Friday, July 15, 2011

Sigurd Islandsmoen Requiem: SEE BELOW

Say this name three times, fast: SIGURD ISLANDSMOEN

I can't do it.
Can you?

After years in the study of-and love of-music, I had never heard of Norwegian composer Sigurd Islandsmoen ( 1881-1964.) I was browsing through our record shelves the other day. I come up with some of my best programming ideas just filing through the CDs. There was a Requiem by Islandsmoen, a new recording with the Norwegian Soloist Choir. At first I asked myself, "Why a setting of the Latin liturgy from Lutheran Norway?

In fact, Islandsmoe (no, I don't really know how to pronounce it) was known for his music for the Norwegian Church. Ironically, this Requiem was the composer's best known work, though it didn't travel out of Norway. If was completed in the late 1930s and premiered in Oslo in 1943. Another irony, to have this Requiem performed at the height of WWII, when much of Scandinavia was occupied by the Nazi-with the Quisling government collaborating with the Germans.

Islandmoen Requiem is melodic and serious without being solemn (or dull.) No, its not the most original choral work out there, but its worth a listen, and Islandsmoen is a composer worth knowing better. I'm putting this Requiem on air this weekend. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Grandparent's house

Here's a picture of my grandparent's home. What happy memories I have of this house-tho Grandma and Grandpa have been gone for over thirty years. The house is now for sale. It's been in the family since 1930. I'm glad I no longer live in the area. I wouldn't be able to drive by this house to see a For Sale sign on the front lawn. Uncle Jack died a year ago at 87 and lived in this house all of his life. My Grandparent's had the same tenants in the downstairs apartment for sixty-two years!

Now the place is empty.

The backyard statue of the Madonna has been taken to a cousin's home nearby.

Here's the nicest memory. I was seven or eight years old. My grandparents, Annie and Pat-came from Ireland around the first world war. They never lost their brogues or their dry, spot on Irish humor. My grandmother was a rather steely woman, very beautiful in her old age with a core of sweetness. I remember her homemade biscuits, warm from the oven that she would press against my cheek. Her touch and that aroma and that house were all magic.

The house needs a good bit of updating. The location is perfect. The spirits in that house will grace its new owners. Begorrah.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Did you have the lunchbox?

The final launch of the space shuttle had me thinking.
John Glenn lives here in Columbus. He turns ninety next week.
I've seen him a few times, had a few words and did a brief interview with him a few years back, at the Symphony!

I remember when Glenn orbited the earth in 1962. I was five, but I remember it.
The big excitement was to get the John Glenn lunchbox.
EVERYONE had one.
Harrington School was awash in John Glenn lunchboxes.
I wonder if they go for thousands on e-bay today.

The girls didn't have John Glenn lunchboxes.
The girls had Patty Duke lunchboxes
The 'Patty Duke Show' was all the rage on TV.
Several years ago I interviewed Patty Duke on the phone about mental health issues.
She was smart, funny and candid.

You can find the interview at

I asked Patty Duke if she had any of her own lunch boxes.
She laughed a lot and said, no-she didn't even know there WERE Patty Duke lunchboxes.

There were, I'm here to tell ya.

So here I am in my dotage and I have interviewed not one but TWO people who had their own lunch boxes.

Take THAT, Spider man!!

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Marjorie Lawrence's Interrupted Melody

Marjorie Lawrence (1907-1979) was not just another big voiced opera singer. She was a farm girl from Australia who went from the Outback to Paris, New York Buenos Aires and back all through Europe. She had a terrific career in the world's greatest opera houses. That's nice, you say. It was seventy years ago, but what the hell, that's nice. And it is. But it's only part of the story.

In 1941, during a rehearsal in Mexico City, Marjorie collapsed. Polio was diagnosed and she never walked unassisted again. Her despair, especially after a great career, is vividly described in her memoir Interrupted Melody. Life is too short to go reading prima donna memoirs-trust me-but this is an exception. Marjorie sat home in her wheelchair despondent until she was shamed for singing "for the boys" in a local army hospital. From there, she and her wheelchair toured the military hospitals in the Pacific fr the USO.

Eventually Marjorie was able to return to the Met, singing Venus in Wagner's Tannhauser reclining on a couch (this works when you are the goddess of love.) She went on to sing Isolde. Eventually the Met grew uncomfortable with Marjorie's physical limitations. They were concerned about taking advantage of her for publicity reasons, and she left the company in 1944.

Marjorie went on to years of teaching and singing, her voice and spirit unimpaired. Interrupted Melody was filmed by MGM in 1955, with Eleanor Parker as Marjorie and the voice of Eileen Farrell.
It's a terrific picture-a little hokey now but Hollywood 'camp' at its best. Miss Parker shows all of Marjorie Lawrence's determination....and guts!

