Saturday, March 11, 2017

Ein Mensch on International Women's Day: Patti Smith at Northrop Auditorium -- March 8, 2017

There were two startling things during Patti Smith's Wednesday night concert at the Northrop. The first was that she repeatedly spat on the floor of the stage. The second was that, yes, she really did break guitar strings during the concert's concluding number. While neither of these would have surprised my friend Snag, a Patti Smith devotee, I never really had much of a connection to her music in my youth, so was caught a bit off guard.

Patti Smith Performing "Birdland"
I knew who she was, had heard "Gloria" and "Because the Night," but never understood the encomiums. The fact that the "in set" admired her greatly back then didn't do much for me. But this concert was very interesting on many levels.

In preparation for the concert I had both listened to a 70-minute interview from a 2012 Danish music festival ( and purchased and read "Just Kids," her account of her young life in New York with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. My explorations revealed a centered, likable, and virtuous woman. I was quite surprised to discover that she was incredibly kind, good, well read, and versatile. I had not known that she had won the National Book Award for "Just Kids" and I greatly admired its simple language and skillful storytelling.

So the thing I am struggling with is how a centered philosopher puts on a stage show full of all-consuming passion. I haven't solved this incongruity. Except perhaps to accept that we all have our different sides. I'm a careful professional, but put me on a dance floor and all bets are off--I become utterly carefree. Maybe it's the same thing. The interview above touches on that point at its beginning and Smith quotes Whitman in asserting that we all have many different sides to our personalities.

I've attended many vocal performance of aging performers and Smith's voice was simply the best facsimile of a voice from 40 years ago that I have ever heard. Easily so. She was closely mic'd and for most of the concert I could detect very little difference between her voice on the 1977 version of "Horses" and her voice now. She was particularly strong during the highest-intensity stretches of "Gloria," "Birdland," and "Horses." Her near-manic demeanor during fast parts of "Birdland" and "Horses" was captivating. The voice of this woman in her eighth decade of life is amazing.

Violence Against Guitar Strings
After the songs from the "Horses" album, she also performed songs from her "Easter" album, including, "Ghost Dance," and, predictably, "Because the Night." Prince's "When Doves Cry," was sung at a slow pace. A short false start on "Citizen Ship" gave rise to a tight second take.

The most remarkable thing about Patti Smith the performer is her intensity when she's riffing on her own lyrics. Total immersion. The heat of the hot part of the sun. And this intensity led to a question that popped in my head at the beginning of the last number, "My Generation," as she donned a guitar for the first time: How does the passionate spontaneity inherent in guitar smashing jive with the premeditation necessary to carry it out? At the point she put on the innocent, shiny guitar, I said to myself, "Lord God, please don't allow this marvelous septuagenarian to smash the guitar." Well, she didn't. She manufactured lots of feedback; she broke the strings one by one, tossed them aside; but she avoided any nasty splinters by sparing the guitar. Ultimately, she did not behave, but she tempered her defiance with love--and made a comment to that effect that suggested why it was that the guitar's sentence was commuted.

One sign of good art is that it leaves you with unanswered questions. I left asking myself several: Is the performer's persona real or an illusion? What does it mean to be an aging artist? How do intensity and spontaneity co-exist in performance art? It was an amazing show. Too bad Snag missed it.

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Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.