An answered question

img_1072-nggid03275-ngg0dyn-320x240x100-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010If you take the Hutchinson River Parkway, or “The Hutch” as it’s known, in a northerly direction from the Bronx NY, NY, there are an impressive number of dead composers who line the route to Connecticut. Bartok, Zemlinsky, Rachmaninov and Percy Grainger all lived within leafy travelling distance of the Big Apple, as did Charles Ives whose country home (left) I got to visit a couple of weeks back.

In 1912, Ives bought a plot of land across the road from the site of General Putnam’s headquarters in the Revolutionary War, set deep within the verdant rolling hills of Redding, Connecticut, and had a house and barn built to his specifications. A year later he moved in with his wife Harmony (is that not the perfect composer’s wife name?) and stayed there until his death in 1954, at which point the house remained in the Ives family.

Until a month ago, when it was put up for sale and faced the very real prospect of being demolished at the hands of real-estate investors. [singlepic id=277 w=320 h=240 float=right]

Those of you who’ve been following the story elsewhere online may want to skim down a few paras until you reach the $$$ sign, or otherwise bear with me for a brief recap.

Ives’ surprisingly small work studio (right), to all appearances left exactly as it was.

The house stands in 18 acres of spectacularly beautiful, unspoilt New England countryside and it’s easy to imagine the time when Ives shook his fist at the first planes flying over his peaceful land. His neighbours included Mark Twain, Jascha Heifetz, and more recently, Meatloaf.

James Sinclair, editor-in-chief of the wonderful Ives critical editions, had invited Olly Knussen and I to see the house with him and the realtor. Most of Ives’ library was boxed up ready for moving, but his personal possessions were still in situ, including some faded furniture of the period.

Hard rock musician, actor and Ives’ latest neighbour, Meatloaf.

Extraordinarily, his composing room appeared to be left completely untouched; his correspondence, photographs, programmes, posters and piano left to the mercies of the summer sun streaming through the windows, covered in dust and cobwebs.

Ives’ famous hat lying on a shelf beside his father’s cornet. Note the picture of Brahms, above right, one of many around the room.

It would appear that Ives had a weakness for the bottle, and when Prohibition kicked in he panic-ordered a lifetime’s supply of bitters, a kind of German hooch, much of which still remains in the adjoining barn.

Harmony would send him out on his forest walks with a carton of soothing milk which he would throw away en route to be fortified by stronger stuff, evidence of which still adorns his studio (below).

img_1110-nggid03287-ngg0dyn-320x240x100-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010Apparently Ives would get very worked up whilst working, and a vein on his neck would start to bulge and throb violently. Observing these warning signs, the ever-solicitous Harmony would persuade her husband to lie down on a low couch, now quietly rotting by the piano.

At James’ invitation, Olly attempted to play “The Alcotts” from the Corcord Sonata (below). With tears in his eyes, (hopefully not from the performance), James told us that it may have been the last time the piano gets played in the room.

img_1093-nggid03289-ngg0dyn-320x240x100-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010The nice realtor chap, an expert in local historical properties, quietly explained to me that the sale value of this prime real estate – 1.5 million US – remains the same whether or not the house is there. Without a suitable buyer showing up pronto, there was a real danger that this important historical site could soon get eaten up by hungry property developers.

Unbelievable.

SURELY this couldn’t be allowed to happen?

After all, a bedsit in Kensington costs much the same.

Something had to be done. So I posted an S.O.S on Facebook with the aid of some of these simple iPix, and the rest is a tale about the incredible power of the world wide web.

Within minutes of the alarm being sounded, concerned questions about the house poured in from all over the globe. Norman Lebrecht kindly asked me to write a piece on the house for his blog Slipped Disc, resulting in a torrent of activity.

Letters were written to Obama, a Facebook Save Ives House page started up, there were twitter campaigns, phone calls, press alerts (I spoke to New York’s classical radio channel WQXR for their blog) and most recently, an emergency meeting was held with the newly-up-in-arms residents of West Redding, attended by at least 10 lawyers.

(I like to imagine them all brandishing generic Angry-Country-Folk pitchforks and hoes.)

The good news to date is that the Ives Society has formed an action committee (see Lebrecht’s blog once again) to save the house from demolition, and general awareness of the situation is now so high that if any evil being even attempted to build a Barrett Homes settlement on the plot of land that gave birth to Ives’ Fourth Symphony, I suspect they’d face a horrible microtonal death at the hands of outraged fans.

Result.

One can only hope that all the fuss has gotten people to rediscover his extraordinary music as well as the house.

$$$

For those of you skipping previous paras, you’re now in an Ives’-House-Story free zone.

Wending our way deeper into the lush green Connecticut hills, we shortly wound up at another great artist’s house, this time belonging to the celebrated writer and illustrator  of children’s books, Maurice Sendak, who died on May 8th this year at the age of 83.

Maurice Sendak at home with his beloved dog Herman, model for several book illustrations.

Like Ives’ house (oops, sorry, only a glancing mention), Sendak’s place is hidden way amidst breathtakingly beautiful countryside.

Chipmunks and gophers scuttle in and out of twisted Arthur Rackham trees, bees and electric-blue dragonflies buzz amongst jasmine, lavender and azalea bushes, rainbow butterflies form a fluttering canopy over the sleepy wooden-slatted house, humming birds hover and shoot in the wood-fragrant air.

(Ooh that last para was a bit purple. But really, I’m not exaggerating. It was TOP).

“Maurice hated humming birds”, says Lynn Caponeira his housekeeper. “He said that they were only useful when hovering mid-air, and should have their feet chopped off”.

From what I now know about this famous artist, this is a typically macabre utterance. Like the man, his books are not always comfortable. Characters get killed off. Monsters, animals and people often take on a nightmarish quality. And, as with all really good fairytales, death and sex are never far away.

Rapunzel, her fated plait, and the wicked witch. Illustration by Kay Nielsen from Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm. (1925 edition).

My mother always told me that long hair was more hassle than it’s worth.

Think of Rapunzel’s phallic tower and blinded suitor, or Rumpelstiltskin’s gruesome ending (in Brothers’ Grimm final 1857 edition) where the protagonist:

“in his rage drove his right foot so far into the ground that it sank in up to his waist; then in a passion he seized the left foot with both hands and tore himself in two.”

I’ve just discovered Sendak’s dark and almost surrealist masterpiece Outside over There, inspired by a famous kidnapping and murder of a millionaire’s baby in the 40s. Music seems to saturate the pages. A little girl in a night dress floats through mysterious dreamscenes carrying a french horn whilst looking for her baby sister, who has been stolen by Goblins.

Looking at this book, it makes sense that he wanted to make those wonderful operas with Olly Knussen.

People who knew Sendak well (and there weren’t many) have described him as irascible, hilarious, cantankerous, obsessive, a mesmerizing raconteur and teller of tall stories, fond of filthy language, instant liker or hater of people and much preoccupied by death, doubtless triggered by the murder of his extended Polish-Jewish family in the Holocaust.

img_1153-nggid03291-ngg0dyn-320x240x100-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010His house is filled with beautiful and curious artworks, books and objects, unostentatiously placed amongst the practical tools of a man who spent his life absorbed in his work. Every day he would show up at the drawing board in the morning, eat, work, take the dogs for a walk, work, eat, start work again and finish late at night, often turning down social invitations rather than interrupt the creative flow.

Collection of Mickey Mouses, all from 1928, Sendak’s birth year. One of at least 2 cabinet’s-full that I saw. (I told you he was obsessive.)

Lynn first met her next door neighbour Sendak as a child, and became his housekeeper at 18. She probably knows more about him than anyone else alive. She gave me a full tour of the house, including a room stuffed with filing cabinets filled with his beautifully cared-for drawings.

img_1181-nggid03293-ngg0dyn-320x240x100-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010Every last piece and artefact in the house has been meticulously archived by Lynn, who also knows the stories behind them. If he bought a piece of art, she said, it was in order to absorb its style close at hand so that it could be incorporated into his own work. His acquisitions were practical rather than covetous.

Keats’ deathmask, one of only 3 in existence, lying unobstrusively in a quiet corner of the house.

It’s clear that the house and collection will be lovingly curated for a long time to come. No “Save Sendak’s house” Facebook page needed here.

 

Lewis Carroll was another key Sendak obsession. Here’s (the original) photo of the real Alice (centre) and sisters.

Another photo of Alice, this time as a young woman with a sad expression, hangs on the wall next to Sendak’s work desk. He found it inspiring, said Lynn.

Tiptoeing into his bedroom upstairs, I had the most palpable sense of someone being present, yet unseen, that I’ve ever had in my life. A tremendous peace and stillness fills the small, childlike room. Call me a space-cake, but my hunch is that whatever dimension he now exists in, Maurice Sendak is happy.

His ashes are scattered along with that of his partner and beloved dogs in a quiet spot under a graceful ash tree in the front garden.

img_1145-nggid03295-ngg0dyn-320x240x100-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010Taking our leave of this magical place, we continued our journey through spectacularly verdant landscape to the Tanglewood Music Centre, Lenox, Mass.

Maurice Sendak’s house. 

If only someone had told me about this fabulous place when I was a student! Here’s the official blurb from the Tanglewood website:

“Established in 1940 by former Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Serge Koussevitzky, the Tanglewood Music Center (TMC) provides a unique, in-depth musical experience for emerging professional musicians of exceptional ability. Participants in the program, who all attend as Fellows of the Music Center (with costs of tuition, room, and board covered by their fellowships), work with internationally renowned artists, including members of the Boston Symphony, resident faculty, and guests.”

Any of you young players, conductors or composers out there who knew not of its existence til now, RUSH to complete an application form so that you too can spend your summer amongst the world’s finest musicians, honing your craft in an almost sub-tropically lush natural setting spiced with limitless sexual possibility in the rich surroundings of the Berkshires’ deep forests.

The Shed, Tanglewood.

Actually, I was told it has been a bit of a tame year in the latter respect, with many students married (MARRIED?!!! You are barely 20 for god’s sake!!! Don’t do it!!!) and devout Christians to boot, much to the disappointment of some of the frustrated composers and conductors I met who had already been there for almost 2 months.

Twas not always so.

Stories abound of the outrageous antics of Leonard Bernstein, Tanglewood king for many years, who would illegally drive his flashy cars over the grassy TMC grounds, inappropriately snog all and sundry, and smoke smoke smoke.

The director of the BSO told me that there is still a “Lenny Clause” kept in for sentimental reasons in BSO conductor contracts, concerning flicking ash at the players, amongst other things.

Young Lenny.

God, it must have been hard to say no.

The sheer scale of “The Shed”, as the main concert space is known, is hard to get from piccies alone. It’s HUGE. The sound shouldn’t work, but does, and the place has the advantage that if you don’t feel like sitting inside, you can listen to concerts and rehearsals lolling about on the surrounding lawns, drinking fizz.

That said, outside audients are advised to gird themselves with every conceivable form of mosquito repellent. The little bastards (mozzies, that is, not audients) ate me alive at every opportunity, regardless of dress, beverage or repertoire.

Having never heard the legendary BSO live, you can imagine my disappointment at nearly falling off my chair with boredom at their performance of one of my fave pieces, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

What on earth had gone wrong?

Blame must surely lie in the direction of the conductor de jour, Lorin Maazel, sometimes known in the business as “The Cobra”, who micro-managed every last note of the piece, thus somehow managing to suck the life force out of music that is otherwise surely amongst the most impetuous ever written.

Lorin Maazel.  Just LOOK at those eyes…                   

Terrifying.

The players lounged back in their chairs, effortlessly creating the expensive tone and flawless intonation I associate with their recordings (you can’t tell where the sound begins and ends in the strings, for example), but simply not appearing to be engaged with the music at all.

In the concert post mortem, someone said that American orchestras are particularly sensitive to the will of whoever is up front, as opposed to the headstrong British orchestra who will take the reins itself unless guided by a greater force. In this case, the orchestra was doing EXACTLY what the musically-detached (that day) Maazel was asking of them.

Whatever.

For me it was like seeing a priceless vintage convertible Rolls, all cream leather and polished silver fittings, lazily cruising at 50 along smooth tarmac. One touch on the gas and it would have sprung into life.

Which it did, incidentally, the following day when I was nearly knocked off my feet by the wall of sound bursting from the Shed during a rehearsal of Shos 5 with new kid on the Boston block, Stéphane Denéve*. Frankly, I don’t need to hear that piece again, but this really COOKED.

*(that should be an acute accent, but I haven’t yet figured out how to do it on my Mac).

img_1228-nggid03297-ngg0dyn-320x240x100-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010Composer Michael Gandolfi (in black) acknowledging Ma-a-a-zel on stage in The Shed with the BSO after they’d premiered his piece “Night Train”a week or so back.

A long-standing member of the Tanglewood composition faculty, Mike can explain Pitch Class Set Theory in his sleep, is a mean jazz guitarist (who studied with Pat Metheny amongst others) and has done a full structural analysis of Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”.

He is also Sicilian.

Note the slightly dodgy white togs of the players.

Thus reminding me of a date I once had with a raving, but extremely handsome, Stalinist. Not yet wise to his political inclinations, I accepted the invitation to dinner only to be met with the following opening gambit over the soup: “You would have had a marvellous time as a musician under Stalin”. When I alluded to the fate of Shostakovitch and the odd murdered million, he nearly threw his bread roll at me. “Nazi propaganda!!!” he shouted, and tried to get me to buy a few copies of Proletariat Monthly.

On hearing this story a friend told me that in his view Stalin hadn’t been tough enough with Shostakovitch. After hearing the Leningrad symphony (yet again) at the Proms this week I know what he means.

Piano genius, local resident and Tanglewood festival veteran Peter Serkin regularly hangs out for brekky at a local diner with a few close buddies, including Emanuel (“Manny”) Ax. Stories fly like whipcracks over sunny-side-up eggs, pancakes and maple syrup:

“A blind guy goes to his first Seder (Passover meal)”, says M. Ax. “Someone passes round the matzah (unleavened bread).

The guy takes one and asks, “Who wrote this shit?”

This was closely followed by an allegedly true story about porn star “Misty” Beethoven, the punch line being along the lines of her real name being Dolores Beethoven. Do fill in as appropriate.

img_4565-nggid03247-ngg0dyn-320x240x100-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010Although nothing to do with Misty, and something of a geographical and temporal non-sequitur, the video “Red Room” I worked on with fabulous media artist Signe Klejs during my DIVA residency in Copenhagen a few months back, has just come out on The You Tube (as the older generation like to call it). It’s my song, with me singing and playing the piano, and the outfit is by young fashion talent Jane Christine Munch. The prossess (to borrow American terminology) is outlined in an earlier post.

Speaking of DIVA days, reports have seeped back from Copenhagen’s Athelas New Music Festival, where following the no-holes-barred performance of “Frappe” for baritone, piano and baseball bat by Nicolai Worsaae, there was an awkward situation viz a viz the piano rental company.

New Athelas Sinfonietta conductor in rez Pierre André Valade came up with the brilliant suggestion that the festival buys the piano, now seriously modified by baseball bat, but refuse to pay the full whack on the grounds that “it is in less than top condition”. Now there’s French diplomacy for you.

Thus bringing a crunching end to this week’s post, shortly to be followed by further news of escapades from the Tangled Wood…

 

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  • Norman Jacobs

    Brilliant, Zoe! x