Alex Ross–The Skinny

Keen interest continues to build around Alex Ross’s new book–certainly on the part of yours truly, and also the New York Times, who put it on the front page of last Sunday’s Book Review.*

(His book tour brings him to the Fitz next week, with the Turtle Island String Quartet.)

But I shouldn’t assume that everyone is equally immersed in this–so a few quick basics.

Ross is the classical critic for The New Yorker, carrying on ably the magazine’s tradition of engaging music writing, even for those who don’t necessarily consider themselves aficionados. He’s also a wry and prolific blogger.

His new book, “The Rest Is Noise,” has been described as twentieth-century history, seen through the lens of classical music. Fair enough, as long as you know that the music is at the forefront, and the history is the backdrop. Still, I doubt if there’s ever been a book on music with such prominence given to Hitler or Stalin, or gay politics, or nuclear weapons.

(Or to the mundane human side of famous composers. Who knew? Messiaen had a sweet tooth. One of Schoenberg’s neighbors was Shirley Temple. John Adams used to live in the headquarters of a former marijuana farm.)

The opening anecdote is a good suggestion of the book’s wide-ranging scope: “In the spring of 1928, George Gershwin, the creator of ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ toured Europe and met the leading composers of the day. In Vienna, he called at the home of Alban Berg, whose blood-soaked, dissonant, sublimely dark opera ‘Wozzeck’ had had its premiere in Berlin three years earlier. To welcome his America visitor, Berg arranged for a string quartet to perform his Lyric Suite, in which Viennese lyricism was refined into something like a dangerous narcotic.

Gershwin then went to the piano to play some of his songs. He hesitated. Berg’s work had left him awestruck. Was his own piece worthy of these murky, opulent surroundings? Berg looked at him sternly and said, ‘Mr. Gershwin, music is music.’ ”

*Registration required

Musical Invective, etc.

Two splendid rants in the online sphere this week. . . .

In The New Republic, Richard Taruskin peruses a recent stack of classical music books and questions whether it’s possible to defend classical music without resort to “pious tommyrot, double standards, false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialization, pretense, innuendo, reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery.” (Warning – long article.)

From the unlikely source of The Huffington Post, a blog entry on program notes, and the impenetrability thereof. Ivan Katz asks, “Am I the only one who has noticed that the program notes provided to concert goers are, in the main, so badly written as to be embarrassing?” In this, Minnesotans may be spoiled – when I think of program notes, I think of the stylish and readable efforts by Michael Steinberg, Mary Ann Feldman, and others. But your results may vary – read on.

Beethoven Gets Even

Just in case you missed it on All Things Considered: Music critic Tom Manoff taking notice that the most famous Beethoven symphonies have the odd numbers (Beethoven’s Fifth, Beethoven’s Ninth..), and the “neglected” ones, the even.

Actually, in the case of Beethoven, they’re all famous–but the even numbers may be slightly less so. The full story here.

Emily Lodine: Back, in her own backyard

Mezzo-soprano Emily Lodine is back in the Twin Cities and Rochester this weekend, performing with Lyra Baroque.

This gig is close to home for Emily, who gave up city life years ago and married a Minnesota pig farmer. Their most unlikely match was profiled in a public television special earlier this year called “The Mystery of Love.”

But Minnesota Public Radio was on top of the story years ago, in this profile from 1999.

Mozart at the Movies: Kenneth Branagh and The Magic Flute

On “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” keep an eye out for Ian McKellen tonight, having arrived in LA after his stint at the Guthrie.

Then on Friday, Ferguson’s guest is Kenneth Branagh, who is making the rounds to promote his new movie of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. It opens in Europe in December. I’ve not been able to confirm the US release date, but one would hope in time for the holidays.

Good luck finding that info (or anything else) at the film’s website, which must be the most annoying website ever devised by man.

Judging by the trailer below, it’s a quite different from the classic Ingmar Bergman treatment: