Recent Reading – Two Memoirs

Two very different books with fascinating stories to tell:

Good Things Happen Slowly – Fred Hersch. A leading jazz pianist tells about not only his journey as a musician, but as a gay man and as a survivor of incredibly grave illness. His prose is no less finely shaped than his work at the piano. Like all the best writing about music, it made me want to go back to the music – in this case, both his recorded performances and his published concert music.

Here’s a live Hersch performance of “In Walked Bud”:

George Szell’s Reign – Marcia Hansen Kraus. As a native of Cleveland who just missed the Szell era, I was fascinated by this collection of tales describing the history of the Cleveland Orchestra in the mid-20th century. Szell’s autocratic leadership of the orchestra led to its supreme excellence, and the remembrances of many of the members of the orchestra gathered here shed light on what it was really like to work under the maestro. Kraus, the widow of Felix Kraus, an oboist in the Orchestra during the Szell days, has not written a dry scholarly book (though it is meticulously footnoted), but rather a very human portrait of an organization and its leader, doing us the service of recording the reminiscences of those veterans of the Szell era who are still among us.

Adding up Barber

Do the Math has posted comments on the Barber Piano Concerto. While the piece is not exactly K. 466, I don’t think it is as problematic as Iverson makes it out to be. He talks about the opening of the third movement as great movie music, and I was reminded of sitting with Steve Jaffe at a performance of some relatively obscure Copland orchestral music. I whispered to Steve, “This sounds like movie music”. He corrected me, saying “No, movie music sounds like this.” I think the same applies to the Barber.

Iverson has no patience for the episode at fig. 18 of the concerto’s finale – I wonder how he feels about the passage in the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra to which this episode is indebted – it is right out of the “game of pairs” movement. Is that just as weak?

Barber is at once overrated and underrated. His easier songs and the piano sonata are relied upon by myriad college students needing to check off the “20th century”, or “English language”, or, Lord help us, “contemporary” box on their senior recital program – used so often you would think he was considered the greatest American composer. (At least this was the case when I was an undergrad – maybe that has changed. I doubt it.) But in another perspective, he is insufficiently appreciated by those who prefer an edgier idiom. You really shouldn’t dismiss the guy. Joe Straus does not; there is an interesting take on the slow movement of the piano sonata in his recent book on Twelve-Tone Music in America, and it is nice to see Barber in a book with Wolpe and Martino, among many others.

Ives, Carter, Crumb and Reich are more important composers than Barber. (Update: read the comments for a discussion of problems with that sentence.) But I certainly wish I had written “Sure on This Shining Night”, or “Knoxville”, or the Piano Sonata, or the Adagio (and not just for the royalties!) or even the Piano Concerto.

A tale is told of Barber conferring with Szell after a rehearsal of the concerto. Barber was considering adding a whip* to the percussion in the third movement, and said to Szell, “make sure they bring the whip tomorrow.” Szell replied, “I don’t know, the orchestra didn’t play that badly.”

*Also called a slapstick – two pieces of wood, hinged and struck sharply together – it is the sound at the beginning of the Ravel G Major concerto.