Sunday, November 29, 2009

Spectrum Singers November 2009

Spectrum Singers

November 2009

Just a few notes about last Saturday’s concert by the Spectrum Singers, led by John Ehrlich. It was a crowded program, with two cantatas from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the Bach Magnificat, all of which followed a couple of significant Schütz works and an old favorite, ‘Hodie Christus Natus Est’ by Jan Pietersoon Sweelinck.
Surely it’s churlish to complain of too much music, when it’s as good as this; it’s like telling a woman she has too many grandchildren--which one would you cut?
I don’t pass up chances to hear the orchestra of Emmanuel Music, and these soloists, performing Bach, but we got to 9:45 pm with another whole cantata to go, and I felt a bit weary. To say nothing of the orchestra doing so much work, back to back: Bach knew what he was about when he gave the trumpets three days rest, instead of five minutes.
Of course, they carried it off magnificently, as did the soli and the entire orchestra. Michael Curry’s cello playing was lovely and lyrical, especially on Thea Lobo’s aria in Part Six, and accompanying the ‘Suscepit Israel ‘in the Magnificat. Charles Blandy’s ‘Deposuit,’ in the Magnificat, had a particularly stirring accompaniment from the entire string section. The flutes, Jacqueline DeVoe and Vanessa Holroyd, shone in the ‘Esurientes’, which Ms. Lobo also sang beautifully.
Soprano Kendra Colton was warm and clear, as always. Baritone Donald Wilkinson’s extensive Bach resume was evident in his elegant Magnificat aria, and in the Oratorio’s recitatives, particularly his turn as Herod, when he said, chillingly, that he wanted to go and ‘worship’ (‘anbete’) the child. As the Evangelist, describing the Kings, Blandy gave a later use of the same word (‘beteten’) a veritable halo.
There was much to love about all that Bach--I was just left with a feeling that the very fine choral work in the first half may have been unjustly overshadowed. The Schütz German Magnificat was particularly lovely. Ehrlich deftly managed the changes of meter and color throughout, and the chorus’s excellent diction did justice to Schütz’ sensitivity to the text.
Congratulations to all involved.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cantata Singers November 2009

The Cantata Singers, led by David Hoose, performed a marvelous program at Boston's Jordan Hall Friday night, mostly very well. The group is honoring Heinrich Schütz this season, balancing his work with that of composers who are complementary in some way; Bach, Schoenberg, and Hugo Distler got outings in this program, to good effect.

The Schütz Musicalische Exequien, in fact, suffered by contrast. The piece is a German Requiem setting, consisting of biblical (and a few other) texts strung together, as chosen by the man it was written for, Count Heinrich Posthumus von Reuss. Schutz is highly attentive to the words, as always, from the first: "Naked I came out of my mother's womb" is sung by a solo tenor. In the first movement, which is most of the piece, the biblical words of consolation are typically sung by pairs or trios of soloists, from a group of six; the full chorus joins on chorale verses interspersed throughout, which are themselves handled contrapuntally.

It's a lot to pull together, and, by the lofty standards of the Cantata Singers, they did not quite succeed. Some of the solo groupings were not ideally matched, and the whole movement lacked a sense of continuity. The final movement is a Nunc Dimittis set for five-part chorus, set against two sopranos and a baritone singing 'blessed are the dead who die in the Lord' as a heavenly response. Two heavenly trios were placed in the balcony, appropriately; but the distance made the ensemble less than perfectly secure, which perturbed the serenity the piece should inspire.

Happily, the second half of the program had all the focus the first half lacked. Distler's 'Singet dem Herrn' was characterized by verve and urgency. The dense choral texture contrasts with the transparency of the Schütz, but Distler also loves the words: with only voices, he depicts the brilliance of trumpets and trombones, and the roar of the sea.

The instrumental forces of the Cantata Singers are one of the finest Baroque ensembles around, and Bach's Cantata 8, "Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?", plays to their strengths. Peggy Pearson and Barbara LaFitte, on oboe d'amore, wound sinuously through the pizzicato strings in the opening movement, and Jacqueline DeVoe, on the flute, lent delight to Mark Andrew Cleveland's fervent bass aria. Sonia Tengblad's soprano recitative was particularly clear and lovely.

Arnold Schoenberg's mighty 'Friede auf Erden' closed the program. Closed it twice, actually, (as Hoose traditionally does with this piece) which gave this listener a fighting chance of absorbing some of its dark, lush textures and kaleidoscopic tonality. It's the least sweet, and most evocative, "Peace on Earth" I can think of.

Kudos, by the way, to Lisa Stiller, the outgoing Executive Director of Cantata Singers, for the season's program book, which is beautifully produced and full of erudite Schütziana.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Book Lust

Book Lust: Recommended Reading for every mood, moment and reason.
Nancy Pearl (2003, Sasquatch Books)

Oh, brothers and sisters--what a happiness. The trouble with most books is that they end; here we have a book that just goes on and on; it's a week-long lunch with the best librarian you know. Given a book you like, or a category (Ghost Stories; Girls Growing Up; Graphic Novels; Great Dogs in Fiction; Grit Lit; Growing Writers...), Pearl offers a dozen or more examples, in synopses of from twenty to fifty words. The 'Too Good to Miss' notes, on particular writers, are a particularly happy category. And if this ever wears out--of the eleven Books about Books Pearl mentions, I've only read three!
Not exactly a page turner, because I keep getting stuck, but my neurotic fear of running out of things to read is considerably eased. Thanks to John Hildebidle for recommending this, (and its sequel(!!), More Book Lust.)

