Thursday, July 31, 2014

Yehudi Menuhin changed my life

Most days, I'm inclined to agree with Nietzsche when he said, "Without music, life would be a mistake." I could live on a deserted island without DVDs or even books, I think, as long as someone let me take along a library of music -- about two-thirds of it classical -- to pass the time. But I never knew I felt that way until I heard something like this 40 years ago this month:

I had never been to a concert by a professional orchestra when a fellow reporter asked me to accompany him to an outdoor performance in 1974. I was a 19-year-old summer intern at the Burlington County Times, a suburban paper in southern New Jersey, and he knew a guy in the cello section of the Philadelphia Orchestra. (More importantly, I had a dependable car.)

I don't remember the shorter pieces on the program, but it concluded with Beethoven's only violin concerto. If you know this piece, you realize the first movement lasts as long as some concertos in their entirety. When Menuhin finished, I clapped wildly and hollered "Woo-hoo!" -- until I realized nobody else was applauding. "Ummm...we clap at the end," said my cohort, not realizing I hadn't known. And by the end, I was hooked forever on Menuhin, Beethoven and classical music.

You could simply walk behind the stage at Robin Hood Dell, the outdoor venue in Fairmount Park, so my buddy shuffled off to say hi to the cellist he knew. I stood around on the grass, eyes goggling, until an old lady (or so she seemed then) approached, her features obscured by too much makeup and a scarf.

She asked if I'd enjoyed the concert. I began to gush incomprehensibly, leaving out the "Woo-hoo" incident. "Ah," she said. "You should meet my brother." She turned around and called, "Yehudi. Come and talk to this young man!"

The great violinist obediently ambled over. "Larry chose you for his first orchestral experience ever," she said. (I later learned this was Hepzibah Menuhin, a talented pianist.) "That's an honor, isn't it?"

Menuhin acknowledged, smiling wryly, that it was. He said he hoped it wouldn't be my last classical concert. I made incoherent noises of approval. Then, to the best of my embarrassed recollection, the chat went like this:

Him: "Are you familiar with Beethoven's music?"

Me: "Not as much as I'm gonna be. I really like the Fifth Symphony, though."

"That's a good place to start. You should really get to know the violin concerto, too. I never get tired of playing it."

"Yeah. Uhhhh...did you ever make a record of it?"

He smiled. "Well, yes. Six recordings, I think."

"Really? Which one is the best?"

Another smile. "I recently recorded it with Otto Klemperer and the New Philharmonia. That's closest to the way I feel about the music right now."

I knew I could remember THAT name, because Klemperer's son played Colonel Klink on "Hogan's Heroes." I was probably going to blurt that out when Eugene Ormandy or somebody called my pal Yehudi off to another conversation.

A few minutes later, the other reporter came back and said, "Sorry I took so long. Hope you weren't bored."

"Nah," I said. "I had a nice talk with Menuhin." He replied with an unprintable expression of disbelief, and I never did get him to take my word for it.

I bought that Klemperer LP the next day in a record store. I played it until I knew every breath Menuhin took before a downstroke. (I have the CD version now.) I later bought his wonderful performances of the Beethoven and Mendelssohn concertos with Wilhelm Furtwangler.

Menuhin, who died 15 years ago, influenced a lot of people as a teacher and humanitarian -- but in one way, none more than me. I have listened to classical music with attuned ears, an open mind and a devoted heart since the day I heard him.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Music of the past, music of the future

Two piano discs have come across my desk in the last few weeks, one representing romantic works of the 19th century and the other introducing me to new pieces whose worth will be decided and classified by posterity. (I enjoyed them.)

The first consisted of Pavel Kolesnikov's performances of Tchaikovsky's "The Seasons" and six Tchaikovsky morceaux hardly anyone plays; it came out on Hyperion, which has lately specialized in neglected corners of the piano repertoire. The second offered Robert Auler playing compositions by Jonathan Pieslak, a 1996 Davidson College grad who now teaches at City College of New York; it came out on Albany, which records a great deal of American music.

Here's Kolesnikov playing the Russian master's first piano concerto at the 2012 Honens Competition, which he won.

And here's a clip -- a much shorter one -- of Auler playing Pieslak's "Spiral" from the album titled "Shards." If you like it, I recommend you check out "American Atmospheres," a collection of etudes that shows off the composer's full range of styles, at Youtube.

Tchaikovsky and Pieslak don't have a lot in common stylistically, though both pianists tackle their virtuosic and challenging music with aplomb. (Each disc is not only well-played but superbly recorded.) But the pieces, written more than a century apart, have this in common: They reflect the times they were composed and the states of their composers' minds. And both were written by men in their late 20s to mid 30s, becoming ever more assured while finding their voices.

Tchaikovsky's "Seasons" (also known as "The Months," because there are 12 short works in the 40-minute suite) shows him in many moods: wistful, bemused, pensive, highly stimulated, melancholic, jovial. These and the morceaux (a word that simply means "pieces" in French) reflect the 19th-century demand for short works that could be played by gifted amateurs at home or in salons, though a reflective artist such as Kolesnikov makes more of them. (His performance ranks with Sviatoslav Richter's different take on these works, a favorite of mine.)

Pieslak also brings us into his world. "Prednisomnia" conveys "the sensation that one's mind is forcibly controlled by a drug that permits one to witness his/her uncharacteristic behavior but restrains one from being able to change it" -- an experience he had while taking prednisone for a kidney disorder. "Bhakti (1) unburdening" reflects his interest in Hindu devotional chants, and you hear Pieslak chant a mantra at the end. "American Atmospheres" depicts a series of moods from "Shifting Tides" to "Cuban Carnival" and shows influences from Debussy to Latin dance music.

