Monday, February 13, 2017

KLC (Post by Guest Blogger)

I am indeed honored to have a guest blogger today, the renowned critic and teacher Conrad L. Osborne. This is his take on the state of the republic....


The following was submitted 72 hours ago to the Opinion Editor of the NY Times.  As expected from dishonest press, failing newspaper did not publish or acknowledge. But (no surprise!) 3 days later (Sun., Feb. 12, Review Section, p.2) published own weak version of idea, minus all the good parts. Really, really disastrous.  Losers imitating winner, so sad & unfair. So all of us at KLC are very grateful to good friend and patriot Richard Slade for assistance in getting this vital announcement out to you, the great American public. See you at the meeting!



Now that our Cabinet is falling into place, I’m excited to be able to announce the founding organizational meeting of the KOOK LUXE CLAN ©✵ (KLC). Will take place real soon at some fantastic location. Membership slots are still open!  Primary requirement: complete ignorance of and/or implacable opposition to any jurisdiction to which you are assigned. Certified officers/members to date: Betsy DeVos (Chairperson), Ben Carson, Rick Perry. Gen. Michael Flynn: not actually qualified (see relevant military exp., very unfortunate), but appointed on grounds of temperament. Gen. Mad Dog Matthis: not sure about him, might need to review (great name, though). Emeritus: Rudy  Giuliani, Mitt Romney.

Those posts are gone, but highly desirable ones remain!  For instance:
❡ Head, Nat’l Endowment for the Arts. Prerequisite: Unswerving advocacy of privatization of all arts funding, and of (this is crucial) simultaneous elimination of tax deduction for charitable giving.
❡ Head, Nat’l Endowment for the Humanities. Prerequisite: ditto above. Also helpful: healthy skepticism about so-called “progress”--”Renaissance,” “Enlightenment,” blah-blah-blah.
❡Head, Nat’l Science Foundation. Prerequisite: ditto that last. Also, should be on record that theories are just opinions. And against elitist “evidence.” Only fair in a democracy, right?
❡Ambassador to Mexico. Prerequisites: Background in construction; must manage Accounts Payable. Remember the Alamo.
❡Ambassador to Taiwan. This post temporarily withdrawn, pending review. Got to get it right! But Taiwan beautiful incredible country.
❡ Plenipotentiary Extraordinaire to court of Vladimir I. Prerequisites: 1) Must depose in advance that all poisonings, shootings, knifings, blindings, drownings, stranglings, and jailings of gov’t officials, oligarchs, opposition figures, et al. inf., are the work of American agents or disgruntled ballet dancers. Sports doping likewise. 2) Must not speak/understand Russian. I guarantee you will have an unbelievable time in Moscow!

A plus for all the above: major personal wealth, stupendously rich friends.

Fresh vacancies are bound to occur soon! But to qualify, you must be a member of the KOOK LUXE CLAN ©✷ (KLC)! Welcome to the meeting, if you can find it. Alternatively, gather on The Mall.

Respectfully submitted,
Conrad L. Osborne
Founder & Recording Sec’y

✷Resemblance to any other organization, living or dead, is unintentional and coincidental.
P.S.:  the title “KOOK LUXE CLAN” © 2017, by Conrad L. Osborne. My rules: For political allies, unlimited use free of charge, but please attribute. For political foes: Use strictly prohibited. Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of any accidentally remaining  law.  

Friday, February 10, 2017

Leontyne Price and my Hatred of Calculus

"Isn't it fascinating" (as Phyllis Curtin used to say) what dipping the cookie in the tea will bring back. Today's cookie is Leontyne Price, whose 90th birthday it is. And what she brought back to me is a jarring memory from the 9th grade. But first some background...

