Friday, July 27, 2018


Cleveland columnist Dick Feagler passed away a few weeks ago. I grew up in the Cleveland area and enjoyed reading his columns. Feagler had a gift for painting in words a picture of the town he loved back in the "good old days" that could leave you nostalgic for a place you had never known, which is a hallmark of true artists.

Under Feagler's spell you could feel a warmth for people you hadn't met, come to understand what was in the minds of all the people around their dinner tables nodding their heads in agreement with his 'unsolicited opinions' and generally feel like people were decent, or at least tried to be, and that life was good, out there in the parts you'd never seen. The down side to all of this romanticizing was that Feagler himself later said that while he could make sense of the world of the past, he didn't understand the one he was living in now. Too much change. He had succumbed to one of the most popular myths of humanity, that things are always getting worse, and that the things you knew growing up were always the best. It's the life you were living while young, and that confidence of youth apparently is what makes up for pollution and the imminent threat of thermonuclear war in making the landscape of the past seem so much better than what we have now. I can remember going to bed wondering whether I'd wake up in the morning or if we'd all be incinerated and yet it still seems like a simpler time largely because I didn't have to pay my own bills.

Some of Feagler's columns were collected in books late in his career. I have them. The prefaces are interesting. In one of them he writes about how he got started. These origin stories usually involve a lot of happenstance, and this is no exception. A reporter who often let go of his opinions in print, he was given a column to dispense them regularly on page two. It was, he wrote, not a glamorous bit of real estate, being the part folks usually "skipped on their brisk journey from page one to the interior of the paper." Just to the left of Feagler's own preface is an introduction by his editors which is more laudatory. They frame page two as "the place given to the star." I'll bet most readers are much more inclined to this version of events, even though they may both be right--the cache of page two probably went up as their columnist's reputation slowly rose.

If there is any false modesty in Feagler's remarks it is probably a defense mechanism. Uncritical praise can be just as dangerous to a creator as ignorant criticism. In the strange contract a writer has with the public it is safe to display this armor of modesty without fear of damaging your reputation because nobody is going to buy it for a second no matter how true it is. But in Feagler's world he'd probably gotten used to plugging away without thinking of Pulitzers because that was how you deal with the constant stream of irate readers who don't share your opinion, editors who think of you as a fungible commodity that helps sell papers, and constant deadlines.

It was those deadlines that got to him first. "Armed with one firm opinion a month," he says, "we [columnists] grind out three columns a week." Given leave to write about anything, he soon realized he had nothing to write about. And then he wrote about it anyway. "And that, dear reader, is why you are holding this book. I forced myself to write columns whether I had anything to write about or not."

Inspiration is a strange thing. It tends to visit those most often who keep working whether they've gotten her visions or not. It tends to reward those who learn to master their medium with hammer and chisel in the mines of constancy so that by way of the magic rhythm of words and sentences, something is worth reading even when its substance is at best gossamer. It teaches you to write about the weather so that someone will want to read it.

And then, when inspiration strikes, you have something to say, and you know how to say it. Otherwise, if you wait for the muse before you've prepared her welcome on a steady current of words, she may not come at all.

don't forget to check out the articles and recordings this week on the website proper,

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Salieri Syndrome

Poor Antonio. He gets to be the poster child for also-rans everywhere. And blamed for a crime he did not commit, to boot.

We save a special scorn for the losers of the championship games. The ones who never got there in the first place, or who can't manage to win as many games as they lose, we don't concern ourselves with. But we want to make sure the ones who challenge for the title feel our wrath, even if we have to torch Icaraus' wings ourselves.

And we have to have winners. My favorite example in this regard is the uproar over baseball's All-Star game several years ago in which a meaningless mid-season exhibition game ended in an extra-innings tie because both sides ran out of pitchers. How dare we not have a winner and a loser! Just because there are 162 games a year in which ties are not permitted and an expanded playoff so that mediocre teams can topple the ones who really earned it is no reason to think Americans can get to sleep after a game that denied half of them their bragging rights!

Knowing who won the game is an important shorthand. It allows an athletic contest to be summed up succinctly around the office in the morning. It permits causal conversation between those who know something about the game and those who know next to nothing.  It allows you not to pay much attention to the details, have the game on in the background, note that some people are throwing a ball around, and move on . Or you can get very passionate about all the statistics and argue about a player's worth. Either way, the winning settles everything nicely. It isn't debatable. Somebody won the game and it is easy to know who. The smaller group who pays close attention knows who and so can the much larger group that doesn't care about the game nearly as much. If you want something to catch on you have to appeal to both groups.

The arts have never solved this problem. If you don't know much about the arts you probably aren't interested in going to a concert or a museum. For the more adventurous there are plethoras of program notes and books and plaques on the museum wall. They can be very interesting--or not. There are certainly plenty or people trying to communicate what they know and love about what is itself a fascinating form or communication. But they can't tell you who won. They can tell you who the important figures are, and they are, after all, history's winners. But in, say, classical music, we don't have head to head contests.

