Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Harvard Square Editions to publish L.L. Holt book in April 2019

A release date has been set for "Invictus" by L.L. Holt: April 2019. I am working with Harvard Square Editions on the final interior proof. This novel follows the stormy childhood of a dark-skinned boy growing up in a dysfunctional white German household in the late 1700s. The child has many adventures, escapes the horror of domestic violence, and learns to overcome discrimination and intolerance through his music. His name is Beethoven. (Book cover art by J. Caleb Clark, copyright protected)

Monday, July 9, 2018

Final proofing of galleys for "Invictus," novel about a child's indomitable spirit

Final proofing of the galleys to Invictus, a novel about a dark-skinned child's struggles against discrimination, bullying, and domestic violence in late 18th century Germany, is taking place during June 2018.

The novel will be published by Harvard Square Editions during the 2018-19 publishing cycle, and already has received praise by individuals in the academic and music communities.

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…”
“…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.


Sunday, July 8, 2018

Reflections of a Western Daoist

Although much of my writing in recent years has been about music, for many years I also have written about Daoism, Chinese thought as it has taken hold in the West, Yoga philosophy, and comparative spirituality.

The following essay appeared in a 2006 issue of The Empty Vessel, a journal on Daoist thought and aesthetics founded by Western Daoist, Solala Towler. In this essay, I describe my own Daoist journey, a path which blends seamlessly with Yoga and the Christian religion in which I grew up. I am currently co-editor and chapter contributor of a book on Daoism and science which is scheduled for publication by Nova Science Press in May 2019.


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Here's what the future of music looks like

(This review appeared in the Broad Street Review on June 4, 2018. To see all my reviews, go to www.broadstreetreview.com and search <Linda Holt>)

I was not prepared for Studio Dan’s Inventive Mothers: A Tribute to Frank Zappa (June 2 and 3, 2018). Staged in a dark corner of the Kimmel Center’s basement, the show, part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, promised a walk down memory lane honoring that bad boy of the 1970s, Frank Zappa. ​

Imagine my astonishment when from a low, Wagnerian grumble, the ensemble of 13 youngish musicians from Vienna, Austria, not only recapped some of the West's greatest sounds from the last century but pioneered a new music binding jazz, rock, classical, improv, and pop.

It was original music-making fused with influences from Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ellington, John Adams, and Jimi Hendrix, interpreted by Dan Riegler’s ingenious arrangements of Zappa melodies, and several startling works by Studio Dan members. Commentators have lamented the uneasy couplings of these disparate influences, and suddenly here it is: the future of music, in the basement of a traditional concert hall.

Getting in the groove

Riegler assembled, coached, supported, and inspired a screamingly talented ensemble of musicians. The 14-member group, all virtuoso soloists, formed in Vienna 13 years ago. Together they reclaim the cheek and wit, of Zappa’s catalog, and some damn good tunes.

But Studio Dan (a pun on the title of Zappa’s album, Studio Tan) is also much more. The musicians have an infectious energy. Once they connected and got into the groove, there was no stopping them.

In defiance of expectations, Riegler presented the image of a classical conductor: self-assured, in a conservative grey suit, carefully following the scores on his music stand. Given the program’s rhythmic excitement, he had a few cool moves that wouldn’t be seen upstairs when the symphony’s in town.

Yet, many times in each selection, he stood back and let these sublimely talented artists display the full range of their improvisational and technical skills. Each musician was given at least one solo opportunity, with several duets and other groupings.

While all were remarkable, special note must be made of the duet featuring percussionists Hubert Bründlmayer (drums) and Raphael Meinhart (everything else), creating dust devils of sound. The decibel level and small venue, filled with a spellbound audience of mostly 50-somethings, intensified a delightful display of passion and virtuosity.

I was tremendously impressed by Clemens Salesny on sax and clarinets, but especially in his fluid, soulful bass-clarinet solos. And all was not blistering volume and speed: My eyes misted over as Michael Tiefenbacher (piano) and Bernd Satzinger (double bass) improvised a tender jazz duet.

Shining in the string section were Sophia Goidinger-Koch, violin; Magdalena Zenz, viola, memorable in a duet with soprano sax; and Maiken Beer, cello.

Fan favorites

Unfortunately, the program did not name the selections, although Riegler identified each work in his friendly chatter between numbers. Some selections included or alluded to Zappa tunes, such as “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance,” "Be-Bop Tango,” “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,” “G-Spot Tornado” (distinguished by its musical logic and crazed, manic drive), and “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbeque,” which got a roar from fans when announced. The program closed with the ever-popular “Peaches en Regalia.”

Riegler composed the opening salvo, while bassoonist Christof Dienz composed two interludes of striking originality and lyricism. One of Dienz’s pieces contained a mesmerizing effect demonstrating just how in control these musicians are. It included single staccato chords with unusually long rests between them, articulated by five or six instruments on different parts of the stage, a daunting challenge.

“Improvised Concerto for Bicycle, Prerecorded Tape and Instrumental Ensemble” (1963), offered a tribute to Zappa’s debut on the Steve Allen Show. This included sounds from a bicycle’s spinning wheels and pedals, tapping on the downtube, scraping the whirling spokes with a stick, all while a taped voice droned “Mary had a little lamb.” The piece was worth a few minutes but was not as engaging as the rest of the program, so full of wit, ferocity, and splendor.

My only other criticism was the lack of a playlist. The one-page sheet about Studio Dan, distributed at the beginning of the concert, contained a long quote by Zappa, ending with the words, “Music is THE BEST.”

This is clearly the collective opinion of Studio Dan, and we are the happy beneficiaries of their philosophy.

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.)