January Short Fuses – Materia Critica
Each month, our arts critics — music, book, theater, dance, and visual arts — fire off a few brief reviews.
Newton native Norman Zamcheck has persisted for 5 decades as a songwriter and entertainer. This magna cum laude Yale graduate has written hundreds of songs, played solo and with groups, and performed for musical theater and the Pilobolus Dance Company.
In the early 1970s, Norman placed an ad in the Boston Phoenix for a singer. It was answered by 17-year-old California native Suzy Williams, an infamously wild performer: “I’m looking for a man strong enough to hold on to me”, she responded. They soon became a couple in life and in music. Norman’s distinctive songwriting — a raucous yet sophisticated blend of rock and ragtime, vaudeville and boogie-woogie — was perfectly suited for Suzie, whose voice recalled the gut bucket vocals of Bessie Smith and Janis Joplin. Thus was formed Stormin’ Norman and Suzi. They would beef up the arrangements with bands and horn sections (I was a member in the late ’70s).
In 1985, after two albums, playing clubs across the Northeast (including a performance at Carnegie Hall), Suzie left for a career in New York with a new husband (she currently performs in the LA area). Norman took up teaching only in as he describes it “the toughest New York Schools”. He began first as a music and social studies teacher and then became as an assistant principal in Queens. Always he maintained a side career in music working often with famed Klezmer clarinetist Andy Statman.
Stormin’ Norman has produced what he describes as it, “5 or 6 albums’. Two are on Spotify and others are now long lost LPs going back to just after he graduated from college. His new (five song) album is called Euphoria (It can be found on Soundcloud.) Since retiring from teaching his dream has been to put together a big band ensemble of New York musicians. The latest music and live performances are the culmination of those efforts, which took many years. “It costs me a fortune it’s but all I do” he explained. “I supplement the expense by teaching music privately”. Unlike his loose and funky shows with Suzy Williams, with whom his still performs from time to time, these band arrangements are carefully rehearsed. The music has influences of jazz, boogie-woogie, Klezmer, blues and Broadway. The ensemble features singer Genevieve Faivre and a crack band of session musicians.
The Real Stormin Norman performance on January 30 at The Lilypad in Inman Square has been cancelled.
— Tim Jackson
Nothing prepared me for the deeply involving journey that pianist Kenneth Hamilton took me on in his new two-CD album.
I have hailed here two of the half-dozen previous CD releases by world-renowned piano virtuoso and musicologist Kenneth Hamilton (who is also Head of the School of Music at Cardiff University in Wales). One consisted of the complete Preludes of Chopin, plus other major pieces by the same composer. The other was devoted to some of Hamilton’s favorite Romantic-era encore pieces.
But nothing prepared me for the deeply involving journey that he took me on, through his new two-CD album Kenneth Hamilton Plays Liszt, Volume 1: Death and Transfiguration (Prima Facie PFCD167/168; 152 minutes). All the tracks, such as this one, can be heard on YouTube, Spotify, and other streaming services, and a minute from each track is here. Released in November 2021, it quickly became a UK Official Top 5 Recording and was selected by Gramophone magazine as one of the best classical releases of the year.
The CDs contain some of Liszt’s most highly regarded major pieces for solo piano, including the great one-movement (or is it four movements in one?) Sonata in B Minor, the Ballade No. 2 (likewise in B Minor), and four pieces from the set Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, one of which, “Funérailles,” was inspired by Chopin and even quotes, prominently, his “Military” Polonaise. There are also two other tributes to Romantic-era composers: Liszt’s enriched version of a Schubert impromptu and his renowned, enveloping arrangement of the “Liebestod” from the end of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
Separating these, and setting them in relief, are a dozen mostly shorter pieces. Some are lighter in mood (“En rêve—Nocturne”), but others are highly experimental for their day, such as the now-renowned, nearly atonal “Nuages gris” (Gray Clouds). Equally bold is the “Csárdás macabre,” an intensely glowering commentary on the style of Liszt’s own earlier Hungarian-themed pieces such as the famous Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. The irony here is intensified by strong hints at the “Dies irae” Gregorian chant (from the Mass for the Dead).