Daddy drove me to school every morning. We listened to WFLN, the Philadelphia classical music station. They often played short pieces without bothering to introduce them and I learned so much about music from having to guess the era, the style, maybe even the composer. For Daddy and me it was a happy game we played every morning. One day, when I was about 10 years old, they played the Chanson Boheme from Carmen, transcribed for orchestra (of course, our local Philly band!). I fell so in love with it that I told (and I told mean told) Daddy to bring home a record of that music that night. And he did, but a different version: Carmen highlights with Leontyne Price. I adored it and played it over and over. My obsession with opera started that day with that piece and that album.

The school to which Daddy drove me every day was a very toney all-boys private school that catered to the landed gentry of the Main Line and modeled itself on English Public Schools of the Eton variety, with an accent on toughening up the boys. There was a certain amount of Dotheboys Hall mixed in: strictness blending over into cruelty. It was probably not the best place for a sensitive little boy. There were all these Quaker schools nearby... Sigh. On the plus side I received a really excellent education and memorized The Hymnal 1940: indeed much of my life as a choral singer grew from my experience there. But on the other side there were teachers who thrived on the adulation of testosterone addled boys and fed them with toxic masculinity. Such was my calculus teacher, Mr Harper.

I did not do well in Calculus. Mr Harper's teaching style involved a great deal of sardonic humor and ridicule. Some boys pushed back and succeeded. I withdrew. Throughout my life I have learned so much about teaching from seeing what doesn't work and what he did didn't work for me. And he either didn't care or actually enjoyed my endless discomfort in his class. Then one day he contributed an unforgettable moment to my life. I had to hand in something and took it to the faculty lounge where he was between classes. He knew I loved music, and as I handed him the assignment he remarked (and here I should mention he was a southern gentleman with a pronounced drawl), "I just bought that Leontyne Price sings Puccini album." And he followed that, unbelievably, with, "I never knew a [insert racist epithet starting with N here) lady could sing so pretty!" I was stunned. I didn't know what to say. Not only was he an open unapologetic racist, he was an absolute ignorant idiot! After all, the stereotype is that ladies of that race DO sing so pretty, so I could not even understand why he would say such a ridiculous thing. But I was 13 and he had power over me and decades would have to pass before I understood how to confront (or ignore) such a horror.

I got to hear Leontyne Price live twice: once at Woolsey Hall in 1979 and once with the Chicago Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 1980. Never in staged opera, alas. But I have loved her Carmen, her Mozart album (which Daddy bought immediately after the Carmen), her many Verdi roles, and her recitals all my life. Of course her Prima Donna series covered repertory so broad that when I was a record store employee we used to  joke that the next volume would be called Great Soprano Arias from Rossini to Ronstadt and would feature Una voce poco fa, Suicidio, The Immolation Scene, the Bell Song, the Embroidery Aria, and Desperado. I would have bought it!

The 1980 performance was a Yale Gala concert fundraiser for the endowment of the Glee Club conductor's position. There was a party afterwards in a penthouse apartment on West 57th Street. I was in the Whiffenpoofs and we were invited to sing. After we were done Doug Stuart and I, clad in white tie and tails, headed for the elevator. We were joined by Leontyne Price and her escort! As the elevator slowly descended many floors Miss Price drawled, "Are you boys in the Glee Club?" I was too awestruck to speak but Doug replied, "No, M'am, we're in the Whiffenpoofs." Miss Price's priceless reaction: "Oooh, that's the hot group, ain't it!"

Mr. Harper was a very popular teacher and my senior year he received the dedication in our Yearbook. The photo at the top of this blog post is him. He is glaring scornfully at a student. I know that necktie and that jacket. That student is me.

Monday, September 5, 2016

A Conflict Grows in Brooklyn

Nothing in New York life is certain except death and real estate. And both arouse feelings of dread and helplessness. Watching Ira Sachs's new movie, Little Men, involved peeling back layers of meaning from a surface drama about adults who fight while youths get along (although one of them fights anyway). Beneath that story is an ocean of emotional undercurrents created by individuals who are clueless or in denial. And all of it hangs on two issues: an unclear will and the cost of staying put.

