Arrivals/Departures – New Horizons in Jazz

65-arrivalsdepartures---new-horizons-in-jazz001Arrivals/Departures – New Horizons in Jazz
Stuart Broomer, Brain Morton & Bill Shoemaker
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
€ 34.50 (includes international shipping) This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
ISBN: 978-972-31-1493-5 UPC: 9789723114935

Distinguished as much for its scholarship as for the artful, mostly colour photos and illustrations which make it an attractive souvenir, this 240-page volume was published by Lisbon’s annual Jazz em Agosto (JeA) Festival to mark its 30th anniversary of innovative programming. It says a lot about the individuals who program JeA that rather than commissioning a vainglorious rundown of the festival’s greatest hits, they turned to three respected jazz critics to profile 50 of the most important musicians, living or dead, who have performed at the festival.

The three writers are Brian Morton from the United Kingdom, American Bill Shoemaker and Canadian Stuart Broomer, who also writes for The WholeNote. The profiles reflect how universal jazz — or more properly improvised music — has become in the three decades JeA has been in existence. Once exclusively thought of as the United States’ contribution to the music world, only slightly more than half of the profiles are of American improvisers. Additionally the majority of the Yanks are not only better known in Europe than North America, but earn the greater part of their income overseas at festivals like JeA.

Well-written and insightful, the profiles include those of acknowledged trailblazers such as saxophonists Evan Parker and Steve Lacy, drummer Max Roach and pianists Muhal Richard Abrams and Cecil Taylor, plus those just establishing a reputation like pianist Craig Taborn, trumpeter Peter Evans and guitarist Mary Halvorson. Offering a wealth of information and craftily outlining the performers’ contributions to jazz history as well as a list of essential recordings, the essays could be a primer for those interested in more exposure to excellent music and musicians not promoted by celebrity-obsessed mass media. Broomer’s essay on American saxophonist John Zorn and Shoemaker’s on French bassist Joëlle Léandre are particularly instructive since they pinpoint the many and varied non-jazz influences that helped create these musicians’ exceptional improvised sounds.

For Canadians however the biggest disappointment is that none of the musicians profiled come from this country, although even Japan and Australia are represented. But of course the omission reflects JeA’s booking policies rather than editorial decisions. Considering that Canadians in greater numbers, including expatriates like New York-based drummer Harris Eisenstadt and pianist Kris Davis as well as homebodies like Vancouver clarinetist François Houle and Montreal reedist François Carrier are making a profound impact on the sort of evolving music JeA supports, that situation could soon be reflected by JeA and perhaps a future volume. 


A Birthday Portrait for Roy Thomson Hall

Toronto’s cultural and architectural landmark turns 30 this year, and is celebrating its birthday with the launch of William Littler and John Terauds’ new book Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait. The authors use the iconic building, once known as the “New Massey Hall,” as a backdrop for the stories of the myriad people who have contributed to its development through the years. From Arthur Erickson’s initial architectural plans, to the 2002 acoustical renovations, to the countless outreach and community programs that the hall hosts today, Littler and Terauds have provided readers with a comprehensive story of the building’s first three decades while maintaining interest amidst the telling of administrative anecdotes – a testament both to the writers’ skill and to the colourful history of the hall itself. Well-researched and beautifully illustrated, the book supplies the community with a refreshing perspective of a much-loved musical landmark.

Read more: A Birthday Portrait for Roy Thomson Hall

Remembering Glenn Gould

bookshelf glenngould book coverRemembering Glenn Gould:
Twenty Interviews with People Who
Knew Him, by Colin Eatock.
Penumbra Press, 2012. 189 pages. $19.95.

The glenn gould booster club seldom sleeps. Toronto music journalist Colin Eatock has gathered together many of the familiar names who were part of the Gould constellation at one time or another — Andrew Kazdin, Verne Edquist, Walter Homburger, Margaret Pacsu, Ray Roberts, Robert Fulford, etc. — asked them each a few intelligent questions, then just hit the record button to let them speak at length. Et voilà, a conversational-flavoured biography of the famous Canadian pianist.

