Sunday, July 15, 2018

Fidel Leal, Piano

Friday night I attended a local piano recital, part of a series titled the Steinway Series, largely because, for much of the year, they have the use of a quite good Steinway grand. The concerts are held in what used to be a nunnery and is now an arts center. The concert was well-attended by permanent residents rather than the transient population that we find at the winter concert series, Pro Musica.

The Steinway Series is organized by a transplanted New Yorker, Frederic Dannen, who does a pretty good job. For this concert he booked a young Cuban pianist named Fidel Leal who is currently a graduate student at the Hayes School of Music in North Carolina. Here is his program:

J. S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B major (WTC Bk I)

Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat major

I. Cervantes: Cuatro Danzas Cubanas

Carlos Fariñas: Dos Sones Sencillos

Ernesto Lecuono: Dos Danzas Cubanas

Encore: Intermezzo by Manuel Ponce

The Bach was very well played in a brisk sort of way. The Prokofiev was excellent, but the last movement was just too fast for the rhythms to be clearly audible--mind you, everyone except Grigory Sokolov makes this mistake. The Cuban music was excellently played, of course.

It is a bit of a puzzlement to me why the musical cultures of Latin America vary so widely. Some nations, like Cuba, Brazil and Argentina are just overflowing with lovely and expressive music. Others, like Peru, Bolivia and, I'm sorry to say, Mexico, just don't seem to have the same gifts. Let me hasten to say that this is not a phenomenon restricted to Latin America. We see the same thing in Europe where the massively unmusical country of Switzerland is wedged in between two of the most musical nations of all, Italy and Austria. Sorry, Switzerland!

The Cuban music was charming, if a bit inconsequential. The only thing about the concert that didn't really work, I think, was the combining the fairly light Cuban pieces, with the more serious Bach and Prokofiev. The most striking and successful performance, certainly from the audience's enthusiastic reaction, was the Prokofiev so I would have put the Bach first, the Cuban music in the middle and the Prokofiev at the end. Incidentally, the program was played without intermission.

The Ponce is a lovely, haunting little piece, the perfect encore, especially in a concert in Mexico. Manuel Ponce, an exceptionally gifted musician who wrote a great deal of music for guitarist Andrés Segovia, was of the first generation of Mexican composers to take the traditions of the local popular music seriously.

What was particularly interesting to me in this concert was the high quality of the performance. Indeed, this is the best piano recital I have heard here in quite a while. The winter concert series, with the exception of a concert by Israeli Ran Dank, seems to get more and more mediocre players every year who pound away as they deliver one dreary and predictable program after another. Yet that is the supposed "professional" series. I would rather listen to young artists like Fidel Leal with solid musicianship.

About the only thing in the program that I found a bit tiresome were the lengthy verbal introductions to the pieces. I suppose they are necessary in these days when most audience members know almost nothing about the music beforehand. But still... A concert where no word is spoken is one that preserves the magic of the musical journey. One with constant verbal commentary does not.

Let's have a listen to that Intermezzo by Ponce. The pianist is Mauricio Nader.


Friday, July 13, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

The first item is particularly miscellanea-worthy: The 30 Harshest Musician-on-Musician Insults in History.
15. Elvis Costello on Morrissey
“Morrissey writes wonderful song titles, but sadly he often forgets to write the song.”
Unfortunately, most of the rest were very disappointing! Simple calumny with no wit. I could do better! "U2 play as if they secretly realize they are talentless frauds."

* * *

Musicians' creative response to airline luggage policy: AIRLINE REFUSED TO BOARD THIS ORCHESTRA’S INSTRUMENTS, SO….
…. the musicians checked in empty cases, but carried their naked violins on board. And started playing.
* * *

Dhahran - The first international theater that opened at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithraa) Saturday will feature various international musical productions after opening with Russian orchestra Mariinsky who performed on the second and third days of Eid al-Fitr.
President and CEO of oil company Saudi Aramco Amin Nasser said “the theater will have a significant role in enriching the cultural and creative landscape in our country.”
* * *

Anne Midgette in the Washington Post reviews "Hamilton": Art by heart: ‘Hamilton’ is opera for our time.
Broadway shows have better production values than operas. How could they not? For all of the stereotypes about large-scale opera productions, and for all of their tremendous costs, opera generally comes to the stage after four to six weeks of rehearsal. Although the piece is almost always a known quantity, often adorned with the label of “masterpiece,” that amount of rehearsal time isn’t anywhere near enough to bring to the stage a well-oiled machine like “Hamilton,” honed over months of crafting and, by now, years of performance.
The irony is that what “Hamilton” represents now is exactly what opera used to be: a thrilling, contemporary, immersive stage presentation that’s a union of story, text, music, image and movement, and that gets under the skin and into the blood of a wide audience that feels it speaks profoundly to them.
I guess I will have to give it a listen.

* * *

Here is a very interesting piece on the rise and fall and rise again of sumptuary rules: The Evils of Cultural Appropriation.
In ancient Rome, only Roman senators were allowed to wear Tyrian purple on their togas—ordinary Romans could not. In feudal Japan, people of every class submitted to strict laws about what they could and could not wear, according to their social rank. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, the nobility policed the clothing of the middle classes, making sure to keep them in their place. In any society in which there has been high levels of inequality—where monarchs and aristocrats have ruled over commoners and slaves—equality in dress has been considered, at the very least, bad manners.
While sumptuary laws (rules that govern conspicuous consumption, especially of food and clothing) fell mostly out of fashion in the West during the Enlightenment period, they appear to be back in style again, thanks to the orthodoxies of social-justice activism fueled by social media.
The whole essay is well worth reading for its account of recent instances of cultural appropriation. Then there is this:
In their newly released book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, the moral sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning describe the three main moral cultures that exist today, which they give the shorthand labels of dignity, honor, and victimhood. A dignity culture, which has been the dominant moral culture of Western middle classes for some time, has a set of moral values that promotes the idea of moral equality and was crystallized in Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision that people ought to be judged according to the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
Victimhood culture departs from dignity culture in several important ways. Moral worth is in large part defined by the color of one’s skin, or at least one’s membership in a fixed identity group: i.e., women, people of color, LGBTIQ, Muslims, or indigenous peoples. Such groups are sacred, and a lack of deference to them is seen as a sign of deviance. The reverse is true for those who belong to groups that are considered historical oppressors: whites, males, straight people, Zionists. Anyone belonging to an “oppressor” group is stained by their privilege, or “whiteness,” and is cast onto the moral scrapheap.
In a recent interview in the online magazine which I edit, Quillette, I asked Campbell and Manning what they thought about cultural appropriation. They explained that they found such complaints baffling, like everybody else, but that they also “illustrate victimhood culture quite well.” One of the key components of victimhood culture is its projection of collective guilt, social offenses between individuals are no longer about the actual people involved, they are about “one social group harming another.”
To which I again reply that moral agency and desert is individual, not collective as anyone who has been accused of something their brother did will acknowledge.

* * *

We need something, uh, less serious now. How about a young violinist who can play some pretty fine fiddle music while hoola-hooping? Pauline Lee … The 10-Year-Old Hula-Hooping Violinist. I can't embed the video so y'all will have to follow the link!

* * *

A propos of absolutely nothing, let's have a listen to Miles Davis' take on the Rodrigo guitar concerto Concierto de Aranjuez from the album Sketches of Spain:


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Anna Meredith


I've run across a couple of clips of music by Anna Meredith, a British composer, lately. My first impression was that it sounded like Vivaldi being mugged in an alley by members of Metallica. The first piece in the concert above doesn't stray far from that characterization! The second one, with shaky singing by the composer and the band, is quite different. She sort of sits in that odd zone between composition and song-writing which is, I guess, these days, not odd at all but almost the recommended place to be, from a career point of view at least.

I don't know what you think, you will let me know in the comments, but I actually found this listenable. The second piece, or song, reminded me of the Incredible String Band if they had had a tuba player.

I love her shirt.

I think...

The third piece, song, item, whatever, was also pretty interesting with a wildly divergent texture held together by one of the most frenetically difficult rhythm guitar parts I have ever heard. But interesting, no doubt. And original.

And they are undeniably having a lot of fun. Which makes it all more interesting, not less! Well, not the tuba player, of course. But the cellist is having an indecent amount of fun so it all balances out. Hell, I had fun!

Friday, July 6, 2018

SLAVery and Aesthetics

One of the major productions of the Festival de Jazz de Montréal this year was the theatre revue SLAV directed by Robert Lepage. Margaret Wente at the Globe and Mail has a column on the controversy.
Are white people entitled to perform songs composed by black slaves?
The answer, it appears, is a resounding no. This week, in the face of mounting protests, the Montreal International Jazz Festival cancelled the show SLAV only a few days after it began its sold-out run.
SLAV is (or was) a theatre revue that explored slavery and oppression throughout history, using the vehicle of black slave songs. Its star was a white singer named Betty Bonifassi. Four of its six supporting cast members were also white, and so was its director, the legendary theatre great Robert Lepage. That spelled trouble from the start. Protesters denounced the show as a racist appropriation of black culture. “Is there nothing y’all won’t steal?” one sign read. “White culture is theft.”
The column also takes a look at the trend:
Complaints of cultural offence are widespread these days. They have shut down two separate theatre productions of Othello in Canada, where the directors had the idea of casting Othello as a woman. In Britain, a student production of Aida was shut down because activists warned that white people (instead of, presumably, Egyptians) might be cast in the leads. Yet when the Stratford Festival cast a black actor in the lead role of The Music Man (that whitest of all shows), everybody cheered. How does this make sense?
Something else that doesn't make a lot of sense is condemning the star, Betty Bonifassi:
Ms. Bonifassi has been performing these songs for 15 years, based on material she researched and developed herself. She has released two albums related to her research. This show was five years in the making. She has an impressive voice and a huge stage presence. She’s not just a hired gun. She created the show. Without her, it wouldn’t exist.
So, if you are white, you are not allowed to make creative use of black culture as that would be cultural appropriation. If we were to apply that more widely the music of, among others, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton would be disallowed. What if we reversed this logic? What if other ethnicities were not allowed to use anything from white culture? It sounds weird just stating it. But things like music notation, tonality, 12-bar blues and a host of other structural underpinnings of music would be disallowed under that criterion.

The underlying moral truth that I think is being violated here I would state as moral agency and moral desert are individual, not collective. In other words your moral and aesthetic worth, positive or negative, has nothing to do with your ethnicity or any other collective grouping. It is individual. This truth was behind the creative understanding of the producers:
But Ms. Bonifassi never had a chance. She was doomed by the colour of her skin. She was also doomed by her explanation that she wanted the show to be colour-blind. “I don’t see colour; to me it doesn’t exist, physically or in music,” she told the Gazette’s music critic. ”We don’t talk about black and white in the show. We talk about human pain, experienced together. All cultures and ethnicities suffer the same.”
Alas, even saying that is not allowed these days and the production was cancelled early in its run. Strange days. Here is a clip of Eric Clapton re-creating a great Robert Johnson song (that was also covered by the Rolling Stones), "Love in Vain":

Friday Miscellanea

One of the topics that I find endlessly fascinating is the economics of the art world and here is a new scholarly paper on the subject: The Economics of Renaissance Art. Sadly, I don't think you can access it unless you have a subscription to The Journal of Economic History, but here is the abstract:
I analyzed the market of paintings in Florence and Italy (1285–1550). Hedonic regressions on real prices allowed me to advance evidence that the market was competitive and that an important determinant of artistic innovation was driven by economic incentives. Price differentials reflected quality differentials between painters as perceived at the time (whose proxy is the length of the biography of Vasari) and did not depend on regional destinations, as expected under monopolistic competition with free entry. An inverse-U relation between prices and age of execution is consistent with reputational theories of artistic effort, and prices increased since the 1420s.
The music world does not have an equivalent to Vasari that enables us to calibrate the relative reputations of Renaissance composers. I suppose that Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music might have to do.

* * *

There was a rare performance of Gruppen, Stockhausen's formidably difficult piece for three orchestras, in London recently. The Guardian has a review:
Stockhausen’s 1958 masterwork Gruppen für drei Orchester (Groups for three orchestras) involves no helicopters, but the forces it does require – three spatially separated orchestras comprising about 100 musicians all told, and three conductors – plus its sheer intricacy, are enough to make it a rare work to experience live. But this is as much an art installation as a concert work, and in many ways it was right at home in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.
Go read the whole review. Gruppen was preceded by Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum:
The public nature of the space felt entirely appropriate and the music made a forceful impact, but there were moments of quiet, intense beauty too. The final movement, with the gong pulsing, suggested a giant creature slowly breathing; then the sound grew into a mass of noise that seemed to feed off itself. It was exhilarating to the ear.
* * *

Apparently I am not alone: What Classical Music Can Learn From Kanye West is a new article in The Atlantic.
Since 2016, Feigenbaum and the conductor Yuga Cohler have periodically put on performances they call “Yeethoven,” including two in Los Angeles and one at New York City’s Lincoln Center. With a contingent of classical instrumentalists, they trace the similarities between the works of a 21st-century rapper/producer and a 18th- to 19th-century composer.
“We wanted to figure out why it was that the two of us, and a lot of our friends in classical music, were so enamored with Kanye’s music,” Feigenbaum said before an abridged Yeethoven set last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival (sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic). The five songs they played comprised selections from 2013’s Yeezus—a noisy and divisive album that Cohler and Feigenbaum hear as a turning point in West’s career—and 2016’s The Life of Pablo. Some of the tracks were mashed up with Beethoven compositions. One point of comparison: the jarring tonal switch in the end of “New Slaves,” recalling the turn at the close of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Another: the way West’s “Waves” uses its high end to keep time and its low end to convey melody, much like in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8.
Here is a sample: some Beethoven (the Egmont Overture followed by "New Slaves"):


One of the interesting things there is the audience reaction: as soon as they hear something they recognize, they start clapping. And I'll bet Viennese audiences did the same as soon as they recognized the themes of their favorite arias in The Magic Flute.

* * *

A really unfortunate holiday, related in Standpoint Magazine:
The most notoriously unsuccessful holiday in the history of classical music was that taken by Chopin and his androgynous literary lover George Sand (and her family) in Majorca in 1838-1839. The trousered, cigar-smoking Sand was derided by Baudelaire as possessing the morals of a janitress; her future lover Alfred de Musset mordantly observed of the silver dagger which pinned her hair that “a woman of such slight virtue hardly required so immoderate a weapon”. Chopin’s characteristically acidulous comment on his first encounter was, “What an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?” That was in 1836; by 1838 the two were lovers. They numbered Delacroix (who painted them both) and Heine among their Paris friends.
* * *

The Spectator weighs in on the "new musicology" in a piece by Damian Thompson: The virtuoso virtue-signallers of classical music. This will not be an unfamiliar theme for Music Salon readers:
If you’re looking for virtuoso virtue-signallers, then classical music is the place to start. But right-on competitions are merely the gruesome fruit of something more deeply rooted: an intellectual culture poisoned by late 20th-century identity politics and postmodern verbiage. That’s a problem in other disciplines, of course, but at least artistic and literary pseuds attract mockery. It flourishes in university music departments because no one gives a toss what happens there.
From my experience, university music departments have a kind of dual nature. On the one hand, a minority of the students and professors are involved in musicology and are to one degree or another affected by the tenets of post-modernism. On the other hand, however, the majority of the students and professors are practical musicians who are focussed on delivering a good concert experience. The world of performers is less influenced by what you might call "extra-musical" criteria. The Slipped Disc post referring to this article has attracted some interesting comments.

* * *

I think the first piece I ever heard by Messiaen was Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum an excerpt of which was on a sampler album I purchased around 1970. I believe the conductor was Daniel Barenboim, just starting his career as a conductor. Let's have a listen. This is the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conductor: Myung-Whun Chung:


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Should Art Make You Uncomfortable?

I read Ann Althouse's blog on a regular basis, largely because she talks about a wide range of things, nearly all of which I don't talk about. She also has a good comment section. Very occasionally she writes about music. This recent post is an example: "This is the definition of art that has always most excited me: the feeling of being taken to the boundary of the universe, then beyond that boundary..."

Go read the whole post. The quote is from this article in The Atlantic. Here is the whole paragraph:
This is the definition of art that has always most excited me: the feeling of being taken to the boundary of the universe, then beyond that boundary into the surrounding darkness, and you’re the first person to ever be there. It’s not an experience that happens very often, but I’m willing to wait. I’ve never been someone who’s enjoyed music in general, or contemporary fiction in general, or films in general, or theater in general. I feel I’m standing on the runway waiting for the next big one to come in, carrying some of that outer darkness with it.
That is something that resonates with my understanding. It also echoes some comments Jordan Peterson has made about art, that artists are those people who go out into the darkness (the chaos) surrounding the comfortable fire of society and discover/gather new things and ideas to inspire artworks. In case you don't know it, here is the first track from the album Bitches Brew released in 1970. I think I bought it on vinyl the year it came out.


This was certainly an influential album and quite an experimental one. Ann brings in the fields of comedy, religion and politics, asking if they should also make you uncomfortable. I guess my view is that some art (comedy, religion and politics) certainly should make you uncomfortable, but not all. A lot of people listen to music, not to be made uncomfortable, but to be soothed. Similarly with religion and politics. Comedy I am less sure of. I'm not sure if uncomfortable is the right word for what I look for in music. Again, different musics provide different kinds of experiences. I think what I look for is music that takes us somewhere, on a journey, perhaps. It doesn't have to take us to an uncomfortable place, just a different one. If that place is interesting and unusual and unfamiliar, then the journey was particularly successful. But the experience of most people with most music is probably that of comfort and familiarity! That is often what we look for. And when we get bored with it, then we look for the new and unusual and will tolerate some discomfort. It is always a bit uncomfortable to stretch yourself, but usually a very healthy thing to do.

Here are three pieces of music that may make different listeners a bit uncomfortable. The first one is "All of the Lights" by Kanye West that is very likely to make classical listeners very uncomfortable:


Next is something that would apparently drive away "loiterers" from outside 7-Elevens, Concerto No. 3 from L'Estro Armonico by Antonio Vivaldi:


And finally something that would make most listeners uncomfortable unless they are in that small group that seeks out this kind of thing: Eight Songs for a Mad King, by Peter Maxwell Davies:


Monday, July 2, 2018

A Moment with Louis Couperin

I just stumbled across a lovely recording of suites by Louis Couperin (c. 1626 – 29 August 1661). This is Blandine Verlet and I think she is playing on a 1624 Ruckers.


The 17th and 18th century French music, that is, the music of the ancien regime, for some reason I find particularly elegant and expressive. It is both lively and melting, warm and piercing, and with a unique intimacy. I suspect the reasons for this might include that it was composed and performed for a small class of highly refined listeners, the nobility, who were great music lovers and strongly supported talented musicians. Yes, I'm sure there was a lot of competition, back-biting and so on. But it was all on the personal level, not at the industrial levels we have today.

You might find the tuning to be unfamiliar. I'm not sure of the exact temperament she is using, but it is certainly not equal temperament! There are a lot of possible choices, from meantone to Werckmeister III and I can't distinguish them offhand. I'm pretty sure it's not meantone as that would be a lot crunchier!

One thing I particularly like about this music is the rhythmic "feel" of it, the way it rolls over and wanders expressively. It is propulsive without ever having the lead-footed heaviness that seems to plague pop music.

What do you think of this music?