It is too easy to see this film as a screed about greed and gentrification, though those things are certainly present. Leonor, the tenant whose shop occupies the first floor of the house in Brooklyn where the action takes place, has had a long and presumably cordial relationship with her landlord, who owns the house and lives upstairs. But he dies. And leaves the house to his son (an underemployed actor) and daughter. The son moves in with his family and the daughter gets nothing but wants to be paid in compensation and I can see her point. The sticking point is the rent, $1100 per month, which has gone unchanged for ages. And Leonor tells us that there wasn't a contract. This is sticking point #1: if her landlord had actually intended for her to stay in perpetuity he needed to have executed a long-term lease locking in the low rate. Then the inheritors of the building would be stuck with her! Instead we have to rely on her assurances of his intent. And her increasingly hostile language towards the son, including a number of attacks on his manliness that do not seem calculated to help her cause. She enforces the patriarchy and it isn't pretty. Brian, the actor, on the other hand is weak and vacillating. His wife, a shrink who supports him (as Leonor not only points out but sharpens her dart by quoting his dead father -- and how much can we really rely on her by this point?), is so wrapped up in her job that she is barely present, except when she drops in on Leonor, describes herself as trained in conflict resolution, and disproves her qualifications in less than 90 seconds. None of the adults in the movie have a clue as to how to co-exist, they just want what they want. And unfortunately the massive pressure of New York real estate rental rates drives the conflict. Everyone is going to lose something, and they do. 

What they lose is the magical connection made between their sons, Leonor's Tony and Brian and Kathy's Jake. Tony is tough but wants to be an actor. Jake is vague and dreamy and is an artist. Both plan to apply to the LaGuardia High School. They connect in the moment they meet, picking up dropped papers from Brian's car (Brian finds a parking space right in front of the house -- so ludicrous and unlikely they nearly lost me there!). They fly through Brooklyn together, on Razor and Roller Blades. Their connection is so supportive that of course the one time Jake falls is when Tony has been removed from his life. They eat together and have sleepovers but when their parents enter a state of conflict they are increasingly separated from each other. Tony gets into a cafeteria fight when his friendship with Jake is teased -- the homophobia of the other boys arouses the internalized homophobia of Tony and yet he manages to keep that away from his friendship. Jake is uninterested in girls and is probably unconsciously on his way to being gay. And Jake loves Tony, in a way that Tony is unlikely ever to return. There is an odd mercy in the way they are dragged apart -- it prevents Jake from ever knowing rejection by Tony for the nature of his being and his love. 

The last third of the movie tears at the heart. The boys go on a silence strike against the parents. The silence is broken when the parents break down. Leonor bursts into tears and Tony says Mommy and comforts her. She then does something I really hated her for -- she uses him to fight her battle, sending him to Jake to tell him about the eviction notice. Jake breaks down and hopes he can sob his way into fixing the unfixable. But soon enough the storefront is vacant and Leonor and Tony are gone. We next see Jake with long hair in a ponytail, looking so androgynous that perhaps his trajectory is towards Trans rather than Gay, in a museum, seeing Tony at a distance. Tony is talking about a painting, with bravado and with his arm around another student's neck. Jake has a moment of silent heartbreak. But we see him next applying himself to a sketch, transforming his unspoken deep feeling into his art. A mixed, hopeful, painful message.

All the actors are terrific, the visuals are beautiful, the scenes are balanced (repeated montages of the boys in transit), and the music effective (including a snippet of the Song to the Moon from Rusalka, who knows why but it was nice!). The absence of social media seemed unrealistic for the boys, but it kept them (and the whole plot) present. disturbing, moving, gorgeous, highly recommended. Ira Sachs, must you keep ripping my heart out?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Tilting at High Notes

The American Dream includes a fascination with fraud. We celebrate the dreamers who aim high with nothing to support their dream but pure gumption. Harold Hill is no musician but he brings magic to Iowa. This dream predates our country: it really extends at least as far back as Don Quixote. And when the effect of the madman or fraud is the uplifting of the people there is a point to the deception. I do not buy into that theory of uplift when it involves taking something totally ludicrous and insisting it is wonderful. At least Harold Hill got Marian out to the bridge. And Don Quixote taught people to see themselves a different way.

