Thursday, June 24, 2021

2021 Boston Early Music Festival and Fringe

Ensemble Correspondances performing in an empty theater for BEMF 2021

For fans of music composed before 1800, June means the return of the Early Music Festival, held either in Boston (odd-numbered years) or Berkeley (even-numbered years). This being an odd year the 2021 concerts are being sponsored by the Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF). Given the COVID strictures against gathering indoors and international travel, and the lead time involved in planning a major event of this type, BEMF elected to produce a virtual festival this year, and carried it off about as well as it can be done.

Let me pay due obeisance to the truth that no recording, no matter how carefully done, can match the auditory experience of a live unamplified performance. Microphones simply can't capture the full richness of voices and instruments resonating in a performing space.

However, cameras, if they are thoughtfully directed, can provide a much better view of the proceedings than a typical concert seat can provide, and can direct your attention to key details. (Closeups of musicians playing can reveal aspects of their technique, and also the workmanship of their beautiful antique or antique-copy instruments.) As my partner points out, you don't have to worry about the tallest person in the audience or the person with the biggest hair taking the seat right in front of you. And, I might add, you don't have to put up with other people's coughing fits (always timed to occur at the most hushed and emotionally significant moments), mood-shattering cellphone ringtones (ditto), or running commentary. [1]

The considerations of viral invulnerability, the absence of audience irritants, and the sheer convenience of being able to see distant concerts from our cozy living room would be more than sufficient to convince us to watch. But in addition some groups have really mastered the medium of the video concert, offering commentary before the concert or sometimes interspersed with the musical performances, English-language captioning for vocal music, camerawork that subtly enhances the musical experience, and beautiful concert locations.

Below I've listed my personal highlights from BEMF as well as the Festival Fringe. One thing to note is that we haven't seen all of the BEMF or Fringe concerts, so I recommend exploring the offerings on your own. You'll undoubtedly find something to your taste that I haven't mentioned; full schedules are linked at the end of the post.

BEMF makes each concert available for viewing any number of times from the moment of its premiere until Sunday July 11, for the commendably affordable price of $10 per concert. It's a model that might be advantageously adopted by other performing arts groups. Fringe concerts, as well as BEMF pre-concert talks (and several BEMF events), are free. Both BEMF and many of the individual groups welcome donations.

Boston Early Music Festival concerts (turning on the captions for vocal selections is recommended):

Ensemble Correspondances with Lucile Richardot, mezzo-soprano: Perpetual Night: 17th-century Ayres and Songs

Lucile Richardot and Sébastian Daucé of Ensemble Correspondances

This exquisite concert can be viewed for free through July 11. Programs of 17th century English songs often focus on a few major figures such as John Blow and Henry Purcell. While of course they are included here, one of the many excellences of this concert is that Richardot and Ensemble Correspondances director Sébastian Daucé have constructed a varied program that also includes less often performed music by composers such as John Banister, Robert Johnson, and William Lawes, as well as songs for both solo singer and vocal ensemble. Richardot has a striking voice with an especially rich lower range, and the accompaniments and instrumental pieces are sensitively performed. Did I mention that it's free? This program has also been released as an album on Harmonia Mundi.

Cinquecento: A Requiem for Josquin

Achim Schulz, Terry Wey, Bernd Oliver Fröhlich (guest vocalist), Ulfried Staber, Tore Tom Denys, and Tim Scott Whiteley of Cinquecento

Filmed in the Vienna Imperial Chapel and marking the 500th anniversary of the death of the composer Josquin Desprez, this thoughtful and illuminating program by the all-male vocal group Cinquecento is filled with gorgeous polyphony. A 16th-century document names Jean Richafort as one of the numerous 'students' of Josquin, probably meaning that he took Josquin's music as a model for his own. This program illustrates that process by presenting Richafort's haunting six-voice Requiem in memory of Josquin along with the music by Josquin that is quoted in the Requiem. This program has also been released as an album on Hyperion.

Amanda Forsythe, soprano, and BEMF Chamber Ensemble: Handel as Orpheus

Amanda Forsythe with David Morris (violoncello) and Paul O'Dette (theorbo) of the BEMF Chamber Ensemble

Over the past decade or more Amanda Forsythe has been frequently featured in BEMF concerts, operas and recordings, and for good reason: her performances are extraordinary. This program focuses on the spectacular cantatas Handel wrote during the four years he spent in Italy as a young man. Often in the voices of mythical or legendary women who have been condemned, rejected or abandoned, the cantatas feature moving laments and florid coloratura runs signalling emotional agitation. Although none of the pieces in this program have to my knowledge been recorded by Forsythe, she has recorded an album of Handel opera arias on the theme of love on the Avie label.

BEMF Vocal & Chamber Ensemble: Tempro la cetra: I tune the lyre

Aaron Sheehan, Jonathan Woody, and Jason McStoots with members of the BEMF Chamber Ensemble

Solos, duets and trios with instrumental accompaniment drawn largely from Monteverdi's Seventh Book of Madrigals and performed by BEMF stars Teresa Wakim (soprano), Reginald Mobley (countertenor), Jason McStoots and Aaron Sheehan (tenors), and Jonathan Woody (bass-baritone). Instrumental interludes by Dario Costello and Andrea Falconieri and a sacred vocal work by Francesca Caccini are also included. (Serving as a wonderful complement to this concert is the recent Cal Performances-sponsored concert by Jordi Savall, La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations of Monteverdi's Eighth Book of Madrigals: Madrigals of Love and War, available through September 1.)

ACRONYM: Ad Astra: Music of Valentini, Bertali, Schmelzer, Rosenmüller, and others

Members of ACRONYM Ensemble

ACRONYM is a young, dynamic ensemble of outstandingly talented musicians, and this program is designed to showcase their strengths. A flourishing of creative energy followed the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648 and continued for several decades afterwards. Composers of instrumental music wrote demanding virtuoso pieces exploring unusual techniques, and the ensemble attacks this music with exhilarating intensity and verve.

Fringe Concerts:

All of the groups listed below deserved to appear in the main festival; expect to see some of them performing there in the future.

Red Dot Baroque: Les Goûts-réünis: An Evening of French Baroque Music

Members of Red Dot Baroque

A range of moods (from serene to exuberant) and instrumental groupings (from string quartet to chamber orchestra) are presented in this program of works by Charpentier, Corrette and Rameau. Music of great interest, vividly played.

Byrd Ensemble: New World Polyphony: Treasures from the Cathedral of Mexico City

Members of the Byrd Ensemble

A well-conceived program of works drawn from a single source, the two choirbooks dated 1717 from the Cathedral of Mexico City. The concert opens with compositions by the Old World composers Palestrina, Victoria, and Lobo. The second half introduces works by the 17th- and 18th-century Mexican composers Antonio Rodriguez de Mata, Manuel de Sumaya, and Antonio de Salazar, who were trained in, continued and extended the tradition established by the earlier composers. Markdavin Obenza selected the program (along with Margaret Obenza), directed the accomplished performances of these beautiful and moving works, and acts as our engaging and informative host. He also directed the concert video itself: amazingly, all of the performers recorded their parts separately and were seamlessly combined by Obenza to make it appear as though they were singing together in the beautiful setting of Trinity Parish Church in Seattle.

Alkemie: Sweet Friendship: Courtly Songs & Dances from 15th-century Italy and France

Members of Alkemie

Alkemie is a group of stunningly multi-talented performers who play, sing, and dance a program of 15th-century music on the theme of love's intense pleasures and pains. Gender-bending, polyamorous, and a little racy—the secular songs of the 15th century have a very modern sensibility, enhanced in this concert by the playful English subtitles (Raphael Seligman is credited). Elisa Sutherland's videography misdirects our attention a time or two, but generally is quite striking, as you can see in the preview:

A reminder that all of these wonderful concerts and the others available on the BEMF website can be viewed until July 11.

