Movie Review: Love Actually

“Children, don’t buy drugs. Become a rock star and they give them to you for free!” – Billy Mack

I’m pleased to introduce readers of this blog to an old friend of mine, Karen Butler, who graciously agreed to write the following review. An acclaimed actor, writer, director, teacher, and critic, Karen has spent a lifetime in the dramatic arts. Her perspective on Love Actually is especially worth-while as, while understanding completely the appeal of the movie, she doesn’t let its obvious charm blind her to its short-comings. I think we can all learn from her example.

Please feel free to leave your comments below. Perhaps we can tempt Karen to review another movie in the near future.

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I enjoy a movie that makes me feel two opposing emotions at once—the original Carrie, for example, had me laughing and horrified at the same time. Or see Derrick’s review of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood where tension and laughter combine. In a somewhat similar vein, Richard Curtis’s Love Actually, has become an extremely perplexing experience for me, with both a champagne sparkle and notes of warm, flat diet drink. (It came out in 2003, was popular, won big awards, and I’ll assume you remember the loosely connected plots, all dealing with love lost and mostly regained.)

Many gems glimmer seductively in this film. What could be better than Hugh Grant’s twitching fanny and rock star imitation, (also check out his characterizations and dance in Paddington 2), unless it’s Bill Nighy doing absolutely everything he does here, grinning, snorting, stripping, hugging. Or Keira Knightley’s glowing bridal entrance (the best since Garbo’s in Anna Karenina), or Colin Firth’s dodgy, charming attempt at Portuguese, or Emma Thompson’s (is she in a fat suit?) reaction to lobsters in the Nativity play. The fire-power acting from every one of the top echelon stars picked by director/writer Richard Curtis couldn’t be better; the direction and camerawork are just fine. At first viewing, this movie enchanted me enough to purchase it, something I rarely do because the means to play it will have changed come next week.

But something about it preyed on me, and in thinking more deeply, my point of view has darkened.

I started out cheerily enough. Bill Nighy’s washed out, aging rock star had me from hello, and he made not a single misstep throughout, nor did his manager, the appealing Gregor Fisher. Keira’s wedding, with the pop-up trumpeters, had me giggling. Rowan Atkinson’s delaying antics with Christmas decoration made me guffaw. Liam Neeson’s eulogy had me in tears. This movie got me right where it wanted me much of the time.

But I never warmed to several of the stories. From the first, Laura Linney’s spineless, masochistic character never appealed. (Your brother is being cared for in a nursing home, sweetheart, so stop pining for that gorgeous co-worker and go get him already! What kind of ninny are you?) Kris Marshall’s British accent, even with his purported big dick, wouldn’t get him four gorgeous babes even if they were American (though it was good fun seeing January Jones before she became wildly famous in Mad Men); the movie stand-ins, though an intriguing idea, were too stammery and juvenile to interest me; Liam didn’t mourn his dead wife very long before flirting with a super model; Colin Firth took no time at all to fall in love with his Portuguese friend; I fear for Keira’s new marriage if she’s impressed by her husband’s best friend’s signage ability; Hugh lets macho competitiveness get in the way of a potential sweetheart; Alan Rickman is a dope if he hurts darling Emma Thompson, even though Heike Makatsch’s eyes may be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. And the movie just seems dated—twenty years was a long time ago—older men with younger women; women have unimportant occupations while men run companies and countries. And hey, aren’t we beyond fat jokes?

Not to hit this nail too hard on the head, but the time is ripe: this movie is almost completely male-centric. (Ah me, yet another tale of Mice and Men—I exaggerate; no mice.) Women are tired of always being secondary characters, supporting players, background, atmosphere, in place only to swell the scene. Aside from Linney’s failed, gutless romance, and the vanilla insipidity of the stand-in story (Just Judy does make the first move to kiss her indecisive beau, I’ll grant), all the stories tell of distraught men angling for women to come comfort them. Men drive the engines, women play the caboose. Emma almost wrenches the story of Alan’s unfaithfulness into female terrain, but that’s not due to the writing, it’s that she’s one of the better actresses on the planet, with depthless presence, wisdom, and emotional maturity.

And yet I freely admit the diversity in casting was imaginative and before its time, and young Olivia Olson’s singing dropped my jaw. And I wanted everyone’s prickly situations to work out. And I got teary in all the right places. And the swelling music got to me. And the ending had me rooting for love in all those many, many faces and embraces. And it all comes right in the end. But is a message of love served by the undoubted missteps? Perhaps, perhaps not. Please judge for yourself.

It’s interesting to feel so good and so blah about a movie all at once, and therefore I remain divided about Love Actually and my reaction to it. What’s yours?

Written and directed by Richard Curtis; director of photography, Michael Coulter; edited by Nick Moore; music by Craig Armstrong; production designer, Jim Clay; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Duncan Kenworthy; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 128 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Alan Rickman (Harry), Bill Nighy (Billy Mack), Colin Firth (Jamie), Emma Thompson (Karen), Hugh Grant (Prime Minister), Laura Linney (Sarah), Liam Neeson (Daniel), Martine McCutcheon (Natalie) Heike Makatsh (Mia) Rowan Atkinson (Rufus), Lucia Moniz (Aurelia), Martin Freeman (John) and Joanna Page (Just Judy).

Karen Butler

Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“I’ve got a flamethrower in my toolshed.” – Rick Dalton

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, opened three nights ago at my local multiplex. As regular readers of this blog can attest, I’ve been an unabashed fan of Tarantino’s work ever since Pulp Fiction was released twenty-five years ago, and have proclaimed more than once that his first movie, Reservoir Dogs, was the best first movie since John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. I also thought that Jackie Brown, the two Kill Bill movies, and Death Proof were unqualified successes. Beginning with Inglourious Basterds, however, I began to have reservations about Tarantino, reservations which increased with Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. This is not to say that those two films don’t have a lot going for them, they do, but it seemed to me that in both of them, Tarantino fell victim to the siren song of commercialism, and in his desire to put butts in the seats, so to speak, relaxed his artistic standards. In my review of Django, I wrote, “I would like to see Tarantino return to the more balanced approach of his earlier work, in which spectacle had no part, and violence, while integral to the lives of his characters, was not the film’s reason for being.”

