9.17.2018

Albums I Listened To in August


I've got to be a little quicker with these. It's practically October, and I've got my eye on the Halloween listening I'll be doing in a few weeks. 

I cracked open my orchestral music folder last month. Said folder was mostly built between 2000 and 2004 and has stayed in fairly active rotation ever since. Classical music goes with just about everything.

I had to make room for a few recent acquisitions, however, and ran out of room. What to do! I segregated the killer B's (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms) along with a few others (Mozart, Jean Sibelius) into their own folder and re-alphabetized everything in my main one. What follows is a partial description of my journey through Aa - Ge. Alert the men!

1.
2001 (l) and 1998 (r).
(2005)

Forgot how much I like this guy. Looking at his list of works at his wiki, I've heard so little of it. I really have to listen to Nixon in China. What a great idea for an opera. So is Doctor Atomic, which is fantastic. I was completely into this from the very first bit to the very last - a surreal ending where after the initial successful atomic test, a quantum anomaly is created and as the music fades, a Japanese woman can be heard, distantly, eerily, asking for water for her husband, who has been hurt. I encourage you to listen to or watch not just the whole opera, from start to finish, reading along with the libretto, but to the whole of this finale from which this aforementioned scene is cued up here. What a perfect ending for all that preceded it. I expected to enjoy this when I picked it up, but I absolutely loved it.

As for the others, Transmigration was premiered by the New York Philharmonic for the start of their concert season in September 2002. As the date was so close to the first anniversary of 9/11, they commissioned Adams to write something appropriate for that unhappy occasion. What starts as a simple litany of names - read by family members chosen by Adams for their different vocal timbres - blends with taped sounds of the city - "traffic, people walking, distant voices of laughter or shouting, trucks, cars, sirens, steel doors shutting, brakes squealing–all the familiar sounds of the big city which are so common that we usually never notice them. (All the while) an onstage chorus sings texts taken from missing-persons signs that had been posted by the families of the victims in the area around Ground Zero."

I imagine it's overwhelming to experience live, especially the part with all the clocks and chimes and the frenzied strings stuff that follows. He talks more about the genesis of the project here (also the source for the quoted bit above.)

I got Naive and Sentimental Music in the Virgin freebies bin when I worked briefly at the Virgin Megastore 2004-2005. The deal was at the end of every shift you could select two items from the freebies locker. No one ever wanted the classical stuff, so I grabbed whatever was there. This was among them. I'd never heard of Adams before that point, so this was my introduction. Wonderful stuff.  

2.
Alexander String Quartet

I've been steadily absorbing all of Robert Greenberg's Teaching Company courses over the past year. He recently set up a Patreon, where he recommends many specific performances by specific ensembles - among them, this:



Greenberg (a concert pianist as well) has worked with the ASQ on many occasions, but Joyce Yang handles the keys here. I've got other recordings of the Brahms quintets (I picked up this killer set a few years back during my "Year of Brahms" aka 2011) but figured what the hey, I like supporting the ASQ. Plus I didn't have the Schumann quintet, so good deal. Great stuff. 

Here's a link to the ASQ with Roger Woodward on piano playing Robert Greenberg's wonderful "Invasive Species." (Sounds best played very loud.) It's not on this Brahms/ Schumann collection, but while we're here.  

3.

As mentioned above I separated out all of my Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms into their own folder, and in so doing realized that I didn't have the damn Brandenbergs. What? I used to; what happened to them?

Quick detour down McBiography Lane: sometime around 1999 I was driving from St. Anne's Hill to the Oregon District in Dayton, OH in my old car the McMonarch (1977 Mercury) which didn't have a functional tape player, so I had it tuned to some commercial rock station. "Angry Johnny" came on for the hundredth time and I hit scan (well, it was a car from the 70s, so you jabbed one of the five tabs under the dial, and it scrambled the frequency to the next reception) until it landed on the classical music station. When I moved back to RI later that year, I did the same thing. I don't think the dial moved from 102.5 WCRB (since moved under the WGBH umbrella for the sake of accuracy) until the McMonarch sputtered to its inevitable demise the following summer. 

It was the Brandenburg Concertos, though, one summer drive up Rte 16 to Cambridge, MA (specifically, no. 5) that turned the above radio routine into a more focused exploration. They were the first things I purchased from the Musical Heritage Society, a mail-order club since (sadly) defunct that specialized in classical music. This set is performed by SNM and TAOSMITF, so you know it's awesome. It's also got a little extra Bach to round out disc 3 - basically it's got most of the Bach you'd recognize with the exception of the Toccattas. 

And to think - these things were only discovered a full century after Bach's death. Were it not for an enterprising music scholar of the mid-19th century, we'd likely never have heard them. Danke schoen, Siegfried Dehn!


