Saturday, September 29, 2012

Wilkinson's Edge

My latest for Asbury Pulp is in a style I haven't really used since college. I had a regular column then in the Trenton State College newspaper, The Signal, called "Wilkinson's Edge." Then-editor John Robinson had invited me to write a couple of articles and from there, encouraged me to step it up into a regular column. I would probably never have tried it otherwise. The column name was his doing and I always liked it. (For the record, I'm not related to the Wilkinson Sword Blade family that I know of.)

The style of those columns was free and snarky and the words flowed easily, like water out of a clean deep well. It was a joy to write those, to try to make myself laugh out loud as a I wrote them. At my first newspaper job, a small Princeton Packet Publications paper called The Franklin News-Record, I wrote one or two and my editor used the same name, "Wilkinson's Edge." At the Times of Trenton, a few years later, I ran one, toned down a bit, but still in the same vein. (To my knowledge, none of those are available online.) But since then, now writing mostly about classical music, I've restricted myself to a more serious approach, a more conservative style.

Writing this article on Mitt Romney (see the link below), I came back to that pure happiness, hammering away to make something a little silly and still opinionated and punchy. And I'm pleased with the result. With Asbury Pulp editor Steven Froias' encouragement, we decided to run it and it appeared Saturday morning.

I'm hoping to make it a regular part of my contribution there. Will be interesting to see how it develops.


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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Greetings From Asbury Pulp!

In addition to my work with the Asbury Park Press, I’ve started writing for the website, Asbury Pulp, an writers portal featuring commentary on websites, restaurants, visual arts, music and whatever else the community is talking about.

Today there’s a great article about Carrie Potter-Devening’s new book on the old Upstage club at Asbury Park, one of Springsteen’s boyhood haunts.

As that article and the site’s name imply, the principal focus of Asbury Pulp is Asbury Park, but its interests fan out over the region, the nation and the globe. The site was conceived and created by Steven Froias of the local paper TriCity News (the tri-cities being Red Bank, Long Branch and Asbury Park), a highly opinionated tabloid covering news and issues relevant to the region.

I had approached Steven a couple years ago about possibly doing some work for the TriCity, but obstacles popped up for both sides. So when he started the website, he contacted me again. This time it seemed an easy, natural fit.

My two articles so far:
Less hard news, more literary magazine, Asbury Pulp invites contributions from writers in the community. Visit the site, read and join in the conversation if you’re so inclined.


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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

'Music and the Natural World'

Tomorrow my Fall semester class at The College of New Jersey begins. I'm teaching a Freshman Seminar titled "Music and the Natural World."

The idea for this course came out of a discussion on the Society of Music Theory email list about five years ago. Some on the list were interested in whether a music theory course could somehow work in ideas related to sustainability -- a hot topic at the time, as the academic world was reacting to mounting pressures to address climate change and environmental issues. The thought was that sustainability was one of the most important issues of our age and we had a responsibility as educators to reflect that concern to our students.

I was among those theory teachers who said, No, it can't be done. The theory curriculum is already demanding for the students and time allowed for that curriculum is far too brief. Moreover, the link between theory and sustainability is flimsy at best. We can recycle paper. But that's about it. In one way or another, most of theorists agreed with that assessment.

Out of that discussion, however, the idea arose that a separate course could be designed that focus on repertoire and environment. Composers throughout history have been inspired in many ways by the beauty of the natural landscape and composers today are examining that relationship in everything from traditional "musical landscape" scores to computer models of natural systems and chaos theory.

My thought was that, in a framework like that, students would be naturally sensitized to issues of sustainability and human responsibility for our changing environment. Putting it in a freshman seminar seemed perfect, as it allowed for a more broad-ranging discussion.

TCNJ's freshman seminars are intended give students an introduction to scholarship by presenting them with a subject of study, much like a graduate seminar, and then guide them through the process of research and scholarly discussion. The first two years in college are generally spent on required courses, with little other opportunity for this kind of personal scholarship.

By now, I've taught this particular course three semesters and I grow from the experience each time. We gambol around music history and the musicological spectrum, touching on other disciplines like philosophy, physics, sociology and biology. Since the course is open to students of any major, there are a jungle of approaches popping up in each classroom. Each voice adds to bigger picture.

We will start with an nature-themed trip through the classical repertoire, introducing some writings of Goethe and others along the way, and then head off into ethnomusicology and topics in semiotics before getting into soundscapes, musique concrete and John Cage. And we wind up with a look into the not-so-distant future of virtual environments -- what of nature, or of ourselves, do we take with us into the wholly digital city?

It's a mash-up dance, a rough-and-tumble idea playground.

