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.

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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)

Sunday Salon 11-25-18

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 9:30 Sunday morning (I slept in), at my main computer at home.

Reading: This week I finished two books, Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe and John David Anderson’s delightful Granted. I’m now at that great moment where I get to choose my next book – but haven’t yet!

Viewing: With the end of FilmStruck in just a few days, I’ve been engaging in a bit of a marathon of film watching, more or less a double-feature every day. I’ve completed watching the early Ingrid Bergman films included in the Eclipse DVD set Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish Years, seen a bunch of Japanese films from the 1950s through 1970s (perhaps my favorite segment of film history), and even made room for classics like last night’s viewing of Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, with the unbeatable combination of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. I’ll miss FilmStruck very much, but also look forward to the new Criterion Channel on its way in a few months.

Listening: Not a lot of music in my life this week, although I’ve been enjoying Recurrence, featuring the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Bjarnason playing works by contemporary Icelandic composers.

Blogging: The main accomplishment this week was a look at Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies by Ross King, an excellent book that enhanced my already-considerable appreciation of Monet’s late paintings. All of that Monet has inspired me to do another blog post on the connections between Monet’s work and Japanese art and gardens. Coming soon to a blog near you…

Pondering: I will soon be taking off for a few days in San Francisco, during which I will be taking in several art exhibitions, including two I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while: Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World at SFMOMA, and Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey at the de Young Museum. By the way, I will be Tweeting throughout my trip, so I invite you to follow me on Twitter for all the fun.

And finally: This Tom Gauld cartoon says it all…

Sunday Salon 11-18-18

Sunday Salon badge squareAs this is my first blog post in quite a while, I will resist the temptation to detail my activities over the last year-and-a-half, and just talk a little about the last week or two (and the future!)

Time and Place: 7:30 Sunday morning, at my main computer at home.

Reading: In an attempt to find motivation, feed my creativity, and address my ever-faltering self-esteem, I’ve been spending a lot of time with self-help books recently. The one I’d like to call special attention to is Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, perhaps (along with Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist) the best book on creativity that I’ve ever come across. Tharp is direct, detailed, revealing of her own pretty astonishing creative life, and full of practical suggestions. I’m also currently in the middle of Michael Pye’s very entertaining and informative The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe, and have been eyeing hungrily my as-yet-untouched copy of Haruki Murakami’s new book Killing Commendatore.

Viewing: The imminent demise of the invaluable FilmStruck service – apparently to be replaced in a few months by the new Criterion Channel announced a couple of days ago – has led me, and many others, to try to go through our queues of movies before FilmStruck disappears on November 29. My focus has been on two areas: expanding my knowledge of the works of Japanese directors like Kon Ichikawa and Masahiro Shinoda, and becoming acquainted with the films Ingrid Bergman made in the early, Swedish part of her career (many featured in the Eclipse DVD set Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish Years). I’ll save for another time the overwhelming experience of last night’s viewing, in its beautiful new Criterion Blu-Ray edition, of Andrei Tarkovsky’s magisterial Andrei Rublev.

Listening: Over late October and early November, I spent a couple of weeks writing program notes for a chamber music festival. It was such an intensive and awful experience – 63 compositions and 16,000 or so words written (edited down to 10,000 for space) over fourteen days! – that I came out of it with a genuine, and I suspect temporary, aversion to classical music. So I’ve been checking out lots of other fun stuff: Thai and other southeast Asian pop and folk music, my old favorite Stereolab, Bollywood soundtracks, and more (see below for another example). A lot of my listening, too, I have to admit, has been to my own music, as I’ve recovered my music-writing groove and am busily assembling bits of what will eventually be a long piece that I trust is going to be great!

Blogging: As I mentioned above, this is my first blog post in a year and a half, but I’m pretty sure not my last. I’ve been accumulating some content which will be turning up here soon, as well as developing a new project about which I’m going to remain silent for the moment. More news soon! By the way, my Twitter feed is now much more active than before, so I encourage you to follow me there.

Pondering: I left my previous job, a very demanding and time-consuming one, about three months ago. As with the last time I left that organization, it has been a difficult transition, especially on a personal level. I had always guessed that most of my friendships within that workplace, even some of the close ones, were not actually friendships but rather relationships of convenience, existing simply because of my title and possible utility to people. It’s not really unusual or surprising, nor am I really complaining about or condemning those people. But it has admittedly been painful to see my social circle diminished by something like 95%. However, I’m also extremely grateful for the people that have stuck with me and stayed in contact! And my social horizons are growing, gradually…

And finally: I’m pleased to share some music by a recent, very pleasant discovery, Khruangbin. This Houston-based band brings together a diverse group of influences, from Thai pop music to progressive rock to surf-rock instrumentals to film scores and more, via the rock-solid grooves of drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson, the hypnotic and melodic bass playing of Laura Lee, and the virtuoso guitar of Mark Speer. When I found out that (1) Laura Lee came up with the name Khruangbin, Thai for “flying engine” or “airplane,” because she’d been studying the Thai language at the time and liked the word, and (2) they have a website, AirKhruang, where they put together Spotify playlists of cool and obscure music from around the world, I knew this was a band I would like. Their NPR Music Tiny Desk concert features three songs: “Maria También” is a great introduction to their musical world, the bass line of “August 10” has been stuck in my head for weeks, and the closer, “White Gloves,” pretty much makes me cry every time. I absolutely love this stuff, and hope you will too…