4.

Speaking of the Musical Heritage Society, here's one I picked up through them back in the day. I remember it not being particularly to my taste, but sheesh - has my taste changed that much? This isn't just good, it's amazing. Could I really not have liked it? 

Tough to find links to the specific performances here, but the virtuosity on display is quite impressive. There are moments in the first concerto that really take me places. Since I don't have any links, here are some random images I jotted down while listening: (1) Drifting in a hot air balloon through the credits of old Disney movies in a surreal 4th-wall breaking fashion, (2) cruising through the ocean deep on a freeway of currents criss-crossing with a gazillion other fish, (3) swordfighting in medieval Spanish streets. (They should probably be Hungarian streets, I guess, given the nationality of the composer.)

I'm fairly positive Bartok meant to evoke none of these things, but that's where the music took me.  

5.

Bizet by Bernstein - I mean, how wouldn't this be awesome? A few years back I watched all of the Leonard Bernstein's Concerts for Young People discs that Netflix had available. The show aired sporadically on CBS from 1959 to 1972. It would be fantastic to get a full set of all the episodes that aired, but at present they are unavailable.

This only has a handful of selections from Carmen - all the most well-known ones, pretty much - but the real gem (for me) is that it includes Bizet's majestic suites for L'Arlesienne, which I only first heard in a Lil Einsteins episode the kids were watching for a month or so before moving on. Here's the 2nd of the suites - some of the loveliest music ever written, that. The modulated re-intro of the theme around the 2:20 mark is so fracking epic. And everything from there on out. Put together with Carmen, and Bizet should have went to his grave in Beethoven or Verdi style, with hundreds of thousands of mourners wailing behind the casket. Instead, he died thinking his music a total failure. Sad story. 

Here's Maria Callas waiting for the famous overture to play out before she rocks the "Habanera". It's not Bernstein, but while we're here.  

6.

Moody and wonderful. If I ever made a sports / college hybrid movie about a crew team, this would be the soundtrack. Not that it is only suitable - or even intended - for pictures of boats and water and mist rising off the dawn riverbanks interspersed with synchronized movement, but I can see it all quite clearly in my head. Actually everything on this album is so cinematic. Anything "modern" usually sounds like the cinema of the 20th century; it's no accident. And Borodin wasn't even "modern" in the Stravinsky/Picasso sense of it. What a world!

Alas, another one that's hard to link to - plenty of performances of the string quartets out there, but not the specific tracks I'd like to show you. (The dynamite 4th movement starts here - from a recording other than the one discussed here - but really kicks off here.) Instead, let me share you this slice of biography from my trusty copy of Harold Schonberg's Lives of the Great Composers:


"Borodin was the illegitimate child of Prince Luka Gedeonoshvili. He was trained as a scientist and remained one all his life. He went to the Academy of Medicine, graduated with honors, and went on to study at Heidelberg. Chemistry was his speciality. His doctoral thesis was entitled 'On the Analogy of Arsenical with Phosphoric Acid.'"

Well, then!

7.

I have little to add to this summary by James Leonard quoted in the liner notes:

"Herbert von Karajan never recorded complete cycles of the symphonies of Tchaikovsky, Dvorák, or Sibelius, but so great was his dedication to Anton Bruckner that he recorded all nine of the Austrian composer's numbered symphonies. (Apparently, he drew the line at the 0 and the 00 symphonies.) Musical Heritage Society has reissued Karajan's 1981 recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker of the Second Symphony in C minor. When originally released on Deutsche Grammophon, some listeners feared it might prove just a beautiful run-through, a superlatively played but interpretively empty performance made simply to finish the cycle. Karajan, though, seems fully involved and wholly committed to the work. Conflating the original 1872 version with its 1876 revision, Karajan seems as intent on plumbing the depths of this relatively early work as he was on scaling the heights of Bruckner's later symphonies. By stressing the work's lyricism without underplaying its vast architecture, Karajan makes a strong case for it, and the Berlin orchestra's super-virtuoso performance is supremely beautiful. Lushly recorded, this recording will likely thrill both fans of the composer and the conductor."

And thrill it does. You might recognize this symphony from its use in a number of films and television programs. Or its influence on dozens more. I tried to find a good link to the right part, but again, my apologies. You'll just have to trust me. But perhaps the all-time reigning champ (outside of Wagner) for influence on film soundtracks is:


8.

Antonín Dvořák became the music director of the National Conservatory of Music in NYC in 1892, and it was hoped he would give to both the Conservatory and the country something with which they could announce to the world that America had arrived. Which he did - along with other soon-to-be-worldwide-famous works like his Cello Concerto and American String Quartet - and it was this "From the New World" symphony that cemented his reputation. (Alas, his stay in NYC ended in a dispute over money, and America lost its chance to absorb Antonín Dvořák into its 20th century matrix.)

