Mar 13

Prelude to Brass Playing, by Rafael Méndez ★★★★★
Brass Playing is no Harder than Deep Breathing, by Claude Gordon ★★★★
These two books are very similar, in that they are written by the best of the best trumpeters of yesterday, offering advice to young (and older) students regarding improving their playing. Such topics as care of the horn, warming up, practice style, developing breath, developing embouchure and tone, increasing one’s range and speed are all covered. Mendez writes as though he was speaking directly to you, covers advice for the very young beginning trumpet player and their parents, and is more thorough than Gordon’s text on the nuances and discipline of trumpet playing. Both are worthwhile reads for trumpet players of any experience.

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Mar 05

Maurice André – The Trumpet Shall Sound – 2 CDs
Of the greatest trumpet players of my life time, the three that stand out are Rafael Mendez, Maurice André, and Marsalis Wynton. Mendez was probably the technically greatest player of the bunch, overcoming enormous obstacles and endless practice to achieve a status on the trumpet similar to Paganini on the violin — he completely re-defined the media for both classical and jazz players. Maurice André wins the prize of overall excellence in the classical sphere. He had the most extensive repertoire, even converting solos for other instruments like the bassoon or oboe or flute into trumpet solos. His technical fluency is most remarkable. He is best known for his command of the piccolo trumpet, though there isn’t a trumpet piece on either the regular or piccolo trumpet that doesn’t sing in his hands. Common to all three players is the endless practice schedule from dawn to dusk to maintain the extraordinary proficiency on the instrument that they possessed. Playing the trumpet may look easy, but it is as challenging as any other musical instrument, if not more.
This album of two CDs is a smattering of André’s performances, mostly in the baroque realm. It is a total delight. His playing never grates or irritates the listener. His command of the instrument is both smooth and majestic. This album is a wonderful showcase of a man who has truly mastered the instrument of the trumpet.

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Mar 04

Bach Among the Theologians, by Jaroslav Pelikan ★★★★★
This book explores the theology of Bach, written by an eminent conservative Lutheran theologian who taught church history at Yale University. It is a delightful easy read. JS Bach, while known as indubitably and unquestionably as the greatest composer to ever have walked terra firma, also had an interesting theological side to him. Bach was known to have an exceptionally large library of theological texts, and most of his texts were heavily annotated by him, as seen as column notes in all of his books in his own handwriting. An analysis of his musical output demonstrates that this interest in theology had a highly significant impact on the music that he wrote. In particular, Bach was caught in Germany during the struggles of Pietism (centered in Halle, not far from Leipzig), and the Aufklärung (Enlightenment) mentality. Pietism sought for a strong personal religion without the public sphere and without “fancy” music, which Bach strongly opposed, while in conjunct with the Pietists, pleaded in his music for a strong personal relationship with God. Contrary to the Aufklärung, which sought to “de-mythologize” the Scripture, Bach sought through his music to emphasize the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith in opposition to Aufklärung thinking. Thus, Pelikan would call each cantata of Bach also a sermon in music by Bach.
Pelikan provides marvelous insights into the theological culture of Bach’s time, and shows how Bach confronted culture with his music. Much of the second half of the book details Bach’s thinking in the two existing Passions and the H-moll Messe. With the H-moll Messe (B-minor mass), Pelikan shows how Bach thoroughly “Lutheran-izes” the mass, making it a more Catholic mass than just the confines of the Roman Catholic church. Pelikan’s final discussions counter a contemporary move to make Bach an essentially secular thinker, highlighting the much smaller volume of Bach’s secular works. Even here, Pelikan is able to show that Bach is thinking sacred in his secular music, and that it is impossible to strip Bach of a religious, theological context.
This book is a must read for anybody that enjoys Bach and delights in vast array of music that he produced. It also gives one a greater interest in not only listening to the cantatas, but following along the words of the cantatas to hear the “sermon” that Bach is preaching through music.

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Mar 04

Trumpet for Dummies by Jeffrey Reynolds, PhD ★★★★
I generally would never give a “for Dummies” book above a 2-star rating, but this volume served a useful purpose for me, was informative, and easily readable, and so gains 4 stars. Reynolds give a very brief history of the trumpet, a description of how the trumpet works, and a brief description of the “language” of music. He thens spends a few chapters on how to learn to play the trumpet, and some advice on trumpet technique and beginning lessons. Later chapters deal with the paraphernalia that goes with a trumpet such as mutes, mouthpieces, etc., and how to care for your trumpet. Final chapters deal with mentioning current great trumpet players and general encouragement to develop the art of trumpeting. As a lesson book, it fails, as one needs nothing more than a good teacher, as well as a copy of Arban’s Conservatory Method and whatever other supplementary texts the teacher prefers (mine used Colin’s Lip Flexibilities and some of the Claude Gordon & Herbert Clark books).  The CD is designed to help with the early trumpet lessons, and I never took it out of its jacket, as I had no use for it. Reynolds gives good advice to the budding trumpet player, as well as a panoramic view of the world of the trumpet. It was a worthy purchase.

