The last three

When we speak of old films we’re usually looking at images of performers who died long ago. Some died young like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean. Some had long full lives like Jimmy Stewart or Ginger Rogers.

There was a bit of an anomaly for awhile, in a film I treasure as a personal favorite. It might shock you to think that until recently three different stars of the 1935 Midsummernight’s Dream directed by Max Reinhardt with music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold were still alive: until recently that is.

Mickey Rooney was alive until 2014, the first to leave us & youngest of the three stars I have in mind, passing at the age of 94.


Dancer & choreographer Nini Theilade lived past her 102nd birthday, passing in 2018.


And today Olivia de Havilland departed us in her sleep. She just had her 104th birthday at the beginning of July.


Dick Powell & Olivia De Havilland

Rooney was Puck.

Theilade was the principal female dancer in two extended ballet sequences, with one or two lines delivered in her accented English.

De Havilland was Hermia.

The film feels like a relic not just because this isn’t how we do Shakespeare anymore. I find it to be one of the most beautiful black & white films I’ve ever seen, and it sounds every bit as remarkable.  Korngold adapted his score from Mendelssohn’s music composed in the middle of the 19th century.

Posted in Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Beethoven discovery, aided by my dog

I’m framing this analysis around Sam my dog. She’s a 13+ year old rescue, and in my opinion amazingly well-behaved.


Sometimes she’ll occupy the ottoman beside the piano, allowing her to read along with me if she so desires (no I don’t think she knows how to read music). Or I’ll be playing, and she’ll go to her den under the body of the piano especially with one of the big loud pieces, like the 8th of Dvorak’s Op 46 Slavonic Dances, or when I’m playing & singing something from a Wagner opera.

I take it as a compliment.

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Beethoven.

Since encountering Stewart Goodyear’s Beethoven Marathon back in 2012 I have been in the habit of going through multiple compositions, intrigued by what I think I see in the sequence. It started with multiple sonatas, but lately –since Goodyear’s recording of the concertos—I’ll play from a lovely book I have, collecting the concerti, with big readable pages that are easy to turn.

So there I was on a quiet afternoon with Sam under the piano in her den. I didn’t want to be too loud. And so I thought to play a series of softer pieces.

What if…? Yes it was a preposterous idea. Instead of playing sonata after sonata or concerto after concerto, what if I were to play each of the slow movements from the concertos in turn?And that’s how I stumbled on the pattern.

Now of course in the world of Beethoven scholarship I doubt this is news to anyone. You might think I chose to bring Sam along on my voyage of discovery to blunt the edge of possible criticism, either to soften the critics’ hearts (as people tend to be nicer when there’s a cute dog in the picture) OR perhaps when they’re afraid of the snarly beast.

She is both (that is, cute but sometimes snarly…).  I have a neighbour who nicknamed her “Cujo” for the way she barks at him.

Be that as it may, this is exactly as it happened.  As I’m playing super gently–the first concerto slow movement, then the second concerto slow movement, and then the third’s slow movement– I wonder. Has anyone every pointed out that they’re very similar? No it’s not an earth-shaking revelation. But they all begin with a very similar chord (at least that’s whats you hear when you reduce it for the piano),  with a melody beginning on the mediant, the third note of the scale. What was weird was how the 4th concerto –which is the one that’s exceptional in its shape—seemed to confirm the pattern. For the 4th concerto it’s the opening movement with its slow piano introduction: again starting with that chord. And when we get to the 5th concerto, that’s more conventional in shape (faster louder outer movements, with a slower softer movement in the middle: like the first three concerti), ….and there it is again! The same chord to begin.

You think maybe Beethoven likes that chord? Sam wasn’t complaining of course.

That chord turns up a whole lot of other places, so much so that one might be tempted to call it his favorite.

I don’t deny –indeed I confess it proudly and without hesitation—that this is a literal-minded approach to the anthology, playing through from beginning to end as though the composer sat down and wrote it like a story with episodes. With some composers their readiness to return again and again to the same idea is front & centre. Mahler’s symphonies are in some respects like drafts for one piece of music, revised and reshaped over and over. At times I see something of this in Beethoven too.

I suddenly remembered a melody in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. We hear it in the overtures to the earlier versions of the opera, signaling that yes this is an important theme. We will hear it in the 2nd act when we meet Florestan the imprisoned hero. In a soliloquy he tells us about his predicament. After a recitative introduction (crying out about the darkness of his prison cell), he begins to sing about his life.

In des Lebens Frühlingstagen ist das Glück von mir gefloh’n; Wahrheit wagt’ ich kühn zu sagen, und die Ketten sind mein Lohn. Willig duld’ ich alle Schmerzen, ende schmählich meine Bahn; süßer Trost in meinem Herzen: meine Pflicht hab’ ich getan!
In the springtime of my life, happiness has fled from me; I dare to tell the truth boldly, and the chains are my reward. I willingly tolerate all pain, shamefully end my path; sweet consolation in my heart: I have done my duty!