So here we go. I'm excited. It's going to be a great semester.

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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Dvorak's Stabat Mater at Ocean Grove

Ocean Grove's Great Auditorium hosts its annual Sacred Concert with a performance of Antonin Dvorak's Stabat Mater tomorrow, Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m. The auditorium choir and orchestra will be directed by Dr. Jason C. Tramm. Soloists will be soprano Monica Ziglar, contralto Martha Bartz, tenor Ronald Naldi and bass-baritone Jeremy Galyon. Organist Gordon Turk, artist-in-residence, will also perform with the ensemble.

The concert is free with a goodwill offering collected at the door.

The text of the Stabat Mater is a sacred Latin poem written in the 13th century depicting the grief of Jesus' mother as she watches her song dying on the cross. The poem attracted some of the greatest composers of history, including Pergolesi (whose fame rests mainly on his Stabat Mater and one or two other works), J.S. Bach, Franz Liszt, Giuseppe Verdi and many others.

Dvorak composed his setting as a way of working through his own grief at the loss of his three children -- his newborn daughter in 1875, followed by his two older children who died within weeks of one another of separate causes in 1877.

Dvorak's Stabat Mater was widely praised following its premiere in Prague in 1880. It was through this work that the Czech composer was introduced to the English speaking world, where he became a leading musical figure, a success that ultimately led to his invitation to visit the U.S. and the composition of his most famous work, the Symphony "From the New World."

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Save Charles Ives' Home

Speaking of Ives, his home in Connecticut is in danger of being torn down. Developers are excited to build on the property -- destroying a historic landmark in the process.

Here's an article on WQXR's website explaining the situation.

Below is a link to a petition to save the house that still needs 500 signatures. Please take a moment to sign it.

Petitions by|Start a Petition »

Thanks to Christian Carey for passing along this widget.

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ives' String Quartet No. 2

I have long had a casual relationship with Charles Ives’ String Quartet No. 2. I was introduced to his music as an undergraduate, using it as a springboard to find my way into contemporary repertoire after having grown up hearing precious little of anything written post-1913 that wasn’t Broadway, mainstream jazz or pop music.

Ives opened up a whole new way of looking at music for me, a child-like way of toying with the material until it satisfied both child and grown-up sensibilities. No matter how eccentric, the result always seemed rooted in simple “what if” questions: If music can modulate from one key to another, why can't it be it two or more keys at the same time?

What about two time signatures at the same time? What about two completely different pieces of music at the same time?

If the harmonic series is a guide to functional harmony, what happens when we extend it to the higher partials? What about intervals smaller than a semitone?

If stacks of thirds produce triads, seventh and ninth chords, could clusters of notes or oppositions of seventh chords -- which could be realistically described as skyscraper stacks of thirds – be used as functional harmony? What about stacks of fourths?

What happens when you mix or imitate folk instruments with orchestra instruments? Bel canto and common singing? Does some political or social line get crossed? Is that good?

I love these questions. They seem a little transparent to me now, but the lesson I learned from them -- that music is not a goal, but a process of seeking -- has remained a vital one.

The String Quartet No. 2
S.Q. for 4 men--who converse, discuss, argue in re 'Politick', fight, shake hands, shut up -- then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament!
– C.I., note from score

In the 1980s, the String Quartet No. 2 was too much for me. Working in the music library as an undergrad, I had recorded the Kohon String Quartert performance onto cassette tape. I remember listening to it, admiring it and putting it away again. That process happened over and over. Finally, as I moved on to late Stravinksy and the music of the European avant garde composers of the 1950s and ‘60s -- the mid-century men -- I put it aside completely.

Driving across Pennsylvania last month -- my great revelations often happen driving across Pennsylvania -- I pulled that same tape out again and turned it on, thankful that my old car still had a cassette player. Listened to the whole thing twice through.

What I found was a tender, visionary work, post-modern at the dawn of modernism, post-Romantic in an era dominated by Romanticism, deeply personal where technology and the shadow of industrialized world war were quickly rendering society as a whole impersonal.

It shows the versatility of individual imagination, far removed from expectations of genre and style -- the tracings of a free flying mind imprisoned physically and historically by time and place, liberated by imagination.

Let’s admit that Ives was influenced by other contemporary innovations, that he strove to define himself as an outsider, to outdo deliberately all others in crazy re-imaginings of traditional methods. Let's note that a near-perverse machismo lay near the root of much of his experimentation, particularly so with this string quartet. Let’s even agree, for the sake of argument, that his eccentricity exceeded his control over the score.

I accept all that. No matter.