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Jan 25

Broadway in a Box
I offer two sets of reviews for this set. There is a reason for this. I often post reviews to, and when I post positive reviews, the responding commentator (of my review)  will usually identify the review as helpful. If I post a negative review, I will receive generally an “unhelpful” ranking. Negative reviews from me often receive feedback that comment on my stupidity. It would be like being called an idiot for preferring chocolate by a vanilla aficionado.  This current review has two sections so that my review  may be received differently based on where one lives. Desperately desiring only favorable feedback on my reviews, I decided to write two reviews. The first review should only be read by those who live in New York City, would like to live in New York City, or who do not live in NYC but have an “I ♥︎ NYC” bumper sticker; if you fit this category, do NOT read the second review. If you do not fit this description, don’t waste your time on the first review and read only the second review.
First Review with New Yorker sentiments ★★★★★
The Broadway musical is a reflection of New York at its best, with the glamour, delight, and gaiety that exemplifies New York. In this most delightful collection of musicals reflecting Broadway plays from most the 1960’s and 1970’s, we see the charm that has brought such acclaim to Broadway. These recordings are a delightful collection of the best of the best that Broadway had to offer in those years, and are the original recordings of each of the musicals contained there-in.  A visit to New York gives one the electric excitement of a dynamic city. It is to this city that we owe much of the cultural innovation of the last century, and from Broadway that a true gift is given to the rest of America. A amalgam of Vaudeville, Tin-Pan Alley, and Big Band Jazz styles in contemporary settings offer a musical feast for the ears. To New York we owe our culture. They tell us what to buy (Madison Avenue), how to save (Wall Street), how to think about current events (NY Times), what to eat, how to live, and what to enjoy in music. And to Broadway we owe a perfect reflection of Americana, music that is truly American. The only thing missing in this box is the video, which would have been nice to go along with the sound track. It is a bargain and well worth the enjoyment of listening to many times over.
Second Review with Rest of the US sentiments ★
The Broadway musical is a reflection of absolutely the worst in American music, including its obscenity, its triteness, and its failure to resurrect the listener from the slums of abject boredom. Its theme of boy-girl love (or sometimes boy-boy/girl-girl love) dominates nearly every musical.  The music itself could have been written by a trisomic Mongoloid—if one simply writes a nonsense talking script and then generates a singsongy tune to accompany it, you have most of what is found on these CDs. Very little reflects true creative genius. But this is so typical of New York—vacuous glamour with a presumption of greatness. There was very little in the vocal performances to be admired. The frequent use of singing children does not provide rivalry to the vocal greatness of the Wiener Knabenchor or die Thomanerchor. Adult voices were not pleasant, especially female voices which were raspy and quite irritating. How any group of people, let alone a whole megalopolis of people, could tolerate this rubbish defies imagination. Some musicals, like “Chicago” were just plain obscene. Others, like “Hair”, attempted to make light of the radical Hippy movements of the late 1960’s through a love fest to the Hare-Krishna New-Age Jesus amalgamated religion. Certain musicals would probably have never made popularity if they weren’t “fixed” by Hollywood — this is especially true of the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. The contents of this box with brief comments are as follows…
Disc 1: Annie (Original Broadway Cast) – raspy little kid sings “they’ll love me tomorrow”, but what about today?
Disc 2: Anything Goes (1987 Lincoln Center Theater Cast) – ho-hum. Obviously, anything does go in NYC.
Disc 3: Cabaret (Original Broadway Cast) – NY envious of Berlin pre-war decadence. Jolly right, ole’ chum
Disc 4: Camelot (Original Broadway Cast) – Came little. Ho-hum
Disc 5: Carousel (1965 Music Theater of Lincoln Center Cast) – June is busting out all over!
Disc 6: Chicago (Original Broadway Cast) – Sewage, not fit for Chicago
Disc 7: A Chorus Line (Original Broadway Cast) – ho-hum
Disc 8: Company (Original Broadway Cast) – super ho-hum
Disc 9: Fiddler on the Roof (Original Broadway Cast) – yea, ok, the Jews all left Russia and moved to NYC, wishing to be rich men. We know that already.
Disc 10: Guys and Dolls (1992 Broadway Cast) – c’est ennui. Can’t anybody in NYC compose an interesting story line script?
Disc 11: Gypsy (Original Broadway Cast) – hyper ho-hum
Disc 12: Hair – I didn’t realize that Krishna was hairy. Looks like the age of Aquarius is already over. With global warming, NYC will have the age of Aquarium.
Disc 13: Hello, Dolly! (Original Broadway Cast) – desperately needs Satchmo
Disc 14: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Original Broadway Cast)- deserves an Oscar for the worst script ever
Disc 15: Into the Woods (Original Broadway Cast) – a failed attempt to improve on die Gebrüder Grimm
Disc 16: The King & I (1964 Music Theater of Lincoln Center Cast) Not sure why Yul Brynner and Hollywood decided to tackle this one.
Disc 17: Man of La Mancha (2002 Broadway Cast) – it is no wonder that Hollywood didn’t tackle this one, it’s an impossible dream.
Disc 18: My Fair Lady (Original Broadway Cast) “super-sexist” and would never be tolerated by today’s standards. Read Pygmalion instead.
Disc 19: Oklahoma! (1979 Broadway Cast) – Jed Clampett also had a beautiful morning once in Oklahoma, but immediately left it for Beverly Hills
Disc 20: Oliver! (Original Broadway Cast) – Little orphan Oliver! Male version of Annie
Disc 21: Show Boat (1966 Music Theater of Lincoln Center Cast) – Broadway subtly engaged in self-adulation
Disc 22: The Sound of Music – The hills may be alive with the sound of music, but Broadway is definitely NOT in the hills. Still trying to solve the problem of Maria
Disc 23: South Pacific (Original Broadway Cast) – New York’s method of making a bloody war romantically beautiful, n’est pas? Nous aimons les guerres!
Disc 24: Sweeney Todd (Highlights) (Original Broadway Cast) – Sweeney Who? This musical actually has highlights?
Disc 25: West Side Story (Original Broadway Cast) – Why couldn’t Leonard Bernstein just stick to conducting the NY Philharmonic? Amazing that somebody that sells themselves as the great professor and philosopher of music and adorer of Noam Chomsky could deliver something so trite. Bad music, bad script. The Beatles did better; the musical “Yellow submarine” far exceeds anything in this show. Compare Bernstein’s “America” with Rammstein’s “Amerika” and Rammstein will win handsomely.
First, Bernie attempts a half-hearted mess “everything is free in America” are some of the first words… spoken like a true liberal on welfare