For more information:

  1. Other joys of attending concerts in person: encountering people who bring their takeout food into the theater and treat the lowering of the lights as a signal to noisily unwrap it and chow down (favoring everyone else in the auditorium not only with the noise but with the pungent smell of their food). Or people who, belching, generously share with their neighbors the rich aromas of their pre-concert dinner. Or people who are eager to share the concert with their friends and followers and raise their cellphones to record the entire thing as soon as the curtain is raised. (Better: people who take photos of the distant, lighted stage with their flash on. Still better: people who, when asked to stop recording/taking photos, berate those making the request for their elitist sense of entitlement.)

    Or people who hum or sing along with every familiar tune. Or people with major colds who insist on attending nonetheless and sniffle, snuck and sneeze throughout the performance. (Better: when it's concert by an a capella group.) Or people who think that instrumental music is simply background and blithely continue their pre-concert conversations after the performance has begun.

    Or people who wait for the quietest moments to unwrap the crinkly cellophane from their candies. Or people who laugh inappropriately at the performers or other audience members. Or people who fall asleep in the darkness and begin to snore. Or people who emanate a suffocating cloud of manufactured scent blanketing all seats within five rows. Or people who, as soon as the performance seems to be ending, leap up and trample everyone in their row in their haste to leave the theater. And let's not forget the people who loudly shush (or better, issue bodily threats) to those committing any of the previously described crimes. . .

    Not, of course, that we've personally experienced audience members behaving in any of these ways. Oh no.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

The problem is me: The Sex Pistols, Steve Jones, and Lonely Boy

Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, 1977.
Photo: Dennis Morris. Image source:

My college had a 10-watt radio station whose signal only reached about five blocks. Fortunately my dorm room was close enough to get the signal, and when my roommate was out I would tune it in softly in the background as I struggled to work problem sets. It was an eclectic station: the DJs played a lot of jazz, some classical, some folk, some blues. And even, occasionally, rock music.

One night during DJ Don Hedeker's show a song came on that made me put down my pencil and listen, dumbfounded.  I couldn't make out all the words (I still can't), but I was stunned by the sheer rage and contempt blasting out of my tiny radio speaker. This was the song, though I think it's impossible to hear it today the way I heard it then:

Barely discernable words and phrases emerged from the wall of sound, but I had no trouble making out the line "Bet you thought you solved all your problems, but YOU are the problem!" (at around 2:50 in the clip above). Followed, of course, by the devastating and all-too-clear chorus: "The problem is YOU! Whatcha gonna do?" The song closes with the singer chanting the word "problem" over and over like an alarm signalling impending disaster, until it abruptly cuts off. 

The singer, of course, was Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. I had never heard a song which sounded so pissed off and which seemed to speak to me so directly. Every time Rotten snarled "The problem is YOU!" his scorn hit home: the problem was me. And that problem—of alienation, loneliness, unhappiness with myself and the world I found myself in—seemed insoluble.

This wasn't my very first encounter with punk. That had been through the segment "The New Elizabethans," broadcast on 25 June 1977 on NBC's Weekend, the news magazine show hosted by Lloyd Dobyns that replaced Saturday Night Live one weekend each month. My main impressions from Weekend's report on punk: the music was almost undifferentiated noise, punks poked safety pins through their cheeks and wore razor blades as jewelry, and during shows they jumped up and down in unison and spit on the bands as a sign of approval. I was appalled, as I was intended to be. But "The New Elizabethans" also planted a deep seed of curiosity. [1]

After seeing the Weekend piece I tried to find out more about punk. It wasn't easy to do. In Baltimore the music wasn't mentioned in the local newspaper of record or played on the radio (though a few "new wave" bands like Talking Heads or Elvis Costello & The Attractions occasionally got a spin on WKTK FM). The following year I'd discover the free weekly City Paper and its coverage of the local scene, including the now-legendary punk dive the Marble Bar. But in 1977 punk was largely ignored, or dismissed; a repeated claim was that punks couldn't play their instruments. While this is patently untrue of the original Sex Pistols or The Clash or any number of other punk bands, it is true that punks disdained virtuosity for its own sake. That attitude was a reaction against an era when rock groups wrote "suites" that took up whole album sides, and played guitar solos that by themselves were longer than entire punk rock songs. [2]

Again, this anti-virtuosity stance made me curious. When I was younger I'd taken lessons in piano, guitar, and trumpet, and found them painful going. The idea that you didn't have to play perfectly before you could start, that you could just get a band together and learn as you go, had never before occurred to me. This was an especially liberating punk attitude: everyone was encouraged to do it themselves.

