Sunday, January 20, 2019

Farewell to my youth: Selling my vinyl

Minor Threat Out of Step EP cover

Over the past couple of weeks I've begun selling my vinyl records. It feels like I'm saying farewell to my youth—although clearly my youth said farewell to me quite a few years ago.

The symbolic meaning of getting rid of my vinyl seems inescapable. My records represent a decade-plus in which I spent literally hundreds of hours haunting used record stores. I did so not because I was a record collector, but because music was such a huge part of how I defined myself. To say goodbye to my records is saying goodbye to the person for whom each record purchase was a vital selection because it expressed a part of who I was, or wanted to be.

Like every addictive substance, vinyl records were expensive. Being perpetually underemployed I could only afford new ones on very rare occasions, so almost always when there was a record I wanted I had to hope to find a used copy. I was also fastidious about condition, which made my search even harder. Fortunately the Bay Area was home to some great record stores: in Berkeley, Rather Ripped, Universal Records and the Mint Platter; in San Francisco, Recycled, Reckless and Streetlight.* (All are now closed.)

I was fortunate to spend my record-hunting years around the time of the emergence of CDs, when vinyl was being significantly devalued. Back then the list price of a new vinyl album was typically $14.98; I generally paid a budget-friendly $3 to $5 for my used finds (about $7.75 to $13 in today's money—then as now about the price of a burrito. Yes, that meant I sometimes sacrificed lunch or dinner to my music habit).

I also sought out a lot of punk and post-punk music that was issued in limited pressings on small labels. Those records, I now discover, have become collector's items. As an example, in 1983 the scene-leading DC hardcore band Minor Threat issued a nine-song 12" EP, Out Of Step. The EP contained an unlisted final track, "Cashing In," that ended with lead singer Ian Mackay singing "There's no place like home. . .so where am I?" It was a moment of naked emotional vulnerability that resonated with my own feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.

On Out Of Step's first pressing that question faded into an echoing silence. But (as I discovered when I brought home my brand-new copy of a later pressing) on subsequent pressings the band added an overdub of an orchestra tuning up. I thought the added orchestra was horribly pretentious and ruined the song. But the first pressing had sold out almost instantly and was unobtainable. So I had to search for nearly two years before I could find a used copy of first pressing (identifiable by its black, blank back cover).

Out Of Step sold for $3 when it was released. Later I bought my used first pressing for $5, which was then the list price for a new copy, but I thought it was worth it to lose the orchestra. I note that the current median sale price for a first pressing of Out Of Step on discogs.com is $325, and one intrepid (or delusional) dealer has a copy listed at $1200.

It's prices like these that have convinced me that we are near the peak of the market for used vinyl. Sure, there are a lot of techies in my town earning six-figure salaries; perhaps they wouldn't think twice about spending $1200 on an easily-damaged artifact of a culture they are too young to have experienced in person. (Not to mention that spending $1200 for this record is antithetical to everything that Minor Threat stood for and expresses in their music.)

But I also suspect that the time of vinyl-as-fetish-object will be coming to an end in the next few years. None of my friends or relatives with kids in their twenties report that they own records (or any physical media), and almost everyone I know that's my age or older is either in the process of getting rid of their records, or got rid of them long ago. They're certainly not buying new ones.

So it seems as though it's primarily people in their 30s who are buying vinyl; will they continue to do so for another decade? I'm thinking not; the disadvantages of vinyl records—they're easily scratched or warped, they're heavy (an album in its sleeve typically weighs half a pound or more), they require a lot of room for storage, they need to be cleaned before and after every play, and they only provide 20 minutes of music at a time—will ultimately spell doom for the vinyl revival.

On the other hand, this is a prediction from a person who didn't think tablet computers would go anywhere, didn't see the point of smart phones, and didn't think that anyone would want to give up ownership of (and resale rights to) their music and movies in place of perpetual subscriptions. So what do I know?

But I've decided to sell my records now not so much because of their renewed value (although that sure makes it easier), but because I've stopped listening to them and need the space that my vinyl collection is taking up. As part of my grieving process I'm going to offer five songs from vinyl albums that I no longer own. Pretty much a random choice, in no particular order:

1. Buzzcocks: "I Don't Mind" from Singles Going Steady (1979). The Buzzcocks wrote songs about romantic misadventures and the minor humiliations of daily life. Instead of turning their anger outward they turned their dismay inward:



"I used to bet that you didn't care / But gambling never got me anywhere / Each time I used to feel so sure / Something about you made me doubt you more."

2. Descendents: "Suburban Home" from Milo Goes to College (1983). What distinguished the Descendents amid the noise and rage of other Southern California hardcore bands was their humor and their ability to write irresistible, almost Buzzcocks-level pop-punk melodies:



"I want to be stereotyped / I want to be classified / I wanna be masochistic / I wanna be a statistic / I wanna be a clone / I want a suburban home."

3. The Smiths: "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" from The Queen Is Dead (1986). In my discussion of lead singer Morrissey's Autobiography (the "biggest disappointment" in my Favorites of 2014: Books), I wrote that The Smiths "gave expression to certain inchoate feelings of loss, regret, and lack of direction in my post-collegiate 20s. Johnny Marr's crystalline guitar was the perfect accompaniment to Morrissey's arch, funny, and bitterly true lyrics":



"Take me out tonight / Where there's music and there's people / Who are young and alive / Take me anywhere / I don't care, I don't care, I don't care."

4. Prince: "Anna Stesia" from Lovesexy (1988). While I never could pretend to (and fortunately never tried to) carry off Prince's air of omnisexual magnetism, his albums were always sonically compelling. Just listen to everything that's going on in this track. And if even Prince felt lonely, perhaps I wasn't as alone as I thought:



"Have you ever been so lonely / That you felt like you were the only / One in this world?"

5. The Velvet Underground: "I Found A Reason" from Loaded (1970). Like many people, I'd guess, I had favorite sides of all my albums, and would often just repeatedly play my favorite side instead of flipping the record over. One thing that would condemn a side to rarely being played was a lame song in the middle (at the beginning or end it could be skipped). I often wished I could take a hot knife and just carve a groove right through the offending track so that I wouldn't have to listen to it ever again.