I’m happy to report that in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino has taken a significant step in that direction. This is primarily a story about Hollywood in the late ’60’s, and about two men: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former TV star whose acting career appears to be in a death spiral, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s longtime friend and stunt double. It also deals with the Charles Manson clan, and with actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who lives with her husband, film director Roman Polanski, in the house next to Dalton’s in Beverly Hills.

Here, just to give you a taste of the movie, is the trailer for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

It has to be said that in this movie, Tarantino once again indulges a writer’s prerogative – which we saw him exercise for the first time in Inglourious Basterds – to alter history to suit his own purposes. Tarantino is more concerned with creating entertaining and effective cinema than with historical accuracy, and I, for one, am happy to accept his right to do that. We don’t go to the movies – not a Tarantino movie, at any rate – for a history lesson.

Having said that, I have to call your attention to the extraordinary detail that Tarantino lavishes on the props and sets in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We’ve come to expect this in a Tarantino movie, but in Once Upon a Time, he outdoes himself. He succeeds completely in re-creating the Hollywood of the late ’60’s, right down to the billboards, movie marquees, and bus stop posters.

In my review of Django Unchained, I referred to Tarantino as, “the rightful heir to Hitchcock’s title, The Master of Suspense”, and this movie provides additional evidence, if any were needed, for the legitimacy of that claim. The vast majority of the audience knows who Charles Manson was and what he and his followers did in the summer of ’69. This awareness creates a suspense in the viewer that is absolutely palpable, and which increases with each successive scene. This may well be the funniest film Tarantino has ever made, but the comic moments are so fraught with tension that you may not know whether to laugh or hold your breath. In that context, I invite you to watch carefully for the Mexican standoff without which no Tarantino film would be complete.

I can’t conclude this review without telling you of my one reservation about this Tarantino movie. I can watch a Tarantino film, with all of its violence and crude language, with a certain amount of detachment. After all, I’m used to crude language; that’s the way more and more people talk, especially in the movies. I’m also used to movie violence, and I like seeing the bad guy get the stuffing knocked out of him as much as the next person. But when a woman, especially a defenseless woman, gets the stuffing knocked out of her by a man in an unspeakably brutal way, that bothers me. I felt that way watching The Hateful Eight, and I feel that way about one scene in this movie too. I can’t help but wonder if the director is pandering to that segment of the audience that enjoys seeing a woman brutalized.

That one objection notwithstanding, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a masterpiece, one you shouldn’t miss. It features the extraordinary screenplay we have come to expect from Tarantino, along with exceptional performances by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. I won’t be surprised if both of them receive Oscar nominations for Best Actor. If you’re like me, one viewing will not be enough.

Derrick Robinson

Concert Review: Marc-André Hamelin at The University of Washington

Marc-André Hamelin

Three nights ago, in his second appearance in Seattle in the past year, pianist Marc-André Hamelin gave a recital at Meany Hall at the University of Washington, and, as is typical for Hamelin, the program included both the well-known and the unknown. He led off with the magnificent Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin, in its transcription for piano by Busoni. This is a colossal work, one I have written about at some length elsewhere on this blog. I will add only that Hamelin’s interpretation was in every way worthy of Bach and Busoni’s creation. Bravo to all three!

Concluding the first half of the program was the Sonata No. 3 by Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962). This was the first time I’ve heard this sonata, which was written in 1916 and which is, perhaps, more accessible than the Sonata No. 4, which I heard Hamelin play last year. The Sonata No. 3 is a giant piece, full of thorny complexities and challenging harmonies, and an extraordinary workout for the pianist. It is also a cry from the heart, and for me at least, it was the centerpiece of the recital. Feinberg was a composer of obvious gifts and startling originality. How is it possible that his music has remained in the backwater of the piano repertoire for so long?

But not any more! Hamelin has been programming Feinberg in his recitals for some time, and is planning to release an album of the first six of his twelve sonatas. I have to wonder if in years to come, Feinberg’s name will forever be linked with that of Hamelin.

Hamelin rightly recognized the effect that the Feinberg sonata might have had on the audience, and before embarking on the second half of his program, he remarked, “I hope the following will provide a little bit of relief from what you just heard.” The piece that followed – Alexis Weissenberg’s “Six Arrangements of Songs Sung by Charles Trenet” (1950) – was well-chosen for that purpose. The six pieces brought to mind words like tuneful, charming, boisterous, humorous, elegant, and wistful, but regardless of the mood, there is something unmistakably French about these arrangements. Listening to them, I could easily imagine myself in Paris, overhearing music emanating from a nightclub somewhere down the street.

Here is a video from 2009 of Hamelin playing the third piece from this set, “En avril, à Paris” (April in Paris).

Next on the program was another piece that was new to me, “Cypresses”, by the Italian-American composer Mario Castelnuovo­-­Tedesco (1895-1968). Composed in 1920, “Cypresses” is a very inward looking piece and reveals a strong influence of Debussy. In it, Hamelin created a sustained, reflective atmosphere, at least until it was rudely interrupted by a cellphone in the row behind me.

The final two works on the program were both by Chopin: the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61 and the Scherzo No. 4 in E Major. In the Polonaise-Fantasie, Hamelin adopted a more relaxed tempo than one often hears, which lent it a more introspective quality. Hamelin obviously has a deep love for Chopin, which together with his extraordinary touch, made of this well-known piece a very personal statement. The Scherzo No. 4 is the most light-hearted of Chopin’s four scherzi. Although it has its reflective moments, it brought the evening’s program to a close on a joyous, upbeat note.

Everything Hamelin does, he does masterfully, and at the end of his program, the Seattle audience gave him a prolonged standing ovation. In return, Hamelin gave us one encore: Debussy’s “Feux d’artifice” (Fireworks) from Book 2 of his preludes. Here is a video from 2007 of Hamelin performing the same piece.

Without ever neglecting the staples of the piano repertoire, Hamelin has done yeoman’s service in bringing the music of lesser­-known composers to the attention of the public. Whatever he plays, he plays with consummate authority, and like all great pianists, he opens wide a window into his heart and soul. This was my third time hearing him in person. Hopefully there will be many more.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on October 20, 2018 at 10:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Nine Years of Blogging

This month marks the ninth anni­versary of “Derrick’s Blog”. I began writing it in August 2009, and in the nine years since, not a month has passed without my adding at least one new post. When I began writing it, I had no idea how many people would read it. I just wanted to share my love of music – and selected books and movies – with as many people as I could. I’ve also published a few concert reviews and interviews over the years, categories I didn’t envision at the outset.

Nine years, 150 posts, and 100,000 words later, there have been more than 144,000 hits on my blog. The most popular post of all time has been Valentina Lisitsa: Four Encores with over 9,000 views. Next in line are My Interview with Lola Astanova and Anna Netrebko: Three Encores. The picture changes somewhat if we look at just the past 12 months, during which my interview with Lola Astanova takes over first place with more than 3,000 views, followed by Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals and my review of The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

I’m especially pleased with how many countries have viewed my blog, 176 as of this writing. The country with the most views is, not surprisingly, the United States with more than 36,000. Germany, United Kingdom, France, and Canada round out the top five. At the bottom of the list, there are 22 countries with one view each, including Iran, Afghanistan, and – who would have guessed it – Vatican City.

At this point, I’m planning on taking a break from this blog and starting a new one, which should debut in a month or two. I have no doubt that I will return to “Derrick’s Blog” from time to time to write about other books, movies, and music that I’m excited about. In the meantime, I encourage you, dear reader, to scroll to the top of this screen and click on the link to the Table of Contents for a complete listing of all my posts to date. Below that you will find a link to My Heart Still Hears, where you will find my complete haiku. I hope you find one or two that appeal to you.

Soon there will be a link to a new blog as well. I hope you will take a look at that too.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on August 31, 2018 at 5:13 pm  Comments (1)  

Book Review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 2004

Catch-22 was first published in hardback in October 1961; a paper-back edition followed a year later. It has now been translated into at least 21 languages and sold more than 10 million copies. I read it for the first time 50 years ago, and it has been one of my favorite books ever since. I must have read it a dozen times. It is one of the few books I know that can make me laugh out loud no matter how many times I read it, and that never fails to impress me with its wit and wisdom.

There is a great deal of critical analysis of Catch-22 available online, as well as a number of informative interviews with Joseph Heller. This review is not an attempt at further analysis; nor is it a rehash of the analysis of others. I simply want to give those who haven’t read Catch-22 an idea of what it’s about and to share a few of my favorite lines and passages. If even a few are thereby prompted to read it, I will be satisfied, and if one or two of those come to share my enthusiasm for it, I will be positively delighted.

Central to Catch-22 is the idea of contradiction, of paradox. Heller introduces this idea even before the story begins, in the novel’s epigraph: “There was only one catch… and that was Catch-22.” Such contradictions abound throughout the novel. Here are three more, all from just one page of Chapter 1, “The Texan”:

Across the aisle from Yossarian was Dunbar, and next to Dunbar was the artillery captain with whom Yossarian had stopped playing chess. The captain was a good chess player, and the games were always interesting. Yossarian had stopped playing chess with him because the games were so interesting they were foolish…

Dunbar was lying motionless on his back again with his eyes staring up at the ceiling like a doll’s. He was working hard at increasing his life span. He did it by cultivating boredom. Dunbar was working so hard at increasing his life span that Yossarian thought he was dead…

The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him…

And here is one more.

Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.

Heller first describes Catch-22 in the following passage from Chapter 5, “Chief White Halfoat”.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

Catch-22 is a veritable gold mine of quotable lines. Here are two of my favorites:

“Actually, there were many officers’ clubs that Yossarian had not helped build, but he was proudest of the one on Pianosa.”

“And if that wasn’t funny, there were lots of things that weren’t even funnier.”

And this is perhaps one of the most important lines in the book, an unambiguous expression of one of the novel’s central ideas, and a wonderful example of Heller’s wit.

“Clevinger was dead. That was the basic flaw in his philosophy.”

Along with its many memorable lines, there are innumerable noteworthy passages in Catch-22. I’ve chosen several to share here; the first is from Chapter 8, “Lieutenant Scheisskopf”.

Not even Clevinger understood how Milo could do that, and Clevinger knew everything. Clevinger knew everything about the war except why Yossarian had to die while Corporal Snark was allowed to live, or why Corporal Snark had to die while Yossarian was allowed to live. It was a vile and muddy war, and Yossarian could have lived without it – lived forever, perhaps. Only a fraction of his countrymen would give up their lives to win it, and it was not his ambition to be among them. To die or not to die, that was the question, and Clevinger grew limp trying to answer it. History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend upon it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war. Just about all he could find in its favor was that it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents.

In various places throughout the novel, Heller abandons his ironic tone, and the result is chilling. Take this passage, for example, also from Chapter 8.

Clevinger recoiled from their hatred as though from a blinding light. These three men who hated him spoke his language and wore his uniform, but he saw their loveless faces set immutably into cramped, mean lines of hostility and understood instantly that nowhere in the world, not in all the fascist tanks or planes or submarines, not in the bunkers behind the machine guns or mortars or behind the blowing flame throwers, not even among all the expert gunners of the crack Hermann Goering Antiaircraft Division or among the grisly connivers in all the beer halls in Munich and everywhere else, were there men who hated him more.

Here is an idea that recurs several times in the novel, from Chapter 9, “Major Major Major Major”.

“Would you like to see our country lose?” Major Major asked.

“We won’t lose. We’ve got more men, more money and more material. There are ten million men in uniform who could replace me. Some people are getting killed and a lot more are making money and having fun. Let somebody else get killed.

“But suppose everybody on our side felt that way.”

“Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way. Wouldn’t I?”

In Chapter 12, “Bologna”, we have a heated debate between Clevinger and Yossarian about an issue that lies at the very heart of Catch-22.

Clevinger agreed with ex-PFC Wintergreen that it was Yossarian’s job to get killed over Bologna and was livid with condemnation when Yossarian confessed that it was he who had moved the bomb line and caused the mission to be cancelled.

“Why the hell not?” Yossarian snarled, arguing all the more vehemently because he suspected he was wrong. “Am I supposed to get my ass shot off just because the colonel wants to be a general?”

“What about the men on the mainland?” Clevinger demanded with just as much emotion. “Are they supposed to get their asses shot off just because you don’t want to go? Those men are entitled to air support!”

“But not necessarily by me. Look, they don’t care who knocks out those ammunition dumps. The only reason we’re going is because that bastard Cathcart volunteered us.”

