Wednesday, September 28, 2011

My review of Earl Wild's memoirs

Here's my review of Earl Wild's autobiography, A Walk on the Wild Side. As it's not exactly a rave, I'm sure it will earn me brickbats from Wild's coterie.

Not so much Wild as rambling & bitchy

Earl Wild (1914-2010) had one of the longest careers in the performing arts. He was a pianist of remarkable technique who made everything he played look easy. He'd been claiming - or "threatening" if one had ever heard him in interviews - to be working on his memoirs for decades before his death.

Early in A Walk on the Wild Side, the author complains that Arthur Rubinstein's two-volume memoirs contained too much recounting of social events, meals, and love affairs - and not enough about music. Reading that complaint, I became hopeful that Wild's book would be largely centred on music. Sadly, it is not. Wild's early years are dispensed with quickly enough - he claims his family was not close knit, to the extent that Wild once didn't recognize his own brother who came backstage to see him after a concert. He recounts his years as staff pianist for NBC, which he left when he entered the Armed Services during World War II. Wild recalls the various dignitaries he met over the years, including Eleanor Roosevelt and various Presidents (he describes Franklin Roosevelt as an "intelligent and sensitive" man who would sit close to the keyboard to watch Wild's hands, but writes that JFK wanted to be elsewhere than the post-Inaugural concert). Wild also relates how he met Michael Rolland Davis, who became his life partner from the early 1970s until Wild's death. Wild's unapologetic candor in describing his relationship with Davis - while refusing to use it as an excuse to plead for "tolerance" - is refreshing at a time when some people still feel the need to justify love. It is what it is and if you don't like it - too bad for you.

Neither editing nor fact checking appears to have been done. Wild's prose style is of the kind that would be discouraged by any decent high school English teacher. He seems to finish every third sentence with an exclamation point! Some of Wild's statements are impossible for anyone with musical knowledge to take seriously, such as his comment that Josef Hofmann played at the top of his form until the end of his career. Also, there are so many factual errors that everything Wild writes comes into question. For example, Wild relates that President Truman, upset by critic Paul Hume's review of Margaret Truman's concert, wrote Hume a letter in which he called Hume an unprintable name. In fact, Truman's letter was published and, although Truman's distaste for Hume is evident, there is no profanity. This story is well known and easily verifiable - yet no one seems to have bothered to check it.

There are a few musicians who earn Wild's praise, including Paderewski, Toscanini, Garrick Ohlsson and, of all people, Liberace! There are also moments of amusement, such as when Wild catches Wanda Toscanini Horowitz staring at his face, apparently looking for evidence of cosmetic surgery and a hairpiece (Wild maintained naturally full hair until his death).

But for the most part, the book is a diatribe against the classical music "business" and those who run it. A few - and there are many - targets of Wild's bile include: Isaac Stern, Virgil Thomson, and the Steinway company. In short, Wild claims that Isaac Stern blocked Carnegie Hall from presenting him - so that Wild had to finance his own concerts there; that Thomson gave him bad reviews after Wild spurned a sexual advance; and that Steinway loaned him poorly prepared pianos. From what I've learned over the years, these three examples are entirely plausible. But it doesn't end there. It seems that anyone, particularly pianists, who had what Wild perceives as greater success than he, is a valid target. So, Wild states that Claudio Arrau's career was entirely the product of publicity, and goes on to lambaste Alfred "Bren-dull", Vladimir Feltsman, and even Yehudi Menuin. In the end, it reads like Wild is whining that he didn't get what he deserved because others either conspired against him or ignored him. Even supposed friends, like Harold Schonberg, are not spared.

The best part of A Walk on the Wild Side is the chapter devoted solely to musical and pianistic matters. Wild's holistic advice on how to physically approach and play the piano should be memorized by every piano student - particularly in these days of swooning by the likes of Lang Lang - who Wild refers to as "the J-Lo of the piano". But one chapter does not make up for the air of bitterness that pervades the rest of Wild's book. Wild comes across not as charmingly egocentric, but as someone with scores to settle - and settle them he does. In the end, one wishes that the pianist had consulted a psychologist to deal with his lingering anger rather than subject the rest of us to it.

