Sunday Salon 5-19-19

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 8:00 Sunday morning, at my main computer in the living room.

Reading: I finally decided to take the plastic wrap off of my copy of Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore, and read the latest novel by one of my favorite authors. I’m now about three-quarters of the way in, and, while musing that the book could perhaps have profitably been 500 pages long, rather than around 700 (just a little too much repetition and marking time for me), I’m still enjoying it very much. At the same time I’m also a ways into Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, among the most-recommended “advice” books for authors, and one that seems to have lifted me, at least temporarily, out of my recent writing slump (or was it just laziness?)

Viewing: Perhaps it’s because I check out reviews before watching films, or because most of my viewing comes either from my own collection of Blu-rays and DVDs or from reliable sources like MUBI and the Criterion Channel, but I have watched a string of really fine films in the last couple of weeks. Just to mention a few … Love Education (2017) by the multi-talented and prolific Sylvia Chang, Joanna Hogg’s first feature Unrelated (2007; her first three films are all happily available on the Criterion Channel), the classic I Remember Mama (1948), and the most recent, and in my opinion probably the best, film by the wonderful Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women (2016). It is perhaps not a coincidence that three of these four films, all excellent, were written and directed by women.

Listening: I’ve lately been gravitating back toward my usual sort of music – modern and contemporary classical music that straddles the line between consonance and dissonance, between tonality and atonality (or at least free tonality). Recent enthusiasms include the symphonies of Allan Pettersson, orchestral and chamber music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Become Ocean by John Luther Adams, a remarkably atmospheric work that deservedly won Adams the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. Living amidst the desert as I do here in Reno, I can hardly wait for Adams’s “sequel,” Become Desert, to come out on CD next month.

Blogging: I’m still not making promises about my blogging on a more regular basis, although I’ve got lots of ideas and plenty of items partially finished.

Pondering: Throughout this morning, I’ve been listening to a very loud bird singing from the tree just outside my front door. Her song seems to have a seven-note core: roughly E, E, E, down to D, up to F#, back down to D, and a return to E. There are a multitude of variations, though. For instance, there can be anywhere from one to four soundings of E at the beginning, at the end there might be an added D or a second E, and so on. It is very pleasant, but it also got me thinking about composer Olivier Messiaen, who was famously obsessed by bird songs, transcribing many hundreds of them and including them throughout his compositions. I’ve noticed that my bird isn’t absolutely predictable about pitch, and definitely has a liking for microtonal variations of her song. This has me considering how Messiaen dealt with these variations, and the ways in which he adapted the songs for fixed-pitch instruments like the piano. I’d like to read more about this.

And finally: Speaking of Messiaen, for many months now I have been enjoying Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recording of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux, thirteen portraits of birds (their songs, their habitats, their flight) composed in the second half of the 1950s. Even before I’d heard a note of the set, I was favorably disposed to it, having found inside its box, along with the CDs and booklet, a couple of feathers!

I’m a big fan of Aimard’s playing – his recording of György Ligeti’s Études is another great favorite. Having studied with both Messiaen and his wife, Yvonne Loriod (for whom he wrote the Catalogue), Aimard’s Messiaen performances seem pretty authoritative. Before the Catalogue recording came out, Aimard performed the entire set in a very special way at the 2016 Aldeburgh Festival, documented in this short video. I truly would have loved to be part of the audience for this!

Sunday Salon 4-28-19

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 10:30 Sunday morning, at my main computer in the living room. I’m obviously getting my day off to a relaxed, or one might say slow, start.

Reading: It has been a good couple of months since I checked in with a Sunday Salon, so I’ll try to be selective about describing what I’ve been up to during that time. Much reading has occurred, fortunately. Among the books I’ve completed in recent weeks are Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop, Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell, Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, Belinda Thomson’s Impressionism, and, because I spend more time trying to motivate myself than I do actually motivated, James Clear’s Atomic Habits and the recently-released Keep Going by Austin Kleon.

Viewing: My enthusiasm about the recent launch of the Criterion Channel has been significantly tempered by the fact that its copy-protection methods are incompatible with my seven-year-old television. Therefore, I have to watch its films on my computer. Even so, I may continue the subscription simply because the offerings are so interesting. Film watching hasn’t been a huge focus for me lately, to be honest. But among the fine films I’ve watched are the classic William Wyler version of Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Cannes Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters (as great as advertised), and, a very pleasant surprise of a film I hadn’t heard of previously, Microhabitat, the first full-length feature by South Korean writer-director Jeon Go-woon (thanks to MUBI for making this gem available).

