Cameron Carpenter vs. the Mighty Wurlitzer in Akron

Cameron Carpenter

Last night I heard organist Cameron Carpenter perform at the Akron Civic Theater on its Wurlitzer theater organ, as part of a series sponsored by the University of Akron and E.J. Thomas Hall. Thomas Hall doesn’t have an organ, and Cameron’s long-awaited digital touring organ isn’t yet complete, so he had to do battle with the Wurlitzer, which put up a tough fight, including a couple of ciphers (notes that don’t stop playing when you release the key), but Cameron ultimately prevailed. The audience was slim, filling only the front section of the main floor of the theater. And if the sponsors’ plan was to entice younger people, it didn’t work—the audience was proportionally higher with gray hairs.

Cameron took his bad boy image to the max, at least during the first half of the concert, where he was sullen, sarcastic and never looked at the audience head-on during his remarks between pieces. (He sat half-way on the organ bench and looked at the wings of the stage.) And a lot of what he had to say was just pretentious bullshit, for example, his statement that in playing the Bach G Major Trio Sonata—a very difficult piece technically—one should just relax and let the music play itself. (Not that he cares one iota what I think.) If his idea is to draw new audience to the organ, it seemed an odd way to do it, unless the audience has masochistic fantasies. Do I really need to be talked down to? In the second half, he was remarkably more relaxed, even friendly, as if he had changed his attitude along with his costume.

All that said, there is no one else in the organ performing sphere that has Cameron’s technical skills, and his performances are riveting, if willful and infuriating. The only comparison that might be made would be to the French outlaw virtuoso Jean Guillou, in his prime. I found myself not caring in the least that Cameron’s performances were not “historically informed.” He also played to his own strengths, in his transcriptions and arrangements of other music, starting with an etude based on the first movement of Bach’s first cello sonata. The cello part was played in the pedals, with increasingly complex layering on the manuals above it. He also made an effective transcription of Liszt’s “Funerailles,” originally for piano. It seemed tailor-made for the theater organ. He ended the first half with an austere and mostly atonal composition by a Ugandan composer whose name I did not recognize. (And since there was no printed set list for the concert, I can’t confirm.) With massive sounds, including pedal chords, on full organ, it was as if Cameron truly was trying to test the Wurlitzer to its limits. There weren’t any ciphers after this piece, but there was one after Marcel Dupré‘s “Variations on a Noel,” which Cameron dissected and reassembled in his own fashion. (At least the cipher was on the tonal note of the piece.)

The second half was devoted to lighter fare, a medley of some Gershwin tunes, and ending with three relatively brief improvisations devised by the performer on the spot, including a concluding fugue recognizably, if loosely, based Beethoven’s famous piano piece “Für Elise.”

It was announced that Cameron Carpenter will be back next year with his new touring instrument. Maybe playing on a familiar instrument will put him into a better mood.

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Remembrance of Things Past

Postcard of the West Side Market in Cleveland,...

This afternoon I went to the West Side Market to order the roasting chickens for Thanksgiving. (No, no turkey for us this year. Neither of us is very fond of it, and chicken tastes better.) I’ve been shopping at the Market regularly (as in several times a month) for over 25 years. What a dispiriting affair it was today. I remember when people used to go there to actually BUY things. Now that Cleveland has been turned into a foodie city, the Market has been turned into a tourist destination. Traffic was backed up to gridlock in the parking lot, which meant circling around ad infinitum. The one Cleveland police officer eventually in sight was shooting the breeze with a vendor inside the market. I eventually gave up and had better luck on a side street south of Lorain Avenue.

I knew that this parking dilemma did not bode well for my shopping experience, so I was not surprised to find the place mobbed with tattooed hipsters with their coffee cups, Beachwood ladies in wildly inappropriate outfits for the West Side Market (Prada, massive jewelry and full make-up are not necessary), suburban people with young children in strollers gawking, stopping dead in their tracks to take photos. As I was leaving, I witnessed the downtown Embassy Suites shuttle van dropping off people. Despite the milling hordes, quite a few of the vendors did not seem to be selling much.

