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:

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.)

Podcast and Playlist for WPRB Podcast on The Black Spaniard

Here is the podcast and playlist for my appearance on a Classical Discoveries radio segment titled, "Beethoven with a Twist," aired in December 2017 on WPRB, Princeton University's independent, community supported radio station. Marvin Rosen, host of Classical Discoveries, celebrating more than 20 years of continuous quality programming, was the interviewer. The program focused on my new book, The Black Spaniard. A prequel, The Reluctant Prodigy, will appear in 2018.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

WPRB 103.3FM Princeton to focus on The Black Spaniard

I'll be on WPRB 103.3FM Wednesday, December 6 talking about my favorite topic: Beethoven!

Approximately between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., Marvin Rosen, host of Classical Discoveries, will talk to me about my novel, "The Black Spaniard," which looks at Beethoven's life from age 21 to age 33. (Reviews of The Black Spaniard by L.L. Holt are on .)

"The Black Spaniard" not only follows actual events in the life of Beethoven, but also puts them in historical context, exploring the often ignored cultural diversity of Vienna, Austria, at the turn of the century (late 1700s to early 1800s). There is also a surprise twist on the possible identity of the Immortal Beloved (remember: it's fiction!).

WPRB is the Princeton University radio station. Marvin's own site, , will carry the December 6 program for a period of time following the broadcast. Listen up!

L.L. Holt at Beethoven's residence in Heiligenstadt, a suburb of Vienna, Austra

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Beethoven's Leonore - A Wonder Woman for Our Time

I had the pleasure of attending the Princeton Festival's production of Beethoven's Fidelio on June 18, 2017. (Fidelio is the name of a prison guard in this political drama, but she is actually Leonore in disguise, seeking her imprisoned husband, Florestan.) Please click the following link to read my review in the Broad Street Review (Philadelphia), photo by Jessi Franko Designs LLC:

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Thinking about Beethoven

I haven’t written about Beethoven in a while. I was thinking this morning that what impresses me most about his lifelong output (roughly from age 14 to 56) is its inevitability, the logical way it developed from those first songs and piano sketches to the almost unbearable intensity of the final symphony, quartets, and sonatas. 

It’s mythic, as though a Vedic god or goddess stood at the peak of Mount Everest and, blowing on a conch shell, filled the valleys below with this precisely ordered revelation. The peaks and valleys of his music unfold as though planned for centuries by an Immortal Being. Beethoven’s life similarly evolves like some mythic hero destined to suffer and die for his art. Even he recognized his likeness to Prometheus, the Greek titan tortured eternally for bringing fire to humankind.

I know I get a little crazy about Beethoven. But I can’t see this inevitable, logical unfolding of music and human life in any other composer or artist. Like the heroes of the great religions, Beethoven seems to take on the sufferings of the world and offers a kind of preordained musical redemption that is satisfying both in its finality and in the way it points to greatness beyond. It is more than music. It may even be more than life.  (L.L. Holt, author of The Black Spaniard)