Sunday, November 4, 2012

Code of silence: Iversen’s “Full Body Burden” is a revelation



Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats
Kristen Iversen
Crown Publishers
2012

It is very rarely that a complex, decades-long historical tragedy and an intensely personal narrative can be woven together artfully. In “Full Body Burden,” writer, editor, and educator Kristen Iversen does so with a combination of clarity, self-revelation, and readability. That she does so in my critical eye is even more remarkable – as her childhood story is largely my own.

Like her, I grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s in the suburb of Arvada, Colorado, eight miles southeast (and downwind) from the U.S. government’s Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production facility. She writes, “Some of those new suburban homes would have built-in atomic bomb shelters, including a show home in Allendale Heights . . . It was one of fifteen ‘Titan’ showcase homes – homes named after the newly developed intercontinental Titan ballistic missile – scattered around the country near other nuclear weapon production sites.”

That was the house I grew up in. The bomb shelter still sits in my mother’s basement, now crowded with cardboard boxes, Christmas decorations, 78 rpm records, and miscellaneous keepsakes. There were a double-handful of government documents stored there, telling us all about how to successfully overcome Armageddon. They formed the basis for my own magazine-length memoir of growing up in the heart of the Cold War (“Growing Up Nuclear," 5280 magazine, April/May 2000).

Iversen’s narrative of course far more comprehensive and inclusive – in fact, it’s the first historical account of Rocky Flats, from its star-spangled start to its ignominious finish, that I found comprehensible. Its convoluted, largely hidden story of secrecy, danger, accidents, Cold War paranoia, and corporate exploitation is riveting in Iversen’s telling. Her research is far-ranging and impeccable.

Rocky Flats manufactured plutonium triggers which would set off the chain reaction inside thermonuclear devices. She describes the urgency and corner-cutting, pushed along by fear of being outgunned by the Russians, that characterized the project from the start. As the years went by, cost overruns, deadly errors, and incidents of contamination were routinely covered up in the name of national security. Iversen aptly delineates all the players – from the technicians and scientists to the bureaucrats to those whose families began to suffer from unexplained cancers in the region to the peace and environmental activists whose increasing clamor finally forced investigation and shutdown of the site.

Iversen, like me, was steeped in the ethos of the time. Most of our neighbors worked at Rocky Flats – high-paying jobs that enabled them to live the suburban dream of affluence and security. None of them could or would tell their children, or us, what they did for a living. “I keep America strong,” was one memorable answer I received.

Iversen has the wisdom not to paint one-dimensional pictures of the characters in her story. For a time, circumstances led her to working within the plant itself giving her an irreplaceable perspective. By sharing all points of view with the reader, she quite accurately portrays the zeitgeist of an area in which a “Father Knows Best”-type setting is sustained by an underlying traffic with the deadliest and most morally questionable of dangers.

Speaking of “Father Knows Best,” the other half of Iversen’s narrative consists of discussing her troubled family life. Once again, parallels between her youth and mine abound – our families came from the Midwest, our ancestry is Danish, we were raised Lutherans . . . and our fathers were alcoholics.

The symptoms and repercussions of her father’s addiction are almost unbearable for me to read. I can verify their verisimilitude. Like her family, mine coped largely by ignoring the problem (oh, those good old emotionally remote, reality-denying Scandinavian genes!). The shame, anger, sorrow, and guilt she outlines are heartbreaking; and the convolutions of her relationship with her father, with its muddiness and lack of closure, are all too familiar.

The big historical picture and the intimate personal one fuse in a mutually enlightening manner. Beyond my uniquely personal reaction, I think that this book serves as a fundamental resource for anyone trying to understand that particular place and time.

How long will it take until the 6,240 acres on the rolling plains east of the mountains will be safe again? The site has, laughingly, been turned into a wildlife refuge. Many hidden deposits of radioactive waste lurk there; meanwhile, housing developments are springing up everywhere around it, many in the fallout path of past plutonium leaks.