Now, Rammstein will tell you what Amerika is really all about…

The late 20th century has produced exemplary music. Unfortunately, it has mostly come from eastern Europe. The West in their godless decadence has lost any ability for true creativity. Once entertainment is stripped of meaning, it becomes nothing more than a hedonistic bacchanalia that  fails to offer to an audience anything of lasting value. Comparable musicals that show more class include a) the Strauss musicals, including Die Fledermaus, in spite of the falsetto of Prince Orlofsky, the music and story line are funny and memorable  b) the Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, which had horrid story lines and scripts, made up for by reasonably good music. Even such mushy schmalzy musicals (operettas) such as those of Lehar (Land des Lächelns, e.g.)  has minimally very impressive music in them. The only thing that the Broadway musical does well is to truly reflect contemporary Western culture. To that, the listener should hear and weep. I gave away this series to a good friend so that he could also do a little weeping. He’ll probably sing along to the recordings while in the shower.
If you’ve read this far and you are of the group that lives, loves, or belongs in New York, then clearly you’ve read too far. Shame on you. I suppose you read other people’s mail. You probably even support the NSA (and Obama) reading everybody’s mail. But, I’ll give you some advice that you can take to your friends on Broadway. Try a merger of Broadway with Hollywood. Here’s an example: merge a war musical and a war film. You can take South Pacific and The Sands of Iwo Jima. Once you have John Wayne hunkered down on the beach the first night on Iwo Jima, as evening sets in, have him suddenly stand up and start singing “Some Enchanted Evening”. The Japs can come out to provide the orchestral background, and the wounded soldiers beside John can sit up on their stretchers and offer the oohs and aahs. Once the soldiers reach the summit of Mt. Suribachi and they get ready to raise the flag, the John Wayne is joined by Jane Fonda (in her Barbarella outfit, but military green to match the Duke) and they sing Bali Hai with all the same words, but substituting “Iwo Jeem” for “Bali Hai”. For another merger idea, one can merge two Broadway musicals. Take the West Side Story. . . in the middle of the song “Maria”, some nuns can come out and start singing “How do you solve a problem like Maria” from the Sound of Music. Later, during the duet “Tonight, tonight, tonight may be the night”, Annie comes out singing “Tomorrow, tomorrow, just wait ’til tomorrow”.  Mel Brooks could have a feast on Broadway shows.

