Friday, February 20, 2015


Maybe it’s the bleak midwinter we’re enduring. . . or, better yet, maybe it’s the sheer wonder of Schubert’s songs that has occasioned a recent surge in interest in Winterreise (“Winters Journey”), one of the very last compositions by the composer, who died a few months later, in 1828, at the age of 31. First, published this month was Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. It’s a curious book, part-confessional, part musicological treatise, and part cultural history.

Then, appearing on the newsstands today is the new Gramophone magazine, featuring a long cover article on the music and its most famous performers (including Mr. Bostridge).

I have already had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Bostridge sing Schubert, and I have enjoyed other performances by other luminaries, notably Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose recording with Joerg Demus ranks high on the Chosen List. It was the Fischer-Dieskau/ Demus reading that reached my ears while still a college student. And maybe its status as a “first hearing” is the reason that is so happily engraved in my ears and on my mind.

Not the dappled woodlands and burbling streams of Schubert’s earlier cycle, Die Schoene Muellerin (“The Beautiful Miller’s Daughter”), no, here are the bare paths and frozen tears of a wanderer out of hope and out of time, singing as he trudges toward a chilly horizon. And finally, in the last song of the cycle, “Der Leiermann” (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man), he bids the shabby little musician, “Will you play my songs for me?” Is it an End, or a Beginning?

A few years before he composed this music, Schubert had a dream. “Whenever I tried to sing of love,” he confessed later, “it turned to pain. And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love.”

This is not to label Winterreise as one dismal and unrelenting outcry. Rather, there is so much else that moderates and enriches the musical textures and moods, like the sinister circling motifs of “Die Kraehe” (The Crow), the churning wheels of the cozy little mail coach (“Die Post”), and even a dream of Spring (“Fruehlingstraum”).

Ian Bostridge’s book befits the marvels of the music. As a member of a generation of other musician-writers, notably, pianists Graham Johnson and Leslie Howard, he writes with the supple skills with which he performs. It is a must for every music lover—and for the music lover surely to come, who will rush to attend an ear after reading its pages.

Here is an except from Winterreise, the unsettling song, “The Crow”. . .
Crow, strange creature,
Won’t you leave me?
Do you really mean to take
My body here as carrion, soon?


Friday, February 13, 2015


Thank heavens the great surrealist filmmaker, Luis Bunuel, is not around to see 50 SHADES OF GREY! Not because it outdoes him in erotic cinema (which it most definitely does not), but because it is a perversion of everything he had been doing in movies like EL, ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ, and BELLE DE JOUR. It twists honest S&M into just another Hollywood “feel good” love story. It’s “S&M Meets SNL.” Feel good? Not that anybody in 50 shades “feels good,” really; they’re just too bored to care.

There’s no whiff of danger, no frisson of erotic edge and painful ecstasy. And just for the record for those 30-something women who seem to be straining at the, er, leash to see 50 SHADES, there’s no frontal nudity, either. Is it prurient fascination to examine closely the shot compositions to see how raw frontality is cleverly teased, yet concealed? If there is anything erotic in this movie, there it is (or isn’t).

Meanwhile, guys, take note, Mr. Grey has his standard of seduction down pat: fly your girl over the city in a helicopter, soar over the desert in a glider, play some mournful Chopin, use your tie for bondage, and stroke the flesh with a peacock’s feather (no kidding). Then, having done all that, turn about and tell her she should avoid you at all costs! Not there’s a come-on sure to succeed!

By the way, we talk in my classes about “representative anecdotes”--a tiny detail or moment that encapsulates the entire film--and I have to admit there’s a nice one here: Let’s go back to that glider. Grey and Anastasia are flying at 30,000 feet, on one end of a towline. At the right height, the towline is released and the glider soars aloft, on its own. Maybe that’s supposed to represent Anastasia’s own flight to freedom, after graduating from the tutelage of Mr. Grey. Or, maybe it’s we viewers, carried to a certain pitch, then released by a sudden “The End” and sent out to the night, shaking our heads. . . .

Sorry, M. Bunuel. Your razor's edge of erotic artistry has been blunted. That saber is bent. On the other hand, we can rejoice that the secret of that nasty little buzzing box that so delights Catherine Deneuve in BELLE DE JOUR remains a mystery. Your secret is safe.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


While preparing my new book, Hollywood Speaks! I have been revisiting my interviews with the crew of the legendary, World War II B-17 bomber, The Memphis Belle. They were immortalized in the classic William Wyler documentary from 1944, The Memphis Belle, and came together in August 1990 to meet the press on the occasion of the release of the fictionalized feature film about their exploits, also titled Memphis Belle. I am pictured here with the Belle and with "her" left waist gunner, Bill Winchell.

