February 16, 2009

Of Lives Lost Far Too Soon, and of the State's Priorities

It has been deemed news deserving of almost no notice in the wider world, but this is immensely sad:
Various reports have indicated the sad news that American conductor and musical theatre archivist John McGlinn passed away today, Saturday February 14th, 2009.

There [are] not at present any other details regarding his death, but we will update as more information becomes available.

He was one of the principal proponents of making authentic studio cast recordings of classic musical theatre works.

McGlinn was the music director for the off-Broadway productions of Jerome Kern's SITTING PRETTY (1989) and THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE (1990). John McGlinn was active in the recording studio in the 1980's and his complete recordings of Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein's SHOW BOAT and Cole Porter's ANYTHING GOES are considered to be the definitive representations of those productions.
From the already updated Wikipedia entry, it appears that McGlinn, who was only 55, may not have died on February 14:
He was found dead in his apartment on Feb. 14, 2009, and it was estimated that he had been dead for three or four days. It's believed the cause of death was a heart attack, but close acquaintances suspect possible suicide.
I find it impossible to express how profoundly sad this makes me. If McGlinn's death was a suicide, we need not search far for the possible reasons, as we will see in a moment.

The Wikipedia entry also notes this:
The three-disc, three-and-a-half hour Show Boat album, and the one disc Brigadoon album, have been especially acclaimed. The New Yorker magazine called McGlinn's Show Boat "the show album of the past" and "a show album for the future. It unites the possibilities of reproduction and reinvestigation."
A New York Times story from 2001 tells us more about McGlinn's life and work, and about the perspective that made him unique and very special:
Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, George and Ira Gershwin: there have been memorable collaborations in the history of the American musical. A new one -- call it Packard and McGlinn -- has landed here with ambitions that rival those of the most starry-eyed Broadway show.

John McGlinn, 47, is an American conductor and music historian known for his painstaking restorations and performances of shows like Jerome Kern's ''Show Boat.'' David Packard, 60, is a classics scholar and chairman of Packard Humanities Institute, a foundation in Los Altos, Calif., that sponsors research into subjects as varied as archaeology, Bach, Greek papyri and silent films.

Financed by Mr. Packard's charity and inspired by its commitment to cultural treasure hunting, Mr. McGlinn has embarked on a mission of researching and recording all the shows and songs of both Kern and Victor Herbert, two composers of the early 20th century whose prodigious output will require an estimated 15 years to assemble and preserve.


Mr. McGlinn is known for his ferocious tenacity as an historical scavenger. But he met his match in Mr. Packard. Mr. McGlinn said he first called him to ask if he would support a $100,000 project to restore some Kern orchestrations. "Then, with trembling voice, I said, 'And maybe we could even record one or two?'" Mr. McGlinn recalled.

"David said: 'What's the point of that? Why not record them all?'"

In a telephone interview from Italy, where he was vacationing, Mr. Packard explained: "I thought it was an astonishing gap. With Mozart, Beethoven and Bach we have serious scholarly editions." With much of Kern and Herbert, "all you have are some 78's from the time the shows were produced and some sheet music."

A Harvard classics Ph.D. who taught at the University of North Carolina and the University of California at Los Angeles, Mr. Packard likes to fill gaps.

"David's fundamental philosophy seems to be to acquire all human knowledge and give it away free," Mr. McGlinn said in a voice set somewhere in the key of wonder.
I truly love this from later in the Times story:
The theater music of Kern (composer of songs like like "Ol' Man River," "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes") and Herbert ("Sweethearts," "Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!") was aimed at Tin Pan Alley as well as Broadway.

It was the popular music of the time, and these composers knew they were writing for dance bands and radio broadcasts as well as for the stage. Their lyricists -- one of whom was the British humorist P. G. Wodehouse -- had a grand time with frivolous language, internal rhymes and groaner puns. They invoked a world of cafe society mishaps, porch romances and summer nights scented with honeysuckle and filled with fireflies.

"It would be fashionable to say that it was a better world back then," Mr. McGlinn said. "Well, it probably wasn't, but at least more people were willing to dream of one."
If you aren't familiar with the Show Boat recording, I recommend in the strongest terms that you get it immediately. All of it is wonderful, and to hear my beloved Teresa Stratas as Julie is transcendent. I use words such as "transcendent" to describe Stratas's great artistry, because no others will do. I described Stratas's Salome as "shattering and sublime" in "Kill That Woman!"; if you haven't yet discovered why I say that, I can't imagine what you're waiting for.

All of this is by way of background. Although it can be infuriating and trivial far too often, my opera discussion list sometimes offers irreplaceable and deeply moving moments. One such moment arrived in my email today, in the form of an appreciation and remembrance of McGlinn written by Albert Innaurato. Messages to the Opera-L list are available on the internet, so I have no hesitation about reproducing Albert's message here. While I know a fair amount about opera and music in general, Albert knows ten or twenty encyclopedias' worth more than I can ever hope to master.

