In some sense its nice when the lot you picked out of an auction turns out to be the top lot. That’s from an observer’s point only, however. Had I been bidding on the sterling silver two-handled presentation bowl with an inscription to Maestro Arturo Toscanini, I wouldn’t have been so excited to see the price climb out of the $4,000-$6,000 estimate range to reach $28,125 (including buyer’s premium).
That’s what the 1921 bowl brought at Doyle in New York today, however. More than 80 lots of property from the Collection of Arturo Toscanini met the hammer after being consigned by the the Estate of his Grandson, Walfredo Toscanini (the Maestro died in 1957).
Auction totals brought just under $200,000 against an estimate of $94,480-149,670.
Born in Parma, Italy, Toscanini was one of the world’s most prominent conductors of the 20th century. During his lifetime, he was music director at Milan’s La Scala, New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra, and finally, the first music director of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Generations of Americans were introduced to classical music through his radio and television broadcasts and numerous recordings.
Whiting Sterling Silver Two-Handled Presentation Bowl Bearing inscription to Maestro Arturo Toscanini, 1921. Height 13 1/2 inches (34.3 cm), width 20 1/2 inches (52.1 cm), approximately 136 ounces. Doyle Auctions.
This exhibit seems to be complimentary to a recent revelation by Neil Young that Apple Co-founder Steve Jobs preferred Vinyl. Like Young, some artists also prefer the medium.
The Miami Art Museum (MAM) will soon kick off a season dedicated to exploring the culture of vinyl records within the history of contemporary art with The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl, a mixed media group exhibition on view at MAM from March 18 to June 10, 2012. Bringing together artists from around the world who have worked with records as their subject or medium, this ground‐breaking exhibition examines the record’s transformative power from the 1960s to the present. Continue Reading »
Remorse From An Underbidder, or How I Could Have Owned A Piece of Gustav Mahler, But I didn’t. Yet I Am More Likely To Own One In Future
There are two kinds of regret as a collector. You regret things that you have just bought. Or you regret for things that you didn’t buy, which has haunted you ever since.
The latter case happened recently with Swann Galleries auctioning “19th & 20th CENTURY PRINTS & DRAWINGS.” Among them, Lot 68 featured an etching and drypoint print of Gustav Mahler by Emil Orlik.
The music of Gustav Mahler came late in my life. The Mahlerian Mahler-mania started from the middle of 1990′s in China. I have not grown to love his music unequivocally. (For example, I have yet to feel connected to his Symphony of a Thousand.) But enough of his music has influenced me profoundly. I may quibble a little about the abuse of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite during the Christmas season or using Mozart’s string quartets as dining music. But the monumentality of Malher’s music commands listeners wholehearted attention and devotion. The irony, ambiguity, extremity and “lengthy” compactness of human emotions makes each listening experience a journey anew.
Just 100 years ago, Mahler was the music director of New York Philharmonic. The Mahler Symphony in Sequence was the pinnacle event in the last season at the Carnegie Music Hall. The companion brochures (which I didn’t throw away) contain pictures, stories and anecdotes. A quick search online shows that numerous photos, cartoons, paintings and letters are available for further study. Unlike Sebastian Bach, or even Beethoven, the number of first-hand materials related to Gustav Mahler is abundant. This is a true blessing for Mahler fans who can eventually own a piece of Mahler that freezes the music torrent into something more tangible.
Mahler was not attractive. His forehead is broad, his nose protruding, his eyes small but sharp. That makes an impressive portraiture, but also elicits temptation of exaggeration or caricature based on strong facial features. My first encounterance with Mahler portraiture was in the National Gallery of Art. A bronze statue made by Rodin was once treasured gift of Walter Bruno, the protege of Mahler. Without eyeglass, the composer, with his head tilted slightly upward, seems to fall into his own thoughts. It is a convincing work of art that penetrates Mahler’s physiognomy into a realm of his psychic predisposition. In fact it is hard to read this portraiture, as much as his music, but I could not deny the eminent presence of his peculiar spiritual and intellectual characteristics.
I knew nothing about Emil Orlik when I spotted the print in Swann Auction Galleries last Saturday for the preview. If I was immediately drawn by the iconic face, Eric could spare such sentimentality and delve into the artistic merit directly. It is a daring image. The modeling of the head is meticulous and intricate, yet his upper body is merely suggested through a few lines. The incongruity portends the prowess and discipline possessed by the artist to guide the viewers into a state of being higher than mere photographic realism. Those succinct lines, seemingly unconscious, are inspiration and spontaneity crafted to the highest degree of precision. Thus while my eyes didn’t move away from the profiled face, Eric admired as much the simple lines as the whole design.
Thanks to internet, it took me no time to find the information about Emil Orlik and his friendship with Gustav Mahler. The article – “Emil Orlik and Gustav Mahler: A Meeting of Minds“, written by Jan Hoeper is fascinating to read. I did not want to copy the article here although two important facts were more directly related to this print.
First, Orlik initially sketched Mahler during a live conversation on a postcard which not only pleased the maestro but also was sent right away to Mahler’s sister. Orlik was then invited to visit him in Vienna, which probably led to this famous drawing.
Secondly, the fluidity in the “calligraphic pen-and-ink style” is the fruitful result from Orlik’s two years journey in Japan. Mahler’s own music is also influenced by the orientalism which consummates in his “Song of the Earth.” Both artists absorbed the oriental elements into the traditional western art. The wonderful portrait is perhaps the best record of the meeting of the two minds, with so much similar background (both Jewish, and both born in today’s Czech Republic) and shared taste.
Nor do I have enough knowledge in print-making to tell the quality of an impression. In fact, I didn’t know the difference between etching and dry-point although I sensed the finer lines in this print provided some advantages to the artist and led to an almost chiaroscuro effect. Curiously, another group of prints that I loved in the auction were also done with dry-point technique by American print-maker Armin Landeck. Auction preview is a place to exercise and test expertise and knowledge in certain fields, but probably it was a little bit too late to learn the difference in print-making on-site.
Another question I had was the edition number. It is a natural and legitimate question to ask with regard to print collecting. The auction house told me that they didn’t know how many impressions existed based on their body of knowledge. A website devoted to the prints of Orlik confirms that there was no published edition.
With all these uncertainties in my mind, I left an absentee bid, which as the title said, was not high enough. From a collecting point of view, I always think it is actually preferable not to get the first hunting prize in a new field so that the interest and passion can be tested over time, while the knowledge can be further enhanced. Falling in love at the first sight is romantic, but collecting is not dating and marriage with the goal of life-long harmony and enjoyment (albeit sometimes “divorce” may happen”). In this case, the second look or third look is more important. The question is: Can I find another piece of Mahler by Emil Orlik?
Blues Collector and longtime Rare Records dealer John Tefteller won a recent eBay auction which featured a previously unknown and potentially one of a kind Blues 45 rpm record produced by the Sun label back in 1953. “I think I stole it,” said Tefteller of the record when the auction ended with his winning bid of $10,323.00.
The record, “Lonesome Old Jail” and “Greyhound Blues,” features an outstanding old style acoustic Blues performance by Alabama Blues singer D. A. Hunt. It was Hunt’s first and only record and sold very, very few copies when first released by Sam Phillips’ now legendary Sun records label of Memphis, Tennessee. The Sun label is most famous for being the first to record Elvis Presley and is credited as being the label that started Rock and Roll, but the first couple dozen releases were almost exclusively Blues records.
This record was not previously known to exist on 45 rpm and even the 78 rpm version is one of the rarest and most expensive on the Sun label with several documented sales in excess of $10,000.00,” explained Tefteller. “To find a 45 is a discovery of monumental importance to the record collecting world and I just had to have it.”
Of course, the latest addition to Tefteller’s Blues collection, already referred to by many as the best in the world, means that all the history books, price guides and discographies have to be amended to now state unequivocally, that yes, there is indeed an original 45 rpm pressing of Sun # 183.
Tefteller goes on to explain that when the British record researchers first came to America in the late 1950’s, they went to Sun and, with assistance from Sam Phillips, documented everything. 78 rpm stampers were found for # 183, but NOT 45 rpm stampers and Phillips told the researchers that NO 45’s were made.”
“This discovery proves otherwise,” says Tefteller, who speculates that they probably pressed a few hundred and that was it. “Sam must have just forgotten that he made a small amount of 45’s and, significantly, this is NOT a promotional copy, which means that they made some promos as well as regular copies for the stores.”
The copy of Sun 183 that Tefteller won on eBay from Minnesota seller Tim Schloe is not in the best of condition. “I would grade it at VG- which inthe world of record collecting means it is pretty well used and abused,” Tefteller states. “There is some damage to the labels as well, but the record does indeed play all the way through and is not totally unpleasant to look at. But all that doesn’t really matter because it is so impossibly rare. No one, myself included, ever dreamed that this existed on 45. It is mind-boggling that since 1953 only one of these has ever surfaced and to surface in 2009 is unbelievable!”
Schloe says he got the record “as part of a large collection of used 45’sthat I bought from the estate of a Dallas, Texas collector who had left them to his brother.” Schloe knew the record was rare when he found it in the rubble of thousands of old 45’s but had “no idea” it would bring over $10,000.00. Tefteller is certain that the Texas collector could not have known it was so rare either or he would have told someone he had it or sold it while he was alive.
According to Tefteller, the world of Sun record collecting has just been turned on its head. “Guys who thought they had them all are now scrambling to find another legitimate copy. This will prove to be quite a challenge, however as no other copy has surfaced in over 50 years. There are hundreds of bootleg copies of this title out there on 45 rpm but so far, I now have the only legitimate one,” boasts Tefteller. “I’ve got it, and I have no plans to sell it. After all, I can’t say I have the top collection ofBlues records in the world if I let this one go.”
While some people may not understand why a collector would pay over $10,000.00 for a beat up old 45 rpm record when you can easily hear both sides of this one in top sound on a reissue CD or a 99 cent Internet download, Tefteller has a ready answer: “You can go to the Louvre and buya 99 cent postcard of the Mona Lisa too, but there is nothing that beats the history and importance of actually owning the original!”
Tefteller, 50, lives in Grants Pass, Oregon and has been buying, selling and collecting rare phonograph records for 35 years. He also produces a yearly Blues calendar and has a series of reissue CD’s on the market of extremely rare Blues performances from the 1920’s. His personal collection contains thousands of original Blues 78 rpm records including dozens of one-of-a-kind records by Blues singers. Tefteller also maintains the world’s most extensive collection of original Blues advertising art and photographs.
If you have read my previous post about the fever of collecting 78 rmp records and agreed with me that the future of antiquing falls into the hands of the younger generation who are more inclined to buy things they can relate to, then you would probably also agree with me that music CDs may have the potential to become collectible.
The problem of this statement is that CDs are mass-produced and re-packaged to such a degree that they have always sided toward the buyers. Mass production means uniqueness is not likely, as with majority products made in the 20th century. Re-packaging means that the content is greatly available in slightly different variations so that if buyers who are looking for a specific performance, he or she may get confused with versioning.
I have been buying classical CD for the last 15 years for the music content. But with so much time digging into piles of plastic boxes, I understand that CD collecting is no different from record collecting in that it is essentially a hobby of owning tangible things. Thus if the mass production means there will never be a case of only three Willie Brown records existing in the world, thus making CDs less valuable, re-packaging in fact only increases the uniqueness of the original version of the CDs. (Will you trade a 70′s Coca-Cola glass for a new one?)
Still, in my experience as a music fan and maybe a slightly CDs fan, I would think of the following points that may direct the practice of classical CD collecting. (Note, the following paragraphs are more about the future market value of shining plastic discs in their pristine jewel box than music appreciation.)
1. CDs made in West Germany (yes, West Germany instead of EU) are sought-after because of their relative high quality. Even the case made in West Germany weighs heavier, not to mention the covers, the multi-languaged brochure and most of all the pressing quality. They are hard to find now, and not many are still in best condition. Worst of all, online stores usually do not list CDs with such details. If you want CDs made in West Germany, do your homework and head to local second-hand stores.
2. Always try to find the original version (which unfortunately is usually discontinued). The re-issues usually have a different cover which pay the homage to the original version by including a small picture of the original cover. And check the back of the CD case. Most likely for ADD CDs, there will be two different years printed on the back cover: One for the record publishing year, one for compact disc publishing year. But if there is a third year (which is also the latest) there, then that’s the publishing year of this reprint. This is by no means of some vanity associated with collecting, it is actually practical. The reprinted CDs of classical or enduring performances are not a mere change of cover design but a systematic re-engineering projects. The master tape will be taken out and re-digital mastered based on the CURRENT sound engineer’s aesthetics and judgment. There are cases that the same performance from the same master tape sounds totally different in the reprint CDs. To some extent, the media that contains the performance is a hybrid product of both music makers and music recorders. The latter, though not visible and may only have their names listed inside the brochure, have a great impact on how the music sound (lean or rich, resonant or dry, pro-background noise or pro-purity) Would you trade a photo taken and processed by Ansel Adams himself for some posthumous ones?
3. Know the product line. For example, the DOCUMENTE series of DGG, the Silver Line Classics of PHILIPS or the Red Seal of BMG are a few good examples. In particular, there are occasionally limited addition for some bundled set. The Great Pianists of 20th Century published by PHILIPS in 1999 has become a classics itself. A complete set (200 CDs) will turn into great asset although I am not sure it is still possible to find a complete unwrapped set. Even individual ones (not all of them) have seen their values appreciated in the market. Stephen Kovacevich’s first set is asked for 30 dollars on Amazon. Ivan Moravec set in new condition commands over 100 dollars. Another example will be the DGG centenary collection series which were issued in 1998. In this series, from 1898 to 1998, DGG compiled one CD for each year featuring either landmark recordings, famous debuts or some first-time release. The marketing of this series was not very successful since people who were looking for first-released material would hate to buy another same legendary performances while new beginners would not be happy to see some not-so-popular works in the compilation. Nevertheless if you can find mint-conditioned set (issued in the group of every decade), it could be appreciated in future because of its rarity. In both two cases, because of the nature of the sets which allow the separation of individual CDs for enjoyment, the complete set can truly come to the term of uniqueness.
4. Lastly, there are a few musicians who command more. Interestingly it is not the musicians who had scanty recordings that attract collectors, on the contrary, it was those who had too many. (Isn’t it too easy and not fun afterward to find a definite thing without laboring?) In the case of Sviatoslav Richter, the music fans are still amazed by the continuing new found recordings from his tours in Europe, Asia and America. To collect Richter’s recording spanning his long career is a daunting task because there seems no end and no limit, thus giving collectors the motivation to explore even after the pianist has been long dead. I own a set of Richter’s CD “Richter in Prague”, a repetoire over more than three decades in the place where Richter found more congenial than grandier European cities. A quick check on Amazon showed that one seller is asking for $579.99. Luckily I only paid a small fraction of it when I obtained the set a few years ago.
There are also some factors that will greatly depreciate the values for CD collecting.
Firstly, club CDs are second-rated for collecting purpose. Both BMG and Music Heritage have issued CDs at lower price with lower manufacturing standard. Be careful to read the back. (You probably won’t miss them because some covers are in B&W to cut the cost.)
Secondly, the condition matters. In particular, if the CD has cuts on the spine or holes punched in the UPC label of the back cover, it means that they are being distributed for free (promotional discs) or sold at a deep discount (cut-out titles). To prevent these copies from being resold at full value, the record company marks them before they distribute them in the stores.
So how long will the market begin to see the collectible values of CDs? If the question is asked a few years ago, I would say not soon. But with the rapid growth of music content on internet, music is on the final stage of being decoupled from its media. Every movement toward some new style may also trigger the nostagia sentimentality. No matter in what age, the desire to own tangible things is part of the human nature. Thus the day when we cannot ‘t find a regular online store to buy CDs will be the days when memory of physical solidity associated with music demands a space in antiques mall allocated for these plastic discs. You may think this may come a long way, but the trasition is happening, at a lighting speed that you may not notice.
“There are some people who would kill their own mother for the only copy of a Son House record, and they sure as hell would kill your mother, and you.” From the article “They’ve Got Those Old, Hard-to-Find Blues” by Amada Petrusich on New York Times.
At the age when almost every piece of music on earth can be downloaded from online and be played on a tiny plastic equipment, there are still people who are fervent for collecting some “unwieldy, impractical and unstable” records which only hold two to three minutes music per side, for a thousand dollars or even more.
If the chance of encountering a UFO is better than that of finding a 78 rpm record of Willie Brown, then it is understandable that someone has a standing offer of $25,000 for such a record. In this case, content and the media are inseparable. In particular some songs were only recorded on 78s and to locate them is essentially to preserve cultural heritage beyond the materialism. On the other hand, The content of some of the records has been digitized, according to the article; nevertheless the digitalization does not decrease the values of the records. As Mr. John Heneghan said in the article:”Collecting is about possessing an object.”
I have owned records before, not 78s, but the 45 rpm vinyl kind. I remember when I was a kid, my neighbor had a floor stand model record-player which took the most prominent position of the room. The music was of some Yue Opera in a dialect that I totally didn’t understand, but I was always amazed to hear the magic sound coming out of the gentle touch of a tiny needle on the grooves of a record.
Then one day I went to Record Rama in the North Hills of Pittsburgh and looked for some vinyl simply to frame vinyl covers for decoration. But eventually long after the store was supposed to close, I checked out with a few records and a record player. (And the idea of framing covers never happened.) Later I frequented Jerry’s Record in Squirrel Hill and began to realize that they did take up space. Now not only the record players and dozens of records are in a storage unit after I moved to New York, but also Record Rama, with two and half million records, was for sale of 3 million dollars a few years ago and the owner, David Bowie’s, retirement plan is still postponed.
My only experience with the 78s was on a trip to Zanesville, Ohio a few years ago. In an antiques mall along route 40 which was closing, I found some smaller-sized records in not-so-good condition. Geo told me that they were in a different format and could not be played by our record player. Had Geo explained them from a different perspective such as they ARE the predecessors of the vinyl records, I would have paid more attention. (He later told me how to tell a good old record from a bad one–if you throw it and it shatters, it was a good one). But in the age when content and media are decoupled to such a degree that music should be plug-and-played anywhere, to add another system on top of DVD, CD and Stereo just for one special format was not a small commitment.
From the collecting point of view, I hold a more or less pessimistic view of the future of 78s. The scarcity of these records determines a very small circle of die-hard collectors. Neither the scarcity nor the small circle is a blessing for the continuun of collecting business. The former means there aren’t many entry-level items to entice and introduce beginning collectors, while the latter means less publicity and the circulation of the information is limited within an elite group.
More importantly, the future of collecting lies in the hands of the younger generation. The current collectors may have owned records or seen records being played from Grandma’s home, so that these shining discs are of sentimental values. But it is hard to believe that the current teenagers, who may have hardly used ipods, let alone walkmans, may keep the same enthusiasm toward something so alien to their lives. True, not many houses are decorated with Chippendale or Classical furniture anymore, but the mainstream culture has established their status by showing them in art museums, historical homes, on Television and in movies. A 78s collection, on the other hand, is a run-of-the-mill off-centered hobby, whose rise and fall is tightly connected to the collectors, not to the notion or symbol of cultured class.
Nevertheless, I feel connected with those collectors. I bought an iPod when the first model came out and only a few lucky guys could get one from Target online stores before they were out-of-stock every day. But I am still using CDs extensively. They take space, not to the extent of records, but they are physically there, on six, eight or ten shelves. Today people use an iPod when driving in a car, sitting in a subway, running or even working. Music is thus consumed to fill the silence with sound as inadvertently as we steer off the highway to McDonald’s drive-through just to fill our stomach. The notion of convenience comes with the price that doesn’t nourish our mind or body.
What we need is not the action of listening, but the result of hearing.
I know I can have the result of hearing, at least in an “inconvenient” way. When I take a CD out of the box and put it in the CD player, I commit the next 30 or 40 something minutes of my life to that music. And a few seconds more to find the right disc and press a few buttons does come at any significant sacrifice.
PS: Last month, Geo and I found this Edison cylinder player in Sumerset, PA and took a video of it.
Now it has changed: Young generation of Chinese talk about Shostakovitch, Boulez, or John Adams, but 50 years ago, the only officially approved western music in China was of Russian School. Less rhetoric than German, less dandy than French, Russian music is one of the kind that my father’s generation felt and loved.
The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by Mariss Jansons, on last Friday night, brought a night of Tchaikovsky that has surpassed almost any experience that I had with the composer (with the exception of Manfred Honeck conducting Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on Symphony No. 5 two years ago).
