Sunday, September 30, 2007

Lost in Translation 2

Here's the other interpreter-related bauble I promised:

KEVIN: Is this king nuts? He can't send me to the salt mines! If he had any brains, he would send me to the kichens. I'm a great cook!

INTERPETER (in native lingo): May His Worshipful Majesty live a thousand years! Perhaps it would please His Worshipful Majesty to try his abject slave in the kitchen.

KING: What is this wretch's specialty?

INTERPRETER (to Kevin): The king is intrigued. Do you have a particular dish in mind?

KEVIN: Pizza. I manage a Papa John's in Muscatine.

INTERPRETER (in native lingo): If it please His Worshipful Majesty, his abject slave specializes in pizza, which he prepares in his father's toilet in the capital city of Oman.

KING: What is this pizza? I have never heard of it.

INTERPRETER (to Kevin): Describe what a pizza is made of.

KEVIN: Well, first you mix up the dough for the crust, let it rise, punch it down, and toss it in the air until it's a flat disk, about so big around.

INTERPRETER (in native lingo): His Worshipful Majesty's abject slave starts by beating a loaf of leavened bread flat, so that it appears to be unleavened. Then His Worship Majesty's abject slave throws it around the room a bit.

KEVIN: Then you brush on some olive oil and a goodly amount of tomato sauce.

INTERPRETER: One then smears the bread with fuel and the concentrated juice of the deadly nightshade berry.

KEVIN: Cover it with shredded Mozzarella cheese.

INTERPRETER: Conceal the poison with crumbs of rotten cow's milk.

KEVIN: And top it all off with whatever you like: pepperoni, anchovies, pork sausage, mushrooms, onions, olives...

INTERPRETER: Finally, one conceals the rotten milk with various items that His Worshipful Majesty's abject slave fancies that His Worshipful Majesty would like, such as small peppers that burn the mouth, tiny salted fish with the bones left in, mutilated body parts of an unclean animal, poisonous fungi that grow on the forest floor, plant roots that cause men to cry and dogs to die, and a byproduct from the fuel-refining process.

KEVIN: Bake it until the cheese is all melted and the edges are slightly brown. Then slice it up and enjoy!

INTERPRETER: One roasts it in the oven until the rotten milk goes runny and the fuel-soaked bread begins to burn. One then cuts it up and serves it to His Worshipful Majesty.

KING (appalled): Help! Assassin! Take this lunatic to the salt mines and never let him near my kitchen! By the way, Cook, what's for dinner?

COOK (who also happens to be the INTERPRETER): His Worshipful Majesty's favorite - calf's blood soup with sheep's eyeballs and jellied monkey brains!

Lost in Translation 1

'Tisn't the season, but I've had this whimsical dialogue on the backburner for long enough, and I can't wait until Lent to try it out. Standby for a similar gag based on a more secular theme.

MISSIONARY: Tell the headman thanks very much for the roast alligator foot, but I cannot eat it because it is Lent.

INTERPRETER (in native lingo): Jesus-man says he does not eat because it is springtime.

HEADMAN (perplexed): What is that supposed to mean?

INTERPRETER (to missionary): Headman desires you to explain.

MISSIONARY: In Lent, Christians are supposed to mortify the flesh.

INTERPRETER (in native lingo): Jesus-men slaughter their meat during the springtime.

MISSIONARY: This means fasting and self-denial.

INTERPRETER: They do this quickly, while saying "No" to themselves.

MISSIONARY: In particular, we are not to eat rich food during Lent.

INTERPETER: They especially do not eat people who have many possessions in the springtime.

HEADMAN (more perplexed than ever): Why do they do this?

INTERPETER: Headman asks, what is the purpose of this?

MISSIONARY: It is a kind of self-discipline.

INTERPRETER (in native lingo): This is how the Jesus-men make themselves strong.

MISSIONARY: It helps us loosen the ties of earth...

INTERPRETER: So they can escape from bonds when they are staked to the ground...

MISSIONARY: ...and focuses our eyes on the Lord.

INTERPRETER: ...and they aim their arrows at the headman.

MISSIONARY: It really brings us closer to the Holy One.

INTERPRETER: They can sneak up within arm's reach of a witch doctor.

MISSIONARY: Also, it saves money that we can use to feed the poor.

INTERPETER: They also force widows and orphans to eat gold.

MISSIONARY: This brings joy to the hosts of heavenly angels.

INTERPRETER: This makes glad an invisible army from the sky.

HEADMAN (terrified): Give this monster anything he wants! We want no trouble from him!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Parental Proverbs

I've been thinking about some of the more colorful words of wisdom I picked up from my parents when I was a child. Where do parents get material like this? Who comes up with this stuff?

Mom made childhood interesting with a repertoire of bizarre similes: "Slicker than snot on a doorknob"..."Off like a dirty shirt"..."Drop you like a sack of potatoes"..."Making out like a bandit"...

Dad had memorable ways of driving home a point. When I performed in school below my potential: "Use your brains for something besides fertilizer for hair." When I was depressed by peer pressure: "If everyone says you're a tree, does that make you a tree? If everyone jumps off a bridge, do you have to jump too?" When I demanded something he couldn't afford to get for me: "Want in one hand, $#@% in the other, and see which fills up fastest." And when he wanted to stress the importance of prompt obedience: "When I say $#@%, you ask: 'What color?'"

Mom also had a quiverful of eccentric ways to steer me away from bad behavior. To warn me not to get in the way of trucks and heavy equipment: "There won't be anything left of you but a grease spot on the ground." To admonish me about bad habits: "It's all fun until one day you wake up dead."

Dad, with the instincts of a standup comic, has a witty retort for every occasion and a goofball name for almost everything. He calls the cordless phone "the port-a-potty." The HVAC in his home is known as "the bug sucker." Scalloped potatoes and ham have become "funeral food." When one of our apartments had a room whose purpose could not be guessed, he dubbed it "the torture chamber." When someone said or did something stupid, he quipped, "Let me guess: you just washed your brain and you can't do a thing with it." One of my long-time friends frequently reminds me of the time he greeted my Dad with the words, "You're back," and Dad replied, "My front too."

