Nine Years of Blogging

February 2018

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, which is 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

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Published in: on August 31, 2018 at 5:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

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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Harvey Weinstein: Three Women, One Story

Last October, both The New York Times and The New Yorker published lengthy articles describing multiple alleged instances of sexual harassment, assault, and rape by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Since then, many additional women have come forward with their own Weinstein stories, women who may have kept silent for years, but who now, emboldened by the example of others, are eager to speak out.

In this post, I want to draw attention to three of these women, whose thoughts about Weinstein and the abuse of power are among the most insightful and eloquent I’ve seen. We can all learn from these women. They’ve been in the trenches of the entertainment industry for years, fighting an uphill battle for opportunity, equal pay, and personal dignity.

All three of these accounts resonate with me. The first belongs to Salma Hayek. It has been reproduced verbatim from a New York Times article of December 12, 2017.

    Harvey Weinstein Is My Monster Too     by Salma Hayek

Salma Hayek (photo © The New York Times)

Harvey Weinstein was a passionate cinephile, a risk taker, a patron of talent in film, a loving father and a monster.

For years, he was my monster.

This fall, I was approached by reporters, through different sources, including my dear friend Ashley Judd, to speak about an episode in my life that, although painful, I thought I had made peace with.

I had brainwashed myself into thinking that it was over and that I had survived; I hid from the responsibility to speak out with the excuse that enough people were already involved in shining a light on my monster. I didn’t consider my voice important, nor did I think it would make a difference.

In reality, I was trying to save myself the challenge of explaining several things to my loved ones: Why, when I had casually mentioned that I had been bullied like many others by Harvey, I had excluded a couple of details. And why, for so many years, we have been cordial to a man who hurt me so deeply. I had been proud of my capacity for forgiveness, but the mere fact that I was ashamed to describe the details of what I had forgiven made me wonder if that chapter of my life had really been resolved.

When so many women came forward to describe what Harvey had done to them, I had to confront my cowardice and humbly accept that my story, as important as it was to me, was nothing but a drop in an ocean of sorrow and confusion. I felt that by now nobody would care about my pain — maybe this was an effect of the many times I was told, especially by Harvey, that I was nobody.

We are finally becoming conscious of a vice that has been socially accepted and has insulted and humiliated millions of girls like me, for in every woman there is a girl. I am inspired by those who had the courage to speak out, especially in a society that elected a president who has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by more than a dozen women and whom we have all heard make a statement about how a man in power can do anything he wants to women.

Well, not anymore.

In the 14 years that I stumbled from schoolgirl to Mexican soap star to an extra in a few American films to catching a couple of lucky breaks in “Desperado” and “Fools Rush In,” Harvey Weinstein had become the wizard of a new wave of cinema that took original content into the mainstream. At the same time, it was unimaginable for a Mexican actress to aspire to a place in Hollywood. And even though I had proven them wrong, I was still a nobody.

One of the forces that gave me the determination to pursue my career was the story of Frida Kahlo, who in the golden age of the Mexican muralists would do small intimate paintings that everybody looked down on. She had the courage to express herself while disregarding skepticism. My greatest ambition was to tell her story. It became my mission to portray the life of this extraordinary artist and to show my native Mexico in a way that combated stereotypes.

The Weinstein empire, which was then Miramax, had become synonymous with quality, sophistication and risk taking — a haven for artists who were complex and defiant. It was everything that Frida was to me and everything I aspired to be.

I had started a journey to produce the film with a different company, but I fought to get it back to take it to Harvey.

I knew him a little bit through my relationship with the director Robert Rodriguez and the producer Elizabeth Avellan, who was then his wife, with whom I had done several films and who had taken me under their wing. All I knew of Harvey at the time was that he had a remarkable intellect, he was a loyal friend and a family man.

Knowing what I know now, I wonder if it wasn’t my friendship with them — and Quentin Tarantino and George Clooney — that saved me from being raped.

The deal we made initially was that Harvey would pay for the rights of work I had already developed. As an actress, I would be paid the minimum Screen Actors Guild scale plus 10 percent. As a producer, I would receive a credit that would not yet be defined, but no payment, which was not that rare for a female producer in the ’90s. He also demanded a signed deal for me to do several other films with Miramax, which I thought would cement my status as a leading lady.

I did not care about the money; I was so excited to work with him and that company. In my naïveté, I thought my dream had come true. He had validated the last 14 years of my life. He had taken a chance on me — a nobody. He had said yes.