Ohio City, Cleveland
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Until quite recently (i.e., until a year or so ago) the West Side Market had a kind of tacky, rundown charm, where poor people mingled with the middle class eastern European ethnic population of Cleveland’s west side, whose families had been patronizing the market for generations. George and I were relative newcomers, shopping there regularly only since 1983. But over time we have built lasting relationships with various of the vendors, whom I have now patronized and recommended to others for decades.

I know I sound like a grumpy old man, and I should be happy for the Market’s success. West 25th Street and the West Side Market are being promoted like crazy by the city and the other businesses on W.25th Street, and the street is no longer the sketchy and relatively dangerous place it once was. (The Jay Hotel and its unsavory cast of characters is long gone. The hookers and most of the drug dealers have moved on.) But over the last year, it has become such a hassle to park and shop at the Market, that it makes me not want to go there. It’s easier to go to Whole Foods. But the experience is not the same. Tourists are transient, and if the Market loses its historical Cleveland character, including its local shoppers, what will it have left? I hope it doesn’t become Disney-esque, like Legacy Village, Crocker Park or other “lifestyle centers.” It won’t be for real shopping by real people.

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Modern music that doesn’t suck (one in a series): Timothy Andres’ “Shy and Mighty”

Andres - High and Mighty

My new music recommendation for the day is Timothy Andres’s 2010 album on Nonesuch Shy and Mighty for two pianos.  The music is deceptively simple sounding, but when you listen more carefully it has quite a lot going on, and periodic “explosions” that force you to pay attention.

The composer is one of the pianists on the album, along with David Kaplan.  They are a formidable duo, with unearthly precision.  

I am especially fond of the track “Out of Shape.”

Gyndebourne’s “Turn of the Screw”

Turn of the Screw - Glyndbourne CD

Over the last couple of years the Glyndebourne Festival in England has been producing a series of CD recordings of outstanding past opera performances from the festival, made from live performances. The latest of these recordings is from a very fine production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in 2007, with soprano Camilla Tilling as The Governess and tenor William Burden in the dual role of The Prologue and the ghost Peter Quint. Edward Gardner conducts members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Henry James’s ghost story, in which nothing is certain and everything might be imagined, is turned by Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper in 1954 into a creepy opera in which Britten portrays the ghosts Peter Quint and Miss Jessel as very real and on the make for the two children, Miles and Flora, left in the Governess’s charge by an uncle who is too busy to care for them himself.

The performance is excellent. Camilla Tilling’s portrayal become increasingly unhinged as the story progresses. William Burden’s bright, light tenor is a worthy successor to that of Peter Pears, Britten’s life partner and the originator of the role. The two children are played by Joanna Songi (Flora) and Christopher Sladdin (Miles). Since this recording is taken from a live performance, there is a considerable amount of stage noise, especially during the scenes when the children are playing together. The elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, whose belief that the Governess has seen the ghost of Peter Quint, the former valet, sets the story in motion, is by mezzo Anne-Marie Owens. Soprano Emma Bell plays the small but essential role of the former (and now dead) Governess Miss Jessel, who was forced to leave the house because of an unnamed scandal with Peter Quint. Conductor Edward Gardner leads a taut performance. A few of the vocal/orchestral balances are not quite right, but this is undoubtedly because of the conditions of live performances. The orchestral playing is precise and virtuosic. The opera is a set of variations on a theme that appears at the beginning of the first scene. Each variation sets the tone of the next scene; thus, the orchestra is a prime character in the drama.

Glyndebourne’s CD production is lavish. The two CD set is bound into a 60 page book featuring color photos of the production, synopsis and complete libretto, and an essay about the opera by Britten scholar Michael Kennedy. The CDs are already available in the U.K., and will be released in the U.S. later in June 2011.

I highly recommend this new recording. It stacks up well with the composer’s own recording (in mono) with the original cast, as well as such later recordings as that by Britten expert Steuart Bedford with the excellent Felicity Lott as the Governess.

