Doom & Gloom from the Tomb: “Astral Weeks,” Van Morrison, Aquarius Theater, Boston, Massachusetts, May 19, 1972. With the impending release of Ryan Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, finding a live performance of any of the songs by Van in Boston is an unexpected treat, even if it’s a few years after the event. But this performance is doubly a treat: peak Saint Dominic’s Preview-era Van Morrison, with much of the hazy adventure of the original performance supplemented by a forthrightness and confidence (and horn section) characteristic of the latter record. A fun listen.
There are some songs where my attraction to the music is clear and immediate; others drift in over the transom.
I first found Coralie Clément‘s song “Bye bye beauté” in a cover version by Nada Surf, on their 2010 covers album If I Had a Hi-Fi. After I found I couldn’t get the song out of my head, I finally went looking for the album. The music (written by Clément’s brother Benjamin Biolay) simmers and builds; her voice is above it, breathy but intense.
I’ve been slowly working my way through digitizing a bunch of records and finally finished one I picked up last year when I was visiting my parents in Asheville. (Thanks to the awesome Harvest Records.)
There’s a lot to be said for finding bootleg releases of bands you love — they can be great documents of moments in the band’s history that don’t appear in official releases. There’s also a lot to be said for getting records instead of digital downloads, between the tangible artifact and the often warmer sound. But I’m not sure there’s much to be said for getting vinyl of bootleg recordings from the late 1960s.
The Velvet Underground boot pictured above is a two record set recorded in 1968, between The Velvet Underground and Loaded. The Doug Yule version of the band is in full effect here, with John Cale’s drones replaced with the choogling multiple guitar work that characterizes both the official releases from this period (“What Goes On”) and some of the often-anthologized but never-on-official-LP release songs (“I Can’t Stand It”). The band is in good shape here. But the recording isn’t. Our bootlegger was standing too close to some of the speakers for some songs, or Lou’s vocals weren’t high enough in the mix, or something, and it’s hard to listen to the performance from start to finish as a result. I should have just looked for a download of the thing instead.
Increasingly my new music hunting has been on Bandcamp, where I’ve found some amazing music just by browsing and sampling. Other than Grand Banks (of course), it’s been fantastic for getting archival records, out-of-print Jim O’Rourke, and new jazz.
An especially rich vein has been jazz from London groups. I first stumbled across Ill Considered, by saxophonist Idris Rahman, late last year. Last weekend I went back to the site and discovered Brownswood Recordings and Yussef Kamaal. The latter, a group featuring Kamaal Williams (aka Henry Wu) on keys and Yussef Dayes on drums along with an assortment of session musicians, make experimental groove-based jazz-funk that wouldn’t have been out of place in Herbie Hancock’s early to mid 1970s discography—except for the hip-hop inflected drums, a common thread in the Brownswood recordings I’ve heard, and in fact in most of the really exciting 21st century jazz I’ve found.
Infuriatingly, Yussef Kamaal were one of the musical groups caught up in President Trump’s travel ban. Denied entry to the United States in March, they missed the opportunity to perform at this year’s SXSW.
The debut album from Yussef Kamaal, Black Focus, is engaging and rewarding, and a fun listen on a snowy day like today. Recommended. I’m also enjoying the live sets by the group on Youtube, including the group’s very first show, the Boiler Room session.
(This is Part 2 of the story of how I got my hands on a copy of the 1943 radio transcription record of the first performance of Randall Thompson’s The Testament of Freedom. Read Part 1 for context about the recording.)
Finding the record on eBay was a heady, exciting moment, tempered by two things: it wasn’t complete, and I wasn’t alone.
I have learned over the years that, while they don’t draw hundreds of bidders, works of history from the University are of enough interest to a small number of collectors that bidding can be competitive. I knew that I could probably win the auction if I paid enough attention—though I’ve lost my fair share of items, I’ve won more than I lost, thanks to a sixteen-year-old paper by one of my grad school professors. I knew that there was at least one other bidder, so I set an alarm for the last day of the auction and waited.
