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Metcalf on Music

Steve Metcalf has been writing about the musical life of this region, and the wider world, for more than 30 years. For 21 of those years, he was the full-time staff music critic of The Hartford Courant. During that period, via the L.A. Times/Washington Post news service, his reviews, profiles and feature stories appeared in 400 newspapers worldwide.

He is also the former assistant dean and director of instrumental music at The Hartt School, where he founded the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series. Steve is also keyboardist emeritus of the needlessly loud rock band Duke and the Esoterics.

Reach him at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.

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Memorial Day now behind us, it's time to take out the calendar and begin the serious business of penciling in the summer concert-going plans.

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Gustav Mahler stood five-foot-four.

That doesn’t quite place him at the absolute bottom of the Famous Composer Vertical Comparison Scale (Grieg was a tad shorter, as was Ravel), but it’s strange to think that the man who created some of the most thunderously colossal symphonies the world has ever known, who famously said that each symphony should “contain the whole world,” stood just a few centimeters above Mickey Rooney.

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This may seem like flagrant nepotism, but in fact it’s only mild and forgivable nepotism:

There will be remarkable musical event next Sunday, May 24, at the new downtown Infinity Music Hall and Bistro in Hartford.

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I did a double take the other day as I browsed the music-themed blog called Slipped Disc.

As many of you music-minded readers might know, this is the daily blog put out by the sharp-tongued British critic Norman Lebrecht. It’s read religiously by people in the classical music world, both for the steady stream of music news Lebrecht provides, but also for the acerbic commentary he freely dispenses. It gathers music-related bulletins from all over the world.

I was surprised, to say the least, that one of the items he recently chose to include was a piece on the Hartt School’s decision to close down its Organ Performance major, and to sell the pipe organ that had been the major’s central instrument for 45 years.

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One spring afternoon, maybe 20 years ago, I found myself having lunch with some guys who were all big supporters of Connecticut Opera. They were talking about ways that the company might increase its audience and thereby stabilize its finances. Various strategies were proposed.

Finally one of the guys said, “Look, if we’re really going to make any progress, we should just do ‘La Boheme’ every single season.”

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Will she or won’t she?

For months now, people who pay attention to the arts scene in town have been wondering: will Hartford Symphony music director Carolyn Kuan stick around, or will she split for brighter lights, bigger cities?

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Maybe you caught the four-hour, two-part HBO documentary on Frank Sinatra last week.

Or maybe you have downloaded the new Sinatra smartphone app.

Or poured a couple of fingers of the recently unveiled “Sinatra Select” edition of Jack Daniels’ fabled Tennessee whiskey.

Frank would have turned 100 this year, so everybody’s weighing in.

A Story for the Ages

Apr 2, 2015
Courtesy of mellopix.com, Berkeley Rep, and Hartford Stage

If you’re the parent of a kid who’s taking music lessons, or one who's  just generally interested in music, you should be aware of the remarkable one-person show that just opened at Hartford Stage.

The show is “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” and it’s been out making the rounds in various cities for a couple of years, but this is the first time it’s been seen in Hartford.

Goodbye to All That

Mar 26, 2015
Rob Choucroun / Creative Commons

Socio-technological bulletin:

I have decided to get rid of my CDs.

I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I believe it’s time. I’ve pretty much crossed over to the download/streaming side, and I just don’t play the discs much anymore.

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A true story: the first time I heard George Harrison’s 1970 song “My Sweet Lord,” I was listening to the radio over at the apartment of a friend of mine. I said to my friend, “That sure sounds a lot like the Chiffons’ ‘He’s so Fine.’” Shortly thereafter, I read that the owners of the copyright to “He’s So Fine” had decided to sue Harrison. After a protracted legal battle, they won their case.

Sony Pictures

Several of my musical friends had said I should see the movie “Whiplash.” They told me I probably wouldn’t like it but that I should see it anyway. So I did.