What follows is faster & more intense as you might expect from the stage-directions:

(in einer an Wahnsinn grenzenden, jedoch ruhigen Begeisterung)
(In a fit of madness but peacefully… )

Und spür’ ich nicht linde, sanft säuselnde Luft? und ist nicht mein Grab mir erhellet? Ich seh’, wie ein Engel im rosigen Duft sich tröstend zur Seite mir stellet, – ein Engel, Leonoren, der Gattin so gleich, der führt mich zur Freiheit in’s himmlische Reich.
And don’t I feel gentle, softly whispering air? and isn’t my grave lit up for me? I see how an angel in a perfumed cloud stands comfortably at my side – an angel, Leonore, the wife who leads me to freedom in the heavenly realm.
(Er sinkt erschöpft von der letzten Gemütsbewegung auf den Felsensitz nieder, seine Hände verhüllen sein Gesicht.)
(He sinks exhausted down on the rock, his hands cover his face.)

As Beethoven shows us Florestan despairing in prison how intriguing that he chose to begin with that same melodic pattern, as in the chord that I have been talking about.  I am tempted to think of Florestan’s predicament as Beethoven’s own (and wouldn’t it sound apt, for Beethoven to say “In the springtime of my life, happiness has fled from me“), alone & despairing.  Does he identify with his hero? I think he does.  The romantic artist is ultimately about empathy taken to its extreme, namely identification.  No wonder that the composer expresses it this way.

And he goes on to build to a great exultant climax, an ecstatic vision of rescue by his angel Leonore: his wife.  As it turns out in the story she will indeed be the agent of his rescue.

It’s very inspiring.

Posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An agnostic musing about leadership & talent

As I was tidying my office today, I fell into a book.

You know how it is. You open it and are seduced or abducted, suddenly lost to yourself, deep in the book.


While Jim Fisher’s The Thoughtful Leader: A Model of Integrative Leadership (2016) might be a book about approaches to being a boss in the business world from a professor at the Rotman School of Management, it’s very suggestive to me, a person straddling worlds. I may be a manager at the University of Toronto but I’m also a musician & scholar. I’ve long been fascinated by the parallels between different disciplines, convinced that they should be talking to one another, informing one another. For example what can psychology & psychotherapy teach the realms of business management or collaborative artistic disciplines?

I sometimes wonder how to understand someone like the Canadian Opera Company’s General Director Alexander Neef.

  • a business man in the arts world?
  • an artistic leader in the business world?

That headline could refer to me or to Fisher. In his introduction he says the following:

In fact, when I started my career, I would have said that leaders are more likely to be born, not made, and that leadership was more about character than learnable skills. It was only in the teaching part of my life- interacting with students from around the world, younger and older, in all kinds of enterprises—that I came to find a more practical and useful definition and understanding of leadership. The more I learned, the more convinced I became that leadership is actually a teachable skill.

That is what I meant by agnostic. Yes maybe it’s the wrong word or sounds too harsh to apply to him. But I’m coming at this after a lifetime of hearing about gifted artists (had one in the family in fact), geniuses (I went to UTS after all), …born leaders.

There’s no question that some people show promise early, standing out from their peers. Once you heard him play you wouldn’t underestimate Mozart. I’m okay with the use of the word “talent” to identify someone who is so gifted as to show ability from the very beginning.

My problem with the word is when it becomes a short-cut or worse.

Suppose we seize on what Fisher was talking about, namely leadership as a teachable skill. I think his capsule summary of his earlier beliefs on the subject – that leaders are more likely to be born, not made, and that leadership was more about character than learnable skills—might be a reflection of a time when leadership was not well understood. In previous generations, when theories of management had not yet embraced a multi-disciplinary approach, especially in listening to psychologists, then of course the process was not yet understood.

What is a leader? a magician who can lead?  And so when it’s a mystery we place the good practitioner on a pedestal and call them “talented”.

In the book we encounter a paradigm shift: that one can learn how to be leader. Fisher’s model isn’t the only model out there although it’s a good one. But that’s what the discipline has become nowadays, as it studies & learns across multiple disciplines.

It’s very exciting.

I am inclined to think that the same sort of thing should be applied to the various disciplines in the arts. Yes some people start sooner & of course they gain confidence from their success. But one can learn how to act, dance, sing, toot, tint… you name it.

So I mean that I’m an agnostic as far as the word “talent” is concerned, as I think it’s unhelpful. I’ve seen performers give brilliant auditions, that sadly were the best thing that artist did on the whole project, as we looked back wondering: wtf?  I wonder, is that failure to progress a snapshot of a paradigm in need of revision: not unlike the one from the management world? It’s not enough to sound good at the beginning. One has to work, to collaborate.

While I love magic & mystery, a rehearsal process should not be so mysterious that we don’t know what we’re going to get.

No I don’t mean everyone can play as well as Stewart Goodyear or Yuja Wang, who are exceptional.