The completeness point was a little more concerning. The available information about the recording indicated that it was a three-record set (not uncommon in the days before 33 1/3 RPM records), but this was only one record. Thankfully, the photo of the label indicated that it was the last movement, easily my favorite of the four. Though Thompson’s setting of Jefferson’s text still plods in places (like any time the word despotism is sung), there is a note of real challenge to the opening words “I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance…”
The day of the auction arrived and I won, despite a flurry of bids earlier in the day. (The odds are good that the other bidder is reading this; sorry and better luck next time!) Now I just had to get the record. And here Fate intervened and made me wait.
The auction ended New Years Eve, one of a series of bitterly cold days with highs in the single digits. The next day the seller contacted me to tell me that he would mail the package a day later, since it was so cold his truck wouldn’t start. I could sympathize, having had to jump-start my own car so that I could take it to the garage to get a new battery. So I waited and watched as the package was shipped—two days before a huge storm that dumped 17 inches of snow on Lexington, Massachusetts.
Perhaps because of the storm, the package took a … circuitous route from New Hampshire to Lexington:
But it finally arrived earlier this week, and to my delight, while the original sleeve was in poor shape (the seller thoughtfully put the record in a new sleeve), the record looked like it was pretty good. Now all I had to do was to listen to it.
Here we had a small snag: my otherwise-wonderful Denon DP-45F turntable has no 78RPM setting. But I was going to digitize the record anyway. So I played it back at 45RPM, and then (as I noted earlier this week) used Amadeus Pro to speed up the playback by 173.3% (78/45). I tried noise reduction but didn’t like what it did to the tone of Thompson’s piano, so I left it alone.
Ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised by the performance. Listening to Thompson’s solo piano introduction to the movement, one is reminded of the historical moment in which the work was written. This was April 1943, more than two years into World War II, and many of the young men singing the work were painfully aware that Jefferson’s words about dying with light and liberty on the advance were not going to be hypothetical for them. The following vocal entrance is appropriately hushed, and the Glee Club declaims Jefferson’s text with clarity and good pitch. The reintroduction of the first-movement “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time” is not strident (as in the 1945 BSO/Harvard Glee Club performance) but nuanced—perhaps because the Virginia men only had to be heard above a piano, not a full orchestra. Only the final chord shows vocal strain in the high tenors.
And here it is! As noted above, the only manipulation was speeding up the playback to restore normal speed, and to join the two halves of the recording into one—which fortunately was pretty straightforward. Enjoy!
Sometime in late 1942 or early 1943, University of Virginia president John Newcomb commissioned a new work from the head of the music division (not yet the McIntire Department of Music), composer and professor Randall Thompson, to commemorate the 200th birthday of Thomas Jefferson, which would be celebrated April 13, 1943. Thompson looked for appropriate texts for the occasion and found them in Jefferson’s own letters.
In January 1943, Thompson had taken over the directorship of the Virginia Glee Club as Harry Rogers Pratt stepped down to focus on the war effort. The Glee Club provided, presumably, a solution to a significant challenge: how to mount the forces for a concert with a student body that was perpetually being shipped off to war. The Glee Club, while reduced greatly by the war effort (the 1942-1943 group officially numbered 45, down from 130 in 1940-1941), at least still performed. And Thompson knew them, having conducted them in his “Tarantella” the preceding spring. Accordingly Thompson composed the new work for men’s chorus and piano.
The actual concert was held on Founder’s Day and featured “music proved to have been owned or known by him,” according to the program notes from the concert. Significantly, the concert was broadcast nationwide on the Columbia Broadcasting System, and was recorded for later playback over the Armed Forces shortwave in Europe. It was a hit; Thompson’s obituaries noted it as his best-known work, and it was used in 1945 by Serge Koussevitzky (with the Boston Symphony and the Harvard Glee Club) to mark the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
I have long known that copies of the recording existed—in fact, a few years ago I found mention in a contemporary issue of College Topics, the precursor to the Cavalier Daily, that the Glee Club was privately selling “records … being made by Columbia Recording Corporation” that featured “reproduction of the first performance of [The Testament of Freedom] last April 13 with Stephen D. Tuttle conducting and the composer at the piano.” I figured I would have to go to the University to hear its archival copy.
And then I checked eBay, as I’m wont to do, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw the listing:
“1943 Randall Thompson/Univ. of Virginia Glee Club Testament of Freedom 78”
I couldn’t let it go. I had to be able to listen to it.
Tomorrow: getting, and listening to, the record.
Just found an Italian archive site that provides a tantalizing glimpse of the first major-orchestra performance of Randall Thompson’s The Testament of Freedom, as recorded by RCA (presumably following close on the BSO premiere of the work in April 1945). (You can view the full catalog record of the recording, in Italian, here.)
And by glimpse, I mean listen—though you can only hear a 30-second preview of each of the six sides of the six-record set (from the 78RPM era). To hear the samples, click the Play button beneath the scan of the record label in the center, then hit the Next button (right triangle) in the header and click Play again. It’s clumsy but it works.
And interestingly, side 5 raises doubt that Harvard’s Glee Club in 1945 was substantially more musically sophisticated than its Virginia counterpart. The opening of the last movement, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time,” is here shouted with uneven pitch and vowel pronunciation (direct link to a downloadable 30-second sample). I hope to be able to compare the recording to the Virginia Glee Club’s 1943 premiere soon.
I got a bunch of Boston Pops records from the 1960s and 1970s. This is one in a series of blog posts about them.
We come to the end, for now, of this series of posts about the records I’ve found featuring Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops in their 1960s-1970s heyday—primarily because, with one exception (a reissue of the Carmen Ballet), we’ve come to the end of my LPs. So I figured we should go out with a bang. This is The Duke at Tanglewood, a 1966 record of a 1965 performance of Duke Ellington and a rhythm section playing with Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops through orchestral arrangements of some of Ellington’s greatest compositions, live from the Shed at Tanglewood. I ask you: how could I resist?
Ellington wrote the liner notes for this release, and I can’t disagree with his concluding line: “Ah, but it was a wonderful night for the piano player.” The Duke is in fine form here, dropping a magnificent piano solo atop “Caravan,” dialoging with the orchestra in “The Mooch,” and generally having a great time.
It was not as wonderful a night for the orchestra. Though in some pieces (“Caravan,” notably), the Richard Hayman orchestrations broaden the palate of Ellington’s compositions tremendously, in others his tendency to knock the corners off syncopations dulls the impact a bit — Squaresville! In terms of sound and verve, the Boston Pops brass, though mighty, is no match for a Duke Ellington horn section. And some of the arrangements (“The Mooch”) can seem a bit thick. When more restraint is used, as in Hayman’s great arrangement of “Love Scene,” the results are striking.
Overall, though, it’s the most thoroughgoing of any of the collaborations we’ve reviewed on this trip through the Pops discography, and ultimately the most successful.
The full album is available on Youtube. Enjoy!
I got a bunch of Boston Pops records from the 1960s and 1970s. This is one in a series of blog posts about them.
In yesterday’s post, we looked at the impact of the long running Evening at Pops series on the Pops’s repertoire and programs: namely, more pop music and celebrity involvement. (Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that these trends contributed to Evening at Pops, which then accelerated the pop music.) The shift was profound, so much so that when the Pops changed their recording contract from RCA to Deutsche Grammophon in 1970, they issued only their more “classical” recordings on DG; and issued their “pop audience” recordings, like yesterday’s and today’s, on DG’s child imprint Polydor. So records like today’s, 1971’s Encore: Fiedler’s Greatest Hits, automatically tip off which part of the Pops they represent simply by checking the label. (It’s probably not surprising that I haven’t come across a single “serious” DG-label Pops recording, but have several of the Polydor ones.)