Well, except for one. Thanks to a movie, everybody knows Mozart beat Salieri by a mile, and Salieri got really sore about it and bumped Mozart off. It doesn't have to be history. It fills a need to know who won.

It is quite possible that most folks wouldn't be able to tell the difference between Mozart's music and Salieri's. The internet right now is filled with defenses of the man's music, saying he got a bad rap from the movie, that he is really a genius. This overstates the case a little. Having heard some Salieri myself, I think it is fair to say the man knew how to compose and it should be recognized that he was highly regarded in his day, and with good reason. But there is an obvious qualitative difference when it comes to Mozart.

The people of Mozart's time and place complained that his music was too complicated, just as they did about every other composer history remembers. It took some getting used to, and it doesn't have the kind of predictable repetition that allows you to hum along on first hearing, nor does a single melody reign supreme without dialogue from the supporting cast. In the end, though, somebody figured out that Mozart's music had something in it that humankind would want to keep around. That small group of devotees, the ones whose ears could tell them something the rest couldn't hear, somehow got their way. Now he is everywhere, and the bulk of humanity, most of whom really don't care that much, know at least this--Mozart is champion. He won the title. Suck it, you losers.

The reason they know it is partially by that same mysterious process through which they knew Bach, and Beethoven. Those passionate scholars spread the word, and over the decades, stars were born. But Mozart got an extra bonus. He got a playoff game in the public imagination in which he beat Antonio Salieri. Think that isn't important? Nearly everybody I've talked to knows that the movie isn't really history, and that Salieri probably didn't poison Mozart. And then in the next words out of their mouths they demonstrate that what they think they know is precisely what was in the movie. Why wouldn't it be? What else does the public know about Mozart? Are Mozart biographies flying off the shelves?

Salieri, I thank you. You are helping to keep the Mozart industry alive and flourishing. Not by producing highly dedicated, informed, passionate Mozart lovers, but by keeping the name on everybody's lips. Those ordinary, semi-informed people have an important role to play. Just ask the NFL. I hope you will absolve us, not for being mediocrities, but for abusing you so. Most of us, if remembered at all, get used for something very different after our death than we stood for in life. History is written by the winners, after all. Anyway, you didn't have a bad run. And you were head opera composer for a while, and those Viennese had to blame somebody. So now your are a household word. It is a good thing the emperor liked your operas so much.

Otherwise we would all be fingering somebody like Leopold Kozeluch, whose name I can barely spell or pronounce. Or Padre Martini, whose name lacks that wonderful S that Murray Abraham used to such effect. Or Guiseppi Bonno, who sounds too affable to be guilty of murder. Or some other composer in Mozart's Vienna that had reason to dislike the little man with the brash temper. How about Domenico Cimerosa?

No, you were perfect. And what wasn't perfect got a makeover. And now some of us are actually listening to your music. I listened to your Requiem the other day, in fact.

Not a bad piece. And just the right number of notes, too.

This week on, Bach's little organ fugue, Haydn's a few measures short of a minuet, and the piano in disguise. You'll see what I mean on the homepage, updated every Friday.

Friday, July 13, 2018


One morning my wife was doing something at her computer and said across the room, "they're having a 5k here in town. Why don't you sign up?"

Five kilometers? Are you crazy? I've jogged to the mailbox and back on a rainy day, but...

How far is that in miles, anyhow?

You might get the impression from the foregoing that I was not a world class runner. Heck, why did I just use the past tense?

I decided to give it a try, and spent the last week of March and the month of April trying to get into shape. This was my killer regimen the first week: I would go to the park, which was about a mile. Since I couldn't keep up a run for more than 45 seconds without running out of breath, I would slow to a walk until I thought I could handle another short spurt of running. Run a little, walk a lot, run a little...

Later I found out that can be an actual technique for getting through long races. I don't use it. I run the whole time. But this is now. Back then I had a limited capacity and I also didn't want to have a heart attack.

I was in my late thirties and hadn't done any running as an adult. I didn't do a lot as a child either, because I was asthmatic. I was a fast little kid in short spurts, but those 600 yard dashes they had in elementary field day games--I bombed out on the first turn, wheezing like mad.

The typical thing for a person resolving to hit the gym in the new year is to work out really hard the first time and be really sore for a few days. I  didn't want to be that guy. I didn't push it very hard. It felt a little pathetic only going a short distance and breaking it into tiny little runs, but I reminded myself of an important lesson I'd learned in piano. You work a little every day, and eventually your capacity increases. You improve with time and continual effort. That's the secret: consistent work. It happened with the piano. Once I couldn't play chopsticks and several years later I was on stage with an orchestra playing a huge solo piece from memory. It didn't happen overnight.

By the third week I went to a different course. I had figured out that 5 kilometers was actually three miles, not two, which my vague concept of the metric system had led me to assume the first time (it's about half as many miles as kilometers, and go one direction or the other!). It was exactly one and a half miles from my house to the church where I worked. If I could run all the way there, touch the wall and come back in one straight run I'd have it.


That was me thinking how ridiculous it was to imagine running all that way in one fell swoop. They'd have to come along with a spatula and scoop me off the sidewalk!

Nevertheless, I tried running to church. I ran and walked, and once I got there I stopped to practice for a couple of hours. I was the organist, so it made sense. Then I'd run back home. One day I actually managed, for the first time, to leave the church running, and not slow to a walk all the way home.

That was a pretty good day. And the start of something bigger.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Ives Festival

Last week our local classical station online feed didn't week for a couple of days. That meant I had to go elsewhere to listen to the radio before bed. I have a radio, but it makes an annoying buzzing sound with the headphones in and the connection is very sensitive and anyway---it just works better that way.

For some reason I thought I'd catch up with some Ives Symphonies. Charles Ives. It was practically the 4th of July anyhow, and what better way to be patriotic than to listen to an insurance salesman who wrote music on nights and weekends that people thought sounded awful. And he kept on writing it anyhow because, you know, individualism. Of a most rugged kind!

Actually, three of Ives' four numbered symphonies are pretty tame, tonally. They are plenty quirky, and two of them quote from a lot of hymn tunes and fiddle tunes and marches and things, but the man on the street wouldn't get TOO offended if I played him a few bars. Once in college a roommate heard me listening to the Ives Fourth and thought the guy was a nutcase. If you've never heard it imagine a sonic representation of a Jackson Pollack. The kind of art people think their six-year could create. I played him something from Ives' First, which is fairly conventional sounding and my roommate decided maybe the guy knew what he was doing after all. This is the way it is with abstract artists. They have to convince Joe Public they really could draw a straight line if they wanted to, and also a nice landscape.

Anyway, I spent four nights listening to the four numbered symphonies--a miniature Ives Festival. The first night I listened to Ives's Second. Bernstein was doing it. It was a vibrant interpretation, even if it featured a few kitchy bits. Bernstein couldn't quite get what Ives was up to even if he did have more insight into him than most of his contemporaries. This was particularly apparent the fourth night when I listened to the Third. This rendering was extremely metronomic. There was something about it that didn't breathe at all. The tempos all felt wrong: the first movement was too slow, the second was too fast, the third also too fast--but the real problem was that it didn't sound like nostalgia, it sounded like virtuosity and precision. I generally like Lenny, but he ruined my favorite Ives symphony.

Hunting around Youtube, though, you can find some interesting things. For a performance of Ives's First Symphony, I came across an orchestra in Russia. There wasn't any English translation so I don't know who exactly. But they managed to make Ives sound like Tchaikovsky.  The angst was palpable. The tempos were slow, and the aching melodies, which Ives wrote in college for an assignment, were quite profound. I don't know how they found a hugely depressed Russian in the writing of a teenaged American at Yale trying to pull his conservative teacher's leg, but they did--admirably. And they really sold it, too. I was impressed. I found myself ruminating on how Ives really had stolen bits of the Russian symphonist, along with Brahms, Dvorak, and the New England School. And how a translation of a translation doesn't always get you back to where you started, and how people can really misunderstand each other, culturally, but...this was really marvelous. And really wrong. But, hey, why not?

Maybe the most useful thing was when I found the premiere broadcast of the Fourth, conducted by Stokowsky and the American Symphony, complete with twenty minutes of interviews and shmoozing about the piece and how interesting and difficult it was to put everything together in rehearsal. Then I got to see them trying to deal with the gargantuan score, and watch three conductor simultaneously conduct parts of the orchestra at different tempi. Like Ives's music, there were several layers involved here: one was appreciating the way in which the people who put the program together were trying to reach a presumably wary, and uninitiate public.

Ives will probably never be loved as a composer, which is too bad. He did write some good tunes, besides all of the fascinating ways in which he put pre-existing tunes together. I still can't get the Second symphony out of my head, and that was several days ago. Ives was an interesting man, and his music makes me nostalgic for a part of America I never really knew--at least, not entirely. We have some of it in common, though. I grew up singing some of the tunes, in a small town, and watching the marching bands, organists, and other civic music makers. I probably have an inside track.--At least an appreciation for rurality that cosmopolitan orchestral conductors don't always seem to be able to get their heads around. And maybe a sense of humor that doesn't come naturally to them either.

But a "gifted primitive?" Please, Lenny!

as usual, there is more to enjoy this week at, including a recording of Gottschalk's "Union."