Listening: There are two significant reasons why I haven’t been active on the blog recently. One is that I’ve started a new job as Content Coordinator and Producer at KNCJ Radio, where my task is to bring music, interviews, and such from our area’s excellent classical music community to the airwaves. My other reason for being away is that I agreed to do a series of three ninety-minute presentations on the connections between visual art and classical music for our local OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute). As usual, I vastly over-prepared for all three classes, and much of what I put together went unused. Even so, I learned a lot in the process. The topics were the Renaissance, Impressionism, and music inspired by specific works of art. This allowed me to listen to quite a range of music, from Renaissance choral music (Josquin des Prez and Monteverdi were my faves this time around) to Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead, Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, and music by the Impressionists Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel (see one example below).

Blogging: As explained above, there hasn’t been much blogging lately, other than posting some paintings that I’ve been dealing with in the OLLI talks mentioned above. I hope my blogging habits will improve … but I’m not making any promises!

Pondering: An unfortunate thing I’ve had to deal with lately is the need to say “no.” In the last few weeks, I’ve been nearly inundated by requests for unpaid work, mostly writing projects but also donations of time and other services for non-profits. While there hasn’t been a project brought to me that wasn’t totally worthwhile, and while I appreciate that so many people like my work and want me to share it with them, I’ve had to put my foot down about how much I can, or want, to take on. I hope to get better at this “no” stuff one day.

And finally: Since I’ve been spending so much time with the Impressionist painters and composers recently, I though I’d end today’s Salon with an example. Water was, obviously, a major theme for the Impressionists. Musically, both Debussy and Ravel turned to the idea often. Maurice Ravel wrote his Jeux d’eau – which can be translated as “Fountains,” “Playing Water” or literally “Water Games” – in 1901, “inspired,” as he put it, “by the noise of water and by the musical sounds which make one hear the sprays of water, the cascades, and the brooks.” Here, Martha Argerich plays it with profound musicianship and appropriately dexterous fingers. This video was made back in the 1970s, but I’m willing to bet she could still tear through this piece in the same way today.

Sunday Salon 2-10-19

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 9:00 Sunday morning, at my main computer in the living room.

Reading: I’ve managed to get somewhat stalled in my reading the last week or two. I’m making good progress in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Jay Rubin, and have spent a few very enjoyable moments, mostly in the evening, slowly making my way through The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. Both are quite large books, though, and may not be completed any time soon.

Viewing: A showing on Turner Classic Movies last week of F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Sunrise, the first film he made after moving to America from Germany, got me hooked on Murnau again and led me to a couple of his other films. One was his third American film, City Girl (the second American film, 4 Devils, is, sadly and highly frustratingly, lost), as well as the film he made in Germany immediately before Sunrise, the highly atmospheric Faust. I may well continue with more Murnau, moving forward to his final film, Tabu – he died in a car crash at age forty-two right after completing Tabu – and backward to some of his German films, like Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh), Herr Tartüff (Tartuffe), and perhaps even a tenth-or-so viewing of the classic Nosferatu.

Listening: My music listening recently continues to be tied to the program note writing I do. Just a couple of days ago, I finished up notes for the next Reno Chamber Orchestra concert, which allowed me to revisit, and write about, favorites like Maurice Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin and the Variations on a Theme of Haydn by Johannes Brahms. Next up are notes for the Reno Philharmonic that will include Antonín Dvořák’s famous “New World” Symphony No. 9.

Blogging: My main post this past week was also inspired by recent program note writing, as I looked at some of the bad reviews received by Pyotr Tchaikovsky over the course of his life. I’ve also finally finished (I think) the article on the connections between Claude Monet’s work and Japanese art that I’ve been considering for many weeks now. That should appear in the next few days, as should a look at Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, as I get back to the Japanese Literature Challenge I’ve been participating in.

Pondering: I feel myself being pulled in a bunch of different directions lately, and am getting a bit frustrated by my inability to focus on any one thing. There’s the Japanese Literature Challenge. There’s the ongoing program note writing. I’m also making a presentation on “Music and Renaissance Art” in a couple of weeks, and am fairly drowning in facts, dates, names, music, and paintings as I prepare. A couple of potential job offers are floating out there, too. All this and trying to maintain my daily schedule of exercise, meditation, and Japanese language studies are rather overwhelming me. Wish I had a larger, better-functioning brain.

And finally: This showed up on Facebook yesterday, and it provided a nice laugh to end the week.

