Saturday, February 6, 2016

... ly Ballou here in Times Square

Bob, left, and Ray, right.
I note, with great sadness, the passing Feb. 2 of Bob Elliott, one half of the great Bob and Ray, one of my two favorite comedy teams (the other being, of course, the Marx Brothers). I bought the soundtrack album to Bob and Ray: The Two and Only with paperboy money when I was 12, and a year later, I saw the touring company (which consisted of the same cast) at the now-defunct Locust Theater in Philadelphia. A few years later I followed Bob and Ray on WOR in New York (which I could pick up in Southeastern Pa.) and then on National Public Radio.

I never missed a chance to hear them, if I could help it.  They were clean, subtle to the vanishing point, and at their best, hilarious. I was such a fan that in the early 1990s, while I was active in community theater in the Washington, D.C., area, I strung together several of my favorite bits into a one-act play I called "The Bob and Ray Suite," which I directed and appeared in and which turned out to be a great hit.

Having no no idea how to get the performance rights to the  material, I wrote to the Museum of TV and Radio in New York, asking that my request be forwarded to Bob, wherever he might be. Weeks later, I was surprised delighted to find a typewritten response from Bob Elliott in my mailbox. (The rerturn address on the envelope was Cundy's Harbor, Maine, where Bob was reported to have died.) Bob granted me permission to perform the skits without payment. He asked only that the program give proper credit. I still have the letter.

Monday, January 18, 2016

File under Bou - Bow

The death of Pierre Boulez on January 5 was quickly overshadowed by the death of David Bowie a few days later.  Bowie was the talk of my newsroom for an afternoon, and of course, none of my co-workers had ever heard of Boulez. Even many of my classically trained Facebook friends had more to say and more posts to make about the flamboyantly pansexual rock star than the quietly asexual composer and conductor.

Though I never actively followed Bowie’s career, I always felt his presence: He seem to lurk in the background of my life, on the jukebox in my high school cafeteria, on the car radio, or on the television. Taking inventory after he died, however, I realized the only Bowie song I have in my entire music collection is a cover ― Rickie Lee Jones’ version of “Rebel, Rebel” on the album Stuart’s Coat.  It’s my favorite Bowie song, and guitar riff has been stuck in my mind for days. Yet I’m certain than when it finally leaves me alone, my strongest memory of Bowie will remain his unexpected, and hilarious, appearance on the Looney Tunes 50th anniversary special:

Boulez, on the other hand, became a central figure in my musical life early on, first as a conductor, and only later as a composer. His name appears throughout my record and CD collections as the leader of treasured performances of Berg, Carter, Debussy, Mahler, Ravel, Schoenberg , Webern and Zappa. I first saw him conduct in New York City in 1974, when directed the New York Philharmonic in Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony. (The Ives centenary was celebrated that year.) Three years later, I attended the premiere of Carter’s wonderful Symphony of Three Orchestras, also with Boulez and the Philharmonic, and in 1986, I saw him lead the Ensemble InterContemporain in the US premiere of Carter’s Penthode at Avery Fisher Hall. (His recording, released in 1990, unfortunately does not capture the charm of the live performance.)  

As regards his compositions, it seems I have been on the verge of truly appreciating them for years. Every so often, I’ll listen to some of them, like what I hear, and then go on about my business. Certainly, he was precocious, influential, and most important, good. Already in the 1950s, with Le Marteau sans Maitre, he had mastered an idiom that Elliott Carter would turn to his own purposes only years later. Robert Craft's recording of the piece, on Columbia, was epoch-making, to be sure, but Boulez' own, made half a century later for DGG, is gorgeous. I will, in the coming days, continue to explore the discography, and, I hope to come away with a deeper understanding of a composer who lived long but departed too soon. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

Spenser's frame of reference

Ace Atkins has written a fourth novel in his continuation of Robert B. Parker's Spenser franchise. This one is called Kickback , and it's based directly on the kids-for-cash scandal that played out a few years ago in Luzerne County, Pa., my proud home state.

