Thursday, Nov 24 2005
Photo by Simon Fowler
Home Away From Home

Home, to Sir Simon Rattle, is the familiar musical repertory we most often hear at concerts and on the radio, music from the 19th century or before, when the tunes and the harmonies were friendly and set the mind at rest. Leaving Home is the television series that Rattle and some friends dreamed up at the BBC some years ago, to tell where music has gone since then. Produced in 1996, the series is now being released here on ArtHaus DVD and is, I think, the best package of music-plus-information I have yet come across on any medium. One of the “friends” who worked on the series, by the way, was the late Sue Knussen, who later came here in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s education department. Those of us who came to love her in her time here will, I think, recognize her spirit and her remarkable level of imagination in these programs.

There are seven, each lasting 50 minutes. Rattle is at the center of each, with his City of Birmingham Orchestra. His eyes skewer you to your seat as he talks with spellbinding intensity about the directions that music has followed through the 20th century. He traces the unfolding of rhythm, starting (as expected) with the ecstatic outbursts in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring but moving further afield toward Steve Reich’s purely rhythmic concoctions and the wild mechanical creations of Conlon Nancarrow’s player-piano rolls. On another episode he steers us through the dark passions of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, the tortured elegies of the late Shostakovich. The great Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski is on hand to join Rattle in an explanation of his ideas on chance music, the technique of allowing performance choices to be decided in part by the players themselves.

One program is all about American music, a topic I entrust to British speakers only with extreme hesitation. This one is gorgeous, however, starting with Gershwin’s Rhapsody through the lithe curve of pianist Wayne Marshall’s playing, and continuing on with a splendid collage of short works (Feldman, Carter, Ives, Copland’s Appalachian Spring with Martha Graham’s first dancers, Cage, and the smallest shard of West Side Story) set against New England autumnal scenes of heartbreaking beauty. The whole 50 minutes becomes a tone poem about American music, an achievement in itself.

The marvel of these programs – the three that have been released so far (by Naxos) and the four on the way – is their extraordinary success in reaching a level of seriousness and importance that is informative, valuable and totally free from condescension. This is a rare happenstance. People my age were supposed to go all weepy at the reissue, several months ago, of a large box of Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts, and those discs are supposed to rekindle all the first things we ever learned about music, on top of which all our future artistic wisdom has been erected. I respectfully bow out; these programs are riddled with misinformation, glibly delivered and intended to establish points about musical history or sonata form or what-have-you that are simply wrong. For all the famous Lenny charm, a quality arguable at best, I find these programs next to unwatchable. Thirty-eight years separate the first of the Lenny series from these excellent essays by Simon Rattle and his musical forces. Let that stand, then, as a measure of civilization’s advance in those years.

Words, Words

What makes it great? asks Rob Kapilow about Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, but he leaves the question, alas, unanswered. Composer, pianist, lecturer, former student (at 19) of the legendary Nadia Boulanger, the first-ever licensee granted access to the words of Dr. Seuss, leader of the “What Makes It Great Players,” Kapilow has somehow not crossed my path up to now, although I understand that he sets up shop at the Cerritos Center now and then. His “What Makes It Great” number on Mozart’s Symphony, issued on Vanguard’s “Everyman” Classics, is at hand. On it he talks his way through selected passages of the “Jupiter” Symphony. Once in a while he will identify a previously mentioned theme as “bub-bub-bup,” so that we will know what he’s referring to. About halfway through the first movement, just before the first appearance of one of the juiciest themes, he gives up and moves on to the second movement. That strikes me as strange. Maybe there wasn’t room on the disc for discussion of the whole symphony, although the theme he leaves out is one of the things that makes the “Jupiter” Symphony great, or so it seems to me. The point is: Discs are cheap and easy to make, and you don’t need to have much going for you nowadays to turn out lousy product like this. (The actual performance of the “Jupiter” on the disc is a Vanguard recording first issued in 1960.) I understand that quite a few people buy tickets to Rob Kapilow’s lectures, and that makes me wonder what makes him great.

You don’t need the 29 volumes of the latest Grove’s Dictionary, and you can probably squeak by without the six volumes of the New Oxford History of Western Music. But everybody feels kindly toward penguins these days, and the Penguin Companion to Classical Music is by some distance the best single-volume reference I have ever encountered. Paul Griffiths is its author, and considering its 896-page heft and its manic drive toward completeness, there is enough of Paul’s own wit in the book to make it a bedside-reading delight. Try that with your Grove’s! Of course the Griffiths pals are listed: Betty Freeman among the patrons, but not Alice Tully. Also, there is no Rosemary Brown in Grove’s; for her glowing presence — the dear English mystic who took dictation from Bach and Stravinsky — we must consult, and treasure, the indomitable Paul.

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