I could add more, and probably will as time goes on. There are some I can't share in public, but they're at least as funny. So once more you see where I get it all from...

Friday, September 28, 2007

Sick & Tired

I'm still sick. I did take Wednesday off from work, went to my doctor, got a prescription for a nice strong nasal decongestant. I believe sleep is the best medicine, but it's hard to get to sleep when your airway is so restricted that your nose makes a sound like a duck quacking.

I went back to work on Thursday, even though I had just found out (too late) that my doctor's miracle drug had its own way of preventing sleep. Nobody at the doctor's office or the pharmacy told me this - just "take each pill with a full glass of water" - I didn't get the news until the wee hours of Thursday morning, when I went to Walgreen's to buy Breathe-Right strips and the pharmacist there gave me the news. So I have to make sure I take both daily doses of this wonder-drug before about 4 p.m. So I wonder whether it's actually doing anything to help me sleep at night!

I have a new nightly routine now. I take a swig of Robitussin because, darn it, the phlegm finally did drip down into my chest. I snort a saline solution into each nostril (also on the advice of the Walgreen's pharmacist). I wash and dry the outside of my nose and stick a breathe-right strip on it. And I think happy thoughts about how much better I feel than I did on Tuesday and Wednesday. The rest of the day I float along on a Pseudovent buzz, suck sugar-free cough drops, and drink lots of V8.

I'm letting the Kleenex drop where it will, & it's beginning to form drifts up the walls of my apartment. I'm interested to see how deep it gets before my nasal crisis settles down.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sick Day...Not

Yesterday I started to get sick. Headache, hot and cold running mucus, a bit of swelling under the tongue. I got through my afternoon commitments by carrying a box of Puffs with me everywhere. Felt lousy. Went to bed, got out of bed to try a different medication, went back to bed, slept two hours, got up again to use the bathroom, and repeat, all night.

When my alarm went off this morning I was SORELY tempted to call in to work and plead sickness. In fact, I really should have; I probably made everyone at work sick today. But I had a disk that someone urgently needed, so I had to get my sorry keister going somehow. With the two-hour (round trip) commute, there was no point in dropping off the disk and heading back to bed. I just had to find a full day's work in me somewhere.

Well, thank God, I did find it. But I also found an intestinal complication that added to my martyrdom. Plus, my throat was scratchy after swallowing nasal drainage half the night (the half that I actually slept), adding an occasional cough that did nothing to help the headache. Nevertheless I worked productively and kept food down. But I thought often about my lonely pillow, pining to have my head laid on it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Heavingly Tackiness

Now shining on the lighted sign at the ELCA church down the street:


I have a hypothesis: A "Christian" church grows more tolerant of pious tackiness as any meaningfully Christian content drains out of its message. The tacky, bumper-sticker theology quoted above may back me up on this. If Christ had any influence on this church's theology, it would say rather: "WHAT HAS THE KING OF HEAVEN DONE ON EARTH FOR YOU?"

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Opening Night at Powell

Last night I had a free ticket to hear the Symphony Orchestra its opening weekend. They kicked off their 40th season at Powell Symphony Hall with a piece they played at the first symphony concert in Powell in 1968.

The concert began with a relatively new work by Christopher Rouse, titled Rapture. As conductor and music director David Robertson pointed out in his pre-concert "perspectives" talk, this piece is a long way from the "vinegar and ground grass" type of modern music Robertson has become famous for programming. In fact it didn't sound particularly dissonant or strange or ungrateful to the orchestra. It was a joyful piece that built up steadily to an ecstatic finish.

The next number was Sibelius's Violin Concerto, with Novosibirsk-born Vadim Repin playing the solo part. It's a gorgeous, exciting piece and Repin nailed it. He acknowledged the audience's appreciation with an encore, a set of apparently improvised variations so whimsical that at several points in the piece, people laughed.

Finally, after the intermission came the number that closed the orchestra's first concert in Powell Hall: Stravinsky's Petrushka, a ballet about the sufferings of a puppet brought to life and given human feelings through the mischief of an old magician. The stage directions were projected above the stage on the new screen that the orchestra is so happy to introduce this year; clearly they are going to make a lot of imaginative use of it.

The key note of the whole concert was joy. There are a lot of reasons to be joyful at Powell Hall. Robertson himself - I had a good profile view from only a few rows away from the stage - seemed to be having trouble containing his own joy, though being the father of week-old twins might have something to do with that. It was an infectious joy that worked its way through the sound of the orchestra and into the hearts of the listeners. What happy people we are in St. Louis - and I use the word "happy" in the sense of "fortunate" - to have such an orchestra with such a creative leader. Their programming is more diverse, and the public face of the symphony is far more welcoming and committed to outreach and education, than (for example) the New York Philharmonic, which I heard a year and a half ago on their home turf. To be able to hear Robertson himself talk about the pieces he is about to conduct, in the hall itself, without buying a ticket in addition to the concert ticket, is priceless. And I believe his excitement about broadening the musical horizons of St. Louis is beginning to spread.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Another silent week

It's been another thrill-packed week. Sorry to anyone who has come to expect daily updates. Last night, Friday night, I enjoyed the only uncommitted time of the entire week; and even that was less debauched than it might have been, since I jumped at the opportunity to put in some overtime at work. Eventually I did manage to go out for a bite to eat and then veg out in front of a video.

Here are some of the things y'all have missed. One time this past week, I dined at the Fox and Hound in Chesterfield MO. All I had was a medium-welldone cheeseburger (I chose Cheddar out of a list of 3 or 4 cheeses), thick-cut steak fries, and a Sprite, but it was all quite good. The burger had a nice thickness and smoky-charred flavor, the pickles were interestingly unique, the fries were extraordinary, and the surroundings were very attractive. I felt underdressed in my customary work outfit of chinos and polo shirt. But at 3-ish in the afternoon, as I was on my way home from work (my work hours are a bit unusual, I'll admit), there weren't a lot of other diners to be offended by my appearance.

