The Best Opera-Related Thing You'll See All Day


So Cory Cullinan, AKA Doctor Noize, has a Kickstarter project to raise money to record "Phineas McBoof Crashes the Symphony," which is a live show Cullinan is presenting to young audiences -- think Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" for the 21st century. 

Cullinan's got a little more than two weeks to raise money for the project, and I heartily encourage you to read my interview with him about the project over on the Bake Sale section of the site

But even if you don't do that -- and with comments like "Kids want to reach and challenge themselves to master Big Things.  To reach is the purest state of joy," you definitely should -- at least take 5 minutes or so and watch this video of a Phineas McBoof mini-opera.  It made me happy.  It's basically an advertisement (or at least proof-of-concept), but such an effective one.

Interview: Richard Perlmutter (Beethoven's Wig)

I sometimes wonder if Richard Perlmutter, the musician and producer behind the wildly successful classical-music-by-way-of-"Weird-Al"-Yankovic series Beethoven's Wig, gets the same type of "are you Hootie" questions that Darius Rucker, lead singer for Hootie and the Blowfish, gets.  He's not literally Beethoven (or his wig), but no Perlmutter, no Beethoven's Wig.

He released the delightful Beethoven's Wig: Sing Along Piano Classics last year and has been spending an increasing amount of time taking the Beethoven's Wig concept to live audiences.  We chatted by phone recently and in our interview below we talk about the origins of the series, learning to enjoy performances, and whether or not there's a crisis in classical music.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Richard Perlmutter: Sitting around, listening to the radio in the '50s -- I remember that Frankie Acalon song, "Venus."... I also remember performing in third grade, in a pretty primitive school talent show.

I built my own guitar, then spent $13 for a Harmony guitar.

Was there lots of music in the household?

Our family was not really musical.  My parents paid for some guitar lessons, but after that it was my doing.

How did Beethoven's Wig come about?

I had done a couple other albums on my own, produced some other albums, written for TV shows, wrote jingles -- lots of stuff was comedic.  My strength is as a lyricist.  I liked classical music and been thinking about doing something with it.  I always tell the Beethoven's Wig "story," which is that I had thought of the phrase "Beethoven's wig... is very big" sung to the start of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.  At first, I didn't know how it would all sound, how it would be received.

Were you surprised by the initial success of the first album?

I had an inkling -- a friend heard a couple songs I had done as a demo, and thought it was a cool concept.  So I finished the album and got a record contract for it.  Within a week after it came out, it was on NPR, at the top of the charts on Amazon, I was invited to be on the Today show.

Everything was new.  No musician plans for success -- it happens, then you deal with it.  Fortunately, it happened when I was a little bit older.  It was nice, but I didn't feel like a rock star.

What comes first, the melody or the lyric -- or, put another way, do you have a germ of an idea and expand on it, or do you assign yourself a song, and work on putting lyrics to that?

The first.  The last three albums I've done had a loose concept -- instruments, dance, piano -- which have let me explore different themes or genres in classical music.  I really like to explore things.  As I explore, some ideas settle in more and are a better fit for lyrics.  My last album [Sing Along Piano Classics], some selections were popular, others (like Schoenberg or Stravinsky) aren't "hits."

Were you intentionally ranging through a long time period?

Yes, I was.  To pick a Stravinsky piece, for example, I listened to a lot of different songs.  I actually played as a writer.  I sort of felt like a singer-songwriter.

Which do you enjoy more -- recording or performing?  The project started out as an album, but you seem to be making more concert appearances.

You've noticed I've amped up the touring over the past year.  My first instrument is classical guitar, then mandolin.  I didn't take classical piano 'til after the first Beethoven's Wig album, but thought it would be good for me to do so.  My classical piano teacher said it would be good to play onstage.

Doing that gives me more opportunities.  Bringing in five singers and an orchestra is a hard sell in this economy.  Lately I've been hired to perform solo, then maybe I'll bring in local singers.

I've got a lot of curiosity, ambition -- not commercial ambition, but personal goals.  To sustain yourself, most people in music are trying new things.

It seems like there's a lot of hand-wringing about a crisis in classical music.  What's your prescription for solving the crisis -- or is there even a crisis at all?

I don't think about it that much but I also don't think there's that much of a crisis.  Maybe for large symphonic performances -- economically there may be some problems, some are doing well, some are not.  Many that are playing repertoire are now doing new things.

Audiences for every kind of music have become smaller.  You have to find your audience.  Someone recently said something along the lines of, and I'm paraphrasing, "There used to be millions of fans for a few artists, and now that's reversed."  The idea of having gigantic audiences is old.  I've been thinking a bit about a Beethoven's Wig TV show, but what does that look like in this age?  You've got Mr. Rogers, but he was one of a few people.

I'm not that worried.  Trying to save classical music, that's not my job.  Beethoven, Bach -- they're like Shakespeare and Chaucer.  As long as humanity is around, they will be, too.

If you love music, you can find a way to do it.

What's next for you?

Mostly concentrating on the live show, working on my musicianship, performing skills.  I'm really having fun performing.  I'm also developing workshops, performances with students, trying to use Beethoven's Wig in different ways.  I'm working with animators on developing a mix of visuals for the live show, too.

I've also been toying around with ideas for a new album, but that's a little ways off.

Gustavo Dudamel and Elmo: Not Quite Stupendous. But Fun.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic's wunderkind conductor Gustavo Dudamel ticked off the first of the two major pop icon checkmarks (the other would be being namechecked on The Simpsons) when he got an appearance with Sesame Street's Elmo to discuss the word "stupendous." "Stupendous" means "great and amazing," and while I'm not sure that it's quite that cool, the bit is fun. Little known fact: Ludwig van Beethoven originally scored the last movement of his Fifth Symphony for penguin choir, so Dudamel's just reverting to the composer's intentions here.

