Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Concerto Guide: Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64

Apologies for the hiatus! I got very busy for a few days and was not able to do any posting.

Felix Mendelssohn, the grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, was born into a prominent Jewish family though raised without religion and later baptised as a Christian. Am I correct in thinking that he is the first composer of Jewish descent that we have encountered in our concerto guide? Mendelssohn was the most gifted musical prodigy in history after Mozart (and Rosen places him even higher). As a teenager he was powerfully influenced by late Beethoven, or at least, aspects of late Beethoven. Mendelssohn, while possessing great lyric gifts, did not seem to inherit the bedrock grittiness of Beethoven.

Looking at both the Schumann Piano Concerto we talked about last week and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, I think it is safe to say that both composers were working in the shadow of Beethoven. Music was taking a new direction and it was being crafted to appeal to a new audience. Paganini and Liszt were discovering that the middle class concert audiences, so much larger than the aristocratic ones of the previous generations, had a liking for sheer instrumental virtuosity. Composers like Schumann and Mendelssohn combined some of that with a lyrical touch because, as Stephen Spielberg has discovered in our day, mass market audiences also have a taste for sentimentality and melodrama.

Whether or not one composer influenced the other, or whether both had one of the later Beethoven piano concertos in mind, one significant departure from 18th century practice for both of these concertos was to begin with the solo instrument. Schumann has a series of weighty chords where the piano strikes a very dominant attitude and Mendelssohn gives the first theme to the violin before the orchestra states it. Both avoid the typical 18th century practice (occasionally violated, especially by Mozart) of giving the orchestra an opening tutti where they state one or more of the themes. The tidiness of the earlier practice is now giving way to a much more dramatic one: the individual! Stands up! Against the crowd! This was both musically powerful and socially appealing.

Mendelssohn is often accused of being too sweet, too comfortable and lacking the dramatic force that Beethoven possessed. The opening melody, given to the violin, has a wonderful sweep and grace, but it does tend to become rather pedestrian as it progresses. If you compare this theme with those I quoted from the Beethoven Violin Concerto you might be struck by how terse they are compared to how lengthy and flowing this one is:

I mentioned the prominent place that the solo instrument is given at the very beginning: another innovation in the Mendelssohn is movement of the cadenza--fully written out--from the very end of the movement to the transition from the development to the recapitulation. As we will see later this year, Sibelius took this even further and made the violin cadenza into the development in his Violin Concerto. The Classical forms were becoming something of a Procrustean bed for the Romantic composers. They were relaxing and loosening the binding forces of harmonic tension and because of this the formal logic of the Classical forms was becoming less compelling. Using the virtuosity of the cadenza solved, for Mendelssohn the problem of the draining away of tension that sometimes plagued the end of his developments.

Now let's listen to the concerto, one of the most beautiful and charming Violin Concertos ever written. Here is Hilary Hahn with Paavo Jarvi conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra:

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Greatest Symphonist

I've always had a tremendous attraction to the symphony: with the exception of opera, probably the greatest musical form (genre, vehicle). A large multi-movement work for the greatest instrument of all, the symphony orchestra, it has attracted the talents of nearly every composer since the early days of the genre in the 1760s. Sure, the more extreme modernists eschewed all the traditional forms. Can you imagine a symphony by John Cage? For twelve radios tuned randomly, no doubt. However, since the 1970s even the more progressive composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies and Philip Glass have been writing symphonies. So I suspect that it still reigns as the greatest instrumental form.

This brings up the question, who is (or was) the greatest symphonist of this quarter-millennium of symphonies? The palm would usually be awarded to either Beethoven, by the classicists, or Mahler, by the romantics. But there are other possibilities. An argument could be made for the fifteen symphonies of Shostakovich, of which some are very, very fine. But what about Mozart? Some of his are absolutely superb. And there is Sibelius, with seven excellent symphonies. The more unbuttoned among us might even vote for someone like Allan Pettersson. You could even make an attempt to put forth Schubert, who wrote eight, but the last two of which are stunning.