I remembered the first listening experience of Nutcracker Suite in my childhood: the magic sweetness of celesta (which I once played a toy model version for fun )and the endless happiness from the Waltz of the Flowers. Then for a long time, I could not accept his last symphony: At his most beautiful melodic moment, Tchaikovsky barbarically cut off the vivacity or soulfulness, with ruthless harsh blare. It is not the cut itself that hurts, it is the fact that the cut is brutally on the most tender skin that sounded alien and scary to me.
Symphony No. 4 has a different ending. Even though the fate motif is repeated again in the end of the last movement, it didn’t bring the kind of wholeness intrinsic in a cyclic form that was popular of his times. After all, triumph has been claimed, who cares about the fate when in bliss?
But the journey sets off differently. Tchaikovsky, in his own words, programed the first movement with the comments that “all life is an unbroken alternation of hard reality with swiftly passing dreams and visions of happiness …No haven exists … Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths”. His fate motif is of Oedipus quality, with this being “the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness”.
And the struggle comes along with the main melody being tossed around with candenlescent colors. Listening to Tchaikovsky, for me, is to listen to the unsolvable dichotomy that sooner or later would clash like a wreck. On the one hand, there is the melancholy soulful searching of beauty and peace, a pinkish wishlist from a soft mind. On the other hand, the cruel coloristic tearing bounded with the iron Russian-barbaro is what is reflected or would be encountered in reality.
In the story of Oedipus, though the tragedy is inescapable, there permeates the uplifting morality and the personal dignity that is glorified by the unwavering efforts of challenging the fate and oracle. The first movement of Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 has the same degree of dignity that is worth fighting between personal experience & preference and societal convention. Yet soon, the symphony went to a different direction: a Victorian nicety. The third movement, with a delicate string pizzicato and rustic trio of wood and brass section, moves away from the bleak frozen land to the Austrian countryside. And the following fourth movement brings the happy ending before the repeated fate motif. It makes the excruciating efforts of the first two movements a contrived theatrical drama, like twists and turns in the Bollywood movies that inevitably leads to the bright ending.
Mahler, whose music is of more condensed extremities in dichotomy, never yields to simplification and nicety. The personal strife, and the corresponding moods, up and down, would not be solved or relieved predictably. (Even so, Richard Strauss once commented that the famous Adagio in his Symphony 5 was inappropriate.) For him, the ending may not be as important as the procedure of personal fighting against all contradicts and controversies in the world. And instead of tearing through the beauty with a sharp knife, he squeezed the two together: the Landler by the string ridiculed from the wood, the solemn funeral march with impersonal military drum or the dreamy Schubertarian melody with apocalyptic brass accompany: Here the dichotomy becomes the ambiguity, to favor which extremity all depends on the conductor’s hand and the listener’s mind.
I would not say that I have matured enough to understand Tchaikovsky, yet it is the same alien to the abrupt coarseness of the sixth symphony I used to hate that now I lament in his fourth symphony. In short, life was fucked up, at least to Tchaikovsky, a sentimental gay composer who was as much afraid of failure in reception of his new works as of disclosure of his sexual orientation. The last movement can almost be interpreted as an omen to his last symphony. Here, the composer still tried to fit his role in the society abiding rules of triumph and victory: music or personal wise. Yet 15 years later, he conceded that something may not be conciliated even though with all his best hopes and fights. It was painful, doomed, yet real without any make up of nicety or simplicity. In other words, the whole symphony of No. 4 was just a scherzo of temporary triumphant escapism in the middle of Tchaikovsky’s career.
For Gustav Mahler, it took one symphony to bring such triumphant moments back to complex reality; for Tchaikovsky, it took three symphonies and 15 years to show the escape was only to the abyss.
On the way back from a visit to Severance Hall, Cleveland OH, fog rolled in from the lake like walls of one thousand veils. Suddenly, air became weighty. I could not only breathe but also feel or touch it. Every skyscraper faded away, bringing the roads, only the roads to the center of the consciousness.
Euclid Avenue, the once wealthiest avenue in American history, has become a bumpy road sparsely filled with rows of some newly-built condos and office buildings. Only eight mansions survived through the turbulent Hough Riot in 1966. Luckily, Severance Hall, at the other end of the road, survived through those nights with unrelenting fire alarms.
