobbled couple of notes in the faster passages are worth mentioning only to illustrate the risks he takes to achieve his effects, something many other artists should try.