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Bach, like life, is so many things

WQXR in New York City is doing Bach 360 from now ‘til Easter. That means all Bach every day. It’s all wonderful and amazing. Bach is always so many more kinds of music and experience than I remember.

At the same time, I discovered two very different experiences of the composer’s music. The one is recounted on the WQXR website. At Stalin’s funeral in 1953, Sviatoslav Richter, one of the century’s greatest pianists, was asked to play the piano. He chose the longest and densest prelude and fugue from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The authorities tried again and again to interrupt him to make way for another pianist, but Richter, involved in the music, could not be distracted. He was finally removed bodily by armed soldiers, certain he would be shot.

Then I ran into the very different experience of another very different musician:

“For the past eight years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning to me. It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, and a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being.”

-  Pablo Casals, Joys and Sorrows, at the age of 93

 

DwtkII-as-dur-fuga

A fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier

When I’m 97 ….

 

Every so often, when I’m driving through Vermont in the afternoon, I find myself listening to the NPR program, “The Story.” Recently, host Dick Gordon interviewed Frank Glazer, someone I knew nothing about except that I remember his name on an LP somewhere in my collection. Glazer is a pianist, and one who’s had quite an illustrious career, making his debut at New York’s Town Hall and  playing with the Boston Symphony, with an extended professional career at Eastman School of Music. For the last thirty plus years he’s been “artist in residence” at Bates College in Maine.  But that’s not why Gordon was talking to him. It seems that Mr. Glazer is 97 and still teaching and performing.

Most wonderfully, from my point of view, he’s still getting better. Last year he played all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in performance. That’s an extraordinary feat for any musician, much less one of 97.

Asked why he hasn’t retired, he responds,

“The reason I’m still doing it—all my life I wanted to be able to like what I heard when I play. Now I like it. Why should I quit now when I’m hearing what I always wanted to hear, but didn’t always hear?

My technique is as good as it’s ever been. I’m still getting better. I know better how to learn a piece, how to let it speak so that I finally get it. And the audience gets it—the essence and spirit of the music.”

What about arthritis? Nearly everyone is at least a little arthritic in their old age. He says his was never so bad that he couldn’t play through it, and now it’s gone altogether. Even the wear and tear that once affected his playing has diminished.

Glazer hopes to perform all 51 of Chopin’s Mazurkas and all of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues in eight programs in his 100th year.

And I hope to be able to enjoy hearing myself play when I reach 97.

 

The world as soundscape

My computer has been disabled-again-this time for nearly five days–but while the digital universe was silent, there was music, and especially last Friday night at a Warebrook concert where a flautist graced the stratosphere; a tenor declared love in German—and when the German is Richard Strauss speaking of love, it is most definitely about love; and the tenor returned to reinterpret life according to Vachel Lindsay, William Butler Yeats and local composer, Sara Doncaster. This is not to discount the delightful Irish tunes arranged by John Corigliano and rendered by the flautist and a perfect soprano. As they say, and with truth, you had to be there!

 
Sounds, especially organized sounds, make life so worth living.

 
Which brings me to the review by Jeremy Denk of “The Great Animal Orchestra, Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places,” by Bernie Krause.
We’ve all heard how nature sounds, some of us from walking in a meadow or sitting quietly in the woods, listening. Others of us from playing one of those audio tranquilizers for the sleepless. But Bernie Krause has been listening for decades, making recordings and archiving wild soundscapes:

Krause offers endless odes to sonic nuances: the timbres of waves crashing on the world’s beaches, the echo effects brought on by dew, the acoustics of night and day, the dry, hot rattles of deserts, the way baboons bounce their voices off granite outcropping, to send them deep into the forest.


He’s examined the many uses of sound in nature—from mating and hunting to self-defense and the marking of territory—all those and more. He’s listened to a wooded landscape before it was logged (selectively), and after, and while its devastation was difficult to see, it wasn’t hard to hear. He’s come to a fascinating conclusion: that “the healthier the habitat, the more ‘musical’ the creatures, the richer and more diverse their scores. Sound complexity is a measure of health.”

