Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Dear Colleague:

For a short period of time, I am requesting brief endorsements for the cover of my new book, "Invictus," to be published in 2019 by Harvard Square Editions. I will be removing this post later in May 2018.

If you are an author or academic, please consider providing me with a sentence or two of support for this book to appear on the back cover and perhaps in press materials. I am attaching a sample below. The book is the prequel to the 2016 novel, "The Black Spaniard." Please reply by May 15, 2018, if possible

"Invictus" is the story of a child born in Germany at the end of the 18th century with every strike against him. His alcoholic father dislikes him, wondering whether he is in fact the biological father, since the child appears so dark. Other obstacles and hardships beleaguer the little boy trapped in a dysfunctional family, but through the help of those who see hope and promise in the child, who becomes a talented musician, doors open to him, at least for a while.

After a particularly daunting set of catastrophes, all appears lost when at age 16 he is forced to return home from a brief stay abroad. And yet, like the poem this novel is named for, hope and persistence dawn, bringing the light of a new day.

The story is a fictionalized account based in large part on the life of young Beethoven.

Please contact me at drlindaholt@gmail.com if you are able to contribute a few words of support, something along the lines of:


"Invictus is a vivid portrait of a child’s experience of hardship, prejudice, and abuse. But music is the lifeline which rescues him, providing the strength to overcome obstacles."

Here is an excerpt. In this scene, the child, Luis, meets his great teacher, Neefe, for the first time. After years of having musical training forced upon him, often accompanied by beatings, the boy has a different kind of experience in store:


Two teachers gone, now Luis had begun studying with a person of true merit: the fairly new court musical director, Chris Neefe (pronounced NAY-fuh), from the eastern states. Seems like a solid musician, strong background in theater, too. Knows his Bach, for sure. Not surprising, since he’s a Protestant, wonder how that will work out with the court over time, John mused erratically as his quill flew over the pages. So, less with the monks, more with the court, where the money is. This tour will help, no doubt.
Luis at this very moment was entering the music room where Chris Neefe, in his early 30s, sat at his piano, his back to the door. The tall, thin musician had a deformity to his spine which gave him a crooked appearance overall. His long arms tapered down into thin fingers, some which were twisted like claws, that flew over the keyboard, releasing the fragrance of the Well-Tempered Clavier into the stuffy atmosphere. Luis sneezed, and Neefe stopped, quickly looking over his lower shoulder. It took a few seconds for his spirit to cool, but soon, his expression turned to one of kind concern and tenderness. “Come here, boy,” he motioned the child towards him. “Ah, what did you think of that?”
Luis walked confidently to the piano, not paying Neefe the slightest attention. “What was that music, sir?” he asked, placing his hand boldly on the keyboard and replicating a few of the sounds just made, perfectly recalling a complex syncopation; then his eyes drinking in the sheet music before him. Neefe’s lips turned up in a half smile; he was at once surprised by the child’s audacity, but more so by his keen ear and musical memory. Neefe surveyed the boy, from head to toe, noting the shabby clothes, unwashed and unruly head of hair, and of course, noting the dark tint of his skin, the broad facial features, the burning eyes.
“You come highly recommended, Luis,” he said at last, sitting back a bit, beginning to relax.
“As do you, sir,” said the boy, looking up into the teacher’s pale blue eyes. “I have had quite a few teachers,” he chuckled to himself, looking down with a smile, then returning the pianist’s kindly gaze. “What is this music?”
Neefe patted the seat beside him, and Luis sat down with a jolt. “The great master, Johann Sebastian Bach, dead some 30 years. Not so well known anymore.”
“But why?” the boy demanded.
“His style of music is not in fashion. But it is fierce, and will endure,” said Neefe, touching the score warmly. “So tell me, Luis, before we begin today, tell me who you are, what you hope to learn.”
This was a new approach for Luis, and it caught him off guard. He had hoped to launch into a bravura showcase of his own talent and then begin the regimen of exercises and drills.
“Who am I?” he repeated, puzzled. He looked down for some moments, studying his hands. Then he looked up at Neefe. “I am this,” his hand touched the keyboard, “and this,” patting the score.
“And what of this?” asked Neefe, resting his hand on the boy’s head. “And this?” touching his own heart.
“To think, to know, and to love,” said Neefe. “That is what makes a musician great. And practice, of course, there is no way around that.”
“I know, I know!” said Luis, rubbing hands that Neefe now noticed bore the scars of the switch. “But I never heard that what I think or what I love matters. And yet I feel that love so strongly when I play!”
“Love is the seed from which music springs, whether performed or composed originally,” the teacher said.
“Love…of what?” the boy asked.
“All forms,” Neefe said. “Do you love your parents?”
Luis looked away. “My mother,” he said. “I love my mother more than anyone!”
Neefe nodded, starting to get the picture, remembering his own uneasy childhood with a stern, unrelenting father. “And what about your teachers and friends?”
The boy reflected. “I love my cousin Frank!” he said brightly, with a smile. “He is like a big brother to me. And, of course, my own kid brothers, though they can be very annoying”
Neefe smiled. “Yes, I suppose children can get on one’s nerves,” he said with gentle irony, still assessing the 10-year-old before him.
“And what,” asked Neefe, “of God, of your religion?” Luis looked over his shoulder. “God is fine, I do love Him, but…”
“Yes?”
“…I think He is really outside in the woods, not inside the church!”
Neefe stifled a smile. “That is quite fair, Luis, quite fair. Genesis says God created the world, not the church. Yes, you are using your head, good work, boy!” Luis smiled slightly, surprised that he had had the nerve to tell this adult his deepest thoughts on the subject, and amazed that he was encouraged rather than criticized.
“Well,” said Neefe, fingering the keys absently as he reflected, “those are the foundations of music. If you love even one person, if you love the spirit that is God, regardless of what you think about religion, you have the soul to play, the soul even to invent the most glorious music. But lacking love, you might as well be a windup music box programmed to create the same dull plodding noise over and over, for all eternity. Here, let me hear you play this from sight…” he spread two pages of a Bach prelude on the music rest…”and then you may play for me what you would typically perform for a new teacher.”
Neefe slid off the bench, favoring his left arm, and stood to the side as the child sidled over to the center and leaned forward to scan the music closely. Then he raised his hands and launched into a nearly perfect sight reading, filled with fervor, feeling and power. Neefe nodded slightly to himself, and tried to temper the upward turn at each edge of his lips. He felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck, and his eyes stung, as though he had gotten too close to a roaring fire. He knew in that moment, in the stuffy room with no windows, with the scruffy child drawing unheard of music out of the piano, that before him lay his life’s work and mission, and vowed in that moment to let nothing stand in the way of the child’s development as a pianist and as a human being.

