Friday, May 26, 2017

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra

Last night I heard the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, the third orchestra I have seen so far on this trip--tonight will be the fourth, the Orquesta Nacional de España. One thing I notice with all these orchestras is that with very few exceptions they all dress very formally. Every male player is in white tie formal dress and the women are in formal evening gowns. The exceptions? The Reina Sofia chamber orchestra was in "casual formal" and the conductor last night was all in black while the soloist was black tie. A bit odd.

So, last night was in the Sala Sinfónica at the Auditorio Nacional. The hall was about 90% full. Here are a couple of photos:

Sorry for the quality: iPhone 5, low light. Just enjoy the gritty verismo! The evening called for three different sized orchestras: small classical orchestra for the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 that opened the evening with pairs of winds, one tympanist and eight first violins, the rest of the strings accordingly.

Click to enlarge

The second piece was the Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra by Tchaikovsky and for it a place was made for the soloist and the orchestra slightly modified. But the big change came in the second half when the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky was played. This is for a large orchestra:

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I hope you can make them out: in the back are two tympanists playing a total of nine tympani, plus four other percussionists. There are eight French horns, six trumpets, three (I think) bassoons and two contrabassoons, a few trombones and tubas, three flutes and two piccolos, more strings (ten firsts, I think) and so on. You can make a lot of noise with that much power! I just decided to check online to see how close I am re the instrumentation. Here is what I find:
piccolos (2), flutes (3), alto flute, oboes (4), English horn, clarinet (E flat), clarinets (3), bass clarinets (2), bassoons (4), contrabassoons (2), French horns (8), piccolo trumpet (D), trumpets (4), trombones (3), tubas (3), timpani (8), bass drum, triangle, antique cymbals, strings.
Missed the alto flute, English horn (actually, I saw it, but forgot to mention it, it has a prominent part),  the piccolo trumpet and, yes, the triangle!

Now to the music. The Beethoven is a lovely piece showing a lot of the promise of his later symphonies. He didn't complete it until his 30th year, so it is in no sense a juvenile work. The orchestra played with conviction, aplomb and total command, just as one would expect. The young French cello solist, Gautier Capuçon, I was not familiar with, but he is a superb player. His upper register was brilliant and perfectly tuned. The performance was excellent. At the end, after many bows, the soloist played an encore, but it was rather different from the usual, where the soloist pulls some bon bon out of their solo repertoire. This encore was performed with accompaniment by the cello section of the orchestra. I'm afraid I couldn't make out the composer or the whole name of the piece--it was "Chanson de something"--but it was lovely and lyrical and beautifully played. A nice touch, I thought.

Then, intermission. I'm not sure how many bars are in the hall, there are several different entrances, but the one I went two had two extremely harried women serving cava like there was no tomorrow!

The second half was the Rite of Spring and it was a performance that will stick with me for a long time. I just realized that I have been listening to the Rite for around fifty years! The piece itself, premiered in 1913, just had its hundredth anniversary. It may have been the first classical piece I ever heard as way back in Grade 9, our English teacher played us this very odd piece in class one day. I have the feeling that it might have been the Rite. Then, in 1970 or 71 I bought the Boulez/Cleveland recording that had recently been released and listened to it a lot. But last night I heard things that I never noticed before. I have to underline, if there is some music you think is very good or very important, then you really have to hear it live, an actual performance. Recordings, while good in their way, always seem to miss the existential reality of the music with those little misalignments and tiny flaws that tell you that you are hearing the Real Thing, being played right in front of you by Real Musicians.

The performance was stunning, largely because of the music itself, but also because an orchestra, these days, can play this music with real authority. The score is fearsomely complex and poses huge challenges to both musicians and conductor. Oh, the conductor last night was Andrés Orozco-Estrada, a young Columbian conductor who is music director of the Houston Symphony, principal conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the London Philhamonic. How do these guys do it?

Most unusually, for me at least, the orchestra played an encore after the Stravinsky. Again, I missed the name of the piece and composer, but I think it was by a Columbian composer and was a calm and lyrical piece that settled us down after the Danse sacrale of the Stravinsky.

So, great orchestra, great music, great concert. In fact, I am inspired to do a whole series of posts on Stravinsky and the Rite. The thing about this piece is that it is very, very good. It is so incredibly powerful and not because of the large orchestra and loud percussion--those are saved just for the big climaxes. No, the reason it is powerful is because of the astonishing invention. No matter how many times you have heard this piece (I think I have heard it a hundred times at least) it is just as powerful--or more so! For months and months Stravinsky sat alone in a tiny 8x8 foot room in Switzerland, just him and a piano, struggling to write this piece. What an accomplishment.

