Nailed It!

Yesterday afternoon, my office was being bathed and soothed by the sounds of WQXR, when in came two colleagues to do their level best to disrupt and destroy the calm. Mid-conversation when my attention to the music was firmly on autopilot, one of them suddenly perked up his ears (metaphorically, as my colleagues are catlike only in a figurative sense) and said, “Is this ‘Entry of the Guests’ from Tannhäuser?” Inwardly sheepish because I didn’t know (by day I’m a mild-mannered knowledge worker until I step into a classical phonebooth; my coworkers know nothing of this dalliance), I clicked over to the QXR page and indeed, he had instantly and accurately identified the piece. I congratulated him on his acumen. I also mentally congratulated him on his pitch-perfect pronunciation of Tannhäuser (something no Revelrous Sib would fail to notice).

Truth be told, Wagner does very little for me. It may be that I’ve read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” too many times, though I’m not going to really go near the biography vs. art debate. Beyond all that Wagner/Nazi lore (not to mention the bending of Nordic mythology), though, it’s also in general not the type of classical music that speaks to me. Of course, I’d never paint with that broad a brush, as I have found myself enjoying pieces of his over the years. Larry David, my antihero, memorably whistled his “Siegfried Idyll,” which is lovely, in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which sparked the below exchange. OK, I guess I am driving a little closer to the case of Biography v Art than foreseen, but at least it’s through the irascible wit of Larry rather than some heavy-handed philosophy.

And here’s the actual piece. Who better to play it than the Berliner Philharmoniker?

In sum, it’s nice when classical makes an appearance in your everyday life. So a tip of the brushed top hat to my colleague who, to quote Andy Dwyer of Parks & Rec fame, “nailed it.”


Beauty In The Midst Of Loss

I attended a funeral today.  As I quietly sat listening to the Mass, muted sunlight illuminating lovely stained-glass windows, threads of Gabriel Fauré’s “Pie Jesu” (from his Requiem) kept nudging my mind’s ear.

Pie Jesu Domine.
dona eis requiem
Pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem sempiternam

This soprano aria, its simple beauty surrounded by a quiet organ and solemn strings, was the perfect piece to accompany the service, if only in my head.

Pious Lord Jesus,
grant them rest
Pious Lord Jesus,
grant them eternal rest

It’s a beautiful prayer.  Although I did not know well the person we had gathered to remember, he was someone who never failed to be warm, kind, funny and welcoming whenever we saw one another.  I was there to honor his life and support friends who are family to me and I am grateful for the opportunity to have done so.

Here is acclaimed soprano Judith Blegen, with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Robert Shaw, in my favorite recording of Fauré’s “Pie Jesu”.  I hope you will enjoy listening to it!

What Does “Classical Music” Really Mean, Anyway?

After viewing this clip, I really think you have to ask that question. A shared ethos that ElderSib and I have is that, for us, classical music can (and maybe should) be distinguished from the context in which it’s played. Which is to say, you can just strip away all the sociological detritus that has piled up on top of it, to the extent that “classical music” connotes white-tie events, inscrutable music theory, annoying piano teachers who make your fingers curl into unnatural shapes, etc. ad infinitum. Which is to say again, formality and all its concomitant, stifling rigor.

Those elements cannot be fully dissociated from classical music, of course, but the way I see it, they are but one element of the whole. And not even the most important one. Frankly I don’t know how to give words to what I do find to be the most important elements (and I don’t know that I want or need to), so I’ll blindly wave around at it by saying it is the capacity of music – the music itself – to move us, both in creating it and hearing it. We try to leave the other stuff in its rightful place and focus on that.

Joshua Bell, Classical Bagboy

Today’s Personal Journal section of the Wall Street Journal featured Joshua Bell as the subject of the “What’s In Your Bag?” column. Mr. Bell, noted virtuoso and social experimenter with a far more aurally pleasing method than Dr. Stanley Milgram, opened his “bag” (can one classify something that carries a Stradivarius the same as a receptacle that brings home cat food from Trader Joe’s? Perhaps “valise extraordinaire” would be more fitting, though far less wieldy. “Help! Thief! Someone has stolen my valise extraordinaire that has a Stradivarius in it! Please return it to Tikki Tikki Tembo No Sa Rembo Chari Bari Ruchi Pip Peri Pembo!”) for the Journal, and it’s chock full of chewy details. Without further undue ado, enjoy:

Bags and cases are for sundries and valuables alike. In his, Joshua Bell carries nail clippers, gum and his 300-year-old Stradivarius.

