Classical Mac n’ Cheese

A new chapter in my family’s story has taken us over 800 miles from our previous home, down and down and down into the bucolic green and genteel part of our country.  Over the past few months of living in this New Place, I’ve found myself with head spinning and heart longing for the familiarity of my community, my family and my friends.  A fine thing, then, that our New Place is bucolic and genteel and brimming with life and “y’all”s.  Nonetheless, I’ve needed comfort more times this summer than I care to admit.

We all have our comforts, those lovely little things that cosset us when things “get weird”, to borrow a term from the American Psychological Association. Oftentimes that comfort is food, and oftentimes that comfort food is mac n’ cheese.  Whether the is-it-actually-food form out of the blue box or a schmancy sort laden with three cheeses, nothing assuages the psyche quite like that classic.

Which brings me to my actual point: there have been several classical pieces in constant rotation in my home that have served in the place of mac n’ cheese.  All of the comfort, none of the calories (my diet book is forthcoming!). (Kidding.)  When my spirit was/is low, hearing these pieces slowed the spinning of my head and the ache of my heart.

2x04_Good_Grief_(32)

You get the picture.

Anyway, let’s move on to more pasta and less cheese.  Gabriel Fauré wrote his lovely, mystical Pavane Op. 50 in 1887.  “Elegant, but not otherwise important,” remarked the composer in what was most certainly the catalyst for the “bewildered” emoji.  The piece was originally written for piano, but is most often heard in an orchestral arrangement featuring a small group of strings, winds and horns. Here, however, is a very enjoyable trio performance of flute, harp and viola.

Murray Perahia’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations never fails to clear my head.  Listening to it is like giving my brain a good spring cleaning, because the music is just that: clean.  Clean and lovely and rippling and vibrant. Note: adjective level exceeded.  While my Sibling will rally for Glenn Gould’s recording, you’ll find me firmly planted in Camp Perahia.  His fingerings are extremely light and crisp, which is exactly what the Variations require.  #Perahia2016 #TakingAmericaBach

Lastly, Renée Fleming’s recording of Debussy’s Beau soir has served me well these last few months.  Accompanied by the stellar Jean-Yves Thibaudet, her lustrous soprano sails through the poem written by Paul Bourget around the mid-1880s and set to music by Debussy not long after.  I first learned this piece in college and find the melody just as haunting today as I did then.

What classical music has met you well during difficult times?  We’d love to hear about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kaffeeklatsch!

One half of Sibling Revelry, and the husband of the other half, loves coffee. That would be the half with the pen at the moment. And by “loves,” I mean that a morning without coffee looks like a black-skied, dust-blown, radioactive post-nuclear apocalyptic hellscape. This magical elixir of the gods is the sine qua non of your wayward, deadbeat blogger.

Recently, I was in blissful attendance at a They Might Be Giants concert. That’s right, sports fans, the normally high-and-mighty Sibs occasionally doff their crushed-velvet pantaloons and change into street garb to blend in with the howling masses and investigate their strange, rhythmic musical traditions. Naturally one must wear a cloak and eyepatch in order to avoid detection.

Kidding aside, I adore They Might Be Giants and have for a very long time (to which the other Sib who used to share a wall with me will attest). I remain deeply inspired by their creativity over the years; well into their third decade of making music together, they have released no less than THREE albums in the last 15 months, each brimming with their usual wonderful weirdness. But I also deeply respect their musicianship and, certainly not least, incredibly deft and inventive ability to write melody. Without those two things, just being weird for weirdness’s sake…that doesn’t have any pull with me. These guys have the ability to get inside music (of truly any genre) and do their own thing with it. It’s quite rare. It’s genius at work, friends: not only in its individual parts, but the partnership at its core. And, to use that abused adjective, unique. I’d also say REM was always true to their own unique north star, yet the fame differential between the two is vast. And REM’s creativity in later years was, I’ll humbly say, nowhere close to the Johns. Those two things are probably related. A topic for a different day. Here is a great example for the uninitiated (one of 1,000 I might have picked):

After the concert, still radioactively aglow (I mean, they played the Fingertips medley, one of my all-time favorites. Oh, you don’t know what that is? Gee, let me see if I can scare up the studio version…….)