Severance Hall was built in 1931, only twelve years junior than the Cleveland Orchestra. Artur Rodziński was the first conductor on the stage. But it was George Szell who left his mark permanently in the music hall. Even though unlike the other bigger cities such as New York and Chicago, Cleveland didn’t have city blocks named after its legendary maestros, George Szell’s influence to Cleveland is tremendous not only because he brought the middle-west medium-sized industrial city a world-class orchestra with pedigree European blood, but also because he changed stage shell physically in order to improve acoustic result.
Although the exterior of Severance Hall was designed to complement to the Art Museum in neoclassical form, from the entrance lobby to the auditorium room, the style gradually transitions to Art Nouveau and Art Deco. In 1958, when facing the trade-off between aesthetic beauty and acoustic integrity, George Szell sided with the latter, putting his famous “Szell shell” over the stage which visually confronted with Art Deco interior. Today those ugly modern Szell shells have been replaced by material both visually and acoustically satisfying. But most of all, the glory and the history of the architecture are preserved with the ever-growing orchestra. Concertgoers, when entering the grand main lobby and see the restored shimmering golden hall, will sure agree with Alburn’s assertion that “Severance Hall is one of those singular and complete triumphs which come to an American community infrequently, if ever”.
Pittsburgh was not that lucky.
In late August of 1994, Syria Mosque, the original home for Pittsburgh Symphony was demolished when a group of activists were still protesting in front of bulldozers. Among them Sen. Jim Ferlo spent a night in jail for his last effort. He almost won this brutal battle because the demolition permit was obtained only two hours before the building’s historical landmark nomination.
Although most agree that relocating the orchestra to culture district of downtown area is a wise move, it was surprising to know a building which cost $750,000 in 1916 would be torn down in modern time. It is true that Syria Mosque is huge and the sound is muffled in the over-sized music hall, but there was no reason that under scientific study such problems cannot be solved. If fact, Penn Theatre was scheduled to be demolished if Henry Heinz hadn’t stepped in and donated ten million dollars to preserve its Baroque and Rococo style and transformed it to Heinz Hall. The same money could have been used to hire Dr. Heinrich Keilholz, who directed the Heinz Hall transformation project, to improve Syria Mosque’s acoustics.
Syria Mosque saw the growth of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, from Fritz Reiner to William Steinberg, the latter, through decades, nurtured the orchestra to a world-class level. After the orchestra moved to Heinz Hall in 1971, Syria Mosque still held a lot of pop concerts and attracted vast amount of audience.
The raze of Syria Mosque can be regarded as a scandal resulted from shortsighted politician and ambitious University who has been seeking expanding ever since. Lorin Maazel, who graduated from University of Pittsburgh and was the music director in that turmoil period, saw the fall of the temple. To what extent his reaction was is hard to know, but in the same summer he declared that he would not renew his contract after 1996 season. A city that didn’t honor and treasure his glorious past can’t stand tall for its future.
More than 10 years after Syria Mosque was demolished, I walk by UPMC parking lot, where the temple used to be, almost everyday. Oakland, as the cultural and educational center to the city, has lost its architectural integrity and been disfigured by this ugliness of the land-wasting seas of parking lot.
More than 50 years ago, it was in the site of this parking lot that the unsurpassable Beethoven and Brahms violin concertos with Nathan Milstein were performed. It was a mono-recording. The sound captured reflects the amplitude of Syria Mosque vividly. Under Steinberg’s baton, there was a sense of pressing and forwarding, but the orchestra still kept its fluidity and flexibility. At the beginning of Beethoven violin concerto, timpani stretched far and deep and the reverberation of the string sections was held long like ocean waves. Then Milstein’s violin pierced through the stage, roaring in the air like an independent spirit, uninhibited.
On the morning of inauguration day of Jan 20, 2009, gusty wind greeted more than one million people crammed in the National Mall. Only four persons, captured from the cameras of CNN, didn’t wear gloves.
As you may have successfully guessed, one of them was President Obama who kept his coolness throughout the ceremony. His decisive hand gesture was an integral part of his inspiring speech.