They were right on both counts. I didn’t like it all that much but I’m glad I saw it. I think young people interested in the performing arts – not just music – should see it.

The Columbia Orchestra

One of the things that people like to point out about classical music these days, usually in an effort to convince us that it’s in decline, is that there are no superstar instrumental performers anymore.

Or sometimes they grant a single exception: cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The term superstar is used here in the sense of “celebrity that most people have at least heard of.”

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A few days ago, after the 27th snowstorm of the season – or possibly the 34th – an elderly woman of my acquaintance asked me if I could recommend some music to help her get through the remaining days of this winter.

“You know, some of that happy, uplifting type of music,” she said.

I gave her a few top of the head suggestions. But then I began to think: maybe she’s on to something. Maybe the next few weeks would be more bearable for us all if we concentrated on the happy, uplifting type of music.

I am old enough to know better, but I still make a point of watching the Grammy Awards every year, in the quaint belief that I should be keeping my finger on the pulse of American music.

After last Sunday’s headache-inducing show, I feel like Groucho Marx in “A Day at the Races,” as he placed his thumb on the wrist of an ailing Harpo: “Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped.”

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There’s a moment in Billy Wilder’s 1955 movie “The Seven Year Itch” that I like a lot, and it doesn’t involve a white dress billowing over a subway grate.

It’s when the Tom Ewell character, a hapless married man whose wife and son are away on summer vacation, puts a little music on the record player in order to get the Marilyn Monroe character -- his new upstairs neighbor, who has dropped down for a visit -- in the mood for some misbehaving.

The piece he carefully selects is the heavy-breathing Piano Concerto No. 2 of Rachmaninoff.

Heinrich Klaffs / Creative Commons

As near as I can determine, Frank Sinatra never sang a Bob Dylan tune. No lush Gordon Jenkins arrangement of “I Want You”; no swinging, finger-snapping treatment of “Sad-Eyed Lady”; no symphonic Nelson Riddle big-band rethinking of “Masters of War.”

As of Tuesday, February 3, however, the reverse will not be true. That’s the day Dylan’s new album, Shadows in the Night, is due to be released. The album is just ten tunes, and all of them are standards that Sinatra recorded, and in some cases made famous.

To be certain that the release is duly noted by all the relevant demographics, Dylan has granted a long interview on the project (reportedly the only one he gave) to AARP Magazine. It will be in the February issue.

Roomful of Teeth

Last year, a little known new-music vocal octet came out of nowhere to win the Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.

If that group had been called, say, the Contempo Voices or Sounds of Today, or something more or less conventional like that, it might have had a slightly tougher time coming to the attention of the restless Grammy voters.

But in fact the group is called Roomful of Teeth. And the music it makes is as original and as attention-getting as its name.

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In the rarefied category of sub-five-minute classical compositions of importance -- not a huge body of work -- Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” stands apart.

For one thing, it has become one of those pieces works that confers an instantly weighty, ceremonial feel to occasions, from presidential wreath-layings to high-school basketball senior nights. 

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For the past several years, I have taught an informal, one-credit seminar at The Hartt School called "Communicating With Your Audience."

Scott Parrish / Creative Commons

With Christmas just days away, I thought Santa, busy guy that he is just now, might appreciate some last-minute gift suggestions for some of the more deserving music folk on his list. 

NBC

Unless you were marooned on an ice floe last week, you know that NBC brought forth its second live broadcast of a musical in as many years.

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Thanksgiving week brought a brief lull, but from now until Christmas, the local concert schedule is busier than a Rich Rosenthal eatery.

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Last week, while discussing some of classical music’s great Christmas works, I casually mentioned that I might want to extend the conversation to the pop music side.

Hartford Chorale

Merry Christmas!

Oh, sorry – too soon?

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The first truly modern composer?

Stravinsky? Schoenberg?

I say a case can be made for Giacomo Puccini.

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