Scary music, the Universal language

Even as an impressionable boy, I wondered what was so scary about Dracula. I’m talking about the 1931 film version starring Bela Lugosi. To me, that one wasn’t nearly as frightening as the other Universal horror classics that became my Saturday afternoon TV ritual: the various Frankenstein, Wolf Man and Mummy movies.

A key difference, I realized in later years, was the music underscoring the action. There wasn’t any for Dracula. Fake fangs and a heavy-browed glower were Lugosi’s only means to convey a sense of menace–an effort undermined by the sound I could hear: pops and crackles from the badly worn celluloid.

The filmmaker did select music for the opening and closing titles of Dracula, a score that seldom gets trotted out on Halloween, perhaps because it points mostly to the pathos embodied alongside the peril in those old movie monsters. The same music was used in The Mummy in 1932. So I forward this request to Bill Morelock for his consideration on this evening’s Halloween show: the (haunting) main theme from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Like Norman Bates, with a Baton

For Halloween, Creepy Conductors Dept., Part I:

In 1956, conductor Eugene Goossens’s brilliant career was brought down by scandal. Returning to Sydney from London, customs officials found over a thousand pornographic photographs, sealed in envelopes marked “Brahms” and “Beethoven.” They also found a mask, and letters linking Goosens to Rosaleen Norton, the notorious “Witch of Kings Cross,” who initiated Goosens into her circle, which practised ritual acts of sexual black magic.

Creepy Conductors Dept., Part II:

Swiss conductor Michel Tabachnik has gone on trial a second time for alleged involvement in the deaths of members of a doomsday cult. Tabachnik is charged over the deaths of 16 people who were found in a forest in the French Alps in 1995. Prosecutors say he incited members of the Order of the Solar Temple to commit mass suicide. Tabachnik denies the charge, and he was cleared by a French court in 2001, but prosecutors appealed against the verdict. Tabachnik studied under Pierre Boulez and held orchestral posts in Canada, Portugal and France.

Of course, some musicians might say all conductors are mass-murderers, in a manner of speaking… ;-)

A is for Anderson (Leroy Anderson)

Starting to make my way, on an irregular basis, through the musical alphabet, and leading off with Leroy Anderson, if only because the new Symphony magazine that just arrived today includes an affectionate tribute to him by Richard Dyer. (Symphony is published by the American Symphony Orchestra League — unfortunately Dyer’s article isn’t online yet.)

Anderson is the composer of such pops-concerts stalwarts as “The Syncopated Clock,” “Jazz Pizzicato,” and the perennial holiday favorite “Sleigh Ride.” When I was in college, my music-addicted buddies and I looked down on Leroy Anderson as the nadir of musical taste.

Well, times and fashions have changed, as Dyer’s article suggests. One of Mark Morris’s big hits is an Anderson-based ballet, and the Naxos label is preparing an edition of Anderson’s complete works, presided over by no less than Leonard Slatkin.

Dyer’s article includes an example of Anderson’s humor. He played quite a few musical instruments: piano, organ, double bass, trombone, tuba and accordion. He once explained that he had only played the latter instrument for a short time, adding, “Probably a short time is just about the right time to play the accordion.”

Singing in the Sling

You normally associate a torn rotator cuff with athletes, not tenors. But the rising operatic star Salvatore Licitra found out at the hospital Tuesday night in New York that in addition to a bleeding leg, the pain in his shoulder was a torn rotator cuff. He tripped in the dark as he was getting out of a cab and came down pretty hard on the pavement. This tenor is a trooper however, and last night at the Met he sang the role of the cuckolded clown Canio (“Laugh, clown, laugh!”) in Pagliacci.

His arm was in a sling, and they had to re-block some of the physical stuff he was originally supposed to do, but it went fine. More on what happened from the Met Opera’s site.

Shostakovich movie this weekend at the Bell

We’ve been observing the Shostakovich centenary with a number of features here at MPR.

I just wanted to give you a heads up that this weekend the University Film Society is presenting “The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin.” It’s a film from Larry Weinstein with lots of music by Shostakovich (led by Valery Gergiev) showing how the composer used his symphonies as weapons against Joseph Stalin’s bloody purges in the Soviet Union. The schedule is at their website.

Minnesota Opera in maschera

Twin Cities opera lovers who haven’t yet chosen a Halloween costume now have extra incentive to be clever. The Minnesota Opera will hold a costume contest at its October 31 performance of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman. Anyone who buys a ticket is eligible. Cast members will be the judges. The winner gets a walk-on role in the February world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Grapes of Wrath.

The announcement doesn’t stipulate any theme for the contest, but it stands to reason that entrants in operatic get-ups will enjoy a certain advantage. With my less-than-encyclopedic knowledge of the repertoire, I would not be a serious contender. But the juxtaposition of grand opera and The Grapes of Wrath has me thinking I’d love to be an Okie from Mascagni.

Biopic makes priest see red

Coming soon to a theater near you: “Antonio Vivaldi–The Movie!” Yes, somebody (Boris Damast), has decided to make a movie about the life of Antonio Vivaldi, and they hope it will be as big or bigger than Milos Forman’s hit Amadeus.

With Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) playing the Red Priest of Venice, and starring with Gerard Depardieu, Jacqueline Bisset and Malcom McDowell, they might have a pretty good cast, at least.

More about the story in Sunday’s London Observer.

Goodbye, Anna Russell

The “Concert Comedienne” Anna Russell died Wednesday at the age of 94. For those of us studying music in college a couple three decades ago, her 21-minute version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle was a great antidote to our attempts to make sense of Gesamtkunstwerk and Leitmotiv. One of my favorite moments in her “(First) Farewell Concert” was a singalong where she gets the audience to make piggy sounds in an old “farrowing folk song.”

You can still buy her stuff. It’s still hilarious. We all owe her a great debt for making “Music” a little less arty and a little more fun.

A reminiscence from an old friend was published yesterday on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s website.