"Now form a band": Graphic from Sideburns, No. 1, p. 2, January 1977, by Tony Moon.
Image source: The Guardian UK

But not everyone thought DIY was a great idea—including, it turns out, the Sex Pistols' guitarist Steve Jones. As he writes in his funny and frank autobiography Lonely Boy (Da Capo Press, 2017),

. . .I like big record companies—I don't want to be around some Mickey Mouse indie label where everyone's having committee meetings about who's going to go out to buy the falafels. That was another real misconception about punk—'Oh, write your own magazine, start your own label.' I couldn't give a shit about that stuff. If you're any good, you'll be able to get a proper paying gig at one of the places that's already there. It's not meant to be a fucking hobby. (p. 173)

This brings up a key tension within punk. If punk was only an arresting musical and sartorial style then it could be adopted, or co-opted, by anyone. If it was an ethos—a rejection of the social, economic and political systems that were attempting to mold your thoughts, keep you in your place and destroy the world for profit—then it meant changing your life, not just your clothes.

Of course, punk rock was not only liberatory: as with many subcultural movements its meanings were not monolithic and were fiercely and sometimes violently contested. Some punk fashion (the razors and safety pins) seemed to aestheticize self-harm. Punk music and style was often meant—and often taken—as an affront, and punks faced physical attack on the streets (Johnny Rotten was stabbed). Some punks flaunted Nazi symbols; while probably most who wore them did it to provoke outrage rather than from any understanding of or identification with Nazism, there were some who advocated the nativist and fascist ideology of the National Front. You'll note that Johnny Rotten's Vivienne Westwood T-shirt in the photo at the head of this post features a swastika with the word "Destroy" written above it. The intended meaning seems to be "Destroy Nazism"—the song "God Save the Queen" describes Britain's monarch as the figurehead of "the fascist regime/They made you a moron/Potential H-bomb." 

But it wasn't only people who hated punk who misunderstood the theatrical aspect of its violent imagery. When in "Anarchy in the UK" Rotten sings "I wanna destroy/Passers-by," some may have taken it as an invitation to violent action, unaware of the allusion to André Breton's Second Surrealist Manifesto: "The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level." [3]

Sid Vicious is a case in point. In Lonely Boy Jones speculates that Vicious (born John Simon Ritchie) felt he had to live up to his stage name. After Vicious's 1979 death from a heroin overdose, Johnny Rotten (who by then had reverted to his birth name, John Lydon) commented, "Poor Sid. The only way he could live up to what he wanted everyone to believe about him was to die. . .He really bought his public image." [4] 

Vicious's violence was not only self-directed. In June 1976 he hit journalist Nick Kent in the head with a bicycle chain at the 100 Club during a Sex Pistols show, and in September of that year during the second night of the 100 Club Punk Festival he threw a glass at the stage during The Damned's set that shattered against a pillar; shards struck a young woman in the eye, blinding her.

But in February 1977 Rotten pushed for Vicious to be brought into the Sex Pistols to replace original bass player Glen Matlock, even though Vicious didn't know how to play. If it wasn't already obvious what that would mean, it quickly became so the following month when Vicious attacked a colleague of the BBC presenter Bob Harris (the insufferable host of the music program Old Grey Whistle Test) with a broken bottle and opened a gash in his head requiring stitches. [5]

For Jones, in retrospect the shift in the band's focus away from the music and towards sparking media outrage was the beginning of the end. It started with "The Filth and the Fury" Bill Grundy television interview in December 1976, and escalated when Vicious joined the group in early 1977.