Hamilton is the author of the widely hailed After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford University Press). Here he applies some of the ideas that he presented in that book, refreshing certain well-known scores with alternative notes and passages that he has found in writings and commentaries by various Liszt disciples, such as Arthur Friedheim.
The general listener may not notice some of these differences, but will certainly get caught up, as I did, in the rich variety of moods that Hamilton conjures up. Hamilton has mastered the art of making us feel that he is improvising the music as it goes along, even when he is playing exactly the same notes that dozens of other pianists have recorded.
Best of all, the booklet announces that there’s a volume 2 in the works, subtitled “Salon and Stage.” Kenneth Hamilton knows how to turn a CD into a deeply engaging intellectual and musical experience. He is one of the great treasures of the classical-music world today.
— Ralph P Locke
An impressive and finely recorded album of the Beethoven string quartets ably brings out this music’s vitality and charm.
Who needs another recording of the Beethoven string quartets? Well, when they’re performed by the Dover String Quartet, all of us do, evidently. At least that’s how things stand with this second installment (Cedille) in the ensemble’s ongoing survey of these cornerstones of the repertoire.
The Dover seems to be taking a chronological approach to the 16 quartets: 2020’s first volume was devoted to the op. 18 set while this new one showcases the middle-period works — the three “Rasumovsky” Quartets, plus the “Harp” and “Serioso.”
These are the pieces in which Beethoven truly professionalized the genre: their technical and expressive demands remain significant and, if only the F-major Quartet (op. 59 no. 1) is truly symphonic in duration, none of the five lack for strong musical arguments.
Especially given those characteristics, the Dover’s performances are captivatingly light on their feet. The F-major’s meccanico Scherzo trips with humor and grace. The C-major’s (op. 59 no. 3) limber finale straddles the line — just — between sheer exuberance and mania. Even the F-minor’s (op. 95, “Serioso”) stormy opening, though vigorous and packed, feels rooted in dance.
These readings are likewise winningly songful. Nothing is underlined too heavily and tempos always move, which particularly benefits the slow movements in opp. 59 no. 3 and 74 (the “Harp”).
If anything, one might want things held back just a notch, tempo-wise, in op. 95 and at the end of the “Harp’s” first movement: there, the bravura violin arpeggios zip by at such a clip that it nearly careens (and, worse, falls into the textural background).
But those are small quibbles in an otherwise impressive and finely recorded set that ably brings out this music’s vitality and charm.
Lou Harrison’s 1986 “Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan” is a remarkable fusion of Western and Eastern musical influences.
The adjective may, generally, be overused, but Lou Harrison was a true original. Born in 1917, a student of Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg, enthusiast for various world musical cultures, Harrison’s music sounds like no one else’s.
Part of the reason for this is because Harrison occasionally built his own instruments. He was particularly taken with Indonesian gamelan and, in the ’70s, constructed his own “American gamelan” equivalent, christened Si Betty. Harrison played in and wrote for the ensemble for the last 30 years of his life. One of his scores he wrote for the group is his 1986 “Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan.”
The piece itself is a remarkable fusion of Western and Eastern musical influences, perhaps the most audible one being the retuning of the piano to align it with the just intonation of the gamelan. Accordingly, the blend between soloist and accompanying instruments is discreet.
Formally, though, the Concerto’s three movements are traditionally structured: the outer pair are largely extroverted while the dreamy middle one conjures an atmosphere of beguiling mystery. Throughout, Harrison’s writing is flowing and tuneful while also redolent of Minimalist patterns.
As played here (for CMA) by pianist Sarah Cahill and Gamelan Galak Tika (co-led by Evan Ziporyn and Jody Diamond) it proves a hypnotic entry in the genre. Cahill and the ensemble make much of the big first movement’s play of gestures — noble and ritualistic in the outer sections, dancing nimbly in the substantial middle part — in the process allowing its musical architecture to emerge naturally.