Little did I know it would become my turn to say no.

No to opening the door to him at all hours of the night, hotel after hotel, location after location, where he would show up unexpectedly, including one location where I was doing a movie he wasn’t even involved with.

No to me taking a shower with him.

No to letting him watch me take a shower.

No to letting him give me oral sex.

No to my getting naked with another woman.

No, no, no, no, no …

And with every refusal came Harvey’s Machiavellian rage.

Salma Hayek on the set of the film “Frida”.

I don’t think he hated anything more than the word “no.” The absurdity of his demands went from getting a furious call in the middle of the night asking me to fire my agent for a fight he was having with him about a different movie with a different client to physically dragging me out of the opening gala of the Venice Film Festival, which was in honor of “Frida,” so I could hang out at his private party with him and some women I thought were models but I was told later were high-priced prostitutes.

The range of his persuasion tactics went from sweet-talking me to that one time when, in an attack of fury, he said the terrifying words, “I will kill you, don’t think I can’t.”

When he was finally convinced that I was not going to earn the movie the way he had expected, he told me he had offered my role and my script with my years of research to another actress.

In his eyes, I was not an artist. I wasn’t even a person. I was a thing: not a nobody, but a body.

At that point, I had to resort to using lawyers, not by pursuing a sexual harassment case, but by claiming “bad faith,” as I had worked so hard on a movie that he was not intending to make or sell back to me. I tried to get it out of his company.

He claimed that my name as an actress was not big enough and that I was incompetent as a producer, but to clear himself legally, as I understood it, he gave me a list of impossible tasks with a tight deadline:

1. Get a rewrite of the script, with no additional payment.

2. Raise $10 million to finance the film.

3. Attach an A-list director.

4. Cast four of the smaller roles with prominent actors.

Much to everyone’s amazement, not least my own, I delivered, thanks to a phalanx of angels who came to my rescue, including Edward Norton, who beautifully rewrote the script several times and appallingly never got credit, and my friend Margaret Perenchio, a first-time producer, who put up the money. The brilliant Julie Taymor agreed to direct, and from then on she became my rock. For the other roles, I recruited my friends Antonio Banderas, Edward Norton and my dear Ashley Judd. To this day, I don’t know how I convinced Geoffrey Rush, whom I barely knew at the time.

Now Harvey Weinstein was not only rejected but also about to do a movie he did not want to do.

Ironically, once we started filming, the sexual harassment stopped but the rage escalated. We paid the price for standing up to him nearly every day of shooting. Once, in an interview he said Julie and I were the biggest ball busters he had ever encountered, which we took as a compliment.

Halfway through shooting, Harvey turned up on set and complained about Frida’s “unibrow.” He insisted that I eliminate the limp and berated my performance. Then he asked everyone in the room to step out except for me. He told me that the only thing I had going for me was my sex appeal and that there was none of that in this movie. So he told me he was going to shut down the film because no one would want to see me in that role.

It was soul crushing because, I confess, lost in the fog of a sort of Stockholm syndrome, I wanted him to see me as an artist: not only as a capable actress but also as somebody who could identify a compelling story and had the vision to tell it in an original way.

I was hoping he would acknowledge me as a producer, who on top of delivering his list of demands shepherded the script and obtained the permits to use the paintings. I had negotiated with the Mexican government, and with whomever I had to, to get locations that had never been given to anyone in the past — including Frida Kahlo’s houses and the murals of Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, among others.

But all of this seemed to have no value. The only thing he noticed was that I was not sexy in the movie. He made me doubt if I was any good as an actress, but he never succeeded in making me think that the film was not worth making.

He offered me one option to continue. He would let me finish the film if I agreed to do a sex scene with another woman. And he demanded full-frontal nudity.

He had been constantly asking for more skin, for more sex. Once before, Julie Taymor got him to settle for a tango ending in a kiss instead of the lovemaking scene he wanted us to shoot between the character Tina Modotti, played by Ashley Judd, and Frida.

But this time, it was clear to me he would never let me finish this movie without him having his fantasy one way or another. There was no room for negotiation.

I had to say yes. By now so many years of my life had gone into this film. We were about five weeks into shooting, and I had convinced so many talented people to participate. How could I let their magnificent work go to waste?

