Götterdämmerung, Me and the Opera

I love classical music, and I have a lot of it. I know and love a number of classical composers you may never heard of. But I just never “got” the opera. Some of the most interesting people I know love the opera of Verdi, Wagner, and so many others. They can’t get enough of it. Lord knows I’ve tried, but I have always been totally tone deaf to opera as I understood it.

Yet, while I’m not even religious, I love the solemn and devotional church liturgical choral works of Lassus and Tallis.

There are also some decades-old reasons why I should have warmed to opera.

In my youth, I loved Beethoven. In particular, I loved his Ninth Symphony. Now, in the final movement “O Freunde, Nicht Diese Tone!” I found for myself an absolutely spellbinding male and female vocal performance, as stirring as any performance with the human voice I have ever heard.

Similarly, in the second and third movements of Berlioz’s “Romeo et Juliet” I found equally heroic vocals that literally moved me to tears as a youth.

Those are both symphonies or “choral symphonies” of a style popular in centuries past. Yet, put on “Barber of Seville,” and you’ll put me to sleep.

There are some classical opera selections you already know, and probably just don’t know it.

1. If you’re old enough to remember Disneyland (the TV show, 1954-1958), chances are you remember Disney’s animated color spectacular “Wind in the Willows.” The music from Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was taken from Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (part of his celebrated Götterdämmerung cycle). This music was also featured in the film score of Apocalypse Now (YouTube HERE).

2. Kohler ran an ad for its bath fixtures starring a singing plumber and an operatic shower. The music is reportedly from Act III of Vincenzo Bellini’s ‘I Puritani. I found a direct link to Kohler’s commercial: HERE (Kohler): . (In a December 11 post last year I incorrectly identified that opera as Lakme.)

3. British Airways ran a “Flower Duet Lakme Commercial” HERE (YouTube)  featuring the best-known aria from the opera “Lakme” by Delibes.

4. Perhaps the most famous opera you know (but never heard of) was from Verdi’s “Marcia e ballabile” in his opera “Aida“, HERE (YouTube).

The other day PBS ran a special on the elaborate stage preparations for their epic 15 hour HD production of the complete Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. It promised to be as innovatively staged as anything from Cirque du Soleil. The snippets of music they included were … well, Wagnerian. I thought I was ready for the real deal.

Tonight, PBS hosted the last of the four operas in the Ring cycle, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). It sounded to me like yodeling. I lasted 15 minutes. I guess there’s just no hope for me.

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Notes From All Over

BIO – No, I’m posting no new autobiographical snippets today, just my status report. Some time ago I read a comment posted by my friend Richard Wanderman on his own blog, to the effect that writing a blog post isn’t the same as going down to the corner local pub to hoot and holler with like-minded, fist-pounding patrons. To that I might add: writing a book isn’t the same as writing a blog post.

For one thing, I had no idea how big my draft was becoming. I’ve never written a book. When I finally created representative draft content for my whole six-decades-plus  autobiographical life span, I started doing what I hoped were some standard metrics to figure out my page count. I’d read many citations that authors don’ t want to exceed 200-250 pages if they’re anticipating the e-book publishing route. I found that paperbacks weigh in at around 325 words per page, hardbacks around 350, and publishers use a standard 250 word page length to allow for white space and, presumably, for photos and illustrations. Was I surprised to find my draft weighing in around the low 500 page range – horrors!

Secondly, blog entries like this one are generally written and posted in under an hour, or a few hours at most. From post to post, readers invariably encounter variations in style, relevance, interest level and raw writing skill. That’s even less acceptable when reading a book! Within one or two boring or badly written paragraphs in a book, most of us bail. I’m re-writing and chopping my book draft, paragraph by paragraph. I’ll confess, it’s tough. My book, “Afraid of Changing”, is up to its seventh major rewrite and 68th serial update.

My editing formula is simple. If my own single sentence or paragraph begins to bore me after ten re-readings, I need to either delete it, or figure out why it’s relevant and find a fresh approach that shows you why it’s relevant and interesting too.

MUSIC STREAMING – In January I wrote about the sad demise of our Bay Area’s last classical radio station, KDFC. They went to an NPR format and a low-power transmitter that doesn’t even reach the South Bay. KDFC does stream ad-free music over your broadband connection. If you’re tired of commercial broadcasting advertisements insulting your intelligence and eardrums with obnoxious ads, you can find your own kind of music streamed to your Mac or PC whether it’s hip-hop, classical rock, classical classical, jazz, or traditional and big-band jazz.

