This morning, while driving, I was listening on my car radio to classical music on WBAI, a non-commercial New York radio station.
Host Chris Whent was playing music by the Bohemian-Austrian composer and violinist Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704). Biber has languished in obscurity (by which I mean has languished in modern times), but he is being heard again. Needless to say, this should be attributed to the availability of recorded music.
Has anyone noticed that classical music RADIO programming is not what it used to be? I grew up listening to it at all hours — on my car radio and at home, early in the morning and late at night. The late Robert J. Lurtsema’s program of classical music, “Morning pro musica,” on WGBH in Boston comes to mind.
Chris Whent knows his baroque music. A long while ago, I was listening to WBAI once when he happened to be playing sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti on his program. I heard Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonata in B minor, K.87/L.33, and I was “converted,” or one should say, lifted out of the slough of ignorance into a world or pure listening bliss.
Last night, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall by the pianist András Schiff. The program consisted of:
Robert Schumann, Variations on an Original Theme, WoO 24
Brahms, Three Intermezzos, Op. 117
Mozart, Rondo in A Minor, K. 511
Brahms, Klavierstücke, Op. 118
Bach, Prelude and Fugue in B Minor, from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BMV 869
Brahms, Klavierstücke, Op. 119
Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-Flat Major, Op. 81a, “Les adieux”
The program notes told me where the title “Les adieux” came from. I never knew.
The Schumann variations — his last work, written near the end of the composer’s life — were brief but lyrical and engaging, very Schumannesque. I was glad to have the opportunity to hear them.
The Bach piece made me think of some other composer.
LISTEN, I told myself, and think who. What do you hear?
Not what period or style. Not, what am I SUPPOSED to be hearing? But where have I heard such music, such sounds before?
It came to me, Scarlatti. Domenico Scarlatti. I Googled “Bach and Scarlatti” when I got home. I found out that there are some who believe that Bach must have been familiar with the music of his contemporary Scarlatti, but no one knows — there is no evidence one way or the other. Well, I think he must have been.
András Schiff played brilliantly. Flawless execution. Technical mastery. No histrionics. He lets the music speak for itself.
He concluded with Beethoven’s “Les adieux” sonata. What a performance. Every note tells. Beethoven’s architectonic mastery, lyricism, and power on display. Note I said “Beethoven’s.” The pianist made it so.
On the way home, I got to thinking about artistic performers in general. By extension, I was thinking about actors as another class of performers who succeed or fail, in the final analysis, measured by how well the work — a film or play — comes across, just as András Schiff had me thinking about Beethoven or Bach (and Scarlatti) more than about András Schiff. And, with a well-made product, “the seams don’t show.”
The inferior performers are always trying to impress you. They make it about them. This is true of inferior actors. By which I mean actors who are perhaps competent; talented, if not highly so; who get rave reviews; who can do something most people couldn’t, but who are not really great and are usually overrated. Skilled at their craft, but you know they’re acting.
They manage somehow to always call attention to themselves and their mannerisms, their “tricks,” like a vain musician or conductor perhaps showing off.
I’m Dustin Hoffman playing Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. I’ve got the wide-eyed innocence of a young man having his first sexual experiences down. Or Ratso Rizzo. I can do the raspy voice and a limp.
I’m Jeremy Irons playing Charles Rider or Claus von Bülow. I’m always raising my eyebrows. I’m affecting jejune awe; or, conversely, hauteur and world-weary disdain of the disillusioned middle aged middling artist.
I’m Meryl Streep playing Sophie Zawistowski in Sophie’s Choice. Note, moviegoer, that I’ve mastered a Polish-American accent.
I’m Jane Fonda playing a hooker in Klute. See me chew gum, “go through the motions” in bed, and look tough.
I’m Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. I’ve got the right costume for a ditzy seventies girl and the right mannerisms — the halting speech, for example. In Father of the Bride. did you see how I played the ditzy housewife, beaming at everyone and everything at the wedding?
I’m Humphrey Bogart in the role of Lt. Cmdr. Philip Francis Queeg. See me do my best to impersonate a crazy person.
I’m Henry Fonda in The Ox-Bow Incident. Note how I keep my mouth open or jaw clenched as appropriate and manage to always look nonplussed and overmastered by events.
As opposed to true mastery of the thespian’s art.
William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson in The Graduate. They ARE Benjamin’s parents — sixties type, wannabe cool, middle-aged fuddy-duddies who are really out of it.
Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver. It seems as if the film is a documentary about a couple and their family in an English town during World War II, that they really are a married couple — that they are not acting.
John Gielgud in Brideshead Revisited IS Charles Rider’s difficult father — he’s not John Gielgud playing the part of Charles Rider’s father. Anthony Andrews. He IS Sebastian Flyte.
Burt Lancaster IS the Birdman of Alcatraz.
Robert Mitchum IS the stable helper and friend to the boy, Tom Tiflin, in Lewis Milestone’s wonderful film The Red Pony.
David Niven’s stupendous performance as Major David Angus Pollock in Separate Tables.
Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns, who WAS the boy’s eccentric uncle. And, William Daniels and Barbara Harris, who really ARE neurotic social workers, or so it seems. It seems as if two such types were recruited from actuality (from a real welfare agency).
Robert Blake IS Perry, the murderer who is hung at the end of In Cold Blood, the film based on the Truman Capote novel.
Robert De Niro in various films. He is so into the role, he becomes the character. He makes the other actors in the film better.
Robert Preston, who WAS the music man. And, Shirley Jones, who WAS the prim, sweet librarian.
Other great actors and roles which come to mind are Laurence Olivier in Hamlet, Alastair Sim and Mervyn Johns in A Christmas Carol, Donald Crisp as the stern but not really unkind Yorkshire father in Lassie Come Home, and José Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac. And Burt Lancaster (already mentioned above) in numerous films.
To say nothing of the lead roles in great films of foreign directors such as Dreyer, Bresson, and Ozu. Take Chishū Ryū, for example, who starred in in many Ozu films. He never seems to be acting. The actor seems to be “conterminous” with the screen persona.
The best actors — the great ones — do something similar to musical interpreters such as András Schiff who leave one spellbound, and whose playing makes an indelible impression while making the music unforgettable.