The book includes a discography which is very useful, because when Wild mentions any of his own recordings he makes it clear that he likes them better than anyone else's. No false modesty here! The book comes with a CD that includes a rambling interview with Wild (some anecdotes are recounted nearly word-for-word the same as the book) and selected recordings - none of which show Wild at his best.

I've never had any illusion that Wild was one of the deep thinkers in pianistic history, but his true pettiness was not revealed to me until reading this disappointing book. I recommend you skip this book (or at least try to find it at a library) and spend the $45 on some of Wild's better recordings - particularly Rhapsody in Blue, which is sui generis. They will bring more pleasure and less disillusionment.

[Note: As I predicted, my review of this book on Amazon resulted in many negative votes and comments. Several positive reviews of the book were immediately written from accounts which had never submitted a review before. Interestingly, many of my other reviews there have also earned negative votes - which indicates one or a few ax grinders are trolling my reviews. These people (or is it one person using multiple accounts?) seem obsessed with avenging Wild's memory which I have ruthlessly defamed. They seem uninterested in the positive reviews I've written for Ivory Classics recordings, such as that by Igor Lovchinsky. I have no control over what people write on Amazon, but I am not permitting comments on this entry of my blog. I have been harrassed enough already by Wild's groupies.]

Sunday, September 25, 2011

From Teddy Roosevelt to Rachmaninoff – when revisionist spelling runs amuck

Theodore Roosevelt is known for many things: President, hunter, conservationist, Bull-Moose candidate, trust-buster, foreign policy expansionist, prolific author. One thing nearly forgotten by history was his effort to simplify spelling in American-English. I believe the motivation behind this was TR’s desire to separate the American language from its British roots – all the more because this came at a time when the American Navy was eclipsing England’s.

Be that as it may, in 1906, the Simplified Spelling Board was founded in New York City. Board members included Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), library organizer Melvil Dewey (of Dewey Decimal System fame), U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Brewer, publisher Henry Holt, and former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Lyman Gage. Among the board’s recommendations: make American-English more phonetic by deleting silent letters, such as "e" (as in "axe"), "h" (as in "ghost"), "w" (as in "answer"), and "b" (as in "debt"); spell “enough” as “enuf”, remove the “u” from honour, colour, and favour; change centre to center, rhyme to rime, socks to sox, and so on.
A few of these changes have come to pass, but many have gone the way of the 1970s proposed conversion to the metric system – which made more sense in retrospect. As far as spelling is concerned, I am old fashioned and still use grey, not gray, when describing my car’s color.

History remembers the Soviet Union for many things: Stalin’s bloody purges, the high price paid for victory in the Great Patriotic War, their early lead in the Space Race, Glasnost & Perestroika, and the way it all ended – not with a bang but with a whimper. Early Soviets also decided to reform spelling. But unlike TR’s attempt, the Soviet restructuring of the Russian language took firm hold – not always with the positive results.

Nowhere in music is this more evident than in the spelling of a certain composer’s name as Rachmaninow, or more commonly Rachmaninov, instead of Rachmaninoff.

For the record, the Cyrillic spelling of the composer’s name when he was born is Сергей Васильевич Рахманиновъ. That “ъ” at the end is known as a tvyordiy znak – but its use was altered early in the Soviet period, which in turn changed how certain words were transliterated.

And thus is was that, by the 1970s, European musicologists were inevitably using the Soviet spelling for Rachmaninoff’s name and transliterating it as Rachmaninov. European record labels caught on and this is now the standard spelling as seen on European based labels. Sergei would turn over in his grave (which, incidentally, is in New York, not Russia) at this turn of events - all the more so because his contract with RCA stated exactly how his name was to appear on their recordings: Sergei Rachmaninoff.

In some ways, the European insistence in spelling Rachmaninoff’s name with a “v” mirrors Teddy Roosevelt’s desire to change American-English: Misguided, provincial, and reactionary.

Rachmaninoff’s signature, which shows both how he spelled his name, and his exquisite penmanship.