But I do think anyone can play the piano or sing or draw. The idea of talent (or more to the point, the idea that someone might be “untalented”) used to inhibit people, preventing them from going very far in their studies.  The old textbook ideas about leadership posited tall men with big voices, precluding more inclusive possibilities.

I hope that crippling inhibition will vanish. I am an agnostic about the importance of talent or the old-school type of leader. But I do believe in creativity & work.

And I do love to tidy my office.

Posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Psychology and perception, University life | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Barbecue genius @ The Kingston Social

I’m a bit looped, after eating an amazing meal.

It’s from The Kingston Social, a place here in the east end of Toronto.

One gets the menu a few days in advance, then places orders.  And one then picks up amazing cuisine.

Erika ordered this a few days ago, seeking to replicate something from earlier this summer. When she’s this certain? I don’t argue.

“Sure, order one for me too.”


Ribs on top of a layer of rice & beans. The bigger container is the extra slaw for $3

So the dinner was ribs on a bed of rice & beans, with a slaw for $20 plus an extra side of slaw for $3 for us to share.

Speaking as a big eater, I barely managed to finish, and I am thrilled. I accompanied the ribs & slaw & rice/beans with Konzelmann Shiraz.

I am on my third glass –don’t worry mom I won’t drive anywhere – as I try to capture the experience.

The camera is invaluable for this.  Notice how much you get (above picture).  Notice how dry the ribs are in this picture.


If I could somehow photograph my insides, I’d show you how amazing I feel. This isn’t like any ribs I’ve ever eaten. They’re clean & dry, with subtlety & spice.

We can’t be a sad deprived wasteland, not if it was a friend in the west end who told me about The Kingston Social. Previously at their recommendation I had tried the lamb shank & had a lovely barbecued salmon. Today took it to a higher level.

Sigh. Scarberia no longer.

Posted in Food & Nutrition, Reviews | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Douglas Chambers: The Reinvention of the World

I have been stuck on this one for awhile, not knowing quite what to write.

I’m trying to avoid being a downer, but it’s hard to see the silver lining when you’re deep in the dark clouds of a pandemic. A few days ago I started to watch the Met’s Wozzeck again (having seen it in the theatre early this year), but couldn’t make it through, overwhelmed by the darkness of the story.


Peter Mattei in Wozzeck at the Met. (Photo: Paola Kudacki/Met Opera)

Last week, watching an old broadcast of Il trovatore starring Pavarotti & Zajick, I was struck by how melodrama, that medium of powerless protagonists with no agency in a world beyond their control, is a perfect reflection of the world of 2020.  No wonder melodrama was popular.


I can’t get the Miserere out of my head.

In early May when I heard that Douglas Chambers had passed away, I took the opportunity to write a reminiscence of a rare individual.  I wrote about Stonyground, his inimitable book about his family property near Walkerton Ontario.

After that I compulsively, convulsively, looked about, needing another fix, wanting to again immerse myself in his unique discourse. A sci-fi novel long ago suggested that literature & poetry & art preserve the RNA of a person after they’re gone as though we were able to feel and see as they do.  To be deep in a text is to be inside the person’s soul & sensibility: or so it might seem.

In that spirit, I looked for & found something relatively obscure that I hadn’t seen before, namely The Reinvention of the World: English Writing 1650-1750, a book that first appeared in 1996, reprinted in the new century. A review of it inspired me to search for it and miracle of miracles, while I wasn’t able to find it in any of the U of T libraries [although later I discovered I was too hasty in concluding it wasn’t to be found here. Yes there are copies available…]  I was able to find a single copy via Thriftbooks, a used paperback that had been in a college library in Schenectady NY. Its spine was so solid, its pages so unbesmirched (I can hear Douglas telling me that’s not a real word. Or is it?), as to seem brand new. Talk about lucky. And it only cost me about $10 US. It was delivered earlier in June, I started reading and –argh – I regret that I finished it. There’s a kind of magical anticipation when you’re inside the book as it unfolds, an aura that wears off when you finish.

I must re-read it.

Of course it was like new because it probably scared off any possible readers. The back cover, that should serve to invite & inspire must have daunted the Schaffer Library patrons, when they saw this:

“At the centre of this book is the issue of power and its fictions, the ability to dominate with schemes of knowledge and the resistance to that domination. In his investigation, Douglas Chambers achieves a complex interweave of what have traditionally been thought of as ‘literary’ and ‘non-literary’ texts, a distinction that in the past has served to privilege one sort of voice over another. In the process, there is a deconstruction of the familiar canon. Milton, Defoe, Swift, and Pope are fully present–but often in new guises and with emphasis on their involvement in contemporary cultural issues– along with many lessen known writers of the age “

In some respects it’s the most ambitious of all Chambers writings, promising a sweeping synthesis across multiple disciplines, as you might expect from such a portentous title, undertaking something remarkable even if it’s rare.  How does thinking change, and what cognitive spoor might we find in usage & literature for the changes in how we understand the world?  We encounter discourses & counter-discourses, framing the reasons why some books could seem inevitable or necessary at least after the fact.

