Lawrence Toppman

The father of the tone poem

By Lawrence Toppman

We take tone poems in classical music for granted today. Think of lovers swooning and dying during Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” overture. Liszt composed 13 symphonic poems, including works that aurally describe Orpheus, Hamlet and Prometheus. Berlioz wrote the longest popular piece of program music when he depicted a witches’ sabbath, march to the scaffold and other settings in Symphonie Fantastique.

Mussorgsky summoned an art gallery full of paintings in “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The modern equivalents are film soundtracks, where John Williams can reinforce the flying chaos of a quidditch match or the horrors of an encounter with Voldemort in “Harry Potter” scores.

So where did this trend start? I’d say it began in 1808 with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. (Guest conductor JoAnn Falletta was supposed to lead the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in performances April 3-5, with Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto and Kodaly’s “Dances of Galánta.” She may yet, as the CSO hopes to reschedule cancelled concerts.)

Baroque and Classical era composers portrayed nonmusical things before that, of course. Telemann recreated animal sounds in his “Cricket” symphony and “The Frogs” overture. Handel offered visions of biblical plagues – the buzzing flies work especially well – in the oratorio “Israel in Egypt.” Composers often used martial instruments and rhythms to convey military actions; Beethoven himself did that in “Wellington’s Victory,” his 1813 “battle symphony” for a concert benefiting Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded at the Battle of Hanau.

Yet all 45 minutes of his Pastoral Symphony reveal Beethoven’s impressions of nature. He loved to walk in the country, believing it helped alleviate his deafness. He titled the movements to carry the listener through an afternoon he’d have enjoyed, interrupted by tense moments but ending in joy: “Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside,” “Scene by the brook,” “Merry gathering of country folk,” “Thunder; Storm,” “Shepherd’s song; Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm.” If you’ve seen “Fantasia,” with its centaurs and cupids and tipsy Bacchus, you know Disney’s abbreviated, cheesy interpretation.

Nobody before Beethoven had written so long a programmatic piece, one that depicted places and events in every note. The idea took a while to catch fire, but Mendelssohn produced his overture to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1826. (He finished an hour-long score in 1842.) Berlioz wrote Symphonie Fantastique in 1830 in five movements, as Beethoven had done in his Pastoral. The floodgates opened, and we’ve seen “pictures in music” ever since.

“Wendy:” A Peter Pan for modern America

By Lawrence Toppman

However cheerful the musical and animated versions may be, “Peter Pan” has a core of sorrow.

The title character can never form a lasting relationship; he jaunts from pleasure to pleasure, with a past he can barely remember and a future he cannot contemplate. The children who visit his Island of Lost Boys realize that responsibilities encroach on everyone else, hair turns gray, childhood thrills become half-forgotten memories that cannot be recaptured. “Real” life has compensatory beauties but also drawbacks, and you can’t escape those.

Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) has directed his second feature in eight years in “Wendy,” working successfully again with untried young actors. He updates the story to an unnamed Southern location – he shot much of the film in Louisiana, some in the Caribbean – and Peter (steely-eyed Yashua Mack) no longer flies into the lives of the Darling children. He arrives atop a steam-belching train, a stowaway encouraging them to run off from their dead-end town to a place where no one needs to grow up.

Wendy (intense Devin France) and her genial twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naquin) take that ride and land in a place where kids play eternally. Inhabitants have limited magical powers, expressed mostly in partial dominion over their environment. (So did the young heroine in “Beasts.” Both movies insist happiness requires harmony between humans and Nature.)

The presence of an immense, glowing aquatic creature they call “Mother” keeps them young. Thoughts that bring discontent, doubt and fear make them old: Fail to delight in Peter’s process, and you become one of the aged wrecks rambling around the dusty edges of his green isle. Wendy decides to help both kids and crusty elders find happiness in the real world, but salvation depends on cooperation.

Zeitlin co-wrote the music with Dan Romer and the script with Eliza Zeitlin, his wife; she also handled production design. “Wendy” benefits from a low-key personal vision that’s long on concept and short on details, though we don’t really require them. Why Peter came to his tiny fiefdom and how he ascended to authority don’t matter; we need only to understand that no one can become a full human being without leaving it.

Scottish author J.M. Barrie wrote his play “Peter Pan” in 1904, three years after Queen Victoria died. The movement for Scottish home rule had stirred two decades earlier, so perhaps he was metaphorically urging Britain to grow up and abandon the idea of stomping around the world, doing whatever it pleased in its self-declared empire.

Zeitlin’s subtle interpretation arrives in a United States disunited by immaturity and selfishness. Could he be encouraging us to behave more like adults and less like spoiled brats for whom no day of reckoning will ever come?