The fallout from a dysfunctional childhood has a big shadow, too. We strive to overcome our own addictive behaviors, try to heal, and pray that we don’t pass the curse on to our own children. Personally, I am very grateful for this book. Isolation is one of the hallmarks of those who grow up in an alcoholic household. Many thanks to Iversen for making me feel a little less alone.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Eargasm: "Gunsmoke"


Producer-director Norman Macdonnell (left) confers with William Conrad during a rehearsal for "Gunsmoke."

“Gunsmoke”

Dramatic radio program; “adult Western”
CBS
30 min. episodes
Broadcast April 26, 1952 to June 18, 1961

Not all memorable sounds are musical. During the Golden Age of Radio, a number of programs and a subculture of talent entertained, informed and inspired the public. One of the best of these was “Gunsmoke.”

Very few people retain a living memory of that medium, but from 1926 through Sept. 30, 1962, network radio was a real-time, (at least until Bing Crosby pushed through pre-recorded programming in 1947) vital cornucopia of drama, comedy, variety, news, music and public service. There were niche shows that appealed to specialized audiences, and even prestige and experimental efforts that the networks “sustained” (carried without commercials).

By and large, though, network radio was pitched by mutual consent to the lowest common denominator, and censored rigorously . . . save for some gruesome violence on horror shows such as “The Inner Sanctum” and “Lights Out,” and not excluding the matter-of-fact retailing of then-popular racist stereotypes of the day on such shows as “Amos & Andy,” “Life with Luigi,” Asian villains galore, especially during World War II, and of course the faithfully subordinate, monosyllabic Tonto.

Television killed radio, at precisely the point when it was about to mature and diversify. The juvenile and wholesome tone of “old-time radio” was disturbed by several darker shows that cropped up late in the era – most significantly, “Gunsmoke.”

Producer-director Norman Macdonnell and writer John Mestin wanted to bring gritty realism to the Western genre, which was previously the domain of children’s programming. They devised a formula so successful that it lasted a decade on radio and transferred to TV for a 20-year run as well.

“Gunsmoke” was set in frontier Dodge City, Kansas, and centered on the exploits of Marshal Matt Dillon. Although the typical story arc of conflict and bloody resolution prevailed, Macdonnell and Mestin’s conceptual framework enabled all manner of stories to be told, all kinds of themes to be explored, and countless sharply-drawn characters to be delineated. Later writers like Antony Ellis, Les Crutchfield, and Kathleen Hite kept up the quality.

The choice to play Dillon was William Conrad. Perhaps better remembered today for his TV work in the detective shows “Cannon” and “Jake and the Fat Man,” Conrad was a stellar radio performer for decades. Although he jokingly referred to himself as “The Man with a Thousand Voice,” he was adept at accents and graced all manner of shows.

Conrad’s husky baritone allowed him to play leading men on radio, but he had a quality of vulnerability in his voice as well. His thoughtful, nuanced delivery personified the complexity and ambiguity found in the show itself. Dillon killed regularly in the course of his job, yet he was a man of conscience. As he said in each show’s intro, “It’s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful . . . and a little lonely.” Pathos, and humor, were not excluded either. Still, week after week, we never forgot that Matt Dillon was a violent and haunted man.

The regular cast of characters included Parley Baer as Chester Proudfoot, Dillon’s deputy; Howard McNear (Floyd the barber later on TV’s “The Andy Griffith Show”) as Doc; and Geogia Ellis as Miss Kitty, the saloon proprietress. A host of top-notch supporting players handled a variety of roles each week, including John Dehner, Harry Bartell, Larry Dobkin, Jack Kruschen, Jeanette Nolan, and Vic Perrin.

Two of the highlights of the show were Rex Koury’s score, scored eloquently and economically for guitar, trumpet and violins, and the best sound effects in the business. So elevated was the approach to them that they were referred to as “sound patterns” in the credits, and Tom Hanley, Ray and Bill James Kemper provided them. Their quest for realism led them great lengths. You can listen to characters’ footsteps change from wood to gravel to dirt as they “track” through a scene; the aural landscape is meticulously if subtly laid out for the listener.