…I was reading old interviews, and what do you know, one of the Johns of TMBG (Linnell) happens to be a great admirer of the one, the only, the original melodic genius and prolific baby-maker, Herr Johann Sebastian Bach! A man whose praises have been sung, oh, from time to time here. No surprise, there’s a TMBG connection.

Linnell mentions Bach’s so-called “Coffee Cantata,” a very interesting and famous composition. The great JSB didn’t compose any opera (raising his estimation here yet higher), but the Coffee Cantata comes pretty darn close (coming back down). It’s not rock opera, it’s Bach opera! (cue laugh track)

The complete cantata will last longer than your morning cup, however good its first or last drops, at about half an hour. In keeping with opera’s insistence on over-dramatizing everyday life, the protagonist, Aria (snicker), loves coffee but her overbearing father won’t let her drink it. Causing her to exclaim (this should really be done from a fainting couch) that lack of coffee will cause her to shrivel up like a piece of roasted goat. Neat imagery. Seriously, you couldn’t think of anything else that might shrivel? (Bach didn’t write the libretto, so we are not insulting The Master). Here it is in German, with a translation:

http://emmanuelmusic.org/notes_translations/translations_cantata/t_bwv211.htm

My favorite line is probably, “You may not go to the window and watch anyone passing by!” You people need a hobby. And yes, I did mean, “YOU PEOPLE.”

Also in keeping with opera’s simultaneous insistence on ridiculously implausible solutions to the over-dramatized problems of life and love, Aria is placated when her father has three daily cups written into her marriage contract. No mention of roast goat, sadly.

Obviously our proclivities lay far away from stilted Europeans whining in high register about preposterous, self-created culs-de-sac of puffed-up emotion. BUT. It’s Bach, and all Bach is by definition worthy. Especially on (or around) the Kapellmeister’s birthday! Here it is, in full, sung by people who have clearly practiced facial expression at home in long hours before their mirrors, mirrors, on the wall. Cool set, though.

So let’s see if all the puzzle pieces fit here. We like Bach. We like They Might Be Giants. We love coffee. They Might Be Giants are obsessed with coffee. John Linnell wants to have coffee with Bach. Bach wrote a cantata with a coffee theme. Look, it’s a litter of puppies knitting sweaters for roosters!

Or, in other words, by rocket to the moon, by airplane to the rocket, by taxi to the airport, by front door to the taxi, by throwing back the blankets, hanging down the legs…

 

Bach’s Melodious Underpinnings

Once upon a time, there lived a German violinist named August Wilhelm.  In 1871, presumably having some extra time on his dexterous digits, he decided to write a piano and violin arrangement of the second movement of J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D.  By changing the key to C and transposing the melody down an octave, he was able to play using only one string of his violin.  Snicker, snicker…the G string.  And with that, Herr Wilhelm unleashed into the centuries a much-beloved Air punctuated with unavoidable jokes.  (I, for one, first heard such jokes in my college Music History II class.  We were super sophisticated.)

Bach composed his Orchestral Suite No. 3 around 1731.  In that time, orchestral suites were “easy listening” for parties and other occasions of entertainment.  This was not Bach’s preferred style of composing (remember, this is the man who gave us the Brandenburg Concertos and the St. Matthew Passion); however, he wrote four orchestral suites as acts of good faith to the Leipzig City Council.  Bach had a bit of a temper, and his relationship with the city council was often contentious. By contributing new music, his petitions for better wages and better teaching and conducting opportunities fell on open ears- a savvy move on Johann’s part.  Ah, were that the political climate of today!  Three of Bach’s four “acts of good faith” were written specifically for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a group of music students and aficionados who, under Bach’s direction, gathered together at Zimmermann’s Coffee House to crack wise and make music.  Bach devoted his time to this extracurricular activity from 1729 to 1741.

Interestingly, “orchestral” seems to be a misnomer, as the Suites are composed for small instrumental groupings.  The Third Suite is scored for three trumpets, timpani, two oboes, and strings- with the exception of the Air, of course.