Like I said: ambitious.

It’s doubly poignant when I think of Douglas’ end, not so much because he was in a seniors’ residence with COVID19 but thinking of his sophisticated grasp of reality. If we look at the number of balls a juggler could keep in the air at one time as evidence of virtuosity, with Chambers’ prose it’s more a matter of how many complex ideas he could sustain within a single paragraph, not just keeping them all airborne but making beautiful patterns. When a mind such as this passes over to the other side we lose something significant.

Full disclosure: I found the book, tantalized by a bit of Graham Parry’s 1998 critique in The Review of English Studies, found here.  It includes a passage that will resonate with those who heard him lecture:

“There is a considerable discrepancy between the contents of this book and the professed aims of the series Writing in History to which it belongs. The series professes “to give students of literature access to recent ideas about history”, but the students in question must belong to some super-seminar at the Academy of Lagado, for they are expected to be familiar with a remarkable range of topics, authors and fictional personalities. However, while The Reinvention of the World may leave undergraduates and most postgraduates bewildered, it provides a fitful stimulus to those already expert in the culture history of the period.”

reinvention_coverParry is not exaggerating.

Chambers lives up to the review, as you might surmise from the table of contents:
“1) Introduction: Methodically Digested
2) The Geographical Part of Knowledge: Mapping and Naming
3) Earth’s Distant Ends: Travelling and Classifying
4) The Garden of the World Erewhile: Husbandry, Pastoral & Georgic
5) Th’Amazed Defenceless Prize: Opening and Enclosing
6) Childhood’s Tender Shoots: Instructing and Imagining
7) Conclusion: The Discourse of Resistance
8) Postscript: What We Have Forgotten
Appendix of Original Documents


Sometimes we’re reading about Milton or Pope or Swift and how their great works capture shifts in the preoccupations of the culture. Sometimes it’s someone decidedly more obscure. The Index is especially important for me, allowing me to circle back to the mentions of the works I need to either read for the first time or to revisit. Chambers has made a kind of travel book, like a Frommers Guide to send you voyaging not in a boat or a plane to another country but in a library to another world, going back to the 1650s or the 1730s as well as many important antecedents such as Erasmus, Vergil or Longinus. In a real sense this is a book to take you back to the scene of the crime, to revisit & rethink what you read & studied long ago. Chambers feels very contemporary in his multi-disciplinary approach that seeks to properly contextualize writers not via mere allusions to other writers but by unpacking the assumptions about maps, exploration, land, property, family, children…. I found myself reading sentences and then stopping to re-read, afraid I had missed one of the subtle voices in his counterpoint.

evelynIn passing I now begin to understand the reason for his fascination with John Evelyn, leading to his great final project The Letterbooks of John Evelyn, finished by David Galbraith just a few years ago (and that one is in the U of T library).

With over thirty references to Evelyn, some across multiple pages, Chambers unpacks & deconstructs aspects of daily life in every chapter using this remarkable record. So in other words, not only are we sent back to my Milton, Pope, Swift, Marvell, Traherne or Bacon, but after looking at this book we begin to see why Evelyn’s letterbooks matter as a window on another world.

For now I’m mostly reading books or playing the music in books.  TV is the horrors of CNN or CP24, statistics to scare you & remind you not to take off your mask, and perhaps teach you to shut the damn thing off (given that it’s more or less the same thing every day).   Live performance done on the internet doesn’t really work for me right now, more of a reminder of what I’m missing than a proper substitute. I feel a bit like someone starving outside a candy store or a party full of celebration & feasting.

No.  Books are my solace right now.

Posted in Books & Literature, Dance, theatre & musicals, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, University life | Leave a comment

Ennio Morricone has passed

This is almost an insult, to post this short little thing in response to the passing of Ennio Morricone. I’m merely doing this to call attention to his range, to his influence, and yes, because it’s fun posting something moving & beautiful.

I wanted to show three different samples. In each case, yes yes, the music is interesting.

The first one really has little relationship to a sequence of film, because it’s not a score so much as an overture, to a film & to a whole style we’d see developed later in the films that followed. Yes this is the beginning of the collaboration between Morricone & Sergio Leone.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964) may not be a great film, but the best thing about it is its score. We’re in the presence of something symbolic, or dare I suggest, symbolist. The violence & the machismo is powerfully invoked from the first note, in a gradual inexorable crescendo.

I recently wrote about the use of the wordless chorus but somehow forgot this example, a most intriguing exception to the usual rule in the choice to have the chorus be so male.

The second one is from The Mission (1986) the film most people think of when they mention Morricone. But as you watch this sequence notice how the drama and the music are so perfectly linked.  You almost don’t notice the music because it’s so organic.