Last night my debauch-of-choice was the St. Louis Sports Zone, at Kenrick Plaza off Watson Road in, I believe, Shrewsbury MO. It's the type of sports bar where you can play a computerized trivia game with patrons of Hot Wings restaurants across the country. It's a large place, which seems even larger now that they've finished tearing out some internal walls, and it is full of loud music, big-screen TVs mostly showing ESPN and similar networks (it's a good place to watch poker, I find). It has a dart-board somewhere, and you always come home from it with the smell of second-hand smoke on your clothes.

Nevertheless, Happy Hour is worthy of its name because you can have their Trashed Wings (like Buffalo Wings, only fried a second time to make them rather crispy than greasy), stuffed potato skins, toasted ravioli, and quite a few other excellent appetizers served in generous portions for a really reasonable price. Last night I went with the Trashed Wings and an order of spinach and artichoke ravioli, washed down with two glasses of Fat Tire, a really good domestic beer that is getting so well-known that the folks at Anheuser Busch should be concerned. Everything was good, right down to the marinara sauce for dipping the ravioli. It was also a more than filling meal for a guy who had snacked a little here and there but never eaten lunch. A $20-bill covered it all plus the server's tip.

It has been several weeks since I've gone to a big-screen movie. This is very unusual for me. Since I went to college over 15 years ago, I haven't missed very many weekends at the movies. It may say a lot about the uninspiring selection of new films that have opened during the past month or so, or perhaps it reflects more on how busy I have been, or how tight dollars have become. Lately, when I've really needed a break from thinking and reading and squinting through my windshield, I have turned to DVDs of television programs. If I find a reasonably-priced boxed set of an entire season of a TV show that seems interesting, I get it & watch it in my spare time, when I have any. It beats watching TV by a long throw. The main reason is that I hate commercial breaks from the depths of my soul.

A couple weeks ago, the program I caught on DVD was "Heroes," season one. That was a magnificent show! And I am so glad I got to see it all at once, without being dragged through the torment of waiting until next week - or worse, after a six-week hiatus, etc. - to find out what happened next. My only complaint is the amount of time each episode spent reminding the viewer of what happened previously. I suppose this was necessary, what with six-week hiatuses and the radical complexity of the series. There were a LOT of independent storylines, covering a large number of characters, some of whom only came in for a few moments of treatment in a given episode. As their stories gradually arced and melded together, you had to juggle a lot of mindblowing stuff, such as Sulu from Star Trek being a master of samurai-style swordplay, and the invulnerable cheerleader's adopted father being a bad guy and a good guy at the same time, and the adorable boy-man-hero being the cause of an explosion that could lead to a turning point in human history.

Heroes is a gripping tale about several extraordinary people finding out how extraordinary they are, trying to integrate their powers into their everyday lives, finding each other, and gradually working out whether they will do good or evil with what has been given them. A major part of the suspense in the series rises from this last question: will so-and-so turn out to be a good guy or a bad guy? One episode that gives you a glimpse of a possible future world is particularly disturbing because it upsets your expectations about many of these characters. And there are sinister things afoot. A shadowy organization has plans for these "special" people, plans that anyone who cares about those people would want stopped, but that may not be stoppable. Creepy characters fill the edges of the picture, from the unnamed Haitian who can erase people's memories to the serial killer who literally takes people's heads apart to see how they work. The number of conflicting agendas becomes overwhelming, especially after you add in the hot mama with super strength and multiple personality syndrome, an explosive combination.

It's basically a comic book or graphic novel brought to life on film, but every page has a thrill or a chill or a surprise on it. I like it because it's the kind of tale that makes you root for the characters - not necessarily for their victory or even their survival, but for their conscience. And it ramps up to a final episode that brings all the storylines to a fitting climax, and that leaves the door open - somehow, I don't understand how - to a second season, or rather "volume." Apparently the series has been accompanied by actual graphic novels, so anyone who has more time to blow than I do, can explore the story even further and enjoy it on even more sensory levels. But even the TV show alone is an impressive creative achievement for network TV.

A more recent DVD conquest, which I am still in the process of watching, was season two of Bones, the forensic anthropology mystery-thriller starring Emily Deschanel and David Borneanaz. I basically like it, though it is a very uneven show. For example, just last night I saw two episodes, one of which was exceptionally good, the other quite bad. The good one had the Deschanel's title character trapped with one of her lackeys in a car buried underground, thanks to a serial killer called the "Grave Digger." It was an unusual episode that really kept me hooked. The episode after it was a sad, silly riff on The Blair Witch Project, told from the point of view of forensic scientists who have recovered the spooky video of screaming film students in the haunted woods, plus some human remains. I was amazed that the show could attempt such an obvious rip-off without acknowledging the source and making a self-conscious joke out of it. Besides, it was a dull, predictable, uninspired episode, with the cast seeming to work their way grimly through it, just wanting it over with.

Bones, as I said, is uneven. One reason it is uneven is that David Borneanaz is uneven. Sorry, Angel fans, but the man is hardly an actor. When more than muscular bravado and tough-guy repartee is required, he isn't up to the job. I really feel bad for him when the script requires him to emote, because there isn't a moment when you're thinking about how his character feels. No, you're just thinking, "There goes David Borneanaz, trying to emote." Most of his co-stars do better, though the show doesn't explore their characters in as much depth.

And finally, my last week or two has had some notable musical experiences. One that I particularly enjoyed was the CD of Rossini's Stabat Mater, the version conducted by Chailly, which I mentioned in a previous post. It arrived on Tuesday in time for me to listen to it before I went to Symphony Chorus rehearsal, and it was wonderful. My favorite bit was the tenor aria Cuius animam gementem. It really is true that, at least in Chailly's hands, this sacred piece sounds like Rossini without for a minute sounding like opera. The tortured harmonies, particularly in the last couple of movements, make sure of that. It's an altogether beautiful piece with a thrilling conclusion, and the perspective of having heard the whole thing made Tuesday night's rehearsal that much more interesting.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Cacktive Tackiness

Latest on the ELCA church sign in my neighborhood:


Comment: One suspects they got hold of it by continually taking the "peace" out of passersby with their gag signs. I use the word "gag" advisedly.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Funeral, Wedding, Goat, Mole

Sorry I've been so quiet this week. It's been a right busy one. We had a funeral at church on Thursday (I played the organ). We also had a wedding on Saturday, plus the rehearsal on Friday (I played the organ). And we had regular worship today (I played the organ at both services). So I haven't been oozing free time at all.

