In Memory of Charles Hansen, 1956-2017

Audiac Persdag 26-04-2006
Foto en © Jiri Büller

The small world of high-end audio is reeling from the untimely and unexpected death of Charles Hansen, who was the chief designer of Avalon Loudspeakers before striking out on his own to found Ayre Acoustics. Ayre Acoustics’ announcement concludes with the request that those who remember him, at some time over the coming holidays, play an album in memory of Charley. I am sure that I will do that.

As a reviewer for Stereophile magazine and then as a consultant for the University of the South’s Ralston Listening Library (the audio system of which, in its first incarnation, included Ayre amplifiers driving Wilson Audio’s Alexandria II loudspeakers), I got to know Charley, and to appreciate his passion for musical truth, and truth in general.

Charley Hansen was a good man and a devoted father. He had a vibrant interest in education of all kinds, but especially music education. If I recall correctly, he was a supporter of Waldorf education, and I know he was very proud of his child the student violinist. After an irresponsible person nearly ended but surely blighted Charley’s life, I always continued to marvel at his equanamity and grace.

I will miss him.

I know that Charley loved violin music, because he once asked me to send him some JMR CDs by Arturo Delmoni, and then he insisted on paying for them.

So, in memory of Charley, I offer my music video “Wally the Finch Listens to Hlif Sigurjonsdottir Play Bach.”

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Chamber Choir of Europe, Nicol Matt: Lauridsen “Sure On This Shining Night” Making-Of

James Agee (1909-1955) had a difficult and comparatively brief life. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, his life was upended at age six when his father was killed in an automobile accident. Thereafter, Agee and his younger sister Emma were sent off to various boarding schools. Agee was a member of the class of 1932 at Harvard. Upon graduation, he went to work for Time, Inc.’s magazine Fortune. In 1934, he published his only volume of poetry, Permit Me Voyage.

In 1938 Agee wrote a brief prose piece, “Knoxville, Summer of 1915” that Samuel Barber later (1948) set for soprano and orchestra. In 1938, Barber had set another Agee text, “Sure On This Shining Night,” a brief untitled poetic fragment from Permit Me Voyage. Barber’s “Shining Night” setting is solidly in the core or standard repertory, both in its solo-voice and choral versions. More recently (2005), composer Morten Lauridsen’s choral setting of “Sure On This Shining Night” has earned worldwide currency for its soulful treatment of Agee’s enigmatic, pensive, yet I think ultimately hopeful lines.

Agee later participated in the writing of two of the most famous films of the era, The African Queen and Night of the Hunter. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1958 for his autobiographical novel A Death In the Family. Agee’s reputation as a writer is usually thought to rest upon A Death In the Family and his Depression-era journal Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But it cannot be doubted that Agee was one of the most important English-language art-music lyricists of the 20th century. That is, as long as one judges by quality, and not merely quantity.

Text, commentary, and a news flash, all after the jump. Continue Reading →

Adam Schoenberg: “Finding Rothko” and other orchestral works

Adam Schoenberg: Finding Rothko, American Symphony, and Picture Studies.
Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern, conductor.
Reference Recordings RR-139 Hybrid+MCH SACD and Downloads

David Frost, producer; Keith O. Johnson, engineer and mastering engineer.

My recent entry on the Morton Feldman musical work inspired by Houston’s Rothko Chapel noted that Rothko’s huge canvasses displayed there had also inspired Peter Gabriel’s song “Fourteen Paintings.” Four different Mark Rothko paintings that span the years 1949 to 1959 more recently inspired American composer Adam Schoenberg (b.1980) to write Finding Rothko, an orchestral work in four movements identified by the colors Orange, Yellow, Red, and Wine. Finding Rothko is concise, tonal, melodic, and accessible, with brilliant orchestration.

The obvious parallel is to Arthur Bliss’ A Colour Symphony of 1922 (which perhaps was an un-acknowledged inspiration). A Colour Symphony‘s movements are also named after colors; in Bliss’ case, the heraldic colors Purple, Red, Blue, and Green.

More ponderings and generous sound samples after the jump. Continue Reading →

SWR Vokalensemble, Marcus Creed: Morton Feldman, “Rothko Chapel”

Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel is scored for solo viola, solo alto voice, solo soprano voice, mixed chorus, and celesta; with percussion consisting of bass drum, chimes, gong, temple block, tenor drum, timpani, vibraphone, and wood block. Feldman (1926-1987) composed Rothko Chapel in 1971, specifically for the building of that name, in Houston, Texas, which was a gift to the public from the Ménil Foundation. The Rothko Chapel (Wiki) (Home Page) was designed to house and display 14 huge canvases the Ménil Foundation commissioned from the American Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970).

My personal opinion is that Feldman’s Rothko Chapel is one of the most magically organic pieces of modern music. But I can also easily envision the possible so-so (or negative) reactions, that the music was meant be the soundtrack to an aromatherapy session, or that the paintings are what happens when a depressive can only afford half-empty cans of house paint, in the dullest possible hues.

Both Rothko and Feldman declined to embrace the prevailing or at least most talked-about artistic trends—of self-conscious Modernism (such as Pop Art) in painting, and of 12-tone academic serialism in music. Even so, the challenging (or, numinous) nature of Rothko’s paintings and of the music they inspired does force one to confront the question whether some mid-20th-century art was only “the Emperor’s New Clothes.” More after the jump. Continue Reading →

A Pair of Bose 901s in a 21st-Century California Home

It took me a moment to realize that the loudspeakers behind the conversation pit of the 21st-century California home that is the subject of the cover story of the September/October issue of Dwell magazine were venerable Bose 901s.

I not only bought the issue; I took out a subscription.