Unfortunately for KDFC, they went from being a big frog in a Bay-sized pond to a little frog in a huge digital pond. I prefer classical station KBAQ out of Phoenix (either streamed or on FM), but I’ve also bookmarked WFMT (Chicago) and KUAT (Tucson). There’s a great classical jazz station in Paris, France … but right now I’m listening to “Classical Jazz – JAZZRADIO.com” for early Dixieland and 40’s style tunes … Who’s Sorry Now?

Assuming you do love music and do have broadband, I’d suggest you download Apple iTunes to your Mac or PC today if you didn’t already do that years ago. Even if you never load a single favorite CD into your iTunes – and how could you NOT do that? –  the Radio icon in the menu bar gives you far better access to American and international radio than your table radio or even that $900 FM tuner.

Cheers,

Alex

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OLD FRIENDS lyrics (Mary McCaslin)

Mary McCaslin wrote this wonderful song in 1977. Over thirty years later, it gets better and truer with age. I could not find the lyrics anywhere, so transcribed them by hand. The tune is available from Apple Store, Amazon and elsewhere as a hit MP3 single for about 99 cents.

 

OLD FRIENDS by Mary McCaslin ©1977

I saw an old friend the other day
In San Francisco by the Bay
Took me back to only yesterday
The years somehow that slip away

And after talked about the days gone by
Brushed a tear away by the side
We promised not to let it be this long
Like the old refrain from the old old song

Remember old friends we made along the way
The gifts they gave that stay with us every day

Looking back it makes me wonder
Where we’re going how long we’ll stay
I know the road brings rain and thunder
But for the journey what will we pay

I often think the times be crazier
As this whole world goes round and round
Just the memory makes it easier
As the highway goes up and down

Remember old friends we’ve made along the way
The gifts they’ve given stay with us every day

Make their words come back to me
There’s a few I will no longer see
Faces will we see no more along the road
There’ll be a few less hands to hold

But for the ones whose turn is ended
Though they started so much the same
In the hearts of those befriended
Burns a candle with a silver flame

Remember old friends we’ve made along the way
The gifts they’ve given stay with us every day
Remember old friends we’ve made along the way
The gifts they’ve given stay with us every day

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New KDFC FM Format – Kudos!

Bay Area classical radio station KDFC has migrated from ad-supported commercial radio to listener supported public radio. The broadcast format is now pure classical, with no ads (grating or otherwise).

There are some frequency changes coming as well, effective Monday Jan 24. South Bay listeners at first may get weak signals or none at all. I plan to stream the broadcast from the internet. For more information on this major change, see the KDFC Changes statement on their website.

In part, the announcement states:

KDFC is the last major commercial classical station in America to make the transition to public radio. This move ensures that classical radio is sustainable for our community into the future.

Having been so publicly critical of this station in the past, I am delighted at the new format, and wanted to share this update with classical music fans who had not yet heard.

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Mysterious Barricades

Back in the 1950’s younger brother Nickie would play harpsichord records from dawn to dusk if he could get away with it. Our childhood household had all the keyboard masters of that recording genre and era: Wanda Landowska, Sylvia Marlowe. Everyone in the family except he and our mother hated it. We made fun of it. I, a loud-mouth vociferous teen, was embarrassed by it.

Here today I sit listening to a Couperin CD – Mysterieuses Barricades, and other Pieces de clavecin. Technically a far superior recording than anything available in 1958, the artist is Blandine Verlet, French, maybe well known in France but I have never heard of this person. The playing style is a little gilded, with frills and gratuitously extended trills where Marlowe would have just let the light shine through the traditional Couperin score, and where stern, metronomic traditionalist Landowska would have turned it into a funereal dirge.

And I’m enjoying it immensely, almost over-emotionally: “you were right”, I would say, but these days there’s no one left to phone.

There’s more, I realize. I’m beginning to fathom how many decades of distance have crept between me and that old oversize sun-flooded living room of the old days. This could be scary. I could be at risk of turning into one of those fragile oldsters who can no longer reconnect to the past without bursting into tears.

Exactly as it happened to my mother in 1989:

By that year my mother was no longer able to drive, but my youngest brother bundled her into the car and they drove over to visit me where I was staying in San Lorenzo. It was a wonderful sunny Saturday afternoon, and shafts of late morning sun were filtering through the living room window plants, almost like our living room of old. I decided to treat my mother to some classical music I thought she wouldn’t have heard in a long time. I had a nice stereo system and enormous Klipsch theater speakers that could flood a home with intensely rich music even at very low volume.