 
Often, sound is social. For example, he describes spadefoot toads, chorusing together to confuse predators about the location of any one individual. A jet soars overhead and the toads get out of sync. Their auditory shelter is temporarily lost and hawks swoop down, able now to locate individual singers.

 
Suddenly music, sound, has a deeper dimension and one more intimate to our earth and vital to its survival. Friday night’s concert was far more than it seemed. I already knew the lyrics contained birds and moonlight. I could hear that.  But the music and all of the earth’s soundings are kin. Listening is a far more delicate and ambitious task than I’d thought.

Drumming

Korean drummer performing at Langley International Festival 2010. Photo by dance photographer, Brendan Lally.

Years and years ago, I had a part in producing a United Methodist Women’s Assembly in Cincinnati. There were about 10,000 people there and I can’t remember which night–it might have been the opening–but it was, at any rate, for me, a never to be forgotten event when several small Korean women drummed the opening. The sound was loud, amazing, passionate….. and I’ve never forgotten it.

 
Since then, I’ve seen drummers and known women who drummed, but I had no idea that drumming is spreading among seniors in centers and homes, that it’s enabled the participants to make music, to share a beat, to build muscle, to make community. I wish my mother, lost in a world misshapen by Alzheimers, had been able to drum. She’d have drummed her anger until she felt empowered again, strong, and oh, so loud.

 
Someday, I think I’ll go drum. I’d like it to be with a community of people of all ages. I’d like some of them to be wonderful musicians. It would be another world, like meditation, but big and noisy.

It filled the Hall and pushed the walls out into the night and lifted the ceiling up to the night sky.

Two weeks ago I was listening to music that sounded something like this picture.

I was in the Glover Town Hall with maybe 150 other people at a benefit for a woman whose house burned to the ground not long after the New Year. Glover isn’t quite like other Vermont towns because Bread and Puppet, a politically left puppet theater, has been in residence here since the 1960s. In the beginning and for some years, the theater and much of the community were at odds, but today Bread and Puppet is pretty much just another neighbor. Because the victim of the fire had been active in the theater troupe, the show that night was especially rife with talent, but as much or more came from the town: a very old fiddler, a very young fiddler and her guitar-playing little brother, some very funny skits, the singing proprietor of the general store…..

It was one of those nights. Kids ran up and down the aisles; people hugged; they shared homemade doughnuts, cookies and stories. But the most remarkable event for me was the singing of the Sacred Harp.
Twenty years ago, when I first came to this part of the world, I heard my first Sacred Harp music. Not many years later I noticed that a few young people had joined Vermont singing groups and the music had begun to spread. But only begun. A few more years and a dozen or more people had joined Elka Schumann at Bread and Puppet and were singing together every month. But now, suddenly, on a snowy night in Town Hall, half of Glover seemed to be in the front of the room, singing full out, mouths wide open, Elka Schumann, the mother of Bread and Puppet, beating out the rhythm. It was a powerful, throbbing, raw sound. It was amazing.

America’s Sacred Harp music began in the churches of New England more than two centuries ago. Four-part, it is a cappella. Not even a pitch pipe is used. The only instrument is the “Sacred Harp”—the human voice. The singers read a music that consists in “shape notes.” The circles, triangles, rectangles and diamonds correspond with the notes of the scale. They provide visual cues to help everyone sing the intervals between notes.

The music began in England, and the first shape note music in this country was written and taught by teachers of singing schools. They had marvelous names like Supply Belcher (Maine), Ebeneezer Child (Vermont), Timothy Swan (Massachusetts), Justin Morgan (Vermont)…..  They were also shopkeepers, school teachers, local government functionaries, farmers—Justin Morgan, for example, is better known as the man who bred the Morgan horse. Not surprisingly, most of the music has a religious bent and was sung in churches.
Sacred Harp music disappeared in New England as another smoother, more formal and mostly more sentimental music replaced it. But it soon took root in the rural South, and by 1900, it thrived there.  By the 1920s and ’30s, folklorists began to notice it, and in the 1960s, New Englanders, and especially Vermonters, rediscovered it. Today, it has become popular across the country and singing conventions take place from Seattle to Boston to South Carolina.

