When Obama is graceless, &c.


Care for a little music? This is a piece published in City Arts — it is chiefly on a new Wynton Marsalis work, Swing Symphony, which the composer also designates Symphony No. 3. It opened the new season of the New York Philharmonic. (You may have seen this concert on television, under the heading Live from Lincoln Center.)

A friend of mine sent me a review of a Metropolitan Opera performance of The Tales of Hoffmann. It had kind of a beaut in it: “Returning from last season, mezzo Kate Lindsey was again excellent as Hoffmann’s devoted but cynical muse, Necklace.” That character is named Nicklausse. Why the mistake? I think that SpellCheck — or however we should render that — didn’t recognize “Nicklausse” and suggested “Necklace” instead. Whereupon someone, by accident, hit “Change.” I don’t know. Kind of funny, though.

“Necklace” reminds me of a short story by Maupassant and a form of murder in South Africa. “Nicklausse” reminds me of golf — and Les Contes d’Hoffmann.

A cute-kid story, which happens to relate to music? My little nephew is having his violin lesson. He has already learned about sharps. The teacher asks him, “Now, what is the opposite of sharp?” My boy says, “Dull.” Brilliant.

“Talk about Joan Sutherland!” readers have said. I will, just a bit. “La Stupenda” died in Switzerland on Sunday. She was Australian, of course. Funny that Australia, with such a small population, has contributed two legendary sopranos: Dame Nellie Melba and Dame Joan Sutherland. I’ll say about five things.

1) I did not hear her live much. When I was a kid, I heard a recital. (As an instrumentalist, I was not all that interested in vocal music — but I knew enough to know that I should hear Sutherland. Or a teacher did.) I don’t remember much about the recital. I remember that she used music, sitting on a stand, which I thought was odd. I later learned that it was for the words, not the music — that’s what Sutherland said. She was worried about forgetting the words. I remember that she sang “Let the bright seraphim,” the Handel showpiece.

And I heard one of her last Normas — the penultimate one. Those final performances were given in Detroit, oddly enough. She did not have much voice or technique left. But she had an artistry that could not be hidden.

That reminds me: This summer, I heard Edita Gruberova, age 63, sing Norma, in a concert performance — that was in Salzburg. A comment on this opens my “Salzburg Chronicle,” in the current New Criterion (go here).

2) The remarkable thing — one remarkable thing — about the Sutherland voice was that it was a big voice that was amazingly flexible. You usually get one or the other — size or flexibility, not both. Sutherland was almost a Wagnerian coloratura. Again, remarkable — actually, stupendous (as in “La Stupenda”).

3) She was once asked how she learned to trill. She said she never really learned: “The birds in the trees trilled, so why couldn’t I?”

4) I have twice had the privilege of hearing Regina Resnik tell a Sutherland story. (Resnik is the fabled American mezzo.) She is a great storyteller — and the Aussie accent is spot-on. I don’t remember the details of the story. But I remember the accent, and the spirit. I hope I get to hear it a third time!

5) I’m sorry she’s gone. Joan Sutherland was a big, big personality in musical life. And she left a zillion recordings! Pick an anthology, any of them. She was famous, legendary, for a reason.