Florence Foster Jenkins and Her Accompanist

Florence Foster Jenkins

The achievement of Florence Foster Jenkins, peerless soprano, has remained unsurpassed to this day; no one who hears her is ever the same.

There is so much that is marvelous about Florence Foster Jenkins — and there are already so many eloquent reactions — that it is a challenge to decide which particular aspect deserves special attention. Like countless admirers before me, I was changed forever once I had been introduced to her (on a long-playing record, which fortunately lives on as an easily obtainable CD). Of course I sorely regret having been born too late to know this incomparable singer in person, but the wonders of recording are such that we are left with a fairly accurate account, which is nothing less than stirring. I did go through a phase of envying anyone still awaiting the life-changing encounter, realizing that there is not anything quite like that first time, which can only be experienced once — until, that is, I came to recognize that no depth of familiarity with Florence Foster Jenkins would diminish the freshness of each new hearing. Every ensuing exposure somehow retains all the wonder and force of the first.

To the initiated, the name alone of Florence Foster Jenkins suffices

Florence Foster Jenkins Music Manuscript Program Saver Binder
Music Manuscript Program Saver Binder
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Yes, the mere mention of Florence Foster Jenkins to those in the know conjures up an awe-inspiring combination of timbre, rhythm, multilingual diction, and matchless intonation. This is why we return again and again to the precious few testaments of her unique qualities. Plays have been written to celebrate her, documentaries (Amazon.com promises it is re-stocking; apparently the demand is great) and written studies undertaken by amateurs and scholars alike in attempts to unlock Madame Jenkins’ secret, yet the quest seems to be never-ending with little satisfaction in sight. One has only to catch sight of a recital program  to comprehend why this is so. The essence of such a delicate yet passionate spirit cannot be captured in analyses and remembrances. The sole thing to do is to listen and rejoice — and sympathize with her outstanding accompanist; even he could be overwhelmed by emotion at times.

Sound Effects Affected Forever by Jack Foley

Sound Effects

When sound effects are realistic, they are taken for granted, thanks to Jack Foley, who invented the way that this is done.

A film audience is not meant to be consciously aware of the sounds — separate from the dialogue — that are audible most of the time, yet if these were missing from the sound track, it would indeed be noticeable and even disturbing. We expect to hear what we can see happening on the screen and have it be identifiable. To this very day, movies and television programs will list Foley artists in their credits: a continuing homage to the man originally responsible for coming up with the system for adding sound effects back into filmed footage. Jack Foley began his career during the era of silent film and was, it is fair to say, largely responsible for guiding hitherto soundless production over the threshold of “talkies”.

Key chains stand in for leg chains, and sound effects save the day

Sound Effects Percussion Instruments Custom Jewelry
Percussion Instruments Custom Jewelry
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Because sounds resulting from onscreen activity could not be picked up reliably by the microphones recording the actors’ speech, this system came to be developed whereby the sound effects would be created on what is known as a Foley stage (an environment with various types of surfaces and countless props) in synchronization with the movement shown on the screen. The original master himself, Mr. Jack Foley, possessed skills and an imagination that have never been equaled. One legendary event involved his recreating an entire sequence in the movie Spartacus with the use of footsteps and keychains rather than having to send a huge cast back to a location in Italy after the fact to be filmed as slaves, shuffling along in leg chains.

Old-fashioned yet still relevant sound effects

There are no Foley libraries. There are libraries we create for EFX editors for them to draw from but we start fresh every time. It is the inconsistency and imperfection of human and animal movement that make it real. No two of anything are every exactly alike as are our performances. Each time we create a sound it will have some variation. Think of each of our creations as a snowflake.

– Dean Minnerly (Foley artist)

This statement, taken from an interview, is a convincing answer (as is this clip) to the question of sound effects in our time and whether Foley artistry will continue to be necessary. Although there are substantial digital libraries available, they are perhaps only appropriate for less polished creations (or entirely digitized animations, which have possibilities to generate their own matching sounds in real time). For sound that truly matches the idiosyncratic movement displayed on the screen, it seems that the grace, rhythm, timing and other talents of Foley artists will always be in demand.


Music Therapy Is Effective for Plant Growth

Music Therapy

Long known to produce remarkable results for humans and other animal species, music therapy appears to have benefits for plant life as well.

Music therapy seems a redundant term and, at the same time, not nearly dignified or poetic enough to refer to its subject with the appropriate deference. For the sake of this look at some specific scientific (and pseudo-scientific) outcomes of its application, however, it is convenient. Much has been studied and written about the possibilities to aid people in all areas of their lives by using music therapy; by the same token, it has long been recognized that animals also benefit from having wisely chosen music played to them. This is not in dispute and — to me at least, having been able to live my life and earn my livelihood by virtue of classical music — not surprising.

Music therapy for everyone, and don’t forget the garden

Music Theapy Garden Poster
Violin Garden Poster
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What is unexpected and perhaps more difficult to envision is the idea that plants also respond to music therapy. Groundbreaking studies, including one of the earliest and most widely known, The Secret Life of Plants, clued us in that there was a great deal more going on in the plant world than many of us had suspected. Numerous experiments have been conducted demonstrating that human conversation in the vicinity of plants would cause accelerated and stronger growth and, taking the idea even further, researchers have examined the notion that music would stimulate plant growth. Dorothy Retallack was among the first to delve into this subject (her findings were published in her book, The Sound of Music and Plants, a hard-to-find rarity these days); because she was a musician and not a scientist, her work was not done following strictly scientific methodology and therefore discounted by some. Her results have been replicated since, though, and therefore cannot be ignored.

Classical music is green

Retallack’s observations that plant life flourished when treated to classical music (although not of a dissonant variety) and withered when subjected to rock music are striking, as is the fact that the plants began growing towards the source of the music they preferred and away from sounds that were perceived as undesirable. I recognize myself, with the difference that I can get closer and also farther as needed! Charmingly, the Philharmonia Orchestra of London decided to bestow some music therapy on a very beautiful and deserving audience; that seems a fitting way to conclude. I was delighted that this Mozart excerpt was not diminished by any misplaced nods to period practices, which makes me think: all the better to grow by, my dear! (Wait for the breathtaking loveliness of the beneficiaries, shown towards the end of the clip.)


Classical Music Persuades Us One and All

Classical Music

Some of us know that classical music persuades, inspires, and consoles, but it seems that the masterpieces also convince the uninitiated.

For quite a while now there has been a commercial airing regularly on Dutch television; its storyline always features a main character at the low point of his or her day who, after consuming a bit of the pick-me-up being advertised, is transformed into an energetic, creative leader. In a recently introduced iteration, a police investigator attempting to elicit a confession from a suspect suddenly begins to sing Vesti La Giubba (beautifully, I might add) — with the text, still in Italian, cleverly altered, and with subtitles to make sure the message is not lost — and all in the vicinity are moved to tears and to telling the truth. It’s fairly silly, in one way, although no more ridiculous than the drawn-from-life plots around which operas are composed. What fascinates me is that someone believed that this musical excerpt, of all the choices available (albeit with an adjusted libretto),would be the most compelling for an audience doubtless used to and expecting something very different.

Classical music persuades, recognized or not

Classical Music Persuades Victorian Wristlet
Victorian Ornaments Wristlets
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It is impossible for me to judge in unbiased fashion what the effect of the score to Tosca could be upon someone who is unfamiliar with it, let alone with Puccini’s oeuvre and the entire genre of opera. This compels me — knowing that I can never succeed — to try to unravel another mysterious commercial, one which intrigues me even more than the one described above. I can only think that its makers believed that classical music persuades and, more specifically, that anyone watching (and more importantly, listening) would have to be convinced to rush out and buy what is being shown. In this case, the words of the aria have not been changed and could hardly be further from the scenario; while the artist Mario Cavaradossi can be heard singing his heart out about the contrasts between his painting’s subject and his true love, we see frenzied customers grabbing items in a do-it-yourself store, flying through the air in slow motion.

I would give a great deal to have been present at the discussion concerning this clip. Did the art director at the advertising agency proclaim, “Tosca is so passionate that it will make people buy our products”? Was there an argument about it? Did the dissenting voices (the client, perhaps) have to be told that classical music persuades? Did anyone know what the aria is really about and either not care, think it was appropriate, or believe it could be used with not-so-subtle irony? Oh, what I would give . . .

In the case of this particular audience member, the exact opposite of the hoped-for response has been achieved. I admit that I never get tired of this tiresome commercial, no matter how often it pops up: a testament to how classical music persuades me to keep listening — and to close my eyes immediately and ignore the action until it has faded from the screen. Tosca happens to be the opera I most recently played, and I am very happy to dwell upon it. How wonderful that, instead of the common situation of having some annoying little ditty repeating itself over and over in one’s head all day long, unwanted, I am left with the final four thrilling measures from Recondita Armonia, of which I truly can never have enough.

Masterpiece Performed by a Veritable Master


Beethoven’s masterpiece set of 32 Variations in C Minor has always felt to me as if the entire universe were contained therein.

Of course, everything from Ludwig van Beethoven’s hand has that quality, so difficult to capture in a description yet so undeniably present —inevitability, an acknowledgement of the human condition, anguish at what that entails and hopefulness that mankind’s despair may be conquered. We cannot point to a place in the score of a masterpiece and say, ‘Here it is. That is what this is.’, but those emotions are surely there, able to be read and heard, as certainly as any music theory element that can be lifted out and analyzed. We can say that Beethoven’s music consists nearly entirely of development,  that Beethoven habitually came up with a theme possessing little in the way of a melodic line or heavy-weighted exposition and then went on to develop it to a perfect culmination. In essence, everything is a variation of what was outlined in the beginning — often not easily recognizably so, due to the immense imagination and ingenuity Beethoven had in creating new facets beneath the surface of what came before.

Masterpiece reflecting the world as we know it

Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata
Refrigerator Magnets

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From each astounding masterpiece that Beethoven bequeathed to us we come away with similar responses, I feel — even when there might be a difference in overall mood or more emphasis on one emotion rather than another. Of all these wonders, the composition 32 Variations on an Original Theme, in C Minor, WoO 80, written in 1806, is for me a crystallization of everything that could possibly be felt, dreamt, or aspired to. (I leave the musical analysis to those who are better equipped to carry it out.) Of all the pianists who have approached this piece (discounting only Maria João Pires, who, to my everlasting joy performed it as an encore after a recital I attended but, unfortunately, has not recorded it), the master Emil Gilels is the one who plays it with such sound and fury as if he had been born knowing it. In the words of a critic at Fanfare Magazine:

“. . . there’s an impressively elemental quality to his C-Minor Variations, and a wonderfully serene balance to the Wranitzky set. Neither has ever been surpassed, in my opinion . . .”

– Barry Brenesal

Acquire a recording here, and while waiting for it to arrive:


English Language Fights the Odds and Oddness

English Language

Woe is me — and the rest of us who think the English language beautiful — to see the grave errors being committed and adopted as acceptable.

It is a topic that seems never to wind down from lost momentum, and this is surely due to the constant replenishment of grounds for despair: the English language is a hardy one, indeed, and apparently can withstand more than its fair share of abuse (or misuse, if you will). Nevertheless, one must incessantly wonder if the situation is not becoming worse than ever before — so rampant and blatant are the painful errors on display nearly everywhere. Mindful of the trend to begin, at some point, to consider widespread usage part of the vernacular and ultimately worthy of incorporation into the modernized rules of language, I catch myself shuddering several times a day, if not more, when I see how people are writing and that it does not appear to concern them.

Can the English language survive such a battering?

Parchment Proclamation Binder
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I had to ask myself why I had been feeling more and more upset regarding what I consider to be grave crimes against the English language. The answer was quite awhile in coming, but I finally realized that, in this electronic era in which we find ourselves, we view immeasurable quantities of writing that were not visible to us in other times. There may have been just as many faux pas in the things people wrote, but we did not see them. Added to that is the fact that countless examples that would have been more closely edited and corrected before are now instantly posted — often under the modern pressure to remain “up to date” — and fixed after the fact or not at all. When this explanation occurred to me, I tried to practice some sort of therapy on myself so that, while noticing the mistakes in passing (that cannot be helped, I am afraid; I cannot seem to dismiss my inner editor), I would not feel quite as pained. I would merely catch a glimpse of something incorrect, not give it any further attention, and proceed, I decided.

