The American Prince: Violinist Albert Spalding


A fresh-faced Spalding, taken before 1910.

The other day, I was listening to a WFMT radio special about Zino Francescatti on WFMT, where I’ve been working this summer. Bill McGlaughlin rattled off a list of other major 20th-century violinists: Heifetz, Menuhin, Szigeti, Elman—the usual suspects.

But there was one name sorely missing, as it always seemed to be: Albert Spalding. It’s not as though Spalding is a total unknown, but I still needed a happy accident to stumble upon his recordings, which I did about six months ago. In any case, I was immediately enraptured by his playing. Spalding has a direct, almost Heifetzian sound, but don’t be fooled: This is no silk-underwear music. Rather, his sound bursts with creative daring, personality, and warmth—qualities Heifetz’s playing often lacked.

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In Defence of the Encore

Another selection from Alan Wagner’s Prima Donnas and Other Wild Beasts to tide y’all through the weekday grind—

In Parma, that most demanding city of all, they still the story, perhaps even a true one, of the not-so-good tenor who came to sing Cavaradossi in Tosca. He made a hash of his first aria, “Recondita armonia,” and received a bare smattering of applause mixed in with which was an inexplicable call from the topmost gallery for an encore. The tenor smiled a successful smile and, stepping to the footlights, obliged with a second rendition of the aria that was if anything less rewarding than the first. This time the applause was virtually nonexistent, except for the same gentleman in the top gallery who clapped again and called out loudly, “Encore! Encore!” Once more the overjoyed singer repeated his horrible performance. The hush that followed this third butchery was ominous, until once again the same voice called down, “Encore! Encore! You’ll sing it until you learn it!” (125)

*metallic reality TV sound effect*

I guess you could say he got a . . . Parma-lling? (Pummelling. Pun.)

Independence Weekend at Ravinia, Part III

Her dress is on point.

Yuja Wang playing table tennis with Eric Jacobsen and The Knights early afternoon on July 6.

My first CD was a copy of Lang Lang’s Dragon Songs. I know—I’m a stereotype.

For those of you not familiar with this recording, it’s a collection of Chinese folk songs transcribed or reinterpreted for the piano. A double imperative to practice more piano and forget less of your culture.

Up till last Sunday, Dragon Songs was my only exposure to folk music performed in a serious, artistic context. I was initially drawn to The Knights’s concert July 5 at Ravinia because Dawn Upshaw was on the bill. She was my first Zerlina (Met 1990 ft. a spry James Levine and very sensual Samuel Ramey) on Youtube and I was excited to hear her instrument in person. I certainly didn’t expect one of the most eclectic, cohesive, and inventive programmes I had heard in a long time. That was a nice surprise.

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Trouble on the High Cs

You know those really lurid, satisfying exposés crammed with juicy anecdotes? I picked one up from the Reg (what we call The Joseph Regestein Library, that fount of misery and brutalism) on Sunday—Prima Donnas and Other Wild Beasts by Alan Wagner, which really says it all.

147 pages later I’ve found two Chicago-specific episodes, reproduced below for your reading pleasure:

In the 1880’s a troupe calling itself The Milan Grand Italian Opera Company was appearing in Chicago. The star of the company was Eva Cunnings, whose best role was the lead in Lucia di Lammermoor. On one particular evening things progressed in an orderly fashion until the orchestra played the cue for the heroine’s big Third Act entrance. Cummings didn’t appear. The chorus milled about on the stage in a nonplussed sort of way as the orchestra suppressed a wave of chortles and the audience grew restless. Still no Cummings, until finally the curtain was lowered. Signor Alberto Sarata, the manager of the company, came forward to announce that the soprano had suddenly become quite ill, too ill to continue, but that the opera would proceed without her. At precisely this moment the absent Miss Cummings suddenly appeared at the embarrassed impresario’s side and announced that she was in positively radiant health. All she wanted, she insisted, was her salary. The audience was divided, half cheering her and half hissing. Cummings bowed solemnly to one side of the the house, then to the other, and was about to follow her departed manager off the stage when she discovered that the curtains were being held tightly shut from behind. Flashing a smile at the audience, she walked with dignity to one of the wings, only to discover that the curtain was tightly shut there, too. She darted to the opposite wing. That also was held fast. By now her smile had turned to panic as she skipped from exit to exit in solitary splendor. To the intense amusement of the hysterical spectators she found them all shut tight. “I will get off this time anyhow!” she cried, and charged at the center opening in the curtain like a young bull. The draperies resisted for a moment, then gave way, sending the prima donna sprawling backstage. When the hilarity had subsided, the curtain rose on the final scene of the work, with Edgar of Ravenswood mourning the death of a Lucy who, this evening, had not exactly died, much as she might have liked to. (24-5)

According to The Milwaukee Sentinel, Miss Cumming’s ordeal took place at the former Grand Opera House on April 25, 1886.

And now, Exhibit B:

 . . . The most celebrated of these encounters, which became known in the press as “The Great Dressing Room Disturbance,” took place near the end of the last [19th] century in Chicago.

The principals were Minnie Hauk and Marie Roze, with the harried Colonel Mapleson once more in the middle. The opera that night was to be Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro with Hauk as Cherubino and Roze as Susanna. As might have been expected, they both wanted the prima donna dressing room. At three o’clock in the afternoon Hauk arrived at the theatre and supervised the placing of her trunks and costumes therein. At four P.M. Roze’s maid and husband arrived, removed Hauk’s things and installed their own. At five-thirty Hauk’s agent came by to check and discovered the switch. Once again the room was a scene of frenzied activity as he had Roze’s effects tossed out and Hauk’s returned, padlocking the place when he was done. Satisfied, he left, but the resourceful Marie Roze was not to be denied. She herself arrived at six, had a locksmith open the door, evicted Hauk’s costumes, installed hers and got dressed. When Hauk came to the theatre a half-hour later, she saw the room occupied and returned immediately to her hotel, refusing to sing. Perforce the opera began without her, although, in a rather anticlimactic fashion, her lawyers persuaded her to appear by the beginning of Act II. (51-2)

The Colonel’s memoirs state that it was in fact his lawyers who had been so persuasive. Alfred Theodore Andreas’s History of Chicago, Volume 3 records this performance as the 63rd season in Chicago since October 9, 1871. Figaro in particular ran from Jan. 13 to Feb. 1, 1879 at the former Haverly’s Theatre (later First National Bank Building, and still later the Chase Tower).

Yeah, this book is a riot.

Looking for Lalo

One-hit wonder: Who was Édouard Lalo, anyway?

It’s not too often one hears the music of French composer Édouard Lalo twice in one day. But it happened to me about two weeks ago, beginning with the all-too-familiar opening slashes of Symphonie espagnole, played by an amateur violinist in a luthier’s shop in the Fine Arts Building, and ending with Tanja Tetzlaff’s impassioned performance of Lalo’s Cello Concerto in D minor at Grant Park. (Review not written by me—but with which I mostly agree—here.)

The brilliance of the first work and the blah-ness of the second got me thinking. Though I’d sawed away at bits of the Symphonie espagnole, like any dutiful fiddler, I realized that I hadn’t been curious about the man behind the notes—until now. Even the irremediable cello concerto piqued my curiosity, as in it one can hear the strainings of a composer trying to outdo himself, to little success.

It made me wonder: What kind of man did Lalo have to be, gripped as he was with creative ingenuity for his Symphonie espagnole, only to have the rest of his output all but disappear from concert halls? Are there other gems to be discovered in his output, languishing under the shadow of the towering violin concerto? Or is Lalo forever damned to join the likes of Carl Orff and Paul Dukas as one of classical music’s one-hit wonders?

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Independence Weekend at Ravinia, Part II

I have brunch + matinee plans and what happens to me first thing in the morning? I’m trapped in my bathroom. Doorknob falls out and the lock is stuck. I try to break down the door, fail, and contemplate my mortality.

Roommate calls the landlord and I manage to escape. The Union North Metra takes me to Yundi. Wish I got the breakfast paella at avec but these Costco chicken tenders will have to do.

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Sun Gets In Your Eyes: Etiquette and Outdoor Concerts

The whole kitsch and ka-Doodle: the Grant Park Symphony on  July 4th.

The whole kitsch and ka-Doodle: the Grant Park Symphony on July 4th.

It was my second Grant Park outing, and I’d already found myself in the middle of a feud more scathing than the one between Wagner and Brahms.

It begins like this: I was blithely sitting near the front of the free-seating section of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion—about twenty rows back, for those unfamiliar with the set-up—eager to hear the world premiere of Kenji Bunch’s Symphony No. 3, Dream Songs. I’d recently written about it for Chicago Classical Review and was about to finally hear the piece.

I should have known I was in for trouble when I noticed that the Russian woman next to me had a knack for shushing any and all chit-chatters in our vicinity—which, because we were in the free section, was more than a few. First there were the teenage girls who meandered in, plopped in front of us, and proceeded to whisper to each other. They were mid-giggle when they were sternly tapped on the shoulder by my neighbor. “Later,” was the clipped directive.

After a second misdemeanor worthy of a shoulder-jabbing, the girls left, clearly taken aback. The policewoman of Section 101 was left to direct her shushing to another Russian family sitting behind her, this time making demands in her first language.

Little did I know it was all only a prelude for what was to come. A man and his girlfriend sat down in the row in front of me, off to my left. As he sat down, I noticed that he had a face tattoo: the word Victory, in curling script, on one temple.

They had only been sitting for a few seconds when the woman committed what was, according to the folks around me, next to cardinal sin: she pointed at the orchestra and said something—I don’t know what—louder than a whisper.

That’s all it took for both the Russian lady, the couple behind them, and someone else further down my row to lean towards them and let out a snarling, fortissimo Shhhhh! 

As though struck, her boyfriend swiveled around. “What the fuck is wrong with you people?” he cried.

And, even as I diligently pretended to pay undivided attention to the concert, I couldn’t help but echo the sentiment in my heart of hearts. What the fuck is wrong with us, anyway?

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