I had asked for so many favors, I felt an immense pressure to deliver and a deep sense of gratitude for all those who did believe in me and followed me into this madness. So I agreed to do the senseless scene.

I arrived on the set the day we were to shoot the scene that I believed would save the movie. And for the first and last time in my career, I had a nervous breakdown: My body began to shake uncontrollably, my breath was short and I began to cry and cry, unable to stop, as if I were throwing up tears.

Since those around me had no knowledge of my history of Harvey, they were very surprised by my struggle that morning. It was not because I would be naked with another woman. It was because I would be naked with her for Harvey Weinstein. But I could not tell them then.

My mind understood that I had to do it, but my body wouldn’t stop crying and convulsing. At that point, I started throwing up while a set frozen still waited to shoot. I had to take a tranquilizer, which eventually stopped the crying but made the vomiting worse. As you can imagine, this was not sexy, but it was the only way I could get through the scene.

By the time the filming of the movie was over, I was so emotionally distraught that I had to distance myself during the postproduction.

When Harvey saw the cut film, he said it was not good enough for a theatrical release and that he would send it straight to video.

This time Julie had to fight him without me and got him to agree to release the film in one movie theater in New York if we tested it to an audience and we scored at least an 80.

Less than 10 percent of films achieve that score on a first screening.

I didn’t go to the test. I anxiously awaited to receive the news. The film scored 85.

And again, I heard Harvey raged. In the lobby of a theater after the screening, he screamed at Julie. He balled up one of the scorecards and threw it at her. It bounced off her nose. Her partner, the film’s composer Elliot Goldenthal, stepped in, and Harvey physically threatened him.

Once he calmed down, I found the strength to call Harvey to ask him also to open the movie in a theater in Los Angeles, which made a total of two theaters. And without much ado, he gave me that. I have to say sometimes he was kind, fun and witty — and that was part of the problem: You just never knew which Harvey you were going to get.

Months later, in October 2002, this film, about my hero and inspiration — this Mexican artist who never truly got acknowledged in her time with her limp and her unibrow, this film that Harvey never wanted to do, gave him a box office success that no one could have predicted, and despite his lack of support, added six Academy Award nominations to his collection, including best actress.

Even though “Frida” eventually won him two Oscars, I still didn’t see any joy. He never offered me a starring role in a movie again. The films that I was obliged to do under my original deal with Miramax were all minor supporting roles.

Years later, when I ran into him at an event, he pulled me aside and told me he had stopped smoking and he had had a heart attack. He said he’d fallen in love and married Georgina Chapman, and that he was a changed man. Finally, he said to me: “You did well with ‘Frida’; we did a beautiful movie.”

I believed him. Harvey would never know how much those words meant to me. He also would never know how much he hurt me. I never showed Harvey how terrified I was of him. When I saw him socially, I’d smile and try to remember the good things about him, telling myself that I went to war and I won.

But why do so many of us, as female artists, have to go to war to tell our stories when we have so much to offer? Why do we have to fight tooth and nail to maintain our dignity?

I think it is because we, as women, have been devalued artistically to an indecent state, to the point where the film industry stopped making an effort to find out what female audiences wanted to see and what stories we wanted to tell.

According to a recent study, between 2007 and 2016, only 4 percent of directors were female and 80 percent of those got the chance to make only one film. In 2016, another study found, only 27 percent of words spoken in the biggest movies were spoken by women. And people wonder why you didn’t hear our voices sooner. I think the statistics are self-explanatory — our voices are not welcome.

Until there is equality in our industry, with men and women having the same value in every aspect of it, our community will continue to be a fertile ground for predators.

I am grateful for everyone who is listening to our experiences. I hope that adding my voice to the chorus of those who are finally speaking out will shed light on why it is so difficult, and why so many of us have waited so long. Men sexually harassed because they could. Women are talking today because, in this new era, we finally can.

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In the next account, Emily Maitlis of the BBC interviews Zelda Perkins, who was a personal assistant to Harvey Weinstein in Miramax’s London office, and well acquainted with what she calls the darker side of his character. As she reveals in the following interview, in 1998 she reached a settlement with Weinstein that paid her £125,000 in exchange for her silence regarding a claim of attempted rape brought against him by one of her co-workers. Here are a few excerpts from that interview:

“With Harvey, there was no such word as ‘no’, and I think that’s really the crux of the matter.”

