Active engagement in the arts

I deplore the passivization of arts engagement that has replaced people doing amateur theater, or painting and making sculpture, or making music together, with listening to and looking at stuff done for them by professionals.  Nothing wrong with the latter, but we have got the balance wrong. Here are two examples of what we need more of :

My wife has been singing with a really good non-audition community chorus this year.  Every week, they get together and rehearse, and then they put on two or three concerts a year for friends, relatives and neighbors.  They don’t quail at the real stuff; so far this year they’ve done the Vivaldi Gloria and the Mozart Requiem.  Next spring, a program of music by New York composers, including the really ethereal Frost/Thompson Choose something like a star, hoo boy.  Debbie comes home from rehearsals and tells me about all she learned about music and singing that evening; sometimes (not enough) we pull out some sheet music and fire up the piano and sing just for ourselves.

If you think about it, there’s not much nicer you can do for your friends and relations than make music for them: sending everyone a CD of a professional chorus doing the same numbers isn’t even close.

Life for an organization like this is sort of like being an elected official, constantly putting the real work aside for endless fundraising. They charge $10 for concert tickets, but the singers also pay dues.  The fundraising doesn’t do a thing for the music, but the singers put up with it so they can sing together and occasionally have soloists and a small orchestra. It’s both inspiring and saddening to realize what a short financial leash enterprises like this have: the big splurge for the CCC this year was a set of risers so the singers can see and be seen over each others’ heads.

Last week we went to the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra’s  last fall concert .  This was a completely professional-level performance, including A flock descends by Toru Takemitsu (they always program at least one contemporary work);  the Prokofiev 3rd piano concerto; and (part of the celebrations of our new organ, which university organist Davitt Moroney still can’t talk about without a really radiant grin) the Saint-Saëns 3rd Symphony. Continue reading “Active engagement in the arts”

Brazilian music 1a: more choro

In my last post in this series, I discussed chorinho, and reader Chameli posted a wonderful long comment in Portuguese, with a hall of fame of choristas.  It’s full of interesting information; I don’t have time to translate it now 🙁 (I will try to get around to it and add it as a post) , but having figured out how to link to Spotify,  I’m going to pick out some of her suggestions and add a few links here: Continue reading “Brazilian music 1a: more choro”

Brazilian music 1: Choro

Let us first establish a basic musicological principle: the best music in the world is made by combining Iberian and West African. I have almost irresponsibly catholic taste in music (or maybe a damaged critical faculty); I like almost everything, and wouldn’t give up any of it, but Nuyorica, and then Miami right down the east side of the Americas to about Porto Alegre is where heaven is. It’s the greatest refutation of the bizarre idea that purity is correlated with excellence since Bach studied Vivaldi, or when Marie de Medici brought Italian cooking to Paris, or when African peanut butter was first put on bread with European jam.

As my friends know, I am particularly besotted by the music of Brazil.  Want to try some? Already know about Tom Jobim and want to know where he came from and who carried on after? I’m starting a series along the lines of Keith’s movie reviews, with some of my favorites that are less widely known outside Brazil but deserve a wider audience, along with a little background. I’ll put in some links, but obviously you can browse Spotify with the names, do the usual Google due diligence, and explore for yourself.

Today, choro. The basic tools are a Spanish acoustic guitar, called a violão, sometimes with a seventh string (violão a 7 cordas); a four-string cavaquinho, the Brazilian member of the ukulele family that the Portuguese sprinkled here and there around the world;  a mandolin (bandolim sometimes with a fifth course); and a truly awesome, varying collection of percussion instruments called a bateria.  This includes practically anything that makes a sound if you hit it, from the surdo bass drum to something you thought was a grade-school toy (pandeiro), or if you rub (cuica) or shake it. Here’s the standard kit cooking at the Clube de Choro.

Choro is analogous to klezmer and jazz manouche: music for family and neighborhood parties, danceable and lively though sometimes lyrical, played on portable instruments, and virtuosic. It goes back early in the 20th century but is still a lively form.  Choro groups often add to the basic ensemble (variously) a flute, clarinet, trombone, or accordion.  If you stop in, for example, at the Bar do Cidão in São Paulo around 11 PM, a bunch of musicians will be jamming in unpredictable assortments.  It is usually instrumental though some choros have lyrics.  The great choro composer is probably Pixinguinha. , and Carinhoso is not only his most famous work, but probably the most famous song in Brazil. This cut is from a wonderful documentary about Paulinho da Viola, called Meu tempo é hoje, (about which more to come); in the movie, da Viola says that if you go into any bar or botequim or joint anywhere in Brazil and start singing it, everyone will know it and join in.

If there has to be an performing hero of the genre it’s Jacob do Bandolim, also an important composer (a lot of Brazilian musicians are named after the instruments they play). Sadly, there is no video of Jacob playing but he has a big discography. His tradition continues with lots of Brazilian masters, like Deo Rian, and Oakland’s own Mike Marshall.  One of my favorite choro events is the classical flautist Paula Robison’s falling-in with a bunch of Brazilian musicians in New York, which generated this wonderful CD. and then this one.   It’s unusual for classical musicians to be able to swing this way.

OK, you’re on your own for the week: fire up Spotify and Youtube, and check out Os Ingenuos, Época de Ouro, some of the names above, and follow branches.  Gostem estes tesouros, and comments are definitely open to share your own favorites.



Johnny Cash Hurt

Johnny Cash, who died ten years ago, made an extraordinarily powerful music video just before his death

Contrary what your parents told you, it is now safe to send Cash through the mail (Nice tribute USPS!). Ten years after his death, Johnny Cash is appropriately remembered as a musical genius. If he had died in 1980, that would still be true. But in the last decade of his life he still had something to say, beginning with the unforgettably raw American Recordings.

In this period of his life he also produced, with director Mark Romanek, a truly extraordinary music video. Music videos are usually devoted to youth and flashiness. In that sense this is the ultimate un-video, dwelling on frailty, grief and the end of vanity. Most celebrities try to look younger. Here, the juxtaposition of the clips from the past are used to actually heighten the evidence of Cash’s physical decline. The emotional impact is to me overwhelming.

The Browns Sing Three Bells

The only reason my father has a son who is a Stanford University Professor rather than a gas station attendant is that when my dad was a little boy, he was run over by a speeding car: Horrible injuries, a year in a body cast – agony. The reckless driver had to compensate my dad’s struggling family with a fund that let him go to college, which at that time of economic expansion was a ticket up to the middle class. But more of that story some other day.

When he was in college, his fraternity were champion singers. Their signature song was “Three Bells” (also sometimes called “Little Jimmy Brown”). I realized after talking to him recently that I’d never actually heard it, so I googled and found this. Simply lovely melody memorably voiced by The Brown Family.

Zadok the Champ

The origin of the anthem of the European soccer Champions League.

As I’m sure you know, tonight is the final of the European real football (soccer) Champions League club competition. It’s between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, and is taking place for some UEFA reason in Wembley, London. I’m rooting for Borussia, partly on general underdog grounds – Dortmund is a gritty Ruhr rustbelt city, without Munich’s glamour or whiffy history -, partly because they knocked out my home team Malaga. It’s always a consolation to lose to the champ.

The anthem of the competition is a surprisingly successful 30-year-old piece of skilled hackwork by British composer Tony Britten (h/t Sam Borden of the NYT/IHT).

Here it is at the start of an earlier game between Borussia and Barcelona:

Since you can’t hear it very well against the generic crowd noise, here’s the anthem performed by a proper orchestra and choir: Continue reading “Zadok the Champ”