The second song on Side Two of Loaded was "Lonesome Cowboy Bill." How the band that created "I'll Be Your Mirror," "I Heard Her Call My Name" and "Pale Blue Eyes" could have committed this utter throwaway to vinyl escapes me. (I blame John Cale's replacement Doug Yule.) But its presence on Side Two of Loaded, and that of "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll" on Side One, meant that Side Two almost never got played.

But perhaps a decade after buying this album I rediscovered the second side, and in particular the songs "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" and this one, which despite the smirk in Lou Reed's spoken-word interlude is still delicately beautiful:



"I found a reason to keep living / Oh, and the reason, dear, is you."

My reason to keep living is still the same as it was then, but my musical cravings have shifted. So I'm bidding farewell to my vinyl, and farewell to my younger self. I can only hope that what comes is better than what came before.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Maria Edgeworth: Patronage


"And a letter which I see in this same hand-writing, madam, if you please."—She gave it;—and then, unable to support herself longer, sunk upon a sofa:—
Illustration by W. Harvey from Patronage. Image courtesy Internet Archive

It was one of my vanities, like your not reading Patronage.  
—Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, 1814 [1]
The best-selling novelist of Jane Austen's time wasn't Austen herself, but Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth. As a reflection of Edgeworth's popularity, in 1813 her publisher purchased the copyright of her new novel Patronage for £2100. To place this sum in perspective, Austen's publisher had purchased the copyright of Pride and Prejudice (1813) for £110, while the publisher of Sir Walter Scott's Waverley (1814) bought its copyright for £700. [2]

In her 1815 preface to the third edition of the novel Edgeworth called Patronage "a slight work of fiction" (p. vii); perhaps a small joke, since the book weighed in at four volumes and more than 1600 pages. Patronage is Edgeworth's longest and most elaborately plotted novel; this may be why Cassandra Austen could not be convinced to attempt it.

As you may suspect from its size, Patronage is stuffed, if not overstuffed, with characters and plot twists. The novel centers on the travails of the Percy family: a shipwreck, a fire, a lost deed and the underhanded machinations of a scheming relative and his unscrupulous attorney cause them to lose their estate and sink into genteel poverty. This, of course, has an immediate effect on the marriage prospects of the two Percy daughters: Caroline, the elder and wiser, and Rosamond, the younger and more romantic.

If the sudden loss of a family fortune affecting the prospects of two daughters with different temperaments sounds at all familiar to readers of Sense and Sensibility (1811), there may be a reason. According to scholar Marilyn Butler, Patronage was initially based on stories recounted to Edgeworth by her father in 1788 and 1789. [3] But the novel was extensively reworked between 1811 and 1813, and Edgeworth may have known of Austen's novel.


She was going towards the house, and did not perceive the young ladies till they were close to her. She turned suddenly when they spokestartedlooked frightened and
confused;—
Illustration by W. Harvey from Patronage. Image courtesy Internet Archive.

Unlike the second Mrs. Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, the Percy family also has sons, and the loss of the family's standing affects their careers as well. Godfrey is a captain in the army, Alfred has chosen the law, and Erasmus has become a physician. In each field of endeavor having family connections eases advancement, but like most of Edgeworth's fictions, Patronage was intended to convey a moral lesson: to show the virtuousness of those who, "independently of patronage, advance themselves permanently by their own merit." (p. vi)

However, readers are to be forgiven if they draw entirely different conclusions from Edgeworth's narrative. After Mr. Percy decodes a secret document that unveils a conspiracy against the statesman Lord Oldborough, the grateful politician repeatedly uses his influence to benefit the Percy family. At Godfrey's request Oldborough has a worthy friend of Godfrey's promoted to head his regiment. Oldborough also sends much legal business Alfred's way (after first assuring himself of Alfred's competence and discretion, of course). Meanwhile, Erasmus is able to set up a medical practice thanks to his enthusiastic recommendation by the rich merchant Mr. Panton to his equally rich friends. And finally, when the marriage of Alfred's sister to Lord Oldborough's loyal secretary Mr. Temple is delayed when Temple's promised new position doesn't provide as much money as he'd hoped,
Mr. Temple told his friend and master what had delayed his marriage, and why he had hitherto forborne to trouble him on the subject. Lord Oldborough, astonished and indignant. . .applied directly to the highest authority. The consequence was that a place double the value of that which had been promised was given to Mr. Temple. . . (Ch. XLIII)
At every stage the influence of the rich and powerful makes a decisive difference in the lives of the Percys and their deserving friends. In a telling exchange early in the novel, Mr. Percy discusses the question of patronage with the cravenly obsequious Mr. Falconer:
"I have endeavoured to give my Alfred and Erasmus such an education as shall enable them honestly to work their own way to eminence."

"A friend’s helping hand is no bad thing," said Mr. Falconer, "in that hard and slippery ascent." 

"As many friends, as many helping hands, in a fair way, as you please," said Mr. Percy: "I by no means would inculcate the anti-social, absurd, impossible doctrine, that young men, or any men, can or ought to be independent of the world. Let my sons make friends for themselves, and enjoy the advantage of mine. I object only to their becoming dependent, wasting the best years of their lives in a miserable, debasing servitude to patrons—to patrons, who at last may perhaps capriciously desert them at their utmost need." (Ch. XII)
This somewhat fine argument—that preferment by the powerful is good when exercised for the advantage of the deserving, but pernicious otherwise—was widely assumed at the time of the novel's publication to be the work of Edgeworth's father, the educator Richard Lovell Edgeworth. In Maria's preface to the third edition, she was careful to address these rumors: "It has been supposed that some parts of PATRONAGE were not written by Miss Edgeworth. This is not fact: the whole of these volumes were written by her, the opinions they contain are her own, and she is answerable for all the faults which may be found in them." (p. vi)

Faults indeed were found, both in the descriptions of legal and medical proceedings and in the details of the plot. In the first published version of the novel Mr. Percy is imprisoned for a claimed debt on the wedding day of his daughter, who rather than leaving on honeymoon with her new husband instead accompanies her father to jail. In response to readers' objections this incident was eventually eliminated, but not until the Collected Edition of Edgeworth's novels published in 1825.