 





Monday, March 12, 2018

Menace and magic in Aa's Violin Concerto

This review appeared in the Broad Street Review the week of March 11, 2018: http://bit.ly/2p0Rfcd

Here’s one way to describe Michel van der Aa's Violin Concerto, which received its North American premiere March 8 through 10, 2018: utterly captivating. Violinist Janine Jansen joined Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of a thought-provoking work that’s breathtaking in scope and enjoyable on every level.

In many ways, the work has a familiar, almost conventional charm. Its 25 minutes are evenly divided among three movements, which follow the fast-slow-fast pattern with which concertgoers are familiar. It is written in standard notation, with a bit of key signature (3/4) right at the beginning, but soon veers off, as though the notes become birds and fly off the page, taking us into a journey of unexpected delights.

"Nurture and menace"
  
In the first few bars, the solo violin languidly climbs from a low whisper to a stratospheric suggestion of yearning, then, joined by the orchestra, spins a fascinating sound saga. The piece contains a full workout for the orchestra, including a trio in the first movement with Jansen, concertmaster David Kim, and principal cellist Priscilla Lee.

One of the concerto’s most fascinating elements is the way the enlarged percussion section is spread across Verizon Hall’s stage. In one sense, the percussion players coddled the strings and brass in a protective shell. But were they also looming behind the orchestra, ready to snap, like a Venus flytrap? That level of nurture and menace was retained throughout.

Just hearing the bass drum thundering from stage left was a memorable experience. And what a variety of percussion instruments, more like the contents of my garage than a concert stage: egg shaker, sandpaper and wooden surface, washboard, whip, and the enticing “sizzle cymbal.”

The percussive section plays such a pivotal role in this concerto, clicking and clacking like R2D2. It’s almost as though there are two orchestras, sometimes at play, other times at war, the clarion tone of Jansen’s Stradivarius stitching them together with impeccable grace.
 
Jansen is a wizard in her own right, expressing a deeply felt response to this music: sometimes lyrical, but more often agitated and determined. Her technical mastery was unfailingly evident and, if this concerto traced a kind of battle among sometimes friendly but often confrontational forces, she emerged the clear winner.

Nézet-Séguin was more reserved than usual, focused entirely on the complicated task of both leading and working in sync with the soloist, for whom this concerto was written (van der Aa has said that he composed the work with Jansen, rather than any particular instrument, in mind). Jansen and Nézet-Séguin were a perfect balance of partners, a yin-yang symmetry bringing out the textures, tensions, and drive of a work that promises to become a permanent part of the concert repertoire.