In the Glover Town Hall, the music was driving, vital, very physical, very emotional. It filled the room and pushed the walls out into the night and lifted the ceiling up to the night sky.

In the March/April 2011 issue of Vermont Magazine, there are some wonderful comments from singers and listeners of Sacred Harp. Here are a few.

“When I first heard [Sacred Harp], it was like someone hitting me over the head with a frying pan. The four-part harmony just does something in your head.” After he (Paul Gauthier) traveled to a National Convention in Alabama: “It was a real revelation to sing with the old barrel-chested guys who have been singing all their life. It was like being in a pipe organ.”

“It’s very emotive, even cathartic—particularly with a number of people, their voices washing through me while I am singing. It’s a fantastic feeling.” (Ian Smiley)

“Singing loud and high—it’s a moving experience… it’s about life, eternity, the big questions–joy and grief.” (Chelsea Rose Sargent)

You can hear Sacred Harp singing on YouTube. Most of the performances are poorly recorded, but you’ll begin to understand it. And next thing you’ll be singing it.

Sacred Harp music from the songbook Northern Harmony

Celebrating Black History Month with Camilla Williams

It’s a sad thing to read an obituary and discover that someone wonderful was alive for many years and you never knew it. It happens to me a lot. The only saving grace is that now, at last, I know about them and I know they made a difference and I’m grateful.

Camilla Williams. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1946.

Today, I’m grateful for Camilla Williams. That she died the other day, at the beginning of Black History Month, means that many people who have never heard of her will learn of her significance at just the right time. Camilla Williams was the first black woman to sing with a major United States opera company. She did that nearly a decade before Marian Anderson graced the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, only she sang with the Met’s poorer cousin, the newly formed New York City Opera.

 
Camilla Williams was born in 1919, the daughter of a chauffeur and a domestic worker in the then Jim Crow town of Danville, Virginia. Her family was musical,, but she might not have discovered opera if a Welsh singing teacher hadn’t come to town. He’d heard there were beautiful black voices in town: he wasn’t allowed to teach them in the white college where he worked, so the class met in a private home, and at twelve years old Camilla Williams learned to sing Mozart.

 
Because she had a voice that was operatic and marvelous, and despite the racism of the music business and the nation, she managed to embark on a modest concert career by the time she was in her twenties. Her big break came in 1944 at a recital in Stamford, Connecticut when she attracted the attention of one of the most important singers of the first half of the 20th century, Geraldine Farrar. Taken by Camilla Willliam’s singing, Farrar contacted an impresario with the suggestion that he manage her career. Remembered Ms. Williams, “He didn’t believe the great Farrar would take time to write a letter about an unknown little colored girl” and called Farrar to be certain the note was from her. “When [he] confirmed it really was Miss Farrar, he was dumbfounded.”

 

 

Farrar also contacted the director of the newly founded New York City Opera and suggested an audition.Two years later, when the war with Japan ended and Madame Butterfly once again became acceptable fare, Camilla Williams debuted as Cio-Cio-San, the same role Geraldine Farrar had introduced at the Met in 1907. “Raved the New York Times, “there was a warmth and intensity in her singing that lent dramatic force of no mean order to the climactic episodes, and something profoundly human and touching in her delivery ….”
Over the next eight years she sang roles like Nedda (Pagliacci), Mimi (Boheme) and Aida at New York City. She also appeared with the Boston Lyric Opera and the Vienna State Opera, and was a soloist with some of the world’s leading orchestras. She sang Bess for what was then the most complete recording of “Porgy and Bess” (Columbia Records), and toured worldwide as a recitalist.

 
Over the years, she crossed paths with Marian Anderson many times. At the 1963 March on Washington, she sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” just before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, substituting for Anderson who was caught in traffic. The two women were fast friends.