“Oh, I know that,” Clevinger assured him, his gaunt face pale and his agitated brown eyes swimming in sincerity. “But the fact remains that those ammunition dumps are still standing. You know very well that I don’t approve of Colonel Cathcart any more than you do.” Clevinger paused for emphasis, his mouth quivering, and then beat his fist down softly against his sleeping bag. “But it’s not for us to determine what targets must be destroyed or who’s going to destroy them or – ”

“Or who gets killed doing it? And why?”

“Yes, even that. We have no right to question – ”

“You’re insane!”

“ – no right to question – ”

“Do you really mean that it’s not my business how or why I get killed and that it is Colonel Cathcart’s? Do you really mean that?”

“Yes, I do,” Clevinger insisted, seeming unsure. “There are men entrusted with winning the war who are in a much better position than we are to decide what targets have to be bombed.”

“We are talking about two different things,” Yossarian answered with exaggerated weariness. “You are talking about the relationship of the Air Corps to the infantry, and I am talking about the relationship of me to Colonel Cathcart. You are talking about winning the war, and I am talking about winning the war and keeping alive.”

“Exactly,” Clevinger snapped smugly. “And which do you think is more important?”

“To whom?” Yossarian shot back. “Open your eyes, Clevinger. It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.”

Clevinger sat for a moment as though he’d been slapped. “Congratulations!” he exclaimed bitterly, the thinnest milk-white line enclosing his lips tightly in a bloodless, squeezing ring. “I can’t think of another attitude that could be depended upon to give greater comfort to the enemy.”

“The enemy,” retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, “is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don’t you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live.”

But Clevinger did forget it, and now he was dead…

It occurs to me that Clevinger would have felt right at home in the German Army.

In Chapter 18, “The Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice”, we have the following exchange, one which epitomizes Heller’s brilliant wit.

Thanksgiving Day came and went without any fuss while Yossarian was still in the hospital. The only bad thing about it was the turkey for dinner, and even that was pretty good. It was the most rational Thanksgiving he had ever spent, and he took a sacred oath to spend every future Thanksgiving Day in the cloistered shelter of a hospital. He broke his sacred oath the very next year, when he spent the holiday in a hotel room instead in intellectual conversation with Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife, who had Dori Duz’s dog tags on for the occasion and who henpecked Yossarian sententiously for being cynical and callous about Thanksgiving, even though she didn’t believe in God just as much as he didn’t.

“I’m probably just as good an atheist as you are,” she speculated boastfully. “But even I feel that we all have a great deal to be thankful for and that we shouldn’t be ashamed to show it.”

“Name one thing I’ve got to be thankful for,” Yossarian challenged her without interest.”

“Well…” Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife mused and paused a moment to ponder dubiously. “Me.”

“Oh, come on,” he scoffed.

She arched her eyebrows in surprise. “Aren’t you thankful for me?” she asked. She frowned peevishly, her pride wounded. “I don’t have to shack up with you, you know,” she told him with cold dignity. “My husband has a whole squadron full of aviation cadets who would be only too happy to shack up with their commanding officer’s wife just for the added fillip it would give them.”

Yossarian decided to change the subject. “Now you’re changing the subject,” he pointed out diplomatically. “I’ll bet I can name two things to be miserable about for every one you can name to be thankful for.”

“Be thankful you’ve got me,” she insisted.

“I am, honey. But I’m also goddam good and miserable that I can’t have Dori Duz again, too. Or the hundreds of other girls and women I’ll see and want in my short lifetime and won’t be able to go to bed with even once.”

“Be thankful you’re healthy.”

“Be bitter you’re not going to stay that way.”

“Be glad you’re even alive.”

“Be furious you’re going to die.”

“Things could be much worse,” she cried.

“They could be one hell of a lot better,” he answered heatedly.

“You’re naming only one thing,” she protested. “You said you could name two.”

“And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways,” Yossarian continued, hurtling on over her objection. “There’s nothing so mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. He’s playing. Or else He’s forgotten all about us. That’s the kind of God you people talk about – a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when he robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?”

“Pain?” Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife pounced upon the word victoriously. “Pain is a useful symptom. Pain is a warning to us of bodily dangers.”

“And who created the dangers?” Yossarian demanded. He laughed caustically. “Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain! Why couldn’t He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of his celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person’s forehead. Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn’t He?

“People would certainly look silly walking around with red neon tubes in the middle of their foreheads.”

“They certainly look beautiful now writhing in agony or stupefied with morphine, don’t they? What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. It’s obvious He never met a payroll. Why, no self-respecting businessman would hire a bungler like Him as even a shipping clerk!”

Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife had turned ashen in disbelief and was ogling him with alarm. “You’d better not talk that way about Him, honey,” she warned him reprovingly in a low and hostile voice. “He might punish you.”

“Isn’t He punishing me enough?” Yossarian snorted resentfully. “You know, we mustn’t let Him get away scot free for all the sorrow He’s caused us. Someday I’m going to make Him pay. I know when. On the Judgment Day. Yes, that’s the day I’ll be close enough to reach out and grab that little yokel by His neck and –”

“Stop it! Stop it!” Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife screamed suddenly, and began beating him ineffectually about the head with both fists. “Stop it!”

Yossarian ducked behind his arm for protection while she slammed away at him in feminine fury for a few seconds, and then he caught her determinedly by the wrists and forced her gently back down on the bed. “What the hell are you getting so upset about?” he asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”

“I don’t,” she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make him out to be.”

Yossarian laughed and turned her arms loose. “Let’s have a little more religious freedom between us,” he proposed obligingly. “You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?”

That was the most illogical Thanksgiving he could ever remember spending, and his thoughts returned wishfully to his halcyon fourteen-day quarantine in the hospital the year before…

Finally, from Chapter 30, “Dunbar”, we have this remarkable excursion into the private thoughts of Nurse Duckett.

Her own body was such a familiar and unremarkable thing to her that she was puzzled by the convulsive ecstasy men could take from it, by the intense and amusing need they had merely to touch it, to reach out urgently and press it, squeeze it, pinch it, rub it. She did not understand Yossarian’s lust; but she was willing to take his word for it.

I’ve always been struck by that passage. How did Heller know these things? To the vast majority of men, women’s bodies are a source of endless fascination, even obsession. How did Heller know that to Nurse Duckett, “Her own body was such a familiar and unremarkable thing…”?