“It was the entire system. The system essentially protected Harvey in this case, but I can guarantee you it protects a hundred other people like that, because if you have the power and the money to create agreements that cover up essentially a very serious – in this case – crime, criminal action, then I dread to imagine what other things are being covered up.”

“This isn’t about Hollywood. This is about the abuse of power.”

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For yet one more point of view, I want to share the insights of acclaimed British actress Emma Thompson, who in this interview looks beyond the particulars of the Weinstein scandal to a pervasive, underlying male/female dynamic. The following three quotations are from that interview:

“I didn’t know about these things, but they don’t surprise me at all, and they’re endemic to the system anyway.”

“This has been part of our world – women’s world – since time immemorial.”

“What we need to start talking about is the crisis in masculinity, the crisis of extreme masculinity, which is this sort of behavior, and the fact that it is not only okay, but it also is represented by the most powerful man in the world at the moment.”

A personal note: Near the end of this interview, Ms. Thompson says, “I do see and hear a lot of voices, and I do want to add mine to theirs.”

So do I, and I have a blog.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on January 31, 2018 at 5:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Maurice Ravel: Boléro (or) A Grown-Up’s Guide to the Orchestra

Maurice Ravel

First, a word about the subtitle. A Grown-Up’s Guide to the Orchestra was my idea obviously, not Ravel’s, inspired by Britten’s Young Person’s Guide which I featured here last month. Having done my best in that post to introduce young people to the orchestra, I feel duty-bound to do the same for grown-ups, and can think of no better way than through Ravel’s Boléro, which shares at least this much in common with Britten’s famous work: both feature the instruments of the orchestra, either in extended solo passages or together with other instruments, in ways designed to showcase their unique voices and character. To be sure, Britten approaches this objective in a more comprehensive, methodical fashion, but his aims were both musical and didactic, while Ravel’s were strictly musical.

Music historian, university professor, and author Betsy Schwarm wrote the following description of Boléro, to which I have added some time stamps from the video below.

Boléro is a one-movement orchestral work composed by Maurice Ravel, known for beginning softly and ending, according to the composer’s instructions, as loudly as possible. Commissioned by the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, Boléro was first performed at the Paris Opéra on November 22, 1928, with a dance choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska. The work has been featured in many films since its creation, and was an integral part of the plot in Blake Edwards’ 1979 film “10”, starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek.

Initially, Rubinstein asked Ravel to create for her a work with Spanish character, suggesting that he – a highly skilled orchestrator who six years earlier had reworked Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – might adapt for orchestra some piano pieces by the Spaniard Isaac Albéniz. But after some consideration, Ravel instead wrote his own original composition, a piece he called Boléro – though some observed that the rhythms were more like those of the fandango and seguidilla than the bolero. At its debut Rubinstein herself took the solo role of a sultry café dancer enticing her masculine audience, whose growing excitement is reflected in the work’s signature crescendo.

Boléro is a set of 18 variations on an original two-part theme – or perhaps, more properly speaking, 18 orchestrations of that theme – for the theme itself does not change, though the instruments do. After an opening rhythm on the snare drum (a rhythm that continues unabated throughout the work, and which always makes me think of castanets – DR), the piece proceeds as follows:

  1. [0:40] solo flute (in the instrument’s low range)
  2. [1:30] solo clarinet (also low in the range)
  3. [2:20] solo bassoon (high in its range)
  4. [3:10] solo E-flat clarinet (smaller and higher in pitch than the standard B-flat clarinet)
  5. [4:00] solo oboe d’amore (between the oboe and the English horn in pitch and tone)
  6. [4:50] muted trumpet and flute (the flute floating like overtones parallel to the trumpet’s line)
  7. [5:40] solo tenor saxophone (an unusual inclusion in an orchestra, but Ravel liked jazz)
  8. [6:30] solo soprano saxophone (a small, straight, high-pitched saxophone)
  9. [7:20] French horn and celesta (the bell-like tones of the latter parallel to the horn’s line)
  10. [8:08] quartet composed of clarinet and three double-reeds (a combination organlike in timbre)
  11. [8:58] solo trombone (replete with sensuously sliding passages)
  12. [9:49] high woodwinds (growing more strident in tone)

With variation 13 [10:38], the strings finally emerge from their background role to take the lead for the remaining variations. The crescendo continues to build; the drumbeat persists, becoming ever more prominent. Before long, trumpet accents are added, contributing to the intensity until, in the final moments, the full orchestra is tossed into the mix – trombones, cymbals, and all – bringing the piece to an exultant, if abrupt, conclusion.