Even though Camilla Williams never achieved the fame of her friend, she enjoyed a life in music. Her voice is very different from the Anderson’s dark contralto. It’s a lyric soprano’s voice—light, bright and shimmering at the top. You can hear it on a recording of an early recital on YouTube. There’s also a brief speech that she gave at a tribute for singer Giulio Gara. Talking about some of the problems she’s encountered because of race over the years, she tells a wonderfully funny story of a tenor whose racism made it difficult for him to sing with her. Ah, but she inadvertently got her revenge when they did a love duet and “he touched me and something happened to his body—his face got so red and he was so embarrassed but I paid no attention….”
Of the racism she struggled against for most of her life she said, “There is no place for bitterness in singing. It works on the cords and ruins the voice. In his own good time, God brings everything right.”
Ms. Williams was married to a civil rights attorney for 19 years until his death in 1969. She taught singing first in New York City and then at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music at Bloomington, where she retired in 1997.
Which takes me to the part of the story I like best because it’s about the elderly Camilla Williams, who continued to charm everyone. She was always outgoing, vivacious, critical and “a consummate diva.” Recalls a friend, “She’d always dress as if she was going to be soloing at an opera. She never went out without a gorgeous hat, a beautiful umbrella, heels and a mink stole.”
In 1947, she had met Bulgarian-born pianist, Boris Bazala, who became her accompanist. The two traveled and concertized together for many years, and remained friends for the decades after. Bazala remembered the challenges she faced because of  her race. He insisted on riding in the back of the train when she was only permitted to ride in front; often, they couldn’t sit together in restaurants. After his wife died, the two friends lived together and continued making music together until he died at 100 last year. Every day was a celebration of their friendship— the refugee from Eastern Europe and the woman who “opened the door for Marian Anderson.”.

The world is alive with revelations in art, economics (!) and music

Life is full of surprises and even revelations, and I’ve received several of those lately. Instead of writing a long blog about any one of them, I’m going to tell you who, what and where and fill it all in with a few quotations.

Lucian Freud. Self Portrait, Reflection, 2002.

In Art

The first is an article about Lucian Freud, someone I’ve never known much about. I was aware he died recently, and as is the case with far too many of this world’s wonders, it took the man’s death to bring him to my notice. There’s a terrific article in the February Vanity Fair about Freud. Written by David Kamp, it’s worth reading from top to bottom, but I’d like to quote just a little from the beginning because it has to do with an artist in old age, which is what this blog is supposed to be about—at least occasionally!

Lucian Freud’s final portrait is of a naked man and a dog. It is unfinished but otherwise betrays no sign of the agedness of its creator, who died last July 20, halfway through his 89th year. The scale is big, a square canvas of about five feet by five feet, and the brushwork is as sure and layered as in any painting he had ever done—smooth and free around the man’s shoulders, crusty and impastoed along the arms. The palette is Caucasian-fleshy from afar but remarkably varied and intricate up close: purples and greens in the man’s legs, vivid streaks of yellow in his right hand, rust and blue at the naughty bits.

For the last 57 years of his life, Freud painted standing up rather than sitting down; the physical restrictions of seated painting, he said, had begun getting him “more and more agitated” in the 1950s, so he kicked the chair away. Painting on his feet required extraordinary stamina, given Freud’s self-imposed work schedule: a morning session with one model, an afternoon break, and an evening session with another model, seven days a week, all year round. What’s more, these sessions had a tendency to stretch on: a deliberate worker, Freud took 6, 12, 18 months or longer to complete a painting, marathoning into the night if the mood struck. But he had stamina in spades. Painting was his workout; he took no other exercise, and yet photographs of him working shirtless in 2005, when he was 82, show him to be lean and all sinew, a jockey-size Iggy Pop.

But by June 2011, Freud recognized that his body was finally failing him, and that he had only so many brushstrokes left. The naked man in the portrait was completed, but the dog, a tan-and-white whippet, would never get its hind legs. Freud prioritized its head and face, adding a little dart of terre verte (“green earth”) mixed with umber to depict the tip of the animal’s pricked-up right ear. In early July, Freud was addressing the painting’s foreground: the folds and ripples in the sheet that covered the low platform upon which his two models sprawled. Here and there, as his energy permitted, he applied quick strokes of flake white, a thick, lead-heavy paint, to the lower part of the canvas.