So, what is Catch-22 about? Simply stated, it’s about a U.S. Army Air Corps squadron based on an island in the Mediterranean in the closing months of World War II, and one man’s struggle for survival in the midst of a corrupt and self-serving bureaucracy. It is brilliantly written and laugh-out-loud funny, but the issues it confronts are serious and timely, and Heller’s treatment of them is – in a word – unforgettable.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on July 31, 2018 at 4:04 pm  Comments (1)  
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Movie Review: Vertigo

This year marks the 60th anniver-sary of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which was originally released in May 1958. For Hitchcock, the 50’s was an especially fruitful period, during which he turned out one masterpiece after another with almost monotonous regularity. In the space of ten years, he gave us such unforgettable films as Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, and Psycho, among others. All of those films are now considered classics, but it could be argued that Vertigo is the greatest of them all. Noted author and film critic Robin Wood, in his excellent book Hitchcock’s Films (1968), calls Vertigo, “Hitchcock’s masterpiece to date and one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us.” In the 2012 British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound poll, Vertigo even replaced Citizen Kane as the best film ever made.

It begins with a scene at night on the rooftops above San Francisco. We see a uniformed policeman and a plainclothes detective, John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), pursuing a sure-footed suspect from one rooftop to the next. Shots are fired, and the suspect leaps across… Well, see for yourself.

How’s that for an opening scene!

We next see Scottie in the apartment of Marjorie “Midge” Wood, (Barbara Bel Geddes). Scottie and Midge are old friends, in fact they were engaged briefly while they were in college. Scottie has recovered from injuries he sustained during the rooftop chase, but has been diagnosed with acrophobia – a fear of heights – and has retired from the police force. He informs Midge that he’s been contacted by an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who wants to meet with him in his office. Scottie agrees to the meeting, at which Elster tells him of his concern about his wife Madeline (Kim Novak), who he thinks has been possessed by the spirit of someone long since dead. Elster wants Scottie to follow Madeline, to find out where she goes during her recurring spells. Despite his reluctance to get involved, Scottie agrees…

Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeline. The more time he spends with her, the more determined he is to protect her, and to solve the mystery of her spells. Part of the reason for his obsession is his detective mentality. He’s the “hard-headed Scot” who must try to make sense of the mystery he finds himself in. What he doesn’t realize is that he is the target of an elaborate deception, one which succeeds because, as unlikely as its premise may be, it is still the most plausible explanation for all that Scottie has witnessed. What other possible explanation could there be?

Vertigo was based on the 1954 novel D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. The screenplay is by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, and the beautiful costumes are by Edith Head. Both James Stewart and Kim Novak give performances that easily stand the test of repeated viewings, and the supporting cast is first-rate. The magnificent score by Bernard Herrmann is a constant presence in the movie, but so well suited to the mood and the action on screen that you may scarcely be aware of it. It is one of the truly great film scores, which you can hear in its entirety here.

One of Hitchcock’s great achievements in Vertigo is the mood he creates and sustains throughout the entire movie, a tension that persists until the very last frames. Critical to that mood is Hitchcock’s faultless pacing, which is the antithesis of the breakneck pacing you find in so many movies today. There is nothing rushed in Vertigo, which unfolds in its own leisurely way. It was his pacing as much as his mastery of plot development that earned Hitchcock the title, “The Master of Suspense”, to which I would add, “in Perpetuity”.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on June 30, 2018 at 2:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Charles Ives: Trio for Violin, Cello, & Piano The Van Baerle Trio

Charles Ives (1874 – 1954)

First, a little background. I was introduced to Ives’ Piano Trio two years ago, in May 2016, while I was working on my blog post about Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2. It’s part of the miracle of YouTube that, when you watch one video, links to other, related videos magically appear next to it. Both the Mendelssohn and Ives trios had been recorded by The Van Baerle Trio, and at some point, I clicked on the link to their performance of the Ives. Listening to the mournful opening duet between the cello and piano, I felt like I was listening to two unrelated pieces. The logic of the work eluded me, and one or two minutes into it, I decided that the Ives trio was not for me, and closed the video.

Isn’t that often the way with new music? We hear something new, and it doesn’t sound like anything we know and understand. In fact, it sounds very different. Our expectations are upset, and we may feel cheated, even angry. How much better – and wiser – would it be to acknowledge that the composer has understood something we do not, indeed, should not be expected to understand on first hearing.

What if we could learn to take a certain amount on faith – faith in the composer, in the performer, or in the music lover who introduced the piece to us. How much more music might wind up enriching our lives if we withheld judgment on it long enough to give it a second, or even a third hearing?

If, in short, we gave it a chance.

That is exactly how I came to love this trio. Such was my enthusiasm for The Van Baerle Trio (Hannes Minnaar – piano, Maria Milstein – violin, and Gideon den Herder – cello) and their performance of the Mendelssohn trio, that I recently decided to watch their video of the Ives trio again. I tried to listen with fresh ears, and to my delight, out of the apparent chaos of three seemingly unrelated voices there emerged the most glorious and uplifting music. I listened to it from beginning to end with tears streaming down my face, and realized at once that I had made a discovery of lasting importance.

It was a discovery I am eager to share with you, dear reader. I hope you too will give it a chance.

Our friends at Wikipedia have given us the following description of this remarkable work:

The Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano is a work by the American composer Charles Ives. According to Charles Ives’ wife, the three movements of the piano trio are a reflection of Ives’ college days at Yale. He started writing the piece in 1904, 6 years after graduation, and completed it in 1911. It was written c. 1909–10 and significantly revised in 1914–15. The piano trio consists of three movements:

1. Moderato [0:00]
2. TSIAJ (“This scherzo is a joke”) Presto [4:50]
3. Moderato con moto [11:04]

The first movement is the same 27 measures repeated three times, though the violin is silent for the first, the cello for the second, and all three instruments join for the third. Though the separate duets seem full enough on their own, yet all together sound amazingly and uncharacteristically consonant.

The second movement, TSIAJ, employs polytonality, timbral contrast, and quotation for a downright humorous effect. Fragments of American folk songs are intertwined throughout the movement, although often grotesquely altered with respect to rhythm, pitch, and harmonic connotation. Folk songs appearing in the scherzo include “My Old Kentucky Home”, “Sailor’s Hornpipe”, “The Campbells Are Coming”, “Long, Long Ago”, “Hold the Fort”. and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”, among many others… And although the composer himself acknowledged that the entire movement was a joke, it well characterizes the unique and novel musical world that only Ives had discovered.