From the minute Sid joined the band, nothing was ever normal again. I get that it was great the way him and John looked together, and the media frenzy certainly sold a lot of newspapers, but as far as I was concerned, that wasn't what the Sex Pistols were meant to be. . .[At an early Sex Pistols gig] I'd told the guy from the NME [New Musical Express], 'We're not into music, we're into chaos'. . .but I found out afterwards that it wasn't really true. Be careful what you fucking wish for! I was into music. We all were. . .but now we'd got chaos instead, and it was shit. (p. 185)

Of the twelve tracks on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (released October 1977), all but two were written before Vicious joined the band. Jones played most of the bass parts on the album, with Matlock returning for "Anarchy in the UK."

During the Sex Pistols' January 1978 American tour band conflicts came to a head. Manager Malcolm McLaren had booked them into venues across the South (such as Randy's Rodeo in San Antonio, the Kingfish Club in Baton Rouge, and the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas) in a bid to provoke confrontations between the band and the crowds. If that was the goal, it certainly worked; see Lech Kowalski's film D.O.A. (1980) for footage of Jones in mid-song heading away full beer cans thrown at the band, and Vicious hitting an audience member with his bass guitar.

The Sex Pistols at Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, 14 January 1978.
Photo: Michael Zampelli. Image source:

After the last show of the tour at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom on 14 January 1978, Rotten left the band; his final words to the audience that night were "Ah-ha-ha. Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Jones and drummer Paul Cook continued to flog the dead horse of the Sex Pistols for another few months, but after Vicious left for good in September 1978 it was clear the band was finished. As Jones writes in Lonely Boy,

. . .there was no fixing the problems that ultimately destroyed us, because they were the same things that made the band work in the first place. . .The Sex Pistols were born to crash and burn, and that's exactly what we did. (p. 207)

But that's not the end of the story. Instead of foreclosing action, the Sex Pistols' ruthless criticism of everything existing kicked open a door; it was up to you to seize the possibilities. While the band was only really together for 29 months, mid-August 1975 to mid-January 1978, the groups formed or reshaped in the wake of their gigs were legion: among them, Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Fall, Generation X, Joy Division, Psychedelic Furs, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Television Personalities, and X-Ray Spex. And lives were changed, for better and worse. 

Mine was one of them. After hearing "Problems" that night in my dorm room I began to seek out other music that made me feel as though my secret thoughts had somehow found expression. It was scary, yes, but also exhilarating and strangely affirming: there were other people who felt and thought the way I did. But they had something I didn't: loud guitars. Eventually I became one of them; I picked up a (bass) guitar and two weeks later joined a band—a story for another time, perhaps.

By the time I first heard "Problems" the Sex Pistols had broken up, so I never had a chance to see them live. But I'll end this post with the story of seeing Steve Jones and Paul Cook in their post-Sex Pistols band The Professionals. It was not a particularly happy experience, for them or me. [6]

The Professionals were the opening band for The Jam's final American tour, which I saw in May 1982 at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom. At the time I was only familiar with the songs Jones and Cook had written after Rotten's departure and released on The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle album. But in the meantime Jones had produced the Avengers' EP and both he and Cook had played on Joan Jett's cover of "You Don't Own Me," so I was excited to see their new band live.

Paul Cook, Steve Jones and Paul Myers of The Professionals onstage in 1981.
Photo: Grudnick. Image source:

That excitement quickly turned to disappointment. The sound of the guitar and drums was unmistakable, and Jones could clearly write a memorable hook. But the band's lyrics were generic, and each song seemed to aspire to be a stadium-rock sing-along. The chorus of "Kick Down the Doors" includes the line "Don't you ever stop," which isn't all that distant from "Don't stop believin'." Worse, the musicians made no attempt to connect with the audience and fatally lacked energy, which made a ludicrous contrast with the rock-star poses they were striking. They were not well received (I even recall scattered booing) and did not bother to give the unimpressed crowd an encore. Researching this post I discovered that Jones and bass player Paul Myers were junk-sick during this tour, which may partly explain their leaden performance. [7]

When The Jam took the stage, guitarist Paul Weller (who had evidently heard the booing) took a moment to remind us who "Steve and Paul" were and to acknowledge how great an inspiration the Sex Pistols had been to his own band. (Although apparently the inspiration went both ways: The Jam's first single "In the City" is widely credited with providing the Sex Pistols with the chord progression for "Holidays in the Sun.")