That was as far as he got. Able to stand no longer, he at last retired to his bedroom, one floor up from the studio he kept in his Georgian town house in West London. As he lay in bed, friends and family gathered to pay their respects. There were many visitors from both categories. Freud had an otherworldly magnetism that his intimates struggle to put into words. Deborah Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, once ascribed to him “a sort of starry quality … an extraordinary sort of mercurial thing. He’s like something not quite like a human being, more like a will-o’-the-wisp.” Over the course of his life he fathered 14 acknowledged children with six women. Among his nine daughters are the fashion designer Bella Freud and the novelist Esther Freud. Two weeks into their bedside vigil, he was gone.
….
Freud simply did great work as an old man, some of his greatest. “In a sense, I think he knew this was his last big push at making some remarkable works. I could just see that he was really ambitious, pushing as hard as he could,” says the naked man in that final painting, David Dawson, the artist’s longtime assistant and the owner of Eli, the whippet star of several late paintings. ….
This overdrive work ethic was at once an acknowledgment of pending mortality and a hedge against it. Dawson marvels at what his boss managed to achieve. “The sheer volume, the scale,” he says. “He never rushed the work. But, my God, one great painting after another came out. He felt he could do it and he was able to. And this was his last chance.”

In Economics

My next discovery, comes from the January 27 issue of  the Wall Street Journal. where Dalibor Rohac writes about Deidre McCloskey, an economist. Why have I never heard of her? McCloskey is out to bring moral values back to the history and practice of economics. Apparently, she’s funny and charismatic, as well as brilliant. She’s also someone who changed her gender mid-career, which may not be relevant to her economic philosophy, but somehow makes her very, very human.

In 2006, Ms. McCloskey published a 600-page book, “Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce.” In a meticulously documented volume, drawing from a range of philosophical traditions, she asks whether one can participate fully in the modern capitalist economy and still be a moral person. Ms. McCloskey is a free marketeer and used to be a close personal friend of Milton Friedman, as she eagerly points out. Her answer is therefore an emphatic yes. It would be ill-advised, she thinks, to claim that profit-seeking makes one inherently corrupt, especially if it is balanced by other virtues.

Four years later, she completed a 600-page sequel, “Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.” “I’ve forgotten how to write short books,” she says apologetically, adding that she would like both to be part of a four-volume series on the bourgeois era.

….

The danger of our era is that the bourgeois deal is slowly crumbling away. It is under attack from the political left and also from economists whose work revolves around one sole virtue—prudence—thus eroding the public understanding of markets and economic life. Looking at the West’s current economic woes, it is easy to share Ms. McCloskey’s concern that unless we revive a sense of dignity and approbation for entrepreneurship and innovation, we might easily kill the goose that lays the golden eggs of our prosperity.

Oddly, I had just finished reading about McCloskey when a friend on Facebook alerted me to another article, this one in US News Today. It’s an interview with the founder of the Davos World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab.

Capitalism is out of whack, the founder of the World Economic Forum says, welcoming critics’ ideas of how to fix it — even those camped out in protest igloos near his invitation-only gathering of global VIPs.

    ….

“I’m a deep believer in free markets, but free markets have to serve society,” he said in Davos, the ski resort tucked away deep in the Swiss Alps. He lamented excesses and “lack of inclusiveness in the capitalist system.”

“We have sinned,” he said, adding that this year’s forum would put particular emphasis on ethics and resetting the moral compass of the world’s business and political community.

He even invited protesters from Occupy to share their thoughts with the Davos participants.

Maybe, just maybe there’s something stirring that will make real change possible.

Patricia Racette and Beth Clayton

In Music

The last of my revelations comes from another arena altogether. On Saturday, I was listening to the broadcast of Tosca from the Metropolitan Opera. The soprano was Patricia Racette. I had read something about her before, probably even heard her sing. She was wonderful. My curiosity was piqued and I googled her—what else?—only to discover that she was not only very lovely, she was a lesbian in a thirteen plus year relationship with another fine opera singer who was equally beautiful, Beth Clayton.  An interview with the two of them in the April 2008 issue of Afterellen was refreshing and enchanting. And also well worth reading.

I know the world is a scary place and getting scarier but my God, it’s still full of magic!