The second string quartet remains a work of remarkable conception, and fluid beauty. It presages Elliot Carter’s fascination with assigning identities to individual voices; its use of stylistic reference and literal quotation has nothing to do with the 19th century and everything to do with the late 20th; it establishes patterns of discontinuity as compositional elements, foreseeing the work of the mid-century; it overlays and juxtaposes in a way that often seems less like traditional polyphonic structure and more like tape-music-style mash-ups; it even lets the instruments step out of character to reveal themselves (with a prescribed imitation of tuning at a critical point), pointing toward the blurring of physical separation between performer and listener that came in the mid-to-late century.

All of these are, for Ives’ generation, new techniques, all pursued with a ferocious imagination, a playful yet steady loyalty to the material.

I suppose I will never lose my admiration for Ives, whatever personal and professional failings can be ascribed to him. It is hard to believe that I can return to this work after nearly 25 years and find in it so much that is still (or again) fertile ground for further experiment.

I wasn’t ready for it in 1988. I am now.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

OperaNJ at the Paramount This Weekend

Looking forward to seeing two OperaNJ productions at the Paramount Theatre this weekend. I’ll be reviewing them for the Asbury Park Press to run sometime during the week.

I’m really hoping at least one of the shows is a sellout crowd. Metro Lyric Opera used to be able to draw well but as I recall they rarely sold out completely.

But OperaNJ is not Metro Lyric. For all the joy that it brought us here at the Shore -- 50 years of it, in steady summer performances -- Metro Lyric was most remarkable because it was a homemade outfit. Shabby sets and costumes, local music lovers in the chorus, uneven stage direction and musical rehearsals -- all charming as heck, but not the most professional of presentations.

But even in the most awkward of circumstances, the young professionals in the lead roles could occasionally catch fire. And the community dearly loved “Madame,” the late Era Tognoli, who ran the entire shebang.

OperaNJ on the other hand is a thoroughly professional company. You’ll find its young singers on major stages all over the world, and the conductors, the set designs, the stage direction, the costumes are all absolutely first rate.

The New Jersey Symphony Chamber Orchestra plays for all Opera New Jersey performances, a genuinely world-class band.

Reviews are pouring in regarding these two productions, Gilbert & Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” and Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and they are nearly all positive.

OperaNJ’s home is the rather fabulous McCarter Theatre in Princeton. Squeezing the productions into the Paramount with its limited backstage area will take some doing, including a few trailers for the singers.

But the Paramount is in many respects a suitable house, even with the adjustments. A historic theater right on the boardwalk, it has its own tradition at the center of the Shore's rich artistic history.

Former Princeton Symphony Orchestra conductor Mark Laycock leads the performance of “H.M.S. Pinafore” 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 27. Stage direction is by Michael Unger and the production includes Michael Gets as the Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter and Sean Anderson as Captain Corcoran, with Mathew Edwardsen, Sarah Beckham and Jennifer Feinstein.

Victor DeRenzi conducts “Il Trovatore” 3 p.m. Sunday, July 29. Stephanie Sundine is the director and leads include tenor Rafael Dávila as Manrico, with Erica Strauss as his love interest Leonora. In addition, recent Metropolitan Opera auditions winner Margaret Mezzacappa will sing Azucena. Also featured are baritone Marco Nisticò as Count de Luna and bass Young Bok Kim as Ferrando.

Tickets and more information can be found at OperaNJ’s website, or by calling 609-799-7700.
See you there!

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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Asbury Park's Fourth of July Fireworks

Great fireworks display at Asbury Park Beach. The fireworks themselves were really good, very exciting, wild colors and no gaping holes in the action. Very professional.

No music! I'm not a fan of music accompaniment for fireworks in general and loud amplified music in particular. Asbury tried the amplified music one year. No good. This year, no music and a much more satisfying experience.

My family and I walked the boardwalk, stopped and shopped at a funky T-shirt and jewelry place and bought some ice cream.

There was a fairly heavy police presence, probably a good idea with the crowd gathered on the boardwalk. The officers were polite and actually shooing skateboarders and dog-walkers off the boards.

Most of the beach was off-limits except for Fifth Avenue beach, which is traditionally roped off for the blanket-and-chair crowd. My daughter and I sat there, close to the water. With most of the crowd content to watch from the boardwalk, the beach had a healthy crowd but never became mobbed or uncomfortable.

A blood-red near-full moon rose over the waves just before the fireworks. A stunning view. And then a great fireworks display and comfortable, orderly exit.

Nicely done, Asbury Park! Makes me proud to live here. A great evening.

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This Fourth, I'm thinking a lot about the farewell of Bruce Springsteen's song "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" from The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle.