What follows is an excerpt from what I wrote about the event in 1990:

They say that staff sergeant Johnny Quinlan, tail gunner on the legendary B-17 bomber, the Memphis Belle, used to sing his own version of “The Wabash Cannonball” during bombing runs over Germany:
She flew over Germany one cold December day,
and as she crossed the target you could hear those Jerries say:
“They're flying straight from hell.
They come to bomb the Fatherland.
They fly the Memphis Belle!”
Quinlan's crewmate, left waist-gunner Clarence E. “Bill” Winchell, can chuckle at the memory now. Bill and I are standing under the wing of the Memphis Belle, now grounded under a protective canopy in an outdoor pavilion at Mud Island, Tenn., near Memphis. Mr. Winchell flew 25 missions on the Belle with Johnny and eight other crew members between November 1942 and May 1943.

Legend has it the Belle always flew with the same 10-man crew; that it was the first to bomb Germany, the first to complete 25 missions, and the first to return safely to America. It shot down eight Nazi fighters but never lost one of its own men.

And some of it is true.

Three members of that original crew—Winchell, pilot Robert Morgan, and co-pilot James Verenis—have come back to Memphis in late August to revisit the plane on the occasion of a press premiere of the new movie Memphis Belle.
“I was about 24 when I joined the crew in Bangor, Maine,” Winchell is saying. “At that time, flying one of these had an 82 percent attrition rate, which meant 18 guys came back for every 100 that went over.”

The late summer heat is intense. The broad Tennessee sun overhead does not blink. I am wilting. But the wiry, trim Winchell, a retired salesman now, is unfazed.

“She was a tough one” Winchell continues. “She took quite a few machine-gun holes right here one time”—he pats the letter “A” inscribed on the fuselage just below the waist-gun window— “and a couple of feet over and I would have been cut in half.” He is quietly matter-of-fact about it all but admits with obvious pleasure that whenever he returns to Memphis, he gets the keys to the city. “Just like Elvis,”' he grins.

“You were supposed to fly it straight and level,” says Winchell. “Not like a fighter. A B-17 was supposed to have certain limitations. But our pilot, Bob Morgan, could fly it like a fighter. On one mission, a German fighter was determined to ram us, head on. Bob hung this thing on the props—it's called a ‘wet stall’—so the fighter slipped beneath us. We went into a steep dive, but the engines were able to ‘catch’ again, and Bob pulled us out of it.”

It was Morgan who gave the B-17 the nickname “Memphis Belle” before the plane and crew left for England in September 1942. It was an affectionate term for his sweetheart, Margaret Polk, a Memphian. Her picture remained in the cockpit through those 25 missions. It is there now. “No, Margaret and I never married,” Morgan says, “but we were friends up to the day she died three months ago. My present wife and her were good friends.”

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


No two musicians have more vividly brought to life the music of Claudio Monteverdi for me, than conductor Raymond Leppard (whose readings of the “Madrigals” are, to me, definitive) and singer Emma Kirkby (whose renditions bring out the essential elegant charm and edged lines of that Italian master). It’s been my privilege to meet and interview both Leppard and Kirkby! Her more than 100 recordings demonstrate a lively range of expression that encompasses not just Renaissance and Baroque music but songs by the American composer, Amy Beach. I see from a new issue of BBC Music that a 12-disc set of essential performances by Kirkby is on the way to a March release. Watch for that! Bless her heart, Kirkby prefers “live” concerts, usually with a lutenist (or two) as a backup... which is how I met her a few years ago in Kansas City. She was as warm and generous with her time and conversation with me as she was in her concert recital. And as she spoke about her study and performances of Monteverdi and other masters Henry Purcell and John Dowland, she revealed a solid awareness of the musical contexts of the works. High among the roster of my favorite meetings and interviews with great singers, which has included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Emmy Ameling, and Jan de Gaetani, is Emma Kirkby. Worthy of note is her reception of the Order of the British Empire in November 2000.

Monday, February 2, 2015


I have recently returned from Chicago, where on February 1, 2015, I was privileged to present an all-day Symposium in the studios of 98.7 WFMT Public Radio. The subject was “Composers on Film,” a topic dear to my heart and the subject of my book from Yale University Press in 2005. Such an event is typical of WFMT, the scope of whose programming includes seminars like this, special programming of symphony orchestras in a variety of countries, and broadcasts of major symphony concerts, grand opera, drama, mainstream jazz, and folk music to more than 650 outlets in America and around the world. While classical music programming faces constant jeopardy on budget-strapped radio stations across the country, WFMT continues to carry the torch, as it has done for more than 60 years. Pictured here are WFMT’s General Manager, Steve Robinson (seated), who masterminded a series of so-called “Immersion” events like mine; Production Assistants Kathleen Van de Graaf and Judy Mangialiardi, and your faithful servant. My thanks to them, and my respects to those two intrepid Sound Technicians David Moyer and Bruce Rayburger who “rode” sound for me all day. Excerpts from more than a dozen films by Ken Russell, Mike Leigh, Charles Vidor, Agnieszka Holland, Milos Forman dramatized the life and work of composers Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Frederick Delius, Gilbert and Sullivan, Jerome Kern, etc. My previous engagements with WFMT over the years have included a 2010 Birthday Seminar on Chopin and Schumann, hosting the American premiere of Agnieszka Holland’s COPYING BEETHOVEN, and the worldwide distribution of my 15-hour radio series, THE WORLD OF ROBERT SCHUMANN.