Here's an exemplary episode to try: "The Square Triangle," from Nov. 14, 1952 -- 


Fortunately, these shows were preserved and are available for free listening on the web. Such locations as http://archive.org/details/OTRR_Gunsmoke_Singles, http://www.otr.net/?p=guns, http://otrarchive.blogspot.com/2009/04/gunsmoke.html will give you pleasure by the hour. I must refer exceptionally curious listeners to Denver writer and old-time radio expert John Dunning’s classic 1998 reference work, “On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio.” Dunning, who enchanted me with his weekly broadcasts for decades, cannot be surpassed.

Network TV killed network radio. In contrast, narrative radio in England never died out, and the medium is mature and robust there (oh, yes, they still have their share of dreck as well). What would Amrican radio sound like now if the form hadn’t been dropped? There have been sporadic attempts to revive the genre, such as “The CBS Radio Mystery Theater” and some National Public Radio efforts, but unless some miracle occurs, you could do worse than realize the possibilities for edgy and challenging content that “Gunsmoke” made manifest.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Remembering El Chapultepec's Jerry Krantz

I have gathered a lot of info about Denver's classic jazz haunt for decades, and have patronized it for 40-some years now. When I heard about the death of long-time owner Jerry Krantz (above), I just had to whip up a little tribute to him.


The first thing Jerry Krantz ever said to me was, “Get the hell out of my bar!”

I was 18; my friends and I were wandering around what was then the bad part of Denver, looking for trouble. Back then, everything northeast of 18th Street consisted of dive bars, flophouses, pawn shops and empty storefronts. Hoboes still hung out in the rail yards, and camped in the brush along the Platte. The age of LoDo redevelopment was decades away.

We heard the sound of jazz coming out of the scruffy-looking, neon-bracketed entryway at 1962 Market Street and walked in. El Chapultepec was and still is an L-shaped, low-ceilinged womblike structure with an elaborate bar, flanked by a rank of banquettes on each side. The floors are tiled chessboard black and white, and the space between the booths and the bar is narrow (were there ever enough seats? The floor was always packed with standees, the barmaids wrassling their way back and forth to the booths with drinks). At the end of one arm of the L is the world’s tiniest performing area, which somehow accommodates a piano and a few chairs.

For the first time in my life, I saw and heard people making spontaneous music. We had been “exposed” to jazz in school, but this was a condescending, boring exercise that inspired nobody.

This was exciting, though. We pushed our way into the back of the crowd. Jerry, however, had a psychic sense of how old someone was, and of course we hadn’t the guile to try to dress older, or the balls to dispute him. We got the hell out of his bar and, like many other overflow patrons, stood out on the sidewalk, listening.

El Chapultepec is housed in a building more than 100 years old. Its unsavory early history includes duty as a sometime haven for a “floating brothel” named the Silver Dollar Hotel – presumably the cost of a good time back then.

On July 4, 1933, Tony Romano opened Tony’s Restaurant there. Jerry married Tony’s daughter Alice and started working there in 1958; he took over the place in 1968 and after a time began offering free nightly jazz there. It’s been much the same since, and now Jerry’s daughter Angela runs the place.

Jerry passed away Tuesday morning, and most of the copy about him emphasizes his crustiness, and he was indeed one tough customer. However, he loved jazz and wanted us to love it, too. When we came back to hear the music the next time, he gruffly told us we could sit in the back room and listen, where underagers were welcome.

There were rickety wooden booths there, next to the noisy kitchen, and we spent many, many nights there eating Jerry’s greasy Mexican food, sipping Cokes and dodging out of the way of the pool cues (improbably, a billiard table was crammed into the center of the tiny space, necessitating that diners sometimes lean back or crowd over to accommodate the stroke of players on some long carom shots).

And we listened. Once again, stories tell of how “everyone” in jazz stopped in to the Pec to perform, including Sinatra, Bennett, and my hero, Artie Shaw. I never ran into a one of them. Instead, I heard the locals, the regulars, those without a big name or following who simply, night after night, explored the music and made fascinating, beautiful improvisations. This taught me more about jazz and the strangely disciplined indiscipline of art made off the top of the head than anything else has.