What I love about the Air is its dignity.  It’s slow but not stodgy, tender but not cloying.  In this beautiful recording on period instruments, the cello and violone provide this wonderful, velvety foundation and the violins and viola are refined and elegant.  Note the lovely additions of baroque organ and “archlute”.

Another of my favorite recordings is the fantastic duo of Bobby McFerrin (read more about his views on Bach’s “danceability” here) and Yo-Yo Ma.  They lend a unique and utterly gorgeous artistry to a melody that is often overlooked due to its familiarity.

Bach’s Air on the G string:  not just for wedding processionals and “Sounds of the Ocean” recordings!  We here at Sibling Revelry hope you’ll listen and enjoy.

I’ll Counter That Tenor!

Well, the reveling sibs have clearly given in to the indolence of summer’s furnace. But lo! This morning broke cool, cloudy, and breezy over the nation’s capital and that’s when some of us get to work, like dwarves headin’ to the mines with pickaxes and a pretty girl at home.

Today on WAMU, the fantastic local NPR station whose delightfully NPRish slogan is “The mind is our medium,” there was a piece on Morning Edition about countertenors (Sibley the Younger loves the radio, if you haven’t noticed). The impetus was a new opera opening in Santa Fe called “Oscar.” Unfortunately, it’s not an operatic look at the Tragic Magician, George Oscar Bluth, but the Flamboyant Flâneur, Oscar Wilde. The countertenor in focus is David Daniels. Here is a link to the story, which Morning Edition helpfully kitted out with several examples of Daniels’s work:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/07/25/205148226/The-High-Heavenly-Voice-Of-David-Daniels

I very much like the Schubert piece there, “Nacht und Träume.” But that’s not a surprise.

The piece called to mind an episode in the Sibs’ classical education which took place during the summer of either 1998 or 1999. ‘Twas the former, I believe, but my surety is low. We gaily traipsed one evening, during Mostly Mozart, to Avery Fisher Hall to hear Bach’s incomparable Mass in B Minor. It was the first time I’d ever heard it. And beforehand, there was a lecture on the piece in whatever that penthouse is called across the street. Suffice it to say it’s not the kind that receives letters of a certain nature. All in all a magnificent evening I’ll never forget (some of the pertinent data notwithstanding), in large part because the alto part was sung by a German countertenor by the name of Andreas Scholl.

I had never heard a countertenor before (recall that I’m not the choral nerd in our dynamic duo). Chills ran down my spine when he sang the lento, haunting “Agnus Dei,” as his voice filled the hall and reverberated. It is a wonderful movement because the instrumentation is exceedingly spare, allowing the voice to take and keep center stage. You won’t be sorry for listening to it, nor indeed seeing Andreas Scholl. Danke sehr, Internet, because a recording of him singing the Agnus Dei (qui tollis, as everyone knows, peccata mundi) exists on YouTube. As Uncle Jesse might say, miserere nobis indeed.

I realize I’m glossing over the physiological curio that is the male countertenor. I remember reading an interview with Scholl once, or perhaps it was in liner notes, where he said that he realized he had this capability only incrementally as he went through his singing education and development. I once asked a male opera singer whether he could just sort of “sing along” to recorded music like we plebeians (I was kind of hoping he’d belt out something like “Just What I Needed” in his opera voice). To his credit, he didn’t preface his response with either an eyeroll or a “Duh,” but told me quite simply it was a muscle that could be flexed to varying degrees. In other words, yes, he could blend in with mortals. You’d think I would have known that already, having grown up with a diva sharing a bedroom wall!

Mad Men

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Wait a minute…that sentence sounds awfully familiar. But I digress.

He said “Never judge a book by its cover”.  Ah, that most familiar of platitudes, that wolfish yet wise advice in fleecy sheep’s clothing.

Today I’m going to toy with that advice a bit and reveal why we Revelers shouldn’t judge composers by their lacy cravats, their square-toed, brass-buckled kicks, their prim tailored tweedy suits, their fits of tubercular coughing (okay, maybe not that).