The other three are the three male performers of the quartet: Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, Yo-Yo Ma cellist and Anthony McGrill, clarinetist. It was a short piece of music, only around 6 or 7 minutes long. Nevertheless, I could see the wind blowing upto the stage where the musicians were. Looking at their faces, one can hardly notice the impact of temperature, ceremony or crowd. For them, at that moment, only music matters. It proves that besides the charismatic leadership, the discipline and passion of music also holds the power to overcome the temperature and other extremity.
The main melody of “Air and Simple Gifts” composed by John Williams is from an old Shaker hymn. It became wide known because of Arron Copland‘s “Appalachian Spring“. Copland’s choice of orchestration and tempo marks the most iconic American music: succinct in score and upswing and optimistic in mood.
In an earlier version of the same piece by John Williams, Alison Krause sings the original lyrics with Yo-Yo Ma, pious and melancholy. But in this special inauguration quartet composition, he slowly transitions the mood from cantabile sweet-sorrow to an uplifting allegretto, almost a verbatim quote of Aaron Copland.
It is impossible to imagine that John Williams may have known the inauguration speech by President Obama before he composed this piece, but the changing tone almost matches exactly the way Obama delivered his inspirational speech. The solos by string instruments are restrained and moody at the beginning but not too long the music digresses into a pomp with the unique combination of clarinet and piano, optimistic and fanfare-like, as if clapping loudly for Obama’s words a few minutes later: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.“
The reference of Arron Copland reminds me Copland’s own composition for the inauguration ceremony of Eisenhower. Although “Lincoln Portrait” was withdrawn at the last moment because of the political reason, it still remains as Copland’s most performed piece. Perhaps there is no better timing than today that “Lincoln Portrait” should be performed for the inauguration of the first African American president in the United States. From the 16th to the 44th president, America has taken a long road to illustrate the essence of democracy.
PS: The beautiful piece of John Williams would sure enjoy a wide popularity following the inauguration. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is adding Air and Simple Gifts to its weekend concert program. The pianist Gabriela Montero in today’s quartet will join the orchestra playing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.
On the other hand, the late Beethoven, the contrapuntal works of Bach, the piano sound of Debussy and the symphonies of Mahler come to the top of my favorite list. They are terse, abstract, less-melodic, or at least not cantabile. If there is one feature to categorize them, that would be they refuse to be simplified into some categories. Beethoven digressed his late works with variations that filled the gap between heavenly serenity to stormy madness with infinite intermediate moods. Bach marked no tempo for his keyboard works. Debussy brought the most important part of his piano work – pedal technique up in the air (to the pianist’s own discretion) while Gustav Mahler squeezed a life into one symphony that is seemingly long but actually too short for elaborated description.s He himself would later refuse to program his symphonies. All these gives great freedom yet even greater challenges to the performers, the best of whom should be both authoritative and personal. Some musicians also integrated ambiguity into their own style. Furtwangler would let the orchestra players pick the beat by quivering his batonless hand to indicate the start. Thus the beginning section of his Beethoven Sym No. 9 has a primitive openness, that is ready to expand and evolve like the initial chaos of the universal. Out of such mysterious extensiveness one immediately senses something extraordinary is going to roll out and sweep the minds.
For laymen like me, the ambiguity serves as the motivation and joy of listening behavior, either in concert halls or at home in front of stereo systems; because every listening experience may bring out something new, something unexpected. Their music, thereafter, has become the spring water bubbling out with eternal freshness in my adult life.
I have found the same pattern in the visual art. The greatest art may stun, shock or even blind the viewers, but elude the possibility of being “viewed” thoroughly. In other words, the wholeness of the great artwork may never be fully obtained, but can be enriched when one commutes directly with the artwork, converses with friends, or simply experiences the life. In his book “Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and his World”, Jed Perl said Watteau fought to feel fully alive by exposing unedited human feelings with uncertain settings. These “actors, musicians, or aristocrats or even wealthy commoners who are playing at being aristocrats”, falls into the prey of disclosing the nuance in their emotions while acting out of their unreal theatrical surroundings. It is this strange juxtaposition, with an almost ridiculous lightness of being, of acting against the outer world while confessing sincerely inward, that makes his paintings bear the power that none other French artists of 18th century could have in persuading and touching modern minds. Arent’ we always acting against the environ by guarding ourself constantly from being emotionally? And if so, aren’t those fleeting melancholy moments of exposing the innermost feelings the absolute truth of beings?
Read part 2 at here.