So, Encore. If you read yesterday’s post about Julia Child’s Evening at Pops record, the format for Encore will look familiar: a side of pop material, a side of light classics. And the pop material is even more pop than usual: we get the “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet,” two Bacharach/David tunes (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”), the theme from Midnight Cowboy (presumably the only time the Pops has programmed the theme song to an X-rated motion picture), and “Aquarius” from Hair. (Yes, really.)
Side B finds us in more familiar Pops territory: samba, waltzes (Strauss and Richard Rodgers), a Sousa march, and, the sole non-dance “light classic” on the program, Khatchaturian’s “Sabre Dance.” Compared to the version that appears on Pops Festival (which was in turn anthologized from elsewhere), this version wears Army boots — it’s heavy, driving (at least 20% faster than the older take), and with a corresponding lack of detail in the performance. “Sabre Dance” was a “greatest hit” and appears to have suffered one of the fates of greatest hits—a certain fatigue and contempt on the part of the performers.
Here’s the Pops’ take on “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” Enjoy!
I got a bunch of Boston Pops records from the 1960s and 1970s. This is one in a series of blog posts about them.
In yesterday’s review of American Salute, we started to see the Boston Pops crossover machine in full swing as Chet Atkins joined the Pops and Arthur Fiedler for a few tracks on this album of Americana. Today’s 1972 record—a recent eBay find for me—is deep in the heart of crossover-land: it’s a document from a 1971 performance of Evening at Pops with a headliner celebrity narrator—the inimitable Julia Child, no less—and a bunch of lowercase-p pop songs, alongside the lightest of light classics.
Let’s start with Evening at Pops. Most modern audiences outside the Boston area probably trace their knowledge of the Boston Pops to this television program, which aired over PBS from 1970 to 2005 (that this is the year I joined the Tanglewood Festival Chorus can only be ironic coincidence). Wikipedia calls the program “the public television version of a variety show,” and this is a fair description, judging both from the contents of this record and the curiously wistful timeline captured on the program’s last website.
(Aside: I remember watching with my parents when I was a kid. It was one of a handful of true “hi-fi” TV experiences I had as a kid; since the program was often simulcast on both public television and public radio, my dad would turn down the TV volume and turn up the radio volume so we could get the program in full stereo accompanying the cramped visuals on our little 19″ TV. Ah, those were the days…)
In terms of programming, there are a few surprises here. The opening is a full-orchestra arrangement of John Morris’s great (second) theme song for The French Chef, Julia Child’s breakthrough PBS cooking show. I don’t know how many times the Pops performed the kids’ classic “Tubby the Tuba,” but Julia makes a hysterically sympathetic narrator in her trademark burbling tones—and adds a unique punchline all her own at the end. The Sesame Street gang also appeared in the 1971 Evening at Pops lineup, so an arrangement of the theme song follows “Tubby.” It’s in turn followed by “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” in an incredibly timely arrangement of the November 1971 hit based on a Coke jingle.
The second half of the record is more familiar Pops fare: we get two Leroy Anderson numbers (“Bugler’s Holiday” and “A Trumpeter’s Lullaby”), “Jalousie,” two Tchaikovsky movements from the Nutcracker (“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and “Dance of the Toy Flutes”), and as a closer, “76 Trombones.” Almost all this fare could be found on earlier Pops recordings like Pops Festival.
So if you look at the overall program, it’s really a standard Pops program, with the celebrity narrator guest elevated to headliner. But by this time “standard Pops” was only about 50% light classics and was relying increasingly on pop songs and other pop-crossover fare. We’ll see that in tomorrow’s record as well.
Here’s Julia Child reading “Tubby the Tuba” from the TV broadcast. Enjoy!