Video: WENDY official trailer

Pictured: (Top, From L-R): Devin France, Gavin Naquin, Gage Naquin, Romyri Ross and Yashua Mack in the film WENDY. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The grim Beethoven? Partly a myth.

By Lawrence Toppman

I have studied 46 images online of Beethoven, ranging from his teenage years to his death mask. Every painting, sculpture and drawing has one thing in common: He’s never smiling.

It’s as if showing him with a cheerful expression would be a sacrilege against music. That recalls the furor around Fred Berger’s illustration of a laughing Jesus, which accompanied a commentary by theologian Harvey Cox in 1969: The Messiah hadn’t come to Earth to have a good time! (The fuss arose partly because the piece ran at Christmas in Playboy, which of course I bought for the articles.)

Beethoven seems to be treated the same way: We must furrow our brows alongside his to pay homage to his somber genius. We’ll grant him a celestial benevolence in the finale of the Ninth Symphony, where he contemplates the brotherhood of humanity. But no laughing!

Yet nobody can be completely human without a sense of humor, and Beethoven had one. He’s merry over and over, from the finale of the “Pastoral” Symphony (where peasants rejoice at surviving a thunderstorm) to the sprightly third movements of the “Emperor” Concerto and Violin Concerto. In the last movement of his Symphony No. 1, after a moment of misleading gravity, the violins burst forth with a grin.

He’s clearly smiling in the earliest third of “Fidelio.” A suitor pines comically for a jailer’s daughter; she yearns for her father’s new employee, who’s a married woman in drag. The opera quickly turns serious, but we’ve had a chuckle first.

He didn’t always choose texts for the English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish songs he composed by the dozens. But when they’re silly, mildly bawdy or flirtatious, his tunes faithfully establish those moods without irony or dark shadings.

Even his orchestral music contains moments of rude wit and swagger. I had a music professor who considered the opening of the fourth movement of Symphony No. 2, a cheeky flutter of wind and strings, the equivalent of a raspberry — Beethoven blowing a rude noise at his prosperous audience.

Beethoven often enjoyed Mozart’s comic operas and told Rossini in 1822 he had read “Il Barbieri di Siviglia” with much pleasure. (By then, he could no longer hear it.) He may not have laughed or made us laugh very often, but the spirit definitely moved him from time to time.

Review: Pixar moves “Onward” with a comic tale of magic

By Lawrence Toppman

In the two years since John Lasseter left Pixar after sexual harassment claims, the animation studio has produced two features for Disney without its founder.

“Toy Story 4,” an excuse to revisit characters from a beloved franchise, won a nostalgia-driven Oscar without breaking any ground. “Onward” represents an attempt to go in a different direction. It’s a little more daring, more inclined to skirt the expected happy ending for a realistic one, if that word can be used about a story containing dragons and trolls. If it doesn’t rank with “Up” or “Frozen,” it’s refreshing in a dry Hollywood season.

Executive producer Pete Docter has assumed Lasseter’s role here. He directed the great “Inside Out” and knows that virtually every Pixar movie is about family: trying to find one, preserve one, rebuild or reunite one, create one from improbable connections. The definition of “family” has broadened over the years to include a lesbian Cyclops and a centaur in love with an elf, but we all pursue love where we find it.

Elf brothers Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) discover a spell that can bring their long-dead father back to life for one day, giving them a sense of closure with him. It goes half-right, leaving them with a pair of legs that provide most of the sight gags.

To complete his resurrection within the 24-hour deadline, they have to find a hidden gem. They’re assisted by their plucky mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), her cop boyfriend (Mel Rodriguez) and a manticore, a creature with a human face, lion’s body and scorpion’s tail (Octavia Spencer, happily and aptly chewing the animated scenery).

“Onward” has magic aplenty to satisfy viewers weaned on video games and superhero movies. Ian and Barley suggest Frodo and Sam in “The Lord of the Rings,” one growing into adulthood as he reluctantly embarks on a mission and the other a burly, bullheaded sidekick full of good cheer. The goal, unknown to them, turns out not to be a reunion with their dead father but a union between the quarrelsome, oddly matched siblings. Spells protect and aid them, but love matters more than wizardry.

Director Dan Scanlon, who wrote the screenplay with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, creates a world where pixies have forgotten how to fly (and become shaven-headed bikers!), unicorns eat from garbage cans, and the manticore’s flaming breath broils meat in her family restaurant.

Magic exists, yet no one but Barley believes in it. (We don’t really learn why.) The metaphoric message – look for magic in your own everyday life – comes across clunkily at times: Finding wonder in a back-yard flower hardly compares to creating an invisible bridge across a bottomless chasm. But the filmmakers’ hearts remain in the right place, a place worth visiting.