Today after church I had a small adventure. I went to Lily's and had goat for lunch. It tasted more or less like roast beef, very tender and juicy, and served with a really bright-red pepper sauce on the side. Plus onions, greens, a good quarter of a lime, more beans and rice than I could finish, and 3 tortillas (choice of flour or corn). For $8.99 it wasn't a bad deal; more food than I could pack away, anyway. And the "home cooked" touch is always very nice, right down to being served by Mom, Pop, and the kids.

Sometime last week - perhaps Tuesday - I tried a different Mexican place, Espino's in Chesterfield, across the Chesterfield Airport Road from the big movie theatre. I tried their pollo con mole, which does not mean "chicken with blind thing that digs in your garden," but rather, "chicken with mole sauce," and the word mole has two syllables. That is to say, half a roast chicken smothered in a rich, dark sauce that combines a peppery zing with a touch of chocolate. I didn't know there was such a thing until I lived close enough to Mexico to stop there for lunch, but then I became overwhelmingly conscious of it. Nowadays, St. Louis-land, it is a rare treat to see this dish on a restaurant menu.

When I ordered the mole, the waitress asked me if I was sure and suggested that I test a spoonful of the sauce before making up my mind, because it wasn't everybody's cup of hot chocolate. I told her to skip the taste-test and just bring the dish, I would take my chances; she gave me the "on your head be it" act. Later, when I was greedily eating a most enjoyable mole chicken - in fact, the most enjoyable one I've had since I moved out of lunch-rush range of Mexico - I told the waitress she should have a little more faith in her kitchen, and be more positive about the menu she represents.

Of course, in retrospect, I might simply have looked "too white" to know what mole is, and the waitress may have just been protecting me. Still, I believe a waitress can strongly influence how much you enjoy your meal, simply by telling you that you're really going to enjoy whatever you ordered...or, in a negative way, by suggesting that you may not like it. I wonder if waitresses realize how much influence they have over people!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Stabat Mater Hymn

By the way, before anyone jumps down my throat about how I, a Lutheran, dare to enjoy a piece of Roman Catholic religious music that focuses on the Virgin Mary, here is a hymn paraphrase of the Stabat Mater which I found in a LUTHERAN hymnal. The paraphrase is by a 19th-century author named H. Mills, and the unique tune that went with this text is also titled STABAT MATER. Click the thumbnail for a blown-up image of the words and melody, taken from my as-yet-unfinished treasury of hymns (hence the indefinite number after the alternate tune). Note that the fermatas are only meant to indicate where each phrase of the melody ends.


Last night's second rehearsal of the Symphony Chorus was another eye-opener. After running through Faure's Pavane and parts of his Requiem again, we started working on the Rossini Stabat Mater. Out of well over a hundred singers, only four admitted to having sung in this piece before. It's hard to believe, but this piece is going to get its St. Louis Symphony premiere this season!

I shouldn't say "hard to believe," really. I don't have the right, since I myself am not as familiar with this Rossini piece as I should be. It has some thrilling vocal numbers, though, including a stunning fugue finale. The Kalmus vocal scores we are using (because they are cheap) are a bit disappointing. The English translation does nothing but get in the way, since it clearly has nothing whatsoever to do with the meaning of the Latin text. I doubt that whoever did the translation was even a Catholic; it doesn't even mention the Virgin Mary, who is the focal point of the original text.

Chorus director Amy Kaiser recommends the performance recorded by Riccardo Chailly. I'm all over it. She says it captures the devotional meaning of the piece, rather than showcasing the operatic rhetoric many interpreters have found there. I would like to hear that. But mainly, I am already excited by the chance to hear the full orchestra, chorus, and a quartet of professional singers belting out this powerful piece in live surround-sound!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Dissonance and Consonance

From discussing beloved pieces of music (and also my own compositions) with other people, I have gathered that I hear music differently from most people. A major point of divergence is how we experience dissonance. Most of my life I have been at least a little mystified by the point of view that holds that dissonance is ugly or harsh. I hear dissonance, and its relationship to its opposite (consonance), quite differently. And though music, for me, has always and only been something that I can hear - I can never fully understand the way synesthetes experience music with senses other than hearing - what I hear when I experience dissonance can best be described by appealing to the other senses.

Consonance is like a point of stasis or equilibrium, a point of departure or arrival. Different types and degrees of dissonance point the way along the journey between points of consonance. Dissonance makes manifest the forces that push and pull music toward its goal. To be sure, too much dissonance may give a piece of music a sense of aimless drifting or rushing about with no end or point of rest. But not enough dissonance means the music never seems to go anywhere.

If music is a fluid, consonance thins it and allows it to run clearly, smoothly and freely. Dissonance, on the other hand, thickens it and makes it viscous and stretchy. Maybe too much dissonance gums it up, but if there is not enough dissonance, the music runs away and leaves nothing behind.

It is an interesting fact that a dissonant note can make a chord sound louder, even when there is no change in loudness; can make an instrument or voice stand out of an ensemble texture, even though it isn't playing or singing any louder or brighter than the others. Dissonance creates friction.

Dissonance is like a splash of bright light that dazzles your eyes; where you seek relief in a cool shade, that is consonance. I have often heard dissonance, such as a chord that has an added note, as a kind of brightness or an accent.

Dissonance is like a dash of salt that gives flavor to a bland dish; consonance is rather like sugar. The two can work together to take the edge off each other, but if one overpowers the other, the flavor is ruined. I recently wrote an organ piece with a hymn tune in the pedal part. About 2/3 of the way through writing the piece I realized that the right-hand part, accompanying the hymn tune, gave the piece a syrupy sweet sound that rang false. So I went back and wrote in a left-hand part for the express purpose of taking the edge off the music's sweetness. I thought of this new melody as a dash of salt.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Reading Mendelssohn's 3rd

Mendelssohn visited Scotland in 1829, and was inspired by the awesome ruins of a medieval chapel. From this beginning he finally completed his Third Symphony in A Minor, widely known as the "Scottish" Symphony, in 1842. If you are still unsure what "Romantic" sounds like, listen to this symphony!