And so... Florence Foster Jenkins, the laughingstock of sopranos for most of a century, who has been rehabilitated into a figure admirable for living her dream. On one level she was. But on several others she was both a victim and a user. She parlayed her wealth into positions she could not have attained by talent or work alone. And she was ferociously used by sycophants who needed pieces of that wealth. St. Clair Bayfield may have had a fondness for her but she was his meal ticket. 

The real FFJ was a figure of ridicule in the classical music world. The movie featuring Meryl Streep (who, having mastered every accent in the world has now tackled the "accent" of out-of-tune singing) paints her gently as a figure of amusement. And had she been an amateur who sang for pleasure and did a few songs at musicales all would have been in proportion. But she swanned about in the manner of a diva and delivered not one drop of the musical content which each diva is charged with purveying. She didn't serve the music. I guess this is the sticking point for me. Whether consciously or not she guyed the music and proved how worthless it was to those who placed no value on it. I do not laugh at her singing -- it makes me feel sad. I stand in awe of the way La Streep has managed to almost perfectly reproduce the tinny whistle of FFJ's upper range, though she doesn't not venture nearly as far from rhythm as FFJ was also wont to do. Streep also makes bravura moments of simple acts like falling asleep. As a performer she is utterly admirable -- and the total mastery of acting that she displays completely undercuts the unmastery that she is portraying! 

Hugh Grant is his usual charming self. 

Simon Helberg is simply astonishing. Like Harpo Marx but with a speaking voice added. His plastic face and his verbal reactions are priceless. He is really the only character who has an arc in this movie, from total disbelief to fear of career suicide by association to human connection and support even though he knows he is forever linked to a living joke. And he does his own piano playing! 

Historical drama depends on a contract with the audience -- the made up story must be balanced with well-researched and realistic background details. I saw another review which mentioned that the automobiles were too modern by a few years! That I didn't notice, but what set me off bigtime was... Arturo Toscanini. The casting, costume and makeup departments got him reasonably right. BUT. FFJ fixates on Lily Pons (who was not a new young singer by then but I would have let that pass. I would even have forgiven the very un-French timbre of the excellent young soprano impersonating La Pons) and holds up a 78 of a Pons and Toscanini recording of the Bell Song. On Columbia Records! Toscanini was an RCA Victor exclusive artist. It would have taken so little to get that right. And I sincerely doubt the great maestro did his own money begging for the NBC Orchestra...He had minions for that!

The fake voice lesson with Carlo Edwards also bugged me. It was a caricature of what I do. FFJ lurched around. Edwards exhorted her without actually stopping her to fix anything (and yes, I know that the point is that she was unteachable and he was ripping her off). It just seemed so sad to me, not funny. 

The most realistic scene in the movie was the bit with all the pianists bitching in the waiting room while McMoon plays The Swan inside. I have been in waiting rooms like that!

Music is a holy art, sings the Composer in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. It doesn't all have to be serious. There have been wonderful comic takes on classical music: Victor Borge, PDQ Bach, the Hoffnung Festival, and so on. But the "humor" in FFJ was based on cruelty ("we're laughing at you"), which the movie tries without real success to transform into some kind of "we're laughing with you." Indeed the movie sets us up to laugh and then tries to convince us that we are wrong to laugh, a muddled message. Poor FFJ lived most of her life within a bubble of rich clubwomen, an audience she knew and understood, and with whom her money and status created a codependent relationship. Know your audience is one of the great rules of performance. When she ventured out into the wider world, making recordings and then a public concert, her bubble burst. Not an uplifting story, really. 