And to finish, this is really two for the price of one. This tiny little sequence from The Untouchables (1987) has two very different moods. The first is the sort of thing we hear in several Morricone scores, the mournful melody that might represent goodness or humanity as a consolation for the horror of the story.  In this case it’s a melody associated with Sean Connery’s character, remembered in this lovely bit of nostalgia, on an intimate & personal scale.

And then we suddenly segue into exit music, suggesting something triumphant & grand. If the first mournful melody didn’t give you the shivers, this one surely will.

He may be gone but the music is still there to explore, more than 400 films with some of the greatest directors of the last century.


Posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Pete Davidson – The King of Staten Island

You might know Pete Davidson a couple of ways.

He’s a regular on Saturday Night Live.

He could be the avatar of sensational relationship failure, famously dumped by Ariana Grande, among others. Pardon me, I have no idea what he’s really like and I’m just reporting the tabloid version, which would have to be false & likely tasteless.

So I was genuinely surprised by The King of Staten Island, a new film starring Davidson that’s deeper than my prologue might lead you to expect.

Davidson’s underplayed performance is surprisingly good.  We’ve seen his comedy but this is real acting. I was watching him onscreen with Marisa Tomei, noticing that when she looked like an actor he looked like a real person.

He blew her off the screen, and I say that as someone who totally loves her work, always grateful to see her.

It’s directed by Judd Apatow, co-written by Davidson and apparently semi-autobiographical.

His father really was a fireman.


The last moment of the film before the credits blind-sided me. I don’t believe in spoilers so I won’t tell you what I saw except to say that I burst into tears. Yes I was impressed.

There was a bit of drama surrounding its release, as the theatrical release was cancelled, and the film was instead put out as a video-on-demand release instead. Given that we can only watch movies at home right now, that works just fine.

There are aspects of the story that touched me. Because I am a sucker for something sentimental? Or perhaps because they feel close to home.

  • The protagonist lost his father when he was young,
  • The boy idolized that father as a virtual saint.
  • As an adult, the grown-up boy tries to discover the real father beyond the ideal

Apatow is known for wacky comedies, but steps into a darker genre with this film, often startlingly realistic in its texture, whether through the camerawork, writing or direction. Much of the time I still felt we were watching a comedy, although some might quibble with the question of genre. On a big screen I think the audience would have been laughing quite loudly in places, perhaps nudging the needle and thereby changing that perception for the naysayers watching it at home on the small screen in the dark times of pandemic.

But it’s fun, it’s uplifting. I hope I don’t spoil if for you by saying that a Judd Apatow comedy starring Pete Davidson & Steve Buscemi will make you laugh. But it feels much more adult to me than earlier Apatow.  Perhaps Pete Davidson is growing up?

I like that it’s long. I didn’t want it to end.  And I will watch it again tomorrow.

You could do worse.

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Stewart Goodyear – Beethoven piano concerti

It’s 2020, a year I’m tempted to call “World, Interrupted,” recalling the 1999 film set in a psychiatric hospital. At times our virtual online lives resemble the simulation of real living as though we’ve been wrapped in strait-jackets, locked up in padded cells, prevented from hugging one another. Normalcy has been set aside as we’re all experimenting with varieties of physical distance, without any concerts or theatre performances during the pandemic.

And 2020 is also the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven on a December day in 1770. The commemorative concerts to celebrate? Postponed or canceled. If I could misquote Mame, it’s not that we need a little Christmas. We need a little Beethoven. Never mind “hauling out the holly”, we need a little Ludwig, right this very minute.

It makes me ever so grateful for the recent release of Stewart Goodyear’s Orchid Classics recordings of the five Beethoven piano concerti, recorded with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Andrew Constantine. I’ve been having my own little private festival.


It helps that the performances are all extraordinarily good. Let me explain what I mean, as I’m a bit mystified as to why Goodyear’s importance is not more universally recognized.  Is it because he’s black? or Canadian?  If he were American he would be a huge star.

Back in 2012 when I first encountered Goodyear as the soloist in the “Beethoven Marathon”, playing all 32 sonatas in a single day, the question of interpretation was almost incidental. We were witnessing something like an athletic feat, a happening. I was flabbergasted that the event was treated by some as a kind of publicity stunt, and not taken more seriously. As an impressionable nerd, I had plunged into what I considered to be the important question underlying this day, namely, does playing or hearing the sonatas this way change our perception & understanding of the composer & how he is to be understood, how he is to be performed: to which I say an enthusiastic “yes”. I can hold more than one idea in my head (as any musician can), balancing the appreciation for the feat, with my enjoyment of his interpretations, my gratitude for his witty commentaries, and a clear perception that his engagement with Beethoven was genuine.  While I think of myself as a Beethoven nerd (you know… having almost all 32 sonatas in my head? able to play the symphonies at the piano, etc), I felt like a neophyte  in his presence, as he played from memory, a feat making the role of Lear or Hamlet look small in comparison.

There was a youtube video early on of Goodyear performing the first & last movements of the Hammerklavier sonata Op 106, that should have served notice. I’ve been listening to people struggle with both movements, not quite sure how to approach them. Let’s just say that if we were to think of musical scores as puzzles or challenges addressed to the performers of the world, then Goodyear’s solutions are remarkable, coherent, agile & note-perfect.

