Opera crash course

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in opera recordings for the past four or five months. I didn’t have many (well, any) opera recordings prior to that, save a fantastic Colin Davis recording of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust that I ordered after we performed it with the BSO last fall (under Charles Dutoit, but that’s a different story). But then the records started arriving…

There’s something pretty fantastic about being a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus: your fellow musicians are all well connected to people who have been making and living music for a long time. One of my fellow choristers, for instance, is good friends with the former head usher at Tanglewood. And it turns out that he was a rabid collector of opera recordings, and now needs to downsize his collection. So she asked the group at large, Does anyone want some records? Reader, I said yes.

And then the first batch of recordings arrived a few months ago: two cardboard boxes full of opera sets, most only played once. Huge amounts of Massenet and Verdi, some Douglas Moore (The Devil and Daniel WebsterThe Ballad of Baby Doe), and Meyerbeer and Richard Strauss and Tschaikovsky and…

Needless to say, I’ve been kept busy digitizing and listening. And in the process I’ve learned that I really like listening to opera. It wasn’t something that my family prepared me for—while classical radio was on all they time in my home when I grew up, it was almost always instrumental or (sometimes) sacred choral. Opera was something that we occasionally would tune into with Saturday afternoon Met broadcasts but wouldn’t seek out. My perspective began to change after I started singing in opera choruses with the TFC, but this immersion is really starting to make me want to listen to more.

Which is good, because two new boxes arrived last week. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me…

Lesson learned

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.

Finding the first Testament of Freedom recording (part 2)

(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!

Linkblog for 8 Jan 2018

Quirkspace: 78 RPM Records. One user’s tips for recording 78RPM records when your turntable only supports 33/45 RPM, including settings in Amadeus Pro.

Stereophile: My Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2017. Fred Kaplan runs down a list of great jazz releases from last year, including both new and historical releases. Totally agree about the Cecile McLorin Salvant release.

Gaffa: Lou Reed og Laurie Anderson: DR Koncerthuset, København. A review of late-period Lou Reed, from 2009, four years before his death, in concert with Laurie Anderson. From the review, this was a true collaborative show. There may be a bootleg of the performance floating around out there…

The Boston Pops files: The Duke at Tanglewood

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!

The Boston Pops files: Encore (Fiedler’s Greatest Hits)

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!

The Boston Pops files: Evening at Pops with Narration by Julia Child

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!

The Boston Pops files: American Salute

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’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.

The Boston Pops files: Fiedler’s Favorite Marches

I got a bunch of Boston Pops records from the 1960s and 1970s. This is one in a series of blog posts about them.

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.

The Boston Pops files: Fiddle-Faddle

I got a bunch of Boston Pops records from the 1960s and 1970s. This is one in a series of blog posts about them.

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.

The Boston Pops files: Light Classics

I got a bunch of Boston Pops records from the 1960s and 1970s. This is one in a series of blog posts about them.

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!

The Boston Pops files: Pops Festival

I got a bunch of Boston Pops records from the 1960s and 1970s. This is one in a series of blog posts about them.

This is it. This is the record (er, 10 record set) that got me started down this slippery slope. Pops Festival is a “Reader’s Digest Pleasure Programming” boxed set of ten LPs containing what appear to be reissues of many Pops records and recordings from the 1960s on up.  It’s a truly massive set that hits huge chunks of the Pops’ repertoire (light European classics and waltzes, American orchestral works, pop favorites), only omitting Christmas music.A gift from my mother-in-law from my late father-in-law’s collection, I had only looked at bits of it until recently when I decided to buckle down and listen to the whole thing (and digitize it for easier review later).

While I haven’t been able to listen to all the records, I believe the set has tracks from at least the following Fiedler/Pops recordings:

And that’s just the first few that I checked. Of course, there’s a lot of room on two sides of 10 LPs.

Which leads to the best and worst things about this monumental set. It’s tremendously rewarding to immerse yourself in this set. It’s also impossible to consume in one sitting. But the just under 100 (!) selections in the set are a fascinating cross section of Pops repertoire, opening with Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris, cheek by jowl with selections from My Fair Lady and Bernstein’s Fancy Free. Ferdé Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite sits on one side of disc 2; a set of Leroy Anderson favorites (“The Typewriter,” “The Syncopated Clock,” “Chicken Reel”) on the other. Victory at Sea tunes are opposite a side of Latin dance music. Other records have family-friendly light classical repertoire, Viennese waltzes, and a side of dance tunes that concludes with the Pops’ arrangement of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”

Though I’m fairly sure that it was Readers’ Digest editors, not Fiedler himself, who selected and sequenced the anthology, the breadth and range of the repertoire makes a strong argument that the distinction between “high” and “low” art — or brow, if you will — is largely imaginary. If it’s good, Fiedler’s performances seem to say, it’s worth playing, regardless of where it comes from. There a spirit of generosity, and even more broadly, of democracy in the collective weight of this set. It’s an argument that would be interesting to revisit in the repertoire of the current Pops.

