Monthly Archives: April 2009

Sorry-Grateful

sondheim-1

OK, well, admittedly, I did get to speak to Stephen Sondheim TWICE today.  The first time, I asked him a question about orchestrators.  Namely, why did he use Michael Starobin on “Sunday in the Park with George”, which I find to be such a dreadful orchestration.  (Side note: one thing I apparently did not learn from Sondheim today was that you can criticize the deceased to your heart’s content, but hold your tongue when it comes to the living.  Oops.)

Turns out, Starobin was the house orchestrator of the theater company that first mounted “Sunday”, and Steve told Jonathan Tunick who turned out to be working on another show.  The only Sondheim orchestration I like less than “Sunday” is “Assassins”, another Starobin work, but in truth, I do find it hard to separate what I don’t like about the music itself in those scores from what I specifically dislike about the orchestration.

Sondheim came to IU today and delivered two talks: one in the afternoon for students of the Theater Department (i.e. not Music) — into which I snuck, and one in the evening at the IU Auditorium.

I went to both, and, despite the fact that I have read every major book about the man and his work, I did learn a few things.  For example, did you know that he wanted to switch “Officer Krupke” and “Cool” in West Side Story for the original stage version of West Side Story?  And when they finally did it in the movie version, he ended up saying it didn’t work!

Also, I was so glad to hear him say that the central conceit behind the current revival of West Side (the Sharks singing and speaking in Spanish) backfired on Arthur Laurents.  Incidentally, it seems that the version playing in NYC now is significantly less bilingual than the Washington preview that I saw.  So, if it’s only used in one or two scenes, what’s the point??  As Mr. Sondheim said, the Sharks might look menacing at the beginning of the show, but as soon as they start dancing, you’re not afraid anymore!  Also, he pointed out that the Sharks end up looking so much better to the audience then the dimwitted Jets since we see that they have the sophistication of speaking two languages.

But I simply can’t agree with him that the film version of Sweeney is any good.  He says it’s the only film musical that works for him.  For me, it doesn’t work at all.  Helena Bonham Carter was a total mist-cast.  His theory that her low-energy portrayal of Mrs. Lovett somehow adds to the context of the movie just doesn’t hold water with me.

Now for my personal tragedy with regards to today’s fora.  I ran — RAN, I tell you! — all the way around the IU Auditorium to the stage entrance at the end of the second talk.  To my amazement, there were only like 2 other people waiting to greet Mr. Sondheim.  And after waiting another 20 minutes for him to exit the theater, some sycophant comes out of the door and proclaims that, “Mr. Sondheim will not be signing anything.”

AAHHHHHH!!!  I had brought my score of Into the Woods and a Sharpie for him to sign it with!  He couldn’t spare 5 seconds to write his name on a piece of paper?  Perhaps he was expecting a bigger crowd and didn’t want to be detained, but come on Steve!!  I did get to thank him though, and he did acknowledge it, so I guess that’s pretty good.

Still, it was a disappointment…

PS. Steve says you can sing his songs in any key — there is no large scale key structure when he writes a musical, unlike a Puccini opera or some such.

Thank you for Bea-ing a Friend!

dorothy

I know I’m a few days late to be talking about dear departed Bea, but let me just add to the fray that I hope we won’t forget about her successful broadway career that was well under way before she hit the small screen.  This included playing Lucy in Marc Blitztein’s 1956 American production of The Threepenny Opera.

Additionally, I’ll nominate what I consider to be the best Dorothy episodes of the GG’s:

“Stan Takes a Wife” : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ja5B7z4cbmI

“Love Me Tender” : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cjj_LRUOu5Y

“Sick and Tired”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCyvJ9gZYKU

Choosing Dorothy’s best episodes is naturally an exercise in futility — they were all her best.  I know it’s sacrilege to say this about a show with the best ensemble cast ever, but the show really was about Dorothy.  Her relationship with Sophia and Stan really defined so many episodes and her wedding at the end of the series is what ended the show.

So sniff, swig and puff one for Bea — her cares are gone now.

New Website

Don’t you just LOVE my glamorous new web site?  It combines the things that I love most: me, my music, and gold (see the background).  My really good friend and righteous composer Stephanie Smith designed the hell out of this thing.  Kudos and thanks!

Getting the content ready for this site, I’ve been out of the blogging game for like a week.  Just a few things:

1) Closure to the Paavo Järvi debâcle.

2) More gossip about the Rufus Wainwright opera.  Burrrn.  My hopes are still high though!

3) Liberace: The Musical.

And finally, there are shows on YouTube now.  Great idea, but boy, so many issues.  For one, could somebody please TURN THE VOLUME UP??  I’ve got my speakers as high as they will go, and I can still hardly hear the Jack Benny Program.  Do they know who their audience is for that show?  It’s people who need it a little louder.

