July 03, 2010

Pretentious Twits, and The Miracle of the Leaves!

As I do many mornings, sometimes instead of and other times before the necessary masochistic exercise of listening to Rush Limbaugh (I have been a very bad boy, and I will be punished), a few hours ago I turned my radio dial to KUSC-FM, the major Los Angeles classical music station.

The host was in the middle of the usual brief, introductory palaver before playing the next item. She read from Copland's description of his visit to a popular dance club, El Salon Mexico, which provided part of the inspiration for his composition of the same name:
In some inexplicable way, while milling about in those crowded halls, one really felt a live contact with the Mexican people — the electric sense one sometimes gets in far-off places, of suddenly knowing the essence of a people — their humanity, their separate shyness, their dignity and unique charm.
If I were Mexican, and if I were told that Copland's piece represented my humanity, my separate shyness (my what?), my dignity and unique charm, I'd sue the bastard. And, if I might ask, what the bloody hell is "the essence of a people"? (It wouldn't appear that he meant that essence, which, you know, would be crude and nasty and therefore completely swell.) What a thoroughly mediocre bit of claptrap El Salon Mexico is. Yes, it has some catchy rhythms, and I'm pretty sure Copland lifted them directly from Mexican music. The totality of it is standard Copland, which is to say mediocre.

Oh, my God, Arthur, but he's, like, the quintessential American composer! Yeah, well, too bad for you. Besides, I'm crazy, I'm bitter, and I hate America, as my writing consistently demonstrates. Do try to keep up.

And about KUSC, and many other classical music stations: pfaugh. How many times can you play the same damned, extraordinarily limited repertoire? That many times?! I actually like Bizet's Symphony in C. It's a lovely piece, rendered astonishing to a degree by the fact that Bizet wrote it in a month when he was 17. Yep, if you're in your twenties or thirties, you're on the downward slope, my friend. Imagine how I feel. I turned 62 at the beginning of May. The cats do most of the work here now. I offer some light editing, and that's about it. (Need to fix the typos. When, oh when, is someone going to develop a keyboard that accommodates paws? They know how to spell better than I do, as they do most things better than I do, but paws make typing difficult.)

But, my God, KUSC plays the Bizet Symphony at least once a week, or so it seems. The same is true of a number of other compositions. And they very rarely offer pieces that are unfamiliar and unknown.

I could somehow make my peace with the Muzak Mozart quality of the programming, but, heaven protect me, the hosts. Oy. Jim Svedja. Triple oy. I dunno if it has to do with where he was raised, but what's with the weird, affected pronunciation? "Composer," a word which comes up hellishly often, is transmogrified into, "coehm-poeur-zuhrrr." Every time I hear it, my guts wince. And then the excessively mannered presentation. Almost all of Svedja's introductions are presented in the form of a tantalizing mystery: "When he was just an innocent boy of eight, he heard the melody sung by a robin in his parents' bucolic garden. Three decades later, he was startled to hear the same melody again, this time blasted by the clangorous noise of a New York City taxicab horn. And this remarkably sensitive coehmpoeurzuhrrr managed to combine both qualities, and hundreds more, into one of the most familiar melodies in all of music."

Okay, Jim, who the fuck was it? And what's the goddamned melody? Without fail, the answer is utterly banal. All that mystery leading up to what Svedja hopes is the unbearably suspenseful unveiling -- and the mystery melody is the equivalent of a crappy advertising jingle. Dear, dear Jim: this bit is tired. Kill it.

Then there is Duff Murphy. Oh, my. This cuts especially deep for me, since Murphy does the Saturday opera show. He's been doing it for years. Many, many years. Keep that in mind for the following anecdote, which is all too typical. Several months ago, Murphy devoted a program to Leontyne Price recordings. Among other selections, he played Price singing the monologue from Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. Now, anyone who knows anything about opera (by which, I mean anyone who has the merest glimpse of a slender thread of microscopic knowledge of singers and their repertoire, knowledge one might suppose Murphy possesses, since he's been doing this program for many years), knows that Ariadne was a role that Price performed fairly regularly in the later stages of her operatic career (as distinguished from her recital career, which went on long after she'd retired from the opera stage). Price never, never performed the role of Zerbinetta, nor did she record it. That's for a very good reason: Price could never sing it in a million years.

That's not because of a problem with Price's singing or technique. She had a daunting number of such problems, which had already appeared by the late 1960s, but those problems had nothing to do with her singing Ariadne and not Zerbinetta. Ariadne is written for a comparatively heavy, rich soprano voice; Zerbinetta is a notoriously demanding coloratura role, one requiring the soprano to skip lightly about the higher register for endless minutes, trilling, executing tricky ornamentation, and the like. Ariadne is well-suited to Price's voice (and to her temperament as well); Zerbinetta isn't suited to it in any respect (ditto temperament).

So Murphy introduced Price singing a monologue from Ariadne and said, "Here now, Leontyne Price singing Zerbinetta's big aria." Being a charitable fellow, I thought, well, anyone can make a mistake. While the monologue is playing, Murphy will realize the error, and he'll correct it once the piece is concluded. When it was over, Murphy came back on, and even offered the line introducing the monologue this time: "That was Leontyne Price singing the great aria from Ariadne auf Naxos, 'Es gibt ein Reich,' Zerbinetta's big showstopper." That line introduces Ariadne's monologue -- which Price has recorded and which Murphy had just played -- not Zerbinetta's aria, which Price has never performed or recorded.

To be frightfully technical for a moment, this falls into the "too stupid to live" category. It reminds me of a similar kind of error made in The Washington Post's obituary of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, which I discussed in the first section of this article. Cripes, four years on, the obituary still has the same damned wrong headline. Note: these self-appointed guardians of culture aren't guarding shit.

And then the pledge drives. Kill me, please. "We don't have any of those trite, incredibly annoying commercials that everyone else has all the time." No, you have the monumentally irritating pledge drives that seem to take place every other month. That would be more than sufficiently annoying, but then there's the standard pitch that Svedja, Murphy and every other host offers several hundred times a day throughout an endless week:

"Without the extraordinary illumination [!!] and inspiration [!!!!] offered by KUSC, all of Western civilization would be doomed. We can continue in our sacred mission only because of enlightened and generous listeners like you! Because you support us, you're one of the special people. Don't you want to be one of the special people this year? Of course you do! Call us right now, and make a generous pledge. If you don't, you'll know why another Dark Ages has descended!!"

I'm begging you: please go commercial. Play the crappiest, most offensive ads you can find. Play them nonstop. It can't be worse than another pledge drive. (During the pledge drives, there are times when Svedja and Murphy appear together. That's when I eagerly search for Limbaugh or the equivalent. I am unquestionably a very bad boy, but even the immensity of my evil has some limits. And there are punishments even I don't deserve.)

Well, that's been building up for a while. Haha. I feel so much better. Oops, Murphy is on now. I just turned it off. Ahhh. Can't take it today. I think I'll search Youtube for a collection of the worst ads of all time. That'll cheer me up.

Before I go, let me tell you a little story. I had a flickering glimpse of an astonishing insight when I was a mere tyke, skipping along on my way to kindergarten. It was something about the way the autumn light scattered against the red and gold turning leaves. Many years later, as I reflected again on the inanity of those who purport to speak for American "culture," I saw that miracle of autumn once more, and I finally understood the theme that tied these disparate elements together ... and then I began an essay that, in time, transformed every fundamental tenet of Western thinking.

Of course, no one realized any of this at the time, I least of all...

Next time: The Miracle of the Leaves finally explained!