Pictured: OH BROTHERS – In Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” two teenage elf brothers embark on an extraordinary quest to discover if there is still a little magic left in the world. Featuring Tom Holland as the voice of Ian Lightfoot, and Chris Pratt as the voice of Ian’s older brother, Barley, “Onward” opens in U.S. theaters on March 6, 2020. ©2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The Mass-terpiece We Seldom Hear

By Lawrence Toppman

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, which premiered in 1824 after nearly five years of labor, breaks ground in more ways than you’d expect.

First, it’s longer than any significant mass up to that date except Bach’s Mass in B Minor, which was seldom heard in Beethoven’s lifetime. Second, it uses four soloists but doesn’t give anyone except the soprano a sustained, memorable melody.

Third, sacred music gets interrupted by secular elements. The Sanctus includes a long violin solo with orchestral accompaniment — almost a mini-concerto – that’s the most beautiful moment in the piece for me but raised the ire of purists. They were no happier about the war march in the Agnus Dei, where drums and trumpets interrupt the final prayer for peace. (This may have been inspired by Beethoven’s long fascination with Napoleon, who wasn’t subdued until 1815.)

Fourth, Beethoven didn’t care whether the Missa was done in a concert hall or a church; he sanctioned the performances of separate movements in concerts and repackaged the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei as “Three Grand Hymns with Solo and Chorus Voices.” We commonly encounter masses and requiems in theaters now, but that wasn’t the fashion 200 years ago.

You’ll get a rare chance to hear it when the Charlotte Symphony performs Missa Solemnis March 6 and 7 at Belk Theater. I know only one of the soloists – soprano Christina Pier, the best thing about Opera Carolina’s 2019 “Carmen” – but a lot of the emotional weight will come from Charlotte Master Chorale, the only chorus locally that could do justice to this monster.

Scholars question the nature of Beethoven’s faith, though not whether he had faith: He often spoke of a loving God who wanted the best for humanity.

Though he was raised a Roman Catholic, he didn’t attend mass regularly. He’d spent a year studying older forms of church music (notably Palestrina’s) when he undertook the Missa to honor Archduke Rudolf, his most famous pupil and patron. It was supposed to mark Rudolf’s installation as Archbishop of Olmütz in 1820, but Beethoven missed the deadline so far that it premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1824.

Perhaps Beethoven’s philosophy can best be summed up by his dedication to Rudolf: “Von Herzen—Möge es wieder—Zu Herzen gehn!” “From the heart – may it return to the heart!” That’s the wisest way to embrace any of Beethoven’s masterpieces.

Pictured: Charlotte Master Chorale image courtesy of John Cosmas/Charlotte Master Chorale.

I don’t love Beethoven

By Lawrence Toppman

I have the profoundest respect for Ludwig van Beethoven’s music. I am exalted by it, frightened by it, ennobled by it, touched by it, on rare occasions amused by it, even taken to spiritual realms. But I don’t love it the way I do Mozart’s music.

No matter what mood I am in, Mozart speaks to me. When I can’t decide what to hear, I often default to Mozart, and I’m always gratified. That’s love. I could say the same for Frank Sinatra’s concept albums for Capitol Records, much of The Beatles’ stuff, Handel’s “Water Music,” Brahms’ Third Symphony, Verdi’s “Otello,” great doo-wop collections and a few albums by other performers or composers.

I have to be in the mood for Beethoven, though. I have to need the churning intensity that seems to categorize even his lighter pieces. When I am, he satisfies my soul. When I’m not, I can go weeks without listening to him.

That will change in the year leading up to the 250th anniversary of his birth, probably on Dec. 16. (Most scholars accept that date, because he was baptized the next day.) I’ll immerse myself in LVB, armed with Jan Swafford’s titanic biography “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph” and an 85-CD box of his complete works. (Hmmm…It’s less than half as big as Mozart’s complete box. Maybe I will get through every bit of it this time! But all those mundane songs….)

I plan to post every other week. That’s partly because I don’t know Beethoven as thoroughly as I do Mozart, and partly because a lot of the topics I raised in “A Year with Mozart” apply equally well to Beethoven. (For instance, they are memorialized in the same place – Vienna’s Central Cemetery – where you, too, can acquire a plot.)

This will be a journey of rediscovery in many cases. I have more recordings of the Ninth Symphony (nine) than any other piece ever written, but I’ll try to listen to it with open ears. I will also try to dig deeper into compositions that have never spoken to me. (String trios, I’m talking about you. “Christ on the Mount of Olives,” you’re next.)