Goodyear’s recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas were confirmation of his secure understanding of Beethoven, an approach that reconciles the challenges of the composer, virtuosity with understanding & depth. Yet his is a light-hearted handling that dodges the ponderous pathway of an interpreter such as Klemperer: a conductor whom I worshipped at one time. Thankfully one can have lots of interpretations, several approaches.

So earlier this week when I started listening to the concerti set, I was high as a kite. I listened to the first concerto five times before I went on to the second one (also heard multiple times).

I had read Goodyear’s confessional program note, (that I can direct you to in its entirety online here and click “sleeve notes”), an indication of an unusually intimate connection to the music. I recall Anton Kuerti’s admonition in his own recording liner notes, that to play Beethoven one must become Beethoven. Imaginative identification is paramount. Reading what Goodyear writes I’m inclined to think that he doesn’t mistake himself for Ludwig van B, but does get inside him, understanding & empathizing.

I think Goodyear’s key insight is the following:

My first impression while hearing the symphonies was that they seemed more public and more extroverted as the sonatas seemed more personal and more vulnerable. The complete piano sonatas felt like hearing a musical diary; the symphonies felt like individual declarations to the public. Two sides of Beethoven so far, equally powerful, intriguingly different.
My journey with the Beethoven piano concertos began at age nine when I entered a national piano competition in Canada. From the age of nine to twelve I competed, hearing movements of his piano concerti performed by various competitors. (In the final round of this competition, the competitors had to choose a movement from a concerto.) Another side of Beethoven was introduced to me as I heard my competitors perform these works; a side of great theatre, great drama, great virtuosity, and most importantly, great merriment. I felt like I was hearing Beethoven the entertainer, the actor, the storyteller, the playwright. So now, there were three sides of Beethoven; the sonatas were pursuits of inner truth, the symphonies pursuits of the highest qualities in humanity, the piano concertos pursuits of unbridled joy.
Stewart Goodyear, 2019

You may not choose the same language, nor see the same qualities, but it’s intriguing to come to these performances with this subtext. What if we see the orchestral passages as “more public and more extroverted …, individual declarations to the public” and the solo piano passages as “more personal and more vulnerable”..? And then if we add the thought that these are theatre, performances where the piano soloist might be a kind of character displaying themselves with vulnerability, taking us inside their feelings, contextualized in a broader world by the orchestral passages. It means that in a sense we’re dealing with a kind of dramaturgy, where Goodyear understands the concerti as drama, the soloist expressing internal feelings, the orchestra underlining that or representing the broader world & the context. I’m not sure that it can apply uniformly—indeed how could it when the composer’s own understanding of the form changed so quickly from the first two through the last three? –but that’s a great start.

I will write more about the experience because I continue to listen to them daily.

I was thrilled by the cadenza Goodyear offers in the 1st movement of Concerto #1, the longest of the ones Beethoven gave us in 1809 (there are at least 3). It’s marvelous to listen to roughly twelve minutes of the concerto and then vanish into over four minutes of cadenza, surely the hardest & longest. Goodyear ends with a lovely ironic flourish, pulling back before the orchestra comes in for the brief tutti that finishes the movement.

Concerto #2 may be an earlier composition than #1, but it doesn’t really matter. Each of the first two has a youthful charm & elegance that satisfies, even while pointing unmistakably to the mature genius waiting for the new century to turn. We’re still in a realm of balance & restraint that shouldn’t trouble a fan of Mozart or Haydn, yet it’s as though we’re watching a teenage Lil Abner, about to sprout bigger muscles than we’ve ever seen before. Just you wait. So it’s apt to have a performance like Goodyear’s that sounds effortless, as though the player isn’t stressed, isn’t troubled, but sailing along without a care in the world.

For Concerto #3 the dramaturgy changes, which is hardly surprising considering how much else was changing. As the world was at war, the composer was also in battles, struggling with himself. This concerto appeared the year after his “Heiligenstadt Testament”, a letter in which he considers his diminishing ability to hear, the prospect of giving up performance, perhaps ending his life altogether in despair. No wonder that the composer takes a giant step, from the light & airy first two concerti, to one in that fateful key of C minor. The orchestra now begins to take us beyond mere sturm und drang into something profound, the depths of romantic anguish and an image of an implacable & indifferent world. It’s not enough to just play the notes. Constantine & that BBC Orchestra offer gravitas without being excessively slow, balanced right on the edge. Goodyear gives us something suggesting psychological insight, the 1st movement cadenza approached as though he were a method actor seeking to avoid being a ham. He builds to the big moments gradually without bombast, and with a searing clarity when the pain in the music requires it to finally burst out and show itself. Yet he’s very subtle the way he takes the passage to end the cadenza (with Constantine’s help) creating mystery and a drama to make you lean forward in your seat, wondering: what will happen next. While this Beethoven is still inevitable & inexorable it is also still capable of surprise.