The English language is more malleable than this writer

That strategy has not worked at all for me, and, at the same time, I have no illusions that the members of the greater public who are presenting their reactions and opinions all over the Internet will begin to ask themselves if there is another, better way to use the English language. I do believe, however, that the situation seems so lamentable merely because it is right in front of us in a manner that it was not just a short while ago. This leads me to the bittersweet conclusion that the language will adapt and even retain its beautiful core. It is just I (and those of like mind) who will suffer.

Chinese Opera Glimpsed and Heard Briefly

A visit to China several years ago brought about a most welcome introduction to the world of Chinese opera and the desire to hear more.

What a stroke of luck to be part of an orchestra that found itself invited to go on tour in China a few seasons back. Aside from all the fascinating sights and sounds waiting to be savored on such a trip in any circumstances, there can be no doubt that undertaking it as a kind of minstrel, in the midst of a like-minded troupe, bestows an extra sheen and depth on the experience. Among the selections on our program was the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, an adventurous bridge between two worlds (for us, at any rate). Our perceptive, thoughtful guide arranged for us — on a rare night off the stage— to attend a specially-arranged evening of Chinese opera (an example can be had from Amazon.com), more specifically the form known as Kunqu or Kun opera. That it was that particular variant was perhaps an extra layer of good fortune, as it is one of the oldest types still in existence and has had a far-reaching influence on many other forms of Chinese theatre, making it all the more fascinating.

Chinese opera musically exotic to Western ears at first yet familiar emotionally and dramatically

Life is Change, Midnight Blue,
Chinese and English Ceramic Tiles

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Not all my colleagues reacted in the same fashion, I came to discover later, but for me it was a discovery of something strange only at the very outset and then somehow known; I felt filled with vibrations of the most sympathetic sort. This quality of universality — that is all I can think to call it — is fairly impossible to explain, with explanations and analyses failing to capture its essence, but is magically instantly recognizable in great art, ready to be recognized and console (as well as inspiring) humanity for having to endure the human condition. The revelation of Chinese opera was a gift that has continued to reverberate in my life.

Like a Chinese puzzle, a Chinese opera within an opera

As a farewell to this subject for now, I would like to nod fondly at British composer Judith Weir, who gave us — among other riches — A Night at the Chinese Opera. An opera containing a Chinese opera: surely the best of all possible worlds.


Oscar Levant Was a One-Time Only Phenomenon

Oscar Levant was a man of many highly-developed talents, but his greatest achievement is arguably his recording of Gershwin’s music.

In my early teens I was the fortunate recipient of a long-playing record featuring Oscar Levant performing George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, his Concerto for Piano in F Major, and several shorter pieces by the same composer. I was immediately thrilled with the playing (I already loved the music) and intrigued with the background information I was given, along with that remarkable gift, concerning the close friendship that Levant and Gershwin shared. Later, when I became better able to appreciate the significance of that recording, I wanted to ask the person who had given it to me how such a gem had been chosen — but that, unfortunately, was no longer possible. I was left to marvel and eventually to replace the cherished vinyl with a much less romantic but also less fragile compact disk.

Oscar Levant called himself “a study of a man in chaos in search of frenzy”

Keyboard Telegraph Note Post Cards
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The above quotation was no doubt only partly in jest; Oscar Levant was known for turning his wit on himself at least as often as he used it to astonishing effect on his surroundings and acquaintances, and he did lead a trying life. His acerbic writings, it is a shame to note, are very hard to come by, although Amazon.com does its part in keeping a few titles available. This side of Oscar Levant — the brilliant cynic who turned up in several movies (always playing a version of his true self) and was a highly desirable host and guest on television shows, where his biting humor could unfailingly be counted upon — only became known to me later on. It was the fabulous piano playing, even after I was in a position to take into account all his other achievements, that made me a life-long admirer. I did not believe — and still do not — that anyone had equaled or surpassed his interpretation of the Gershwin Rhapsody and Piano Concerto: the fluid runs, articulated so clearly yet so well-rounded; the melancholy, endlessly arched melodic lines; the rhythmic stretching, right up against the beat . No one has come close to this exceptional rendition except, of course, Oscar Levant’s great friend, Mr. Gershwin.