In memoriam: Rosie the Corgi, April 20, 2011

Rhosymedre (“Rosie”) Corgi Barnum-Robson died of natural causes at her home in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, April 20, 2011, after a long battle with canine degenerative myelopathy (DM), which left her unable to walk for the last year of her life. She had been in decline in recent weeks, but after a month in her Cleveland home with her human companion Tim Robson, she had returned to Washington, with her other human companion, George Barnum on Sunday, April 17. She crossed the Rainbow Bridge peacefully in her sleep while George was at work. She was thirteen years old and was born near Boise, Idaho. She came to live with George and Tim (flying as carry-on luggage) when she was nine months old.

Rosie was well known for her winning personality and friendly smile to one and all. She was rarely in a bad mood, and until she became unable to do so, she never walked anywhere when she could run. Some of her favorite things were chasing her kong toy, scratches behind the ears, sniffing things on a walk, tummy rubs, toast, milk bone biscuits, rides in the car and most of all being close to her people. She was especially pleased in her retirement when Tim let her sleep up on the bed with him. She had never agreed with the philosophy that dogs should sleep on the floor.

Rosie was very well traveled, commuting regularly for her whole life between her Cleveland and Washington homes.

She was very fond of going to “corgi camp” in Parma with her friends Karen and Tom Oye, when Tim and George both needed to be out of town at the same time. She was always disappointed to come home again and discover that her regular caregivers didn’t lavish the same kind of undivided attention that she felt she deserved at all times.

After the DM caused Rosie to be unable to walk unassisted, for over a year she used a set of custom-made “wheels” that enabled her to get around at top speed and to continue her chase-the-kong games. Despite her almost total incapacitation during the last year of her life, she continued to have her smiling and inquisitive disposition.

One of her last public appearances was at the Kelvin Smith Library staff picnic in the summer of 2010, when she rolled around ensconced on her fuzzy red plush blanket in her red wagon. She was still able to put the other more mobile dog guests in their place, with a fierce woof and a display of her remaining teeth.

Besides her human companions, Rosie is survived by Mitsou the Himalayan cat, with whom Rosie had a lifelong uneasy truce. Except for Mitsou, who doesn’t really care, she will be missed by a host of friends.

Rest in peace, Rosie.

Here is a small Rosie movie to download.

Penderecki’s “Passion”

Penderecki Passion According to St. Luke

This evening I have been listening to a recording of Krzysztof Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion, composed in 1966 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the introduction of Christianity into Poland, and for the 700th anniversary of Münster Cathedral, where it was first performed. Penderecki has been a leading light of the European musical avant garde since the early 1960s. His Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima was a landmark (and has been used as source material for any number of movie soundtracks.)

The Passion is for three mixed choirs, boychoir, soprano, baritone and bass soloists, spoken narrator, and very large orchestra. It is a daunting work combining twelve-tone writing with vocal lines based on Gregorian chant, aleatoric passages as well as huge climaxes that end on shockingly diatonic major chords. The form is similar to the Bach passions: large choruses interspersed with narration and arias that comment on the action in Luke’s gospel. Other contemplative texts are taken from the psalms, Roman Catholic antiphons and hymns, sequences (Miserere mei Deus; Pange lingua; Stabat Mater, etc.)

The drama of the choruses is astonishing. Who could not be shocked by the screams of “Crucifige ilum.” (Crucify him)? Later there is an a capella setting of the “Stabat mater” describing Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the foot of the cross. The final chorus proclaims, “In Te, Domine, speravi, non confundar in aeternum.” (In Thee, O Lord, I put my trust; let me never be ashamed.)

Penderecki’s Passion is a masterpiece that should be performed more often. Too bad it’s so expensive to produce and no one (but me) wants to hear it….

(And of course, I’ve been listening to Penderecki while procrastinating practice the organ continuo part for the Bach Passion I have to play on Friday evening.)