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May 06

Great American Art: The Broadway Musical, by Bill Messenger (Teaching Company) ★★★
Bill Messenger did another Teaching Company series on the history of jazz, which I liked considerably. Though I was not terribly interested in the broadway musical (far preferring “classical” music), I thought this would be an interesting series to hear out. Messenger starts with the minstrel format, showing how it was a parody of a parody of whites imitating negroes imitating whites. This evolved eventually into ragtime, vaudeville and tin pan alley, now considered to define American music. Eventually, through the work of various greats as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, the full-blown American musical emerged. Messenger follows the broadway musical all the way up to the turn of the century, showing how the genre has changed over time. He offers many musical examples, often performing himself on the piano. This is a fun and informative series, even for a person not terribly interested in Broadway.

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Mar 25

The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works, by Robert Greenberg (The Teaching Company Audio) ★★★★
Greeenberg reviews thirty of the greatest pieces in the orchestral repertoire from Bach to Shostakovich. Each piece includes a biographical review of the composer, the nature of the composition, the compositional style, and then what makes it great. It is a whirlwind tour that covers the most relevant pieces. The last lecture on the ones that got away leaves one feeling that probably far more than thirty pieces still could have been included. Greenberg ends with a statement about how we need to support modern composers by listening to their music, noting that the very odd compositional years of the 80’s are long gone, and that composers are again writing quite sensible pieces. Perhaps the best thing Greenberg  could do is to do a series on contemporary classical music, giving us an argument as to why we should listen to modern pieces,  showing us what’s out there, and showing us why those pieces make them worthy of our attention.

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Feb 19

Keeping Score – Shostakovich Symphony #5 with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony ★★★★
Besides Bach, Shostakovich is one of the truly great composers to ever have lived. His was a life like Bach’s that was filled with tormentors and critics that had no appreciation for the greatness of the person. This film is one of the “Keeping Score” series where the director of the San Francisco Symphony engages in an educational forum that briefly describes the life of Shostakovich, while doing a quick analysis of the 5th symphony. It is quite educational, and even if one doesn’t like Shostakovich, they would find this film to be  informative. The DVD actually consists of two parts, the first being an analysis of the piece, and the second  being a live performance in London of the 5th symphony. Together they help to give a person a starting understanding of person of Shostakovich and the style of his compositions. The film is definitely intended for musical beginners, though anybody will get value out of seeing Thomas’ interpretation one of the great symphonies of all time, Shostakovich’s fifth.

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Dec 26

Note by Note: The making of Steinway L1037 ★★★★
I’ve always wondered how a piano was built. I didn’t realize that Steinway concert grand pianos were entirely built by hand, and are probably one of the only concert pianos still made by hand. This movie walks one through the year long endeavor to build a piano. One starts in the lumber mill, where wood is specifically selected for the piano case and sounding board. Slow and meticulous processes eventually lead to the developed project. Many scenes are also shot of profession musicians in the NY Steinway piano store  trying out pianos. I guess that even with Steinway pianos, the action can vary enough that a concert musician may need to try 10-15 pianos before finding the instrument of his liking. There are a lot of extras with this movie, but the feature attraction was itself a fascinating journal behind the walls of the Steinway piano factory in New York, with interviews of many of the piano building craftsmen. Steinways have many hand carved features, constructed to precise millimeter tolerances. The tuning is all by hand, and not electronic like most other piano builders. The keys and their actions are all meticulously adjusted by hand to properly strike the strings with appropriate action on the key. One was left realizing that there may be a day where much of the art and skills of hand piano construction may be lost, and then we will be stuck with cheap Japanese imitations. Oh well!!!!

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Nov 28

Concert Masterpieces, by Robert Greenberg ★★★★★
Greenberg does it again, producing a delightful review of eight concert pieces of value from the classical repertoire. In this set of 32 45-minute lectures, each four lectures covers a given piece of music. Included are the Mozart 25th Piano concerto, Beethoven 5th piano concerto, Dvorak 9th symphony, R. Strauss Death and Transfiguration, Beethoven Violin Concerto, Brahms violin concerto, Mendelssohn Mid-summer night’s dream, and Liszt Totentanz. Each set of four lectures covers in the first lecture a broad survey of the musical scene. The second lecture then focuses on the particular piece in its setting with other similar pieces of music, and then the last two lectures delve into the details of the piece of music itself. The entire lecture set remains very easy to listen to because of Greenberg’s humor mixed with a steady stream of fascinating information. He is never too technical, and spends much time filling in the listener  to the music theory and technical details of the piece. This set is a wonderful way to familiarize yourself to these eight pieces of music. It also helps build one’s ear for listening to any piece of classical music.

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