For today, a scenery picture. I could have continued the archaeological theme with an image of one of the fascinating bronze age stele in the museum at Riva del Garda, but it seemed like time to show the scenery. Because thunderstorms were predicted, we avoided the higher elevation Cima d’Oro hike in favor of the “gentle and exhilharating descent” from Lake Ledro along the Sentiero del Ponale to Riva del Garda, which sits at the northern end of the largest lake in Italy. We shared this route with quite a few mountain bikers, who had to exercise caution since an error in judgement could result in a spectacular fall hundreds of feet down to the lake.
Keeping the archeological theme going, today’s picture, from the southern shore of Lake Ledro in Trentino, Italy, was taken at the Museo de le Palefitte. When the level of the lake fell in the 1930’s, wooden pilings were discovered sticking up from the shore of the lake. It has been verified that these pilings supported a settlement that lasted from the neolithic age into the bronze age. The little museum (the goal of our hour-long hike from the opposite shore of the lake) has many interesting artifiacts, including some rare wooden pieces that would have rotted but were preserved for milennia by the boggy water. They have also reconstructed some dwellings, admittedly somewhat speculative since there was not a lot of evidence to go on, but they could draw from knowledge of similar settlements around Europe. I like this picture becuase if you look underneath the walkway to the modern hut, you can see some of the original pilings in the lake.
A Detail from one of the carved stones of the old Roman theatre in Verona. We saw several of these on the grounds of the ruins of the theatre (of which enough survives that they can mount classic plays during summertime). Temperatures were in the 90’s, so we faded faster than we would have liked, spent more time in the cool space inside the large churches, and deeply enjoyed the artisanal gelato that we found near the Ponte di Pietra.
This year, I am a weekly contributor to a group on Facebook called “A New Song Each Day”. The idea is to introduce fellow art song lovers to songs that they might not have known about. The posts may include links to video performances of the songs. For Saint Patrick’s Day, I made a recording with pianist Michael Misiurak of a setting of Yeats’s poem “The Fiddler of Dooney”, uploaded it to Youtube and posted the song to the group.
Stan Slocum, my Dad, had many interests and enthusiasms, but I’m going to talk about two of his greatest passions: the wide world, and the people who live in it.
Having grown up during the frugal era of the Depression and the gas rationing of World War II, Dad had to indulge his fascination with travel in unusual ways at first. In his mid-teens, he travelled alone by bicycle from his home in Rockaway Beach, New York, to visit his relatives in eastern Massachusetts. (His father allowed him to do this only after he had shown he could take the bicycle completely apart and put it back together again, which was a real accomplishment for a boy who grew up in the shadow of a very handy father but had inherited his mother’s affinity for people rather than machines).
When it came time to go to college, he set his sights beyond New York City, drawing a circle on the map at a distance that he thought could be a long day’s journey from New York, and looking at where that might take him. Deciding on Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, he developed his skills as a hitchhiker in order to save money making the trips back and forth. On one of these trips, a truck driver picked him up and admitted that he was unfamiliar with New York City, never having driven there, and since Dad was a native, would he mind driving once they got there. Dad happily obliged, omitting to mention that, although he had lived New York for the better part of two decades, he had never driven there either.
At Antioch Dad met my Mom, and they were married in their final year, knowing that, with the Korean War on, Dad would be entering the military upon graduation. Spared overseas service, Dad was able to take Mom with him to his duty stations in Baltimore and Alabama. Hearing Dad’s stories about the service, it sounds to me like it was a grand adventure in living in new places and meeting wonderful people who became lifelong friends. I met many of these people because travelling to visit them continued to be a passion for my Dad, along with trips to enticing destinations here and abroad.
He treasured the souvenirs of these travels. In his frugal bicycling and hitchhiking days, he would buy a newspaper in each new city so that he could cut out its nameplate and add it to his pinned up collection on his bedroom wall. After taking a photography course in the army, he took pictures, organizing them into narrated slide shows that have entertained audiences from our neighbors in Dansville, New York in the 60’s, to the Robin Run Community in the past few years. When he discovered the National Parks Passport program, he developed a new passion for visiting any national park he came near, so that he could add its stamp to his passport and move ahead in a competition with an army friend who had developed the same passion.
While he never was a serious gambler, he was fascinated by state lotteries, so if we passed through a state that had one, he would buy a ticket and find a way to hear if he had won. (I believe he convinced the clerk in one of the stores to call him with the winning number.) Once Indiana had begun its state lottery, Dad would scour the ground for lost change and, when he had saved up a dollar, he would use it to buy a lottery ticket, which never paid off.
He visited six continents in all, and made new friends even in these far-flung places. In Japan, Dad handed out copies of their photo Christmas card to anyone they met, and they formed a close friendship with the young woman who showed them around the Noritake factory, inviting her to visit them when she came to the United States, and cementing the friendship when her husband was posted in Chicago. After she had moved back to Japan, she timed a visit to Chicago to allow her to come to their 50th wedding anniversary in 2001.
It was at that celebration that I realized how all the visits to friends (always made with return invitations to visit Indianapolis, especially at the time of the 500 mile race), and all the photo Christmas cards sent faithfully each year, could pay off, as friends from high school, college, the army, his various jobs, the Clover Drive neighborhood, the newcomers club that they had joined when we moved here in 1968, and the church, all joined us here for the celebration.
His manner was warm, but could also be very straightforward. In college he was known as “Honest Stan”, partly because of his fulfillment of Antioch’s value of personal integrity, but also because he could be quite outspoken about what he thought was right regardless of whom it might offend or inconvenience. This could be helpful, as when he once had to fire an employee and made sure to tell the man just how he had failed to meet the job requirements, only to hear the man say how helpful it was to finally hear someone tell him these things. This trait could be frustrating as well, when in meetings he could be the sole thorn in the side who would speak up against something that everyone clearly wanted to pass.
We know that he would love to be here for this gathering of his friends. When we were in school he made a special effort to see us perform in any way, telling us that he was our “number one fan”. When I gave a speech at my graduation from sixth grade (a big deal in Dansville, New York), he always regretted that he couldn’t be there because he had to be working in Pennsylvania that day. And it saddens me now that he can’t hear me, Rick, and Ben give these talks today. But I know that, wherever he is, he’s proud of us.
Stan Slocum, my Dad, had many interests and enthusiasms, but I’m going to talk about two of his greatest passions: the wide world, and the people who live in it.
Having grown up during the frugal era of the Depression and the gas rationing of World War II, Dad had to indulge his fascination with travel in unusual ways at first. In his mid-teens, he travelled alone by bicycle from his home in Rockaway Beach, New York, to visit his relatives in eastern Massachusetts. (His father allowed him to do this only after he had shown he could take the bicycle completely apart and put it back together again, which was a real accomplishment for a boy who grew up in the shadow of a very handy father but had inherited his mother’s affinity for people rather than machines). Decades later, when Parkinson’s disease was limiting his mobility, he could still revel in the independence of riding his tricycle around Robin Run.
When it came time to go to college, he set his sights beyond New York City, drawing a circle on the map at a distance that he thought could be a long day’s journey from New York, and looking at where that might take him. Deciding on Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, he developed his skills as a hitchhiker in order to save money making the trips back and forth. On one of these trips, a truck driver picked him up and admitted that he was unfamiliar with New York City, never having driven there, and asked Dad to drive the truck once they arrived. Dad happily obliged, omitting to mention that, although he had lived New York for the better part of two decades, he had never driven there either.
At Antioch Dad met my Mom, and they were married in their final year, knowing that, with the Korean War on, Dad would be entering the military upon graduation. Spared overseas service, Dad was able to take Mom with him to his duty stations in Baltimore and Alabama. Hearing Dad’s stories about the service, it sounds to me like it was a grand adventure in living in new places and meeting wonderful people who became lifelong friends. I met many of these people because travelling to visit them continued to be a passion for my Dad, at first on road trips, and later by air. One year, he and my mother bought passes on Continental Airlines which allowed them to fly anywhere in the system for an entire year, with restrictions on the number of flights one could take in a single week, and on how often one could fly in or out of a particular airport. He was determined to get as much as he could for his money, so he arranged long trips, or flights into and out of airports within a few hours’ drive of Indianapolis, so they visited not only Continental’s more exotic destinations, but the cities whose major distinction was that a friend from college, the army, or a previous job lived there. I think they were away more than they were at home during that year.
In later years they took Elderhostel tours or organized their own travel, visiting six continents in all, and managing to make new friends even in these far-flung places. In Japan, Dad handed out copies of their photo Christmas card to anyone they met, and they formed a close friendship with the young woman who showed them around the Noritake factory, inviting her to visit them when she came to the United States, and cementing the friendship when her husband was posted in Chicago for some years. She timed a visit to Chicago from Japan so that she could be at their 50th wedding anniversary celebration in 2001. They also formed ties with several Australian couples that they met on a tour of China, paving the way for a lengthy trip they made to Australia to visit these people, and for some of the Australians to come visit them here.
Any time we would visit someone there would eventually come my father’s pitch to the hosts to visit us in Indianapolis, with a vivid description of the festivities around the Indianapolis 500, and quite a few people who probably never thought they would travel to see an auto race did in fact come then, often making a houseful that could spill into cots in the basement and people sleeping in the camping trailer in the backyard.
One of my favorite stories of Dad inviting someone to our house occurred when we were living in upstate New York and were taking a vacation in New England, visiting his relatives and seeing sights, including a small skyscraper in Montpelier, Vermont. We rode up in the elevator with a young Asian man and by the time we were riding down after the visit, Dad knew the man’s name and that he was from Malaysia, and he eventually arranged with some Massachusetts cousins to bring him along with them when they came to visit us later that summer. Jimmy Bowie stayed with us for about a week and we no doubt took him to Niagara Falls and some of the more bucolic attractions in the area. He got to see a part of the United States that he might otherwise have missed, and we got to think of Malaysia as not just a place on the map but as someone’s home.
Dad had a special rapport with children, being in some ways a big kid himself deep down. He loved dressing up as Santa Claus for friends’ kids and eventually for his own grandchildren, managing to keep them somewhat unsure for some years as to whether there might really be a Santa Claus. He could also use his adult persona to play games, telling children there could be “no smiling” with such a silly grim face that of course the children couldn’t help giggling. When we finished our supper he would feign disbelief and insist that we must have thrown it on the floor. This had its downside, as more than once we would be visiting someone and he would wind up the hosts’ children with such laughter and fun that bedtime could be a real struggle as they insisted on more of “Mr. Slocum.”
His manner was warm, but could also be very straightforward. In college he was known as “Honest Stan”, partly because of his fulfillment of Antioch’s value of personal integrity, but also because he could be quite outspoken about what he thought was right regardless of whom it might offend or inconvenience. He told me a story from his days as a personnel manager when he had to lay someone off. He gave the man very specific reasons for why his performance had not been satisfactory, only to have the man say how helpful it was that someone would finally tell him these things, as no one else had done so. This could be frustrating as well, when in meetings he could be the sole thorn in the side who would speak up against something that everyone clearly wanted to pass.
While he enjoyed physical activities like ping-pong and water skiing, he particularly liked games that mixed human interaction with strategy, such as bridge and poker. While he never was a serious gambler, he was fascinated by state lotteries. He would scour the ground for lost change and, when he had saved up a dollar, he would use it to buy a lottery ticket, which never paid off. For years he would buy a lottery ticket for each family member’s Christmas stocking. There would usually be one winner, who rarely won even as much money as all the lottery tickets had cost in the first place, but I can’t think of a better way for the grandchildren to learn how unlikely one is to get rich by winning the lottery than by years of seeing how many tickets lose.
The Parkinsons disease that he developed in the final ten years of his life slowed him down but he continued to travel when he could and he always enjoyed getting to know people, and I know that having so many good people to meet and talk with here at Robin Run was a great joy to him. We all knew that, as the disease progressed, it would be more and more difficult for him to travel and to talk with people, and so, while the leukemia that took him from us last week shocked us with its speed, we are glad that he was spared the continued decline in quality of life for such a vibrant and positive-thinking man as Stan Slocum. In his final days at the hospital and finally at the hospice we could only communicate with him in a limited way, but we hope that, as he saw death approach, he was experiencing it in the way that Robin Run resident Samuel Pugh described in his poem:
So this is Death!
This calm, this joy
This newborn sense of peace
‘Til now unknown
So this is Death—
No Pain, no grief,
No fear of anything
That life has shown.
So this is Death;
No breath, no speech,
No hurry through the hours
‘Til day is done.
So this is Death.
I feared it so;
But now I find that Life
Has just begun.
Much as I enjoyed hearing Mark Padmore at the Schwarzenberg Schubertiad this past June, I might not have made the effort to schedule a visit to San Francisco this past weekend in part to hear them, had I not noticed that these two concerts (with slightly different performers) will be given again this week at Wigmore Hall and later this month in Amsterdam. In June I had been highly impressed by Padmore’s performance of the Heine-Lieder from Schubert’s Schwanengesang with pianist Paul Lewis, less so by his performance of the Beethoven songs on their program, including the cycle An die ferne Geliebte, both of which would appear on one or the other of these two programs. But San Francisco is so much easier for me to visit than London, and I had such warm memories of the entire Schwarzenberg experience, that Mark Padmore felt rather like family as well, so I couldn’t resist the chance to hear these performers in advance of their appearances in Europe.
These performances are two in a series of four that have been “curated” by the young pianist Jonathan Biss who, depending upon which venue is telling the story, was invited by either San Francisco Performances or Wigmore Hall (or perhaps both, but no one is saying that) to dream up a series of recitals and concerts on any theme he liked. For reasons that he eloquently explains in “A Pianist Under the Influence,” an essay of about 35 pages in a Kindle edition available from Amazon, he chose to build the series around Robert Schumann, including composers who influenced him and those who are influenced by him. Essentially, Biss feels deeply connected with Schumann as a very vulnerable man and musician and in exploring Schumann’s music, he feels he is exploring his own personal depths. Sitting in the second row one evening and the fourth row the other evening, I found this connection to be readily apparent, and it was easy to be drawn into it myself.
In a Skype interview before the first recital, Padmore commented that the recital that opened the series here (and will come second in London) had not been selling well because it was neither a piano recital (although it featured a lovely, heartfelt performance of Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major) nor a vocal recital (since the only vocal piece was An die ferne Geliebte, which is quoted in the Fantasie). Indeed, the audience in San Francisco was not as large as it could/should have been, and the anecdotal evidence of an overheard conversation in the restaurant beforehand suggested that the presence of the principal clarinetist from the San Francisco Symphony in the chamber pieces of the first half was as much of a draw as anything. (The chamber ensemble will have different members in Europe). So, while Saturday’s recital, which featured a familiar pairing of Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Schubert’s Heine Lieder from Schwanengesang, but also a solo piano performance of Schumann’s late Gesänge der Frühe and the rather unexpected Sieben Frühe Lieder of Alban Berg, can be approached as a fairly standard Lieder recital, the other is best viewed as an evening in which Robert Schumann is truly at the center, and the performers are all at the service of his music or of music with a clear connection to him.
As a singer, I don’t feel qualified to give an in-depth review of the chamber pieces in the first half of the first recital, other than to say that Märchenerzählungen, Op. 132, is an absolutely lovely piece of music from late in Schumann’s life. The demons were closing in upon him, but I heard little if any of that in the four movements of this piece, performed by Biss on the piano with Carey Bell on the clarinet and Scott St. John on viola. The same ensemble filled out the first half with Gyorgy Kurtág’s Hommage à Robert Schumann, a set of nervous pieces that sounded like they were in fact depicting the psychological subtext underneath the sweetness of that late work by Schumann, ending with a very soft tap upon a bass drum by the clarinetist. On the whole, the mix of instrumental colors was quite satisfying, and the ensemble sounded good to me.
The second half featured Schumann’s familiar Fantasie in C Major, opus 17, written early in Schumann’s career when he was finding his way in a musical world still dominated by the titanic figure of Beethoven. Schumann had been excited by the idea of creating a great physical monument to Beethoven but the monument eventually took the form of this piano piece, with its thematic quote from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte. It was this cycle, peformed by Biss and Mark Padmore, that opened the second half. Padmore’s signature style of vocal production features pure tones with limited vibrato, and if anything at all is interfering with this production, the high notes or forte passages may sound rough or constrained, as they had to me in some of the Beethoven songs he sang in Schwarzenberg. But for whatever reason (increased familiarity with the cycle, better vocal health, a more relaxed atmosphere in the San Francisco audience, a special connection with the pianist), he absolutely nailed the piece this time. His voice moved perfectly smoothly through the registers and dynamic changes, and his gestures and facial expressions were alive but not tense, always clearly connected to the music and words. Because the vocal lines and words are so simple in all six songs, much of the interest in the piece comes from the details in the piano line, and Biss’s accompaniment added what needed to be added without overpowering the vocal line.
The recital that had begun with three musicians on stage and diminished to two, now closed with Jonathan Biss alone with the Steinway, channeling Florestan and Eusebius (Schumann’s names for two aspects of his own psyche) as he deeply felt Schumann’s coming to terms with the greatness of Beethoven. The emotion was quite evident as he removed his glasses to wipe his eyes after finishing the first movement, then went on to execute the famously difficult jumps in the second movement, closing with the serenity and beauty of the final movement, to much appreciative applause.
The second recital (which will be the first performed at Wigmore Hall) consisted entirely of songs (although the first set, Gesänge der Fruhe, Opus 133, were songs in name only, since they are solo piano pieces). As with the first recital, the program began with a very late piece whose loveliness belies the inner torment of Schumann’s life at the time. They are dedicated “To Diotima”, the platonically beloved subject of some of the poems of another troubled soul, Friedrich Hölderlin. There is plenty of emotion in these pieces (which, according to Schumann, “depict the emotions on the approach and advance of morning”) which was fully expressed in Biss’s sensitive performance. Biss finds the harmonics in this piece to foreshadow those of Berg, so he chose to pair it with the latter’s Sieben Frühe Lieder, which will be performed in Europe by soprano Camilla Tilling, but, for economic reasons, was performed by Padmore in San Francisco. This was the only piece on either program that Padmore did not perform entirely from memory (presumably because he does not expect this set, which is usually performed by a female singer, to become part of his permanent repertoire), but his use of the score did not interfere with his connection to the music or to the audience. Remaining true to his vocal style, he sang these pieces with pure tones that moved smoothly through the registers, with fine diction and phrasing. While I could fault nothing in his performance, my aesthetic preference would be for more overtones and a wider variety of tonal color in this music. However, for one of my companions, this piece was the highlight of the evening, and I am grateful to Padmore for taking on the risk of singing this piece and mastering it as he did.
Biss’s programming concept called for the intermission to occur at this point, but it had been announced that the intermission would in fact follow the next set, which was the Heine-Lieder from Schubert’s Schwanengesang. I am guessing that this change was made to allow Padmore a break where he most needed it, since, as in Schwarzenberg, Padmore’s performance of these six songs was highly dramatic, introducing a good deal more vibrato into the forte passages than I had heard at any other point in either the San Francisco or Schwarzenberg programs, beginning with the tempest of “Der Atlas” and concluding with a very spooky “Der Doppelgänger”.
After the intermission, Biss and Padmore returned to present a thoughtful and expressive Dichterliebe. Again, Padmore’s connection with the emotions and music was complete and authentic. Did I understand the cycle any better afterward than I had before? Not really, but, after studying it and hearing numerous performances of it, I still find it deliberately open-ended and tantalizingly ambiguous, as is so much of Heine’s poetry. For me, the cycle is about the journey through the “poet’s love”, bewildering, frustrating, stimulating, challenging, and enlivening, and the performers caught all of these. My one concern was that in some places Padmore’s lower register notes, while fully supported and well produced, were just audible above the piano from where I was sitting in the fourth row. This may have just been slight mismatch between a singer with whose normal voice production is light and pure, and a solo pianist with a fully open Steinway grand at his command as he channeled a Romantic composer. For the most part, the collaboration between Biss and the other artists, in particular Padmore, was rich and sensitive. As would be expected, he brought much to the all-important postludes of the songs, particularly in the manic “Das ist ein Flöten”, and taking a long, expressive pause between the dramatic ending of the sung section of “Die alten, bösen Lieder” and the harmonic shift that leads into the reprise of the achingly tender postlude to “Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen” that closes the cycle, during which Padmore stood very still, his eyes seeming to look into the casket at the poet’s buried loves. As the two artists embraced at the conclusion of the music, both sets of eyes appeared to be moist, and I had the sense that we in the audience were not the only ones who had been moved by it.
After several enthusiastic curtain calls, the artists returned to cheer us up with an encore that, as Padmore announced from the stage, is an “almost happy song” from Schumann and Heine: “Die Lotosblume”, which was as tenderly and smoothly executed as the Dichterliebe songs had been.
A microsite for the Schumann Under the Influence series (including performance dates at various venues) can be found at http://www.jonathanbiss.com/schumann/.