Christmas CD Reviews (2011 Edition, Part 2)

Every year I'm interested in hearing some new Christmas and holiday music. When I asked folks for some of their (non-kids-music) favorites on my Facebook page, I got a ton of different responses (and even more on my personal FB page). And while I listened to a few of them on Spotify (liked the Shawn Colvin, the Roches and Low didn't do much for me, didn't get a chance to listen to much of Stevie Wonder), adding comments on those in addition to the nine disks below was just going to be too much. Some of the albums below are new, some old, and I'm pretty sure you're gonna find at least one you like. I'd also note that my distinction between Christmas/holiday albums from kids' musicians and those from non-kids' musicians (below) is artificial at best, seeing as three of the artists below have released full-on albums for kids (and a fourth isn't yet a teenager herself). I think mostly I couldn't bear the thought of reviewing 15 or so albums in a single review. OfARose.jpgWe'll start off with the newest album, released just a couple weeks ago. It's called Of a Rose, and it's a collection of holiday recordings from the Grammy-winning Phoenix Chorale. (Full disclosure time: not only did they give me a copy for possible review, I'm friends with a number of the Chorale's members, including Executive Director and Assistant Conductor Joel Rinsema, who I interviewed a few years back.) I am not a choral expert -- heck, I'm not even a choral novice -- but the collection of live recordings of seasonally appropriate music led by artistic director and conductor Charles Bruffy is well done and very much satisfies my need at this time of year for music that puts in me in a contemplative mood under dark and/or cloudy skies. There are a handful of familiar songs -- "Lo, How a Rose" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" -- but the Chorale has in recent years programmed adventurously and the selection reflects that. But don't be afraid of that if you're chorally deficient -- this is good stuff. You can order the disk here (and if you're reading this this weekend, yes, they'll get it to you in time for Christmas). SouthwestChristmas.jpgWhile we're on the subject, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Chorale's other holiday disk, A Southwest Christmas, released back in 1997 under their previous conductor and when they were still known as the Phoenix Bach Choir. We've had the album for a couple years, and what I appreciate about this album is how it indeed has a "Southwest" feel. I can't say the Native American Flute-accompanied "Noel Sing We!" is a favorite of mine, but it's appropriate. (I much prefer the set of traditional Christmas songs in English and Spanish called "Milagros de Navidad.") It makes for a nice contrast with Of a Rose -- more traditional songs, but with arrangements you might not hear as often this time of year.

Monday Morning Smile: "Down by the Salley Gardens" - Yale Whiffenpoofs

Miss Mary Mack had her first school choir concert of the year last week. 90-odd kids singing with no small degree of talent. Hearing her sing in that choir made me happy for many reasons, not the least of which was that I'd heard her singing this song through the house for the past month and so I was glad to hear it in polished, choral form. My favorite song her choir sang was "Down by the Salley Gardens," which is based on an 1889 poem by W.B. Yeats with a vocal setting by Benjamin Britten:
Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet; She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet. She bid me take life easy, as the leaves grow on the tree; But I, being young and foolish, with her did not agree. In a field by the river my love and I did stand, And on my leaning shoulder she placed her snow-white hand. She bid me take love easy, as the grass grows on the weirs; But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.
As you might expect, hearing these words from a bunch of middle schoolers put a different spin on the text. But Britten's setting (and his piano accompaniment) is so very lovely and made me smile. Wistfully, perhaps, but smile nonetheless. Also: so short -- totally memorizable. Now to track down chords. Anyway, this is one of the best versions I could find online. It omits the piano and so isn't quite the version I heard, but the melody is the same. Yale Whiffenpoofs - "Down by the Salley Gardens" [YouTube]

Itty-Bitty Review: Sing Along Piano Classics - Beethoven's Wi

BeethovensWigSingAlongPiano.jpgWhile the concept of Richard Perlmutter's Beethoven's Wig is kinda genius -- take famous classical melodies and attach often-funny lyrics to them -- I'd kinda found the past couple entries a little lacking, at least compared to the first couple albums. It was the Die Hard of kids music -- starting out strong, but no longer essential. Well, John McClane won't head back to theatres for a fifth time until February 2013, but Perlmutter is bringing back his own creation for a fifth time in the recently-released Sing Along Piano Classics. If this new album is any indication, you may want to keep that weekend free for moviegoing because Bruce Willis Richard Perlmutter brings back his "A" game. As the title suggests, Perlmutter uses famous piano melodies as the basis for his "Weird Al"-like parodies, and many of them hit the mark. "A Piano Is Stuck in the Door" reworks Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" to amusing effect, while "Poor Uncle Joe" appropriately talks about death in Frederic Chopin's Funeral March. A death of a car, but still. Most of the melodies are very familiar, and Perlmutter tweaks that familiarity on that in some cases -- lots of nonsense syllables in his version of W.A. Mozart's Sonata in C Major, or a clucking chicken in "My Little Chicken." And his take on Mozart's "Alla Turca" (unfamiliar name, but a familiar melody), which he calls "Mozart Makes Kids Smart," is slyly sarcastic ("Instantly / kids can be / the Little Einsteins we expect now / Did you know / with more Mozart / there'd be no child left behind?"). Given the occasionally tricky wordplay, the album is most appropriate for kids ages 6 and up. The 45-minute album features both versions with and without the lyrics; you can hear samples here. Ironically, given his gentle mocking of the "Mozart Effect," Sing Along Piano Classics is actually a pretty good introduction to some famous classical melodies, pairing some well-loved (and in some cases, centuries-old) melodies with smart and silly lyrics. It's a lot of fun. Yippee-ki-yay, Mozart-lover. Definitely recommended.