Now I’m a graybeard who writes about a lot of things, including jazz. Hopefully, I have sent some customers and potential fans his way. You could do much worse than to spend a night standing in the crowd on the parquet floor, listening to the music. Thanks, Jerry.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

From 5280 Magazine: "Sweet Sounds" -- jazz in Denver

Benny Goodman and his 15-piece outfit worked at Denver's Elitch's Gardens from Friday, July 26 through Thursday, Aug. 15, 1935. They bombed -- the conservative Denver audiences wanted sweet jazz, waltzes and novelty numbers. Goodman, who had enjoyed success and national exposure via his "Let's Dance" radio band remotes from New York City on NBC, fell into despair here. He thought he would have to disband after finishing his bookings in California. On Aug. 21, 1935, at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, the crowd went ballistic over his hard-driving swing sound , inaugurating a decade during which cutting-edge jazz and popular taste were one.
I was lucky enough to get to write a wonderful feature story about jazz in Denver, past and present. Space did not permit me to go into as much detail as I would like; I have appended below information about local venues for those who want to get out and hear what's happening!

P.S.: If you have more information about local jazz clubs, nights, events, performers or ensembles, please feel free to share this info in the comments section.


DENVER JAZZ VENUES AND NIGHTS

Dazzle
930 Lincoln St.
303-839-5100

Jazz @ Jack’s
500 16th St., Ste. 320
303-433-1000

El Chapultepec
1962 Market St.
“Straight-ahead” jazz Wednesday and Thursday evenings

Herb’s
2057 Larimer St.
Jazz, blues, funk and more on mixed schedule; Open Jam every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m.

Vita
1575 Boulder St., Ste. A
303-477-4600
Jazz and blues, 6:15 – 10:15 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays

Burnsley Hotel
1000 Grant St.
Jazz Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings

Meadowlark
2701 Larimer St.
Meadowlarkbar.com
303-293-0251
Jazz jam every Monday at 9 p.m.

Tennyson’s Tap
4335 W. 38th Ave.
Tennysonstap.com
303-455-4469
Laura Newman Trio w/Ellyn Rucker
Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.

The Bitter Bar
9th and Walnut, Boulder
Thebitterbar.com
303-442-3050
Mark Diamond Jazz Duo, Tuesdays, 7 to 10 p.m.

Boulder Outlook Hotel
800 28th St., Boulder
303-443-3322
Jazz jams, 1st, 3rd and 5th Sundays, 7:30 to 10 p.m.
Blues jams, 2nd and 4th Sundays, 7:30 to 10 p.m.

DENVER JAZZ MUSICIAN GALLERY
All the artists listed below came from Denver, spent a significant part of their lives here, or currently reside and work here.

PAST GREATS

George Morrison, Sr.
Paul Whiteman
Jimmy Lunceford
Andy Kirk
Glenn Miller
Paul Quinichette
Ted Alexander
James Romaine
Billy Tolles
Spike Robinson
Phil Urso

CURRENT MASTERS

Bill Frisell
Paul Warburton
Dianne Reeves
Dave Grusin
Don Grusin
Freddy Rodriguez, Sr.
Rene Marie
Ellyn Rucker
Fred Hess
Ron Miles
Art Lande
Ralph Sharon
Cedar Walton
Bill Graham
Charlie Burrell
Sam Gill
Pat Bianchi
Laura Newman
Paul Romaine
Hazel Miller
Kenny Walker
Mark Simon
Mark Patterson
John Gunther
Eric Gunnison
Matt Wilson
Tyler Gilmore
Andy Weyl
Brad Goode
Eduardo “Bijoux” Barbosa
Jeff Jenkins
Keith Oxman
Marc Sabatella
Justin Adams
Ron Bland
Colin Stranahan


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Eargasm: Zemlinsky's "The Dwarf"


LA Opera's 2008 production of Zemlinsky's "The Dwarf" -- Mary Dunleavy as the Infanta greets the Dwarf (Rodrick Dixon).
Most of my readers know how my work is studded with perverse subject matter. A year ago, I completed a long project on a peculiar obsession of mine – people with dwarfism and their roles in high and low culture throughout history (“Midget Wrestling: A Pilgrimage” can be linked to here).

I was finally able to conclude that my shameless interest was motivated in part by my intense identification with the atypical, stigmatized outsider, although I am pretty sure I seem normal, to the level of unremarkability, to the casual observer. Whether there is truth in this or only pathology I will leave to others to figure out, if they care to. What is important are the many insights and personal understanding I felt I gained by exploring the topic – a story no one would buy, but was essential for me to finish.