But let me sow some seeds of doubt. There is one composer who, towards the end of his life, wrote a set of twelve symphonies, more, you should note, than Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler, Brahms, Dvorak or Sibelius managed in their whole lives, that are as fine as any written by anyone. And this was after having written ninety-four previous symphonies! Now you know who I am talking about: Joseph Haydn. I don't think I have ever listened to any of his symphonies without a feeling of delight. I am just getting to the end of listening to all one hundred and six of them for the second time and I am even more impressed. True, those by Bruckner and Mahler are a lot longer, but so what? There is a lot of padding there, if you ask me! But Haydn? I don't think he was capable of writing anything that was padded, watered down, or just musically weak or questionable. He wrote symphonies the way we might walk to the store or make tea. It was what he had done his whole life and, in my books, he does it as least as well as anyone else.

I give you Haydn, the greatest symphonist. As evidence, here is one of the London symphonies. No. 97 in C major, with no nickname, no special tricks. Just another superb symphony by the master:

An Aesthetic Conundrum: Design and Music

I just read one of the New Yorker's mega-reads, this one devoted to Sir Jonathan Ive, the head of design at Apple and one of the most powerful and influential people in the world. As the fellow who designed the MacBook Pro, iMac, MacBook Air, Mac mini, iPod, iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad, iPad Mini, Apple Watch and iOS 7, he has been instrumental in Apple's growth to the point where it is now by far the largest company in history (by market cap), making up 10% of the NASDAQ, and personally responsible for the sale of one and a half billion units of technology. Like Steve Jobs, he is famously fastidious in his taste. Quoting the New Yorker:
a hundred thousand Apple employees rely on his decision-making—his taste—and that a sudden announcement of his retirement would ambush Apple shareholders.
Speaking as one of those Apple shareholders, Jony, please don't retire!

A huge part of his talent and responsibility is in fact, the possession of a highly-developed taste. Quoting from the New Yorker article:
Ive manages newness. He helps balance the need to make technological innovations feel approachable, so that they reach a mass market—Choo Choo—with the requirement that they not be ugly and infantile. Apple has made missteps, but the company’s great design secret may be avoiding insult. Antonelli, of MOMA, described Apple’s design thoughtfulness as “a sign of respect,” and added, “Elegance in objects is everybody’s right, and it shouldn’t cost more than ugliness.”
These are tasks that are heavily freighted with aesthetics, are they not? Not ugly and infantile implies beautiful and, hmm, useful? Practical? Efficient? Certainly the word "elegance" strongly involves aesthetics. Everything I prefer about the iMac over the host of PC designs has to do with aesthetics understood in a wide sense. There is never anything insulting to the eyes, for example. (One clue as to who is winning the design wars is that you see Dell copying Apple all the time, but never the reverse.)

Now, finally we come to the conundrum: when did good taste and music, like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor become utterly estranged? And how can we get them back together? I say this because the people that create things of such superlative industrial design that I have no hesitation at calling them beautiful (such as the iMac and the iPhone), seem to have no exceptional taste in music. The design studio plays a mix that includes Counting Crows, Hootie and the Blowfish, Yaz and the Rapture (according to the New Yorker article).

What about Ive's musical tastes? Again, from the New Yorker:
Ive told me that, since childhood, he has been “consumed with work.” It’s unrewarding to question him about the movies, books, and night clubs of his youth, although at some point he acquired an abiding taste for dance music, and he has since become friends with John Digweed, the British d.j., and the members of Massive Attack. (He is also a friend of Yo-Yo Ma.)
What should we gather from this? I suppose the overwhelming fact is that his musical tastes are accidental and uncultivated. He "acquired an abiding taste for dance music". I'm not quite sure what this means: ska or EDM? In either case, something that was just in the environment, not sought out. Being friends with someone like Yo-Yo Ma probably doesn't mean that he is a Bach fan, it probably just means that they move in similar social circles.