The lyricism of the final movement of the piano trio contrasts strongly with the variegated montage of tunes in TSIAJ. Sweeping lyrical melodies alternate with lighter syncopated sections after the opening introduction and violin recitative. Nonetheless, Ives continues with his borrowing habits – quoting music that he had originally written for the Yale Glee Club (though it was rejected) in the lyrical violin-cello canon in bars 91–125. The coda quotes Thomas Hastings’ “Rock of Ages” in the cello, ending the movement with Ives’ characteristic rooting in American folk and popular music.

Published in: on May 31, 2018 at 4:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 83 Pianist – Glenn Gould

Sergei Prokofiev

In 1939, Prokofiev began work on his 6th, 7th, and 8th piano sonatas, which would come to be known as his “War Sonatas” and which would turn out to be three of his best known and most important works for solo piano. He worked on them simultane­ously, setting one aside when inspiration flagged and turning to one of the others. The Sixth was completed in 1940 and the Seventh in ’42, and both were given their premiere by Sviatoslav Richter. The Eighth was finished in 1944, and was premiered by Emil Gilels.

The following description of the Seventh was written by Robert Cummings for allmusic.com.

This is the middle panel in Prokofiev’s grand trilogy of works called War Sonatas. It is the most popular of the three and, at about 16 or 17 minutes, the shortest as well. The first movement, marked Allegro inquieto, opens with a dark, menacing theme whose militaristic vehemence seizes the expressive reins at times with insistent bass chords that hammer out a crushing rhythm. The listener immediately senses a connection to war and struggle in this lively but conflicted opening. A lyrical second theme introduces gentler music, but does not break the dark mood. In the development section, a tense buildup constructed mainly on the first theme leads to a powerful climax, after which the music gradually becomes more tranquil, the second theme being reprised in a gloomy ethereality. A brief, rhythmic coda follows, its lively springiness seeming to sputter and stagger as it reaches the finish line.

The second movement is marked Andante caloroso and features a consoling main theme whose gently rocking lilt and overripe textures convey an almost decadent sense, as if its beauty is beginning to decay. Some listeners hear it as a kind of dark salon-like creation in its perfume-drenched melancholy and quasi-pop catchiness. The middle section turns intense and climaxes in a tolling-bell passage that eventually gives way to a reprise of the main theme.

The Precipitato finale is the most famous and dramatic movement of the three. Cast in an ABCBA structure, it opens with a driving main theme whose rhythmic jazzy elements convey a frenetic, fight-for-dear-life sense. The second theme maintains the perpetual-motion drive, but now the feeling of desperation takes on an insistent, if less harried manner, before yielding to the ensuing idea, which rises from the bass regions to turn almost subdued in the upper ranges. After the second theme reappears the main theme returns for a crashing, dissonant but ultimately triumphant conclusion in a blaze of dazzling virtuosic writing.

Glenn Gould (1932-1982) occupies a unique place in the annals of 20th century pianism. His recorded legacy is enormous, and includes almost all of Bach’s solo keyboard works. His role in bringing them into the concert mainstream cannot be overstated.  His stage presence and mannerisms were off-putting, however, and his interpretations consistently outraged many listeners. Today, thirty-five years after his death, his name continues to spawn controversy. For many, Gould could do no wrong, while others – equally vocal – regularly castigate him for what they see as the unpardonable liberties he took with the printed score.

Gould himself articulated the philosophy behind his controversial interpretations as follows:

If there’s any excuse at all for making a record, it’s to do it differently, to approach the work from a totally re-creative point of view … to perform this particular work as it has never been heard before. And if one can’t do that, I would say, abandon it, forget about it, move on to something else.

It was not a philosophy that would endear him to everyone, but I think Gould makes a valid point. Why would you record Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, for example, which has been recorded more often, perhaps, than any other sonata in the piano literature, if you have nothing new to say in it?

The Seventh was the first of Prokofiev’s sonatas that I came to know, thanks to a recording by Vladimir Horowitz that was one of my first records. Perhaps because I had heard it so often and knew it so well, my passion for it cooled over the years. When I inaugu­rated this blog, it was the Sixth and Eighth sonatas that I was eager to share, not the Seventh. It wasn’t until I discovered Gould’s performance, which was like none I had ever heard before, that my enthusiasm for this sonata was rekindled.

I think Gould would be gratified.

Published in: on April 30, 2018 at 4:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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My Interview with Valentina Lisitsa

Derrick and Valentina

Following her second recital in seven months at George Fox University – you can read my review of that recital here – I sat down with Valentina Lisitsa in the lobby of her hotel to conduct the interview presented below. Despite the lateness of the hour, Valentina was generous with her time, and her answers to my questions were peppered with the wit and charm which are her hallmark.

I fully intended to publish this interview soon after it took place, but human nature being what it is – my human nature, at any rate – my recording of it lay moldering in my top dresser drawer for seven-plus years, just waiting for me to step up and transcribe it for this blog.

My apologies to Valentina for the unconscionable delay. I take some solace in the thought that the relevance of her observations has not been diminished in any way by the passage of time.

DERRICK: Valentina, your website tells us that you were born in Kiev, Ukraine, and Wikipedia gives the year of your birth as 1973, but since we shouldn’t believe everything we read online, would you like to comment?

VALENTINA: How about Facebook! I think I was born, according to Facebook, in 1927, which I really like.

DERRICK: 1927?

VALENTINA: I don’t remember exactly the year, you can check it out, but it was something really ancient.

DERRICK: All right, do you remember when and where was your first recital, and what your program was?

VALENTINA: (laughing) I remember exactly, and I remember what I was doing. I was catching grasshoppers when it was my turn to play. It was a children’s recital program, and I was doing at that point – I think I was doing – yes, it was Tchaikovsky’s “Kid’s Album” or something like that, but I’m not sure if I was doing the complete thing because I missed my turn – they were looking for me – and they sent another kid onstage to play the accordion.

DERRICK: Accordion?

VALENTINA: Yes, well they had all those different instruments. I went inside while the kid was playing, and I screamed, “Oh, it’s my turn, get offstage!” and I started dragging him offstage. I was pretty competitive. (laughing)

DERRICK: How old were you at the time?

VALENTINA: I think I was exactly four years, because I started, according to my grandma, when I was three years and eight months old, so it took me at least a few months to learn those pieces.