The Boston Pops files: Liebestraum

As I mentioned yesterday, I found myself recently in possession of a whole pile of Arthur Fiedler/Boston Pops records. Not all of them were the pure pop crossover of the Paul Simon album; many contained material that more neatly met my imagination of what a Pops album from the 1960s could be. But I learned in the process of putting these records to digital just how impoverished my imagination was with regards to the art of the possible. Let’s explore how broad Fiedler’s vision was for the Pops with the 1961 recording Liebestraum, in many respects the most conventional of the albums I got.

The tracklist for Liebestraum falls broadly into two categories: works composed or arranged for orchestra by various 19th and 20th century European composers, and dance and pop tunes arranged for the orchestra by the house arrangers. In the former camp is the title tune, a Liszt piano work that receives a full orchestral arrangement; the “Lullaby” from the Gayne ballet suite by Khatchaturian (from whence also comes the insanely catchy and very different “Sabre Dance”); a remarkably tender performance of Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” and the overture to The Bohemian Girl by Balfe.

It’s the latter camp that makes up the bulk of the album, with romantic dance numbers (“Moonglow and the Theme from Picnic” and a remarkably straight faced “Hernando’s Hideaway”) sitting alongside more uptempo dance numbers, including the “Dancing Through the Years” medley (which touches the Charleston, the tango, square dance, and others) and “Jalousie,” a tango that Fiedler famously picked up in sheet music form in a Boston store and turned into a hit record.

The performance is uniformly of a high level and repays careful listening—remember, this Boston Pops’ alter ego was Charles Munch’s Boston Symphony Orchestra. But it also works well as highbrow background music for dinner or dancing—which, judging from my father-in-law’s record collection, was an extremely good match for the record-buying public’s tastes at the time.

Here’s the first few tracks of the record.

The Boston Pops files: Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops Play the Music of Paul Simon

In my not-so-copious spare time, I’ve been going through and starting to really focus on digging into the vinyl I’ve accumulated over the years. The trigger this time was a double whammy: the cataloguing of a bunch of records from my father-in-law and his brother, and the gift of a bunch of records in dubious condition from our most recent Hackathon. I don’t know if the Great Record Rip will ever be finished, but I’m pretty sure it won’t get done if I don’t start doing it.

So one of the subthemes I ran across in all three sets was records by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. There are a lot of these that were released over the years—many more than I realized when I started the project. And the one that really made me sit up and take notice is this one: Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Play the Music of Paul SimonIt happened like this:

My good friend and colleague Mark Kriegsman is talking to me about two months ago about Hackathon and is clearly excited about something. He invites me into the Hack Lab (a large storage space containing Hackathon preparation and relics) and points me to a record player and about 14 egg crates full of LPs. I start flipping through, and there’s the Pops/Paul Simon record.

I am a huge Paul Simon fan. But I’ve heard my share of poor Paul Simon covers, so I just had to drop the needle on Side 2. “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).” And it’s brilliant. Great orchestration by Richard Hayman, sprightly and not above being a little ridiculous—the pizzicato strings transition into vocal melody carried by the woodwinds, and I think there’s an electric piano in the mix. The brass take the second verse, and the third verse has everybody and a tambourine. I had to have the record.

The rest of the record veers between the playful and serious. “Cecilia” is awesome as well, with hand percussion opening and the orchestra settling into a hoedown rhythm led by the lower brass. Bongos make an appearance in the final coda. “Homeward Bound” feels like it could have been one of the Pops’ crossover country numbers with Chet Atkins (about which more later). Some of the numbers are a little more solemn, and in fact the closing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is a little lugubrious. But overall the record brings a smile, and what more could you ask?

As to why the Pops was devoting a whole album to the music of Paul Simon? That’s a whole different story.

Here’s the Pops arrangement of the “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).”

Friday listen: In My Tribe, 10,000 Maniacs

I wrote a long time ago about getting my Denon DP-45F turntable fixed up, and shortly thereafter hinted that I was about to start ripping my records en masse. Then… well, life intruded. I ripped some Beowulf, early and not-so-early Virginia Glee Club records, and not a whole lot else.

Why? A few reasons. First, time. Where ripping a CD can be done in much less than the time to listen to it, and in the comfort of an armchair, an LP requires at least as much time to rip as to listen to it. Then there’s taking the file, leveling it, splitting the tracks, importing them to iTunes, and then (because of a bug in Amadeus Pro’s lossless AAC files) reimporting them as AAC. So for one record, it takes the evening. And one unsuccessful rip–there was a lot of surface noise on my copy of Peter Gabriel II–put me off the project for a good long while.

And now? I finally got around to ripping my vinyl of 10,000 Maniacs’ early hit In My Tribe, and it was a revelation. The sound from the ripped vinyl was superb, and the music was superb…er. The opening chords of “What’s the Matter Here” were as gripping as the lyrics are depressing; “Hey Jack Kerouac” and “Like the Weather” were similarly moving and dynamic. Listening to the record took me back to when R.E.M. played a lot of 12 string and when indie meant Guadalcanal Diary and the Connells. The second half of the record lags a bit, but the final song, the unpromisingly named “Verdi Cries,” was moving and insightful.

In these recessionary times, there’s something to be said for rediscovering music through vinyl instead of paying to download it again. Even if it takes an evening to get the music on one’s iPod.