Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim

p66Finishing the Hat

by Stephen Sondheim

Knopf

478 pages, photos; 46.00

When songwriter Steven Sondheim turned seventy, he made a list of his favourite songs written by other song-writers. He called it Songs I Wish I’d Written (At Least In Part). This year, for his eightieth birthday, he has put together this collection of his own songs, or at least the lyrics. This includes lyrics for his own shows like A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, as well as shows from earlier in his career when when he worked with composers like Leonard Bernstein for West Side Story, and Jule Styne for Gypsy.

Between the lyrics for each song he has written, including drafts and alternates, Sondheim adds choice comments about the songs and the shows they’re from, as well as the actors, directors and producers who worked on them.  Along the way, he discusses – not uncritically - song-writers of the past. These include his two favourites, Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern, as well as his beloved mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, who became a surrogate father to him.

Sondheim’s witty and poignant lyrics make terrific reading. Without the music to share the attention, you really notice how much the expressiveness of his songs is due to his brilliant use of language, especially his intricate and unusual rhymes. Even though songs like Send in the Clowns and I’m Still Here have become standards on their own today, Sondheim emphasizes how important it is for him that his lyrics enhance the dramatic action of the shows they’re in. So even one of his favourites songs, Multitudes of Amys, ended up being cut from Company when the story-line was changed.

It’s tempting to see Sondheim himself in his characters, with their longings, regrets, and cynicism. But, as Sondheim reminds us, he does not create the characters in his shows – that’s for the book-writer. “The only song I’ve written which is an immediate expression of a personal internal experience is Finishing the Hat,” from Sunday in the Park with George. It’s a song about artistic expression. But even though he used it as the title of this volume, it’s not included here since it’s from a show written in 1984, three years after the cut-off date for this collection.

Sondheim’s life and work have been extensively documented in books and recordings. His own recorded commentaries featured in the recent revue Sondheim on Sondheim cover some of the same material as Finishing the Hat. But so far, this wonderful book is the closest thing to an autobiography Sondheim has written. Fortunately he promises a second volume.

Stephen Sondheim will be introduced by Des McAnuff and interviewed by Robert Cushman on the stage of the Princess of Wales Theatre on December 6 at 8.00

McAnuff’s production of Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opens there on Dec. 15

Sondheim’s song-list has been published in the new edition of Mark Eden Horowitz’s Sondheim on Music (The Scarecrow Press)


Listen to This by Alec Ross

p65bListen to This

by Alec Ross

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

381 pages; $31.00

In his first book, The Rest Is Noise, music critic Alex Ross took an ambitiously sweeping approach to the whole history of 20th century classical music. His new book, Listen to This, is just as ambitious, as the title makes clear.  But this time, happy to leave loose ends and open questions,  he offers a collection of articles about specific musicians. Most of these pieces first appeared in Ross’s column in The New Yorker magazine. They seem to have been chosen not because they are his best, but because they offer a sampling of the broad range of music and musicians that Ross feels passionate about, from Brahms to Björk.

Ross’s goal here is to knock down the walls separating different types of music. Discussing Björk, he depicts a musical utopia where ‘the ideologies, teleologies, style wars, and subdivisions that have so defined music in the past hundred years slip away”. So he focuses on the musicians and music that inspire him. There’s the ‘free-wheeling spirit’ of early music performers like Richard Egarr, and the joy that the St Lawrence Quartet takes in ‘the act of connection” . There’s the rock group Radiohead, who practices “a new kind of classical music for the masses”. Then there’s Brahms, whose Intermezzo op 117 no 1 is, he writes, “the music that you will hear when you die”.

“I approach music not as a self-sufficient sphere but as a way of knowing the world", writes Ross.  There is something infectious about his enthusiasm for such a broad range of genres when, in a discussion of the history of the chaconne, he moves effortlessly from classical music into the realms of blues, jazz, and pop. As an attempt to show how  these various genres are all related, Listen to This was not thoroughly convincing. But as a compilation of terrific pieces on various musicians by the best music critic in North America, it’s a stand-out – especially once the headache-inducing dust-jacket is removed.