The Tchaikovsky disc makes for easier listening, because folks with even a slight grounding in the classics have been exposed to his music. (Although "American Atmospheres" is almost as quickly accessible.) The Pieslak selections take us through a wider range of emotional experiences and show us more keyboard colors. Both deserve a crack at your ears.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Queen City Theatre Company rides again!

When Blumenthal Performing Arts decided last summer that Duke Energy Theatre would be available to local groups for only two consecutive weekends instead of three, two of its regular tenants -- Charlotte Shakespeare and Queen City Theatre Company -- went on hiatus.

Around Charlotte, that phrase can mean "into a deathlike coma." So I was glad to see Charlotte Shakespeare pop up last month at its appointed time on The Green uptown, doing "Love's Labour's Lost" outdoors. And I was glad to hear that QCTC is getting back on the Duke Energy boards Friday with "Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight." (That's the cast in the photo.)

I don't know Peter Ackerman's play, though I assume it's more transgressive than his script for the animated "Ice Age." He's creating a TV series named after this comedy, so he must figure it has legs. But I have missed QCTC's brand of all-encompassing outrageousness over the 2013-14 season, and I'm glad to hear it will follow "Things" with "The Performers" next month.

Officially, the mission statement at says the company "wishes to present theater that celebrates the many different races, religions, genders, and sexual orientations that exist in both Charlotte and the world." Founders Glenn T. Griffin and Kristian Wedolowski have spotlighted characters seldom seen at local theaters and asked us to listen to voices that are rarely heard, whether in musicals ("Side Show," "Grey Gardens"), dramas ("Bent") or comedies such as this one. They have inevitably provoked thought and frequently provoked comment, pro or con.

An old adage says the duty of a newspaper "is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." That's true in a different way of live theater, which can simply amuse us but more worthily gets us thinking about things we take for granted. Queen City can be counted on to do that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hey, Charlotte: Bring on the noise!

Did you see the story in Sunday's paper, explaining that a committee had come to town to advise leaders on how to make Charlotte a more interesting, less psychologically gray city? We were described as being "suit-y" and having a low "funk factor."

Well, the picture above comes from America's funkiest city. I took it Saturday afternoon in Central Park, a place where I heard at least a dozen languages and saw nearly as many skin tones on a two-hour stroll -- much of it within sight of the skyscrapers, as you can tell.

I saw this guy swirling a net through the air and making bubbles of immense size and multifarious shapes. I heard an elderly Chinese man playing traditional music on the zhong-hu, a stringed instrument he called a little brother to the better known erhu. (Later, I came across another Chinese man playing "Oh Susannah" on an erhu.) I saw woman painting elaborate face tattoos for $5, a living statue pretending to be Lady Liberty, guys in the distance forming some kind of loose-knit drum circle.

Mostly, I saw chaos.

A great city has to have room for a sensory mess once in a while. It can't prescribe a few street corners for buskers (not that we get them much in Charlotte anyhow) or designate one out-of-the-way corner for speakers or invite a single artist to some pocket park for an afternoon.

We have nothing as glorious as Central Park, with its antique carousel and sprawling Sheep Meadow and a tract of marsh that seems to make the city vanish. I stood at the edge of that bank, watching ducks and turtles dipping and sunning themselves, and I saw a white egret soar over the trees. Of course, then I looked down and saw an audacious rat foraging for crackers about four feet from my toes. (Perhaps that's the full New York experience: an egret and a rat.)

But if we want funk, we're going to have to stop worrying about controlling every aspect of it. As cities go, Charlotte seems OCD about order and neatness. And nobody has fun at a party where the host runs around constantly, fretting about whether a guest dropped a cheese stick on the rug.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

King of the New York Streets

That was the name of a single released by Dion DeMucci, who turns 75 next Thursday. But he earned his spot in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame with stuff like this:

When he was in his 20s, few people thought Dion would get to 45, let alone 75. He was a heroin addict whose early successes had been many but brief, and he'd tapped out by the mid-1960s. Then he cleaned himself up and cut "Abraham, Martin and John," a soulful tribute to three slain civil rights figures, which sold more than a million records in 1968 and revived his career. Here's a version with Aaron Neville from the show "Nashville Now:"

I pay tribute to Dion partly because he was a key figure in doo-wop music, a genre I have always loved, and partly because he's a seminal guy in rock history: Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed have acknowledged him as an influence on their careers.

But I also salute him because of his quintessentially American ability to reinvent himself. First he led a doo-wop quartet, the Belmonts. Then he took off as a solo singer with the likes of "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer." He disappeared, then came back as a folk singer. After his escape from addiction, he became a born-again Christian and won a Dove Award for his 1984 album "I Put Away My Idols."

He took secular music up again, returned to the faith he'd practiced in his Bronx boyhood and became a Roman Catholic. He served for a while on the American board of directors for Renewal Ministries and, according to Wikipedia, took up prison ministry -- and, in 2012, released an album called "Tank Full of Blues."

Three years ago, he was collaborating with playwright Charles Messina on a musical titled "The Wanderer: The Life and Music of Dion." He described it to a New York Times writer as "a rock 'n' roll redemption story." Against many odds, the tale of Dion DiMucci had a happy ending, after all.