Concerto #4 was probably the last one that the composer was able to premiere himself. I have to wonder, was that brilliant innovation of having the soloist come in alone nothing more than a way for a man in the process of losing his hearing, seeking to conceal it from his audience? Oh sure, it’s fabulous music. It’s also a very clever idea if you’re unable to hear. Ditto with the second movement too, possibly the most original single movement of a concerto written before 1850. (Although maybe the first movement of his violin concerto is even more original? I guess you can tell I like Beethoven…), where the orchestra comes in super loud (and visible, if not audible to the pianist), and then the soloist replies, in a very contrasting fashion. This movement has been spoken of as Orpheus calming The Furies, which is certainly apt. I think of it as a kind of sermon  and indeed I put it (via a piano reduction) at the end of a church service the Sunday after the Charlottesville murder of Heather Heyer . This entire concerto is full of energies brimming to the surface, whether in the sparkly piano in the slow movement or in the exuberance of either of the outer movements. Goodyear is magisterial, every note in place, enacting perfection.

It might surprise you after all this to hear that Concerto #5 is my favorite. While the musicologists will tell you that #4 is the most original, most innovative, seminal, ground-breaking… Oh dear, so many adjectives. But this concerto is the one I’ve always found most stirring, most inspiring. It’s a composition of heroic sounds, militaristic imagery and a series of struggles in the first movement. The second is a dreamy meditation that was selected to suggest the latent romance of the film Immortal Beloved. However far off the historical mark it may be, the way the composition is used in the film adds another layer to my love of this concerto. Constantine & the BBC NOW step forward assertively for this one with the most interesting accompaniment I’ve ever heard for this piece, and that’s in a lifetime of listening to a great many interpretations. Part of it may be good sonics, but it’s also the choice to bring out voices & percussion in key places. Goodyear seems to be surfing on a tidal wave of powerful sound, at times emerging from the heroic tutti, at other times tinkling in soft commentary.  Stunning, magnificent…

If you like Beethoven you really should get these recordings of the concerti. Stewart Goodyear deserves to be acknowledged as one of the finest interpreters of this music.

And I’ll keep listening to these great discs. beethoven_head

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First recording of Scarlatti’s first opera

You may know the name “Scarlatti”.

Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757), wrote those fascinating sonatas for keyboard, but he’s not the only Scarlatti by any means. He had an older brother Pietro Scarlatti (1679-1750) who had some success as a composer.

Domenico’s father was Alessandro Scarlatti (1660 –1725), composer of over 60 operatic creations. They took various forms such as “dramma per musica” or “commedia per musica” or “melodramma” or “favola boschereccia” (woodland fairytale): and that doesn’t exhaust the list.

Alessandro’s very first opera was Gli equivoci nel sembiante which might translate roughly as “Mistaken Identities” although I saw an article that would call it “Folly in Love,” a pastoral comedy (identified as a “dramma per musica”). Dating from 1679, it’s the creation of a teenager, when Alessandro was not even 19 years old.

And it’s also very early in the history of opera.

  • Monteverdi’s operas in Florence and Venice are from the first half of the 17th century, La favola d’Orfeo (aka L’Orfeo) from 1607, L’incoronazione di Poppea from 1643
  • The mid-century Roman operas from composers such as Luigi Rossi & Francesco Cavalli created a new comic-opera style
  • In Paris the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully may have been an influence upon Rossi.

My reading suggests that Alessandro may have been exposed to & influenced by the Roman operas of Cavalli & Rossi.

I’ve been listening to the opera, in what may be the first complete recording of the work, created for us by artists right here in Southern Ontario:

  • Capella Intima
  • The Gallery Players of Niagara
  • Nota Bene Baroque Players


The members of Capella Intima sing the roles in the opera:

  • Tenor Bud Roach: Eurillo, a shepherd
  • Mezzo-soprano Vicki St Pierre: Clori, a nymph
  • Soprano Sheila Dietrich: Lisetta, Clori’s younger sister
  • Baritone David Roth: Armindo, a stranger, and Eurillo’s double

Bud Roach is also the Musical Director for the project.COVER

I’ve been driving around with this CD in my car, going through the opera a few times. I’m floored by what I’m hearing from that gifted teenager Alessandro in this new recording. The playing is of a historically informed style, wonderfully transparent & clear with a small ensemble that plays with great energy.

With comedy, especially one involving visual mix-ups we lose something when we only have an audio recording. I wish I could see this performed onstage. Roach is especially apt for comedy as we’ve seen in other performances here in the GTA with his Hammer Baroque or working with the Toronto Consort. He is often cast in comic roles both because of his clear light voice, but also because of his willingness to play. Sometimes he’s singing with great care and a fidelity to the score but at other moments we’re into something resembling the bold improvisatory spirit of Commedia dell’Arte, a style likely influencing Italian theatre & the operas of this time. Dietrich’s clear high sound is a lovely contrast to the richness of St Pierre’s voice. Roth’s lovely full sound is a welcome addition.