Fortepianist Richard Egarr is performing a program of Mozart  and Haydn with Tafelmusik at Trinity-St. Paul’s from Dec. 1 to Dec. 5.

Victor Feldbrill: Canadian Conductor Extraordinaire by Walter Pitman

p65aVictor Feldbrill: Canadian Conductor Extraordinaire

by Walter Pitman

Dundurn Press

432 pages, photos; $40.00

Canadian conductor Victor Feldbrill has lead so many premieres of Canadian compositions and promoted so many Canadian works around the world that his impact on music in Canadian has been immeasurable, as Walter Pitman shows in this thorough biography. Pitman, who has chronicled the lives of Canadian musicians, takes a close look at what motivated Feldbrill to support Canadian composers and performers so unreservedly, even when it created difficulties for him. “His position”, writes Pitman, “was that if the music itself had integrity and was skilfully written, it must be played.”

By all accounts, Feldbrill was an accomplished conductor in all kinds of repertoire. “Why then”, asks Pitman, “weren’t orchestras from around the world clamouring for his services?” Placing value on “competence, reliability and collegiality”, Feldbrill avoided the “wildly entertaining, shocking and melodramatic” styles of conductors who stamp their personalities on their interpretations. But because he was reluctant to impose a personal vision, he didn’t generate the kind of charisma that makes a conductor get noticed.

What’s more, Feldbrill stayed in Canada. There’s a crop of younger Canadian conductors today, like Yves Abel, Kwame Ryan, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Julian Kuerti, who have achieved remarkable success. But they are all pursuing their careers outside Canada.

Pitman has done extensive interviews with Feldbrill, who was born in Toronto in 1924, as well as with musicians who worked with him. He has also made full use of letters and archival documents. He is, however,  more concerned with how Feldbrill was able to accomplish what he did than with matters of musical interpretation. A discography and a list of his premieres would have been useful  to document the “incredible history of composition” that Feldbrill’s performances and recordings of Canadian music represent, especially since many of the recordings are unavailable today. Even what Pitman calls  Feldbrill’s “crowning achievement”, his recording of Harry Somers’ seminal opera, Louis Riel, is difficult to come by. But Pitman’s engaging, detailed biography goes a long way to illuminate the history of Canadian composition that they represent. And it has a particularly lovely back cover – a lovely portrait of Feldbrill, baton in hand, painted by his grandson, Benjamin Koffman.

HOLIDAY BOOKS

HOLIDAY  BOOKS

Here are some terrific books from this year that would be of special interest to music lovers, even if they are not directly about music

Cage: Six Paintings by Gerhard Richter by Robert Storr (Tate Publishing)

The catalogue of a show at London’s Tate Modern that featured a suite of massive paintings by one of the greatest painters of our time, Gerhard Richter. They were directly inspired by the music of John Cage. This hefty catalogue includes essays along with splendid reproductions of the paintings themselves.

Diaghilev and the The Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909 – 1929 (V&A Publishing)

A collection of extraordinary historic photos and essays cataloguing a recent show at the Victoria & Albert Museum about  impresario (and so much more) Sergei Diaghilev, along with the composers, like Stravinsky, Ravel, Prokofiev and Debussy, painters like Picasso, and dancers like Nijinsky he worked with to create ballets for his company, Les Ballets Russes.

The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett (faber and faber)

A new play by Alan Bennett (Beyond the Fringe, The Madness of George III) featuring a discussion between Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden about life, sex and basing an opera on the novella Death In Venice by Thomas Mann (who happened to be Auden’s father-in-law). Although such a conversation never actually took place, Auden did write the libretto for Britten’s earlier opera Paul Bunyan. This ranks with the very best plays about music  like David Pownall’s  The Composer Plays (Music to Murder By, Elgar’s Rondo, Elgar’s Third, and especially Master Class) and Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (which has a part for symphony orchestra, written by André Previn).