One may well ask, why do this? Eatock asks it himself in an introductory essay — his opening sentence is “Why another book about Glenn Gould?”— yet he seems unable to answer his own question. I’ll venture an answer for him. Because there are still plenty of Gouldites out there, like me, who for silly if obsessive reasons devour a book like this, in our bid to further mythologize an oddball deceased Toronto classical musician who for a time captivated the world through his concerts and records. So yes, this book has a market, especially in English Canada. Penumbra is an Ontario publisher that celebrates Canadian culture, and this paperback is handsomely produced, on beautiful paper, well bound, with a gracious type font. (Stan Bevington designed the book, and deserves an ovation for the old-fashioned art of bookmanship.)

Though Gould fans have encountered most of these reminiscences before from the same cast, Eatock poses gentle questions to 20 articulate people and adds his own short preludes and postludes.  Here and there, insightful sentences tap a reader on the shoulder. Vincent Tovell, the CBC TV producer, muses: “[Gould] was ahead of his time. But he was also before his time, reaching back to a simpler world, before the modern age, in a search for serenity.” William Littler, distinguished Canadian music critic, observes of Gould the would-be philosopher: “He didn’t want a dialogue — he wanted an audience.” American violinist Jaime Laredo states: “I’ve never, ever, in my life worked with anyone who played the piano better than he did.”

Eatock snared an interview with Cornelia Foss, an American visual artist who first came out of the shadows back in 2007 to speak of her four years living in Toronto as Gould’s semi-secret lover/companion. She tells us that she found his much-admired Bach playing entirely wrongheaded, and explains why.

The longest interview is accorded to CBC Radio’s John Roberts, an abiding friend of Gould’s and major keeper of the Gould flame. “I always found Glenn to be very kind, very thoughtful, extremely loyal — and he was the best friend I ever had,” Roberts says fondly.

Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti and Canadian composer John Beckwith express serious reservations in their interviews, both about Glenn Gould the stylistically mannered musician and the posthumous fan industry he spawned. They probably won’t be buying copies of this book to give as gifts.

But I will. Newcomers to the Gould saga will enjoy it, at $20 it’s a bargain, and its keyboard hero remains a cipher. 

Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature by Charles Rosen

 

Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature
by Charles Rosen
Harvard University Press
448 pages, musical examples; $35.00 US

Once again, Charles Rosen has drawn on his talents as a pianist, scholar and essayist to produce a singularly thought-provoking collection of articles and reviews. Most were first published in the New York Review of Books — the title paper, Freedom and Art, appeared just this past May. At 85 Rosen is as brilliant as ever, if a touch more curmudgeonly than in previous collections. He has also become noticeably more nostalgic for the days when directors were not expected to “spruce up” operas to attract audiences, young composers did not feel compelled to write easily accessible music, and audiences read essays for pleasure.

Rosen’s ongoing tiffs with fellow journalist-musicologist Richard Taruskin run through these pages. In Western Music: The View from California, a detailed review of Taruskin’s six-volume Oxford History of Western Music, Rosen challenges Taruskin’s more sociologically-based approach to music history. He even goes so far as to accuse Taruskin of gearing his writing to appeal to the lucrative textbook market. In a postscript, Modernism and the Cold War, Rosen attacks Taruskin’s response to this review, in which Taruskin had written that he “regards Rosen’s literary output — all of it — as Cold War propaganda.” And so it goes. While this is all very entertaining — and edifying — the irony is that as outspoken as these two are, they are often not that far apart, especially on controversial issues like early music.

In a heartfelt tribute to Elliott Carter on his 100th birthday, Rosen writes eloquently in defence of Carter’s complex music, “Since Beethoven, it is the difficult music that has survived most easily; the originally unintelligible Wagner, Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky and all the others that were so shocking are now an essential part of the concert scene.” Recalling a critical comment about a lack of emotion in Carter’s Night Fantasies after he performed this gorgeous work in Toronto 30 years ago, he adds, “Only when one understands how the music works (that is, consciously or unconsciously, feels at ease with the music) can one perceive the emotion.”