I hope we can look forward to seeing this performed live by this talented group sometime soon. In the meantime click on this link to order the double CD from Naxos.

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A Knave in the House of Cards

A meditation on dayjobs

A long time ago I was an undergraduate, a university student fresh out of high school. At the time a summer job was indispensable to help me afford my life between September & May, living in my apartment & studying.

As I look back, hindsight suggests that Socrates was right when he said “know thyself”. I envied those who had a narrow path to follow, circumscribed by the things they disliked.  I knew people who really only liked one thing and so could follow through single-mindedly.

Not me.  If you’re not sure what you are going to do, your choices become a bit more challenging. I am omnivorous, I love everything, as a student, and as an artist. There’s something to be said for specializing, for choosing one thing and sticking to it. If you are not limited by your taste, though, it becomes tougher. In my 20s I was sometimes a composer, sometimes a performer, sometimes a writer, music for plays, for film, for dance, a couple of musicals…. I was a coach, accompanist, a music director. And I was exploring the synthesizer and electronics, but also playing classical piano, and sometimes rock & jazz. 

I don’t think this makes me in any way unique.

And the whole time that I was exploring different aspects of music – theatre, I had a variety of jobs to support myself. Whereas the university experience precluded jobs in the winter, as I gradually segued into something outside the school year, the emphases changed, especially once I married & became a father.  The game becomes more serious.

I recall interviewing Philip Glass in 1981 before Satyagraha came to Artpark in Lewiston NY. He spoke of dayjobs in his recent past (I think he mentioned work as a cab driver and as an electrician… it was long ago, I wonder if I remember it right?). As I was still in my 20s I took that to heart, remembering the taunt in the back of my head that I couldn’t forget, namely “don’t quit your dayjob,” the ultimate insult to a serious artist. No I did not spend very long sustaining myself entirely on the avails of music.   So indeed I went back to a dayjob. Sometimes I worked in a bookstore, sometimes a library, sometimes I did construction, landscaping, carpentry, shipping-receiving, lugging & lifting. I got a job delivering mail at the University of Toronto, and got lucky in someone else’s misfortune. When the boss got sick, I became the new Manager, a job I’ve now held for 3 decades.
While I felt lucky to have the position, there’s cognitive dissonance, because my identity is in the arts, not in admin. It’s crazy when I’ve now spent so much time working.   I managed to mitigate those feelings somewhat by seguing into the academic realm, studying the disciplines academically that I had previously practiced. Even so, whether I was making music or studying it, that was all jammed into the spare time left to me after working a fulltime job, a divided life.

I mention this in context with the wonderful interview I shared from Margarete von Vaight, another person living a life divided between her art, her professional life & her studies. I feel it needs to be said in 2020, that you’re not a failure if you have a dayjob. At least that’s what I tell myself. Even so I feel like a turncoat, a traitor, a person whose loyalties might be suspect. That’s what I meant by the headline. Today especially the world of artistic creation feels profoundly disturbed, unsustainable, shaky at best.  The current business model? It’s a house of cards. Great opera singers have been staggered by the sudden disappearance of the medium due to wholesale closures around the world. The Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Seattle Opera, Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, have all cancelled huge parts of their seasons, while leaving us wondering what will happen with the loss of revenue. What will become of the performers who lost the gigs & their fees? What is to become of the art?

And the same applies in many other disciplines.

I don’t take comfort in having taken the safe path. I can’t claim to be smarter just because I survived, so fascinated with my job that my artistic activities were often shoved into the background. I had a fulltime job, while I finished my BA, then did an MA & a PhD in my spare time (although in fairness I cannot call myself “Dr”, as I didn’t finish) and also did at least a show a year, sometimes as many as 5 shows a year. There was the year when I did two operas in the space of a year, while going to class & working fulltime.


Self-portrait? the stack is the job, the building academic study, the blue space: what’s left over

My vacation days were pretty wild that year.

The curious thing about the job activities is how seductive they can be. I learned computers, web design, finance, spread-sheets, learned a smattering of skills in labour relations, management… It made me a better teacher, a better music director. If you know who you are, venturing off into a new line of work can be fun rather than a threat. If you aren’t sure who you are, the money & the gratification can be so alluring as to lead you astray. I’m not saying I got lost, not when I’ve been having such a good time.

While I’ve asked myself “do you work to live or do you live to work” I try not to over-analyze. If I’m enjoying myself then I think I’m okay. I’m about to retire from my job with a pension, able to devote myself completely to creative pursuits. I will now have time.
It’s a strange world. Will opera be back in the usual way? Time will tell. And what of the young artists coming into the field? I’m hardly a person to give advice except to say that education is invaluable.

And universities & institutions of higher learning may function the way monasteries did in the Middle Ages, to preserve culture in a kind of dark age.

These are interesting times.

Posted in Essays, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, University life | Leave a comment