Delicacy of attack is the theme of the haunting slow movement, while the playful finale dances gaily. Taken together, it’s a gem of a performance and a revelation of a piece.
— Jonathan Blumhofer
Rock and roll is pretty ridiculous a lot of the time, but every once in a while it gives us something like what happened at Oasis: Knebworth 1996.
More than two and a half million people tried to score tickets to Oasis’s Knebworth gigs. Most failed, but 14-year-old Madeleine Hamilton endured hours on the phone to become one of the lucky 250,000 headed to Hertfordshire.
“I was running up and down the hallway,” she recalls in Jake Scott’s documentary Oasis: Knebworth 1996 (streaming on Paramount+), “going, ‘Yes! I’ve got tickets! I’ve got tickets!’”
Madeleine’s parents were less excited, and in fact weren’t going to let their daughter go until her not-even-an-Oasis-fan older brother Jonathan came to her rescue. “I’ll take you,” he told his sister. “Life’s short.”
Fast forward to Saturday, August 10, two thirds of the way through the first show of Oasis’s two-night stand. Lead singer Liam Gallagher has left the microphone to his big brother Noel for “The Masterplan.”
“The lights just dimmed,” Madeleine recalls in the documentary. “And everything was coming to, you know, almost like a calm. There was a kind of still of the night, and that song playing, and just this lovely feeling in the air. I remember looking at my brother and just thinking, ‘I’m never gonna forget this moment.’ We were young and carefree and you had not a worry in the world at that age. When you hear the words to ‘Masterplan,’ and you know what they’re about and you don’t know what’s gonna happen in life, you know, [so] take your chances. Life’s short, enjoy it. That’s exactly what we were doing. We had no idea at the time that my brother was gonna be diagnosed with cancer within six months, and, you know, his life was gonna change so dramatically. He was so young, he was just 26. And he did go on and live another few years, but, you know, things were never the same. It’s such a special memory, it’s such a precious, precious memory, because it really was the last time we really spent a day just enjoying life and it was amazing that I got to spend it with him.”
Anyway, rock and roll is pretty ridiculous a lot of the time, but every once in a while it gives us something like that.
— Adam Ellsworth
The popularity of Netflix’s climate crisis satire Don’t Look Up proves there is a hunger to have the failure of politicians, corporations, billionaires, and the mainstream media called out. There are also increasing demands from within the creative community that the coming disaster demands a radical redefinition of what culture means, its essential value. Novelist Ben Orki’s recent commentary in the Guardian is one such clarion call: “We have to find a new art and a new psychology to penetrate the apathy and the denial that are preventing us making the changes that are inevitable if our world is to survive. We need a new art to waken people both to the enormity of what is looming and the fact that we can still do something about it.”
I agree, though for years scientists have been warning us of the coming environmental catastrophe, but these writings have been overlooked and/or discredited (often via disinformation funded by the fossil fuel industry) in the public square. (Solutions proposed by super-rich technocrats have fared better in the media.) These scientific testimonies come with facts and passion, propelled at times by traumatizing visions of what it is like to watch parts of nature die, in some cases forever. Celebrated American biologist E.O.Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who died on December 26 at the age of 92, is one of those invaluable messengers.
Purveyors of culture need to see that the time calls for all hands on deck. The Library of America recently published the first of two volumes of E.O. Wilson’s writing for nonspecialists. But the initial volume contains a trio of his books (Biophilia, The Diversity of Life, Naturalist) that do not explicitly take up the cause of the climate crisis. Wilson saw that an emergency had arrived — what we do now can (hopefully) mitigate the enormous damage to come. Why not highlight his efforts, in books such as 2016’s Half-Earth, to offer ways to protect the world’s rapidly decaying biodiversity?