All of Albert's message deserves your attention, but perhaps you should especially note his concluding paragraphs. In theory, I am not in favor of state support of the arts -- but that is because I am not in favor of the State at all. And I am always aware of how the State will try to utilize artists and their work for its own deplorable ends, an issue I discussed in a consideration of Leon Fleisher and the dilemma he faced when he was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. Given the realities of our world, and given the fact that the State will tragically not wither away in our lifetimes, the State's particular priorities reveal a hideous truth about what we value as a culture. We spend untold billions of dollars on the instruments of death and destruction, more than the rest of the world combined -- and our government then proceeds to use those instruments to murder millions of innocent people -- yet we spend next to nothing on the arts, and on work such as that to which McGlinn devoted his life. And now McGlinn is gone, much earlier than might have been the case in a different world.

Here is Albert's message, and although he does not make this point himself, his observations at the end suggest to me why McGlinn's death may not have been the result of a heart attack. Or perhaps it was a heart attack, but one brought on because McGlinn had run out of resources to continue to fight these battles:
John was wonderful. What he did took vision, dedication, endless patience, great talent, and an active sixth sense. He discovered more or less with a dowsing rod that hidden warehouse in New Jersey, which was a treasure trove of original scores, arrangements, charts and lead sheets from music theater works of the twenties and thirties (all thought lost). He was the one who found the ancient Hans Spialek, the great arranger and orchestrator of the thirties -- no one believed he was alive -- and got from him tempos, metronomes, phrasings, and alternative scorings, as well as a host of stories about the great composers and personalities of that period. I kept telling him to publish the store of wisdom he had not only from Spialek and others, but from his own wonderful, intuitive as well as intellectual grasp of these scores, their complexity, their wit, their audacity.

I met him in standing room, he was just enough younger than me to have missed the great days of the Philly Lyric and Grand -- though he saw what he could of that era (we were both from Philadelphia, though of very different classes). We talked of a great opera dj named Robert White and how much he knew -- we were both listeners to his broadcasts. Occasionally we got together for a late lunch, the purpose of which was to line up the important CDs and receding LPs that were essential to life. We would hit Academy downtown, then Tower downtown, Padelsons (for scores, LPs and rare CDs) and finally end up at Tower uptown combing through everything they had in a once enormous classical section.

John was such a charmer that the staff let us in the back room to look at Met pirates and other rarities they were not going to put out or were waiting on. He and I indulged on an effort to get our favorite Flying Dutchman on a CD pressing (this was the DG Fricsay with Metternich and one of our favorites, Analies Kupper -- I told him not only that I AM Analies Kupper but I had seen a few of her performances in her last season in Munich -- he was GREEN with envy).

The Show Boat, carried off splendidly against the odds, and despite expected and unexpected last minute problems is fantastic. But really all of his sets are wonderful -- he was always working from authentic materials and always worked from tempos and emphases he had researched so the distortions one can get used to in so much great music are gone and Porter, for example, emerges clean, clear and better than ever.

His great passion later was the American Kurt Weill. I asked him about the value of that music -- I had been involved in a tricky production of One Touch of Venus and aside from the famous numbers and one adroit ballet hadn't thought it much. I was rebuked by someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of ALL the material Weill composed here, and ALL the ways it was usually done wrong and misunderstood. One of the last times I saw him he had mapped out a series of recordings he hoped to make of the Weill works -- I think the marketplace stopped him.

His passion for 'serious' music was as great as anyone's I've ever met. He loved Elgar and was determined to conduct Gerontius as well as both completed symphonies and the arrangement of sketches for the Third and he had an enormous amount of information about those sketches -- he told me he had engagements lined up for Gerontius but I don't know what happened to that.

Though he loved voices and singers, he loved music more. His passion for Wagner was for the elaborate weave of a very particular counterpoint that provides cohesion -- he knew all the scores, chapter and verse and all the words too.

He was a terrific talent and a wonderful person with so much to give; the indifference of America to what he could do, the lack of any funding here for a huge part of this country's artistic and social heritage (for what else were the great musicals doing but reflecting the realities of life lived then right here?), the brutal 'classical' market place especially of the 'new century', the timidity of managements who dread 'novelty' -- all these were things not even John with his inexhaustible tenacity, charm and great talent could overcome. But what he left is considerable, wonderful.

I hadn't seen him in five years, so I don't know whether he was sick for much of that time, or was suddenly carried off. His death reminds me that we throw people away in "Fecund America today" (Emerson)-- but I do think he had the opportunity to realize many of his dreams at the highest level, and you can't ask more than that from real life.

Albert Innaurato
The world may barely note John McGlinn's passing, and it may place far too little value on the extraordinary work he did and what he accomplished against tremendous odds.

We should not be so unmindful, or so uncaring. We should do our utmost to follow McGlinn's own advice, and to be among those people who are "willing to dream" of a better world, just as he did. And in his life and work, McGlinn made that better world real.

That should be, that must be, our aspiration and our dedication, too.