One of the key works I cited in “Midget Wrestling” was one I had never had the chance to experience – the 1922 one-act opera by Austrian composer Alexander (von) Zemlinsky, “Der Zwerg (The Dwarf).” Finally, thanks to a number of artistic projects and concerns, I have heard and seen it. For me, it’s key not only in relation to my previous subject, but in and of itself as a great but generally unrecognized piece of music.


The recording in question is a DVD issued by ArkivMusic, released in October of 2010. It is the second half of a two-opera presentation by James Conlon and the Los Angeles Opera, part of Conlon’s lauded by recently discontinued “Recovered Voices” series of stagings, highlighting works by Jewish, modernist, or even broad-mindedly tolerant composers that were condemned and destroyed by the Nazis – including Krenek, Goldschmidt, Mahler, Korngold, Eisler and Hindemith.

The performance of Victor Ullman’s comic one-act “The Broken Jug” precedes “Der Zwerg,” which is fully staged and lovingly filmed.


Conlon’s incredible conducting skill and Darko Tresnjak’s spot-on direction bring this unjustly neglected and hard-to-find work to light. It’s based on Oscar Wilde’s short story, “The Birthday of the Infanta,” In it, a Spanish princess (of the era captured, complete with two court dwarves, Maria Barbola and Nicolas Pertusato, by Velazquez in his masterful 1656 painting “Las Meninas”) celebrates her 18th birthday. Among the “presents” she is given is a gift from the Sultan, a dwarf who has never seen his reflection and thinks himself to be a normal-looking man.

Velasquez's "Las Meninas."
The laughter his figure provokes he thinks issues from the peace and charm he radiates. When the Infanta’s chamberlain threatens to whip him for not singing, he in turn offers to kill his would-be oppressor. When he does sing, it inspires the princess to declare her love for him, to dance with him first at the court ball, and give him a white rose from her garden. Although she is insincere and shallow, these shows of favor cause him to fall for her completely, declaring his love recklessly and demanding a kiss.

The Princess first attempts to order her servant Ghita to tell the Dwarf the truth about his appearance, but out of compassion she cannot. She asks him if he has ever seen himself. He admits that an arch-enemy, a grotesque yet impotent ghost, taunts him sometimes from polished marble, shining steel and watery surfaces, but that it is nothing. Stay away from the throne, she warns, and leaves.

The Dwarf doesn’t heed this advice. As mirrors around the throne room begin to enclose and surround him, he realizes that he is a monster, an abomination. The Princess returns. He begs her to tell him that she loves him, and that what he has realized is a lie. She, heedless of his intense agony, refuses and leaves. He collapses, and in the arms of Ghita, dies, asking for his white rose.

The ideas contained in “The Dwarf” sum up all the concerns that art and artists have given to the idea of the different and society, and its role within that society. The Dwarf has musical talent (the role here, sung admirably by Rodrick Dixon, is a taxing heldentenor part – ironically heroic), which, along with his lack of awareness, gives him value to those who “keep” him.

As he does not know his “place,” thinking and behaving as any well-adjusted individual would, the contrast between the court’s scorn and his vain dreams of love is harsh, heart-breaking. Once his “true” nature is revealed – that is, once he adopts and internalizes the consensual judgment of his worth and status, he self-destructs.

Zemlinsky’s treatment is oddly biographical. He took over and finished the libretto begun by Georg Klaren, and in many ways it reflects his relationship with the beautiful and mercurial Alma Schindler, his composition student who left him after only a few years partly due to her friends’ objection to Zemlinsky’s . . . ugliness. (She went on to marry and/or have affairs with numerous creative giants, including Mahler, Walter Gropius, and Franz Werfel.)

Zemlinsky’s intense identification with the Dwarf notwithstanding, the opera is powerfully compact, running at nearly 60 minutes and unfolding in a series of beautifully set scenes.