It begins with a slow introduction that foreshadows the themes of the main first movement. The sonata opens with quiet intensity, its serious yet rhythmically energetic theme building up to a transition passage that all but explodes with passion. Then the clarinet introduces a second theme group over an accompaniment based on the first theme. After some anguished passagework, the exposition concludes with a gorgeous, singing codetta theme. Each of the above ideas gets a fair share of the development section, in which Mendelssohn shows his contrapuntal chops. A poignant cello statement concludes the development and overlaps into the recap, where the explosive transition is omitted. The coda begins like a repeat of the development, then accelerates to the thrilling, closing chords...but wait! The music hasn't stopped!

Yes, folks, Mendelssohn drops a BOMBSHELL! Instead of bring the first movement to a solid ending, he makes a transition back to the slow introduction - lets it die away - then, without allowing a break between movements, he goes straight into the scherzo! So the intro to the first movement also serves as a bridge to the second. You see how craftily old Felix unifies his material?

Movement II begins with a brief fanfare. Then the clarinet introduces an exuberant theme that seems to flow smoothly over a busy background. This theme alternates with a second, mincing, fussy-sounding subject that grows more boisterous and confident with each appearance. There is no "trio" or contrasting middle section; this movement is more like a quick little rondo than an "orthodox" scherzo.

Movement III is an ├╝ber-Romantic slow movement. Its first subject is a warm, long-drawn-out, almost gushy melody that seems likely to spin endlessly out of a couple of brief opening phrases. A second idea, beginning with a horn call, has a more stately aspect, and at times picks up a tragic tone. Both themes are drawn together by the same gentle, sympathizing sort of musical "paragraph ending" - what music snobs stuffily refer to as "cadential extension" - material so memorable that it almost sounds like a theme, but that unmistakably serves to delay the period at the end of the sentence.

Movement IV is one of those movements that is supposed to have oodles of themes - somewhere I read the figure "at least four" - but it hits me as having the usual two themes, plus some dramatic transition material. The first theme group, however, has two distinct ideas in it: the opening gesture with its teasing character, and the clucking idea that grows out of it. The second theme, introduced by the oboe, turns out to be more important. The first time it comes around, it is grouped with a truly rockin' trumpet reply. The development section is eerily quiet to begin with, but it builds and builds as the second theme assumes increasing significance. It finally works its way to what sounds like a musical decision; then immediately goes all slow and quiet, dying out after a truly strange echo of the second theme. Then, Mendelssohn drops his second BOMBSHELL by closing the symphony with a coda based on a seemingly brand-new, chorale-like theme. This noble tune does, in fact, have some similarity to material heard earlier in the symphony - yet another shrewd experiment in pulling the symphony's movements together in an artistic unity.

Mendelssohn's Third is a symphony that takes itself very seriously. For that reason, it is perhaps not as immediately appealing as his vivacious, bubbly Fourth (the "Italian"). On the other hand, there are moments in the Fourth where I sense that Mendelssohn forgot which themes he was supposed to be developing. There are no such problems in the "Scottish" Symphony, which epitomizes the art of deriving a maximum of effect from a minimum of means. And as you listen to the Scottish Symphony, try - just you try - not to visualize ruined castles and tumbling highlands!

EDIT: Here is Kurt Masur conducting the finale of this symphony with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra:

Saturday, September 8, 2007

More Hymnal Bitchiness

Way back here, I promised to continue my bitchy critique of the ELCA's new hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW), starting with its musical settings of the Divine Service. Well, after a hiatus so long you probably thought (or hoped) that I had forgotten my promise, here goes:

SETTING ONE (pp. 94ff) sounds pleasant enough, though it is completely new and unfamiliar to me. The music begins with a nice, expressive setting of the "Ektene" Kyrie ("In peace let us pray to the Lord..."). The Gloria in excelsis ("Glory to God in the highest") has a churchly cadence to it, similar to the settings of the Lutheran Divine Service introduced in the 1970s, though it is rather uninspired. It gives little impression of being driven by a unifying idea, and sounds more like the first notes the composer could write down to fit the text. "This is the feast" is a little tricky: the last couple Alleluias in its refrain seem a bit rushed, for example. Again, the music somewhat lacks in inspiration and in the sense of confidence that marks any truly unforgettable hymn of praise. The unities are more evident in the smaller numbers. For example, the Gospel Acclamation for Lent reuses some melodic material from the Kyrie. The Great Thanksgiving draws on traditional chant tones for the Preface. The Sanctus ("Holy, holy, holy") has a tune previously heard in the non-Lenten Gospel Acclamation; it comes back again for the "Christ has died" response and the "Amen" concluding the eucharistic prayer. The Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God") is a pretty, prayerful little piece with a blended contemporary-classical feel that could be quite moving. The Nunc dimittis ("Now, Lord, you let your servant go") aims for the same feeling but comes off merely shmaltzy.

SETTING TWO (pp. 116ff): Another unfamiliar setting of the Divine Service, this one begins with a Kyrie that I personally find annoying, particularly in the congregation's responses which are all alike in their rhythmic and melodic triteness. Then comes a Gloria that, in the reality of the average or even slightly above-average congregation, is simply unsingable. With its tricky rhythms and wide intervals, it bespeaks a "Christian contemporary" composer trying to write something in a more "classical" style than customary, and perhaps unconsciously becoming an accessory to the murder of Lutheran congregational singing. "This is the feast" reinforces this impression, with a catchy holy-pop sound relying in part on hemiola (rhythmic effects created by tied notes). It sounds catchy, but would be very challenging for Bob and Edna Anderson. The Gospel Acclamations are so short that they should be easy, but they manage not to be somehow, particularly the one for Lent with its widish intervals and hemiolas. The Sanctus has more of the short-long-short rhythms that made the Gloria such a nightmare. The Agnus Dei has potential to start with, but ends up being mindlessly repetitive and irritating, like the Kyrie. The Nunc dimittis isn't bad, though it can't refrain from another demonstration of rhythmic alertness which pushes this entire setting more into "choir and soloist" territory than the repertoire of Vern and Elsie Mundinger.