DERRICK: When and where was your first appearance with orchestra? What concerto did you play?

VALENTINA: With orchestra it came much later. It was one of the competitions when I waited for the final to play with orchestra. It was my first time, and it was Liszt’s Concerto No. 1, and besides my first encounter with orchestra, it was also my first encounter with coffee.

DERRICK: With coffee?

VALENTINA: Yes, my mom drank lots of coffee, and of course she was such a backstage mom, she was all worried to have a kid in the final of the competition, and she drank coffee by the gallon, and somehow she thought it was a smart idea to give a child coffee. And I drank the coffee, I liked it very much, and then I went onstage. At the rehearsal I was thoroughly prepared, I knew the piece backwards, and I was very self-assured, but then things started happening when I came to play, with coffee in my blood for the first time. I remember when there was this infamous place with trills on top; the piano just plays trills and the orchestra plays something, and I remember exactly feeling like I was plugged into an outlet with electricity going through me and I cannot stop. I was so wired up! I didn’t win that time.

DERRICK: All right, who were your most important teachers? Did you learn different things from different ones?

VALENTINA: Well, my important teachers are all dead. They are, you know, great pianists of the past. Of living teachers, I didn’t have anybody of note. I always disregarded their advice.

DERRICK: Who were your heroes of the piano, and how would you describe their influence on your playing?

VALENTINA: Who were my heroes? When I was a kid, I didn’t have piano heroes, I had chess heroes and soccer heroes (laughing), but no piano heroes. But actually, the pianist whom I listened to most and who probably shaped my opinions about music, though without me knowing it, was Sofronitsky. I think his recordings were on sale, and I remember when my mom got me my first, you know, turntable, and got a whole bunch of Sofronitsky CDs, maybe like twenty or twenty-five of them. I brought them to the U.S. later. It was all those beautiful pieces which nobody plays, like Schubert-Liszt, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, not the standard repertoire. I was dreaming ever since to find those Schubert-Liszt pieces. It took me awhile because they were not published. (Note: I have linked to Valentina’s performance of the Schubert-Liszt “Ave Maria” at the end of this interview.)

DERRICK: Who was your favorite chess player?

VALENTINA: Gary Kasparov! Oh, that was a hero, you know, because I remember exactly when he was in this amazing match with Karpov, and he was such an underdog, and of course it seemed like there was absolutely no hope, poor guy…

DERRICK: The score was five to nothing at one point.

VALENTINA: …yes, yes, it was really dreadful, yet I mean he held on and then he started narrowing the gap, and then they stopped the match when it was five to three. But that was the most incredible thing. That was an example, you can do so many things in your life, and no matter how dreadful the situation is, there is always hope if you keep pushing.

DERRICK: How important were piano competitions in helping to establish your career?

VALENTINA: They did more damage than anything else, and I think they do for most people. Lots of young people think, oh, I’m going to win this competition and it’s going to launch my career, and it’s not happening. The so-called Soviet school of piano playing, or music playing, or sports, it was just basically they are taught to win in competitions, making a name for publicity. What it led to, when you went to school, you were channeled into this competition stream. You had to learn one prelude and fugue by Bach, one classical sonata, one etude by Chopin – maybe two etudes by Chopin, Opus 10 and Opus 25 – one Liszt, one other etude, one Romantic piece, one 20th century piece, and you are good to go to any competition. People will polish those things for fifteen or twenty years. There are so many examples which I don’t want to give you because, you can name one after another, people who won a competition playing a single piece better than anybody else…

DERRICK: To the detriment of their development.

VALENTINA: …yes, and then, first of all, I know lots of my colleagues who felt so insecure after they won a competition and then, okay, life begins. They have to start playing, learning things, but they have this very small repertoire which is so polished that when they try something else, it looks crude, and they don’t want to dedicate twenty more years to polishing it. I saw many pianists with shrinking repertoires. Their repertoire would get smaller and smaller because they were so insecure. This competition mentality.

Look, I was a product of this system; I went to so many little competitions. I didn’t go to study in Moscow, which is why I was precluded from participating in big competitions for a long time, but I had the same problem. I came to the U.S., and I had two concertos in my repertoire; one was Liszt, another was Tchaikovsky. Now I have close to fifty, but I had to learn everything from the beginning to the end, and I could have done it when I was a child. It would be much easier, and I would have more free time now.

DERRICK: When did you leave Ukraine for the United States?

VALENTINA: 1992.

DERRICK: And why did you decide to leave Ukraine?

VALENTINA: Ukraine was a good place to be from. I was lucky in a way to end up in the U.S. I know quite a few classmates, pretty girls, the most popular in class, who would get married, one was married to a Cuban, so she went to Cuba, and another, I think she went somewhere to Africa and she ended up being one of many wives, but basically, everybody was trying to get out by any means possible. There was no place for art, people were starving, they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.

DERRICK: Why did you decide to come to the U.S.?

VALENTINA: It was an accident! There was a competition, and if we wouldn’t win this one, we will go to another one. The next one was in Italy. Whatever.

DERRICK: I know that at one time chess was one of your passions. How far did you pursue your chess ambitions?

VALENTINA: Oh, well I would pretend that I’m going to music school, which was full-time, and then I would make a U-turn and go to the chess club and I would spend days and weeks and months in the chess club without my parents knowing it until we were discovered.

DERRICK: Was there a time when your passion for chess conflicted with your passion for music, or did you give up serious chess when you decided to devote yourself to piano?

VALENTINA: Both happened simultaneously. You know what happened? I was very competitive from the very beginning, even in the way I was practicing. I was basically putting certain tasks in front of myself and trying to see how fast can I achieve this or that, or at which time mark can I learn this piece. It was a lot like sports, trying to be the fastest, loudest, the cleanest, and so on. Chess fit very neatly into that because chess was not like music competitions, where there are many things which are subjective. First of all, some members of the jury, they like you, some don’t, and also you know there are favors exchanged, there are political things, so it’s an unfair game. In chess, everything was clear. If you are stronger than your opponent, you win. If you are about equal, there is a draw, if you are a weakling, you lose. It was all clear. It was beautiful because that was something I didn’t have in music. I would go, I would play in competition, I thought I did a wonderful job, and then you don’t go anyplace, and there is somebody who you know made mistakes who would proceed to next round. That was very unfair in the eyes of a little child. Chess gave me this solution, because it was very easy, you knew what you had to do in order to win.