Violets and Violins Have a Lot in Common

Violets and Violins

It is not just the matter of having the same first four letters. There is much more that is shared by violins and violets.

The confusion  and the fun  begin with the fact that the viola, in addition to being a stringed instrument, is a genus of flowering plant as well. Differing roots somehow ultimately led to the same word for both. While that is a pleasing and possibly confusing coincidence, it is usually not difficult to know which of the two is meant in conversation or writing due to the clues provided by the context. Thus far, it is fairly clear — in English, at least. Then, it appears that the lovely viola branches off in various languages to arrive at diminutives (violetta in Italian; the French violette) which are the equivalent of what we know as violets.

A beautiful bunch of violets

Violin Sunflower in Cloudy Sky,
Customizable Name Planners

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This era in which we find ourselves possesses characteristics that I know I will not live long enough to become used to. When I mistakenly begin to believe I am making strides, I have only to see an advertisement for an “acoustic violin” (on Amazon.com, for example) to be rudely awakened and realize yet again that there are certain things to which I should not expect to become accustomed. On the other hand, as a delicious consolation, I could not have known that learning Dutch would make me privy to some of the most marvelous double entendres imaginable. With “violin” being “viool” in Dutch, and the plural of “viool” happening to be “violen” (which also means violets or pansies), one can look in any publication’s gardening section (online or in print) and find such irresistible offers as winter-proof violins, three violins for five euros, a crate of strongly-rooted violins available for the best bid, and a few more bargains to brighten up one’s day.

Piano Playing of the Truly Grandest Order

Hearing piano playing by Maria João Pires is an experience that resembles no other, difficult to describe and not to be missed.

So much has been said about the piano playing of Maria João Pires, with so many comments and reviews coming close to capturing (in words) a description-defying phenomenon, that it seems nearly foolhardy and presumptuous to add yet another voice to those singing her praises — but sing I must, if for no other reason than the self-centered one that hearing her and looking forward to hearing her have been recurring markers in the life of this grateful writer.

Piano playing at age five heralds things to come

Grand Piano Thank You Greeting Card
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Hearing this snippet of a five-year-old’s piano playing makes one believe that it must have been obvious very nearly from her birth where Maria João Pires was headed, yet it could hardly have been imagined how different she would become from all the renowned pianists who are her fellows. Although every note she plays is extremely personal, she appears not to possess an ego in the usual manner; it is as if she exists only to be a medium through whom the composer’s will and intentions are heard. Time stands still at her bidding (I am thinking of the last two measures in the second movement of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto), but we also feel an inevitable, excruciatingly delayed though beckoning connection to what awaits.

The hearing of such piano playing as milestones in a musician’s life

The Beethoven concerto mentioned above — the fourth — comprised my own unforgettable introduction to Maria João Pires. I had begun playing in an orchestra in Lisbon, decades ago; she was not really known in the States, where I had just completed graduate studies, and therefore I had no inkling of the revelation  I was about to undergo. Before she arrived at the rehearsal, my Portuguese colleagues were saying, “You are in for an unbelievable experience.” How fortuitous, how incredible it was to sit so close and accompany this genius in a first encounter. Since that moment (the rehearsal and the performances were but a moment, over in a flash), one view of my life could be represented by the seeking of occasions to hear her piano playing again with the heightened anticipation of a concert on the horizon and, once satisfied, the next searches and maneuvers to be in her presence once more. At this writing, I am fortunate enough to be looking forward to that same Beethoven in two months, in Amsterdam. I may dare to breathe a bit more than I did in Portugal, so long ago, but not much, for fear of missing a telling, exquisite detail.