Truth To Power I: Beethoven Egmont Overture


Now all of the evidence is finally out – a collection of videos from the final concert in the New England Conservatory’s ambitious season-long series of thematic presentations called Truth to Power. Some absolutely cracking performances by Hugh Wolff and the NEC Philharmonia at Symphony Hall, with Yr Hmbl Srvnt as the video director/producer struggling to catch up.

We produced – and I’ve posted – the videos in reverse order from the actual concert.  But now you can see how it began: With this blast of Beethoven.  Enjoy!


Helen Keller, Beethoven Fan?

HelenKellerRadioAstonishing post in the San Francisco Classical Voice about a 1924 letter that blind, deaf, and mute Helen Keller wrote to the New York Symphony (the rival of the New York Philharmonic before they eventually merged in 1928), recounting the experience of tuning in to a  broadcast of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the radio:

Last night, when the family was listening to your wonderful rendering of the immortal symphony someone suggested that I put my hand on the receiver and see if I could get any of the vibrations. He unscrewed the cap, and I lightly touched the sensitive diaphragm.


What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibration, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music! The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roil of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. How the lovely speech of the violins flowed and plowed over the deepest tones of the other instruments! When the human voices leaped up thrilling from the surge of harmony, I recognized them instantly as voices more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still.


Really? Congrats to San Francisco Classical Voice Writer Janos Gereben for this bit of sleuthing – the letter was apparently in the Helen Keller Archives of the American Federation of the Blind.  But I’m rather surprised that this story has never come up before – and the skeptic in me wonders is Ms. Keller did not indulge in a bit of a creative flight of fancy.  I don’t tend to think of a 1920s-era radio as capable of “surround sound,” but it sure is fascinating notion to imagine that someone who was doubtless as hypersensitive to vibrations as Helen Keller could actually pick out and detect a symphony that way.   Can anyone corroborate this?

C.P.E. Bach I: Pletnev Plays the Keyboard Sonatas

As promised, some favorites by the vastly underrated second (and in my opinion, most interesting) son of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose 300th birthday is being observed this year.

For me, any discussion of inspired recordings of CPE’s works starts with Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev’s recording of C.P.E.’s Keyboard Sonatas.  This CD, along with Pletnev’s inspired reading of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, are close to being Desert Island Discs for me. Pletnev recorded them in the mid-late ’90s, and shortly afterward stopped giving recitals and playing much in order to concentrate on conducting the Russian National Orchestra.  (Though word has it that he’s recently gone back to playing a few select gigs in London and Switzerland….)

What I like about both discs is the way that Pletnev seems to cut through the sentimentality and preciousness that seems to affect/infect a lot of performances from this era, and uncover the passion and emotion that is embedded in the music.   That, and the flashes of innovation, schizophrenia, and downright wackiness that is characteristic in music of this era, especially in the hands of CPE Bach. On the one hand, he’s championing the old man’s legacy and Baroque ideals; on the other, he’s busting out and bending and twisting these tried-and-true forms into new shapes.

Check out “Side 1 Cut 1” on the disc:



The Sonata No. 17 in G minor.    It starts out like he’s paying homage to the old man’s great Rage Over a Lost Penny?)


Red Dress’n’ Red Sox

Red Dress: Belongs to Julia Fischer, soloist last night in an absolutely transcendent performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, with Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic at the Ken Cen. She managed to be noble, elegant, energetic, engaged, even playful…and at all times serenely musical.

In my Concert Preview for her performance I quoted liberally from the review in the IonArts blog from Fischer’s performance with Temirkanov and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in May of 2006. It all pretty much applies to what what we heard at the Kennedy Center, too…

What Julia Fischer chose to play with the BSO was no less a work than the Beethoven concerto: not a razzle-dazzle piece, the flash of which is to blind the audience and stun them into happy submission, but a work that demands foremost a thinking player’s approach, lest it fail to take off. Technical perfection and bravura playing can still produce a dud (as Anne Sofie Mutter has been happy to prove with two recordings) – conception and a sense of the complete work at every instant are more important. With her ability to place emotional peaks into refined playing, with her nicely developing tone – never shy, not too big – Ms. Fischer gave this concerto both: the nobility and excitement it needs without veering either into aloof coldness on one side or showy gypsy fiddling on the other. And while the “Beethoven Concerto against Violin” can take any number of approaches, it is especially allergic to the latter.