The 1825 edition also addressed another reader complaint: the novel's sheer length. For the new edition Edgeworth's half-sisters Honora and Harriet, with her approval, cut about 35,000 words—over twelve percent of the original total. This shorter and substantially revised edition became the basis of most subsequent versions.

Contemporary readers also thought that some characters were based on real-life figures, including Lord Oldborough (Sir Robert Walpole) and the King. But despite the protestations of Edgeworth and her father to the contrary, there was indeed a character who was based on a real person: Count Altenberg (German for "ancient mountain"), whose steadfast love for Caroline Percy meets with obstacle after obstacle.


She endeavoured to go on, but her voice falteredher colour changed. Rosamond, whose quick eye followed her sister’s, [instantly caught a glimpse of a gentleman coming up the path from the glen. Rosamond started from her seat, and clasping her hands, exclaimed, "It is! It is he!—It is Count Altenberg!"]
Illustration by W. Harvey from Patronage. Image courtesy Internet Archive.

Count Albert Altenberg was based on the Chevalier Abraham Niclas Clewberg-Edelcrantz, a Swedish courtier, writer and inventor, whom Edgeworth had encountered while in Paris with her father in the fall of 1802. On December 3 Edgeworth was writing to her father's sister, Margaret Ruxton, when she had to put down her pen to greet a visitor who was asking to see her:
. . .Here, my dear aunt, I was interrupted in a manner that will surprise you almost as much as it surprised me, by the coming in of Monsieur Edelcrantz, a Swedish gentleman, whom we have mentioned to you, of superior understanding & mild manners: he came to offer me his hand and heart!!
My heart, you may suppose, cannot return his attachment, for I have seen but very little of him, and have not had time to have formed any judgment, except that I think nothing could tempt me to leave my own dear friends and my own country to live in Sweden. . . [4]
Edgeworth remained steadfast in her refusal, but with the passage of time perhaps regretted her decision not to marry. In November 1810 she wrote her cousin Sophy Ruxton about a conversation Sophy had had with George Knox, a family friend who had just visited Sweden and met with Edelcrantz:
I hope my dear S—indeed I am confident that when Mr K asked why I did not marry Edle [sic] you answered so as to preclude the possibility of his blaming my father for what was my fault—If I had known my own mind—but that's past and there is no use in thinking of it—except to make myself wretched & ill—which for the sake of myself and my friends I never will do more. [5]
The portrait of Count Altenberg in Patronage certainly suggests that in the intervening years Edgeworth had idealized Chevalier Edelcrantz. Count Altenberg is a paragon of manly virtues: he is described as handsome, polite, charming, agreeable, entertaining, and eloquent; he is discreet, a good dancer, a lover of theater, and a good judge of men's (and women's) qualities of mind and character.

It is this picture of Count Altenberg that may have been one of the reasons for Austen's approval of Patronage—he bears a striking resemblance to Sir Charles Grandison, the exemplary hero of one of her favorite novels. Austen may also have been drawn to Edgeworth's rich cast of characters: the stern but fundamentally good-hearted Lord Oldborough; the scheming Mrs. Falconer and her coquettish daughters Isabella and Georgiana; the upright Mr. Percy and his sons; Rosamond Percy, who in her vivacity and impetuosity is reminiscent of Marianne Dashwood; and Caroline Percy, whose calm, rational surface conceals deep feeling.
The accomplishments, good sense, and exalted sentiments of Count Altenberg, and the marked attentions he had paid her, had made an unusual impression on the mind of Caroline. He had never declared his love, but involuntarily it had betrayed itself on several occasions. Insensibly Caroline was thus led to feel for him more than she dared to avow even to herself, when the sudden change in his manner awakened her from this delightful forgetfulness of every object that was unconnected with her new feelings, and suddenly arrested her steps as she seemed entering the paradise of love and hope.

At night, when they were retiring to rest, and Caroline and Rosamond were in their mother’s room, Rosamond, unable longer to keep her prudent silence, gave vent to her indignation against Count Altenberg in general reflections upon the fickleness of man. Even men of the best understanding were, she said, but children of a larger growth—pleased with change—preferring always the newest to the fairest, or the best. Caroline did not accede to these accusations.

Rosamond, astonished and provoked, exclaimed, "Is it possible that you are so blind as not to see that Count Altenberg—" Rosamond stopped short, for she saw Caroline’s colour change. She stood beside her mother motionless, and with her eyes fixed on the ground. Rosamond moved a chair towards her.

"Sit down, my dear love," said her mother, tenderly taking Caroline’s hand—"sit down and compose yourself."

"My dear mother, you required one, and but one promise from me—I gave it you, firmly intending to keep it; and yet I fear that you will think I have broken it. I promised to tell you whenever I felt the first symptom of preference for any person. I did not know my own mind till this day. Indeed I thought I felt nothing but what every body else expressed, esteem and admiration."

"In common minds," replied Mrs. Percy, "esteem and admiration may be very safely distant from love; but in such a mind as yours, Caroline, the step from perfect esteem to love is dangerously near—scarcely perceptible."

"Why dangerously?" cried Rosamond: "why should not perfect love follow perfect esteem? that is the very thing I desire for Caroline. I am sure he is attached to her, and he is all we could wish for her, and—"

"Stop!" cried Caroline. "Oh! my dear sister! as you wish me to be good and happy, name him to me no more—for it cannot be."

"Why?" exclaimed Rosamond, with a look of dismay: "Why cannot it be? It can, it must—it shall be."

Caroline sighed, and turning from her sister, as if she dreaded to listen to her, she repeated, "No;—I will not flatter myself—I see that it cannot be—I have observed the change in his manner. The pain it gave me first awakened me to the state of my own affections. . .Mother, I beg it as a favour that you will take me away from this place—this place, where but yesterday I thought myself so happy!" (Ch. XXIX)
Patronage may be overlong, overelaborately plotted, dubious in some of its details, and contradictory in its message. But even in a novel that doesn't always match the standard set by Belinda or Helen, scenes such as this one show Edgeworth's keen insight into the painful uncertainties of the heart.