The 4th movement (specifically this theme) is the one everyone remembers. And really, is there some prototypical Americana here? I'd like to think so. I can definitely hear so many movie scores to come in there. A few from John Williams, certainly - I've always heard that main theme (I think) from The Phantom Menace in the scherzo (movement 3), some hear the Jaws theme in the build-up to the theme from the 4th, and the Raiders march shares at the very least some conceptual swagger with the theme itself. This is not, of course, to say any of it is derivative (or that either composer is derivative of Beethoven, whose 9th seems the wellspring for all the aforementioned). Williams augments something in Dvořák's work and adds his own indelible stamp to it; the centuries-spanning ballet goes on.

Staying with the America-gets-an-orchestral-sound-all-its-own theme, I'll round this out with two last masterworks:

9.
and
10.

"Rhapsody in Blue" was described pretty accurately by Leonard Bernstein as a slapdash, stitched-together work of disparate "terrific, God-given, inspired" melodies. Take away any of its parts, and its compositional structure is undiminished. I take his word for it, but from the very first time I heard it - and I wish I remember what that was but alas do not - it's been a favorite. This Fiedler recording (not the link but the album shown) is from the RCA-Victor Living Stereo series, a topic Robert Greenberg touched upon just today in his Music History Monday series: "The RCA Living Stereo recordings – the so-called “Shaded Dogs” – released between 1958 and 1964 remain among some the best sounding recordings ever made."

Copland was exploring a prototypical American music a little more pointedly than Gershwin. Both were sons of Russian Jewish immigrants who synthesized the existing American music they found with their own wonderful style. Copland's "Appalachian Spring" was not written to evoke geography but the experience of pioneers from the book The Gift to be Simple - Songs, Dances and Rituals of the American Shakers by Edward Deming Andrews.

I imagine I'm not alone in first discovering Copland via Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's versions of "Hoedown" and "Fanfare for the Common Man." I was unprepared, though, for the beauty and power of the original music when I first heard it, particularly the famous refrain taken from the folk melody.


~
Next: Music I Listened To in September: Disco and Beyond. (From Neo-Hair-Shred-Metal to Bernstein to Donna Summer!)

9.08.2018

Ten Favorite Moments from The Trip (2010 -2017)


I recently wrapped up a rewatch of the Trip trilogy and wanted to commemorate the occasion with a few words. What a great show. If you've never seen it, the premise is simple: Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, playing themselves, are sent by the Observer magazine on a restaurant tour in the north of England (The Trip, 2010), Italy (The Trip to Italy, 2014), and Spain (The Trip to Spain, 2017.) I say playing themselves, but highly stylized versions of themselves, molded to great purpose in what has the surface appearance of an improvisational narrative but is in actuality a wonderful meditation on - broad strokes alert - modern times, with all the angst, longing, and pop culture effluvium that come with it.


Here are 10 favorite moments. 

10.
Michael Caine 
aka "You Were Only Supposed to Blow the Bloody Doors Off!"
 

Chances are you've seen this link somewhere in your internet travels. It's probably the most famous scene from any of the series. And deservedly so. I only include it so low, here, because I OD'd on it back in 2010. It was/is so perfect. I love Rob's exasperation (in Older Michael Caine's voice) about being interrupted and Steve's broken-voice part. The Trip is loaded with great impersonations from its leads, and the genius of most of them is even if you don't know what the originals sound like (which was the case for Chicago-based me, unfamiliar with some BBC personalities) you can still recognize the quality of them based on the other's reaction.

9.
Steve Meets the ISIS Invasion

Originally this ending of s3 (with Steve's car breaking down, his dream and subsequent seeing the potential ISIS fighters on the horizon) wasn't on my list. But it really stuck with me after I finished watching. Excellent use of "Windmills of Your Mind" and a wonderfully appropriate and thoughtful end to both The Trip to Spain and the trilogy in general.

8.
"We Didn't Get On." 
aka Small Man in a Box at Vesuvius

Rob Brydon's Small Man in a Box routine annoys Steve, for reasons we'll get into momentarily. In the visit to Pompeii in The Trip to Italy, Steve is taken by one of the preserved corpses, and Rob punctures the moment by breaking into the routine. 