Why? Because they were mad men all.  Here are some fascinating bits to absorb about composers you love.

Beethoven liked each cup of coffee he drank to be made with exactly 60 coffee beans. Today we affectionately call that “obsessive-compulsive disorder”.  Eins, zwei, drei, vier…

Éric Satie wrote three short piano pieces called “Flabby Preludes For A Dog“.  Surely he was being modest with his choice of adjective.

Mozart had a pet starling that could sing the theme of the last movement of his Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453.  I mean really…are we surprised?  Someone please buy me that bird for my birthday.

Bedrich Smetana spent his last months in the Prague Insane Asylum where he died of a progressive paralysis, possibly caused by complications from syphilis.  And there’s really nothing more to say after that.

When American composer Paul Creston needed an extra boost of energy to stay up late, he would smoke coffee grounds in a pipe.  Clearly, drinking from a mug was just too lowbrow; however, he did compose a concertino for the marimba, which is just amazing (?).

J.S. Bach spent time (one month) in prison .. where he wrote Das Orgelbüchlein.  And what have YOU done, Bernie Madoff?

Berlioz wrote the majority of the Symphonie fantastique while high on opium.  Did he not heed Nancy Reagan’s advice?  I love the timpani and I love Leonard Bernstein, so here’s the fourth movement.

Tchaikovsky wrote the “Pas de deux” from The Nutcracker as a bet. He said he could write a piece whose main theme was a simple descending major scale. He did it and won. Na zdorovye!

Chopin‘s heart is buried in Warsaw…and the rest of him can be found in Paris at Père Lachaise Cemetery.  Now THAT is true allegiance!

Rimsky-Korsakov heard/saw music as a stream of colors.  I can only wonder if Flight of the Bumblebee gave him a gorgeous, staggering migraine.

Richard Wagner liked to wear pink silk underwear.  Consequently, anyone singing the role of Isolde must don the same unmentionables.  Oh, that heartrending Liebestod!!!!!!

And that’s your dose of random fascinating facts for the time being.  You’ve missed me, haven’t you?  Revel on!

Don’t Worry, Be Bach-y

Bach-analia continues! WQXR is still crushing it! Yesterday’s theme was dance in Bach’s music. As someone whose dancing abilities call to mind unfortunate fish who have lamentably found themselves on a boat deck–in all senses of the metaphor–this is not a theme which speaks to me in the physical plane. I did, however, invent an awesome dance move a couple years ago, which hopefully Sib1 (a danseuse par excellence) can demonstrate on our first vodcast. Musically, however, dance is a perfect thematic lens for Bach’s music.

As much as we’d like to see someone in a powdered wig and breeches take part in a Freddy dance-off with Shelley Long, not many of Bach’s compositions (an intimidating list) are formally dances. And I know your first question is, as mine was, “OK, but what does Bobby McFerrin, that genetically anomalous musical instrument masquerading as a human being with a four-octave range, think about that?” Fortunately, he’s answered it for us, again in the Michael Lawrence documentary.

In Bachy McFerrin’s view, Bach’s music has an inherent “danceability.” And when he breaks into his inimitable style of “singing” classical music, it’s hard not to know exactly what he means. There’s no thudding bass, no drum kit to let you know that the time is propitious for a bump and grind and grope or two. Thank every star in every heaven, there is not a pumping fist in sight. So it’s not a “root” thing, if you know what I mean. I think it’s the rhythm of the lines themselves, like when we used to write metered poetry, that provide that get-up-and-put-your-powdered-wig-on-and-go momentum. But it’s not just that. The neat thing is that those rhythmic lines are simultaneously carrying the melody, unlike most drum and bass you hear in (cultured gasp!) popular music. And that melody happens to be just one more example of Bach’s endless, fluid lines that effortlessly whirl and surge around the scale like the Man on the Flying Trapeze. It is unique. Again, I think this is part of why Bach “makes sense” to bluegrass players. Without further ado, the Man Wonder:

One commenter on that YouTube clip helpfully supplied what piece B. McF. is singing: it’s Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor. Here is Itzhak Perlman, one of my sib’s favorite fiddlers, be it on a roof or at Lincoln Center, playing the entire thing. You’ll notice Bobby McDanceability only sang the first and third movements. Those are the fist-pumping ones. It’s a concerto and the middle part is boring. Oops, I mean andante. But form mattered in those days!