The only possible envoi today would be the Rite of course. This is a hundredth anniversary performance at the Proms in 2013 introduced by Tom Service and conducted by François-Xavier Roth. The performance itself starts at around the 6 minute mark:

This Music Prize is Contemptible

I had this in this week's miscellanea, but realized it deserves its own post. As part of the celebrations around Canada's 150th anniversary, Vancouver announces a classical music competition, the 2017 Vancouver International Music Competition. The site preens itself with the following text:
In its 150 years, Vancouver has grown into a cosmopolitan city nestled in the great outdoors. Enjoy the snow-capped mountains, waterfront forests, cityside beaches, Olympic history and the world’s highest suspension bridge.
Yes, all that is true except the part about the suspension bridge. Vancouver doesn't seem to make the list of either highest suspension bridges or tallest structures anywhere that I can see. But the rest, yes, Vancouver is a remarkably beautiful city, but it has always had a bit of a challenge when it comes to supporting the arts. The symphony has gone bankrupt on more than one occasion, for example, and the Vancouver Opera just closed down doing a regular season of productions in favour of three productions clustered together in the spring--what they are calling a "festival" format.

But what I find annoying, no, not annoying, contemptible to a high degree, is the fluffing and preening of announcing this award compared to the minuscule prizes given to the winners.

The instruments are piano, strings (including harp and guitar) and voice. In the very grand tradition of Canadian awards and commissions that I have previously covered--would you believe a princely $800 commission to write a new piece for the carillon in Ottawa?--the grand prize in each group, piano, strings and voice, is, wait for it, drumroll please. One thousand dollars. Canadian dollars. Which comes to $746 US. Are you kidding us? Mind you, this does reveal in stark clarity just how really, really important the arts are to Canada. Not very damn.

To get the full sense of how astonishingly tiny these prizes are, let us compare them to, oh, the cost of purchasing a home in Vancouver, one of the hottest real estate markets in the world. Here, from an article in the Globe and Mail, is a brief summary of house prices in Greater Vancouver:
Sales volume peaked last March, while the average price for detached homes sold in the area called Greater Vancouver hit record highs that surpassed $1.8-million during the first quarter of 2016, according to real estate board data. The price for Greater Vancouver detached homes averaged $1.61-million in November, down 8.6 per cent from $1.76-million in July.
That includes all those remote suburbs, what about in the City of Vancouver itself?
The price for detached homes sold within Vancouver’s city limits recently averaged more than $2.6-million. 
That is the AVERAGE price. I saw another article that listed typical fixer-uppers in urban Vancouver. Yes, for around 1.5 million you get a two bedroom bungalow, one bath, about 900 sq ft. And it's a fixer-upper.

Now let's go back to those "prizes". Honestly $1,000? That reminds me of a scene from The Color of Money with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. Tom wins what he thinks is a big pot playing pool, it was a few hundred dollars, and Newman replies "you know what that buys you? One shoe!" Yep, a thousand dollars Canadian, especially in Vancouver, doesn't go very far. One night in a top hotel. Lunch for you and a few friends. Yes, this is how really proud Vancouver is of its musical talent.


Hey, Vancouver? You want to have a music competition? Offer some real prizes instead. $50,000 for each category. That would come to $150,000 or less than 10% of the cost of ONE average home sale in the Greater Vancouver area.

Otherwise, just keep your money, because you obviously can't afford to spend any of it on something as trivial as music.

No envoi for this one.

Friday Miscellanea

It's going to be a grab-bag today. Wait, that's what the Friday Miscellanea always is. Ok, then. First up, courtesy of Slipped Disc, is this little video from cellist Inbal Segev about how she uses technology. It's not on YouTube so you have to click the link.

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Music teachers believe a lot myths about neurological research into music, this article in the Pacific Standard tells us:
Asked to evaluate seven "neuromyths" regarding music, a sample of German music teachers incorrectly labeled them as scientifically proven 40 percent of the time. Disappointingly, a group of young people studying to become music teachers did no better.
"There is a gap between the state of research in neuroscience related to music education, and the knowledge of current and future music teachers about these findings," writes a research team from the Hanover University of Music led by Reinhard Kopiez. It reports instructors are particularly prone to accepting false assertions when they are accompanied by certain brain-related buzzwords.
This really shouldn't be surprising as the media are constantly pumping out articles on questionable scientific research. But one thing to realize is that none of this has anything to do with their actual jobs: to teach music! Yes, the sheer irrelevance of this kind of research to practical music-making is almost as salient as its vacuity as science.

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It is absolutely astonishing how this long essay on John Lennon's song "A Day in the Life" (with help from Paul) has almost nothing whatsoever to say about the song itself, except for the lyrics. At the end of the article, you are rather more ignorant than you were at the beginning. But you feel you understand something. We live in truly diminished times as far as public discussion and understanding--of almost anything!--goes. An example:
The song has so much happening that when I casually listen I feel the accumulated effect, but attempting to really figure out what’s going on, I fear may take the fun out of it. Liking songs is risky. They are aural fireflies, and you can get too close and lose them. If “A Day in the Life” is about anything, it speaks to the way the daily unfolding of worldly events touches the private fragilities of ordinary people. It’s Ulysses in a pop song, the typical day made unforgettable.
But here goes. What exactly is happening? In the best rock songs, you can almost see it. When Paul tells me that a girl was just 17 and I know what he means, in fact I don’t know what he means, which is the point. “A Day in the Life” is filled with a collage of images in enticing half focus. Lennon, the crowd, you, and I are all voyeurs, transfixed by something horrible, the newsworthy death. Everybody recognizes the victim but nobody knows exactly who he is.
Yes, and we really have almost no idea of what you are talking about. This is the kind of musical listening that depends on the near-total vacuity of the listener. No, liking songs in this way is really not risky and you are in no danger whatsoever of taking the fun out of it.