Tchaikovsky’s Bad Reviews

“Oh, how difficult it is to make anyone see and feel in music what we see and feel ourselves.”
– Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

I mentioned in my Sunday Salon a week or so ago that I had recently written program notes for upcoming Reno Philharmonic concerts that include Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (performances are this Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, should you be in the Reno area). This caused me to reflect how remarkable it is that artists like Tchaikovsky carry on working, given the quality of the reviews and feedback they have sometimes received.

In the case of the Piano Concerto No. 1, Tchaikovsky had wanted the piece to be given its first performance by his friend Nikolai Rubinstein, who had hired Tchaikovsky right out of college as a professor at the Moscow Conservatory and who conducted several premieres of his works. But when Tchaikovsky played through the Concerto for Rubinstein, what was the reaction? According to Tchaikovsky, “It turned out that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar; in places I had stolen from other composers; only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten.” Fortunately, Tchaikovsky found a more receptive collaborator in pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow (von Bülow was just about to take off for an American tour, which explains why the Concerto was given its first performance in Boston, of all places).

Another much-loved work, Romeo and Juliet, was said to feature music that “sounds rather like scratching a glass plate with a sharp knife.” Francesca da Rimini, the orchestral tone poem, “is a musical monster” with “ear-flaying horror.” And the conclusion of the Symphony No. 5 “sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker.” In general, wrote one Vienna critic, Tchaikovsky’s music “scorns logic, wallows in torpor, and time and again, collapses in dissonant convulsions.”

Perhaps the most famous, and withering, scorn was heaped on the now-beloved Violin Concerto. After completing it in a frenzied couple of weeks in March and April of 1878, Tchaikovsky’s plan was to dedicate the Concerto to Leopold Auer, the famous Hungarian violinist and teacher who was also concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg. However, Auer didn’t like the Concerto and refused to play it for many years, although he eventually gave in to its charms (as did Rubinstein, in fact, with the First Piano Concerto). Violinist Adolph Brodsky eventually received the dedication, and it was he that was featured in the work’s first performance in 1881. By all accounts, the performance didn’t go so well. It led to one of the most famously abusive reviews in music history, from the well-known critic Eduard Hanslick. Hanslick described Tchaikovsky as “surely no ordinary talent, but rather, an inflated one, obsessed with posturing as a man of genius, and lacking all discrimination and taste.” Of the Concerto’s solo part, Hanslick wrote that “the violin is no longer played; it is yanked about, it is torn asunder, it is beaten black and blue.” His grand conclusion: “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto confronts us for the first time with the hideous idea that there may be musical compositions whose stink one can hear.”

According to a survey by Bachtrack, Tchaikovsky came in at #7 in their list of most-often-performed composers of 2018. With 214 recordings listed for his Piano Concerto No. 1 at ArkivMusic.com, as well as 180 each for the Violin Concerto and Romeo and Juliet, it would seem that Tchaikovsky has had the last laugh, although the laughter may have been through a few tears.

Sunday Salon 1-27-19

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 7:00 Sunday morning, getting an early start for a change, at my main computer.

Reading: As reported a couple of weeks ago, the reading year has gotten off to a fine start, with eight books completed already, and another two underway! Much of that recent reading has been related to the Japanese Literature Challenge 12, hosted by Dolce Belleza, that I have been participating in. I’ve already posted a review of the first book read for that Challenge, Masks by Fumiko Enchi. Reviews of two further books, Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen and The Japanese Sense of Beauty by Shuji Takashina, will be coming in the next week or two. My current focus is a volume I’ve been anxious to read since it came out a few months ago, The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Jay Rubin (who is also one of Haruki Murakami’s main English translators). For a blog article or two as well as a presentation on Impressionism I’m doing in a couple of months, I’ve also completed Karin Breuer’s Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism.

Viewing: I only watched two movies this week. One was middling, a Korean historical drama called Empire of Lust. But the other, Gabbeh, a 1996 film directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, was outstanding, atmospheric and poetic and wonderfully colorful. Makhmalbaf is a prolific, highly-regarded Iranian director, but Gabbeh was just the first film of his I’ve seen. I will be seeking out more!

Listening: My main listening for the last week was related to program notes I wrote for the next concert of the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. The program is an interesting one: Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) (this gave me an excuse to revisit her excellent Vespers for a New Dark Age that she recorded with her group Victoire), Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, and the famous Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky. The latter inspired a short blog post on Tchaikovsky’s bad reviews that I’m going to post tomorrow, so stay tuned.