"Work" includes a life-long devotion to knowing and understanding everything about industrial design. And, for the last few years, software design as well, as Ive has been given responsibilities for not only the box, but what comes in the box: the user interface.

What happened to music? Why is it that the powerful and influential people in the world listen to elemental pop music (called in the article "douchepop") played through superbly designed sound systems while they design superb phones and computers? Why is it that industrial design is so highly cultivated while music is not? We listen to what we are used to and what we are used to is pop music. Sorry, if I am offending anyone by calling Counting Crows and Hootie and the Blowfish "pop", but from my perspective, if it ain't Bach or Shostakovich and it's got a back-beat, it's pop:

Is this all just sociological? Somehow classical music got tarred with the wrong associations: chamber music and the aristocracy, Hitler and Wagner, stuffy clothes and no clapping between movements? And then came the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen and everything had to be either psychedelic or authentic and Prokofiev was neither?

I suspect we might need a small army of musicologists and sociologists to sort out the history of this.

I am left with the disturbing image of a room full of the best designers in the world, crafting through sheer brilliance, imagination and very hard work, absolutely superb products like this:

While listening to this?

I think I could hoe corn or polish silver while listening to that, but certainly do nothing more complex. As I quoted in the Miscellanea yesterday:
you can't write with music playing, and anyone who says he can is either writing badly, or not listening to the music, or lying. You need to hear what you're writing, and for that you need silence.
Is design something that requires no thought? Is it more like hoeing corn than writing? I doubt that.

But the conundrum remains: why is it that the standard of today is to have extremely sophisticated and cultivated tastes in things like design, but to have unsophisticated and uncultivated tastes in music?

Or do you disagree? Do you think that enjoying pop music is actually as cultivated and sophisticated as listening to Gothic organum or Mozart trios?

Please comment!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Some things about one's fellow man it is just better not to know: such as what music they like to make love to. According to Spotify this is the most popular selection:

That is so terminally boring it not only doesn't get me in the mood, it makes me question my will to live!! If you want an intro to your loving, this is more like it:

No need to thank me, just go and be happy.

* * *

Gidon Kremer is not one to mince words when he sees something not right in the music business. Via Slipped Disc we learn that he has decided to cancel a concert tour rather than put up with the shallow, sterile marketing ideas of the concert promoters:
I was particularly disturbed by the promoters’ focus on one “big name” only and the reluctance to consider others who would have treated the music with equal respect and professionalism. Not one of the substitutes I proposed was accepted. The Chopin competition winner and mature artist Yulianna Avdeeva was fortunately available on the required dates and would have been happy to play the two Chopin concertos originally planned, meaning that the programme, which also included works by Weinberg, Gorecki and Penderecki, would not have to be changed. She was wholeheartedly recommended not just by myself, but also by pianists of world-class calibre such as Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman and Daniil Trifonov himself. In fact, Daniil Trifonov was the one who approached me personally about finding a replacement. All these efforts sadly fell foul of marketing strategies.
 I think that the only good solution to this problem of celebrity-driven, shallow marketing in the classical music world is to cultivate more sophisticated appreciation of music in the general audiences. To do this there need to be capable music critics and educators working at communicating on a regular basis. Unfortunately the trend has been entirely the other way with music programs being curtailed in the schools and music critics being let go from mass media publications. Perhaps the blogosphere could take up some of the slack. Wouldn't it be great if a few music bloggers really tried to restore some level of critical commentary? Oh, wait, that's what I'm trying to do here at the Music Salon!