Spelling Rachmaninoff’s name with a “v” is wrong on so many levels: It ignores the way the composer signed his own name in Western Countries (where he lived the last 25 years of his life); it does not take into account the original Russian spelling of his name – Рахманиновъ – and it leads readers to mispronounce his name, which should end with an “f” sound, not a “v”. Not to mention, it was during the Soviet era that Russian musicians – both in and out of official positions – were downgrading Rachmaninoff as a composer. I recall asking a Soviet-era Russian musician how his fellow countrymen rated Rachmaninoff. “About like Gershwin”, he said. It’s a cruel irony that, 20 years after the Soviet Union wound up on the “ash heap of history” the post-Revolutionary spelling of Rachmaninoff’s name dominates Western music.

But I will never succumb to the Euro-snobs. For me, this often underrated composer will always be Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Fitness Quest: September 19

Over the weekend, I noticed an ingrown toenail which became very painful by this morning. Despite that, I did a short cardio workout after work today. Sunday, my workout was disrupted by an emotional upset that I won’t go into here. But I was thrown off my bearings and forgot how to do several of the exercises Bryan showed me.

I won’t have my usual Tuesday morning session with Bryan tomorrow, so I plan on working my upper body and staying off my feet.

A bit of good news: I continue to make slow progress. Despite occasional obstacles, I’ve lost another pound. This is more significant than it seems, as my upper chest and legs are significantly more toned and my pants are noticeably looser.

9/19/2011 weight: 214#

Monday, September 12, 2011

Borders: a post-mortem

Well, it’s over. The last Borders bookstore closed today – ironically, the same place where the first one opened in 1971: Ann Arbor, Michigan. For years, I was a regular at the La Place Borders. Their Classical CD selection couldn’t be beat locally, and I was building a collection. Music of Note on Shaker Square had recently closed, and The Music Box was long gone.

I was peripherally linked with Borders. From 1985-1986 and again from 1994-1997, I was employed by Waldenbooks. In the 1990s, K-mart owned Waldens, along with Brentano’s and Borders Bookstores (at the time, a small chain based in Ann Arbor, Michigan). By the middle ‘90s, K-mart was in something of a financial crunch and was seeking outside investors. One group of fundamentalist Christian investors balked at the prospect of investing in K-mart because Waldenbooks sold Playboy, Penthouse, and the like. So, in order to secure investor money, K-mart merged Waldens and Borders and spun them off into their own company: The Borders Group. By the way, it was around that time that Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Booksellers were fined by the FTC for colluding on the closing of bookstores at several locations (in other words: Walden and B. Dalton agreed that “if you close your store at Mall A, we’ll close ours at Mall B”) a gross violation of anti-trust laws.

I was working at Waldenbooks when the Borders spinoff happened. At the time, we thought Borders was the wave of the future. Those big stores with their comfy leather chairs, coffee shops, and huge selection were irresistible, and Borders started popping up everywhere. Borders’ rapid growth was at the expense of mall based bookstores like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton – and independent stores suffered even more. By 1997, the writing was on the wall for Waldenbooks: Who wanted to shop for books in cramped stores in the midst of thug-infested malls? The paucity of remaining Waldens meant that it was impossible to advance working there. Many Waldenbooks employees started interviewing at Borders. Even Waldenbooks managers took clerk jobs at Borders - the pay and benefits were competitive (mostly because Walden pay was lousy). I myself left Walden that year and went into a totally different arena.
Whatever the selection at Borders, once the competition from independents was gone, Borders was charging full price on their Classical CDs and only discounted bestselling and remaindered books. Then the Internet came along and by 2000, I was usually buying my CDs at Amazon or other online retailers for less money – and I could even listen to a sample online. What had happened to the independents was now happening to Borders, and their classical selection dwindled.

Borders is not just a victim of changes in the way people shop. In some ways, I think Borders is the victim of its own expansion. Just a few years ago, there were Borders, B&N or Jo-Beth in Richmond Heights, Cleveland Heights, Lyndhurst, Beachwood, and Woodmere. The technical term for this is Market Saturation. Far more than the local population could sustain - especially with retail rents which have increased far beyond inflation. Jo-Beth was the first to go belly up, about a year ago.

