Tone Poem Tuesday

Last week I mentioned the “Big Five” of Russian classical music in the Romantic era: the five composers who dominated musical culture in Russia in the latter half of the 19th century, with their influence and their desire to shape a Russian nationalistic school of composition not indebted to the Western European musical traditions. Four of those composers are well-known to this day, but the fifth, Cesar Cui, is not nearly so well known. Part of this is because he didn’t write much in the large orchestral forms of the day. He was not a symphonist, nor did he write concertos or large-scale orchestral works. Just to find a “tone poem” by him we have to turn to his operas, for one of the overtures. Cui’s output was more strongly oriented to works for smaller ensembles, and to art songs and other vocal works.

Cui’s influence was more as a critic and a writer, and as such he was able to position himself to wield considerable influence in shaping Russian musical life. His biggest impact on Sergei Rachmaninoff would come via a review he penned of the young composer’s Symphony No. 1…but we’ll get to that next month.

Cui left behind a very large body of work, and even though we don’t much hear Cui these days, that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to be heard. Here is the overture to The Mandarin’s Son, one of his operas. The opera is a comic opera, so the overture is likewise jaunty and cheerful–hardly what one might expect from a Russian Romantic.

Our focus on Rachmaninoff himself begins Saturday.

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The Big Island



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Hey, y’all! I’m taking the weekend off from blogging. See you on Monday.

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Something for Thursday

Last night we watched an episode of The Repair Shop (wondering what that is? You wouldn’t if you subscribed to my newsletter!), and someone brought in a music box for repair. The box’s tune was a popular song for a movie called Lili, starring Leslie Caron. Composed by Bronislaw Kaper and with lyrics by Helen Deutsch, the song seems to be one of those tunes that you don’t hear all that often, and yet it’s been recorded by just about everybody.

Here’s Jimmy Durante’s version of “Hi Lili, Hi Lo.”


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Mr. Sorkin

Apparently Aaron Sorkin suffered a bad stroke recently. I certainly wish him well; despite my litany of issues with his work over the years, he is still responsible for some of the best things I’ve ever seen, and I still tend to catch up with his stuff eventually. His current project is a revival of the Lerner-and-Loewe musical Camelot, for which Sorkin is providing a whole new book; this intrigues me greatly as the main knock on the original Camelot was always “Great songs, lousy book.” So we’ll see. If nothing else, I expect to learn how Camelot incorporates walk-and-talk scenes, how often characters either agree with each other or answer in the affirmative with “Yeah”, or discuss the finer points of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Sorkin has struggled with addiction for years, so to learn now that he’s been smoking a lot for years is no surprise:

“Mostly it was a loud wake-up call,” Sorkin told the publication. “I thought I was one of those people who could eat whatever he wanted, smoke as much as he wanted, and it’s not going to affect me. Boy, was I wrong.”

Sorkin added later, “There was a minute when I was concerned that I was never going to be able to write again, and I was concerned in the short-term that I wasn’t going to be able to continue writing ‘Camelot.’”

The writer originally did not plan to go public with his stroke, but he decided to talk about it with The Times because “if it’ll get one person to stop smoking, then it’ll be helpful.” Sorkin said for a long period of time he was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

Ouch. But if he’s continuing to work against these addictions, good for him.

Here, by the way, is one of those things Sorkin wrote that I adore. This is from Season Two of The West Wing, in which Leo invites Republican commentator Ainsley Hayes to his office so he can offer her a job, after she has mopped the floor with Sam Seaborn in a televised debate-style show. This scene is just full of charm and rhythm:

This is on my list of things I wish I could write so well.

Best wishes to Mr. Sorkin on his recovery and his conquering of nicotine.



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Tone Poem Tuesday

As Rachmaninoff was a young man studying music in a rigorous environment (we’ll get to that in April), he–and just about every other young Russian musician of the day–was influenced heavily by a group of composers called collectively “The Five”. These composers, all giants of Russian music in their day and four of them still giants to this day, dominated Russian music and how it was taught and encouraged amongst the younger generations. Their focus was on a nationalistic school of Russian music that was to be wholly separate from the more dominant traditions from the Germanic nations and France to the west. How successful they were can be debated; certainly they turned out some wondrous music, but their forms are still wholly dependent on the Germanic traditions. As Leonard Bernstein would later write in one of his essays, “All the Russian symphonies are really German ones with vodka substituted for beer.”

The Five consisted of the spiritual leader Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui (more on him next week), Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin (so near to my heart!), and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Each of these composers had strong influence on Rachmaninoff, in some ways and in others, and in negative light and in positive. From Rimsky-Korsakov Rachmaninoff likely learned about drama in music, and an appreciation for the sounds and modes of the Russian church liturgies. Rimsky-Korsakov was not himself a directly religious man, but that particular antipathy of his did not extend to the music, which he embodied in today’s work, the Russian Easter Festival Overture. The melodies of this work are taken directly from Russian Orthodox chants, and Rachmaninoff would later draw from some of this same material himself in several spiritual works of his own, as well as his lifelong fascination with one specific chant, the Dies irae.