For more on Maria Edgeworth, please see:


All quotes from Patronage in this post are taken from The Novels of Maria Edgeworth in Twelve Volumes. Vol. VII-VIII: Patronage. J. M. Dent, 1893.
  1. Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, Tuesday 23 - Wednesday 24 August 1814. http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/brablt13.html#letter75
  2. Reported in Marilyn Butler, Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography, Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. 490-493. In all cases, purchasing the copyright entitled the publisher to all profits from the sale of the book. As it turned out, although Patronage went through three editions in the course of two years, the publisher, Rowland Hunter, claimed to have lost money on the transaction.
  3. Butler, pp. 155-156. There are even more specific parallels with Sense and Sensibility: the younger and more romantic sister is courted in turn by a young man who has a history of seduction and indebtedness (like Willoughby) and a man who is kind and wealthy, but old enough to be her father (like Colonel Brandon). The older sister's potential suitor, we learn, may be engaged to another woman (like Edward Ferrars).
  4. Quoted in Butler, pp. 192-193.
  5. Quoted in Butler, p. 217.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Favorites of 2018: Movies and television

Favorite films of 2018

In 2018 we cut way back on our viewing, so this short list of favorites is drawn from a total of only about 30 films. And as always my choices were made from films first seen (but not necessarily first released) in the past twelve months or so. We were underwhelmed by a number of movies that lots of other people seemed to love, including The Red Turtle (2017), Academy-Award-winner The Shape of Water (2017), and Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs (2017), so you'll notice that only one of my favorites is a recent film.

Loving Vincent (2017; written by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, and Jacek Dehnel, and directed by Kobiela and Welchman)


An exploration of the mystery of the final days of Vincent Van Gogh, animated in the style of his paintings. Loving Vincent's visuals vividly render the sensation of swirling motion and psychic turmoil we have when viewing Van Gogh's late work.

I'm somewhat amazed that no one had thought of doing this before, but perhaps an explanation is provided by the daunting technique involved: each of the film's tens of thousands of frames is an individual oil painting. Most scenes are based on specific Van Gogh subjects, but some evoke the photographs of Van Gogh's contemporary Eugène Atget. If the stunning animation overshadows the film's narrative, perhaps that's as it should be—leaving us not with any neat explanations of Van Gogh's tragedy (the film acknowledges that none are possible), but with a renewed sense of wonder at his achievement.

Here is a short documentary describing the process of making the film, narrated by its co-writer, -director and -producer Hugh Welchman:




Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966) and A Report on the Party and Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, 1966)


These two films were both co-written by Ester Krumbachová, a major figure of the Czech New Wave.  

Daisies follows two young women, Marie I and Marie II, as they gleefully violate many of the societal restrictions on women relating to public behavior, food, alcohol, and sex. The two Maries ultimately discover that every rebellion provokes a powerful reaction, and that for women especially, conformity can be deadly.

A Report on the Party and the Guests portrays the subtly shifting dynamics among a group of friends on a picnic in the countryside when they are confronted by an ominous gang of men. Then the men's superior shows up and informs them that it's all been a mistake; the men were sent to invite the group to his al fresco birthday party. A party that everyone is forced to attend becomes a brilliant analogy for political life under the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, and when one of the group tries to leave, the mask of benign paternalism comes off. . .

Both films are essential viewing. For more, along with a discussion of the Krumbachová-written film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), please see Ester Krumbachová: Three films of the Czech New Wave.

Nayak (The Hero, 1966; written and directed by Satyajit Ray)


After a drunken nightclub brawl and the unwelcome news that his latest film has flopped, Bengali matinée idol Arindam Mukherjee (played by Bengali matinée idol Uttam Kumar) decides it's time to get out of town. But instead of providing distance from his problems, his trip will bring him face-to-face with the increasingly cynical and opportunistic choices that have brought him to this crisis. In his dark night of the soul, Arindam recognizes how empty and unprincipled he has become—but also how many others are struggling in a corrupt and pitiless world. In Nayak, as in his many other masterpieces, Ray offers no easy answers.

For more, please see Nayak: The Hero

Favorite television of 2018

Doctor Thorne (2016)


When Julian Fellowes' adaptation of Anthony Trollope's novel aired on Britain's ITV, The Guardian's Viv Groskop called it "a carnival of cleavage." Add magnificent gowns, elegant interiors, lush greenswards, a literate script and excellent actors, and the appeal of this series to a fan of period drama shouldn't be too mysterious.

The late Jenny Diski wrote of Fellowes, "These purveyors of escapist fantasies of love and landed wealth come directly from the social world and political party that talks compulsively of 'honest, hard-working families' while giving us austerity and cuts in public spending for most, and tax breaks for the already wealthy and overpaid."

Diski is right to point out the grotesque hypocrisies of the ruling class to which Baron Fellowes belongs. But Trollope's Doctor Thorne is anything but a comforting escapist fantasy. It depicts a social and economic system in which two young people who love each other are kept apart because they can't afford to marry. Mary (Stefanie Martini), the ward of Doctor Thorne (Tom Hollander), will likely live out her days alone in abject poverty, while the local landowner's son, Frank Gresham (Harry Richardson), is faced with becoming a fortune hunter and contracting a loveless marriage for financial gain. The inheritance that would enable Mary and Frank to escape these fates is so improbable that it functions as its own critique. So if indeed Fellowes is nostalgic for the heyday of the landed gentry, he chose the wrong vehicle to convey those sentiments.
 
For more, please see Doctor Thorne.

Mr. Selfridge (2013-2016)


A young woman comes from the provinces to the capital city to make her way in the world, and finds a job in a new kind of retail establishment: a department store. At the store—filled with a cornucopia of tempting consumer goods—she must sell to wealthy customers luxuries she will never be able to afford herself. Her immediate female supervisor is strict and severe (and possibly jealous of her youth and beauty). But the store owner is impressed by her ideas (and by her youth and beauty) and becomes her secret ally. The owner is advised by a competent and upright accountant, as well as by a right-hand man who is sometimes skeptical of his boss's radically innovative schemes. Meanwhile, the young woman is courted by her brash male co-workers—but she's looking for a partner who shares her sensibility and ambitions.

If you are a regular reader of E & I, all this may sound quite familiar. In my Favorites of 2016: Movies and Television I included the BBC series The Paradise (2012-2013), based on Emile Zola's novel Au bonheur des dames (The Ladies' Paradise, 1883). It's a wonderful series about the founding of a department store and the (sometimes catastrophic) effects it has on the social and economic fabric of its community.

The ITV series Mr. Selfridge, despite being created by the excellent writer Andrew Davies from (it's clear) the same source material, is not quite as engaging. The series is about the founding of Selfridges, a real-life London department store. The social dimension that is a key focus of the earlier BBC series is only background in the ITV series. And when there is a Mr. Selfridge episode that focuses on larger social questions, as in an episode that deals with the women's suffrage movement, it often falsely back-projects 21st-century attitudes onto its characters.

Also, Harry Selfridge is a far less complicated figure than The Paradise's predatory John Moray. Yes, Harry is a womanizer, but he is also open, aboveboard, always wants the best for everyone, and knows that the answer to every question raised by consumerism is more consumerism (and the series takes his point of view). Far more than The Paradise, Mr. Selfridge is a period-piece soap opera—and only grows more so in the third and fourth seasons.

Nonetheless, the characters are sympathetic, especially Harry's wife Rose (Frances O'Connor), gone by the end of the second season, and the shopgirl Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus) and her mentor, designer Henri Leclair (Grégory Fitoussi), both gone by the middle of the third season. The series spans two decades, from the Edwardian era to the Roaring 20s, and the sumptuous period sets and costumes are also enjoyable eye-candy.

But in the third season the one-dimensional villain Lord Loxley (Aidan McArdle) and Harry's self-regarding son-in-law Serge de Bolotoff (Leon Ockenden) have quickly grown tiresome. This may sound like I'm damning the series with faint praise, but we're hoping that the appearance of the Dolly Sisters (Zoe Richards and Emma Hamilton) and the return of the witty Lady Mae Loxley (Katherine Kelly) will liven things up in the fourth and final season.

Joni Mitchell: A Woman of Heart and Mind (American Masters, 2003)


Susan Lacy's documentary traces Joni Mitchell's life and work from her mid-1960s beginnings singing as Joni Anderson in Calgary coffeehouses, through her 1970s heyday and her subsequent fall from pop music favor. Lacy has tracked down some rare photographs and film and television footage, and interviewed many of her colleagues, collaborators and former lovers. Even if you think you aren't interested in Mitchell or her music, her determination to explore her own path in the face of what seem at times to be insurmountable difficulties is compelling.

Both Zadie Smith and I have had to radically rethink our responses to Joni Mitchell's music; for more, please read Attunement: Conversion experiences.

Biggest disappointment

Our reduced viewing schedule didn't permit us enough time to see more than a few Bollywood films. We did manage to watch Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat (2018). But despite the presence of three E & I favorites in the cast (Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor), the excellent music and SLB's stunning production design, the film felt like an overlong and schematic ISIS allegory. (The black-clad, black-flag-waving Muslim horde treacherously stabs the Rajasthani hero in the back—and yes, I do mean literally.)

So Padmaavat's heavy-handed script was our biggest disappointment of 2018. But did I mention the excellent music and stunning production design? Here is "Ghoomar," picturized on Deepika Padukone, choreographed by Kruti Mahesh Midya and sung by Shreya Ghoshal:



As you may have already seen, an utterly unexpected appearance by Shreya Ghoshal was one of my favorite live performances of 2018.

More Favorites of 2018:

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Favorites of 2018: Recordings


Kindra Scharich with the Alexander String Quartet. Photos: Jiyang Chen (Kindra Scharich), Rory Earnshaw (ASQ)

Recordings 

My favorite recordings first heard in 2018:

Kindra Scharich and the Alexander String Quartet: In Meinem Himmel: The Mahler Song Cycles (FoghornClassics)

This recording has hardly left our CD player since it was first issued a few weeks ago. (For people who prefer digital media, it is also available in CD-quality and high-resolution downloads.) Scharich's pure, clear soprano is exquisite, and the string quartet transcriptions by ASQ first violinist Zakarias Grafilo offer both intimacy and richness of sound. Although Scharich can rise to dramatic heights, as in "Ich hab' ein glühend Messer" (I have a red-hot knife in my breast), she does not over-emote: she allows the (often quietly devastating) meanings of these songs to be conveyed by the music and words. She also uses vibrato lightly, as an expressive technique, so that her voice blends beautifully with the quartet. If you already know Mahler's songs these versions will let you hear them anew; if you are unfamiliar, they are a great place to start. Lovely and moving; a triumph for all involved.

From the Rückert-Lieder, "Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!"



Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!

Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!
Im Zimmer stand
Ein Zweig der Linde,
Ein Angebinde
Von lieber Hand.
Wie lieblich war der Lindenduft!

Wie lieblich ist der Lindenduft!
Das Lindenreis
Brachst du gelinde!
Ich atme leis'
Im Duft der Linde
Der Liebe linden Duft.
I breathed in the scent of linden

I breathed in the scent of linden!
In the room stood
a sprig of linden,
a gift
from a dear hand.
How lovely was the linden scent!

How lovely is the linden scent!
That twig of linden
you broke off so gently!
Softly I breathe in
the scent of linden,
the lovely scent of linden.

Vicente Martín y Soler: Una cosa rara. Montserrat Figueras and other soloists, with Le Concert des Nations conducted by Jordi Savall (Astrée)

The most popular composer by far in Vienna during the time of Mozart wasn't Mozart. It was Vicente Martín y Soler, and Una Cosa Rara (A rare thing, or Beauty and faithfulness, 1786) was his most successful opera by far.

As the Savall recording shows, Cosa rara is full of excellent music that echoes Mozart's earlier Le Nozze di Figaro and anticipates his later Don Giovanni. The conventional narrative has been that Mozart's genius condescended to Martín's mere talent. This recording complicates that story by revealing that Mozart borrowed significant compositional ideas from Martín.