A Philadelphia favorite

The second part of the program brought an entirely different tone. Since the Stokowski years, the orchestra has been associated with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. It’s the epitome of the Romantic symphony, even if it premiered in 1908, the dawn of the modern era.

If Nézet-Séguin was reserved in the van der Aa, he held nothing back in the Rachmaninoff, performing a graceful conductor’s ballet on the podium like a taiji master. A good thing, too, because he led the players through a thoroughly satisfying rendition of this familiar masterpiece.

For my taste, this rendition was a little too assertive (my idea of Rachmaninoff is compatible with sinking into piles of down comforters with a plate of cream-filled chocolates), but great music is amenable to many interpretations. Nézet-Séguin pulled out the stops, with gushing melodies and spirited bursts of determination. This is a classic reading which brings out the strength and global vision of its composer, ending with a shout of exultation and artistic triumph.

The concert started with remarks by the conductor, noting that the performance was being recorded by Deutsche Grammophon. With a smile, he very diplomatically requested that members of the audience take extra care in the cultivation of silence during the performance. Unfortunately, that seems to be Philadelphian for “cough more often and louder than usual"!

If you missed the concert and were not able to attend a performance at Carnegie Hall on March 13, you may search for van der Aa’s work on YouTube. The Philadelphia concert was held in Verizon Hall.

 Michel van der Aa (Photo by Priska Ketterer.)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Review of Curtis Cate's 1975 Biography of George Sand

I began reading “George Sand A Biography” by Curtis Cate (1975, Houghton Mifflin, Boston) in August 2017 and completed it December 30, 2017. I read it at the rate of approximately seven pages a night. The book is 732 pages of narrative, plus supplementary material (my guestimate is 307,440 words of narrative). Born in Paris, Cate held three university degrees (Harvard, and from schools in Paris and Oxford), was an editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and wrote other biographies. He died in 2006.

I found this book engrossing and informative, notable primarily for the author’s high regard of the most prolific female novelist of the 19th century, his engaging writing style, and the historical context for Sand’s works, activities, and romances. Born Aurore Dupin, George Sand lived from 1804 to 1874, largely in her family estate, Nohant, in the French province of Berry. She was the author of  60 books, most of which are still in print, and 25 plays, all of which were staged in her lifetime, as well as essays, articles, and voluminous correspondence with some of the 19th century’s most celebrated cultural icons.

While Sand is famous for wearing men’s clothing, smoking cigars and cigarettes, having many affairs, and writing under a male name, Cate wisely focuses on her life as a creative person and her role in French history (literary and political) and downplays the so-called scandalous details of her daily life. It is worth noting that some of the greatest writers, artists, and musicians of Western Europe in the 19th century—Liszt, Flaubert, Turgenev, Hugo, Balzac, Pauline Garcia, Heine, Delacroix—admired the woman and her work, and many paid homage to her as one of the greatest writers of her time. Her affairs included those with the poet Musset and the composer Chopin, and she was a leading figure in the political uprisings in Paris during her lifetime.

Cate’s biography fails, however, in an inability to make Sand come alive for the reader. What is she wearing, how does she dress her luxuriant black hair? There is a vivid description of Sand in a colorful frock, wearing a jaunty Turkish cap, early in the book. Surely, this was not an anomaly. How does she move, and what is she like when she dances? What percentage of the time did she dress in men’s clothes? I suspect it wasn’t that often. On more than one occasion, Cate quotes visitors who dismiss her as looking like a cow! (Ruminant, pensive, silent.) Surely this cannot be the exciting female presence who had 20 lovers and was synonymous in the popular imagination with Romantic-era passion and free love.

Sand does emerge, however, as a study in contradictions, and it is this complexity which kept me reading slowly and carefully, night after night. Heralded as the mother of Women’s Liberation, she  questioned the need for women to vote, a seeming contradiction. “We can’t worry about voting until we can inherit our own property,” she protested, having lost so much at the death of her father. However, Cate does capture Sand’s devotion to hard work, writing through the night for decades to support herself, her family, servants, and home. And yet there are hints of tender moments, such as an idyllic stroll and steamboat ride with the bachelor Flaubert (not one of her lovers) and his mother along the Seine. If this does not conjure up images of Impressionist painting to come, then nothing shall.

“George Sand A Biography” is well worth reading: as a story, as history, as a tribute to a writer who is currently not as popular as her more celebrated peers. But just as small, independent publishers are discovering and publishing the works of pre-Austen novelists, so George Sand’s time will come again. Read this book and be prepared! (Review by L.L. Holt, author of The Black Spaniard.)