August 2008 reviews
The Soloist, by Steve Lopez, 273 pages, Putnam, $25.95.
While looking for material for his newspaper column three years ago, Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez met Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless man on the streets of L.A. playing a beat-up violin with only two working strings. He wrote a piece about Ayers, a gifted bassist who had once studied at Juilliard with Gary Karr before dropping out after developing schizophrenia in the 1970s. Ayers’s story resonated so strongly with readers that some of them began donating violins and cellos to the Times offices, and Lopez developed it into a continuing series of newspaper columns. Meanwhile, Lopez became Ayers’s friend, working to find a way to get him off the street, and the staff and musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic invited Ayers into their midst as well. There are many moving scenes in the book, but one of the more memorable is a meeting between Ayers and Yo-Yo Ma, who had briefly intersected when both were students at Juilliard. The book is well researched and is told in simple, direct prose that doesn’t sugarcoat any of the ongoing difficulties Ayers faces. A film version starring Jamie Foxx as Ayers and Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez is planned for release in late fall 2008. —Jennifer Melick
The Voice, by Thomas Quasthoff, recorded by Michael Quasthoff, translated by Kirsten Stoldt Wittenborn, 238 pages, Pantheon, $24.95.
Rather than cover bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff’s accomplishments as a musician, members of the general press have often steered discussions to his disability. Classical reviewers, meanwhile, studiously avoided it and have for the most part focused on “the voice.” Quasthoff—born in 1959 with severely deformed legs, arms, and hands, after his mother had been prescribed thalidomide while pregnant—has written an autobiography that covers both, telling his story in “as told to” format with his brother, Michael. In much of the early part of this book, the tone is tense and uncomfortable, and the singer frequently interrupts the narrative of what could have been depicted as nightmarish years of surgeries and special schooling, with humorous asides and philosophizing about the arts. Quasthoff emphasizes the great lengths to which his parents went to bring him up as a normal child: Forcing him to learn to walk even when doctors pronounced it impossible, not spoiling him out of pity, and trying to mainstream him in German schools, even when it was not customary to do so. In the book’s second half, when Quasthoff’s story turns to his success as a vocalist, an exhilarated tone takes over as he becomes one of the world’s most sought-after recitalists and soloists, regularly working with top orchestras and conductors. It’s an engrossing story, but readers wishing for a seamless narrative flow and consistency of tone will be disappointed, and will have to overlook things like frequent changes between present and past tense and jokes that surely were funnier told aloud in German; the English translation is overly literal as well. It is refreshing to read an autobiography of this type that doesn’t limit itself to the usual “against-all-odds” angle, but a documentary film might have been a better medium for this quirky, intellectual artist.
Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story, by Lang Lang with David Ritz, 253 pages, Random House, $24.95.
On one hand a brief, entertaining, and inspiring read, Lang Lang’s memoir also offers some perspective on the explosion of classical music in China—both the potential to inject life in the art form and potential drawbacks in the structure of the country’s music industry. Thanks to China’s one-child laws, writes Lang Lang, his entire generation was “born blessed and cursed by completely undivided parental attention and no sibling companionship. And worse, our parents had been robbed by the Cultural Revolution—their ambitions had been stymied and, in turn, they grafted their hopes onto us.” This was particularly true for Lang Lang’s father, an amateur musician who recognized his son’s talent early on and pushed him to practice constantly, with no option but to be “number one” in China’s rankings- and contest-obsessed musical culture. Eventually, Lang Lang moved to the U.S. to study at the Curtis Institute, where teachers and fellow students opened his eyes to what he perceives as a freer, more laid-back Western culture. The anecdotes—from practicing in the Beijing Conservatory, where parents used to shout instructions through practice room windows, to Lang Lang’s debut at the Ravinia Festival—are often funny and uplifting, but also a warning of the price paid to achieve superstardom.
Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Pictures, 192 pages, 206 photographs, edited by Pierre-Henri Verlhac, Amadeus Press, $49.95.
This year, the classical music world marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan, and, like it or not, he’s everywhere, including this coffee table book that documents Karajan’s life and career. It includes a foreword by violinist and Karajan protégé Anne-Sophie Mutter and an engaging sixteen-page biographical essay by German scholar Jürgen Otten. Many of the pictures are familiar and reinforce the conductor’s iconic image—stern, head bowed, eyes closed, seemingly lost in concentration. But others capture him in refreshingly candid moments, such as tending to an injured singer and doting on his wife, Eliette, and their two daughters. Unfortunately, the book, edited by Pierre-Henri Verlhac, is littered with mistakes and discrepancies. Most are insignificant; several are inexcusable: A short comment from pianist Evgeny Kissin recalls a Karajan performance of “Strauss’ Jupiter Symphony” (the composer is Mozart); the book’s selected discography credits the Berlin Philharmonic with the celebrated 1988 recording of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony (it was actually the Vienna Philharmonic); and, perhaps worst of all, two pictures reported to be from the set of a La Bohème film are actually from a production of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony (the name of the piece is clearly visible on both the movie slate and a cello part). This book is an important visual anthology, but don’t bet on the accuracy of its facts.
Also noted: This summer, Phaidon Press has been releasing paperback versions of titles from its previously released 20th Century Composers series, biographies of composers from the past 100 years. Composers and topics in the series include Bartók (Kenneth Chalmers), Britten (Michael Oliver), Gershwin (Rodney Greenberg), Prokofiev (Daniel Jaffé), Puccini (Conrad Wilson), Sibelius (Guy Rickards), Stravinsky (Michael Oliver), “American Pioneers” (Alan Rich), and “Minimalists” (K. Robert Schwartz). With contributors who are big names in the field, these well-researched titles have held up well over time; the reissues feature new cover art by New Yorker cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé. There is also one new title in the series, Paul Roberts’s Claude Debussy.
Notes Interdites: Two Films by Bruno Monsaingeon.
The Red Baton, Scenes of Musical Life in Stalinist Russia (55 minutes). Gennadi Rozhdestvensky: Conductor or Conjurer? (55 minutes). DVD extras of performances of Dead Souls Suite (Schnittke) and Zdravitsa (Prokofiev). Arte/Idéale, dist. Naxos.
The central figure in these two documentary films by French filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon is the intriguing Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, who for many years has conducted extensively in his homeland of Russia and in the West. I first heard him in the 1980s, when he led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at Symphony Hall. At times, Rozhdestvensky stood completely motionless, while other sections were marked by sudden, frenzied, jazz-style hand motions—an approach that baffled me, especially in such a rhythmically complex work. Yet the piece hung together perfectly. This turns out to be no minimalist approach. In the course of the Conductor or Conjurer, we see Rozhdestvensky working with conducting students and leading performances and rehearsals, and it becomes clear just what he is doing in order to get the results he wants. Monsaingeon occasionally uses creative footage, including a policeman directing traffic, to make it easier to “get” Rozhdestvensky’s eccentric but effective conducting method.
The Red Baton, an in-depth reminiscence by Rozhdestvensky
about the difficulties of composing and performing in the Soviet Union,
will be of special interest to historians of music in the culturally
fertile but politically stifling middle and late Soviet period. Born in
1931, Rozhdestvensky bares his soul about a subject that is clearly
still raw for him. Two central figures from this period were Sergei
Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. The film covers territory from
Prokofiev’s heartbreaking decision, after living in exile in Paris for
many years, to return to the Soviet Union in 1936, just as cultural
freedoms began to be radically curtailed by the government, to the
infamous Zhdanov decree of 1948, in which Stalin’s head of cultural
policy outlawed “formalist” music and art, with Shostakovich as a
particular target. It was certainly not the first time Shostakovich had
been condemned—in the 1930s his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
was the subject of a scathing public attack—but the 1948 decree had
wide-ranging effects, and, under culture minister Tikhon Khrennikov,
lasted well after the end of Stalin’s rule. Decades later, composers
such as Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina still struggled to have
their works performed in the Soviet Union, and Rozhdestvensky’s sense
of sadness and rage over lost opportunities is what drives the film.
Both films have music footage well worth watching for its own sake: a 1932 performance of Prokofiev performing his own Piano Concerto No. 3 and Rozhdestvensky conducting a 1973 performance of Haydn’s C-major Cello Concerto with Rostropovich and the U.S.S.R. Radio Symphony Orchestra.
The Reichsorchester: The Berlin Philharmonic and the Third Reich, directed by Enrique Sánchez Lansch, 55 minutes plus a bonus track of Wilhelm Furtwängler leading a 1942 performance of the Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Arthaus Musik, $28.98.
Lansch, whose inspirational 2005 film Rhythm Is It! spotlighted a youth dance project undertaken by the Berlin Philharmonic under Principal Conductor Simon Rattle, here trains his camera on a much darker episode in the orchestra’s history. In his excellent liner notes Lansch tells us that early in 1934 the German state purchased the financially struggling but “self-willed” collective, transforming the Philharmonic players “from proprietors into civil servants. The orchestra was rescued, but for the next eleven years, the musicians served as cultural ambassadors of the Nazi Reich.” It was a world where (non-Jewish) musical talent conferred privilege and “the ideologically persecuted made music alongside hard-line Nazis, in many cases right up to the end of the war.” The film balances chilling archival clips—especially memorable is a party official vehemently boasting of the government’s success in “removing Jews from cultural affairs”—with concert footage and contemporary interviews, most notably with 93-year-old violinist Hans Bastiaan, one of the two pre-1945 Philharmonic musicians still alive at the time the film was made. Bastiaan speaks of having to play “Jewish” music—Kreisler cadenzas, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto—only in secret, and recalls that “all of a sudden the portrait of Mendelssohn vanished [from its place in Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall] and this appalled us.” Lansch uses the music of Beethoven and other “good Germans” from the classical canon as an eerie leitmotif to his story.