The erotic duet that inflamed Viennese audiences, "Pace, caro mio sposo":



Read more about the opera: A Rare Thing: Vicente Martin y Soler's Una Cosa Rara

Prima la musica, poi le parole and Der Schauspieldirektor. Roberta Alexander and other soloists, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec)

In February 1786 the Emperor Joseph II staged a contest between Italian opera buffa and German Singspiel (literally "singing play": arias interspersed with spoken dialogue). Representing Italian comedy with Prima la musica, poi le parole (First the music, then the words) was the music director of the court's Italian opera company, Antonio Salieri; representing the German Singspiel with Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) was a promising young composer, Wolfgang Mozart. Both works are operas about producing an opera, and both feature the rivalry of two sopranos, one serious and tragic, and the other light and comic.

This recording was produced in the early days of CDs, and the excerpts were clearly chosen so that each opera would fit on one side of a vinyl album. All of the spoken dialogue in Der Schauspieldirektor was cut; Prima la musica lost most of its recitative, as well as several arias. But what remains is highly enjoyable. Here is Salieri's parody of a prima donna's aria, "Lá tu vedrai chi sono" (There you shall see who I am), and as Donna Eleonora, Roberta Alexander's voice has a remarkable range:



This sounds not unlike "Come scoglio," a parody of a prima donna's aria Mozart included four years later in Così fan tutte. Nothing was lost on Mozart. . .

Handel: Saul. Featuring soloists with the Glyndebourne Chorus and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Ivor Bolton, directed by Barrie Kosky (Opus Arte)

We regretted that the timing of our Glyndebourne trip this summer did not allow us to see the revival of this production of Handel's oratorio Saul (1739). Fortunately the original production from 2015 is available on video. It boasts an excellent cast (Christopher Purves, Iestyn Davies, Lucy Crowe and Sophie Bevan) and the striking stage images of director Barrie Kosky and designer Katrin Lea Tag.

The libretto by Charles Jennens (who a few years later fashioned the libretto for Messiah) tells the story of the Israelite king Saul, who is at first grateful to David for saving his kingdom by slaying the Philistine giant Goliath. But soon Saul's gratitude turns to envy, and then to murderous madness. Saul's hatred ultimately redounds on Saul himself and his son Jonathan.

In the opening chorus "How excellent thy name, O Lord," David (Iestyn Davies), in post-traumatic shock after his battle with Goliath, is hailed by Saul and the Israelites—and yes, that is Goliath's severed head downstage center:



Kosky clothes many of the singers in 18th-century-style costumes; the madness of Saul thus cleverly evokes the madness of King George III, who had acceded to the British throne six months before Saul's premiere. On the music blog Bachtrack David Karlin has written, "When you go to a Barrie Kosky production, you know you’re going to get something theatrical, something to astonish you, something brimming with ideas—whether or not you agree with them." I'm usually allergic to Regietheatrical interventions; the ideas of most directors are impoverished compared to those of the composer and librettist. But to my surprise, I found myself completely engaged by Kosky's staging. Saul shows that Regietheater doesn't always have to involve a crime committed against the work.

The Vivaldi Edition returns:

Dorilla in Tempe, soloists with I Barocchisti conducted by Diego Fasolis (Naïve)
Il Giustino, soloists with Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone (Naïve)

Yes, it's cheating to include two full-length operas in one capsule review. But the Vivaldi Edition, on hiatus since 2014, issued these two splendid recordings over the past twelve months—a most welcome return. They are also nicely contrasted. Dorilla in Tempe (1734) puts its pastoral lovers through a wringer of misunderstandings, jealousies and betrayals before everything is sorted out for the happy ending. Il Giustino (1724) follows the martial rise of the peasant Giustino (Delphine Galou) to the throne of the Byzantine Empire, with bear attacks, shipwrecks, sea monsters, prison escapes, and ghostly apparitions in between.

These new entries maintain the high standard set by the Vivaldi Edition. They feature emerging and established singers such as Romina Basso (Dorilla), Emöke Barath, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, and Delphine Galou (all Giustino), vivid conducting and virtuosic period-instrument ensembles; the recorded sound and the packaging are also first rate. As an added bonus, both operas re-use melodic material from Vivadi's most popular work, Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons).

Here is a Delphine Galou performing Giustino's aria "Bel riposo de' mortali" from the first act of Il Giustino:



Bel riposo de' mortali

Bel riposo de' mortali
Su quest'occhi spiega l'ali,
Dolce sonno, e vieni a me.
Lovely repose of mortals

Lovely repose of mortals,
Over my eyes spread your wings,
Sweet sleep, and come to me.

Some of the previous entries in the Vivaldi Edition are now unavailable in CD format. So if (like us) you're still wedded to the physical, don't hesitate to pick these up right away.

More Favorites of 2018:

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Favorites of 2018: Live performances


Soprano Aura Veruni, Ifigenia in Ars Minerva's Ifigenia in Aulide. Photo: Olivier Allard

Live performances

We're incredibly fortunate to live in a place where so many wonderful musical events are available to us. What follows are brief descriptions of a dozen favorite live performances from 2018: five that haven't already been discussed on this blog, followed by links to my posts about another seven that I've already written about. And limiting myself to a choice of a dozen was arbitrary; the list could easily have been much longer. In chronological order:

Capella Romana: 12 Days of Christmas in the East (St. Ignatius Cathedral, San Francisco, January 7)

On Epiphany in the festively decorated St. Ignatius Cathedral, Capella Romana performed ancient and modern compositions for the Christmas season from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. One of the things that I find especially powerful about Byzantine chant is that even at its most celebratory there is always a mournful undercurrent. It is as though in the midst of joy we are being reminded of the inevitability of suffering—also the theme of my favorite Christmas carols.

From the concert we attended, Capella Romana performing "Prokeimenon for the 1st of January":

 

This year Capella Romana will be performing concert series in Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco.

Shreya Ghoshal, Bollywood Song and Dance with Dhaval and Gunjan and friends (San Francisco Public Library, March 3)

It was advertised simply as "Bollywood," buried in small print in the San Francisco Public Library's monthly newsletter of events; some digging brought me to this blog post, which invited us to "come sing along with the greatest melodies of all time" on a Saturday afternoon at the main branch of the library.