If Professor Harold Hill had shown up with his own band and charged for tickets to hear them play Beethoven using the think system... well, there would have been refunds!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

E strano, e strano

molina21f-2-web.jpg (970×559)

Love Is Strange
Not a review, just reflections

Spoilers galore: if you haven't seen the movie Love Is Strange yet please go! Then come compare notes with me.

Ira Sachs, the filmmaker, spoke to the audience after the screening I attended. He said the film was about generations and family. I saw those things but I also saw light and dignity.

Light in the sense of charm and levity is what Ben used to get through life. And light suffused his vision: scenes of him painting the Manhattan skyline from a Brooklyn rooftop evoked the big sky of the great plains lit by the warmth of the Hudson Valley. Dignity is what George had: a quiet independence that got him through even the toughest moments. He was often shot from behind so that all we saw was his massive back bearing up when he was sad or frightened. 

So many scenes had few or no words. The underscoring, all Chopin, mostly piano but with an occasional touch of orchestration, spun out long sequences of pure emotion. I loved the unhurried quality of the screenplay, which allowed moments to be savored. 

The contrast between the two men, one reticent and one voluble, underpinned the movie from the opening sequence of their getting ready for their wedding through the extended date night: concert, bar visit, and farewell at the subway station. They were so natural and comfortable and honest with each other, discussing music and gay history and their individual histories with sexual exclusivity or freedom. George registered both his acceptance and a touch of sadness without judgment at Ben's adventures.

Natural and honest unfortunately did not extend to the presentation of George as music teacher. His Catholic School choir sang Cantate Domino (good choice) while he flailed his arms in a way that did not suggest he had mastered conducting! And I think I heard him say something about the difference between a half step and a semi tone during his piano teaching scene (WTF?). That scene mostly showed him in a state of distraction, which may excuse his listen, lecture vaguely, have the student play it again teaching style. But his monologue over the repeated Chopin was a marvel -- was it a letter or email he sent to all the kids he had been exiled from teaching or was it what he wished he could send? It managed to be a powerful statement about honesty without in any way seeming to be an attack. 

I do not paint. So I wonder if painters had the same level of detailed reaction to Ben's painting that I did to George's musicianship! (and the level of music consulting that did or did not go into the writing and directing) (and this is a minor issue in a terrific movie!)

One feature of the screenplay was the way that plot events were carefully set up and then allowed to recede into background. That way when something happened there was a why but it didn't hit me over the head with a hammer. Why are these people stepping up to house the homeless couple -- oh yeah, they all swore to uphold them in their love at the wedding! Why does the story suddenly take a turn for the worse. Oh right, the orthopedist made a suggestion that was obviously ignored. 

Ben and George, forced to find separate refuges with friends and family but finding those refuges to be cramped, undignified, maddening, also find moments of tender communication: George rushing out in the rain in Manhattan and throwing himself sobbing into Ben's arms in Brooklyn... and the two of them cradling each other in a tiny lower bunk. 

They are not young. They are not gorgeous. They are two older people in love and they are both men. So weird and wonderful to see something other than airbrushed hunks and starlets in a movie! The generation below them consists of Ben's distant nephew and his very present wife, who take Ben in, and the gay cops downstairs, who take George in. The gay cops run a party pad and the scenes in their place were so crowded and confusing that I didn't get a very detailed sense of them as individuals. Ben shares the room of his grand-nephew, who runs the gamut of reactions to this invasion from sullen to furious. He has a weird friendship with a Russian boy who dominates him and also poses for Ben to paint. There is a fair amount of discomfort about all of these things but they end up as the cocoon state from which the boy will emerge in the final two scenes of the film, suddenly taking the lead. 

