You have finished your Christmas shopping, of course -- all but that perennial problem on your list, the music lover who already has everything. Briefly discussed below are a few records that this problem person does not have. They are also, by no accident, a lively sample of musical activity by Washington area performers and small record companies.
* "Classics Illustrated": Conversations about music with people who know more than you do -- Howard Scott and Miles Hoffman (H&H 0001). Dr. Marvin Babble is an eminent American composer inclined to engage in intense metaphysical discussions about such subjects as "productivity of notes," in which the United States and Babble set standards for the world. Babble also produces words at an incredible pace, but seeks a reality beyond mere verbalization. "Nobody who uses words can really understand my music," he proclaims.
Oberon ("Twinkie") Twink, director of the Flatbush Avenue Institute for Renaissance Studies, became a specialist in Renaissance music because he wasn't much good at anything else. His knowledge of the Renaissance was "picked up on the street," and he is not quite sure whether Renaissance part songs should be called "madrigals" or "marigolds."
Backstage, Twink and Babble are actually Miles Hoffman, a violist with the National Symphony Orchestra, the artistic director of the excellent Library of Congress Summer Chamber Festival and a comedian of specialized but impressive talents. This record, excerpted from a series of musical discussions that originated on WETA-FM several years ago, features Hoffman in four roles, interviewed by Glen Howard, a Washington attorney, tenor in the Choral Arts Society and proprietor of a speaking voice that has exactly the right tone of snobbish superiority for a radio program featuring "people who know more than you do."
As ichthyologist and musicologist Dr. Joe Bob Jones, Hoffman sings Schubert's "The Trout" in Texas-accented German. But his most striking role is "Bubba" Offanonanoff, Russian e'migre' ocarina virtuoso whose life style and use of English are remarkably similar to those of a Russian cellist and conductor who has achieved some prominence in the Washington area. The fact that Hoffman still has his job after taping that item testifies to the broad-mindedness of his employer. He is very funny and has the good taste not to do imitations of music critics -- at least not where anyone can hear him. The record can be ordered for $10 from H & H Records, Box 53296, Temple Hills Station, Washington, D.C. 20009. District residents should add 50 cents for tax.
* "The Solo Mandolin: Baroque to Modern." Neil Gladd, mandolinist (Plucked String PSD 002). For several years, Neil Gladd has been performing in and around Washington as a solo mandolinist -- economically a precarious vocation, but one in which he has attracted considerable critical acclaim. His first recording, issued by a new company that seems to be specializing in mandolin music, is a dazzler. Besides a few solo virtuoso showpieces, he plays his transcription of Bach's Partita in D Minor and two of his own compositions: a Sonata that combines lyricism with brilliant technical display and a "Partita a Dodici Toni" that uses 12-tone techniques in the characteristic dance forms of a Bach suite. His fascination both as a composer and as a performer is strangely enhanced by the limitations of his instrument.
Mandolin devotees should also be aware of PSD 001, a memorial album (painstakingly gathered from tapes of live performances) for Howard Frye (1920-1967), an extraordinary musician whose instrument was the mandolin. The records can be ordered for $9.98 each from Plucked String, P.O. Box 11125, Arlington, Va. 22210.
* "Jewels of the Sephardim," sung by Lauren Pomerantz (AEA 1401). A rich body of folk music, sung by Jews in Spain before Columbus sailed to America, has been preserved for half a millennium in the Middle East and southern Europe, where the Sephardim fled when they were expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella. Sung in Ladino, a language closely related to medieval Spanish, the songs are exquisitely crafted, wonderfully exotic in their melodic contours and vocal ornaments, and richly emotional in forms that include narrative ballads, lullabies, lyrics of the joy and pain of love.
Lauren Pomerantz, a classically trained singer with a strong affinity for folk idioms, is an excellent interpreter of this music, which demands ability in a variety of styles, evoking sometimes the courtly entertainments of the Renaissance, sometimes the earthy day-to-day life of a Middle Eastern village. This unusual and extraordinarily appealing record can be ordered from AEA Records, 1305 Ruppert Rd., Silver Spring, Md. 20903.
* "Abe Lincoln in Song and Story," written, produced and directed by Ailene Goodman (Eliza Records). This record includes a highly anecdotal account of Lincoln's life, some of his favorite jokes, a lot of the music that he enjoyed and some music written about him. The presentation is warm, bright and lively, mingling music with spoken words in a fast-moving, wide-ranging mix that never allows interest to lag for a moment. Lincoln's humanity emerges in fine detail and with remarkable warmth. The record can be found in the Smithsonian shops and other outlets in Washington or ordered directly from Eliza Records, 3304 Rittenhouse St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20015.