When I arrived the event was in full swing. There was a modest but appreciative audience of about 75 people watching Indian film songs being performed karaoke-style to synthesized versions of the original music. But then a woman was invited up on stage; I wasn't able to catch her name. She announced her thanks that she had been given permission to perform the next song to the actual music from the film soundtrack. I fleetingly wondered how it was that she had access to the original soundtrack without the vocal; and as she performed, the song and her voice sounded familiar:



It wasn't until I got home and popped in a DVD or two that I confirmed that, in a basement auditorium at my local public library, I had just seen a performance by the playback singer Shreya Ghoshal. If you aren't a Bollywood fan, perhaps you don't realize how improbable that is. For her singing Shreya Ghoshal has won four National Film Awards, six Filmfare Awards, and nine Filmfare Awards South (the Filmfare Awards are often described as the Indian equivalent of the Oscars). She has performed on the soundtracks of something like 500 films. [1]

Here is the filmed version of "Mohe Rang Do Laal" from Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Bajirao Mastani (2014), picturized on Deepika Padukone and sung by Shreya Ghoshal:



(The live performance video excerpt picks up around the 2:51 mark of the film version.) Even through the public library's sound system Shreya Ghoshal sounded great; what a privilege to be able to see her in such an intimate setting.

Rodelinda (San Francisco Conservatory of Music, March 11)

The SF Conservatory of Music Opera and Musical Theatre Program is a wonderful resource for Bay Area music lovers. We get to see talented young singers on the verge of professional careers perform in fully- or semi-staged productions accompanied by a full orchestra of talented young players on the verge of professional careers—all for free or a very low cost. And the programming by director Jose Maria Condemi and his SFCM faculty collaborators is adventurous, featuring lots of Baroque, 20th-century and contemporary opera along with excellent Broadway shows like Urinetown and Sondheim's Company.

The Spring 2018 production was Handel's Rodelinda (1725), one of his greatest works. Rodelinda is the widowed queen of Lombardy, who is sexually blackmailed by Grimoaldo, her husband Bertarido's usurper and murderer. To force Rodelinda to yield to him, Grimoaldo threatens her son, and she spends most of the opera either in sorrow or defiance. But is her husband Bertarido really dead. . .?

Handel wrote some of his most beautiful arias for Rodelinda. To give you a taste, here is Sophie Daneman performing the opening aria, "Ho perduto il caro sposo" (I have lost my beloved husband), accompanied by the Raglan Baroque Players conducted by Nicholas Kraemer:



At SFCM soprano Karen Notovitz gave a lovely, moving performance as Rodelinda, with excellent support by Matheus Coura (Bertarido), James Hogan (Grimoaldo), and the other members of the cast. In a year that for us was filled with great opera productions, Rodelinda is still a vivid memory.

Mark Morris Dance Group: Pepperland (Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, September 28)

The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is not the best rock album ever recorded. It's not even the best rock album released in 1967: that would be The Velvet Underground & Nico, which came out two months before Sgt. Pepper (and which had been recorded almost a year previously). [2]

But of course Sgt. Pepper is a pop culture landmark, and last year Mark Morris was commissioned by the City of Liverpool to do a piece commemorating the album's 50th anniversary. As he said in a preconcert talk, "I misunderstood enough [of the project] to be interested in it." He was apparently intended to choreograph a piece to one song, and instead wound up doing most of the album. The Mark Morris Dance Group performs only to live music these days, so Morris in turn asked Ethan Iverson to re-imagine six songs from the album, and also compose some interstitial music to bridge the Sgt. Pepper sections. For Pepperland Iverson's group The Bad Plus (keyboards, brass, percussion and theremin) was the pit band.

Iverson's versions are recognizable but deliberately a bit askew, to enable us to hear this overfamiliar music with fresh ears. For "When I'm Sixty-Four" he sets the familiar melody over cross-rhythms of 4/4, 5/4 and (yes) 6/4. This being a Mark Morris piece, different groups of dancers moved in sync with each of the rhythms at the same time, to hilarious effect. I will never hear that song in the same way again. Elizabeth Kurtzman's costumes applied the spectrum of bright solid colors from the brass-band jackets worn by the Beatles on the album cover to clothes evoking the clean lines of Swinging London designers such as Mary Quant. As Morris also said during that preconcert talk, "I'm not interested in nostalgia. I'm interested in history."

The result was utterly delightful. Here is a brief excerpt of the "Allegro" section, which bridged "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Within You Without You":




Ars Minerva, Giovanni Porta's Ifigenia in Aulide (ODC Theater, December 1)

In the 18th century opera seria productions required the best singers and instrumentalists in the world (not to mention the best stage and costume designers and state-of-the-art theaters). Only kings and princes had enough money to sponsor opera seria, and at times even their resources weren't enough: in London in the 1730s both Handel's opera company and its rival the Opera of the Nobility went bankrupt.

I mention this to put the achievement of Ars Minerva in perspective. This fall the group, led by indefatigable Artistic Director Céline Ricci, revived Giovanni Porta's Ifigenia in Aulide, an opera seria that had not been performed in full since its premiere in 1738. For a group without the deep pockets of a major opera company to take on this task is itself astonishing; that Ars Minerva did so successfully is simply staggering.

Ifigenia in Aulide takes place just before the Trojan War. The Greek ships, massed to attack Troy, are becalmed in port after the Greek king Agamemnon kills a deer sacred to the goddess Artemis. The oracle of the gods demands the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, before favorable winds will blow. In some versions of the story Iphigenia is sacrificed; in others, Artemis descends in a cloud, rescues Iphigenia and takes her to the island of Tauris. The libretto of Apostolo Zeno for Ifigenia offers a third version that enables the "happy ending" traditional in opera seria, but which unusually retains aspects of tragedy: another character dies in place of Ifigenia. [3]

Ifigenia is remarkable not only for its semi-tragic libretto but for its music, which also defies convention. Opera seria is often thought to be highly formalized, a series of solo da capo arias after which each singer in turn exits the stage. [4] But in Act II, Ifigenia (the superb Aura Veruni) begins an angry aria addressed to Achilles (Céline Ricci), who she thinks has fallen in love with the captive Elisena (Cara Gabrielson). Ifigenia is so hurt that she abruptly leaves the stage after the first section of her aria. Achilles immediately takes up her melody and in essence completes her aria—a striking moment that suggests that, despite the breach between the characters, they are growing emotionally closer.