Cutting a dashing figure in a very red dress as she did, it was not enough to detract from the sternly delicate, searing Largo, where she made the otherwise middle-of-the run, broad rendition of the work sound very special; nuances well placed called attention to the music, not her. Grace and purity abounded. Under Temirkanov’s caring hands – here was something he visibly cherished doing – the BSO performed this and the cadenza-linked last movement splendidly, even with delicacy when called upon to do so. The ripping finale topped it all off in great style. This was an example of 45 minutes of music-making as it should be – and the audience sensed it…

Fischer has yet to record the Beethoven concerto, but you get a glimpse of her in action in a YouTube video of a live television broadcast of the Brahms Violin Concerto from the Schleswig-Holstein Festival with the North German Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas:

Red Sox: You’re going to have to bear with me for the next few days, while the Sawx are in the Series. But, especially given tonight’s pasting of the Rockies, there’s an on-point article in today’s Boston Globe (which is invariably an entertaining read in times like these) about the sudden Loss of Angst in the Nation:

Jim Lonborg, the star pitcher of the 1967 Impossible Dream team, was on the phone yesterday. He’s a dentist on the South Shore now, just about the nicest guy who ever played professional sports. Asked if anyone ever complains to him about his team not winning the heart-breaking seventh game of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, he replied without hesitation: “No, never.”

“You know that old cliché,” he added, “it’s all about the journey, and that was something that was always special about any Red Sox season – what it took to get there, the different cast of characters involved.”

Nobody, especially not Lonborg, is disputing that this team is great. Pedroia and Papelbon are riotous to watch. Lowell and Varitek are two of the more thoughtful players in the game, Ortiz and Ramirez two of the most exciting.

But here’s the problem with the 2007 edition of the Boston Red Sox: There is no narrative arc. They started the season as playoff favorites. They finished the season as playoff favorites. There will be a whole lot of stunned people if they don’t win.

They don’t, in short, have a story. Maybe that’s how the Yankees do it, or the Dallas Cowboys, or the old Montreal Canadiens, but it’s not generally how we do things on Yawkey Way – at least not in 1967 or 1975 or 1986 or 2004.

Thought-provoking stuff for us grizzled vets for whom those years will always have special, and bittersweet, meaning. Interesting to note that this article was one of the most e-mailed of the day. Not that I’m complaining or anything….

PS – discovered a great website of long-time Sox fans:, including a comprehensive list of all-time uniform numbers. Strange but true: Certified oddballs Jimmy Piersall and Bill “Spaceman” Lee wore the same No. 37 uni for the Sox. One of my favorite of the many great lefty’s quotes: “You have two hemispheres in your brain – a left and a right side. The left side controls the right side of your body and right controls the left half. It’s a fact. Therefore, left-handers are the only people in their right minds.

Living Beethovens

The consistently interesting conductor Marin Alsop‘s debut season as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s new Music Director promises to be one of the most interesting seasons in Bawlmur in years. Tim Smith in today’s Baltimore Sun has all the details. Sample grab:
“With cheap seats, conversations with high-profile composers and programming that includes a CSI-style forensics exploration of Beethoven next season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will challenge two of the most common complaints about classical music – that it’s too expensive and too old-fashioned. As part of a strategy unveiled yesterday to bolster attendance, the BSO will reduce the average subscription cost to classical and pops programs by 40 percent. New and current subscribers to the BSO’s 2007-2008 season, the inaugural season of music director Marin Alsop, will pay only $25 per concert for seats anywhere in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, including the usually pricey box seats.”

CSI business aside (which may be a little gimmicky), what caught my eye was Alsop’s “Living Beethovens” initiative – putting some of today’s most accomplished contemporary composers on programs cheek-by-jowl with ol’ Ludwig himself – and even inviting the composers to conduct! So, for 25 bucks a pop, you’ll be able to see John Adams conduct both his own works, as well as Beethoven’s 7th Symphony – a terrific idea. 17 contemporary compositions in all, by the likes of Adams, Tan Dun, and Aaron Jay Kernis. I like what Marin said to the Sun:

For Alsop, the aim of mixing “standard repertoire with something new is to hear the old in a different light. It’s like seeing a Rembrandt next to a Jackson Pollock.”