He offers plenty to argue with, such as when he dismisses composers who reject what he calls the “triumphs of modernism” and produce tonally based works with regular pulses and measurable rhythmic patterns. “All the modern tonal music I have heard,” he writes, “is loosely and simply organized, incapable of the subtle articulations and complex significance we find in Haydn or Beethoven.”

Rosen is especially attuned to nuances and outright contradictions in matters of interpretation, above all when it comes to the significance of style in understanding music. “Musical style,” he writes, “is not a passive material that can be molded at will, but a system that both resists and inspires change.” So I find it surprising that throughout this collection Rosen fails to recognize that an interpretation of musical style is fundamental to period instrument performances, and is responsible for their refined techniques, ever-expanding repertoires, and ever-increasing influence on mainstream performers and conductors. Yet Rosen writes, in Culture on the Market, “Concerts of music by Locatelli, Albinoni or Graun are bearable only for those music lovers for whom period style is more important than quality.”

The point of these essays is not to convince us, but to enhance our experiences of the music. More than anything, it’s the surprising and delightful connections, not just in music but also in related philosophy, art and literature, that make them so delightful to read. Rosen’s scope is so broad that it’s a challenge to keep up to him, especially when he writes that “the history of art can only be understood if the most extreme and eccentric phenomena can be integrated into our view of the whole picture.” What we can do is keep reading and listening — and enjoying.

The Mastersinger from Minsk by Morley Torgov

 

The Mastersinger from Minsk
by Morley Torgov
Dundurn Press
264 pages; $17.99

The plot of Morley Torgov’s latest mystery novel, like his previous Murder in A-Major, revolves around real figures from the world of classical music — in this case Richard Wagner and his young wife-to-be, Cosima von Bülow, daughter of his friend Franz Liszt. Cosima’s current husband Hans van Bülow is on hand as well, since he is conducting the premiere of Wagner’s new opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Rehearsal is underway in Munich when Chief Inspector Hermann Preiss, who narrates, is called in to investigate a disturbing message Wagner has received. It says, “June 21 will be the day of your ruination.” Dead bodies keep appearing, including that of the star heldentenor Wolfgang Grilling, who had been the main suspect in the threat against Wagner. Grilling was furious because Wagner had given the lead tenor role in his new opera to an unknown singer who had shown up at auditions, and saddled Grilling with the apparently demeaning buffo role of Beckmesser. But what Torgov doesn’t seem to realize is that Grilling would undoubtedly have been especially vexed because he, a heldentenor, had been given a role written for a light baritone — a different range, colour and weight of voice altogether.

This setting allows Torgov to paint a vivid picture of Wagner rehearsing his opera. When Father Owen Lee gave one of his insightful books on Wagner the title The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art, he summed up what Torgov manages to capture in his plot, which revolves around the horridness of the man and the glory of his music. To add authenticity, Torgov wisely consulted the journals that Wagner’s ballet-master Richard Fricke kept while working with the composer on the premiere of the Ring Cycle.

Because this story is set in 1868 Torgov gets away with referring to Preiss as “the only policeman in Europe who takes an interest in opera.” Books featuring opera-loving detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse and Kurt Wallander may have been written earlier, but they all take place later.

With his imaginative plotting, Torgov has found an effective way to present the complicated questions surrounding Wagner’s — and Cosima’s — deep-seated anti-Semitism. Whether Wagner intended Beckmesser to be the anti-Semitic figure of fun that Torgov paints him is open to debate. In any case, Torgov deftly conveys the transcendent power of Wagner’s music through his novel, if far-fetched, twist to the convoluted plot. It’s worthy of Hitchcock in the way it uses the interpretation of a song as a plot device — rather like Die Meistersinger itself, for that matter.

But it’s the characters, fictional like Preiss, real like Wagner, that kept me reading so eagerly. Torgov is at his best creating characters, and Preiss is at his most sardonic and colourful describing them. Preiss seems to be aware of this, since part way through the case he comments, “I was a curator, not of a collection of tangible evidence, but of a collection of people — living curiosities, flesh and blood to the eye yet unfathomable, untrustworthy, conniving, everyone seemingly filing onto my stage carrying his or her own bundle of plots and lies, and at the centre of the stage, Richard Wagner himself, principal plotter and liar.” 


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