Porta also disrupts our expectations early in Act III, where Agamennone (a commanding Nikola Printz), Clitennestra (a fierce Shawnette Sulker) and Ifigenia sing a moving trio; in opera seria ensembles are usually placed only at the end of an act. But this trio dramatically symbolizes the situation of Ifigenia, torn between her father's demands for sacrifice and her mother's pleas to escape.

And although Porta is not nearly as well known today as his younger contemporaries Vivaldi and Handel, he wrote some beautiful music for Ifigenia. Especially notable for me were Agamennone's aria immediately following the Act III trio, in which he expresses the inner conflict he can't reveal to his daughter or wife, and Ifigenia's aria "Madre diletta, abbracciami" (Dearest mother, embrace me), in which, as her sacrifice looms, she tries to comfort her anguished mother.

Here is Joyce DiDonato performing "Madre diletta," accompanied by Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis:



Incidentally, Ars Minerva's performance was described in the program as semi-staged. But the setting of each scene was distinguished by Nicole Spencer Carreira's evocative projections and Jack Beuttler's atmospheric lighting, the singers were wearing Matthew Nash's postmodern costumes, and they interacted with a dramatic intensity focussed by Ricci's stage direction. She employed the clever device of a robed and masked silent Greek chorus from which characters would emerge and to which they would then return. I've seen fully staged operas in which the singers were less engaged with one another and the stage movement was less integral to the drama.

Ars Minerva should be enthusiastically applauded for the excellence of Ifigenia's musical values: the fine cast (especially the leading quartet of Veruni, Printz, Sulker and Ricci) and accompanying 10-piece orchestra led by conductor and harpsichordist Derek Tam and concertmistress Cynthia Black. But it is close to miraculous that on a tight budget Ricci and her colleagues were able to realize such an ambitious and thoughtfully-staged production. Bravi tutti!

Seven additional favorite performances that I've already written about, in chronological order:



Dorothea Röschmann and Malcolm Martineau (Cal Performances, Hertz Hall, February 16): A magnificent recital by these two artists that included unforgettable performances of four great song sequences: Schubert's Four Mignon Lieder, Mahler's Rückert-Lieder, Schumann's Maria Stuart Lieder, and Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder.




Dido and Aeneas, with Mindy Ella Chu (Dido), Jesse Blumberg (Aeneas), the SF Girls' Chorus and Voices of Music (Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, First Congregational Church, June 7): Collaborating with SF Girls Chorus on this semi-staged version of Purcell's great opera was a stroke of genius on the part of Voices of Music codirectors Hanneke van Proosdij and David Tayler; after all, the opera was premiered at a girls' boarding school.



Cesare (Sarah Connolly), Cleopatra (Joélle Harvey), and members of the Glyndebourne Chorus in Giulio Cesare. Photo: Glyndebourne.com

Der Rosenkavalier and Giulio Cesare (Glyndebourne Festival Opera, June 19 and 20) Striking productions of two of our favorite operas at Glyndebourne, a place we never dreamed we'd actually be able to attend.



Charles Sy (Agenore), Cheyanne Coss (Aminta), Patricia Westley (Elisa), Zhengyi Bai (Alessandro), and Simone Macintosh (Tamiri) in the Merola Opera Program's Il Re Pastore. Photo: Kristen Loken/Merola

Il Re Pastore (Merola Opera Program, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, July 21): A playful production of a rarely-performed opera by the teenaged Mozart, crisply conducted by Boston Early Music Festival co-artistic-director Stephen Stubbs and superbly sung by its young cast.



Juyeon Song and Roy Cornelius Smith in Act II of Tristan und Isolde. Photo: David Perea/Claude Heater Foundation

Tristan und Isolde (Claude Heater Foundation, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, August 26): A pickup orchestra under conductor Jonathan Khuner and a group of singers unknown to me took on Wagner's rapturous masterpiece in a performance that reached peak after peak.



The Avengers performing on the steps of the SF Public Library October 20.

The Avengers (San Francisco Public Library, October 20): Decades after opening for The Sex Pistols' final concert at Winterland, The Avengers are keeping punk rock's creative do-it-yourself ethos alive with vital and impassioned performances like this one.



Ellie Dehn as the title character in Arabella at SF Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Arabella (San Francisco Opera, October 28): A rare chance to see a performance of one of Richard Strauss's most passionately lyrical scores, gorgeously sung and played.

More Favorites of 2018:
 


  1. Ghoshal's films include E & I favorite Vivah (2006), Godavari (2006), Dor (2006), Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006, one of my Favorite Bollywood Films from the 2000s), Aaja Nachle (2007), 3 Idiots (2009), Band Baaja Baaraat (2010), Love U...Mr. Kalakaar! (2011), PK (2014), and four of my Top Ten Shah Rukh Khan movies: Devdas (2002, for which she won the RD Burman Award for New Music Talent and the Filmfare Award for Best Female Playback Singer), Paheli (2005), Om Shanti Om (2007), and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2009).
  2. You don't agree? Of course not. Every generation, and indeed every person, has their own candidates for "greatest rock album," a question that can never be settled. But if you think Sgt. Pepper is the best rock album ever because it incorporated elements of musique concrète, minimalism and Indian music, The Velvet Underground & Nico got there first. And speaking of great albums, 1967 was also the year of the Jimi Hendrix Experience's Are You Experienced?, The Doors, and Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You
  3. Very few opere serie end with the death of one of the characters. I'm aware only of Vivaldi's Bajazet and Handel's Tamerlano, versions of the same libretto, in which the captured sultan Bajazet commits suicide.
  4. A da capo aria typically has three sections: a first section that establishes an emotion, a shorter second section that contrasts with the first section, and then a return "to the top" (da capo) for a repeat of the first section with added vocal ornamentation.