(About that title: toward the end of his life, Parker skimped on his prose. The page count stayed the same, but the type got bigger, the margins wider, the leading deeper, and the titles were mostly reduced to one word. He seemed to be a race against time. The hireling author has filled out the pages again, but he has turned bi-syllabic titles into a tradition.)

Of  Atkins' attempts to inhabit the Spenser universe so far, this is the first  one that doesn't fall apart at the end, although he does feel the need to introduce organized crime into the story, the one element not drawn from real life,  just to he can set up an obligatory bloodbath. Just once, I'd like to read a Spenser novel in which goons are not sent sent to scare the hero off. The crime bosses never seem to realize that if they just left him alone, he'd have no leads to track down.
As with the last Spenser book, I couldn't help thinking about Spenser's age, which is never nailed down numerically, but which has to be over 80. Parker, who used element his own life in fashioning the character, was born in 1932, and Spenser was already in his forties when he was introduced in 1973. Do the math. Our urban knight errant is now dealing with a reconstructed knee, and he's gone on a diet, cutting out his beloved donuts (though he'd lose weight faster if he stopped drinking). Barring a complete reboot a la Star Trek, he'll soon be breaking down doors with a walker.

What drove the age issue home most forcefully, however, wasn't Spenser's physical condition, but his cultural references, which seem stuck in a time warp. Parker had a lazy way of describing characters, especially women, by comparing them to celebrities of the day, but at least the names he used were of the day. Atkins reaches back into the pop culture past, as though he knows he's writing for an aging demographic.

But to be fair, he's writing about a character who still listens to Artie Shaw and wears a Brooklyn Dodgers cap.

Here are a few examples, with page references. See how many you recognize.

A haggard woman missing two front teeth got up to slow dance with a man in a flannel shirt and unlaced boots. They could have taken a lesson from Arthur Murray. (44) Is that even around anymore?

The hood lay loose around his neck, making him look like Nanook of the North. (44)

All this sleuthing was exciting as hell. If only Bulldog Drummond had the Internet. (75)

Only myself an Warner Oland could sleuth over a plate of scallion pancakes. (78)

"I know you," I said, snapping my fingers at the old guy. "You were in the Mickey Mouse Club. You, Chubby and Annette. Wow. Brings back some real memories." (121)

"Enough," I said. "Not that I don't enjoy the Lux Radio Theatre ..." (134)

He looked about as menacing as Howdy Doody on a buckboard. (186)

His thick, curly hair had been cut shorter than Daddy Warbucks's. (232)

I waited for the purse to clock me with all the ferocity of Ruth Buzzi. (245)

He looked like a young James Caan without the looks. (290)

There was also a reference to Madonna in there someplace.


Monday, December 14, 2015

A lovely Sunday afternoon in the wilds of suburbia

Taking part in the Salon Extraordinaire in Gladwynne Sunday are, from left, Qin Qian, erhu; Rollin Wilber, piano; Tom Kozumplik, perciussion; Anndrea Clearfield, emcee; Karthryn Woodard, piano; Michele Cann, piano; Joe Soprani, accordion; and John Byrne, leader of the John Byrne Band.

Yesterday I attended my first (and I hope not my last) Salon Extraordinaire, a free concert organized by the composer Andrea Clearfield and held in the comfortable confines of the Main Line Reform Temple in Gladwynne.  Eclecticism was the order of the day as the performers, each of whom got about ten or so minutes to perform, comprised two classical pianists, a Celtic band, a Chinese violinist (that is, a woman who played the Chinese violin, though she also happened to be Chinese), an Italian accordionist (that is, an Italian-American who played the accordion, though on this occasion he happened to play Italian music), and a percussionist-composer who in performance also uses electronic effects, such a voice loops and digital echoes.