Here's Marjorie Lawrence, singing Wagner-in French!-during her years in Paris

Monday, July 04, 2011

Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion' at Oberlin College

The Baroque Performance Institute at Oberlin College celebrated its fortieth anniversary with a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244, at the Warner Concert Hall, Oberlin College, Oberlin Ohio on July 1st. Kenneth Slowick, artistic director of the BPI conducted.

You were put on notice the minute you glanced at the program with its quote from Igor Stravinsky:

"Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion is written for a chamber music ensemble.
Its first performance in Bach's lifetime was perfectly realized by a total force of
thirty-four musicians, including soloists and chorus. That is known. And nevertheless
in our day one does not hesitate to present the work in complete disregard for the
composer's wishes, with hundreds of performers, sometimes almost a thousand...."

Stravinsky was writing in 1942. By that time, nearly 200 years after Bach's death, the large scale forces for the Bach and Handel oratorios were the norm. Those of us of an age to grow up with recordings by Koussevitzky, Mengelberg, Klemeperer and Bernstein-not to mention the early Karajan, heard large choruses, inflated orchestras and operatic soloists. And some of us loved it this way. More was more and more was better.

Joshua Rifkin changed all that thirty five years ago with his performances and later recordings of Bach one on a part and an orchestration close to what Bach would have known. Today, a Klemepereresque 'St. Matthew' would be an aberration. (Too bad). Still what one hears in historically informed performances today is the intricacy of the writing, the drama of the story and the beauty of the music.

I wonder if 'beauty' is a facile phrase today to use in discussing music. I not only want to hear music played beautifully, I also want to hear beautiful music. The St. Matthew Passion
may be the score we save from Noah's next Flood. One needn't be religious or Christian to appreciate the drama in this music: the halo of low strings surrounding Jesus's spare lines, the advanced-for the time-chromaticism of "Warlich dieses ist Gottes
sohn gewesen (Truly this was the son of God) or the insistent dialogue between Peter and the maids who recognize this distraught apostle. It's perfectly possible, indeed nowadays imperative to play this work with a reduced chorus and chamber ensemble.

At Oberlin, the soloists blended into the chorus. There were nine singers on stage and a quartet of sopranos in the choir loft. The singers were some of the best in the baroque music business: Ellen Hargis, William Sharp and Max von Egmond as Jesus. It was a joyful night for tenors, with superb singing by Thomas Cooley-the Evangelist, and by Derek Chester. His 'Geduld, geduld' (patience) was a high point of the evening.

The orchestra looked to include students and well regarded professionals, including Christopher Kreuger, flute. Kenneth Slowick's conducting was energetic-not fast but energetic. He didn't skim over the music in a flurry of white tone: he let the singers and instrumentalist tell the story. The occasional ragged ensemble and hard to tune instruments were more a testament to the student environment and I'm sure limited rehearsal time for a such an imposing work.

The St. Matthew is long-pity the souls and posteriors of the first hearers in a cold church in Leipzig-but Slowick and his artists were as fresh and spirited at 10.45 pm as they had been three hours earlier. I imagine they could have performed the entire work all over again, right away, and I know the full house-with a lot of young people, praise God!-would have been delighted to stay put.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Stanley Ann Dunham

Right off the bat you have to ask, who the hell names a girl 'Stanley?'
(Remember 'A Boy Named Sue'?)

Stanley Ann Dunham appeared in no way handicapped by her unusual first name. Indeed she comes across as a strong, determined woman who thrived living off the grid.

Who is Stanley Ann Dunham?

She's Barack Obama's mother. Born in Kansas, her parents moved to Hawaii and Stanley met Barack Obama Sr. at the University there. They courted briefly and Barak was born in 1961. Papa Barack soon returned to Kenya. That was it, except for a one year visit some time later. She raised her son alone, in Hawaii and in Indonesia. Stanley Ann's life's work was not as a wife and mother but as a cultural anthropologist. She had a second marriage to an Indonesian, and a daughter, Maya. But as determined as she seemed to get the best out of her children, she was equally determined run her own race. And work she did for years, as as researcher, student and teacher of women's business initiatives in Indonesia.

I most admire people who have the guts to follow their own way and to live the lives they want. These lives cost people and who's to say what's worth what at the end? Stanley Ann became a large, dramatically dressed woman. She is described as being entirely 'present. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there was quite a there there. From Kansas to Hawaii to Indonesia. Marriage to two men of another race. Mixed race children. The devotion of co workers. She labored for years on a doctoral dissertation-the final document ran over one thousand pages. She was awarded her Ph.D. in 1994. She was fifty-three years old. Her son had graduated Harvard Law, married and moved to Chicago to work in community organizing. She had worked under the auspices of the Ford Foundation for years. It was a life of high achievement, if two marriages and children raised at a distance. Her kids did okay, without her constant presence. I imagine Stanley Ann's influence was very strong.

Stanley Ann Dunham didn't have long to appreciate her hard work. She died of cancer in 1995, aged fifty-four. Janny Scott's book A Singular Woman takes us on quite a ride of this woman's life. Read it, and go break some molds.