Notes by Betsy Schwarm

In this video, Valery Gergiev (pronounced va-ler-y ger-gyev) leads the London Symphony Orchestra. You will notice that Gergiev doesn’t conduct with a baton, as most conductors do, nor with his bare hands, as he does in my post of his performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird. “But what,” I hear you ask, “is with the toothpick?” I confess, I don’t know why he conducts with a toothpick. Some have suggested that he uses it as a protest against those who have criticised him for not using a baton when he conducts, just his hands. Others have said that he began using a toothpick after his baton flew into the orchestra or the audience. Still others have postulated that using a toothpick requires the musicians to watch the conductor more attentively. I haven’t found a definitive answer, which may have to wait until Gergiev himself addresses this question.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this extraordinary performance of one of Ravel’s many masterpieces.

Published in: on December 31, 2017 at 5:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Benjamin Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

Benjamin Britten

Once again, the gift-giving season is upon us, and once again, I have a special treat for young viewers: Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which is subtitled, “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell”.

I can’t think of a better way to introduce young people – or people of any age, for that matter – to the wonders of the symphony orchestra. The Young Person’s Guide is a masterpiece. I’m especially pleased with the attached video. The audio quality is superb, and the many close-ups make it easy to associate each of the instruments with its particular sound.

This is a short video – only 17 minutes – and I encourage parents of young children to watch it with them. In it, the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne is conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. I’ve added time indicators to the description below to help match up the various instruments of the orchestra with their appearance in the video.

The following description of The Young Person’s Guide was written by the noted American music critic, Richard Freed.

In 1945, just after the premiere of his opera Peter Grimes, Britten was asked by the British Ministry of Education to compose the music for a film to be called “Instruments of the Orchestra”, designed to acquaint young people with the characters of the various instruments and instrumental choirs that make up the modern orchestra. He went to work on this assignment early the following year, turning to the variation form that figures so prominently in his catalogue of works and taking his theme in this case from the rondeau Henry Purcell composed in 1695 for a play by Mrs. Aphra Behn called “Abdelazer” or “The Moor’s Revenge”.

For the film version, a spoken text, to introduce the respective variations and instruments, was written by Eric Crozier, who was to provide Britten in the next few years with librettos for three operas and the cantata “Saint Nicolas”. Some six weeks after the concert premiere, in the fall of 1946, the film had its first showing in London; within a year or so The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was well on the way to establishing itself as the most widely known work composed by an Englishman since Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance Marches” and, like those marches, a stunning showpiece for the virtuoso orchestra.

The theme itself is given a full workout before the sequence of variations begins. It is stated first by the full orchestra [0:05], then given to the woodwinds [0:27], then to the brass [0:50], then (in slightly varied shape) to the strings and harp [1:10], and finally declaimed rhythmically by the percussion [1:27] before being restated by the orchestra at full strength [1:43]. The various choirs having been thus introduced, we proceed to the chain of variations, 13 in number, in which the individual instruments are spotlighted.

Each of the variations reflects a different character: some tender, some slightly sardonic, some mysterious, some straightforwardly humorous, all charged with great originality and wit, in the following sequence: flutes and piccolo, with harp accompaniment [2:01]; oboes [2:34]; clarinets [3:35]; bassoons [4:20]; violins [5:11]; violas [5:44]; cellos [6:45]; double basses [7:55]; harp [8:54]; horns [9:44]; trumpets [10:34]; trombones and tuba [11:02]; percussion [12:15]. The timpani begin the final variation, and provide a ritornello between the appearances of the other instruments: bass drum with cymbals [12:31], tambourine with triangle [12:43], snare drum with wood block [12:55], xylophone [13:06], castanets with gong [13:18], and finally, the whip [13:33]. The entire percussion section then celebrates the end of the chain of variations, subsiding to permit the xylophone to lead into the fugue.

In this final section, Britten puts his fragmented orchestra back together in the grandest style, beginning with the piccolo [14:11], moving through the other instruments and choirs, and concluding with a glorious proclamation of the original Purcell theme by the brass as the woodwinds and strings exult in the fugue theme and the percussion link the two in a festive frame.

Notes by Richard Freed

Published in: on November 30, 2017 at 4:27 pm  Comments (1)  
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