[Sorry, I can’t figure out how to embed that video. Dailymotion, you’re no YouTube!] Here’s the link.

Happy listening and ongoing enjoyment of Herr Bach’s birthday!

A Prell-Yood: Wherefore Art Thou Bach?

Good morning, Sib2 here 24:00 late and $1.00 short. Depending on the calendar you use (a decision everyone has to make upon awaking, each and every day), yesterday could have marked the birthday of my favorite composer (or at the very least, primus inter pares), Johann Sebastian Bach. My elder genetic compatriot beat me to the punch, but her post was a magnificent hodgepodge of many things that we love: Bach, WQXR, Chris Thile, yellow socks, bad punnery. ‘Twas marvy. By the way, don’t think for a second his general dishevellery isn’t strategically calculated to win the hearts and minds of the fairer gender. I mean, he’s no Jesse (“It’s James, actually, but everybody always calls me Jesse.”), but that’s not a fair measuring stick.

My digression syndrome is in full swing today, I see. Anyhoozlebees, I’m not going to delve very far into the calendar thing. It has vaguely to do with Catholicism. Bach’s birthday is somewhere around now, and if that was good enough for Jackson, and good enough for Lee, then hot damn, Alabam’, it’s good enough for me.

To the extent the birthday of a classical composer can be “crushed,” WQXR is crushing what SibRev is calling Bach-analia. Bach 360°, a campaign to broadcast every note the great one ever wrote (Every. Note. Are you impressed yet?), complete with Bach-o-meter? A Bach pun generator? “My hat, what a picnic,” as one of the Narnia characters says. I think it’s from The Magician’s Nephew. WQXR also amply reminds we citizens of the U.S. of frickin’ A. that New York is unreservedly, unequivocally our capital of classical music. Far from the lovely Avery Fisher Hall, some renegade musicians are takin’ classical to the streets: Bach in the Subways! There’s even a Google Map with Bach-headed place markers:

Also, a sort of outdoor photobooth with a Bach wig. Totally sweet.

Now, why all this ballyhoo for one composer? Besides Mozart and his various eponymous festivals around the world, I can’t think of another composer so celebrated. Sadly, there’s no Satie-palooza or Schu-Mania. OK, there really needs to be a Schu-Mania (which, in his case, would be mania in both the modern and, dare I say, classical sense). To mix epochs, Bach appears to still be undergoing a Renaissance of sorts, as musicians outside the rigidly defined “classical” genre discover his genius and introduce it to disparate audiences through their own work. OK, disparate may be too stark: I’m unaware of Timberlake banging out something from The Well-Tempered Clavier in one of his little hats. I’m thinking in particular of the bluegrass/newgrass scene, a bottle that Sib1, the Regional Manager of Sibling Revelry, uncorked yesterday.

In 2010, filmmaker (from the English, “one who creates films and speaks about them in ways guaranteed to cause normal humans to roll their eyes as far back in their heads as possible.”) Michael Lawrence created a documentary called BACH & Friends, in which he interviewed a Bach-load of contemporary virtuosi in both the classical and non-classical worlds. The “wherefore art thou Bach” conversation could get quite technical and detailed. But that’s one reason why I like the following clips so much: they are very earthy descriptions of what moves these two geniuses I adore about Bach’s music. I love that Béla Fleck in particular seems to point to an ineffable quality in great music generally. Sometimes electron-microscopic inspection makes the magic disappear. But there is something in Bach that I think gets at some fundaments of music and what moves us about it, and I may try in subsequent posts to write about that as respectfully as possible. I also think that Bach’s genius is particularly apprehensible (I may have made that word up), whereas many classical composers’ works can be harder to grasp. But I can’t promise any of that commentary will be better than the below, particularly Thile’s “that clarity of intent” quip or Fleck’s apprehension of “inevitability”.