Maybe I’ll discover hidden gems. Maybe I’ll enjoy my hundredth plunges into the last three piano sonatas and the world’s greatest violin concerto in different ways. Maybe, with luck, I’ll even fall in love.

Oscars 2020 Predictions: A Viewer’s Guide to Who Will Win

By Lawrence Toppman

In this century, the Academy Awards have turned into a coronation rather than an election. As an endless parade of ceremonies precedes the Oscars – not just the Golden Globes but the guilds for writers, actors, directors, producers and more – the likelihood of a surprise in a major category becomes remote. At most, two films may run neck and neck, yet even that’s rare.

On the other hand, moviegoers could see something unusual on the big night this year. Though I think the same film will win best picture and director on February 9, I believe all four acting categories and both screenplay categories may go to different nominees.

You may wonder why I’m writing about the Oscars for WDAV. I’m going to start reviewing movies later this year for the website on an occasional basis. I’ll write about pictures I think its listenership may be curious about, ones that are media phenomena or likely to pass under the radar if I don’t point them out. We’re still figuring out how this will work. But after my time as The Charlotte Observer’s film critic from 1987 to 2017, I welcome a chance to begin again.

Now about those Oscars….

Best picture and director“1917” and Sam Mendes. “The Irishman” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” have lost momentum, and the industry respects films that are dramatically powerful, epic in scope, difficult to make and perceived to be “significant,” whatever that may mean. Mendes’ gripping “1917” is all four.    

Best actor and actress: Voters gravitate toward three types of performances: Showy ones that run a gamut of emotions, those that dominate a picture (whatever their length in the film) and those depicting illnesses: addictions, physical disabilities, mental or emotional breakdowns. Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker” and Renee Zellweger in “Judy” qualify on all three counts.

Best supporting actor and actress: These tend to be “It’s their turn” prizes for veterans whom voters have enjoyed for many years. Brad Pitt is an obvious choice for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Laura Dern less of one – but a clear front-runner – for “Little Women.”

Best original screenplay and adapted screenplay: “Marriage Story” has rightly been praised for many things, especially Noah Baumbach’s script about a crumbling marriage between show business people. It’s harder to pick adapted screenplay: I think Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” deserves the prize, but perennial favorite Steven Zaillian seems to be ahead for “The Irishman.”

As I’m writing for a station that sometimes features movie music, I’ll also say I think Thomas Newman will win best original score for “1917.” He’s overdue – this is his 15th nomination with no wins — and his stirring score beautifully underpins the action without overwhelming it.

Five Things I Learned from My Year with Mozart

By Lawrence Toppman

A confession: I’m still digging into the deep cuts in his catalogue. I have vowed to finish them before death, assuming that’s not coming for at least another decade. But I figure that, even without listening yet to “La Betulia Liberata” (a long oratorio written by the 15-year-old WAM) or all of his dozens of concert arias, I can say five things with assurance:

1) Genius sometimes sleeps, and often knows it sleeps. One disc in the Mozart 225 “complete” edition (which, as I noted in the first blog, isn’t quite that) consists of chips from the master’s workbench: Dribs of music, none more than a few minutes long and some as short as 40 seconds, that Mozart scribbled down and cast aside. He knew what he was doing.

2) He seems to have played more instruments than almost any other composer: Violin, organ, viola (probably his special love), harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano. He was also curious about winds, working closely with friends to understand the clarinet, horn, bassoon and flute. Thus he wrote idiomatic, wonderful music for those instruments, too.

3) There is no “right” performance. I have listened to symphonies that tingle with tension or roll grandly along, piano concertos that are crisp or sentimental. For me, there is generally one best way to perform any piece by Schubert or Mahler or Copland; I enjoy other interpretations, but there’s always one in first place. That’s less true for Mozart than any other composer.

4) You have to love him to play him well. If not, you get performances that are blandly polished (Itzhak Perlman’s violin concertos), energetic but shallow (Vladimir Horowitz’s Piano Concerto No. 23) or ploddingly dutiful (too many to list here). You may competently whip up excitement in Tchaikovsky or Brahms without giving them your heart; that doesn’t work with Mozart.

5) Familiarity has bred not contempt, as the saying goes, or even indifference, but joy. Whatever mood I’m in, Mozart has a piece to suit it. I can’t imagine anyone else I could listen to weekly for 12 months, possibly excepting The Beatles and Frank Sinatra, and still come away treasuring the chance to hear more. Mozart’s a composer meant not for a year but for a lifetime of exploration, and I hope I’ve inspired you to take that journey yourself.