Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Music According to Benedict: "Tristan and Isolde: Prelude" by Wagner

"Tristan and Isolde with the Potion" J.W. Waterhouse

"Prelude to Tristan and Isolde" - Richard Wagner
"Yes,  it's widely acknowledged as one of the peaks of the operatic repertory, notable for Wagner's advanced use of chromaticism, tonality, orchestral colour and harmonic suspension... But it just makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Reminds me of the best of Beethoven and Mozart and the best of what's to come in Strauss and Rachmaninoff. So, a milestone as well as a gut wrencher. The recording of this one that I'm currently wearing out is the BBC Orchestra's."
- Benedict Cumberbatch, Top Tunes, Two Paddocks 

There are so many types of music that we just "like" without much consideration. Your mind takes in a changing musical landscape - from your morning alarm with dance tracks, your commute playlist with indie hits, sounds of summer on weekends -  and maybe coffeehouse tunes in the evening before you go to bed. (Throw in a few guilty pleasure tracks that NO ONE is supposed to see in your smartphone - just because you need them.)

You know what you like.

All of those genres I listed are pretty easy go-to tracks, depending on where you are and what you're doing. Maybe you heard the music in Starbucks or you remember a concert from college. You find music that matches your mood and go with it. You change the station if it doesn't work.

Classical music? Opera? For most of us, it doesn't work quite that way. I think we have definite ideas about both:

  • It's elitist. 
  • It's expensive.
  • It's for the elderly.
  • It requires education before enjoyment. 

When I heard about opera or classical music as a child, I thought of public radio playing either in my eye doctor's waiting room or in the historic homes on manicured boulevards where homeowners tended to their silver-streaked hair or luxury sedan in the drive. With that preconception came the belief that conversation about that music involved spending more money, dressing up for a night at the "theater", studying music history, understanding genres and terminology - and being able to identify composers as if playing a symphonic "Name That Tune."


Who decided that? We enjoy contemporary songs with lyrics we can't understand, technology that alters a voice beyond recognition, and remixes that defy explanation. There isn't a pre-listening quiz nor post-concert exam - and a credit report isn't required to be approved to like any musical genre. Who determined that symphonic music couldn't move us as much as a ballad from a romantic comedy or a break-up song from a singer/songwriter?

Perhaps we did.

Yes, theater tickets do cost money, but there are usually discount prices for students and seniors, and, occasionally, programs and events for people in their 20s and 30s and newcomers to classical music.

If you want to brush up on your Schubert or learn more about Liszt, you can search online for resources and information, even sign up for online classes offered by Coursera, for example. I liked the informal approach taken by advice website, Primer, "How to Talk About Classical Music," - just keep in mind this lifestyle site's mission: "A Guy's Post-College Guide to Growing Up."

Cumberbatch's contemporary and retro song choices are usually ones we're quick to recognize and appreciate, and, I believe fans like classical music more in part to Cumberbatch's longtime friendship with pianist, entrepreneur, philanthropist (and new author James Rhodes. This selection is a natural progression, although you could get either get lost in the information available about Richard Wagner ("Wagner scholars" are referenced online) or you can just shake your head and step away, saying, "Nope. Not for me."

So. What am I going to do? Let you decide.

When it comes to this selection from Two Paddocks, what you might want to know is that this is part of an opera based on a tragic love story, and it became a BIG deal. Wagner's life also had its own share of drama if you check out this timeline. He was a busy, busy man.

If you want to learn how this opera came to be, and more about Wagner, I liked the University of Texas site: https://www.utexas.edu/courses/tristan/index.html which includes so much to explore. One of my favorite passages about the Prelude includes this explanation from the composer:
Wagner writes of the Prelude that there is “henceforth no end to the yearning, longing, rapture, and misery of love: world, power, fame, honor, chivalry, loyalty, and friendship, scattered like an insubstantial dream; one thing alone left living: longing, longing unquenchable, desire forever renewing itself, craving and languishing; one sole redemption: death, surcease of being, the sleep that knows no waking!” 
An explanation of the "Tristan Chord" is provided, as well as the "Tristan" motive. (Did I mention Wagner became a very, very BIG deal?) Vincent Vargas' description:
"Tristan und Isolde was the most complex opera written at the time and it remains one of the most intricate works in the canon. Born out of the composer's new theories of composition, fueled by his love for Mathilde von Wesendonck, the beautiful wife of a wealthy silk merchant of Zurich who helped Wagner through one of his many financial crises, and deeply influenced by the dark, pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. The work became the pinnacle of the Romantic movement, and at the same time, its ultimate challenge. As composer Richard Strauss wrote: "Tristan und Isolde marked the end of all romanticism. Here the yearning of the entire 19th century is gathered in one focal point." Tristan und Isolde is a turning point not only in opera, but in western art and music. Leave it to Wagner to bring a movement to its zenith and then destroy it."
Oh, one other thing: the opera is FIVE HOURS long. FIVE. There's a well-written Guardian article that tells you how impressed a first date might be - and beautifully describes how Wagner's music, composed from 1857-1859, echoes this tale of adulterous love - and, yes, tragedy, from the 12th century.

You know what, though? You don't need to do all that right now. You can click the links, search the sites and take in as much or as little as you want, but all you need to do now?

Just listen. This is a BBC version (which Benedict mentioned he was "wearing out."

To me, it really is moving, beautiful - and timeless - and I don't need to know more than that.


Spoiler alert:

(Benedict Cumberbatch is an eloquent, erudite, educated man, but perhaps doesn't always express opinions that are, shall we say, uniquely his own:

I waited to write about this particular selection in part because of Benedict Cumberbatch's first sentence in the description provided to Two Paddocks. Oh, it covered all the bases in terms of telling you about the importance of the work, but it just sounded a little, well, elitist. Posh. Snobbish. I linked to definitions because the terminology isn't commonly used in conversation. In fact, it wasn't until Benedict wrote about his physical reaction to the song that he sounded like the music lover we've observed in other interviews.

Well, it turns out there may be a very good reason:

This is the Wikipedia entry for "Tristan und Isolde" I scanned as I prepared to get into the nuts and bolts of researching Richard Wagner. You can read the entry, taking time to note the second paragraph:
"Widely acknowledged as one of the peaks of the operatic repertoire, Tristan was notable for Wagner's unprecedented use of chromaticism, tonality, orchestral colour and harmonic suspension."

Look familiar? If not, go back to the top of this post, then come back.

It seems finding a way to describe Wagner's composition effectively and efficiently made this particular statement rather popular: a Google search of the phrase "Wagner's advanced use of chromaticism, tonality, orchestral colour and harmonic suspension" will return over 176,000 results - in less than one second.

So, Benedict isn't alone - and that's why his description of this choice perfectly illustrates the challenge of talking about classical music. People don't always know what to say, and there is almost always pressure to sound like you KNOW enough to speak conversationally and intelligently about, well, a series of dots, dashes, ovals and lines on paper read by people who make sounds with various instruments while watching a guy up front wave his arms about.

Let's just listen - without judgment. Music of all genres is meant to be a universal language, if we take the time to interpret it for ourselves.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

REVIEW: "Wish I Was Here" - Small Moments on the Big Screen

Theatrical Release Poster

Wish I Was Here

Director: Zach Braff
Starring: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Ashley Greene, Donald Faison
Rating: R (language & brief nudity)
Opens: July 18

Distribution: Focus Features

Zach Braff wanted to tell a story - and he didn't want others to tell him how to tell it. Critical and commercial success as an actor, director, or screenwriter doesn't give a person much more control over outside forces.  If you're lucky, however, it does afford a bit more control over what YOU want to do - and you find people who want to help.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Music According to Benedict: "I Am The Resurrection" & "Fools Gold" by The Stone Roses

The Stone Roses (courtesy coolalbumreview.com)

"I Am the Resurrection" and "Fools Gold" by the Stone Roses
"...they stand side by side on the album and are inseparably brilliant. I went to Manchester University partly on an insane surge of nostalgia from when I discovered these mischievous mancs and their Madchester ways! God bless the Happy Mondays and Joy Division and all the other Tony Wilson 'Factory' recorded bands." 
- Benedict Cumberbatch, Top Tunes - Two Paddocks

Friday, July 11, 2014

Music According to Benedict N° 7: "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder

"For all those whose weddings I have danced at and have yet to dance at! What a great groove from a master at the height of his powers. Thanks to Martin Freeman for properly introducing me to the full brilliance of [Stevie Wonder]. - Benedict Cumberbatch

Thanks to Martin Freeman, indeed - for this and many other things he's properly introduced to Benedict (adding a bit of polish to his red carpet style, perhaps?)

As gossip sites again circulate whispers of a girlfriend for our favorite actor (because what publication doesn't use his name to generate web hits?) and we enter wedding season, this song's lyrics seem possibly more suited for Halloween than a wedding reception, BUT who are we to argue? I've not attended a wedding with Mr. Cumberbatch, although I've a feeling fans think about him in formal wear  now and again. . .

. . .are you picturing Sherlock at John & Mary's wedding reception? Oh, alright then. Here you go:

Music According to Benedict Nº 5 – James Rhodes' "Clair de lune" by Claude Debussy

Do you really love music?

I mean, REALLY love music? I'm not asking you to tell me. It's not a formal inquiry - I promise. I'm asking you to be honest - with you. You have your ear candy music - the stuff that makes you sing or dance or remember a moment at a special place, or with a special someone. When you hear those first few notes of a song that takes you back - THAT'S the good stuff: the REALLY good stuff. It's the music you'll hum long after your hearing is gone. (Keep that in mind when Eminem or Justin Bieber land in your memory banks.)

Music According to Benedict Nº 4 - the Rolling Stones

A quick check of interviews with Benedict in which he's asked to "list favorites" almost always includes his admission that the list would change if he's asked again the next day - and that lists are, well, a bit challenging for him. In fact, in true Cumberbatch fashion, he admitted as much to the folks at Two Paddocks who asked for his Top 10 favorite songs.  Two Paddocks, by the way, is the vineyard in New Zealand co-founded by actor Sam Neill - not that it's unusual for actors to venture into the vineyard. We've learned through media coverage that Ben enjoys the fruit of the vine every now and again:

Here, at Ben Caring's birthday at Annabel's, London in Oct. 2012 (photo courtesy GQ Magazine UK)

Books for Prisoners - Obstacles & Options

During Oz Comic-Con in Adelaide, Australia, actor (and book aficionado) Benedict Cumberbatch was quoted as saying that “prisoners should be given books," encouraging the audience to "send books to prisoners.”


While Americans (like me) may have first thought their favourite TV detective was just being considerate of those serving time behind bars, and others believed it a call for compassion from an actor to his ever-increasing number of fans, news-savvy audience members (especially those in the UK) knew better. This wasn’t just an “Oh, isn’t he thoughtful!” moment, but a call to action - and criticism of a current situation. However, before you go through your bookshelves or do your spring cleaning and box up volumes to drop off at the nearest detention center, let me fill you in a bit so you can find the best way to follow Cumberbatch’s suggestion.