SETTING THREE (p. 138ff), finally, is a setting I know. Missouri Synod Lutherans know this music well from Lutheran Worship (Divine Service II, Setting I) and Lutheran Service Book (Divine Service I). I was never very fond of this music, but I've grown used to it, and even the pain that its dated, 1970s sound once gave me has faded into the background. I have to admit that this version of "This is the feast" is a classic: catchy, energetic, joyful. As an organist, however, I find it a little frustrating. If there is a window of tempo in which this can be played without someone complaining, after the service, that it was either too fast or too slow, I haven't found it. When I try to accentuate its joyfulness, no matter how sensitively I articulate the phrasing, some people whine that it was too rushed; when I put the accent on its solemnity, no matter how crisply I articulate it, I get complaints that the tempo dragged. It's evidently one of those pieces about which everyone has his own idea how it should sound, and so I'll be wrong no matter what I do.

SETTING FOUR (pp. 147ff) is the setting known to LCMS worshipers as Divine Service II, Setting II (in LW) or simply Divine Service II (in LSB). I also like this setting a great deal, though I have not heard it used as much. I hear tell this setting is the one that predominates in the Saltwater Districts of the Lutheran Church, while the heartland focuses more on what ELW styles "Setting Three." The music of Four is perhaps a little more challenging to Edgar and Bertha Lund than Setting Three, but it is also very beautiful, warm, and lyrical. The form of "This is the feast" is more condensed (i.e. it has the virtue of being over with sooner). It requires the "assisting minister" (liturgist, or cantor, or whatever) to sing a few phrases solo; for example, at the beginning of the Gloria and "This is the Feast." The Sanctus setting comes from an historic setting of the Mass that was known, in a less simplified form, to J. S. Bach. I find it interesting that both Setting Three and Setting Four end, musically speaking, after the Agnus Dei, omitting the post-Communion canticles that were originally part of each setting. Perhaps the hymnal editors were concerned about saving space.

SETTING FIVE (pp. 156ff) immediately steps out into rarified, Gregorian-chantlike territory with a Kyrie that lies outside the skills of most congregations. Attractives as it is, it is too sophisticated. Scholars and serious musicians may use it, but Frank and Sue Soderblom won't be attending that service. For the Gloria there are two options: a Gregorian-chant setting (sans note stems) and a metrical paraphrase in the form of the hymn "All glory be to God on high." The service continues in full-blown chant mode, which I find interesting and attractive - I actually wished they had notated the Nicene Creed, in fact - though I was irritated by their decision to notate only the "updated language" version of the Lord's Prayer. The part of me that enjoyed the monastic discipline of daily worship at the seminary covets the opportunity to lead a pastors' retreat in prayers using musical settings like this. The larger part of me that serves a congregation is convinced that Setting Five would fly like an airplane with one wing.

SETTING SIX (pp. 165ff) may be the most "congregation-friendly" new setting so far in this book. The Kyrie, though perhaps a little tricky at first, has a certain poppy appeal. The Gloria is souped up with a repeated refrain and a catchy, repetitive melody. "This is the feast" dips decidedly into Contemporary-Christian territory, which I have said and will continue to say is more difficult to sing than the simple old hymnal style, unless you're a musician with experience in that area; it has off-the-beat rhythms like a piece of pop music. Somewhere in the world there is a congregation that claps its hands to this piece. The Gospel Acclamations and Sanctus are similar. The Agnus Dei carries this to such an extreme that, in my opinion, a church musician like Lois Paulsen doesn't stand a chance with this piece; it is like a musical Shibboleth for finding out who got rhythm.

SETTING SEVEN (pp. 175ff) is the Hispanic setting, in the style of Latin American traditional music, and with a line of Spanish lyrics above the English ones. The melody line is sometimes doubled in parallel thirds and includes cues from the instrumental parts during bars where the singers rest. I'm not qualified to discuss whether this musical characterization of Hispanic culture is a demeaning cliche. I do wonder, however, how a church with the resources to produce a hymnal with ten settings of the Divine Service cannot afford to give Israel and Marisol Uribe a full-size worship book of their own. Maybe they aren't important enough?

SETTING EIGHT (pp. 184ff) plunges again into the world of "Christian Contemporary" music, particularly in its first two numbers (Kyrie and Gloria). The music really isn't particularly inspired, but with its refrains the Gloria seems to go on forever! The other pieces are not unattractive, and probably more singable than some of the previous settings, though some of the rhythmic quirks could be off-putting to folks like Carl and Norma Sperlich (e.g., the Lenten Gospel Acclamation). This setting's Sanctus is rather boring, but there is a kind of grave beauty in the Agnus Dei.

SETTING NINE (pp. 193ff) is another unfamiliar setting, but the melodies are more interesting than in Setting Eight. The nicely-structured Gloria has a refrain heard three times, setting off the musical contrasts among the "stanzas," expressing each part of the canticle in an individual way. "This is the feast" opens with a very striking musical phrase (a stack of fourths) that communicates to me a certain brassy strength. Sanctus and Agnus Dei are further sophisticated, high-quality pieces of modern art music that I admire very much, but I would estimate that Ernie and Darlene Bittner would have a tough time wrapping their heads around them.

SETTING TEN (pp. 203ff) is ELW's nod to the old Lutheran tradition of having a "chorale service," with metrical paraphases of the sung portions of the liturgy, set to hymn tunes. The Kyrie is kneaded into a three-stanza hymn to the tune SOUTHWELL ("Lord Jesus, think on me"). Among the sentiments this hymn-version expresses: "We come to hear your living word; it saves us from despair..." That's all right. For the Gloria you have a choice of two settings: the hymn "Come, let us join our cheerful songs" (set to the tune NUN DANKET ALL), or "Glory be to God in heaven" (to the hymn tune based on Beethoven's ODE TO JOY). Some other day I'll blog about what I think of hymns based on classical pieces like this. The Gospel Acclamations include a general one ("Alleluia! Lord and Savior: open now your laving word") set to UNSER HERRSCHER ("Open now thy gates of beauty"), and a Lenten one sung to a Latvian folk tune called KAS DZIEZAJA that also appears at hymn 701. The Sanctus is sung to an adapted version of LAND OF REST ("Jerusalem, my happy home"), and the responses and Amen to the eucharistic prayer are based on fragments of the same. And finally, the Agnus Dei is sung to the tune TWENTY-FOURTH ("Where charity and love prevail").