“It is the one bag that’s with me all the time,” says the virtuoso violinist. “So it’s become a little like my locker in high school. My assistant regularly goes into it and finds candy bars.”

Mr. Bell, 45, says he had his violin case custom-made with canvas outer zipped pockets that he uses as a “purse section” for personal items. The case was made by Dimitri Musafia, whose company has made violin and viola cases for concert artists for 30 years in Cremona, Italy, the same town where Antonio Stradivari worked. In addition to compartments for resin, spare strings and a chin-rest tightening tool, Musafia cases include an inner suspension system to protect the violin and a hygrometer to measure humidity.

Mr. Bells says he had one of the custom-made pockets specially sized. “I told them it was for music, but it was for my iPad,” he says. He also carries a Samsung Galaxy Note phone and two pairs of Bowers & Wilkins ear buds. (He often loses them.)

These gadgets sit outside the hard case for his violin (famous, in part, for being stolen from Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman), for which Mr. Bell paid nearly $4 million in 2001. There are also spaces for four bows—three from his collection and an empty slot in case he comes across one he wants to try.

One large outer pocket holds items for after-concert forays to greet fans. There is a T-shirt to change into, Bulgari Man cologne and chewing gum. Bell, who says he enjoys greeting people, sometimes shakes hands with as many as 400 at an event, so he also keeps Purell hand sanitizer in his bag.

If Mr. Bell were to design his next bag, he says, it would have a built-in metronome, a detachable laptop compartment and improved pockets to keep his personal items from “jingling around.”

Stolen?? Fascinating.

The bag:


And the bag man:


And the bag man fiddling some Bach (as opposed to feet). He plays and discusses the unrivaled Chaconne.

Confessions of a Choral Geek

Confession, readers:  I’m a choral geek.  A classical choral geek.  Add a little soft-shoe and I’m a triple threat!  I have been singing in a chorus since I was in fourth grade.  It is a cornerstone of my life and I have come a very long way since the sweet days of “Friends Forever”.  I regard it a true privilege to be part of an art form that brings tremendous beauty and passion to so many.

On Sunday evening, I had the pleasure of performing, with my choral group, a wonderful program of French choral compositions.  Heralded as “A French Affair”, we filled the wonderfully echoing spaces of the venue with Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, and Lili Boulanger’s Psaume XXIV.  For a bit of textural contrast, Duruflé’s Ubi caritas and Tota pulchra es were also part of the program.

Four days later, various segments of Poulenc’s Gloria are enjoying a much-welcomed sojourn in my brain.  Until this season I had never sung any Poulenc, and I quickly became enamored of his Gloria.  It is a joy to sing- clean and vibrant, melodic and exhilarating.  The last movement, “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris” (Thou enthroned on high at God’s right hand) ends in a triple pianissimo so ethereal that you will forget to breathe.

My favorite movement is the fourth:  “Domine fili unigenite” (Hail, O Son of God).  I love Poulenc’s note in the first measure of “Très vite et joyeux” (very quick and joyful).  And that’s exactly what it is.  The movement is less than two minutes in length.  I love when the tenors burst onto the scene in the twelfth measure.  I love the elocution of “Jesu Christe”. I love how the dynamics are either piano or fortissimo- nothing in between! Most especially I love how we soprani, after one orchestral measure, leap back in the game on a piano F natural just before the end. It’s just the loveliest.

If you’ve never heard a Gloria before, or choral music, or if you’d prefer the sound of a dentist’s drill to the sound of sung Latin, I think this bright and beautiful composition will bring you over to the sunny side.

As for me, I can’t wait for the start of our next choral season.  I wonder if anyone will notice if I don’t return my Poulenc score.  Just kidding…maybe.