We’re nearing the end of the Boston Pops records; just a handful more to go. And this is where it gets interesting, folks. We’re in the early 1970s and this is when the Pops really put the pop in their name. On the surface, 1972’s American Salute doesn’t seem that different from the 1971 Fiedler’s Favorite Marches compilation I reviewed last week, but there’s a very interesting difference lurking behind the cover…
Both covers feature Al Hirschfeld caricatures of Fiedler—this one in an attractive Statue of Liberty get-up. Both have some marches — in this case, “American Patrol,” an 1885 march by F.W. Meacham. Both even feature some lesser known classical works, in this case Morton Gould‘s 1942 “American Salute” and William Schuman’s “Chester” from New England Triptych. And then there’s the tracks on either side of “Chester” — the “Tennessee Waltz” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” both of which feature the guitar of Chet “Mr. Guitar” Atkins.
Let’s let that sentence sink in for a minute. Not only did Richard Hayman arrange Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” but Chet Atkins played guitar on it, as well as on “Galveston” and “Alabama Jubilee.” What happened?
As it happens, this album was the third to feature a collaboration between Atkins and Fiedler’s Pops, following The Pops Goes Country and Chet Picks on the Pops. Fiedler and Atkins shared a common interest in bursting free of their genre restrictions and “crossing over.” In these recordings, Atkins took his “Nashville Sound” to its logical conclusion: replacing anonymous backing string players with a full orchestra. And Fiedler was canny enough to recognize a collaborator who would broaden the audience for his Pops orchestra far beyond fans of “light classics”… though, some would argue, not without a cost.
Here’s the recording from the album of that “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” When we get back, we’ll be in the thick of the Pops’ mass popularity, with a visit from a very special guest and a whole new venue.
By the early 1970s there was beginning to be a shift in the way that the Pops records were marketed. Compare the cover of Fiddle-Faddle or Light Classics to this one, and it’s immediately apparent that Fiedler was starting to have a brand of his own. He had shown up on album covers before now, but the 1971 compilation Fiedler’s Favorite Marches puts him front and center—and as a Hirschfeld drawing, no less.
You’d expect a two-LP set of marches to be all Sousa all the time, and certainly Sousa compositions appear several times throughout. But, true to form, Fiedler’s selections also include non-obvious marches, like the march from Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges suite, the grand march from Aïda (also anthologized on Pops Festival), and even the erstwhile Hitchcock theme “Funeral March of a Marionette.” Grieg’s “March of the Dwarfs” (from the Lyric Suite) is a great example from the album: the intersection between familiar theme and light classical repertoire, in performances both immediate and engaging.
If, like me, you have a lot of classical music in your iTunes library, and, like me, you’ve despaired of organizing your music because of the limited support for classical-relevant digital audio file tags (conductor, anyone?), there’s a mild note of surprise in the latest round of iTunes updates.
One of the big challenges for me has been tagging and naming tracks that represent movements of a classical work. Do I use the rudimentary “Grouping” tag? Do I just put the work name and movement name in the Name tag (and lose the ability to view the name of the movement on my car display because the tag is too long)?
Well, as of iTunes 12.5, you can select the tracks that belong to the work, Get Info, and you’ll see a new checkbox at the top of the list: Use work and movement. Check that and you can enter the work and movement information and it will be neatly displayed when you’re browsing in iTunes or playing the tracks back on your iPhone or iPad.
It’s not perfect; Kirk McElhearn of MacWorld details some usability challenges with the feature (hint: copy the movement names down before you make the switch). But after many years with no new features in support of classical listeners, even a flawed metadata feature is like a breath of fresh air.
Monday’s post, about the Pops’ 1961 Light Classics album, addressed one big chunk of 1960s and 1970s Pops repertoire, the so-called “light classic” (about which more later). Missing from that album: distinctive original compositions written specifically for the Pops, which constitute a big part of the Pops DNA (if not always its active repertoire). One of the big contributors to this “Pops originals” set of compositions was composer and arranger Leroy Anderson. ; this 1962 Pops recording, Fiddle-Faddle, is devoted to his work.