Funny, the line "the aurora is rising behind us" -- I had always figured "Aurora" was the name of a ferris wheel or roller coaster or something. It just fit. I'm guessing now that he was using it in the generic sense, synonymous with "aura" but implying a solar source -- a bright, bright star radiating light. The star, of course, is the boardwalk itself and the fireworks of the Fourth of July.

Bruce is leaving in this song, and the boardwalk itself is leaving. This is the early 1970s. Asbury was already headed down the steep incline from its peak in the 1950s and '60s, to bottom out in the late 1990s with the boardwalk especially looking like a shuttered ghost town. Disillusioned and lamenting "our carnival life on the boardwalk," bored with "hanging in the dusty arcades, slamming those pleasure machines," he pleads with "Sandy" to love him tonight "for I may neee-ver see you again."

"Sandy" is the perfect name for his beloved: the beach, the resort, the magical unreality of the boardwalk's "Palace Amusements" and Madame Marie's mysticism.

Photo by Russ Meseroll

His next stop would be the grittier reality of Born to Run's "Meeting Across the River," themes of harsh, wounded souls, flayed, struggling and doomed, that he would develop more fully in "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and his later poetic masterpiece, "Nebraska."

The line of themes of childhood loss of innocence, desperate struggle, a growing maturity and sense of community that pace Springsteen's long discography are naturally reflected in the man himself. In his philanthropic gifts to Asbury Park, the emphasis has never been heavy on rebuilding the amusements, the carnival life. Instead, his focus was, and is, on schools, community projects, helping the underserved who struggled during the long years of the city's economic stagnation.

Along those lines it interesting to me that, here in Asbury Park -- and in New Jersey -- we take such pride in "Sandy" and "Born to Run". All those who know these (and that may be just about everybody in the world by now) recognize the sadness, the critical love, even condemnation, and longing after escape in both songs.

Judging by Springsteen's evolution as an artist and as a human being, it is easy to believe that nostalgia for Asbury Park's amusements is misplaced. It is easy for me to see a resonance with my belief that the town's emphasis on money over community has always been one of its greatest flaws.

But maybe we're not so wrong to be proud. We represent the community and the culture that produced him, after all and we can take some small credit for having nurtured him toward his great achievements, his massive success.

If in the final estimate, we as New Jerseyans are just "a town full of losers," then at least one of us got free and we can cheer him on his heroic journey. If he is the best we can do, that's ain't half bad.

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Monday, July 2, 2012

Fourth of July Orchestra and Summer Concerts

The Garden State Philharmonic performs a free outdoor Fourth of July concert at Ocean County Library, Toms River at 7:30 p.m. Anthony LaGruth conducts a program of classical, pops and patriotic favorites. Bring your own chairs and blankets.

The event is part of the Ocean County Department of Parks and Recreation's "Carousel of Music Series". The series features rock tribute bands, brass and wind ensembles, jazz groups and classical orchestras performing each week, Wednesday through Saturday, at a handful of locations: Veterans Park, Berkeley; Ocean County Library; 10th Street Waterfront Park, Ship Bottom; River Front Park, Point Pleasant; Beachwood Beach; and Heritage Gazebo, Bay Blvd., Lavallette. Most of the scheduled events are at the library.

For a downloadable listing, see the The Parks and Recreation website.

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

SCOTUS: Health Care

With the SCOTUS decision, Obama is politically in a better position since the burden of proof now lies with the Republicans -- they have to prove they have something better. The Constitutionality issue was the biggest hurdle. The GOP had successfully painted Obama's reform as contrary to the Constitution, un-American, creating doubt in his leadership (he is a Constitutional law professor after all). Removal of that doubt will peel off a small number of anti-Obamanites from the Tea Party-led herd. The Republican base will be a hotter group but also a smaller one.

Mitt Romney's "Repeal and Replace" is going to be a very hard sell because he doesn't have a workable plan. The free market can't provide health care for everyone. It can provide health care for everyone that can afford it -- damn good health care. But it can't provide health care for everyone. A free market is competitive, which means Tiffany's health care for some and pawn shop health care or none for others. That's what we have now. It's not humane; as humans, it fails to meet our expectation of compassion.

Note the emphasis on "Replace" in Mitt's new slogan. The Republican camp realizes that voters are more united on this point: a majority want health care for everyone.

As to the Obama law itself: It doesn't do a damn thing to limit drug costs. It's confusing enough that I really don't know how it will pan out for the currently uninsured -- a lot of people who labor to get health care to the poor are happy about the law, for what that's worth. Big health care corporations are way too happy.