Musically, the work is a revelation. It’s popularly thought that Wagner, Mahler and the other late Romantics represented a dead-end in melodic composition that could only be supplanted by the extreme, audience-unfriendly experiments of twelve-tone, serialism, aleotorism, and countless other harsh, dissonant, atonal, theory-based isms of 20th century music (at least until the ebb of minimalism washed up Adams, Larsen, Part and others).

Zemlinsky, as did a few other individualists such as Britten, kept to a complex, densely layered sound that didn’t fear dissonance, but didn’t court it for its own sake, either. In “The Dwarf,” his lush style works hand-in-hand with the subject matter, expressive, dynamic and profoundly beautiful.

This production reminds that the acid test for any opera performance, live or recorded, is the quickening feeling of snap and flexibility in the music. Zemlinsky has it in spades, and Conlon's frequent recordings and stagings of his work certainly lend the proceedings a compassionate musical director who has a unique ability to illustrate this composer's intentions. (If that compelling sensibility isn't present, the show usually blows. Verdi was the best at muscling the audience through some stretches of bad libretto.) Zemlinsky knows how to move briskly, without seeming to rush. The Dwarf's luxurious, legato fantasy about holding the Princess in the garden contains wonderful depths of emotion.

As Zemlinsky’s protagonist is a three-dimensional, complex character, his demise is keenly communicated. He is a hero who is destroyed only because he can’t see beyond the scornful reflections shoved in his face by a society that can’t conceive of a normal soul in an abnormal body.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Eargasm: The Toscanini ‘Otello’

Opera lovers don’t get a lot of second chances. The first time a performance of a particular work blows you away can never be repeated. A stereotypical opera lover’s fussiness regarding, encyclopedic knowledge of, and obsession with performers, productions, recordings and the various qualities thereof stem, I think, from that unslakeable thirst to repeat that sense of overwhelming consummation that the art forum delivers to its addicts.

Even a casual fanatic such as me is spurred to become a completist. I have dug through libraries, musty stacks of vinyl at yard sales, and combed through online snippets to find something rare and beautiful, like a maddened musical lepidopterist.

I own at least one decent copy of every opera written by Verdi, who is my absolute favorite. Though I certainly like some of his 37 works better than others, I am capable of listening to any of them an infinite number of times. They are classics, which according to my definition mean I can go to them and find something new and inspiring within them each and every time.

Still, 25 years after I got hooked, I didn’t think I’d get that hot-wire hit of sonic bliss again – until, that is, I stumbled across this recording. It’s a remastering by Japan’s Opus Kura of the edited 1947 live NBC broadcasts of Verdi’s “Otello,” conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Extraordinarily, I felt I was hearing an opera I knew backwards and forwards for the first time.

Part of the sacred nimbus around this recording is surely the fact that Toscanini was playing the cello in the orchestra at the premiere of “Otello” at La Scala in Milan on Feb. 5, 1887. His notorious perfectionism, adherence to his first-hand knowledge of the composer’s intent, and absolute self-confidence made him a terror to performers who did not see things his way. (When Toscanini first conducted “Otello” in 1899, he corrected the lead’s original portrayer, Francesco Tamagno, on a tempo. When neither would back down, Toscanini took Tamagno to Verdi himself, who confirmed Toscanini’s judgment. Ascolta, Francesco!)


Additionally, Toscanini was the face of classical music to an entire American generation. NBC Radio president David Sarnoff developed the NBC Symphony Orchestra specifically as a tool for Toscanini, after he fled Fascist Italy in 1937. For the next 17 years, (save 1941-1944, when a contract dispute between the maestro and the network put Leopold Stokowski on the podium), nationwide broadcasts cemented Toscanini’s interpretations as the standard.

Not to say that he was always right. He is acknowledged as a master of the Italian repertoire, having known and worked with Puccini, Catalini, Leoncavallo and Respighi – but composers such as Beethoven sometimes sound under his baton as they would had Beethoven only listened to Toscanini in the first place.

The three factors that give this performance such immediacy and depth are its pacing, its clarity and its intensity – all of which go far beyond even my formerly considered high-water mark, the 1978 Domingo/Scotto/Milnes recording under the direction of James Levine.