This brings up the question: “Why have Jo-Beth and Borders gone out of business yet Barnes & Noble is still running?” I think it’s a combination of several good decisions on the part of B&N management: 1. B&N made better decisions on where to open stores and did not hesitate to dump locations that were not profitable – such as at Richmond Town Square; 2. B&N was much more savvy on the electronic side of business, with a better website, e-books, and enabling customers to listen to samples of CDs they were browsing just by running the bar code under a scanner.

There is also the e-book factor. I prefer real books myself. But I know someone who travels frequently, and the e-book is a great convenience: It's not heavy, more portable since you can store several books in one package, and if you're reading while eating, you don't have to hold the pages open. Borders totally missed the boat on this one.

Fortunately, some independent bookstores survived – but not many music stores with a good selection of Classical music. When I was in Montpelier, Vermont last September, I visited at least five bookstores all within walking distance of each other. Borders never bothered with small towns like Montpelier (the only state capitol without a McDonald’s). A few stores in Ohio, like Fireside Books in Chagrin Falls and Mac’s Backs on Coventry, have survived the life and death of Borders.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Mason at Three

Mason, our 3 year old Lab/Collie/Shepherd mix, really knocks us out with his idiosyncratic behavior. Even when Dan & I are going about our business without thought to what we’re doing, Mason is present - observing us and taking in every detail of our routines.

Mason is very accustomed to our work schedules – Dan works nights, and I work a more standard shift. One advantage of our schedule is that someone is nearly always home. Mason does not want for company! I leave for work around 7:20am, after the first segment of the Today Show winds up and goes to commercial via some cheesy outro music. At that point, Mason jumps up from his spot on the floor or the futon, and starts barking at me. Usually, it’s three short, sharp barks, almost as if he’s saying “Go to work!” The same thing happens when Dan leaves for work around 10:30pm. With Dan, Mason is a bit less certain of the schedule, because we may be watching various programs or the TV may not be on at all. With the shortening days and earlier sunsets, Mason is sometimes barking at Dan to go to work, and we have to remind him it’s too early. He also reminds Dan when it’s time for his afternoon nap, barking at Dan until he goes up to the bedroom and retires.

Mason is a picky eater – has been since we adopted him at age eight weeks. We’ve been through several kinds of food, from Kirkland Signature brand, to Purina, to Iams, and tried supplementing it. But he never filled out and was chronically underweight – not severely, but I definitely noticed when I bathed him and his hair was wet. We’ve finally hit on the solution about six weeks ago, when we started using Blue Buffalo brand dry food. It’s expensive, but it has done the trick. Mason is much more enthusiastic about eating, especially when we supplement it with Kirkland Signature canned food. His frame has filled out, although he still has a rather svelte appearance. Another benefit - and not to be too graphic here – is that Mason’s stools, which had been chronically runny, have improved and are now solid. So, if you have a picky dog, I’d definitely recommend incurring the extra expense and trying Blue Buffalo food.

Mason keeps abreast of current events, and wants to send a message to Michael Vick:

Horowitz plays Great Sonatas

Sony has issued a ten CD compilation of Horowitz playing Sonatas by various composers.

Click here to read and rate my review.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Fitness Update:September 6

Three weeks into my new routine. My training sessions with Bryan seem to be going well. By working with him at 8:30am, I am able to get 25 minutes more sleep on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I repeat the routine he gave me on Saturdays, with Daniel if he's available. Mondays and Fridays I do straight cardio. I have increased my cardio time from 25 minutes to 40 - although I have had to stop early twice. Wednesdays and Sundays are off days - no workout.

So far, I have not lost a substantial amount of weight – in fact, during the first two weeks, I gained two pounds, then tapered down by three in the next week. Over the last ten days, I have started to notice minute changes. While brushing my teeth last week, I noticed that my chest seemed better developed. And on Sunday, I caught sight of myself in the gym mirror and noticed my calves looked more cut. I am not particularly looking for more definition in my legs, but there it was. Bryan has told me this is to be expected. As the body loses fat, the legs and upper chest become more defined first – and the belly last. So, I have a lot of work in front of me.

9/06/2011 weight: 215#