The budget numbers being tossed around on both sides don't make a whole lot of sense -- I suspect all of them are a fiction because the reality is too complex and messy to nail down, let alone fit into a campaign speech.

But it is a first step. The president and lawmakers have established the first universal health care system. We've never done that before. Probably it will suck. Hopefully it won't suck worse than what we have now. Hopefully we can keep hammering away at it until we get it right.

But flawed as it is, I think voters are not going to want to give it up, now that they have it.

Romney will make this a central campaign platform until he realizes it's a mistake, and by then it will probably be too late.

Thus, my takeaway from the SCOTUS ruling and subsequent hoopla: Bye-bye, Mitt.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

OperaNJ in Asbury and Red Bank Jazz Cafe

OperaNJ is launching its summer season at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra members in the pit. Those two productions, H.M.S. Pinafore and Il Travotore, will be coming to Asbury Park's Paramount Theater later in July. Check out the group's website for more information.

The Jazz Arts Project presents its Summer Jazz Cafe at Two River Theatre starting 8 p.m. July 6 and 7 with the Mauricio Zottarelli Trio. Claudio Roditi is the special guest Friday and vocalist Fabiana Masili is the guest soloist Saturday. For more information check out the Jazz Arts Project website.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

End of 'Best Of ... '

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has terminated its "Best Of ... " programming experiment.

In 2008, the group introduced the idea of one-hour programs featuring shorter works and excerpts as a way to build audiences in some of its outlying venues, including the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank. In the first season, I recall these shorter movements being linked together with narration, drawn from historical documents. The spoken word idea was abandoned pretty quickly and last season I noticed a return to more traditional programming.

This year, the NJSO scrapped the "Best Of..." idea altogether, returning to full programs of standard length. These concerts at outlying venues will be built around traditional repertoire, with few risks. But at least they'll be full-length concerts and complete works.

I'm glad the NJSO saw fit to make the change and I hope they see a boost in their ticket sales as a result. The "Best Of ... " just felt like a waste of a really good orchestra.

You'll be able to read my other remarks about the NJSO's upcoming 2012-13 season in Sunday's Asbury Park Press (Feb. 12).

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Composers Concordance 'Ensemble'

Just a quick reminder that the final concert of the Composers Concordance Festival 2012, "Ensemble," takes place tomorrow night, Monday, Feb. 6, at William Paterson University and featuring the directors of Composers Concordance, Gene Pritsker and Milica Paranosic with percussionist/composer/conductor Peter Jarvis and flute legend Robert Dick.

You can find a full article, including some remarks from a brief interview with Peter, on the Asbury Park Press website and in today's (Sunday, Nov. 5) "Sunday Best" section of the Asbury Park Press.

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Composers Concordance Festival 2012

Just a reminder that the Composers Concordance Festival 2012, a series of five concerts, is under way. The collective emphasizes composers' involvement in the performances, so each concert should offer a direct view into creative minds. It's also billed as "the most eclectic contemporary music festival of the season" so stylistic variety should be expected. The group is directed by Joseph Pehrson, Pat Hardish, Gene Pritsker, Dan Cooper and Milica Paranosic. (Paranosic is absent from the photo above.)

Tonight's event, 7 to 10 p.m. Jan. 29 at DROM, 85 Avenue A, New York, is the Third Annual Composers Play Composers Marathon. The list of composers participating:

Yael Acher, Cristian Amigo, Loop B, Dan Barrett, Eve Beglarian, Svjetlana Bukvich-Nichols, Peter Breiner, Luis Andrei Cobo, Valerie Coleman, Dan Cooper, Jed Distler, Patrick Grant, Franz Hackl, Sara Holtzschue, Peter Jarvis, Jonathan Kane, Margaret Lancaster, Andrew M. Lee, Peri Mauer, Daniel Palkowski, Milica Paranosic, Gene Pritsker, David Saperstein, Larry Simon, David Soldier, Rubens Salles, Eleonor Sandresky, Ezequiel Viñao and Michael Wolff.

That list is cut-and-pasted from the Composers Concordance website, where you can find out more information.

Upcoming events are "New Blues" featuring the International Street Cannibals Ensemble, 9 p.m. Jan. 31, at 62 Avenue C; "Electronics" 8 p.m. Feb. 3 at Gallery MC, 549 W. 52 St.; and "Ensemble," 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 6 at William Paterson University and directed by Peter Jarvis. I'll be writing about this last event for my Sunday column in the Asbury Park Press.

Check the Composers Concordance website for more info! Here's a clip from the website, featuring Dan Cooper's 'Unsubscribe' for piano four hands, played by Taka Kigawa and Dimitri Dover at Chelsea Art Museum in 2010.

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