Dwell‘s cover-story house (Craig Steely, architect) will not appear on the cover of This Old House, at least any time soon. (Give it 100 years.) Very cutting-edge in its details, such as the curved corners of the glass walls and the LED ceiling strip lights that set off different areas, the house nonetheless adheres firmly to the Mid-Century-Modern precept of siting the home within nature, rather than in opposition to it. The first similar design was Mies van der Rohe‘s see-though glass-walled Farnsworth House, built for Dr. Edith Farnsworth.

OK… But–how did the 901s get into a 21st-century house?

For that, some background on the 901, and my thoughts about the architectural-acoustical aspects of the design, please click the jump link. Continue Reading →

Frederica von Stade: Canteloube, Songs of the Auvergne, Album I

Frederica von Stade: Canteloube, Songs of the Auvergne, Album I (1982)
CD CBS MK 37299 (o.o.p.) and Sony Essential Classics CD 63063
(also o.o.p.; but available as just-in-time replicated from Arkivmusic)

Frederica von Stade, mezzo-soprano; the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Antonio de Almeida, conductor. David Mottley, producer; Peter Brown, engineer.

I treasure the wonderful folk-song orchestrations on this recording so much; I have, since it first came out on LP. However, its comparative obscurity today tempts me to think that my enthusiasm for a recording really is The Kiss of Death. This recording is Out of Print from Sony? Are you kidding me?

At least Clifford Brown With Strings and Sleeping Gypsy are still in print. Sigh.

Frederica von Stade signed up at New York’s Mannes School of Music as a part-time student in order to learn how to read sheet music—but only for her own enjoyment. Some faculty members recognized her potential, and urged her to apply for full-time status. In less time than it takes to earn an undergraduate degree, she had learned enough about singing and the repertory to audition for the Metropolitan Opera. The Metropolitan Opera immediately offered her a three-year contract; the rest, as they say, is history (a history that includes more than 75 major-label recordings).

(Despite the above’s having “the additional benefit of being the truth,” I think that if somebody were to write that story into a movie script, people would say, “Yeah, right. Get serious!”)

More info, and sound bytes, after the jump. This is a touchstone CD that is well worth the effort to find. Just find it and BUY IT! Continue Reading →

Jennifer Warnes: “Song of Bernadette”

Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma (née Schindler) had a marriage that was often troubled. Mahler started out on the wrong foot by insisting that his musically-talented (and, much younger) fiancée renounce her own ambitions to write serious music. (Alma had already composed some songs, and had worked on some instrumental music, as well as an opera sketch). Years later, a hammer-blow of fate befell Gustav and Alma with the death of their five-year old daughter Maria Anna. That shock was followed by the hammer-blow of Gustav’s diagnosis with the heart defect that eventually caused his early death.

Mahler only later discovered that, reeling from her daughter’s death (and, doubtless, also reeling from Mahler’s determination to isolate himself, so he could put on paper all the music that was within him, before it was too late), Alma had taken up romantically (and sexually) with a young architecture student named Walter Gropius.

For what all of that has to do with Jennifer Warnes, you will have to clink on the jump link to find out. Continue Reading →

Arturo Delmoni & Yuri Funahashi: Amy Beach Violin Sonata (complete performance)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (September 5, 1867 – December 27, 1944). To quote Wiki: “She was the first successful American female composer of large-scale art music, breaking a glass ceiling when her ‘Gaelic’ Symphony was performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1896.”

Arturo Delmoni asked me to upload not just sound bites but instead his and Yuri Funahashi’s entire recorded performance (from CD JMR 2, which a third-party seller on Amazon would like you to pay $1,526.83 for a new copy of—but there is a bottom-feeding underbidder asking only $166.99; such are the values of my back catalog on the crazy collector market).

After the jump there are: a photo of Mrs. H.H.A. Beach (as she wished to be known); m4a embeds of all four movements of her Sonata in A minor, Op. 34; and the relevant section of my liner-note essay.

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Beach!

Continue Reading →

Playing J.S. Bach in the Style of Nicholas Bruhns

My musically-astute friend and I had a wonderful time attending the lectures, discussion panels, recitals, and concert performances of this year’s Bard Festival. Each year, the Bard Festival focuses on one composer; this year’s model was Chopin. Of course, such a project also examines Chopin’s milieu and his formative experiences, his personal life (I learned a lot about George Sand), and his musical influences and musical contemporaries. Next year’s Festival is all about Rimsky-Korsakov and His World; it gets my highest recommendation for an in-depth, challenging, and rewarding cultural experience, all in a wonderful setting near the Hudson River.

Bard College, by the way, is where future rock band Steely Dan‘s co-founders Becker and Fagan met; I was bold enough to ask a Bard administrator where I could find the shrine to Steely Dan, and he smiled at me indulgently. By the way, a Bard-era, pre-Steely-Dan, Becker-and-Fagan group included future comedian Chevy Chase, on drums… . Continue Reading →

Vintage SME 3009 Tone Arm Rebuild, Part 1

My music-loving friend who upgraded his Bricasti M1 to the gold-plated edition wanted to be able to continue to listen to Long-Playing vinyl phonograph records. However, while Bricasti’s M12 Source Controller does have a set of analog inputs, the M1 does not.

I suppose I should now insert a Heresy Trigger Warning Alert, in that I believe that in most cases, LPs are not really a high-resolution format–compared to anything as good as or better than native 20-bit 44.1kHz PCM. So I chose the expedient but gratifyingly effective path of specifying an affordable Analog to Digital Converter that I surmise was made for the Custom Installation market, the now-discontinued Key Digital AXXDA, for the princely sum of $50. That unit is based on a 24-bit, 48kHz chip.

Click on the jump link to hear the surprisingly good results from a MoFi vintage Frank Sinatra 180-gram remastering! Continue Reading →