The opening chords of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto wafted out of those speakers – the notes everybody remembers if they remember nothing else of Rachmaninoff. The speakers made the piano sound like it was in the living room. And Mum burst into tears.

My brother and I looked at each other in alarm: what could be happening? I hurriedly turned the music off. “What is it? What’s the matter?” we asked.

It turns out that, long before she’d met my father or her first husband before Dad, she used to date a Russian named Sergei. This is the piece he used to play for her, and she’d loved it. She never listened to it again after she and Sergei stopped seeing each other – which explains its absence from the vast musical library she amassed for her children in the old house on the hill.

So I guess it’s OK for me to reconnect. I never “stopped” listening to most of the old family music, because I carefully built my musical collection around it. I didn’t play Bach of almost any sort until about 1989 (as it happened). I started listening to the Goldberg Variations and 3-part Inventions about a year ago. It was only by chance I missed orderingMysterious Barricades” (Francois Couperin, 1668-1733) until just last week. A very short piece, it was always my one unabashed favorite. So, look at it as self-denial or penance or what have you, I am so glad to be hearing it once again.

But I waited too long. There’s nobody left to call who would remember.

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Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn Symphonien No 3 und 4I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand tastes in music. Even my own.

My local classical station KDFC has a neat feature where you can look up what’s currently or recently played, click a link, and order the CD from ArkivMusic.com.

I heard a classical piece that used to flood our living room when I was a kid. I really like it, but can’t recall having noticed it since. The KDFC website said it was Mendelssohn. As I’m trying to build my classical collection, I ordered it.

Monitoring the CD later, I kept waiting for the “good part”. This thing sounded like proto-Hollywood Romantic: schmaltzy and unfocused. I finally picked up the jewel box and read what I’d ordered.

Symphony No. 3 is known as the “Scottish”; Symphony 4, the “Italian”. I was listening to No. 3. Maybe the “good part” was No. 4. It was.

 It’s not uncommon to be partial to one track of an artist, and indifferent to the next. This is as true for classical as country & western or “jazz”.

Now, it should be pretty obvious I’m not up on my Mendelssohn. But if you take two different symphonies of other well-loved composers, say Berlioz or Beethoven, even if you can’t remember “that’s the Pathetique” or “That’s the Ninth”, you can still say with certainty “that’s Berlioz” or “that’s Beethoven”.

To my ear, Mendelssohn’s third and fourth symphonies sounded like they were written by different composers. It’s not that I’m setting myself up as an “expert” – high school kids carrying a lot of units in Music should be able to run circles around me. I guess I just figured that after 50 years of listening to classical music, I should be able to hear “Mendelssohn” in both symphonies on the same CD by the same composer and conducted by the same conductor (the ubiquitous Claudio Abbado).

Go figure.

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Letter to Stereophile Magazine

I wrote the following letter to Stereophile magazine in reply to another letter to the editor. My reply was was published in the December 2007 issue.

Editor,

I would like to chime in on the side of all of us “crybabies, whiners, and other sniveling jerks out there” [letters, Patrick Bajtka, Oct 2007]. I am certainly used to bandpassing content and filtering out personal soap-boxing. So I agree with Mr. Bajtka that you’re doing a good job with the magazine. But unsolicited personal rhetoric is still annoying, because it gets in the way. And it’s also annoying because it’s presumptuous. Whether I agree or not, the author is thinking I might magically find his personal political opinions relevant to the music or equipment I’m thinking of buying.

I really do enjoy a lot of the work of Phillip Glass, so when an acquaintance suggested I look at the DVD for Powaqqatsi, I went to Amazon and read the peer reviews. Now, here’s a case where the reader is pre-sold on the music; for me it was just a question of which “-qatsi” DVD to try. Most reviews that I saw would have me think Powaqqatsi is a thinly disguised leftist commie pinko plot to one end only: to defame the whole idea of capitalism. One writer took it upon himself to explain for the benefit of all that wealth is good and probably intrinsically so; folks mired in the rut of a third-world slum or caste system would do well to look at certain political philosophies in the USA for a get-real explanation of how they’re going to feed the family tonight.

And I do think wealth is simply ducky, though I don’t have a lot of it, and I could probably have articulated the Amazon reviewer’s political position better than he did, though I mostly disagree and just don’t give a rat about his opinion anyway. Worse, I didn’t find out anything about whether the DVD could possibly be interesting — once you filtered out all the editorializing. One reviewer actually did remember to mention the music. I think the word he used was “lame”. Hell, I just bought the DVD to find out for myself if I can supply meaning to the video that fits the music.