Unless you follow the work of a Pops orchestra closely, the importance of the role of the arranger is hard to appreciate. Having now sung in the Holiday Pops for twelve seasons, it becomes clear that arrangers make or break an orchestra’s repertoire, and have a significant impact on whether the show delights and transports the audience or just leaves them cold. These days the Pops has David Chase (he of the “Twelve Days of Christmas“); in the 1960s they had Richard Hayman. And in the 1930s through the 1950s they had Leroy Anderson.
Boston Pops audiences these days are probably most familiar with Anderson’s work through “Sleigh Ride,” but he had a whole string of hits. His first hit, “Blue Tango,” went to Number One on the Billboard charts and was the first instrumental recording ever to sell one million copies. “Syncopated Clock” and “Plink, Plank, Plunk!” became theme songs for CBS television shows. Heck, I played “Syncopated Clock” in my long-past student string orchestra days (though I can’t remember if it was in middle or high school).
All of these compositions are here, along with a few I didn’t know but which are just as witty and winning (example: “Classical Juke Box,” which opens with a march treatment of “Music, Music, Music” and proceeds through a series of variations, separated by an ingenious percussion effect that mimics the sound of the record changing mechanism—and a section that mimics a skipping record). The only significant Anderson Pops work missing is “The Typewriter,” but never fear, I have a copy courtesy of Pops Festival.
That “light classics” aside: My TFC colleague Steve Owades pointed me to a 2016 article in the New York Times discussing the disappearance of “light classics” from Pops orchestra repertoire nationwide as those orchestras chase dwindling audiences with movie nights and pop artist crossovers. Our next Pops Files post will look at an early example of such a crossover.
Here’s the performance of “Classical Juke Box” from Fiddle-Faddle.
I mentioned in Thursday’s post about Pops Festival, the massive 10-LP compilation that started my journey down this particular rabbit hole, that it had been compiled—er, “pleasure programmed“— from a number of other Pops LPs of the period, including today’s record, Light Classics (1961). How can I be sure? The giveaway is “In a Persian Market.”
I’ve previously said that a mainstay of the midcentury Boston Pops repertoire was lesser known classics from 19th and early 20th century European composers. “In a Persian Market,” by Albert William Ketèlbey (1875-1959), is a perfect poster child for the typical work. Romantic melodies are bookended by a faux-exotic street scene featuring “a chorus of beggars [singing] ‘baksheesh, baksheesh Allah,'” at least according to Wikipedia. On this Pops recording, the words of the beggars are sung by the orchestra, and are performed as “nyaah nyaah nyaah”s rather than distinguishable words. It’s the “nyaah nyaah nyaah”s that are the identifying feature confirming that the same recording is used for Pops Festival.
The rest of the set is, for “light classics,” amazingly solid and surprisingly varied. “Flight of the Bumblebee” and “Ride of the Valkyries,” while both well-known to the point of cliché today, are briskly but convincingly performed, while Manuel de Falla’s “El Amor Brujo” is a widescreen opening number featuring nearly every section of the orchestra in turn. “Hora Staccato,” while credited to Dinicu and Heifetz, is presented in a full orchestral arrangement which diminishes some of the purely virtuosic elements required of the performers, instead bringing a spotlight on the melody. The seemingly mandatory dance number, rather than a popular ballad or Viennese waltz, is by Bolzoni, and appears to have been a favorite of Fiedler’s who had previously programmed it on the 1958 Boston Tea Party record. The closing “Merry Wives of Windsor Overture” brings the record to a pleasant conclusion.
An aside about provenance: I had actually forgotten I owned this record until I went to shelve some of the newer LPs and found it waiting unplayed in its sleeve. I believe I purchased it in the late 2000s from a (now closed) used record shop at the corner of Mass Ave and Boylston, which was notable both for its proximity to the Berklee College of Music and for its immense stock of old Boston Pops and Boston Symphony records. This one was virtually unplayed, and no matter how “light” is a delight to listen to.
The recording below of “In a Persian Market” is the same one on this recording, and illustrates one of the challenges of writing about the Pops’ recorded output—with so many compilations and reissues of their recordings, it’s hard to tell what was recorded and released when. But it’s still a fun listen!