Andrew Porter Dies

By Tom Huizenga

Critic and opera translator Andrew Porter directs singer Nikki Einfeld during a rehearsal of a Canadian Opera Company production of Mozart's Magic Flute in Toronto in 2005.

Critic and opera translator Andrew Porter directs singer Nikki Einfeld during a rehearsal of a Canadian Opera Company production of Mozart’s Magic Flute in Toronto in 2005.

Tannis Toohey/Toronto Star

Andrew Porter, a renowned music critic and scholar and translator of opera, died early today in London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. His twin sister, Sheila Porter, told NPR his death was the result of complications from pneumonia. He was 86.

Among an unusually wide range of pursuits, Porter is perhaps best known in the United States for a two-decade stint as music critic of The New Yorker that concluded in 1992. He often took readers on expansive routes to his main subjects. In writing about soprano Beverly Sills’ farewell performance, Porter opens a window into her entire career, her vocal traits and the operas she sang. In reviewing of a series of Beethoven concerts by pianist Alfred Brendel in 1983, Porter explores not just the performer and the music but a wide swath of other pianists, some judged without reserve:

“In May, Vladimir Horowitz played a recital in the Metropolitan Opera House that began with a grotesque Opus 101 (which Brendel played the week before), distorted as if to validate the contentious conclusion of the New Grove entry on him: ‘Horowitz illustrates that an astounding instrumental gift carries no guarantee about musical understanding.’ Then came Schumann’s Carnaval — clattery and pointlessly eccentric. A Chopin group after intermission brought some traces of the old wizard. The thumbnail characterizations in The Book of the Piano say of Horowitz that ‘even at his most provocative and controversial, he compels his critics to suspend judgment, listen, and marvel.’ Not this time.”

Tim Page, former music critic of The Washington Post and now a professor of music and journalism at USC, says that first and foremost Porter was a scholar. “Some thought perhaps the scholarship sometimes overtook the criticism because he included so much background information,” Page says. It was a departure for a New Yorker music critic.

“He really changed the definition of the gig in that he really examined music in great detail and taught you a lot about music,” Page says. “He also had a lot of space to write.”

Composer Virgil Thomson, a critic himself, said of Porter: “Never before has The New Yorker had access through music to so distinguished a mind.”

Porter was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1928. As a teenager he studied organ at University College, Oxford. His career as a critic began in London with contributions to newspapers including the Daily Telegraph and The Times. In 1952 he joined the Financial Times. Porter also wrote for Gramophone and Opera magazine, the latter of which he served as a contributor, associate editor and editorial board member over the course of more than 60 years. His New Yorker career began with a one-season temporary appointment in 1972-73; after a stint in England he returned to the magazine in 1974. His New Yorker reviews were collected into five books, including his A Musical Season.

Porter was also active in broadcasting and took radio seriously. Page, an undergraduate at Columbia University’s student station WKCR in the late 1970s, remembers the older critic as a regular listener.

“We’d have Elliott Carter, Frederic Rzewski and Philip Glass on the air and then we’d see an article about it in The New Yorker.” Page says Porter initially embraced the minimalism movement but in time cooled toward it.

Opera was one of Porter’s primary fixations. He wrote librettos for Bright Sheng’s The Song of Majnun and John Eaton’s The Tempest. Porter also created English translations of numerous operas, including works by Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Haydn and Wagner’s entire Ring cycle. The latter was recorded by conductor Reginald Goodall and described by the BBC as “one of the greatest achievements of Wagner interpretation on disc.”

“I always try to translate in a way that sings,” Porter told broadcaster Bruce Duffie in 1988. “It’s not something one can achieve, but it is an aim to translate in such a way that the words sing along with the music almost as if they’d been written that way.” Porter’s translation of Mozart’s Magic Flute has been widely performed.

Verdi, too, was an obsession. Porter’s scholarship unearthed the original, complete version of Don Carlos in the library of the Paris Opéra.

As a critic, Porter had strong opinions about his occupation. He felt editors should never make cuts. If the piece needed to be shortened, it should be trimmed by the critic: “That way you keep control of it.” Porter also knew many of the people he wrote about, “which is not the custom in the United States,” Page says. “But he felt it gave him further insight into the music and the scene.”

Porter was always truly interested in the music, Page says: “He never soured.” In a 1979 review, Porter expressed his enthusiasm for his craft as a critic.

“Musicians delight in sharing their discoveries and enthusiasm,” Porter wrote. “Performers champion works they love. And one of the rewards of a music critic’s life is being able to share delight with more than an immediate circle of acquaintances.”

And so many people are grateful Porter did just that for so many years.

Up For Auction

By Mark Mobley

Timpani are also called kettledrums. These instruments crafted by Antonio Stradivari were, for a time, more kettles than drums.

DEA Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images

Museum curators, instrument dealers and some of the world’s most esteemed musicians will be clutching paddles today at Cloiduff’s auction house in New York. They’re gathering for what is expected to be an eight-figure sale of perhaps the rarest instruments ever to appear at auction: a pair of lovingly restored Stradivarius timpani.

The instruments — also known as kettledrums — were lost roughly a century after they were built by Cremonese master luthier Antonio Stradivari, whose violins, cellos and especially violas now sell for millions or even tens of millions of dollars. The drums were rediscovered late last year at the Vatican by Cardinal Johannes Feddersen during a routine inventory of kitchen equipment.

The two copper bowls, 26 inches and 29 inches in diameter, were secreted for decades behind a vast array of pasta-making and cannoli-filling machines. Apparently the vessels had been used to make not music but soups favored by early 19th-century Pope Honorius V, a native of Tuscany affectionately known to the masses as Il Papa Zuppa, The Soup Pope, due to his love of tortellini in broth and pesce d’aprile, a cold dessert soup containing Swedish Fish.

“It’s an astonishing discovery,” said Metropolitan Philharmonic Principal Timpanist David Sheppard, who supervised the cleaning and restoration of the instruments. “Once we were able to remove the remaining traces of pasta and parmesan, all we needed to do was stretch calfskin for the heads. We actually found cattle grazing in the same forest where Stradivari sourced the wood for his violins.”

The Fiemme Valley in the Italian Alps is known to historians as Il Bosco Che Suona, or The Musical Woods.

The mysteries that have perplexed musicologists since the unlikely emergence of these drums include: Why did Stradivarius make timpani? Did he make any more? And why did they fall out of use? Some answers appear to have been hidden in plain sight — in a piece that has intrigued scholars since the beginning of the Baroque revival nearly a century ago.

For decades, musicologists had assumed that one of the most unusual of the more than 500 concertos by Vivaldi, “Il Cammelo” (The Camel) in G major, was for double bass. Its most curious feature is a solo part that consists of only two notes, G and D, played over and over and over. Vivaldi’s biographers have long assumed he composed the piece for a Venetian nobleman and amateur bassist of modest gifts named Gianluca Wimpani. It now appears the W on the title page was erroneously substituted for the correct T by a copyist long ago.

“This shows the piece in a whole new light,” Sheppard said. He will play the work on the Stradivarius timpani with the Metropolitan Philharmonic during the Governors Island Beach Bach Brunch in June. “And it explains the subtitle. Back in the 1400s, Mongols and Turks had armies with timpanists riding on camels. Those were the days.”

The piece also contains the key to its composition and first performance. Thanks to markings etched on the drums, scholars now believe Stradivarius crafted them especially for Giorgio Della Giungla, an adventurer, strongman and musician whom Stradivarius referred to in his diary as “amico per te e me” (friend to you and me).

“Della Giungla played a number of instruments, and quite well, but he was best known for riding elephants,” said Yale University symbologist B. Reid Morris. “There is no record of him on camelback.” The Stradivarius timpani appear to have fallen into disuse when, after repeated collisions while swinging from tree to tree on vines in the instrument maker’s beloved Musical Woods, Della Giungla had a fatal encounter with an heirloom spruce. “People tried to warn him,” Morris said, “but as usual it was too late.”

How the Vatican came to acquire the Stradivarius drums is unknown. What is certain is that they were put away after the death of Honorius V and the election of Pope Honorius VI, who preferred the more substantial cuisine of his native Milan.

The key questions that remain are: Do the Stradivarius timpani sound as beautiful as the Stradivarius violins? And are they worth the $10 million or $20 million or even $30 million or more that they could fetch at auction?

“You just have to hear them,” Sheppard said. “When I play Also sprach Zarathustra with the Philharmonic, I swear I feel like I’m Itzhak Perlman. Only louder. And in the back of the orchestra.”

Future Brown

By Andy Battaglia

Future Brown is a post-human, post-geographical electronic music collective that is both decidedly human and highly geographical. The four main members hail from far afield (Los Angeles, New York, Kuwait) but live most fully in the drifting state that artists can inhabit when they work the global circuit right. Fatima Al Qadiri is the best-known, with releases on the U.K. labels Fade To Mind and Hyperdub and extra-musical membership in the GCC, a conceptual art project that addresses hyper-real life in the Persian Gulf. Alongside her are Daniel Pineda and Asma Maroof of the club-minded duo Nguzunguzu and J-Cush (of the New York label Lit City Trax). The particulars of the roster, however, are less important than the overall sense that these musicians have a lot going on in many different spheres.

Rappers abound, as well, to fantastic effect. As is the custom in the genre of grime and what gets wrangled together under the catchall term “bass music,” mic duties are handed over to a rotating cast and crew, with rhymes flying over beats that strive to sound cohesive and unique. “Room 302” opens with sass and force courtesy of Tink, who invites an otherwise happily attached paramour to stray and avail himself of her many charms (“I know you wanna hit that,” she raps, before continuing, “I’m trying to seduce you, I’ve got a couple hundred ways I can use you”). “Talkin Bandz” follows on a weightier and more concussive note with a heavily AutoTuned DJ Victoriouz slurring alongside fellow Chicagoan Shawnna. Swerving severely again, “Big Homie” pits posse vocals by Sicko Mobb against a dainty sort of digital calypso, complete with a simulacrum of a steel drum.

The rapping taps into a wide variety of techniques and moods, but the production underneath does at least as much work. The guiding principles are a devotion to spacious, fractious beats and allusions to worldly sounds re-imagined for a borderless state of mind. Most common is a kind of all-over worldliness employed by Fatima Al Qadiri on her 2014 album Asiatisch, which plays with notions of Eastern melodies delivered by synthesized strings. But other examples proliferate, from the reggaeton lilt of “Vernaculo” to the Miami-bass-grade boom of “Killing Time.” Track by track, with different rappers enlisted, it makes for multiplicity, kind of like a mixtape. As a whole, it’s future music for a world faithful to a sense of place, but eager to explore new orbits.

Fifth Harmony

MPAA Rating
Genre
Pop, R&B, Rap/Hip-Hop
Record Label
Epic, Syco Music
RELEASED
February 3, 2015
Reviewer
Adam R. Holz
Fifth Harmony

Fifth Harmony

Reflection

Simon Cowell no longer enjoys the kind of cultural power he wielded at the height of American Idols popularity. But make no mistake: The sarcastic, black T-shirt wearing British music mogul is still influencing global pop culture in ways that extend far beyond his judging roles on the British and American versions of his Idol-like show X Factor. Cowell helped envision and launch the boy band One Direction, one of the biggest new acts to emerge from any of those reality singing competitions in recent years. And now he hopes to replicate that chart-dominating success with the girl group Fifth Harmony.

As was the case with One Direction, each of the five members of Fifth Harmony (Ally Brooke Hernandez, Normani Kordei, Dinah Jane Hansen, Camila Cabello and Lauren Jauregui) auditioned as soloists for X Factor but didn’t make it very far in the competition on their own. Enter Cowell, who shepherded the five singers into a group initially known by the acronym LYLAS (Love You Like a Sister), then 1432 (text shorthand for “I love you too”). The ladies eventually placed third on the second season of the American version of the show, and Cowell gave their online fans a chance to choose the group’s current moniker: Fifth Harmony.

The glamor-minded girls have since been traveling with Demi Lovato and Austin Mahone, polishing their sassy, sensual synthesis of pop, R&B and hip-hop.

Pro-Social Content

“Them Girls Be Like” is a girl-power anthem that critiques stereotypical female insecurities. It begins, “Do my [fill-in-the-black silence] look fat (or not)?/Should I call him back (or not)?/Wear my hair like that (or not)?” The song celebrates women strong and authentic enough to be who they really are without succumbing to self-doubt stemming from what others think, largely in the social media realm. The girls sing, “Do you ever post your pics with no filter?/#I woke up like this too/ … That’s what we be like, yeah/Lovin’ this life ’cause we really don’t care.” “BO$$,” meanwhile, name-checks Michelle Obama as a positive role model worth imitating (“Use common sense, I’m on my Michelle Obama”). The song also brims with self-respect (“C-O-N-F-I-D-E-N-T/That’s me, I’m confident”) and praises hard work (“Working for the money/’Cause that’s what my momma taught me”).

“Suga Mama” tells a would-be boyfriend he needs to get a job (“Is you gon’ get a job/And make some of that green?/You tryna take me out/But you can’t pay for me”), then repeatedly affirms, “I can’t be your suga mama.” In a similar vein, “We Know” finds a woman confidently telling a wealthy, manipulative ex, “I know I’m better off without ya/ … I won’t believe a thing you say this time.”

“Everlasting Love” involves a patient, self-respecting woman waiting expectantly for an “exceptional, original” guy. And lines could even be heard as advocating saving sex (or at the very least emotional intimacy) for the right person (“I know it sounds crazy/But I hope you save all you got for me”).

Objectionable Content

That desire for respect on “BO$$” gets diluted by profanity (“So yo a– better show me some respect”) and tired, go-to rap symbols for material excess (“I’m a Maybach and you’s a Volvo”). Healthy self-confidence morphs into narcissism on “Reflection,” where we hear, “Ooh, where you from?/Must be heaven/You’d be rich if looking good was your profession/Think I’m in love, ’cause you so sexy/Boy, I ain’t talkin’ about you, I’m talking to my own reflection.”

Then “Worth It” demands, “Give it to me, I’m worth it.” And as to what the “it” in question is, we learn that it’s rough sex: “I’ll tell you what to do/Come harder just because/I don’t like it, like it too soft/I like it a little rough/Not too much, maybe just enough.” Guest Kid Ink asks, “In the club with the lights off//What you actin’ shy for?” “Sledgehammer” moves from being anatomically suggestive (“I feel the fever and I won’t lie/I break a sweat/My body’s telling/All the secrets I ain’t told you yet/ … You’re turning me on/And my fire’s waitin’ for your spark”) to plainly expressing a woman’s sexual appetite (“I’ve had enough/Undress my love/I’m coming over”). Similarly, “Like Maria” defines romance almost exclusively in carnal terms (“Your loving takes me higher/You set my heart on fire/When you touch my body/Got me singing like Mariah”). Guest Tyga objectifies a woman, singing, “Sit on my lap, angel body/I’m a king and need a goddess, gotta love it.”

Several lines on “Top Down” are easy to hear as sexual double entendres revolving around engines, trucks, convertibles and “ridin’.” The Black Eyed Peas-esque “This Is How We Roll” idealizes life as a sexy, crazy, nonstop party. And “Top Down” chimes in with, “Passed out real/And I woke up realer.” “Them Girls Be Like” includes a repeated, partially censored s-word. “D–n” shows up on “Suga Mama” and “We Know.”

Summary Advisory

With a title like Reflection, the obvious question about Fifth Harmony’s debut is this: What cultural values are these five young women actually mirroring? Ally, Normani, Dinah, Camila, and Lauren are clearly trying to lay claim to messages about self-respect and being unapologetically strong. But too often healthy self-respect slides into unhealthy self-objectification. And the truly lasting image we see here—from the way these girls present themselves to the things they sing about—is one of casual sex serving as the primary route to meaning and purpose in relationships and in life.