Alex Forbes
Castro Valley, CA

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Charlie Dunn 1898-1993

Charlie DunnI practically grew up with a song named “Charlie Dunn”, written and sung by country western icon Jerry Jeff Walker. Chances are, you may not have heard the of song or even the performer, but apparently a lot of folks still remember and sing this song about the Austin bootmaker. They sang it at Charlie’s funeral.

You can hear the song on YouTube, complete with some old stills on the video, one of which I ripped off.

There really was a Charlie Dunn. Chances are, if you did hear of him, you know him through this enchanting 1960’s Jerry Jeff Walker song. I know the song from Jerry Jeff’s first album, which sadly I don’t have. I believe it was named simply “Jerry Jeff Walker.”

You can find a bio on Dunn at FamousTexans.com [site no longer available 2013]; complete with lyrics to the song.

It took me three years to rediscover these notes of mine and post them, but you never really forget Charlie once you hear the song. Charlie made mighty fine boots. I always appreciated fine leather, but I never owned a pair. He sold to the stars.

I had researched this on Google after finding out there was a real Dunn in The New Yorker, of all places. It is buried in an article about singer and songwriter Lyle Lovett, by Alec Wilkinson (Profiles, “HOMEBOY, The world of Lyle Lovett, The New Yorker, March 1, 2004).

Wilkinson writes the Lovett’s boots are made in Austin, Texas, by a man named Lee Miller:

He went to a bootmaking college in Oklahoma. Each year, an old bootmaker in Austin named Charlie Dunn hired the student who graduated first in the class. Miller went to work for Dunn, who was in the habit of driving off his employees. Miller grew accustomed to being fired, then arriving home and having Dunn call and hire him back. “He was from the old days,”, Miller says, “when you said it like it as, then regretted it later.” Dunn died in 1993 — he was ninety-five — and Miller took over the business.

The lyrics to the song are also posted all over. You can find them on the Famous Texans link. If found them first on “100% Legal MP3 Downloads” (I have a tape of the record so didn’t do the download). I’ve re-posted them below.

Well if you’re ever in Austin Texas
A little run down on your sole
I’m gonna tell you the name of an old man to see
I’m gonna tell you right where to go
He’s working in Capitol Saddlery
He’s sewing in the back of the place
His name is Charlie Dunn the little frail one
With the smile and the leathery face

[Chorus]
Charlie Dunn, he’s the one to see
Charlie done the boots that are on my feet
It makes Charlie real pleased to see me walkin in these
Charlie Dunn, he’s the one to see

Charlie’s been makin boots over there
He says about fifty some odd years
And once you wear a pair of his hand-mades
Boy, you’ll never wear no store-bought pair
Charlie can tell what’s wrong with your feet
Just by feelin’ ’em with his hands
And he can take a look at the boots you wear
And know a whole lot about you, man

Chorus

[Bridge]
And ol’ Buck’s up front he’s countin’ up his gold
Charlie’s in the back patchin’ up the soles
All the people comin’ in smilin’ at him
They all wonder how’s ol’ Charlie been
Buck’s makin’ change but he never ever sees no one
And he never understood a good thing ol’ Charlie done

Charlie’s never had his name on a sign
He don’t put a mark in the boot
He just hopes you can remember him
‘Bout the same way that he does you
He keeps your measurements in a little book
So you can order more boots later on
Well I’m writin’ down ol’ Charlie’s size
I’m a makin’ him up a song

Chorus

Buck’s up front but he never ever sees no one
And he never understood a good thing ol’ Charlie done

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The Whore Moans and many more

In my May issue of Stereophile magazine, a reader wrote to tell us there is this great radio station in Seattle, and went on to tell us how you can listen to web streaming at KEXP.org, and how they are so knowledgeable they program their own music, and even take requests, and they have a playlist.

The juxtaposition of that traditionally red-flag phrase “great radio station”, with the fact that we weren’t given even a little hint what kind of music this station offers, of course goaded me to go to www.kexp.org to find out for myself.

And of course I’m also not going to tell you whether my worst fears were confirmed or not. But I’ll give you a hint: you can hear “Spoon, Girl Talk, Aesop Rock, Viva Voce, The Blakes, The Cave Singers, The Intelligence, Grand Archives, The Whore Moans and many more”.

The writer wanted to make sure we know the station’s call sign was “Where The Music Matters”. Oh, all right, this call sign is a little longer than the four letter identifier the FCC issues to every other radio station in the United States, but it’ll do.

Yes, I sampled the live broadcast. Let me just say that I simply can’t tell you enough about it.