Also, isn’t it so disappointing when you see shows from your childhood that you adored and it turns out they really, really suck?  Case in point: ALF.  I guess I shouldn’t really admit that I ever liked it, but I definitely remember thinking it was just swell.  I really hope that they don’t put up “Small Wonder” and “Mr. Belvedere”, because I have a feeling I might be crushed.

Ok, this is the LAST thing, but I also watched an episode of He-Man.  When I was 4, He-Man was basically the beginning and end of my world.  Despite that, I had really forgotten even the most basic elements of the show and I must say that on review I am confused.  And I mean confused.  It’s amazing what slips by you when you’re a kid.

442 is just too annoying!!!

Sandow’s view of the YouTube Symphony is uncannily similar to mine.  As such:

And maybe the highlight of the concert was a new Tan Dun piece, Internet Symphony No. 1, “Eroica,” which was triumphantly vulgar (I loved every moment of it, including the flamboyant quotes from the Eroica Symphony), and also played with an explosive exuberance I didn’t hear in the other pieces. This was exactly what I would have loved to hear throughout the evening, and which would have made me love the concert, no matter what detailed faults I heard. Maybe the piece sounded so good because the musicians had rehearsed their parts individually with Tan, online. Or maybe it’s an easy piece to play. Or maybe — how’s this for heresy? — Tan is a better conductor than MTT (at least in his own work), and/or was more fun to work with.

OK, well, I actually didn’t think quite so highly of Tan Dun’s piece — I thought it had a good start, but the introduction of that really sentimental brass theme (was anyone else thinking Andrew Lloyd Webber?) was pretty hokey — even though I thought it was used to good effect later in the piece.

A more fun conductor to work with than MTT?  How could anybody possibly more fun than this?

M — can I call you M? — just a piece of advice: maybe it’s not the best way to kick off the first rehearsal of this exciting, youthful music project with an esoteric tuning arbitration.  Somehow it just doesn’t make for great YouTube viewing… in that 30 seconds, I would imagine that 97% of your viewership was wondering what the hell you were talking about.  Why not just let the oboist play the note that he wanted to without making some pretentious comment about “Viennese in our midst”?  Don’t you think that might have been just a little bit better?

PS. I totally saw my friend Dash in this video — Congrats!

Addenda

I was just in Chicago giving another talk at Symphony Center on Monday and, as usual, I came totally over-prepared and unable to cover even a fraction of what I wanted to talk about.  The subject was Appalachian Spring and Symphonie Fantastique — kind of a disparate program, but from a lecturer’s point of view, it’s a dream come true: both pieces have so much interesting background and, more importantly, so much that you can hear in the music. Plus, there’s just so much documentation and critical appraisal from which to draw.

Here are some snarky little addenda to my talk, and interesting things I found while researching:

1) The Berlioz is written for 2 Ophicleides.  OK, nothing groundbreaking about that point, but rarely does one get to hear the instrument in action:

roberts_wife_with_ophicleides

http://www.willcwhite.com/audio/Ophecleide%20sample%20clip.mp3

That’s Douglas Yeo of the BSO. (The audio, not the picture)

Here’s what Berlioz had to say about the Ophicleide:

There is nothing more coarse, I might almost say more monstrous or less fit to harmonise with the rest of the orchestra … It is as if a bull escaped from its stall had come to play off its vagaries in the middle of a drawing room.

That’s from the Treatise on Orchestration and Instrumentation (p. 175).

Seems kinda harsh, no?

Here’s a lovely little poem I found about the Ophecleide.  I think it’s just charming:

The Ophicleide, like mortal sin
Was fostered by the serpent.
It’s pitch was vague, it’s tone was dim,
It’s timbre, rude and burpant.

Composers, in a secret vote,
Declared its sound non grata.
And that’s why Wagner never wrote
An Ophicleide sonata.

Thus spurned, it soon became defunct.
To gross neglect succumbing.
Some were pawned, but most were junked,
Or used for indoor plumbing.

And so this ill wind, badly blown,
Has now completely vanished.
I nominate the Heckelphone
To be the one next banished.

Farewell, offensive Ophicleide,
Your epitaph is chiseled.
“I died of Ophicleidicide.
I tried, alas, but fizzled!”

LOL!  If there’s anything funnier than ophicleide humor, I haven’t found it.

2) I think the Symphonie Fantastique contains the single worst bar in the entire standard orchestral litterature.  To wit:

First, there’s the call from the flute, then the response from the horn in the distance, then – Hey there Hector, not quite.  I don’t think we can let that transition slide… just where did he come up with those pitches?  No, that won’t do at all.

3) OK, this I did talk about, but I just can’t resist including it, because Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording with SanFran is just so damn good.  Have you ever heard rhythmic dissonance quite like the end of this clip?

Hot.

I’ve found that since I have to edit my remarks at these talks on the fly, it’s a real good idea to keep a closing line hidden up your sleeve, a real zinger to cap things off and leave the crowd smiling and eager to listen.  Just my luck, my boy LB had the perfect such material:

Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.