"The thing is he was real. This is a real man who died. I wonder if anyone cried for him. I wonder if anyone who escaped loved him and cried about him."
"We didn't get on."
(Steve, exasperated, wanders off, and Rob continues the bit with the two-thousand-year-old Pompeiian, supplying both voices.)
'It seems like he's a little oversensitive to me.'
" I agree."
'Are you knocking about with him?' 
"Yeah, we're just traveling round Italy."
'Oh, my God, it must be a nightmare for you.'
"It really is. In many ways, I envy you. You're inside the box. I mean, at least for you, it's muffled.
'Yeah, I'm just picking up the odd word, to be honest with you, but, you know, in all honestly, I'm kind of glad I died when I did and I never got the chance to meet the guy.'
"I know, I know. If I could climb in there with you, I would." "

At this point, Steve re-enters the scene to find him still doing it.

Anyway, it's been really good to talk."
'Yeah, you too, fella.'

I love that "you too, fella" bit. Anyway, the whole exchange and staging characterize Rob and Steve quite well. Immediately after this scene there's a surprisingly effective montage of scenes from Pompeii accompanied by the theme from s2, which is this lovely theme from Strauss's Four Last Songs. It's a wonderful, moody sequence, all the moreso because of the Small Man in a Box bit that preceded it.

7.
"I'm a small man in a box."

There's a wonderful scene of Steve trying to do the routine at the end of an episode in season 1. He can't quite get it, and he knows it. The vulnerability of the scene could be considered over the top or too on-the-nose, but the music - the same theme that ends each episode in s1 -  adds the vitally sad dimension to the scene. Again, these aren't the performers themselves opening their raincoats to the world (so to speak); these are actors lending their image to and bringing to life a very well-considered meditation on celebrity and all the aforementioned.

That theme is so great.

6. 
"Michael Buble."

Nothing much to this one, just the whole "Michael Boo-blay" exchange between them is wonderful. I don't know the talk show host they're referring to, but I trust it's as awesome as all the other impressions.


 5.
"Gentlemen, to bed..."
 

I guess I'll keep up with the links, though I hate making posts too link-heavy. The fickle future of You Tube availability always gives me pause. Here's the sequence, currently available here. I love it. I always crack up loudly when Rob says "Leave my sister out of it" and miss the next few lines. 

While we're here, I kept trying to screencap Coogan's watch to figure out what it was. The internet was way ahead of me here, and here's the link. A Blancpain Aqualung Grande Date. Great work, internet. 

4. 
Romantic Entanglements and Hugh Grant

The romantic travails of the two are an ongoing subplot of the series, occasionally taking over the A-plots. For each of the series, the Observer hires this Spanish photographer (Marta Barrio) to cover things, and each time she and Steve have a fling (and she leaves before he wakes up in the morning). He doesn't remember her the first time, although they met and had a fling years before. Ah, celebrity life.


The trilogy is bookended by Steve's chasing after Mischa, his American girlfriend (Margo Stilley.)

Rob, on the other hand, is seen as a doting husband and family man in series one, only to undermine that by putting the moves on Steve's assistant. 

Played by Claire Keelan.

At the end of the episodes, he phones his wife and lapses into his Hugh Grant persona, each time prompting his wife to say it doesn't do much for him. The viewer quickly learns this his prelude-to-romance voice. When it actually works in s2, he ends up marrying her (as we learn at the end of s3 when he returns home. Actually, other viewers might have picked up on that before me. Either way, it's the intersection of these characters' professional talents with the indulgences of being famous and recognizable with their inner worlds and insecurities that informs all the above.   

3.
"You should have paid more attention to your chef..."

Like the dueling Michael Caines, Steve's superior Roger Moore impersonation brings out Rob's competitive instinct, particularly when there are ladies present. This culminates quite naturally - and somewhat uncomfortably - in the last dinner scene, where Rob simply can't let it go. As Steve prattles on about the history of Spain and the Moors - his own defense mechanism - Rob undermines him with a fictional history of Roger "Moore's" Spain. It's all very entertaining, but - like Steve's imagined meeting with the new Moor invasion at episode/series' end - it's a fitting end to their relationship for the viewer.


The best of them probably occurs in this scene from s3. 

2.

"Can I ask you a question?" 
"Yes, of course, absolutely."
"Is it true, what I read about you?" 
"And what do you read about me?" 
"That you're a bit of a cunt."
"Well, where did you read that?" 
"Well, it's in today's newspaper. Here, look."


"Well, whoever said that doesn't know me very well."
"Are you sure?"

...


And finally:

1.
"You turn your back on me, man, goddamn your eyes!"

Not a mix from all the series (there's also this one from s1, which is great, particularly Steve's early-morning cringing), but this one on the boat - where they're both a bit liquored up after their beachside lunch - is my favorite. 

One of my favorite moments in all television history, really - I just find this absolutely delightful. The kinetic energy of Rob's Hopkins impression in general is the one that possibly bests Steve, and as a result, bothers Steve immensely.


~
And there we have it. What a great show. Here are some leftover screencaps.