The other leading role is played by the city. The New York that Ben and George inhabit stopped existing decades ago, but due to rent stabilization and the possibility of buying for an insider price when buildings go coop they have lived for years in a manner that no-one can now afford. Greenwich Village. Piano and paintings. Losing the income to pay for it threatens not just their ability to be together but their continued presence in the artistic bohemia of the past. The audience at the Merkin Hall concert they attend is mostly older people because younger people cannot move here the way they used to. Some still do, crammed into tiny spaces in outer boroughs. But a painter and a music teacher in a nice downtown apartment? That stopped happening about 1980. And the only possible salvation is the random and magical offer of taking over a rent stabilized lease: that is the movie's Deus ex machina! But the Deus grants his boon to some and not others and George is left alone in a wonderful location to enjoy the rest of his life in his city as best he can. I hope all the people who vowed to support him and Ben in their love will be present for him going forward.

Monday, May 19, 2014


May 19th is the birthday of Melba. Dame Nellie. The grandest of dames. She lived a life ruthlessly devoted to the perfect emission of tone, as someone (Michael Aspinall, I think) once wrote. Every note steady, every trill perfectly even. Opinions about what her voice was best suited for ranged from Blanche Marchesi's (she thought Melba should have sung religious music) to Sir Thomas Beecham, who felt she lacked spiritual refinement. 

One thing she had was a raw, animalistic vigor to her singing:

This is from the series of recordings made in 1904 at her home in London. They brought all the equipment to her! 

Here she is as Violetta:
The instrumental purity of tone is haunting. The lack of suitable dramatic expression is unfortunate. Her Italian is approximate at best, and rarely even that. Her verve as she tackles the runs in Sempre Libera is thrilling. What an oddly dull cadenza she sings!

Most of her recordings date from the acoustic era but she made a few electric sides. Here is the Act 2 duet from Traviata, with some interpretive touches that would never fly nowadays!

She was renowned for her ego and her rudeness, her generosity and the ferociousness with which she defended her turf, which meant life was hard for other sopranos! Unless they were her proteges...

Here's her wiki page:

I won't attempt to summarize her life and career, not to mention all the funny stories of her cutting remarks. Read and listen, there's lots on Youtube. Here she is the mad scene from Hamlet, finally on youtube!

I first encountered that on an EMI LP I found at Bryn Mawr Records, a dusty, messy heaven of ancient discs, in the early '70s. Who was this woman with the silver voice? I was smitten and remain so, eagerly gobbling up the reissues of her recordings, the EMI Boxed set of the HMVs and then the RCA Australia set of her Victors. Then the Romophone CD set of the Victors and the Naxos CD series of the HMVs! (I skipped the Pearl versions). I have a framed photo with an autographed album leaf with her motto: "They say? What say they? let them say!" Now that is a standard of self-confidence to measure up to! 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Where I was...

There are those defining events, those moments of frozen time. We recall where we were when X happened: 9/11, the death of Princess Diana, the Challenger disaster, the shootings of MLK and RFK, the dropping of the A bomb, Pearl Harbor... My earliest historical trauma memory is the death of JFK, 50 years ago tomorrow. Actually, I have a pretty vivid recollection of the tense Cuban missile crisis, with my parents staring at a B&W TV with the White House on the screen. But that was a slow-motion event. November 22, 1963 was different, it was a sudden shock.

I was in kindergarten and we had a half day. So I was on the front bank by the driveway playing with Matchbox cars with my friend Dick Walling. My Mother, a staunch Democrat and true believer, came racing out of the front door in hysterics, running down the driveway towards the house across the street. And amid her tears she was screaming, "they've shot our president!" I don't recall what happened then or how my friend got home. My next clear memory is two days later. We drove over to another friend's house (Gordon Cooney. Isn't it amazing how clearly I remember the names of my classmates!) and arrived just minutes after Ruby shot Oswald. It was another scene of adults in a state of pandemonium and children in a state of bewilderment. It sure seared itself into my brain!

I have spent the past three days reading tons of conspiracy stories and conspiracy debunking. I feel sad that we can never know exactly what happened, or perhaps can never be truly secure in our knowledge. The one truth that can perhaps be agreed upon is that the event was a traumatic shock. And our entire nation suffers PTSD from it.