Summer Reading 2005

The Eyre Affair

The Eyre Affair
Jasper Fforde (2003, Penguin)
The bookseller I bought this from issued a warning that its charms were stronger for bookish types; I assured him I qualified. It's the first of three (so far, I think,) books featuring Thursday Next, who operates in an alternative-history England as an operative with the Literary Detective Division of the Special Operations Network, known as SO-27. The routine work of the division involves copyright infringement, but also extends to frauds and forgeries; Thursday moves on to face an adversary who can change a published novel by altering the original manuscript--he commits extortion by threatening to kill off Martin Chuzzlewit. That is to say, you don't have to have read Martin Chuzzlewit, but it's much funnier if you know he's a Dickens novel.
The alternative history took a little getting used to, for me; it is complicated by the ability of some characters to travel in time, which can be philosophically paradoxical, to a dizzying degree. Not a problem, really, in such light fiction, and I think it will leave plenty of scope for new plots in the series.
The pun in Thursday's name, by the way, is only for starters--she has a boss called Braxton Hicks, and there are chapter epigraphs by Millon de Floss. And isn't The Cheshire Cat a fine name for a pub? Just picture the neon sign.

Summer Reading, 2005

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Making the Grades

Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry
Todd Farley (2009, PoliPoint Press)

I love kitchen confidentials and attempted-sports-career memoirs; all the way back to the days of Nelly Bly, some of the best narrative nonfiction stems from a writer’s adopting a way of life, or a profession, and writing about it. Todd Farley has come up with a quirky job that would never have occurred to me: for over a decade, he read and scored the essay sections of standardized tests.

It wasn’t quite intentional: it’s just what Farley did for a living while waiting to be a writer. He had moved to Iowa City, so that if he succeeded in getting into the famous Writers’ Workshop, he’d qualify for in-state tuition; and the salt mines of the test-scoring business were the best-paying temporary work going. He hung with it long enough to became a consultant and trainer, eventually spending three years at the ETS in Princeton (an obscenely high-paying job, but hardly less boring than all the others.)

Assessing students based on answers marked in bubbles A through E has always been fraught with difficulty and hidden error. The addition of essay questions to standardized tests must have been intended as a reply to critics of multiple choice tests, but it has really just created a whole new set of problems. The first of these is the sheer volume of writing that has to be read: “The project was a war of attrition, but eventually we won, each of the 100,000 essays getting scored by two different people over the course of four weeks.” That’s a room full of one hundred people, (minus those who couldn’t stand the tedium and quit) reading an essay every two minutes, and slapping down a number.

Second, those numbers have to agree with one another. “The issue ... is not whether or not you appreciate or comprehend an essay; the issue is whether or not you can formulate exactly the same opinion about it as do all the people sitting around you.” Each day’s work begins with sample responses provided to the scorers, with the intended correct scores, and a set of standards, known as the rubric, on which they are allegedly (and ‘holistically’) based. This is followed by a roomful of argument: ”How can they give that a four??” The trainer says something like this: “It’s a 4. The range-finding committee says it’s a4, so it’s a 4. Makes sense.” No, it doesn’t, but that’s how it works. (And if it doesn’t, the supervisors will find ways to nudge the numbers into shape, individual results be damned.)

Third, the scorers themselves are a tremendously variable lot. Some of Farley’s funniest scenes are character sketches of his fellows in the trenches, who are there, at best, for the same mercenary reasons he is; those with any actual prospects usually move on quickly, leaving a disturbing remnant of genuine unemployables. As Farley rises through the ranks to group supervisor and then to trainer, he meets more and more people like ‘the guy who gave all ‘two’s’, or the man who believed that the essays he was reading were a psychological test being administered to him, not to mention the people who barely speak English. The work is just so tedious and annoying that you can’t count on getting reasonably sane, smart people to do it.

Farley disclaims any real interest in education as such, so he comes fairly slowly to some of the issues raised by his work. When the ETS adds an essay section to the SAT, he’s still pretty naive: “I imagined, given the enormity and importance of that test, there had to be some cadre of teaching professionals reading the responses.” Not so fast, there, Tonto, it’s the same cast of castoffs you’ve been training and working with.

When a scale has four or five possible scores, there’s (at least) a ten to twenty per cent chance that another scorer would have picked a different number; and the chances must get even higher out at the thin end of the wedge, because if a student happens to write a brilliant and erudite response, it’s not unlikely to be over the grader’s head. If the rubric says to look for ‘kind’ in the answer, ‘benevolent’ might be in line for a zero.

Making the Grades is funny, but less so, the more you think about it. The whole testing and scoring enterprise looks more and more fraudulent, not because of some evil genius somewhere, but because the System (including, in particular, No Child Left Behind) has generated a demand for Numbers, any Numbers; the evidence is that the numbers are at least partly unmoored from meaning, even in the superficial sense. Yet they have all kinds of consequences in the real world, from school budgets to college admissions. In his epilogue, Farley recommends that we look much more skeptically at all such numbers: “My default position about any test results getting returned to students, teachers, or schools is ‘I don’t believe.’”

On the deeper level, there’s this, garnered from Derrick Z. Jackson’s* appreciation of the late Gerald Bracey, a former analyst for the National Education Association, whom Jackson quotes saying this: “What say we take a moment to consider a few of the personal qualities that standardized tests do not measure: creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, humor, reliability, enthusiasm, civic-mindedness, self-awareness, self-discipline, empathy, leadership, and compassion.’’

What are we paying for? What do we want?

Email, November 2009