Everyone was a standout, and I sat grinning dippily through the whole affair, but the performers who made the deepest impression on me at the time were Qin Qian (pronounced Chin Chan), the erhu player  who was accomanied deferentially by pianist Kathryn Woodard;  and the percussionist, Tom Kozumplik. Not that they were any better than anyone else. It’s just that something about my mood or the novelty of the sounds provoked a stronger response.  Qian played three selections, all composed in the 1960s, but all employing traditional Chinese materials. The first mimicked the galloping of Mongolian horse racing, the last bird song, and the one in the middle, while not specifically imitative, evoked moonlight on a stream as only pentatonic scales can.  Together, they made a small sonata in three movements – fast, slow, fast – and Qian was great fun to watch, grinning slyly as she tore into the rapid figurations. The erhu has a rough sound to match its rough look, and Qian’s facial expressions made it clear that what seemed to Western ears like screeches and wrong notes are all part of the tradition.

The afternoon closed with the young piano virtuoso Michele Cann playing Adolf Schulz-Elver’s  “Arabesques on ‘An der schönen blauen Donau.’” The music itself is either dazzling or hilarious, depending on your definition of taste, but Cann was a marvel, and a great audience favorite. It should be mentioned that the piano at the temple was used by Samuel Barber during his days at the Curtis Institute, purchased and donated by a pair of congregants.    

I enjoyed meeting the accordionist Joe Soprani, whom I interviewed for my preview piece on the salon, but he was rather difficult to hear in performance. He played two pieces ― Julie Giroux’s “Italian Rhapsody” and Rachmaninoff’s “Italian Polka” ― and was, in each case, accompanied by recordings of the US Air Force Band. It was an unwise decision, in my view. On the one hand, the sound system didn’t really convey the kick of big band, and on the other, it seemed at times Soprani was holding back, afraid he would drown it out. He’s a great musician who's had the most remarkable and varied career of anyone onstage yesterday. Next time, I’d like to hear him go it alone and find out just how much volume he can squeeze out of that box.     

One word on the notion of salons: Andrea Clearfield likes to say her own salons were inspired by the salon culture of the 17th and 18th centuries in Italy and France, which themselves, she said, trace their roots all the way back to ancient Greece. She also asked if me if I could recommend any books or research on the subject. It might be grist for an interesting historical discussion, but it seems to me all the justification is unnecessary. How much precedent, really, do you need to bring musicians together for an afternoon?  

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Andrea Clearfield's Salon Extraordinaire

Andrea Clearfield
Here is a link to my article on the Salon Extrordinaire, a public but informal get-together organized on occasion by the composer Andrea Clearfield. The Salon will be held this Sunday, and it's free.

I had not heard of the Salon, and I had not heard of Andrea, but after interviewing her, I was glad my editor threw the story my way. She is currently working on an opera, she tells me, with a libretto by the playwright Jean Claude van Itallie, author of America Hurrah and Mystery Play, which I acted in a few years ago..  

Another 'Sleigh Ride' Watch

I've said in the past that Christmas isn't Christmas until I've heard Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," and on the condition that hearing it must be as close to accidental as possible - such as over a store's loudspeaker, or in a TV commercial. Radio does count, even though one Philadelphia station plays Christmas music for a month, and hearing "Sleigh Ride" is inevitable if you tune in for any length of time.

Today, I was pleased to discover that the tunes means as much to the young musicians of Plymouth Whitemarsh High School, in Whitemarsh, Pa., as it does to me. The concert band plays the piece ever years at its winter concert, and the band members apparently regard it as a rite of passage. Digital first's own  M. English has written an lively, informative article on the students and their relationship to the music, and I must say I'm jealous she beat me to the story. You can read it here, and I suggest you do.

By the way, my first exposure to "Sleigh Ride" this year a couple of weeks ago, before Thanksgiving, when it was broadcast over the TV in the newsroom. I forget which station. It might have been CNN, which would prove that even a network as fatuous as CNN is good for something.

The New Colossus - a footnote

With apologies to Emma Lazarus:

The Woman with the torch looks out to sea
And tells the world, "I'm changing my criteria.
Send all your homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
Unless they come from Mexico or Syria."