But then, you know, when I was growing older, I learned that, first of all, there is more than one truth. You can play the same piece different ways, so that’s why it’s art and not sport. Also, I was not looking to win a game; I was not trying to play something the fastest anymore, and in chess, I also started to change. I noticed with myself, when I was playing, if I had to think about playing a winning move, or a move that was very beautiful, I would choose the weaker move which was very beautiful. That’s when you know you are an artist and not a sportswoman anymore. That’s when the decline of chess started for me.

DERRICK: I see. In your video interview with Pieter de Rooij, you spoke about having a photographic memory. Would you explain to us what it means to have a photographic memory?

VALENTINA: It’s a disaster. I don’t wish for people to think, oh, it would be so nice to have it. It’s a terrible thing in a way, because you have to learn actually to bypass it and learn other ways around, because with a photographic memory, basically you see something, you scan it in your head, and you have it. First of all, you make many mistakes. Then, even if you are looking at the page, what you see is an image of what you originally saw. It’s very difficult to analyze and see new things. So, for now, I don’t learn anything with my photographic memory. I keep staring at the music and finding new things. Also, it’s of course a disaster when you have a different score and you cannot find the place you want. This is not the nicest memory to have, but I think it’s less of a problem than, you know, people who have perfect pitch and they’re so attuned to it that they cannot play on untuned instruments. I don’t have this problem. I have perfect pitch, but it’s very flexible.

DERRICK: Are you able to memorize a score after reading it through just once?

VALENTINA: If I need to, yes, but it’s pushing myself, and I trained myself not to do it.

DERRICK: Does having a photographic memory mean that you don’t have to worry about memory slips?

VALENTINA: Oh yes, you do, you do, absolutely, because there are many things that can distract you when you perform, and you cannot rely on one kind of memory. You can see other things, or you can forget where the page is turned. Then you have to rely on others.

DERRICK: One website says of you, “At the beginning of her career, Lisitsa announced that all—ALL—her recordings would be unedited. No cutting and splicing, no fancy mixing and remixing. What you hear is what she played that day and at that time.” Did you really say that?

VALENTINA: Well, probably, but I was young and stupid.

DERRICK: I see, well, my next question was going to be, If you did say that, did you keep that resolution? I gather that that’s not a realistic expectation.

VALENTINA: No, it’s not about expectations, it’s about what other people expect. If everybody would be playing the same game, it would be different story, but in order to level the playing field, first of all, you have to keep up with technology.

DERRICK: What is your opinion about the state of classical music composition today? Is there anyone currently writing music whom you consider a great composer? If yes, who?

VALENTINA: I have no opinion on that. That’s not my business, to play contemporary music. I mean, I’m doing this as side jobs, you know, because I play a lot of chamber music and so on, and I think that’s about enough. What I’m good at is finding pieces like Rachmaninoff’s 1st Sonata which are forgotten, with which I think I can do something worthwhile. In any business there are companies which create new stuff and companies which produce good old stuff, and they’re just as necessary. I remember how Rachmaninoff, actually he had one of his female students who came to him and she wanted to learn all of Debussy’s preludes, and he asked her, “My child, how many Beethoven sonatas have you played.” She said, “Oh, well, two or three.” He said, “Well, go back and learn all of them, and then you can do novelties like Debussy.” Debussy was a novelty for him. That’s how I feel because, look, I’m still just in the beginning of my Beethoven project, I have so many things to learn, to study, just for myself, before I can dedicate any time to new music. There are plenty of people willing and able to do it. It’s just not something I want to do.

DERRICK: If there’s nobody writing today whom you think of as a great composer, then who was the last great composer, and why have there been no great composers since?

VALENTINA: I don’t bother myself with thinking about great composers, who was great, who was not so great. It’s just if his music appeals to me, and the last composer whose music appeals to me is Shostakovich. I feel very much connected with Shostakovich’s music, and unfortunately he didn’t write nearly enough for piano, in my opinion. I’m just old-fashioned.

DERRICK: How much importance do you attach to reviews of your playing?

VALENTINA: None whatsoever.

DERRICK: What general advice would you offer to an aspiring pianist?

VALENTINA: Practice. Practice. Practice.

DERRICK: Thank you, Valentina. I know your schedule is full, and I very much appreciate your making time for this interview.

Here is Valentina’s performance of the Schubert-Liszt “Ave Maria”. In the description, she calls it, “the most beautiful and inspired melody ever written.”)

Published in: on March 31, 2018 at 3:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ravel: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano with Anne Akiko Meyers, Violinist and Anton Nel, Pianist

Ravel began writing his second violin sonata in 1923, and worked on it off and on for four years. He completed it in 1927, and dedicated it to his friend, violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange. Ravel himself was the pianist at the premiere, which took place in Paris in May 1927 with none other than George Enescu taking the violin part. It was to be the last piece of chamber music Ravel would ever write.

The first movement is peaceful and reflective, with more than a hint of melancholy. The entire movement is wonderfully inventive, and the last few bars, beginning at about 7:15 in the video below, are exquisitely lovely.

The second movement, marked “Blues”, is the most daring of the three movements. It is bold and brash, full of unexpected accents and sensual slides. Ravel commented on it as follows during his trip to the United States in 1928:

To my mind, the ‘blues’ is one of your greatest musical assets, truly American despite earlier contributory influences from Africa and Spain. Musicians have asked me how I came to write ‘blues’ as the second movement of my recently completed sonata for violin and piano…. While I adopted this popular form of your music, I venture to say that nevertheless it is French music, Ravel’s music, that I have written. Indeed, these popular forms are but the materials of construction, and the work of art appears only on mature conception where no detail has been left to chance.

The third movement reminds me of nothing so much as a race, right down to the starter’s traditional, “On your mark… Get set… Go!”  The violin explodes off the starting block at measure 15 and sets a blistering pace that continues unabated all the way to the finish line.

This video features an absolutely brilliant performance by Anne Akiko Meyers on violin and Anton Nel on piano. It was recorded in October 2012 at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas. I was especially struck by the audio presence and true-to-life sound of both the violin and piano. Kudos to the sound engineer!

The tempo indications and the start times of the three movements are as follows:

1. Allegretto (0:00)
2. Blues. Moderato (7:55)
3. Perpetuum mobile. Allegro (13:44)

Published in: on February 28, 2018 at 4:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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