The Jam then proceeded to play a powerful, heartfelt concert that showed exactly what had been missing from The Professionals' rote set. At one point Weller accidentally stepped on the mic stand base and the microphone swung forward like a hammer and smashed him in the mouth. Although he was obviously in pain he threw himself into the music with redoubled intensity.

Paul Weller of The Jam at the Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, 26 May 1982.
Photo: rhanke. Image source:

The crowd was incredibly enthusiastic, calling the band back to the stage three times for encores. Then the house lights came up and canned music started to play over the PA—the universal "go home, the concert's over" signal. But the crowd, cheering, stomping and clapping, refused to leave. After what seemed like an eternity but was probably five minutes, Weller suddenly vaulted over the drum risers onto the stage and a huge cheer erupted; the rest of the band took their places, the lights were dimmed once again, and they played a fourth encore. I had never before, and have never since, seen a band come out again after the house lights have come up.

Alas, neither band would make it to the end of the year intact. The Professionals fell apart at the end of the summer tour when Jones stayed behind in New York while the rest of the group returned to the UK. And although 1982 was the year of The Jam's greatest commercial success—The Gift, the album they were touring to support, had reached #1 in the UK—in the fall Weller announced their breakup; they played their final shows in December. (I think they had actually reached their peak on the 1980 album Sound Affects; it's apparently Weller's favorite of their albums too.) But at least before their demise The Jam gave one of the most impassioned performances it's been my privilege to see.

Postcript: This post was occasioned by my learning that Danny Boyle (director of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire) is filming Pistol, a six-episode FX TV series about the Sex Pistols based on Jones' memoir. No fault of Steve Jones, but can Pistol be anything but fake and awful?

  1. I would link to "The New Elizabethans" in this post, but amazingly it does not seem to be available on YouTube or elsewhere.
  2. Comparisons are to the studio versions in each case: the guitar solos in Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" (totalling 1:10) are longer than Stiff Little Fingers' "Here We Are Nowhere" (58 seconds); the guitar solo in the Allman Brothers' "Ramblin' Man" (2:05) is longer than The Clash's "Career Opportunities" (1:52); the guitar/talkbox solo in Joe Walsh's "Rocky Mountain Way" (2:33) is longer than X-Ray Spex's "Identity" (2:25); and the guitar solo in Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" (3:55) is longer than the Buzzcocks' "Boredom" (2:51). And if we compare live versions, the guitar/talkbox solos in Peter Frampton's "Do You Feel Like We Do" from Frampton Comes Alive (totalling 8:38) are longer than the Ramones' "Rockaway Beach," "Teenage Lobotomy," "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" from It's Alive put together (totalling 8:22).
  3. André Breton, "Excerpts from The Second Surrealist Manifesto," translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, in Lucy R. Lippard, editor, Surrealists On Art, Prentice-Hall, 1970, p. 29.
  4. Mikal Gilmore, "John Lydon Improves His Public Image," Rolling Stone, 1 May 1980. Accessed 6 June 2021 from the Fodderstompf PiL Fansite Archive:
  5. On 12 October 1978 Vicious would be arrested and charged in the killing of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, who had been found stabbed to death in their room at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. While out on bail on this charge on 8 December 1978, Vicious smashed a beer bottle across the face of Todd Smith (Patti Smith's brother and road manager) at a concert by the Chicago band Skafish at the Hurrah club. For the full story see Jim Skafish, "Sid Vicious' last Hurrah. . .again," Official Skafish Blog, 25 January 2011 ( Vicious was arrested again on an assault charge. On the night of his release on bail, 1 February 1979, he died from an overdose of heroin; his body was discovered the next morning.
  6. I also saw John Lydon's band Public Image Ltd. in concert in 1982—also a story for another time. 
  7. Jones eventually managed to kick his heroin habit and later became the host of Jonesy's Jukebox, a long-running LA radio show.