Sunday, November 15, 2015


I've long loved Madeline Kahn, and so I was pleased to come across a copy of William Madison's new biography during a recent trip to the Montgomery County-Norristown Library. It's a quick, easy read, and while the prose is no better than serviceable, and Madison goes in a bit too much for dime-store psychology -- must  all of Kahn's notorious insecurities result from her being abandoned  by her father and stepfather? -- he presents a thorough overview and balanced assessment of her career. We won't to better for a while.

The verdict must be, sadly, that Kahn was a major talent who left a pitifully small legacy, due primarily, it seems, to being saddled with inferior material. Her heyday lasted a few short years in the '70s, and it ended with her association with Mel Brooks.   

I remember becoming aware of Kahn through Young Frankenstein (I didn't see Blazing Saddles until later), I must have seen her much earlier. I was surprised to learn she was a regular on a short-lived series called Comedy Tonight, which I watched as a kid almost 50 years ago.  The cast also included Robert Klein, Peter Boyle and Jerry Lacey, who went on to imitate Bogart in Play It Again, Sam.  I remember all of them, and even a couple of the skits they appeared in, but I cannot for the life of me remember any of the female players.

I shall always remember Madeline Kahn as the Bride of Frankenstein, but she also lives on in short videos on You Tube. Madison calls Kahn's performance of Irving Berlin's early ditty "You'd Be Surprised," sung in honor of the composer's 100th birthday, "one of the finest musical performances she ever recorded, a mini-masterpiece of comic timing and lyric poise, grounded in specific characterizations of of gesture and accent."

Of course, Kahn, fearful of being pigeonholed as a comic (as if that were a bad thing), had to be talked into it. 

On the other hand, Madison minimizes "Ain't Got No Home" as one of Kahn's "party tricks" (p. 278), but it's how I prefer to remember her:

The guy in the fez reminds me of B. Kliban's Turk. 

Kile Smith's Vespers

Kile Smith
The Choristers, under the direction of David Spitko, will perform Kile Smith's "Vespers" in Lansdale Nov. 21. I'm hoping to attend, though I'll have to switch a shift at the paper with one of the other editors. 

In the meantime, here is my preview article on the concert. I've known Kile for over a decade, having first interviewed him for the now-defunct WRTI Magazine when he was still curator of the Fleisher Collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia. He is, as Bertram Wooster would say, a topping cove.  

Monday, September 14, 2015

Nerd Night Out with The Doubleclicks

Every few years, I fall in love with a female vocal act. First it was Janis Joplin, whose brassy blues and childlike vulnerability on The Dick Cavett Show broke my thirteen-year-old heart. Then, over the decades, there came Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Jane Siberry, and Brittany Howard. My current crushes are Angela Webber and her sister, Aubrey  ― aka The Doubleclicks ― who stopped by Melodies Café in Ardmore Friday night on their Nerd Night Out Tour. (The joke is, it's a night out for people who never leave the house.)

Angela, left, and Aubrey Webber --
aka The Doubleclicks --
after their show Friday in Ardmore.
I caught The Doubleclicks live  for the first time almost exactly one year ago at the same venue. Their set last week was shorter, because shared the bill with singer-songwriter Molly Lewis, best known, perhaps, for wanting to bear Stephen Fry's child, and the nautically appellated standup comic Joseph Scrimshaw. It was a fun night ― made more so by the company of my first cousin once removed, whom I had not seen in a couple of years.

Angela insists Molly Lewis a genius, and it’s hard to argue. Her lyrics are devilishly clever, and she plays the ukulele as though it were a real instrument. If I had to compare the acts, however ― and this is a wholly superficial impression ― I’d say that while Molly has the sharper, bluer wit, the Doubleclicks have a greater expressive range, as well as more pleasing voices. “Wonder Woman,” which ended their solo set Friday before the finale, is a small miracle of sincerity that wrings a touching ballad from the silliest topic without a trace of camp. When I complimented Angela on the song, she said, “Well, we’re great.”

Darn. I thought she needed me to tell her that. 

Read my review of The Doublclicks' latest album, President Snakes.

Here is a highlight of Friday's show, a Mad Libs-style song composed of words shouted by the audience at random: