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Classical 101

'Music In and On the Air' by Lloyd Schwartz

Lloyd Schwartz, a poet, University of Massachusetts professor and Pulitzer Prize winner, reads from On The Road by Jack Kerouac during a marathon reading of the book in Lowell, Mass., on Sept. 5, 2007.
Adam Hunger
Lloyd Schwartz, a poet, University of Massachusetts professor and Pulitzer Prize winner, reads from On The Road by Jack Kerouac during a marathon reading of the book in Lowell, Mass., on Sept. 5, 2007.

Radio listeners who have enjoyed the pithy and informed commentary on matters classical music from Lloyd Schwartz on NPR are lucky.

I’m luckier than most. Schwartz and I bonded 40 years ago, a thrill to see that number, over a magnificent singer called Jane Struss.

Jane is a Boston-based singer whose magnificent voice was heard in the Mahler symphonies and cycles there and all over the world. Her performance of Britten's Phaedra at Harvard in the early 1980s is still talked about.

Lloyd was writing for the late lamented Boston Phoenix alternative weekly newspaper. That was the alternative press type of newspaper you bought to frighten and irritate your parents.

The paper was legendary for two things, the personal ads, and Lloyd Schwartz’s reporting from the Boston Symphony, Opera Company of Boston, Boston University’s Celebrity Series (from Arthur Rubinstein to the Von Trapp Family Singers), Peter Sellars, Emmanuel Music and whoever sang, danced, played, conducted or whistled in the entire world.

When last week I was sorting through my books (I’m at that age) I came across the proofs sent to me several years ago of Music In and On the Air. This is a collection of Lloyd’s musings for NPR, encompassing Gyorgy Kurtag, John Harbison, Brahms (Lloyd never met him) Elvis Costello, Betty Hutton, Charles Ives and Ethel Merman. Among others.

I remember the first time I read one of Lloyd’s pieces in the Phoenix. I was dewy-eyed and excited about music. All music. Now I’m nearly blind, half-deaf and still excited about music. All music. Lloyd is fresher today than I am and nobody beats him at motivating people to listen.

Lloyd's a poet who loves words and brings that love to music.

Of a cantata by John Harbison, Lloyd writes, "The Flight into Egypt is as much about homelessness as it is about gospel. You can hear that sense of desolation in the winding, wandering music for two oboes and English horn that the cantata opens with.”

A line like that had me running to WOSU’s well-stocked music library, and I have Sanford Sylvan and Roberta Alexander singing Harbison’s exquisite music in my ear as I type these lines.

That’s what Schwartz does in writing. He propels his readers toward the music. He makes you want to listen. He allows you to hear.

Music In and On the Air is divided into three parts, Contemporary Classics,  Pop Kulcha (seriously?) and My Parnassus.

“With Callas, the words themselves became music,” Lloyd writes about the late diva. 

“There is something obsessive about the Symphony in C, but it's also an exhilarating, exuberant work.  One passage, Stravinsky wrote, 'would not have occurred to me before I had known the neon glitter of the California boulevard from a speeding automobile'”.

I’ll bet Stravinsky got that quote from Lloyd, not the other way around.

There’s no room for snobbishness here. No pedantry. (That’s a pedantic word, isn’t it?)

A piece on Ernst Krenek, a German composer nearly destroyed by the Nazis, lives in the same volume as TV’s Car 54 Where Are You …“one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen on television…”

Then there’s Cilea’s gloriously campy opera Adriana Lecouvreur. It would never occur to me that Lloyd Schwartz had ever heard of Adriana, much less of composer Francesco Cilea. But like I said, he lives in all music.

This is the opera critics love to hate and one the public tends to cheer to the walls. Ok, its not inspired music. It’s over the top music theater. But here’s Lloyd Schwartz in the audience for a performance of Adriana in Newark in 1973.  Magda Olivero, an artist who had known the composer and who was impervious to trends, sang the title role:

“I can still see her shawl draping around her shoulder in time to the music, as if she had trained it to do that. You can hear the grandeur of her poses in her evaporating pianissimos and swelling climaxes…”

I don’t know about you, but the next time Ariana Lecourvrerur is performed I’m taking Lloyd Schwartz. Or to hear a Brahms Symphony, a quartet by Brahms, Busoni’s piano concerto, or the latest revival of Annie Get Your Gun.

Meanwhile, I'll keep reading Music In and On the Air like a bowl of M&Ms. Nothing but joy.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.