Thile:

Fleck:

By the way, the piece Béla plays is on the Flecktones’ “Live Art” double album, second to last track.

To close, why is this post titled “Prell-Yood”? One of the things that my dear old fish and I have always loved about the inimitable Jeff Spurgeon is his masterful elocution. Accordingly, he pronounces “prelude” thusly, as opposed to the common “PRAY-lood.” May we all attain such lofty heights of the American vernacular.

Happy birthday, dear Johann!

Rejoice, readers dear, for today marks the 328th anniversary of Baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth!  A self-taught virtuoso, prodigious organist, brilliant composer, Konzertmeister, Kapellmeister, embracer of lutes and herald of harpsichords (the list goes on and on), Bach’s masterful legacy is arguably the greatest of all classical composers.

Even if you do not consider yourself to be a listener of classical music, Bach has undoubtedly crossed your path (see my Sibling’s post “Sloganeering and Bach’s Butter” for proof).  Enjoy Halloween?  You’ve likely heard his Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Attended a wedding?  The fourth movement from the cantata Wachet auf (“Sleepers wake”) is a beloved processional.

My first exposure to Bach was, surprise surprise, during childhood.  I had a cassette tape about the life of Benjamin Franklin.  The story opened with a background of the “Allegro” of Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.  The permanency of those early musical memories will always amaze me- to this day, whenever I hear that movement I instantly think about Benjamin Franklin.  And a key, and some lightning.  But I digress…

Lest I succumb to the temptation of a long and winding post, I will leave you to have a listen to two of my favorite Bach compositions:  firstly, the “Prelude” to Partita No. 3 for Violin (originally transcribed for the lute).  Here is insanely brilliant musician Chris Thile (our jaw-dropping admiration for and enjoyment of him and Punch Brothers knows no bounds) playing it on his mandolin.

On a strictly girly note, I love how disheveled he looks, as though he’s been up all night wrestling with the passages.

Secondly, here is classical guitar master Christopher Parkening performing “Sheep may safely graze”, which is the 4th movement of Bach’s Hunting Cantata.  If you are having the type of day that is begging for green pastures and still waters, indulge in these few moments and I guarantee you just that (figuratively speaking).

Finally, major kudos to WQXR as they commence their 10-day-straight run of the entirety of Bach’s 1,100 works!  They’re even running a Bach-o-meter!  Isn’t classical music divine?

Happy birthday, Johann!

Sloganeering and Bach’s Butter

Earlier this year, SJ contacted me via textual transmission (we love you, Michael Sheen) and we began chatting about possible slogans for the blog. She suggested “Classical, But Not Classy.” To which I riposted, “Classical Up Your Assical” and “We Put The Ass In Classical.” Had I the heart to Google it, I’m certain none of these three would be found to be original to our peculiar little brainwaves (try “Sibling Revelry” in quotes…that will assuredly be discussed in these quarters). But I like them anyway, especially as they remind me of this gem from Tenacious D (for which I apologize in advance to my co-conspirator for the proliferation of F (major) bombs):

We here at SibRev are gearing up for the Master’s birthday on the 31st: the Kapellmeister, the careful accountant, the midnight scribe, the prolific progenitor, the mathematical artiste et philosophe, Johann Sebastian Bach! The first bit that Kyle plays in the clip above is indeed JSB. In fact, it’s a well-known lute piece that has become a staple for classical guitar, the Bourrée from his Lute Suite in E Minor. This is distinct from the short-lived Beurrée in E Minor, which involved the tricky task of playing intricate phrases on a buttered lute.

Here is the sheet music. Look at how those lines mirror each other! The chord changes are so seamless and yet so full of movement. I thank thee, Bach, I thank thee.

All of the heroes of the classical guitar have played this piece. Here is the great John Williams, with the added bonus of a picture that Tenacious D would surely approve of:

Lastly, here is a neat video showing the piece played on the instrument for which it was originally intended, the lute (no, Sting didn’t invent that):

Happy listening to the shiny golden god, Herr Bach!