Blogging: This week saw only the posting of my review of Fumiko Enchi’s Masks and a Wordless Wednesday bit of medieval illumination. Coming this week, I hope, are a look at Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto and the short article I’ve been planning for some time on the connections between Claude Monet’s work and Japanese art. My problem with the latter, which I’ve been thinking about for weeks, is the same one I often have – I enjoy the research too much, accumulate way too much information, and then have a hard time figuring out exactly what my subject is. I’ve got dozens of pages of notes for this darn Monet article, which probably won’t end up exceeding 1,000 words. We’ll see how it turns out, and what I actually end up writing about.

Pondering: I feel strongly the desire to travel, but also feel equally strongly the need to keep a close eye on my finances. What to do?

And finally: Something I came across this week, which has pleased me greatly and gotten itself lodged in my head, is a version of Queen’s song “Killer Queen” played on, of all things, a hundred-plus-year-old fairground organ. It’s much too delightful; the entry of the chorus (“She’s a killer queen…”) makes me laugh, in a good way, every time I hear it. The introduction to the video mentions a version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the same organ, which you’ll also find below in case you need it … which you might.

Beethoven’s Coffee

Along with being one of the great musical geniuses of all time, Ludwig van Beethoven is remembered for a variety of personal peculiarities – his wild hair, his explosive temper, his chaotic living arrangements (it is said that he changed residences between seventy and eighty times during the thirty-five years he lived in Vienna). His eating habits were distinctive as well. He loved salami as well as macaroni and cheese (parmesan was his cheese of choice). Every Thursday, he was served a very particular bread soup. As composer-conductor Ignaz Seyfried describes it, “Together with [the soup], ten sizable eggs had to be presented to him on a plate. Before they were stirred into the soup, he first separated and tested them by holding them against the light, then decapitated them with his own hand and anxiously sniffed them to see whether they were fresh.”

Beethoven also sometimes enjoyed cooking for guests. Here’s Seyfried again: “After waiting patiently for an hour and a half, while the turbulent demands of their stomachs were with increasing difficulty assuaged by cordial dialogue, the dinner was finally served. The soup recalled those charitable leavings distributed to beggars in the taverns; the beef was but half-done and calculated to gratify only an ostrich; the vegetables floated in a mixture of water and grease; and the roast seemed to have been smoked in the chimney … [his guests] found it barely possible to choke down a few morsels.”

In terms of his diet, however, Beethoven was remarkably fastidious about one thing – his coffee. His biographer and friend Anton Schindler once remarked, “coffee seems to have been the one indispensable item in his diet.” He always prepared his coffee himself, starting every day by counting out exactly sixty coffee beans and grinding them. Hot water would then be poured through the ground coffee via what has been described as a “glass contraption.” It is said that Beethoven’s sixty beans is about ten fewer than what would be used for a modern cup of coffee. Due to modern processing, though, the caffeine content in Beethoven’s coffee was likely far greater than that which we would enjoy today.

Beethoven wasn’t the only historical celebrity who had coffee idiosyncrasies. Remaining in the musical world for a moment, Johann Sebastian Bach was another famous coffee fan. He even went so far as to write a Coffee Cantata (Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211), in which a father demands that his daughter give up her coffee addiction so that she can find a suitable husband. She ultimately decides to marry only when she has found someone who loves coffee as much as she, and the cantata ends with an ode to the delight women take in the drink.

“Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
and, if someone wants to pamper me,
ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!”
(from Bach’s Coffee Cantata)

Theodore Roosevelt is said to have drunk a gallon of coffee in the average day. In 1907, he apparently also coined Maxwell House’s motto “Good To The Last Drop.” Mathematician Paul Erdös, who alternated between espresso shots and caffeine tablets, once said that “A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.” Honoré de Balzac supposedly drank fifty cups of coffee a day, starting at the same time he began his day’s writing, at approximately 1:00 a.m. Voltaire also drank between forty and fifty cups per day. He liked his coffee mixed with chocolate, and paid bonuses to his servants if they managed to secure particularly good coffee beans.

The award for the sweetest brew goes to philosopher and author Søren Kierkegaard. According to his biographer Joakim Garff, “Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid.” He would then swallow the concoction in one gulp.

Sources:
“Beethoven’s Caffeine Addiction” (classical-music.com)
“Beethoven’s Kitchen” (The Daily Beethoven)
“Top 11 Famous Coffee Drinkers from the History Books” (Coffee Makers USA)
“Coffee: From Balzac to Beethoven, it has fueled artistic endeavor for centuries” (slate.com)