The Jazz Loft Project by Sam Stephenson (Knopf)

A selection of photos and transcripts of conversations taken from the 40,000 photos and 4,000 hours of audiotapes of conversations and jam sessions made by photographer W.Eugene Smith between 1957 and 1965 in his New York loft. They were discovered eleven years ago by Sam Stephenson, who has put together this remarkable volume. Along with musicians like Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, and Paul Bley, a young Steve Reich was a regular for a few years.

Playing (Less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians by Janet Horvath (Hal Leonard)

Wise and detailed advice for performers who have been injured or want to avoid being injured, as well as musicians and music-lovers who want to investigate the physical demands of playing an instrument. Horvath is  a Toronto-born cellist who plays in the Minnesota Orchestra.

Safe Passage by Ida Cook (Harlequin)

The extraordinary memoir written by the younger of two intrepid British sisters, Ida and Louise Cook, who managed to turn their passion for opera, and numerous friendships with opera singers, into a means of rescuing dozens of Jews from persecution and death by the Nazis. This memoir is published by Harlequin because Ida was a successful writer of romance novels.

Sketches from Here and There by A.J. (Jack) Diamond (Douglas & McIntyre)

A collection of vibrant watercolours, featuring buildings and other man-made structures, by architect Jack Diamond, who designed the Canadian Opera Company’s Four Seasons Centre. Diamond is currently working on the new Mariinsky Opera House in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats by  Pannonica de Koenigswarter (Abrams)

The quirky vision of Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a member of the British branch of the Rothchilds, who abandoned her life as a baroness to move to New York and become friend, muse and supporter of  jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker.  In two leather-bound Hermès notebooks she recorded the answers she received to the question, “If you were given three wishes, to be instantly granted, what would they be?”. This fascinating book includes responses from the most notable jazz musicians of the time, as well as photos.

A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers by Will Friedwald

58_a_biographical_guide_to_the_great_jazz_and_pop_singersA Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers

by Will Friedwald

Pantheon

829 pages; $53.00

• This hefty volume certainly lives up to its title, with detailed biographies of more than three hundred of the twentieth century’s best jazz and popular singers. But it offers much more. In fact, this book contains some of the most astute, witty and stylish critical writing on singers since Whitney Balliett wrote for the New Yorker.

Instead of trying to define who is and who isn’t a jazz singer, Will Friedwald , a jazz critic for the Wall Street Journal, has based his choices on those who sing the standards of the so-called Great American Songbook. Though most of the singers he profiles were active during the last century, he does cover a number of contemporary singers, including Canadians Diana Krall and Michael Bublé.

Friedwald comes up with some surprising – and interesting – historical connections. “If you take [Dean] Martin’s usual singing,” he suggests, “and apply a little more vibrato to it, you end up with something that sounds suspiciously like Elvis.” For him, even an obscure singer like Rose Murphy is not just “one of the most distinctive, not to mention delightful, performers in popular music,” but also an important influence on Ella Fitzgerald.

One of the many things that sets this encyclopedia apart is the generous length of the entries, long enough to do justice to what these singers accomplished, and detailed enough to include discussions of their recordings. He sheds fresh light on well-documented singers like Frank Sinatra (the subject of one of Friedwald’s previous books), Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, Alberta Hunter, Anita O’Day, and Mel Tormé. But he also re-evaluates lesser-known singers like Al Hibbler, Ernestine Anderson, Mose Allison, and Helen Humes. He admits to failing to be moved by Cleo Laine, yet still manages an appreciative portrait. And some of his most interesting comments are about those who are well-known, but not so much as singers, like Dean Martin, Doris Day, Fred Astaire, and Jimmy Durante.

Though there is a detailed list of contents, there is, unfortunately, no index. So unless you read this book from cover to cover, you are bound to miss some terrific writing, like the extra comments on Louis Armstrong which are found in Friedwald’s discussion of Durante. It’s especially frustrating because Friedwalds’s writing is so good that I wouldn’t want to have missed anything he had to say about a singer I was interested in.

Address inquiries to bookshelf@thewholenote.com.


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