* * *

Amazon sent me an email titled "Hot New Releases in Classical". Of course we have to understand the word "classical" in that context not to refer to the dominant form of music in Western Civilization for the last thousand years, but to the small genre niche currently referred to as "classical". How else to explain that the first item on the list is this album:

What's my beef? Hey, they're playing cellos, aren't they? Yeah, but here is the track list:

CD Track listing
1. The Trooper Overture (Rossini 'William Tell Overture'/Iron Maiden 'The Trooper')
2. I Will Wait (Mumford & Sons)
3. Thunderstruck - Intro (Vivaldi Cello Sonata No. 4 in E minor)
4. Thunderstruck (AC/DC)
5. Hysteria (Muse)
6. Shape of My Heart (Sting)
7. Mombasa (Hans Zimmer from 'Inception')
8. Time (Hans Zimmer from 'Inception')
9. Wake Me Up (Avicii)
10. They Don't Care About Us (Michael Jackson)
11. Live and Let Die - feat. Lang Lang (Paul McCartney and Wings)
12. Street Spirit - Fade Out (Radiohead)
13. Celloverse (Original composition by Sulic & Hauser)

It's kind of like living in a future nightmare where instead of a "boot stamping on a human face - forever" (George Orwell), real classical music by people like Bach and Haydn has been replaced by pseudo-pop stylings like this.

* * *

I wonder how many people buying pop recordings realize how little the musicians actually get paid? Record company accounting is just as bad as Hollywood accounting as we find out in this illuminating article. Here is a little chart that shows just part of what is wrong with the business:

I wish someone would do a similar analysis for classical musicians.

* * *

There's a name for it! From the New York Times comes this article about misophonia which is an extreme sensitivity to certain sounds. I guess that musicians have a kind of trained misophonia. We spend years learning to listen very closely, which means of course, that it becomes harder to ignore sounds. Thanks to Ann Althouse for that link and for this one to a quote by Philip Pullman on why you can't write while music is playing:
For that reason you can't write with music playing, and anyone who says he can is either writing badly, or not listening to the music, or lying. You need to hear what you're writing, and for that you need silence.
* * *

The most interesting takeaway from the Grammy Awards show: Lady Gaga can sing!! And she can even do an excellent rendition of tunes from The Sound of Music:

Fixed the link! (I've always, secretly, liked her. Please don't tell anyone!) Tattoos are a bit distracting, though.

* * *

Here are some music students from the Louisville, Kentucky area. Doing a tuned percussion arrangement of "Kashmir" by some English band.

There was a time when students of this age would be playing Bach and Vivaldi... But we can't complain, right? Sure we can! Honestly, you don't need to spend class time on getting funky. Kids can do that on their own time.

* * *

Here is a rather sad turn of events: legendary pianist Ivo Pogorelich returns to the stage in London, but gives a very poor concert according to this review. The review links to an earlier article about the disruptions in his life caused by the breakup of Yugoslavia and subsequent wars and unrest. Worth reading. He seems to have disappeared from the concert stage for some time now as this was his first appearance at this venue since 1999. I have very fond recollections of his career. On one occasion he came to Vancouver for a pair of concerts with the symphony at which he played, if I recall correctly, the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. A music critic friend of mine attended both and had a funny story to tell about his colleague at the Vancouver newspaper. Apparently the fellow wrote a review after the first concert at which he complained about such and such. Perhaps it was too much liberty taken, or perhaps it was too little? I don't recall. But obviously Pogorelich read the review, because the next night, he did precisely the opposite! Pogorelich was at a level of mastery at which he could play a big concerto in many different ways, all superb. The hapless reviewer really didn't realise this. If Pogorelich is really playing so poorly these days, that is sad indeed. But I'm afraid that reviewers and writers have been getting him wrong for many years now, so...

* * *

Let's end the collection today with Ivo Pogorelich playing the Second English Suite by J. S. Bach. Rather well.

That gigue is just fiendishly difficult!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

John Luther Adams on Music and Politics

Pulitzer-prizewinning composer John Luther Adams has written a substantial essay for Slate, here. You should go read the whole thing. I suspect that my politics differs from Mr. Adams', but I very much appreciate his views on the relationship between politics and music:
As a composer, I believe that music has the power to inspire a renewal of human consciousness, culture, and politics. And yet I refuse to make political art. More often than not political art fails as politics, and all too often it fails as art. To reach its fullest power, to be most moving and most fully useful to us, art must be itself. If my work doesn’t function powerfully as music, then all the poetic program notes and extra-musical justifications in the world mean nothing. When I’m true to the music, when I let the music be whatever it wants to be, then everything else—including any social or political meaning—will follow.
From the titles of my works—songbirdsongsIn the White Silenceor Become Oceanit’s clear that I draw inspiration from the world around me. But when I enter my studio, I do so with the hope of leaving the world behind, at least for a while. Yet it’s impossible to sustain that state of grace for long. Inevitably, thoughts intrude: Sometimes I think about people, places, and experiences in my life. Sometimes I think about the larger state of the world, and the uncertain future of humanity. Even so, I’m not interested in sending messages or telling stories with music. And although I used to paint musical landscapes, that no longer interests me either. The truth is, I’m no longer interested in making music about anything.
These are very well-said and well thought-out sentiments about the nature of music and art. A rather cruder version of this view would be to say that a serious musician does not write musical propaganda. Or, when forced to by circumstances (as perhaps Shostakovich was under Stalin) he still tries to make it work as a piece of music, or make it ironic in some way. Music can be about something, but it doesn't need to be and the best music tends not to be.

Here is another fairly profound thought from the essay:
It’s only through the presence, awareness, and creative engagement of the listener that the music is complete.
This resonates with the Rilkian view that artists are witnesses to nature and the world and, in turn, listeners are witnesses to the beauty of art. A piece of music never played, never performed is like a poem unread or nature unseen and unfelt.

I read the essay to the end wondering if Mr. Adams' convictions about anthropogenic climate change might be stated clearly, but they only appear in one brief paragraph:
A plastic bottle among the rocks reminds me that there are vast islands of garbage drifting far out at sea. A strong gust of wind reminds me of the increasingly capricious weather, and of the storms that lash this and other shores with growing ferocity. The burning sunlight reminds me of melting tundra and expanding deserts, of diminishing polar ice and rising seas all over the earth.
As far as I can determine, all of these are half-truths (yes, seven billion people do throw a lot of plastic away, but no, polar ice is not diminishing and tundra does not actually "melt" and the weather is not increasingly capricious), held as true in a kind of religious manner by a large number of people. I am always reminded of that wonderful quote from Edward Gibbon:
“The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.”
But while our opinions on these matters may differ, I am deeply reassured by Mr. Adams' understanding of priorities and his true role. Art must indeed be itself and when it is, it will last far longer than music written as some passing piece of propaganda for whatever political purpose.

Let's listen to some music by Mr. Adams. Here is Dark Waves (2007) for orchestra and electronics:

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Concerto Guide: Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 54

At the risk of possibly disappointing some readers I am going to skip over concertos by Paganini and Chopin that would come next chronologically (the first Paganini concerto would come before Berlioz, having been composed in Italy around 1818) as they are largely vehicles for virtuoso display while the other concertos we are covering, while also vehicles for virtuosity, are more than that. Perhaps this is my own personal bias, but I find mere virtuosity, that is to say fast scales and arpeggios racing around on the instrument, when protracted, to be some of the most boring music imaginable. Virtuosity is an essential element of a concerto, but for a satisfying aesthetic experience, there must be other elements of equal interest--at least! The eternal model for the concerto might just be the Mozart piano concertos that are always beguiling, surprising and structurally powerful as well has having enough virtuosity to keep them sparkling.

In 1845, Robert Schumann completed his one-and-only piano concerto, though there are two other works by him for piano and orchestra. The concerto medium was rarely the focus of Schumann's energies--compared to his enormous output of lieder, solo piano music and even chamber music, his concertos for solo instrument and orchestra are few, amounting to the A minor Piano Concerto, the Cello Concerto (also in A minor) and the very late Violin Concerto that took until 1937 to be premiered, due to its being buried by the dedicatee Joseph Joaquim.

The Piano Concerto is not only a fine piece, well-established in the repertoire, it has also influenced a number of other composers of concertos for piano. There are probably a couple of reasons for this: first, this is really the first important Romantic era piano concerto. The ones by Franz Liszt, while there are sketches going back decades, were not completed until 1849 and later. Second, Schumann uses a number of devices that were enormously influential, such as the striking opening with the hammered-out forte E in the orchestra answered by the big dotted-rhythm chords that descend over most of the piano's range. Here is what that looks like:

A lot of the energy of this piano phrase comes from its tonicizing in succession F major in first inversion, then root position, then D minor, then A minor, then F major in first inversion again and so on. This is brought to a halt by a very powerful V7-i cadence in A minor.

This kind of opening was later used by both Grieg and Rachmaninoff. Even the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky has an opening that echoes a bit the same idea: that the individual, represented by the piano, is no longer an equal partner with the orchestra, but may even dominate it. In the Schumann, Grieg and Rachmaninoff concerti, after a sonorous downbeat by the orchestra, the piano immediately leaps in and commandeers the movement. Even in the Tchaikovsky, while giving the theme to the orchestra, the piano accompanies them with such huge, resounding chords that it sounds easily as powerful as the orchestra itself. And in short order, the piano takes the dominant role.

So Schumann was not only first out of the gate with a Romantic piano concerto, he also hit upon some characteristic strategies that other composers would make use of. Apart from the commanding opening given to the piano, the other important innovation used by Schumann is the thematic transformation of the opening theme, given first to the oboe:

Then to the piano:

This whole statement is actually a 16-measure period with the oboe ending with a half-cadence and the piano with a perfect authentic cadence. This theme appears in different guises. In the piano in C:

A very abbreviated version in the Clarinet (in A):

And so on. The idea of using transformations of a single theme to unite a movement or a whole piece while not unprecedented (think of the Bach Art of Fugue) was rather an innovation used in this way and in this genre. It would be taken up by a host of later 19th century composers, very much including Franz Liszt.

Now let's listen to a performance. The attractive soloist, Khatia Buniatishvili, in her very striking dress, wasn't the only reason I chose this version. It is a particularly crisp clip both for visual and audio. Here she is with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo J√§rvi:

Monday, February 23, 2015

Mozart texted...

A religious friend of mine told me the other day that God asked her to tell me to read Ecclesiastes. Well, ok, probably not a bad idea. So I started to read Ecclesiastes. Then I told her that Plato emailed me to tell her to read the Euthyphro. I just hope it doesn't cause her too much cognitive dissonance.

In the same vein, Mozart texted me this morning to ask me to tell you to listen to some Haydn today!

Here is the "Surprise" Symphony, one of twelve symphonies Haydn wrote towards the end of his life for performance in London. It is wonderful when a great musician like Haydn is fully rewarded and appreciated for his life's work. Because so often the opposite has happened. The "Surprise" Symphony, No. 94 in G major, is so called because of the second movement, where a very innocuous theme ends with a jolting fortissimo chord.

This chord comes back a few times, rather unpredictably, and the movement keeps getting more and more forceful (and interesting). Haydn doesn't just play one joke on the audience; the whole movement keeps going in unexpected directions. It is Haydn's great virtue as a composer that the way in which he is creative and original is unpredictable. He turns things on their head in ways you can never anticipate. I will venture out on a limb here and say that most artists, even ones we highly respect, once they discover their "style", tend to be creative in predictable ways. If there is a watch in a Dali painting, it is likely to be melting; if there is a face in a Picasso sketch, the eyes are both going to be on the same side of the nose. Et cetera. But you are never sure what Haydn is going to do with phrasing, dynamics or harmony. But you know it will be unpredictable. Of course, he sets you up. Any other composer using a theme this trite sounding is not likely to be pulling the rug out from under you when you least expect it.

Now let's listen. Here is the second movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 94 in G major:

And something else we should listen to is Turn, Turn, Turn, by Pete Seeger, using text from Ecclesiastes: