Where Have I Been? 2016 “Summary”

Not that it matters much, but I thought that some my friends might be curious as to where I’ve been.  It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything at all, though it’s not for lack of intent. Mostly, so much time has passed and so much has happened this year (2016) that I find myself stumped as to where to begin.  I guess a general approach might be good: sort of an overview of things.  Actually, it’s more a matter of the past three-and-a-half years.

Back on 15 April 2013, two events happened; one is still etched into our collective memory as both a city and a nation, the other considerably less significant; i.e., I and my wife of less than a year moved to Boston that day.  However, we were more than impressed with how the city and region pulled together and quite literally became Boston Strong.  We moved into a lovely second-floor apartment of a quintessential “triple decker” building in the equally charming neighbourhood of Jamaica Plain (JP colloquially).  Of course, since we were renting that made us vulnerable to the caprice of the landlord who chose to sell the building out from underneath us after one just over a year.  So, here it is in August 2014 and we have to find another place to live (that we can afford) at the worst possible time to look since by this time all the college kids (and God knows who else), have already signed leases or moved in.  Thereupon we were somewhat compelled to move to Chelsea into what at first seemed to be a nice, two-floor apartment in one of the few half decent parts of town.  However, shortly after our first year, we realised that (for reasons too extensive to enumerate) we were in a most untenable situation.  It was at that point we realised our imperative was to not only move again but, to buy; not only to buy but, to get the heck out of the unwashed armpit of Massachusetts known as Chelsea.  Ultimately, after a little searching, and with the help of a great agent, we found what can only be considered a little piece of heaven on earth in the delightfully idyllic community-by-the-bay of Houghs Neck (those of you who familiar with the Boston area know what I mean).  We found a perfectly sized cape cod just a few blocks away from Quincy Bay and Rock Island Cove, yet we’re high enough not to need flood insurance.  We have a lovely fenced in backyard with a tool shed and a 10,000 gallon, above ground swimming pool.  The finished basement is now my study which, unfortunately, I haven’t fully utilised.

The problem, especially for me, has been — adjustment.  For someone who has had issues with low-level depression (what used to be called dysthymia) moving three times within four years has taken its toll, particularly as a sixty-eight-year-old man who has watched his dreams gradually fade to barely a vapour of what they were.  My main predicament is personal organisation.  It seems every time I try to establish something akin to a regular routine so many exigencies seem to interfere that I can’t seem to get a handle on anything.  I’m generally a creature, maybe not of habit per se, but of consistency; and, for the past three-plus years I haven’t had that.  Moreover, as a musician — a composer especially — my despondency has grown exponentially: not that it was all that great in Philadelphia.  Up here in New England, I don’t know anybody; the only caveat being: having acquaintances in Philly didn’t help any more than if I knew one as up here in the Boston area.

As to the organ:  I have summarily abandoned any hope of ever playing again.  I haven’t been able to find a decent organ on which to practise, much less find a worthwhile church.  Churches up here are no better (probably worse) about allowing access to their organs than Phila.  I miss practising at St. Stephen’s at 10th and Market Sts. more than you can imagine. Moreover, not unlike the Philadelphia chapter, the local (Boston) chapter of the AGO is, by its cliquish nature, unwilling to be of any assistance; hence my decision to terminate my membership

My melancholy has had a stifling effect on my feelings toward music in general.  Music was always my first love… now I can barely listen to it.  I haven’t touched my piano or written a note in months. On those occasions in which I do listen to music all I think about is why am I not writing something?  Why am I not practising?  And then I think:  why bother?  Who is ever going to hear my music?  Why work up a programme when I have no singer with whom to collaborate?  Having absolutely no standing anywhere in the musical world, who’s going to take me seriously about anything I have to say or offer?

I suppose much of this is coming to terms with who, where and what I am and developing a routine that I know what I’m supposed to do and when.  Having undiagnosed ADD I’m sure has a lot to do with why and where I am at this late stage in my life.  It’s a bit ironic, sufferers of ADD have a tendency to become very self-absorbed worrying about priorities; i.e., the result being jumping from one thing to another trying to decide which to do first, which is more important; ultimately nothing gets done.  Then the depression sets in because you’ve just spent another day achieving nothing.  Yet, mutatis mundatis, when I do become focused on something, say practising the organ, I completely shut the world out to the point that I don’t eat or even sleep.  I short I become obsessed.  I just wish that happened more often.  Presently, I’m currently in a quandary.  Do I waste my time composing knowing that I’ll never hear any of my music performed, or do I waste my time practising the piano knowing that I’ll never find a singer to do the programme I want or just play in public in general?

I suppose, also, that I’ve become too complacent.  For the first time in my life, I feel as if I have stability.  I finally have a permanent home consisting of a perfectly sized house with a substantial 10,000 gallon, above ground swimming pool, in a truly idyllic community, the perfect mate, an absolutely wonderful dog, and a steady income. Perhaps it’s too good, in so far as not having a burning need or compulsion to prove anything to anybody.  The farther away I’ve moved from the organ world the more I’ve realised, notwithstanding my ingenerate love of the instrument, how toxic an environment it is.

I guess with all of this change I still a little more time to figure out where to go from here. I have a number of ideas, most of them have little or no direct connection to music; I suppose now it’s more a matter now of motivation. I realise I can’t sit on my butt all day watching re-runs of “Star Trek Voyager” (I never got the chance to watch it originally) or MSNBC (which has become more and more conciliatory to Trump and his henchmen).

Of course, it being New England in February (it’s currently [the 12th] snowing like crazy with a lot more to come) there is a tendency to just hole up and wait til Spring.  However, I know that’s not good.  There’s much more in life; I just need to feel as if I can actually contribute something and make some kind of difference not only in my life but for others.

So, we’ll see what happens.  I just hope this ennui ends and I figure out a routine in my daily life that grants me the chance to do all the things I wish to accomplish — no matter that they aren’t my dreams anymore — before I die.

 

 

 

 

The Humanoid Carbon Units Have Chosen

Why are so many Democrats surprised? You have nobody to blame but yourselves. Why? Well let’s see:
1. Thanks to Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and the neo-liberals (those who profess liberal and progressive ideals but who just as bought and sold by Wall Street as the GOP) you maintained such a strangle hold on the DNC that you quashed your chance at a PROGRESSIVE POPULIST who was in Bernie Sanders. He had the ear of the same people Trump had. However, Sanders focused his energy on UNITING people against the 1%, not fear mongering and racism, misogyny, lies, and foul language (among his other lovely traits).
During the primaries it was shown over and over again that Sanders would have soundly defeated Trump; whereas, a Clinton/Trump contest was ALWAYS considered close. But NO, the Democratic Party’s machine insisted on choosing an incredibly flawed, scandal ridden, highly damaged, uninspired candidate thinking that because being an high profile woman with all those years of experience in government was all she needed, along with all of her powerful corporate donors.
Sanders has had none of that baggage. He is a man of unimpeachable character, whose cause for all of his adult life has been economic justice for working people, from poor to the rapidly eroding middle class, and as a part of that social and educational justice. But then again we all knew that didn’t we?
2. Then there’s the media who treated Sanders as they have with all grass roots efforts — dismissively. Sanders campaign against giant corporations, don’t forget, includes the major media outlets, who  attempted for so long to ignore, even avoid, Sanders and his highly focused, positive populism.  The mass media have treated populism as primarily the domain of the far right, or, as it is now known, the alt-right — as strictly a movement of anger.  Yes, anger is often the motivation behind a populist movement; and, the major media outlets drew upon that anger as a means of paralleling Trump and Sanders.  But, here in lies the difference:  Sanders’ populism worked to channel that anger into a movement for POSITIVE change by showing poor, working class and middle class of all backgrounds, locals, colours, societal variations and education into a common, unified cause for economic justice:  out of which can then many of the societal problems can be more effectively approached.
Trump’s version of populism fits more conveniently into the mould the media prefers in which the anger is directed inwardly white vs.non-white, Christian vs Muslim vs. Jew, middle class vs. working class vs.poor, men vs. women, traditional lifestyle vs. contemporary lifestyle (not just straight vs. LGTB), the list goes on and on.  The result is demagoguery in which each group’s  anger and fear of “the other” is exploited so that each feels Trump is speaking directly to or at them (depending upon the perspective) generating this “popular” support whilst all the time destroying any semblance constructive dialogue or civility.
Unfortunately, as a result of our federal, state and local governments’ continued insistence on under or de-funding education at all levels (especially primary and secondary schools) H. L. Mencken in his essay Notes on Journalism will continue to ring true:  “No one in this world, so far as I know…has ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.  Nor has any one lost public office thereby.”

Why the Liturgy?

Throughout most of the history of the Christian Church the bedrock to the worship service has been the liturgy.  It has been the liturgy that has set Christianity apart from other religions, particularly other monotheist religions.  Even those Protestant churches to which we refer as non-liturgical are liturgical in some fashion, just in a more simplistic way devoid of any mystery or ontologism.

And that is why I find so many non-liturgical churches wanting.  Whereas, such churches as the Presbyterian, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Baptist and other less ceremonial mainstream churches (leaving out wacko fundamentalists and cults like Mormons and Christian Scientists, etc.), the focus is on the sermon.  The problem with sermon oriented service is the congregation is mostly passive, sitting there for 20 minutes to over an hour* listening to someone blather on about what they are supposed to believe from what was read earlier in scripture. Moreover, there is very little congregational participation outside of the singing of (usually 2-3) hymns (which occurs less and less nowadays) and the occasional responsive reading of a psalm, reciting the Apostle’s Creed (because it’s shorter and easier than the Nicean Creed), and the Lord’s Prayer.  Presently, in unfortunately more and more cases, the what now passes for congregational participation is nothing more than clapping to some, mediocre at best,  commercial style praise band.  The result is there is no introspection, no penitence, or spirituality, no existential perception of a greater phenomenon:  just entertainment.

So, what’s so special about the liturgy?  Well, for pretty much the opposite reasons of the sermon based service.  First, and most importantly, the focus of the liturgy is the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper to the non-liturgical), not a sermon.  Although there is a spoken lesson or, homily, by the priest, that’s all it is.  Although the dictionary defines an homily as a type of sermon, it is usually of a nondoctrinal nature, and is usually only 10 to 20 minutes in length (of course, there are always going to be anecdotal exceptions).  What is important to remember about the homily, is that its not the focus or even the summit of the service; rather, it is merely a part of the liturgy, one of its numerous aspects, which ultimately climaxes in the taking of the elements; i.e., communion.   

The other aspect of the liturgy, and perhaps most significantly, is music.  One of the saving, and ultimately civilising, graces of most major religions (with the glaring exception of one — hence its continued barbaric nature) is the incorporation of music into their various worship services, or liturgies.   In Christianity music to the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Benedictus) acts as the catalyst for the metaphysically, spiritually and overwhelmingly mystical experience of liturgy.  This usually occurs in what we commonly refer to as “high church.”  What defines high church (to me) is not only the highly ritualised format of the liturgy (colloquially known as “smells and bells” because of the extensive use of incense and the ringing of bells at critical points of the eucharist), but that it is primarily or almost entirely (except for the homily) sung.  The singing can consist of intoning (i.e., speaking on primarily one musical note) by the priest and occasionally the congregation, the singing by the choir and/or soloists, and of course, the congregational singing of hymns. 

As you can see, participation by the congregation is and has been (even in the old pre-Vatican II days) an integral part of the liturgy.  That’s how it is, and that’s how it should be.   But, this depends upon the congregation’s ability to participate naturally, so as to fully descry the essential and ultimate beauty of the liturgy.  Here’s why: 

The mystical experience that only the liturgy can give depends on many factors not easily, or phlegmatically, achieved:   a polished flow from Prelude, Introit, Kyrie, Credo, etc. to Benedictus and Postlude is paramount, and monumentally difficult to achieve.  Too many churches are all too willing to settle for the substandard, even clumsy execution of the liturgy; the result is a congregation feeling, not so much that they may have wasted an hour of their time (though many do, hence the low attendance) but, of wanting more — more metaphysically, spiritually.  On the other hand, when the liturgy is right — i.e., when the combination of superior organ playing, singing and intoning by all involved flows seamlessly from Prelude to Postlude, particularly during the eucharist — the spiritual transcendence simply cannot be described.  The problem, of course, is:   will that church be willing commit to the one thing that seems anathema to the mystical or otherworldly experience?  I’m referring to that most mundane of tasks… rehearsal.

Achieving the ultimate meaning of the liturgy — which requires us to travel mentally, or spiritually beyond our empirical, material, circadian lives — is a delicate, gossamer phenomenon.  It, like so many other worthwhile things in our lives, such as learning a language, practising music, writing poetry, painting, cooking good food, etc. demands from those leading the liturgy — the pros, so to speak — to make it work.  It’s not up to the congregation to make it work (they are the recipients not the purveyors); rather, it is the serious collaboration between musicians and clergy that “makes it work;”  and that, quite simply, requires rehearsal.  I’m not referring to a simple, slip-shod run-through like most wedding rehearsals, rather, a serious detailed rehearsal.  As they say, timing is everything; that couldn’t be more true when trying to achieve a smooth, fluid liturgy.  Even the most experienced participants, including those who have worked together for years, need to have an occasional in depth rehearsal of the service/mass so as to maintain continuity and thus ensuring the transcendent experience for the congregation.  Because, let’s face it, it is for them, those who have come to church to find, within that brief hour away from their daily struggle with the empirical world, a chance to commune with and connect to something far greater.  It’s an empyrean experience; and that comes only if the machine is well oiled and in excellent working order.

Now, there are going to be those who are uncomfortable with the liturgy of the Mass.  It all just seems so complicated and “involved.”   You are right!  Getting the hang of the mass:  figuring out where you are: the standing, the kneeling, the sitting, the kneeling some more, the standing again, etc.  When, or do or should you genuflect (which way does it go?), am I allowed to take the elements, should I take the elements, do I have to take the elements?  Yes, there is a lot involved for the congregation to do.  But, that is part of the beauty of the liturgy.  The congregant is not just a spectator.  The congregant is a participant.  What needs to be understood is that the liturgy is the great equaliser; Clergy, musicians and congregation all have their part, each substantial, each vital, to arriving to the transcendent and ineffable moment in which all become one through the unifying transcendence in that consummate mystery of communion in which all partake of and become part of the “Body of Christ.”  Whether you believe in that aspect of the theology or not is really quite incidental:  It’s the experience!  It’s what happens to you as a person and the spirituality, the metaphysical sensation — the peace — that you experience that counts.  A beautifully conceived, performed liturgy will do that, no matter what your theology or spiritual tenets. 

To those of you who find dealing with “high church” too cumbersome, or too complicated, or too “Catholic (Ugh! I hate that),”  or don’t think that Christianity is, should be, deeply metaphysical, or preternatural, then you are more than welcome to take the easy way out and worship at a church where you just sit most of the time and watch as the praise band, or whatever singers and the preacher basically do it all for you. Go ahead.  All I can say is that you are missing out on a truly resplendent, and wondrously enigmatic experience.  To bad for you.

* Curiously enough, I’ve found that the length of the sermon is often inversely proportional to the intellectual level of the theology of the clergy.

Not Quite an Hobson’s Choice, but Close

For the past few years, I’ve deliberately avoided discussing politics in my column, or social media generally, simply because it’s usually a waste of time and energy (as will be this rant).  But, sometimes the need for one to express one’s thoughts (and yes, feelings) about such matters becomes overwhelming.  I’d be curious as to how many folks here think about what’s going on, particularly as pertains to the presidential (and in many ways least important) race.

For me, I have to say this has to be the single most disappointing presidential race I have ever experienced in my, perhaps too many, years on this planet. Never, have I disliked, even been repulsed by, both candidates.  Usually one is relatively acceptable.  For me it’s usually been the Democratic candidate because I am generally of a more progressive persuasion.  Notwithstanding, that hasn’t precluded the positive aspects of the candidates from the other side.  Even Nixon was responsible for the establishment of the (now virtually moribund) National Endowment for the Arts.  At least Reagan, Ford, G.H.W. and G.W. Bush were not openly malicious, notwithstanding my disagreements with most of what they brought to the White House.  Anyway, you get my drift here.

However, this time around I have to say I am in a serious quandary.  Back in 2008 I was very much in favour of Hillary Clinton; Let’s face it Barack Obama was simply not ready for the office; and he has (very much to my regret) proved it (the reasons for this would be for another discussion).  At that time Hillary Clinton was still a very credible candidate for the office; she had not been corrupted by the secretive machinations as Secretary of State for the Obama administration.  Her credibility has been seriously undermined by her inscrutable determination to not be forthcoming on not just her incessant e-mail revelations, but her whole circumspect approach to dealings with the Foundation and in what other cryptic endeavours she and Bill have been engaged.  I’m not generally one to pay attention what the American public as a whole thinks (since I for the most part have a pretty low opinion of the American public’s irrational, emotional and largely ill-informed “thinking”), but this time around I have to concur, I find her to be vexingly disingenuous.

That being said, I then think, how can anybody in their right mind even remotely consider Donald Trump a serious contender for president?  To those of you who support his candidacy… What is wrong with you?  I know that people don’t like to be told that they are stupid, but… YOU’RE STUPID!  There is, and can be, no other explanation as to why anybody with anything other than the I.Q. of a radish, and the emotional development of a four year old, would even remotely consider this man for the office.  There simply is no excuse.

I guess what bothers me the most is that the Democratic Party had a bona fide alternative, a chance to win not only the presidency, but actually precipitate a major sea change in Washington beyond the presidential level, which I mentioned is actually less important that what is commonly referred to the “down ballot” part of this election.  Nothing could reflect more clearly the distinction between the two major parties than what happened prior to and during the conventions:

The Republicans went with the “outsider” candidate who reflected precisely all the worst qualities of the so-called base of the party:  xenophobia, racism, religious fanaticism and the worst form of jingoism, economic inequality, global arming denial, you-name-it, all packaged in the fear of anything remotely associated the government.  The result is a candidate who the majority of Americans find repulsive.  A person whose unfavourable ratings are close to 60 per cent of the public.

The Democrats on the other hand through their blatantly corrupt determination to assure their predetermined (thank you Debbie Wassermann Shultz machine candidate of choice was the chosen one despite all data that evidenced over and over again that THEIR outside candidate Bernie Sanders would have beaten Donald Trump by as much as two-to-one margins.  Why?  Because people knew Bernie Sanders was authentic.  He didn’t have innumerable skeletons in the closet, and always stayed on message — a message, by the way, to which the folks at “Black Lives Matter” blinded themselves because of their tunnel visioned approach to the political situation.

Anyway, for me the political process in this country has not only hit an all time low, it doesn’t look to improve anytime soon.  In fact, with the mass media frenzy feeding on Clintons e-mail and foundation bungling and the latest Trump crazy man faux pas on virtually anything, I don’t expect the American public to become intelligent soon — if ever.

So, I’m confronted with the “lesser of two evils” syndrome — again.  Do I vote for a big mouthed blowhard, narcissist who cannot make a decision in which he feels does not benefit him personally, or do I vote for a completely compromised, surreptitious person whose credibility ever since becoming an high profile ill-prepared member of an high-profile ill-prepared president’s cabinet?  I afraid I’m going to have to hold my nose and divine into the quagmire with the latter, for two reasons:

1) At one time she was an idealist with progressive ideas, and maybe, just maybe, if she’s elected with at least a Democratic majority in the senate she can retrieve a little of her old self

2) She’s not Donald Trump.

I really can’t stand this.

American Music on the Radio on an American Holiday

On this Memorial Day (2016) I thought this was worth a reblog.

Mostly Music and Curmudgeonry

Being the curmudgeon that I am, modern technology doesn’t generally impress me; and on those occasions where it has, such as Facebook, I have ultimately found it wanting (more about that some other time).  Nevertheless, there are those instances in which technological advancements have not only impressed me, but have actually proven to be most useful.  A case in point: internet radio.  Through the glories of digital technology I now can listen to virtually any broadcast radio station, plus any station which is solely designed to be heard on the internet through streaming, much of it via iTunes.  On any Wednesday I could be listening to a Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3, or  All Night Classics on the ABC (Australia), or L’Air du Temps on RTBF (Belgium), or something on WFMT, VPR, WRTI, WGBH, WQXR, MPR, or any of the exclusive online services such as Organlive, Connoisseur Classics, or RadioIO…

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How did This Happen?

Did you ever have one of those days later in life in which you came to the realisation that, quite literally, everything — and I mean everything — for which you strove, to which you aspired, to which you devoted essentially your entire life, gave you definition as an individual had not even remotely been fulfilled?  Somehow I doubt it.  So far, everyone I know, whether it’s from my childhood, college, to later in life (including Facebook and other social media) has to some extent achieved a level of success in life.  It may not be exactly that for which one originally strove, but it may have been close; or, at least, a not unreasonable approximation.  Then there are those who found a level of success in a completely different field altogether.  You may have started out wanting to be a musician, but somewhere along the line, whether for personal, philosophical or simply practical (i. e., financial) reasons you ventured into a completely different line of work.  Or, as in the case with many, perhaps most, artistic people, you found a way to do both and still manage to attain some satisfaction in your artistic endeavours.

I, on the other hand, have failed abysmally.  Mind you, I really don’t blame anyone but myself; and perhaps, the occasional uncontrollable circumstance.  Nevertheless, I fully realise that, as the cliché goes, since I made my bed I must sleep in it.  That doesn’t palliate the remorse or regret, much less the pain.  In fact, it only militates against any assuagement of my despondency.  All it does is remind me of the sequence of bad decisions I have made throughout most of my life, the first and worst of which was wanting to be a musician — an organist in particular.  But, that was only the first of many, many unfortunate, notwithstanding good intentioned, decisions:  most of which were what I had considered at the time to be pragmatic or realistic junctures in light of my relative youth and aspirations, but were actually more survival expediencies than goal directed stratagems.  Some decisions turned out to be just plain stupid; but, stupidity is the special preserve for the young — I guess.  Eventually we’re supposed to grow out of the stupid phase; you know, the “with age comes wisdom” thing.  Unfortunately, wisdom comes a little (or a lot) too late.   

You see, there is this really noisome trait I have — rationalisation.  I can’t tell you the number of times I left a situation — either personally or professionally — and learned very soon how bad a mistake it was.  Now, almost everybody has done this sort of thing at one time or another.  But, it seems there are those of us who have made a career of making decisions later to be regretted.  Not occasionally, not seldom, or sporadically, but steadily, constantly, habitually.  Everyone of these decisions were attempts to get myself into a situation in which I could finally find the time and space to consistently practise my craft and get my musical career back on track (operating under the delusion that it actually was at one time).  Unfortunately, to list these unfortunate decisions is not within the purview of this rant and would be far too numerous much less humiliating.  I have to live with these incomprehensibly obtuse decisions.

And now?  Now I have pretty much abandoned the art form to which I had devoted my life.  The three aspects of music in which I had hoped in some fashion to succeed — conducting, composition, the organ (not necessarily in that order), I now know will never happen.  Conducting I gave up long ago, even though I am an innate conductor: vastly superior, even now at this unpractised stage in my life, to 99% of the boneheads out there;.

As to the organ, since moving to Boston and receiving the decided cold shoulder from “my guild,”  I have pretty much bid my adieus.  This explains my not adding any further installations to my commentary in the “Choral #3 in a” by César Franck.  What the hell good is it to express ideas about how to perform a piece of music if you can’t actually demonstrate those ideas?  At this point I don’t even have the confidence to apply for a church job simply because I don’t feel I could execute a decent audition anymore.  Ultimately, I guess, it’s a good thing.  At least I’ve come to acknowledge the reality of my pathetic station as an erstwhile organist.  Oh, but there’s an additional sad irony:  I masochistically signed up as a volunteer for a number of activities for the AGO convention when it was here in Boston.  How’s that for pathetic?

Composing?  The last and most hurtful failure of all.  As a composer one always has in the back of his/her head the hope that, no matter how remote, someone will eventually perform your music.  Little disgusts me more than the successful composer — or even the “unsuccessful” one who has only had a few pieces performed — who, in responding to the lamentations of his/her completely unperformed brother or sister, pontificates about how one should be doing it only for itself; that composing is an end in and of itself; you do it for the sake of the art, not for the glory, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah.  That’s easy for them to say.  They’ve been performed, no matter how infrequently.  They’ve heard their music performed by someone other than themselves in their studio or living room.  Every composer, I don’t care how artistically virtuous, composes with idea that he or she has something to share with the world, that each and every creation is meant to be heard; i. e., performed.  When that hope, even in the most perfunctory or trifling manner miscarries, that desire, that compulsion to create eventually disintegrates and eventually atrophies.  Why bother?  I don’t expect my “colleagues,” “brother or sister” composers (much less performers) to sympathise, empathise or even remotely understand.  At this point I rightly don’t care.

You see, there’s huge frustration here.  I listen works by people who have absolutely no business calling themselves composers — but, then again considering our current environment —  and yet, their music gets performed.   Even worse, they get paid to write their drivel and even win prizes for it (case in point Libby Larsen’s little ditty she composed for the 2014 AGO Convention in Boston). I don’t need to go into why, We all pretty much know that talent has little to do with winning competitions or receiving commissions.

All of us have experienced failure and disappointment at various times in our lives, some of us more than others, some of us more than most.  And then there are those of us who, in spite of our best efforts to the contrary, persist upon bungling it.  I guess some of us are born to screw up; which brings me back to the rationalisation factor.  Long after it had become clear that I was not going to achieve anything near, or even remote, to my musical aspirations I somehow convinced myself that there was still hope.

Anyway, it’s taken a long time, but I think I may have come to terms with my life of “should-haves”  and failures — noble and ignoble. I realise at this late date that whatever I do from here on out just becomes another facet of the survival mode into which I have fallen.  Oh, there are plenty of excuses, some of them plausible, even valid; but, at this point it really doesn’t make any difference. I just have to content myself with knowing that my knowledge, skill, talent and innate musical acumen notwithstanding, I  will live out my years as the organist without an organ, the conductor without ensemble (vocal or instrumental), the accompanist without partner, the teacher without a student, the writer without a reader, the composer without a performer, the performer without an audience.

Ain’t life grand?

Mahler 8 in Phila.

It’s always a special occasion when Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #8 in Eb, also known as the “Symphony of a Thousand,” is performed.  However, this series of performances in March of 2016 has even greater significance since it was one hundred years ago that the then 28 year old new Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra Leopold Stokowski gave the American premier, using literally over a thousand performers (including choruses).  It was the performance that put Philadelphia in the map and, as WRTI announcer Greg Whiteside said “it hasn’t wavered since.”   Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin commanded forces not only of a greatly expanded orchestra (including 8 French Horns, a mandolin, harmonium and full organ, plus an addition off stage brass band of 4 trumpets and 3 trombones, but also 8 soloists, two large choirs and a boys choir.  It’s pretty big, and Maestro Nézet-Séguin held the reins very firmly.  It was most fitting I suppose that not only was this performance celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Mahler 8th in America, but only a few days earlier Maestro Nézet-Séguin had celebrated his own 41st birthday.  Nice.

Unfortunately, I think partly because of the problematic acoustics of Verizon Hall the sound was not very good.  Mike placement was almost entirely focused on the strings and the chorus and soloists were very much in the background.  As a result, it was difficult to get a good sense of how the choirs really sounded.  Overall, from what I could determine from the sound it was quite satisfactory.  With that caveat out of the way I thought  Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation was right on spot.  The dynamics were faithfully followed, for the most part, and the tempi were absolutely perfect! 

Yet, for some reason getting good soloists for this piece has always been a problem.  And this was no exception.  The main difficulty is finding a lyric soprano capable of singing the Mater Gloriosa part, who also is usually the soprano (unnamed) solo during the beginning of the final chorus (Das Ewige-Weibliche — The Eternal-Feminine).  This section requires the soprano to unobtrusively approach and then effortlessly pick out (or “float” to) a pianissimo high C.  I’ve never understood why conductors over and over again: Bernstein, Solti, Haitink, etc. almost invariably choose the wrong soprano to do this.  Of the dozen or more recordings and performances I’ve heard of this piece only two have had a soprano who actually gets it right: 1) Donald Runnicles 2010 performance with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, which in this case Erin Wall (Una Poenitentium here in Phila.) was Magna Peccatrix, but also did the high C and did it beautifully; and 2) a 1960 outdoor festival performance in Vienna with Dimitri Mitropoulos, with all of its shortcomings, was more than compensated with Mimi Coertse’s Mater Gloriosa and her absolutely impeccable, astonishing pianississimo C from which she grows the most delicate crescendo.  I can only assume that this singing was precisely what Mahler imagined.  I have never heard ANYBODY, no matter how famous, do this so perfectly.  Of course, as you can imagine, unfortunately Angela Meade* fell a little short.  She was an unfortunate choice, she had a total lack of control, resulting in the kind of straight tone one experiences from strain, albeit fairly quiet (about mp), but strain just the same.  It wouldn’t mean so much if this wasn’t such crucial point the score; which is why it baffles me so much that conductors treat this moment so cavalierly that one would think that they’re just thinking: “Oh, she’s a lyric we’ll have her sing the C,”  without hearing it first.

OK, enough of the “high C.”  Among the other soloists interestingly enough two others who have recently sung this work together stood out as exceptional:  the previously mentioned Erin Wall and bass John Reylea who sang Pater Profundis with Ms. Wall in 2010.  Among the other soloists special maention needs to be made for mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Bishop who was called in at the last minute to replace Stephanie Blythe as Mulier samaritana and did it with aplomb.  Also Mihoko Fujimura (Mater Ægyptiaca) had a rich almost velvety sound closer to a contralto.  Baritone Markus Werba did quite nicely in his short Pater Esctaticus solo, although he had to belt out his high G contrary to Mahler’s p indication; but, then again, I have yet to hear a baritone hit an high G softly then crescendo as the score indicates; methinks Gus was asking just a little too much.  I mean, seriously folks, if Hermann Prey couldn’t do who can? The tenor,  Anthony Dean Griffey (Doctor Marianus) seemed adequate to the task it was, again difficult to discern, as in case of all the singers, because of the less than satisfactory sound.   Nevertheless, Lisette Oropesa sang Mater Gloriosa most delicately and serenely.  Her pianissimo high B was sublime and gave me hope that she would be the one to sing the “zieht uns hinan” C. I should have realised that would have been impossible since she would have had to hightail down from one of the upper tiers of the auditorium down to the stage.  It might have been possible; but, it would have asked too much for her to give that note what she more than likely normally would have given it.  That was very unfortunate indeed.

 What I really liked about this performance was that Maestro Nézet-Séguin was not afraid of letting the organ be heard.  More than the 2nd Symphony, this one has a substantial organ part, pedal runs included.  I could kiss Michael Stairs for giving that part everything it is suppose to have without exceeding the composer’s wishes. MWAH!  Again, I can only imagine how much better everything just have been live.  Unfortunately, now that I’m in Boston I couldn’t get to hear it in person and had to settle for the broadcast; I couldn’t hear the mandolin and could only barely hear the harmonium. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, the singing, it seemed to me, was treated very much as secondary by the engineers and the strings over emphasised.

So, what about the choirs?  As if I’m not in enough trouble already, let me say this:  since it was not made clear to those not present I couldn’t tell who was Choir I or Choir II.  I think overall (again compensating for the crappy sound) Choir I had a fuller, dare I say richer, sound than Choir II.  Now this difference is slight.  Both choirs sounded quite well, but, the sopranos and tenors in Choir II, in the softer sections, lacked warmth and richness of tone, i.e., no vibrato (the kind of English sound that Simon Rattle likes).  As I said, I don’t know who was whom, I just hope Westminster was Choir I.  In any event all I can is that a John Finley Williamson, Warren Martin, Elaine Brown, or George Lynn choir wouldn’t have needed any help.  I know, because they didn’t.  Notwithstanding, it’s always great to hear this piece performed, especially, as in this case, in a most satisfactory performance indeed.

*this is a correction to my original text in which I assumed that Ms. Oropesa was to be the soprano in the final chorus to sing the “hinan C.”   I have since learned (via my good friend Thomas Faracco, who WAS there) that Ms. Meade was chosen for the task, which explained much of my conclusions.  Thank you Tom.

Thoughts on Hearing a Westminster Choir Concert

I’ve been thinking about a concert I recently attended given by the Westminster Choir.  This is the elite touring choir that, as the folks at Westminster Choir College of Rider University say (Ugh! I still can’t get used to the idea that Ray Robinson had the insolence to convince the board to negotiate the sale of a first of its class music school to a second rate university after dragging it it down into financial ruin), is the core of the larger and more public Westminster Symphonic Choir, which most people hear as the choir performing large scale works with an orchestra such as the upcoming Gustav Mahler Symphony #8 with the Philadelphia Orchestra this spring.

The Westminster Choir is an excellent choir by most standards of what is currently the current vogue in choral singing.  And that’s what bothers me — the current, or should I say dominant, vogue in choral singing in which choirs, no matter what their make-up or the period/style is, sing with no vibrato, particularly in the women’s voices.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not so dogmatic as to insist that straight tone not ever be used — I don’t think Monteverdi should sound like Verdi. Which is why I found the William Byrd Miserere mei, Deus particularly compelling.  The problem lay in the 19th and early 20th Century works specifically the Brahms “An die Heimat” from the Op.64 Three Quartets, the wonderfully lush Aftonen of Hugo Alfven (of Swedish Rhapsody #1 fame) and the Debussy Trois Chansons.   What I find disturbing is when romantic music (yes, including the Debussy since they were written in 1898) such as this is given the English boy choir effect they lose their richness and warmth.  Typically it’s the sopranos which are the primary (but not the only) culprits for the harshness, sometimes brittleness that results from singing in this manner.

Most glaring, however, was the Poulenc Mass in G Major.   Now, the Poulenc Mass is a fiendishly difficult piece.  The tessiturae have a tendency to be high particularly for sopranos and baritones, who seem to be considered more as second or third tenors having to sing E’s and F#’s frequently.  Notwithstanding, the men sounded fine.  For some reason it’s okay for men to sing in full voice but not so much the women.  Even then, since the range for the altos isn’t quite so demanding their vocalism sounded more natural.  Unfortunately, the sopranos have to deal with an uncommonly high tessitura and are therefore more exposed.  And that is my point:  singing this music with an English Renaissance vocalism can come off hard and quite literally tiresome to the listener.  The listener gets this uncomfortable feeling (empathy) during high notes, and is at best just a hard, cold sound.  One doesn’t sense that singers are singing from above the note but are reaching for it.  No matter how well placed their breath the effect is anything but a beautiful sound.  The Mass in G is not a piece to be sung in the “straight tone” manner.  I really don’t care what the justification is, this type of choral singing has its limitations, just as singing in full vibrato does.  A balance must be found.  I’m sure Joe Miller thought that he was achieving this balance; but it’s pretty clear that he reflects the overwhelming prevalence toward straight-tone on most, if not all, choral singing.  The rest of the concert was made up of a lot of inconsequential, highly unmemorable pieces, with possible exception of Ev’ry Time I Fell the Spirit as arranged by William Dawson; which significantly was one of the few moments where the choir had the opportunity to “sing out” so to speak.  But, full throated singing shouldn’t be relegated to just loud pieces.

I really just wanted to concentrate on the choral sound of the Westminster Choir, but this “Angel Band” and “Tapestry of Voices” thing was at best kitschy and more than not, simply obnoxious with all the overtones of the current trend in “pop” style church music.  This whole idea of having people write down what they’re supposedly feeling at that moment and then photographing them for inclusion into some collage back at the WCC campus smacked of not just a little disingenuousness.  I mean, seriously, who is going to write down “irritated” or “depressed” or “pissed off” and then have their photograph taken for public display?  Then there was the “Angel Band” with the “fiddle,” banjo, guitar, and electric bass with its faux Appalachian flavour and the little interludes where members of the choir would take some of these photos and put them into a bowl before the audience; some singing in their pop, soul, or “broadway” style of singing.  I was not impressed with either the singing or the phoney sentiment.  I suppose it was fitting that the setting was a Catholic church.

Back to the choral sound.  Westminster used to represent a unique concept of choral singing.  It’s a type of choral singing which requires a certain physicality; choral singing which requires a particular type of vocalism: one which uses a full vibrato (though not always), and a solid diaphragmatic attack.  It’s the kind of singing that a performance of the Beethoven Missa Solemnis Op.123 with the full New York Philharmonic only needs a choir of 80 — as opposed to 180 or more voices.  It’s the kind of singing in which the overtone produced makes a piano’s strings ring sympathetically.  It’s the kind of singing in which one soprano can float a pianissimo G over the entire Symphonic Choir with enough overtone to sound like an entire section.  I heard none of that at the concert.  With the rather ironic exception of the Byrd, which, even with the period style had a warm, yet crystalline beauty, and the very delicately handled Stephen Paulus Hymn to the Eternal Flame which bookended the Byrd, that rich tone, that overtone I mentioned earlier, was seriously missing in Poulenc.  The Dawson was closer but still seemed a bit thin compared to when George Lynn would to a spiritual.

This special sound (whether you like it or not) was cultivated, perfected if you will, over many years by WCC’s founder John Finley Williamson; and was maintained its continuity by his students who also made up the majority of the voice faculty and the entire conducting faculty.  A student, whether a voice major or a voice minor (EVERYBODY had to study voice) could go from a choir rehearsal to a voice lesson or class and get the same training; each was an extension of the other.  Such is not the case today.  Beginning with Ray Robinson replacing George Lynn (who presciently resigned in 1971) with Arthur Sjogren as the touring choir conductor, and then hiring Joseph Flummerfelt the following year to head the conducting department, therefore leading both the touring and symphonic choirs, foretold the beginning of the end to the Westminster tradition of choral singing and conducting.   

Today, out what is ostensibly 32 voice teachers (practically, if not all of which are adjunct) only five have had any Westminster training and only two of those from teachers who learnt from a Williamson student.  Of the 5 members of the choral conducting faculty — the foundation upon which WCC was built — NONE are Westminster grads.  Is it any wonder that the Westminster Choirs no longer have the sound that was unique to Westminster Choir College?  In fact, I personally feel Rider U and its little musical toy WCC have made a conscious effort to exclude Westminster grads of more traditional training from the conducting faculty.  Why else would they pass up on a more than qualified and devoted Westminster alumnus with more than sufficient experience and a solid  Westminster background for some one who has had absolutely no prior connection with the school to be the conductor of the Chapel (freshman) Choir, the choir upon which all other Westminster choirs had been (not now) built?

Nevertheless, let me reiterate:  the Westminster Choir I heard at that concert was very good.  Musicianship was superb, intonation was as close to immaculate as a 40 voiced primarily a cappella choir can get, especially in meeting the tonal challenges presented by the Poulenc Mass.  Nevertheless, it could have been better; particularly the sopranos.  Too many times when singing those A’s and B’s the sound was not a beautiful sound, but piercing.  Not shrill or screechy but hard and and lacking warmth.  A little more focussing of the breath with some natural vibrato would have gone a long way to making those fortissimo moments a little less brittle and more sumptuous.

I realise I’m in a decided minority here, the odd man out so to speak.  But, that’s okay with me; as an organ student at WCC (it was still an independent school then), I was essentially the only unabashed Virgil Fox devoteé among a very purist minded organ department.  But now the pendulum has swung back in the organ world where not everything needs to be played on an Arp Schnitger type instrument.  Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening anytime soon in the choral world, especially at my old Alma Mater.