I think it was a slow day at the Stereophile editor’s desk, but I’ll tell you this too. The station is licensed to the University of Washington. And I have to admit, the music we listened to when I was in college was pretty awful too.

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Sennheiser HD650 Headphones

Sennheiser HD650I bought a new pair of headphones. After an hour of skipping around to play my favorite songs, I finally realized all my songs are enchanted again.

I started with some standbys you’d expect in a test of new speakers or headphones. For Pop music, I started with the “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations” cuts from the Brian Wilson CD Smile, because that’s what I’d been listening to last night on my Koss PortaPros. With Sennheiser, The music suddenly sounded electrifying. The highs and midrange are crisp, distinct and unstrained. The bass rolls smooth and clean. There is no discernable “cutoff”, rumble or mush. Once again, you sound as if you are really there.

The Smile CD is well-engineered to begin with. I went back to the Koss PortaPros and replayed the selections. Good. But, not the same. Here, the bass goes indistinct. There, the PortaPro can’t the quite handle the complexity of the midrange. And then comes the passage where I’d feared my digital recording technology may have introduced distortion. Please do understand that the Koss PortaPros are deservedly rated head and shoulders above other portable headsets, such as those Pioneers that came with an old CD player and charmed us so much at the time. The Koss PortaPros are GOOD headsets, and make listening a pleasure. But I bought them for the iPod.

Back to the Sennheiser HD650’s, I compared again to make sure there was a real difference. It’s a huge difference. They go so far beyond “cleaning up” the above problem passages that I lack the vocabulary to explain it. The music itself says it best.

The difference is magnitudes of “unbelievable”.

I hopped up into my Bach folder and played a couple of cuts of Marie-Claire Alain on the organ: Allegro from Concerto in A Minor BWV593, and the old low-note standby, Tocatta and Fugue in D minor. (Claire excels at bringing out the beauty in the piece while making ‘Tocatta’ sound bright and fresh, not hackneyed). Awesome! Sennheiser handled highs and low pedals with equal ease. Tocatta and Fugue in D minor is the Achille’s heel of many surprisingly good sound systems, but the Sennheiser HD650’s hand it effortlessly.

There’s only one other place where I can hear my music like that: in the home in Phoenix, with my 30 year old Klipschorns — massive 6 cubic foot folded corner horns. Theater speakers. They are good enough that you don’t have to crank the volume way up to hear all the nuances, and can even hold a conversation with little effort.

No matter how good the speakers, you just can’t do that in an apartment. In particular, a pair of Klipschorns (if they would fit in an apartment, which they wouldn’t) make it easy to creep up to unacceptable levels: “I SAID, I think the neighbors are going to call the police!”

On Jazz, I tried out Jimmy Smith (“Beggar for the Blues”), Fleetwood (“Landslide”), and Neville Brothers (“Will The Circle Be Unbroken”). Herbie Mann’s haunting flute electrifies in “Man’s Hope” on his old classic album?Push Push. They all sound like I haven’t heard them in years. Keith Jarrett’s piano Koln Concert is ethereal.

Since I reviewed the Dale Warland Singers just the other day, of course I had to monitor the choral work again. Here, the voices are so crystal pure that the instrumentation is useful to remind us we’re listening to a live recording with real singers. I wish someone would lean back in a creaky old folding wooden chair once in a while, or just rustle some sheet music!

My digital recording project is almost a year old. I’ve recorded 2,426 “songs” on 93.74GB, on my own home-built PC, using only the native ASUS/RealTek audio controller. Using Apple iTunes software installed on my PC, I always feared there must be something wrong with something that’s so easy! My new Sennheisers quashed those fears and vindicated the whole project. The music is in every way the equal of the original CD’s. Even the old cuts home-recorded from vinyl to reel-to-reel to CD sound better, possibly, than ever before.

Gosh. I don’t mind that some of those songs still bring unbearably strong memories. I had to reach for the Kleenex a couple of times. If you’re going to feel sad listening to old favorites, best you do it with beautifully rendered old favorites. If you’re going to feel glad, well, I can’t recommend a better way to rediscover your favorites than a great pair of headsets.

I like my iPod but rarely use it at home. With all due respect to the new technology, if you’re really going to listen to music, and it’s flawlessly executed by artists who really know how to write and play timeless classics, why limit your listening experience with an iPod?

Sennheiser HD650’s are a lifetime investment. I felt guilty for buying them for all of about fifteen seconds. Shop around, and you’ll be surprised at the price spread. I saved about $100 at Amazon. I unequivocally recommend them.

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