We’re coming closer and closer to Rachmaninoff himself. Meantime, here is another of his influences: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture.


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Two sunrises

Via NASA, sunrise over the Pacific Ocean:

Via me, sunrise just beginning, beyond the trees at work:


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“We’re using time-honored skills to preserve history.”

So, what is noted master furniture restorer and upholsterer Sonnaz Nooranvary so cheerful about? Clearly, it’s the latest issue of my newsletter, in which I write about one of my favorite teevee shows ever (and one that features Ms. Nooranvary), The Repair Shop. Check it out and subscribe! Tell your friends and your neighbors and your coworkers and that sleep-deprived barista who nevertheless gets your coffee order right more often than not!

(No, Ms. Nooranvary isn’t cheering anything I did, that’s just a screencap from an episode of The Repair Shop. But I’ll bet she would cheer it, if she had any idea who I was!)

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Dressing for St. Paddy’s, and seeing Paul Reiser

My observation of St. Paddy’s Day this year was limited to what I wore, as luck had it. The Wife and I went out for fish fry at a favorite joint (Frank Gourmet Hot Dogs, if you must kn0w–photo here, though it’s not the best work I’ve ever done in terms of food photos), and then we went to Buff State to see Paul Reiser doing stand-up. (I love Paul Reiser and he’s been one of my favorite people since “This is not my locker!” from Beverly Hills Cop back in 1984 or so and if you don’t like him, well, feel free to not tell me so.) His performance was a delight and we’re so glad to have seen him. Mr. Reiser is not an edgy comedian who swears a lot (though he did a little!); his comedy is more…well, I’m not sure how to describe it other than “the comedian next door”. There’s nothing in his act to which I could not relate on one level or another, but given how consistently everyone was laughing throughout, I have to admit deep admiration of his craft because he made everything really funny.

Oh! And also, the fact that he could be funny for a long show–he was on stage for about 90 minutes, and there were several times when I was convinced the “Thank you, good night!” moment was upon us, only for him to take the mike back out of the stand and keep right on going for another bit–to me gives the lie to all those comedians who have been caterwauling the last few years about how “cancel culture” means you can’t be funny anymore. Meanwhile, there’s Paul Reiser, just going about his business of…being funny. He even dissed chicken wings! I love that the man rolled into Buffalo and took shots at the chicken wing in his act. He didn’t pretend to love wings; in fact, he openly cast aspersions on them, calling them too bony and needing all that sauce to cover up their deficiencies. Hey, I disagree, but it actually is kind of refreshing to have someone come in to town and not genuflect to the local contribution to world cuisine. (Now, at one point he also mentioned Tom Brady in a somewhat positive light, but nobody in the audience booed, so there’s that.)

Anyway, it was St. Paddy’s Day. Even though it is an option of mine, I did not wear green overalls. Instead I rocked regular vintage blue overalls, but a pair with a green tag! Ooooh! This I paied with favorite plaid fleece sweater, and a green scarf. I think I had the green well-represented. Erin go bragh!

The overalls are by a brand called Ely, another of the old overall-makers of yore; they are almost identical to the Dee Cee brand that I also like a lot, primarily for the difference in the styling on the bib pocket. (Lee also adopted this kind of bib styling in the 90s; I should blog about those at some point, too….)

Oh, it was also a zero-proof day! That’s right, we didn’t drink at all on St. Paddy’s Day. Not for any particular reason, really–mostly because by the time we got home it was pushing 11pm and at that point we’re just thinking, “Meh, let’s have a bit of ice cream and get to bed.” This was a good choice, as we did not rise this morning until 8:30am, which is way later than I usually rise on weekends these days (though not so early as I used to rise when we had a greyhound who always had to pee no later than 7am).

Anyway, after a stressful week on a number of levels, last night’s activities were a much-needed respite. And now, the lake-effect is trying to do its thing again, so there’s that. We’re not supposed to get much out of this one, but we’ll see. I have always maintained that St. Paddy’s Day is my personal cut-off point beyond which I am officially Sick Of Snow, but this winter has been weird: if you take out the three storms that walloped us, the last of which is almost three months in the rear-view-mirror, this winter was actually really puny in The 716. (I realize that this observation has a strong whiff of “Yes, Mrs. Lincoln, but aside from that, did you enjoy your night at Ford’s Threater?”)

Back at it, as they say….


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Music from the Emerald Isle

Three selections: one Romantic, one Modern, one Contemporary, all Irish:

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