After the ten settings of Holy Communion, there is also a SERVICE OF THE WORD (Communion without Communion, that is). I shouldn't ridicule this, because it has been part of every strand of American Lutheran tradition, including the LCMS. Nevertheless, I can't help wishing we could just get rid of this chimera, this cockatrice, this liturgical hippogriff, which is neither one thing nor the other and that leaves me with a gaping feeling of unfulfillment. If people are worried about taking the Lord's Supper too often, they don't have to take it - but should they deny it, should they fail to offer it, to those who seek it with all their heart? Okay, digression over.

The Service of the Word (pp. 210ff) begins, musically, with a setting of the good old Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy), not seen in this hymnal before this point. The congregation has the option of singing it all in English or partly in Latin and partly in English (the word for that is "macaronically," which reminds me that I'm hungry so I'd better finish this soon). Another good move is that this service includes the Gloria but no "This is the Feast"; no one says "We're thoughtless clods" quite like the congregation that sings "This is the Feast" in a non-Communion service. The Gospel Acclamations include the texts, familiar since the 1970s, "Lord, to whom shall we go" and "Return to the Lord your God." After the offering is an entirely new Canticle of Thanksgiving, "Salvation belongs to our God." The settings are new and unfamiliar, and though they are well structured (with refrains wherever possible, etc.), at times I think this music may push Ted and Lydia Novotny to the limit of their abilities.

The art work throughout this part of the hymnal is hideous in a 1970s kind of way. There ought to be a law. I am particularly struck by the inappropriateness of the baptism drawing on p. 223, which depicts a small, candle-bearing group pulling a naked dude out of a dunk tank. The art on the first page of HOLY BAPTISM (p. 227) is more of the ostentatiously ugly, and sometimes disturbing, red-white-and-black iconography one finds throughout this hymnal, and which sets up (I think) ridiculous expectations in the worshipers' minds. For a sample, see the Maundy Thursday icon at the right. Much the same can be said for the first page of each of the services I found in the table of contents back in this post. I am tired of tearing apart the tacky liturgical texts of this book, however, so I have no more to critique until we get to MORNING PRAYER (Matins) on pp. 298ff. That is where I will pick up another time.

NOTE: The names of fictitious Lutherans have been dropped throughout this article, simply by way of reminding us all who the hymnal editors should be thinking about. Any resemblance to actual people, Lutheran or non-Lutheran, is a meaningless coincidence.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Blogging in my sleep

I don't care what they say about laughter. SLEEP is the best medicine. It does so much to heal when one is sick. The last time I had a significant bug, what almost finished me off was not being able to sleep; and what did the most to get me better was a nice codeine cough syrup that enabled me to do sleep through the night.

This past week, I spent several nights staring at the ceiling in my darkened bedroom. I don't know why I couldn't sleep. Maybe it was the heaviness of the humid air, or something in the air that made my sinuses act up - I don't know. I didn't feel bad; I just couldn't sleep. I got three hours of sleep one night, four another.

Yesterday I came home from work so exhausted that I couldn't see straight. After dinner I went straight to bed - it was a little past 6 p.m. - and except for potty breaks, I didn't get up until my alarm went off at 5 a.m. I can't tell you how much those 11 hours of sleep helped me today! Thank God for the Sandman!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Less-Than-Ideal Film Experiences

I am "out of my head" about movies. And I hope I'm not flattering myself to add: I think I have a "head" for them. One of the reasons I think this is that I often associate incidents in my life with movies I was watching at or around the same time. And I can often remember exactly what happened while I was watching certain movies.

I will probably come up with more examples in future posts, but for now I want to share four "less-than-ideal film experiences" - irritating incidents that are inextricably connected in my memory to the movies I was watching at the time.

THE FISHER KING - For me, the tragedy of this Terry Gilliam film is that I never got to see the ending. And now I doubt that I ever will. I have followed Gilliam's directing career with some interest, but this is one movie whose memory I intensely dislike. Even though it garnered some Academy Awards and critical praise, I tend to think of it as a dark spot on an otherwise almost-pristine record.

What I saw of it, I only saw on video. My brother had rented the film on VHS one summer evening when we were both still living at home. I had worked late that night, but tried to watch the movie the next day before Ryan had to return it to the video store. I found it relentlessly depressing, full of despair and squalor and sordidness and darkness. I only just managed to keep watching it by hoping that things would look a little brighter at the end, but just when it started to feint in that direction, my brother ran into the TV room, ejected the tape from the machine, and ran off to return it to the store. Cruelly denied, I went to work that day under a cloud of gloom. That movie ruined my whole day, if not my week.

THE PAPER - I went to see this with three or four college friends on the night of somebody's 21st birthday. The birthday girl, who was recovering from injuries in a serious car accident, had a little trouble walking and an orthodontically-assisted smile. Nevertheless she had a pretty good attitude, but this was tested severely by a group of rowdy teenagers in the row of seats behind us. The little squirts kept kicking our seats, giggling, and chatting through the whole movie, and at one point they dumped a bucket of popcorn on us. We complained to the management but nothing was done. The crowning moment was when one of these snot-nosed twerps offered the birthday girl the following compliment: "Hey, brace-face: nice #%@&ing waddle!" That's class.

SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER - I had seen this early Mike Myers film (pre-Austin Powers, and I think even pre-Wayne's World) in video stores, but I had never seriously considered watching it until one night close to the end of my first year at the seminary. Then I wandered into the dorm TV lounge and found a group of more senior students watching this movie on VHS. From what I could tell, it was a moderately cute comedy about a beat poet (Myers) who suspects his wife (Nancy Travis) of being a serial killer. Meanwhile, his cop best friend (Anthony LaPaglia) cajoles his superior officer (Alan Arkin) into adopting the cliche role of an angry, hostile police captain, instead of the softie he really is.

The irritating thing was that all the guys in the TV lounge had apparently seen this movie many, many times before. Everyone but I sat there reciting every single line, in sync with the actors' dialogue. Clearly, So I Married an Axe Murderer is a cult classic. I don't think I'll be joining that cult. It only takes one instance of listening to half a dozen guys parrot every line of a screenplay to spoil a movie for me forever.

THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND - I had to go to Phoenix overnight on business once, and while I was there I visited a cineplex and tried to watch this movie. Every five minutes throughout the show, the theatre's emergency alert system kicked in, the overhead lights came on, and the soundtrack was interrupted by a recording of klaxon alarms and a voice telling us to evacuate the building. After being evacuated and let back in several times, we were finally instructed to ignore the alarms and continue watching the show, or (if we preferred) to leave and collect a coupon for a free movie ticket, in lieu of a refund. For a while, I sat there and ignored the alarms, but it made me uneasy. Besides, every second time the alarms went off, the movie soundtrack was muted until the next round of alarms. As a result, I could only hear 50% of the dialogue, which was clearly vital to comprehending the plot of the movie, as I had no idea what was going on.

I tried to tough it out, because the coupon option didn't help me much. I lived hours away and didn't anticipate ever visiting that theatre again. Finally, I went to the customer-service desk and begged for a cash refund on the grounds that I lived in Yuma and couldn't afford to drive up to Phoenix just to catch a free movie. The management said, "No problem. Our company is opening a new theatre in Yuma. You can use your coupon there."

Thanks a lot, guys. I had to wait six months for that theatre to be built, so that I could redeem a coupon to enjoy a movie I had already paid full price to see. That's no way to please your clientele!

As far as film goes, it seems I am an unforgiving jerk. I can't help it. Nothing in this world can induce me to see these films again, because of my negative memories of the circumstances in which I first watched them. The movies themselves may have been all right; but the occasions on which I saw them were not all right. As a result, these films are forever ruined for me.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


This evening the St. Louis Symphony Chorus had its first rehearsal for the 2007-08 season. It was nice to see so many familiar faces, plus some new ones. And even as we read through our music for the first time, Powell Hall echoed with some amazingly beautiful sounds.

We had fun reading through almost all the chorus part of Faure's Requiem (the big-chorus version), and also his Pavane (the version with the "optional chorus"). We're going to have to work on some French text for that one. These two works are lovely pieces on the lighter side of art-music. Yes, even the Requiem is somewhat lightweight, but very pretty in a delicate, childlike way.

We also read through the Act II finale of Beethoven's opera Fidelio. Though we sang through the Pavane on "La la la" (rather than attempting the French), we gave Beethoven's German text our best shot and enjoyed a spirited read-through of the opera's triumphant chorus.

It looks as if this season's notes will be much easier to learn than last year's. That will give us more time to polish our music-making and learn our parts so well that we can keep our eyes glued to the conductor, rather than sneaking glances at him over the top of our scores. I have already noticed an atmosphere of relief and relaxation after the rigors of the past two seasons, in which we tackled some very challenging modern pieces. But I think those tough pieces will also bear fruit in a more accurate and responsive ensemble.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Piazzolla Tangos

I've been a member of the BMG Classical CD club for years and years. I first signed up when it was a mail-order service. BMG, like its nearest competitor Columbia House and other outfits, used to send a brochure each month, along with an order form and a postcard on which you could either accept or decline your monthly "featured selection." I made good use of such music clubs, with their marked-down prices and frequent-buyer bonuses, to build up a large and varied collection of classical CDs on the cheap. The only annoying thing about it was that you had to return your "featured selection" postcard promptly, each month, to avoid having an unwanted CD mailed and billed to you. And trust me, the featured selections were always unwanted.

BMG has evolved since then. Instead of burying me in monthly catalogs and mailings, they send me an email approximately every 20 days. Then all I have to do is click the "Respond Now" button in the email, sign in with a username and password that auto-completes on my computer, and click "No, Thanks" in the web ad for the unwanted featured selection. With broad-band internet this is the work of a minute or two. I've been clicking "No, Thanks" every 20 days or so for quite a number of years. Only this last time, I actually clicked "Yes, Please."

It's one for the record books: a BMG featured selection that actually doesn't make you scream: "Oh, please, no!" For once, BMG did not seem hell-bent on proving how poorly it can estimate what I will like after all the times I have ordered from them before. It wasn't a disk of selected opera arias by a pseudo-classical crooner, or piano quartets by a family of German tweens, or a soundtrack album for a movie I decidedly skipped. Rather, it was something I have wanted to listen to for a while: tangos by Argentine-born composer Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992; pictured at left).

The disk is titled Le Grand Tango, and I do recommend it. The 10 tracks on this disk from Haenssler music include a suite of tangos called "The Four Seasons," written as musical portraits of the Buenos Aires waterfront culture. They include a tango called "Oblivion" from a film score, and a title track written for the late great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. These musical souvenirs of Argentine working-class life, translated into the idioms of jazz and classical music, are among the works in which Piazzolla took a dance that carried sordid associations for many people and transformed it into a fashionable and cultured art form. With wit, energy, sophistication, and the application of a broad spectrum of musical styles and techniques, Piazzolla's tango nuevo still communicates the soul of a people whose lives are full of disappointment, despair, defiance, and restlessness.

The Haenssler disc features violinist Friedemann Eichhorn, cellist Julius Berger, and pianist Jose Gallardo. Four of the pieces only make use of the violin and piano, and the title track uses only piano and cello. With dance-based numbers ranging from 2+ to 11+ minutes in length, the cumulative result is over an hour of gripping, thought-provoking music in which the world of the Parisian concert hall merges with the lobby of a Latin American inn of ill repute. The two or three instruments put out sounds that can fool you into believing other instruments are in play, such as bandoneons or even percussion instruments. It is an altogether engaging and horizon-stretching album.