Doctor Eclectic

Doctor Eclectic
Doctor Eclectic

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Kronos Quartet

Paul Posnak
For the past several years Mary and I have been Season Ticket holders for what has to be one of the best concert bargains in Orange County: The Community Concert Series of Laguna Woods.  Not only do you get six two-hour, world class, concerts, you often find yourself sitting next to an aging world-class performer, now residing in the gated, retired community, anxious to vicariously relive their performing life through listening to a contemporary.  How often do you have a stranger comment, “I’m glad they got a new piano.”

There is a heavy classical slant to the shows, but once in a while there is unexpected variety.  Such was the case a couple weeks ago, when we saw and heard Paul Posnak.  Dr. Posnak received a full scholarship to Julliard at the age of eight, and continued through a major portion of his life to study there, receiving a degree and eventually a doctorate from the prestigious school.

He has performed with honors throughout the world, including performances at the White House, Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center.  While I had never heard of him, this was a repeat performance at Laguna Woods and he played to a full, three-hundred seat house.

His claim to fame is his ability to transcribe improvisations by ear and he has recorded many of the performances.  He treated us to two of his favorites: the RCA Victor recording from the 1930s, where George Gershwin recorded what he played at impromptu cocktail parties; when he would start after dinner and play until breakfast time.  Although there existed sheet music of such pieces as” I Got Rhythm” and “Oh, Lady Be Good”, when Gershwin played them, they were filled with nuance and improvisations beyond popular ability to play.  So, when Posnak transcribed them, we are treated to a demonstration of what it would have been like to be in that party.  In a similar manner he played for us several of the slide piano pieces of “Fats” Waller.

And that was just the second half of the show.

In the first half, he demonstrated his classical training by playing pieces by Chopin and Mozart.  His musical memory is indeed impressive as I never saw him with a piece of music throughout the show.

Kronos Quartet - 2005
So, how does this relate to the Kronos Quartet?  Mostly because this classically-trained group refused to be bound by the classical motif. I recently heard an NPR piece on the celebration of their fortieth anniversary, which they celebrated with a performance in Seattle where the group began in 1973, and with a sold-out concert at U C Berkley, close to their base-ops in San Francisco.

Through the years the group has featured numerous compositions from such diverse artists as Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Sigur Rios including such genres as Mexican Folk, Romanian Gypsy, movie soundtracks and television. They have performed with artists such as, David Bowie, Bjork, Dave Matthews, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and even Allen Ginsberg.

While they are unique in that they had the longest run with the same artists of any group: from 1979 to 1999 the quartet included founder Dave Harrington and John Sherba on violin, Hank Dutt on viola, and Joan Jeanrenaud on cello, their major distinction is bringing back the magic of early chamber music, when the music was a vehicle for new and young composers.  Several years ago they established an endowment for composers under the age of thirty, the Under-Thirty Award which has been given to both American and international composers.  Their reason for establishing the award was in recognition of the more than 750 pieces that composers wrote exclusively for them.

I think I saw the Kronos Quartet twice since their beginning: once in the Bay Area, probably in Oakland, but possibly in Berkley; the second while I was stationed in Washington DC in the early eighties.  I hope someday to have a third opportunity.

There is an email running around about how often do we use Algebra.  In my next post I think I’ll revisit the Elements.  I hope you will join me.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Science of Lines

The first time I became aware that there was a word “queue” was fifty years ago, in Hong Kong, where Mary and I were waiting in line for one of the redouble-decker buses unique to England and her colonies.  The thing that impressed me about the queue was how orderly it was.  There must have been more than a dozen people who came while we were there and those in front of us and behind us were equally nonchalant about their place in line, wandering around to browse or chat with others, returning to their original place and finally, boarding the bus in the order of their arrival.

I thought to myself, this would never happen in America.

Through subsequent years I have picked up a few facts about lines.  For instance, McDonalds was the first to have multiple lines for multiple stations, realizing early-on that turnover was the secret to profitability. Costco still uses that technique at their food counter.