Toscanini’s unquestionable tempi are swift, so much so that you feel the maestro was concerned with catching the last train to Riverdale. It goes against the popular feeling that an opera’s pace should be leisurely to the point of voluptuousness. It reinforces my sense that, for all his genius, Verdi was a showman. He knew he had to grab the crowd and propel them through an evening’s entertainment, and he wasn’t above it. His acolyte Toscanini keeps things brisk, but without sacrificing depth or clarity.

As to clarity, I have never heard each and every instrument to such a degree in an opera recording. This performance took place in NBC’s Studio 8H (where “Saturday Night Live” now holds sway), a notoriously “dry”-sounding auditorium built expressly for broadcast. Despite this limitation, the superb production and engineering lets all the details come through without a loss of balance.

This remastering seems to have as its source Ward Marston’s excellent version, taken from a set of 16-inch aluminum discs that picked up the sound from two live broadcasts – Acts I and II on Dec. 6, 1947 and Acts III and IV on Dec. 13 of the same year. (Marston did interpolate three moments from rehearsals to cover for errors in the live broadcasts.) The next year, RCA switched to recording on high-fidelity magnetic tape, but it is hard to imagine a cleaner sound here.

The intensity of the performances no doubt stems in part from the luster of working for Toscanini, as well as the natural bump in adrenalin that comes from a live performance. Toscanini chose his principals well. His Otello, Ramon Vinay, was just beginning to make that part his own. Herva Nelli, who plays Desdemona, was Toscanini’s preferred soprano. Giuseppe Valdengo, who later played Falstaff for Toscanini on NBC three years later, rises to the occasion as Iago, despite some lapses in the top end of his range. These three singers, not known for their expressiveness, are coached into a white-hot frenzy by the conductor.

And, on a purely musical level, I feel that Toscanini imparted to his players and singers the sense that they were not a herd of subordinates but a collection of voices -- voices that had to be heard. Each moment of the score, every note had to be enunciated fully and completely in order for Verdi's scheme to become real. And that sense of the imperative flowed into the players and gave their playing a distinctive dimension. The stakes could not be higher. 


By reducing the emotional murk and sonic clutter, Toscanini clears the way to hearing and feeling “Otello” as a new work. The characterizations, even without the visual aid of even a libretto, are solid and eloquently modulated. The dramatic arc, one that I feel only Verdi could make so absolutely primary, is there as well. (Credit, of course, librettist Arrigo Boito’s masterful adaptation of Shakespeare.)

To me, Verdi is opera’s Shakespeare, and it’s only fitting that he wound up his career with two adaptations of the Bard’s work. With Toscanini’s aid, Verdi gives us a definite operatic version of “Othello” and creates a unique work in and of itself. I wonder if there are more gems out there like this, waiting to make familiar loves fresh again.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

From Boulder Magazine: I write on eTown and 'creating a third place'

Story by me from the new issue of the regional quarterly on the new digs for the popular, long-running music and social action show --


For Boulder Magazine, 11/8/11

By Brad Weismann


For Nick and Helen Forster, a dream 20 years in the making is coming true. For Boulder, a brand-new cultural center is almost a reality.

The Forsters (Nick is best known as a founding member of the influential bluegrass group Hot Rize) founded and have helmed the award-winning, nationally syndicated music/environmental issues radio show “eTown” in Boulder for two decades. The show has lacked only one thing – a home of its own.

“It’s going to give the community something it’s never had before,” says Nick Forster from the offices he and Helen and their staff already occupy in the building-in-progress at the corner of 16th and Spruce Streets. “It’s going to give the town a listening room.”

The former church on the site is being transformed into a 17,000-square-foot complex. There is a 200-seat “eTown Hall” auditorium, as well as a smaller “Bohemian Room” downstairs, recording studio, post-production facilities and more. The opening is slated for April 22, 2012 – appropriately for the show, Earth Day.

eTown Hall is being constructed on stringent “green” lines. Most importantly for the community, says Forster, is the fact that the facility can host events, classes and activities of all kinds, becoming a community cultural hub.


“What makes a healthy community is a ‘third place,’” he states. “There is home and work, and a third place can be a church or a coffeehouse or a corner store, anywhere work, and a third place is where you can feel connected. We hope that eTown Hall will become that third place for a lot of people.”