In that spirit, I recommend his moving 2006 volume The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (W.W. Norton, 175 pages). One wishes Wilson had mounted a more frontal assault on the forces that have been aiding and abetting the demolition of Nature for centuries. There are no concrete proposals for reforming politics or economics, aside from a suggestion that wealth be distributed more evenly around the world. Wilson’s focus is on persuading people of faith, particularly Christian evangelicals, of their duty to the environment. On that front, he does not press his case — that it is the sacred duty of the great religions to no longer bless the “pauperization of Earth’s fauna and flora” — as strongly as he might. Wilson points out that believers “have ignored the command of the Abrahamic God on the fourth day of the world’s birth to “let the waters teem with countless living creatures, and let birds cover the land across the vault of heaven.” But he completely overlooks the pernicious influence of apocalypticism and slams up against a predictable roadblock — Holy Scripture is incomplete:
We took a wrong turn when we launched the Neolithic revolution. We have been trying ever since to ascend from Nature instead of to Nature. It is not too late for us to come around, without losing the quality of life already gained, in order to receive the deeply fulfilling benefice of humanity’s natural heritage. Surely the reach of religious belief is great enough, and its teachers generous and imaginative enough, to encompass this larger truth not adequately expressed in Holy Scripture.
The notion that the great religions have been part of a “wrong turn” is not going to win over acolytes. Neither does The Creation point out the ways in which collective consciousness must change to turn things right: generations to come will be required to take to heart (and act on) the “larger truth” missing in God’s Word. Wilson’s revised gospel demands that we do more than treasure the myriad riches of nature — from ants and toads to microscopic creatures. It commands us to actively protect them from hostile forces (invasive species, pollution, overpopulation, etc). And that will mean considerable alterations in how people in the developed countries live their lives. The arts must be part of that transformation, insists Orki, or become irrelevant.
The problem, argues Wilson the scientist, is that most people cannot articulate what the stewardship of Nature means to them personally. We cannot voice why we should care for the planet and accept our moral obligation to preserve all life for future generations. More knowledge about the environment needs to be disseminated in our schools; more (and more creative) science education should be funded. Learning about Nature, especially at a young age, is a means to proselytize for its significance — it spiritualizes its value, reversing what Wilson calls the “humanization of the Earth.” This vision is more than holy enough for those who believe that it is a matter of ultimate concern that Nature’s riches be preserved — if only to ensure our own survival. The Creation is an important, at times poignant, plea that there is still time to cultivate respect and harmony for the planet and turn away from the destruction enabled by denial, ignorance, and indifference. Sapere aude commands Wilson — Dare to think on your own.
— Bill Marx
In honor of what would have been her 100th birthday on January 17, WGBH will be rebroadcasting the PBS special Betty White: First Lady of Television on January 14 at 10 p.m. EST. The special, much of which was filmed at the Television Critics Association press tour in the summer of 2018 in Los Angeles, features a star-studded cast of characters, including co-stars from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Georgia Engel, Valerie Harper, and Gavin McLeod. Engel and Harper passed away in 2019 and McLeod two years later. When McLeod died in May 2021, Betty’s other co-star and friend, Ed Asner, posted on Twitter: “My heart is broken. Gavin was my brother, my partner in crime (and food) and my comic conspirator. I will see you in a bit Gavin. Tell the gang I will see them in a bit. Betty! It’s just you and me now.” Asner died just months later, in August.
Betty White had an active Twitter account. It was an ongoing joke that, whenever her name was trending, people were worried she had died. It was a cruel irony that 2021, a difficult year on many fronts, ended with the effervescent star dying before the world could celebrate her making it to 100 years of age. She had a bawdy sense of humor (enjoyed by many on the long-running NBC series The Golden Girls) and a passion for equal rights and social justice. The PBS special features Arthur Duncan, an African American dancer whose appearance as a guest on The Betty White Show in 1954 caused some controversy, which White responded to by making him the first African American entertainer to appear on a regular basis on an American variety show. The special also features Valerie Bertinelli, Ryan Reynolds, Tina Fey, and Alex Trebek.
— Peg Aloi