Others took a different take on the process, using multiple service personnel but feeding them through one continuous line, thereby decreasing the frustration that comes when one chooses the slow line and watches while others coming later get their needs accomplished earlier.  There are variations on that and some companies offer exceptions, like the A-list at Southwest Airlines, or Pre-TSA boarding, or Business Banking, but in general the feeling is that you are getting taken care of as quickly as possible.

There are some waits where there may or may not be a line: waiting for an elevator, for instance.  An interesting observation on those is that some undergraduate psychology student discovered that when one is waiting with no one else in line, it lessens frustration if there is a mirror (you know you’ll check that out next time you are waiting for an elevator).

Speaking of elevators, I have noticed two changes in elevators, recently: some buildings direct you to a specific car, depending on what floor you are going to.  Press the floor and a sign directs you to the next elevator going to that floor. The second aspect of that is that you don’t have to press your destination floor a second time; the elevator remembers you.

Which always reminds me of a routine Woody Allen did on television almost fifty years ago.  He told of how he was so frustrated at his TV that he threw a lamp at the screen and smashed it.  The next day he was in Manhattan and took an elevator that had no operator, just a voice that said, “Floor, please.”

When he responded, the elevator began its ascent and after some time spoke again, “Are you the guy who threw a lamp at his TV last night?” As rapidly as technology is advancing these days, that scenario may not be unlikely.

My final thought on lines is that there seem to be more of them, as we fight for limited space or crush for entry into events that have a specific starting time.  Last night I waited in line for twenty minutes at a local library to hear an author, and the wait for sporting events or concerts can seem interminable. I’m reminded of a comment made by one Englishman in the queue for the double-decker bus.  He said, “You Americans must be fond of lines.  You have so many of them.”

He may have been right!

Next Post will take me back to music as I reflect on a Chamber Group that is celebrating an anniversary: The Kronos Quartet. Please join me.

Friday, April 11, 2014


Sometimes, when I am sitting at my PC I look to my left at my desk and concentrate on two things that help keep me grounded, well three things, if you count the clutter.  Einstein is anecdotally quoted as saying, “A cluttered desk is the sign of an active mind.” If that is true, my grounding stems from wondering why, as cluttered as my desk is, is my mind not more active?

The two items that catch my attention are items from my past, each with its own story: a slide rule and an Abacus.

The slide rule belonged to my sister and was one of the few items she left behind that I kept, along with a lamp, a table and chairs.  Most of her possessions were sold, including her house in Marin, with assets going through me to her nephews, who were her surrogate children.

It is an exceptionally nice slide rule, a present from our parents when she was accepted as one of four women to the five-year Architectural Engineering program at Iowa State University. Its leather case is still supple after sixty-five years. And, while I have a problem reading the small-print numbers, I think I could still remember how to multiply using it, if not how to find square roots.

Those were the tasks she taught me, as I struggled through algebra and more importantly Trigonometry in high school.  I had my own slide rule, a much cheaper model that was the iPad of its time.  It too, was initially banned from classrooms when tests were given and that mystery increased its attraction.  The immediate successor of the slide rule was the pocket calculator, which became affordable and in common usage in the 1970s.  Of course children of my grandchildren’s generation would hardly recognize a pocket calculator from a paperweight.

My father was very proud of my sister and followed her education as closely as he followed my career into his profession: dentistry. I remember specifically one holiday meal when she was at the table and he asked his prospective Engineering daughter whether she ever used that transom thing to survey.  When she replied in the affirmative he asked, “What do you see?”  She explained that unless another student was in sight, holding a stick, you would see nothing of value.

The second item is an Abacus I picked up one time when I was in Hong Kong, probably on liberty from a ship I was stationed on.  I was intrigued by the speed with which a street vendor could total the cost of multiple items on the bargaining process.  While I understand the concept and in fact have used it on occasion for addition or subtraction, its very presence reminds me that I do not possess the skills of even an uneducated Asian merchant.

There are other items on my desk that trigger memories: various boxes from various countries, standard desk items holding standard desk clutter, many of which trigger memories of where they came from and what they have held, but those two items are constant reminders of my life, when it was simpler and I was less jaded.

I’m sure I am not alone in treasuring that perspective.

Next Post I’ll cover a topic I call The Science of Lines.  I think you’ll find it interesting.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Jelly Roll Morton and Franz Liszt

Alan Lomax
Jelly Roll Morton
One of my Christmas presents was a recording of Jelly Roll Morton, recorded in 1938 by Alan Lomax, who was hired by the Library of Congress to archive American Folk Music, accompanied by interviews with some of the musical Greats.  I listened to it again as I prepared for this Post and the music is as fresh as it was when recorded. The disc I have is excerpted from the 8 discs made at the time, so it is a little disjointed, but the personality of the larger than life pianist comes through loud and clear.

The man was an unpopular, somewhat arrogant character, who claimed to be one of the best pool players of the time as well as a competitive piano player.  His claim to have invented jazz has been essentially debunked, but the mystic surrounding him, with his start, playing in a Sporting House in New Orleans until 4 in the morning at the age of fourteen, making more than $100 a night, is less in dispute.
Felder as Chopin

For some reason, even though their differences are greater than their similarities, Jelly Roll makes me think of Franz Liszt.  My knowledge of Liszt’s life comes from a rather unusual source: an entertainer named Hershey Felder.

Mary and I first saw Mr. Felder when he appeared at the Laguna Playhouse portraying Chopin.  His one-man show puts him in the character and persona of the pianist where he tells “his” life story, accompanied by piano pieces written by the composer.  It was a truly unique and entertaining performance, and we were not alone in that opinion.

Laguna went on to bring him back in portrayals of Beethoven, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, all of which we saw and enjoyed. One particular aspect we favor is a Q and A session following the performance, where Hershey fields questions as if he were the character on the stage.  I asked him regarding Liszt who transcribed the music, since he played so contemporaneously.  He answered that Liszt actually made his own transcriptions, from memory, following his performances.

Presently Hershey Felder has two projects:  he has produced a similar one-woman show for Mona Golabek titled The Pianist of Willenden Lane, which is returning to the Laguna Theater June 22-24.  He also has prepared and is performing in a new one-man show about the last days of Lincoln.

In that respect he and Jelly Roll (actual name Ferdinand) were similar.  Morton was the first person to actually write down the compositions of the contemporaneous Blues pieces of the time, making several common pieces his own in the process.

Franz Liszt
Liszt would play for hours at parties, in addition to his more formal appearances on tour.  The tours made him fabulously wealthy as well as fabulously popular.  In fact, Felder titled his Liszt show “Rock Star”, because at one point in his life, Liszt was just that, enjoying adulation and international fame, as well as commanding top dollar for his concerts.  Women used to tear his gloves and scarves to bits as memorabilia, fighting for small parts to take home as mementoes.

Both lives ended tragically, Morton’s from a poorly treated wound gained in an LA knife fight because of segregation at the closest hospital and medical ineptitude at the one to which he was admitted. His funeral was a lonely one.  Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford were in town, but failed to attend.

Liszt died from pneumonia, brought on by untreated congestive heart failure, which slowly limited activity in his final years; he died at 72, to little more than existence.  He chose a monastic way of life in his later years, mourning the death of his son, and estrangement from his daughter who had married Richard Wagner, a young genius recognized and financially supported by Liszt himself.

The love of Liszt’s life was a Russian Countessa who left her husband and children for years to live with him, but who finally could not get the absolution from the church she felt necessary to marry him.

Of the two, Liszt certainly had the more glorious life, giving away most of his wealth to charities, having world attention in his youth and middle year, composing pieces whose virtuosity gained him the reputations as the great pianist of his time, and leaving a music heritage that ranks as some of the finest of history.

Morton, on the other hand, probably would be no better remembered than several of his contemporaries, had not Lomax chosen him to represent the birth of jazz.

Life is like that sometimes!

I think in my next Post I will reminisce about what some of the things on my desk remind me of.  I’ll bet you have some things of a similar nature.