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Music blogger Slugging a Vampire weighs in on the music-by-committee writing of pop songs and makes some interesting points:
I think it’s very obvious that this trend is ruinous. Their music globalises and helps eviscerate local cultures. The ‘elites’ in society, for want of a better word, all swear allegiance to it where once they would have been the patrons of high culture. Politicians become too scared to be seen at the opera. Society becomes more musically illiterate as people’s musical imagination is severely restricted by the homogeneity of omnipresent pop music, and people struggle to find ‘relevance’ in serious music. Music literacy will then genuinely become the preserve of the privileged. People lose a source of profound beauty and, in the case of pop music especially, of social and communal bonds, and are given a miserable opioid substitute.
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Jessica Duchen, another music blogger, recommends an upcoming concert by the Curtis Institute orchestra and has an alumnus explain what is so great about Curtis:
"But what is this Curtis Institute?" I hear you cry. Well, it's probably the greatest music college on the planet. The place that probably trains more of the solo pianists, violinists, orchestral concert masters, principal clarinettists, Met Opera singers, composers, and conductors than any other institution in the world. From my time studying there alone, Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, and Jonathan Biss are at the forefront of pianists; the concert masters of Vienna Philharmonic, Atlanta Symphony, Met Opera Orchestra, Minneapolis Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony and soloists with every reputed orchestra. Juan Diego Florez is the most famous of the swaths of singers who have trained there; Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, Jennifer Higdon some of the most adorned composers etc.
A bassoonist friend of mine attended Curtis and yes, it is a remarkable place. Everyone is on full scholarship. She had to learn a new Vivaldi concerto every week.

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The Guardian has a review of a DVD release of the Kirov Opera (now Mariinsky Theatre) production of The Golden Cockerel conducted by Valery Gergiev:
Valery Gergiev’s Philips recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov’s stage works, with the singers and orchestra of the Kirov Opera (as the Mariinsky in St Petersburg was still called then), remains one of the landmark operatic achievements of the 1990s. Gergiev had recorded only five of Rimsky’s 16 operas when the series was halted; the most significant of the works he did not get around to were The Snow Maiden, May Night and the last and perhaps most forward-looking opera of all, The Golden Cockerel. But three years ago he conducted a new staging of the latter at the Mariinsky, directed by Anna Matison, and to some extent this DVD of that production fills the gap.
Not entirely, though. Today’s Gergiev is not the same hugely inspirational figure he was in the 1990s, when his performances of the Russian repertory in general and Rimsky in particular were so compelling. This version of The Golden Cockerel is never less than well played, and it’s occasionally very beautiful, but there’s none of the sense of crusading zeal and energy that coursed through Gergiev’s accounts of operas such as Sadko and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh two decades earlier.
* * *

 Let's listen to Maestro Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in 2005 in a performance of Scheherezade by Rimsky-Korsakov:

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Minor Post about Food

Valencia is particularly known for two food items: paella valenciana and horchata. I've had a couple of paellas in Madrid, so I didn't make a point of looking for some in Valencia where I sought out some nearby Asian restaurants. But I did have some horchata there. Horchata is a favorite summer beverage and I remembered it fondly from when I lived in Spain many years ago. It is also available in Mexico, but it just doesn't seem the same there. And now I know the reason why. In Spain, horchata is made from chufas, in English, earth almonds, which are an edible tuber. In Mexico, it is made from rice with vanilla and cinnamon and usually comes out too sweet and rather tasteless. But when made from chufas, it has an earthy tang and is wonderfully refreshing. This is one of the elements in Spanish culture traceable to the Muslim rule. Here is a picture of horchata with the main ingredient, chufas:

I popped into a supermarket in Valencia where they had a refrigerator showing the wide variety of crustaceans available:

Shown are six or seven different kinds of what we would lump into the general category of "prawns." Here there are gambas, langostinos and others for which I don't know the Spanish name.

Another excellent dish is broiled scallops on the half shell:

And finally, a little ice cream stand with a lot of very yummy looking ice creams:

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Prepping for Le coq d'or

I am going to prepare for the performance of El Gallo de Oro (Spanish), Le coq d'or (French), The Golden Cockerel (English) or Zolotoy petushok (Russian) by doing some reading up. Musicologist Richard Taruskin makes the point that the reputation of Nikolai Rimsky-Korskov has suffered in the West from a number of causes. He is known for three examples of "orientalist kitsch": Capriccho espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture and Scheherezade. But most of what he wrote, his fifteen operas are, apart from the Golden Cockerel, barely known. The Flight of the Bumblebee, arranged for virtually every instrument there is, is a very brief excerpt from his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Taruskin only escaped this conventional wisdom due to his descent from Russian jews. As a youth, he was sent recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov operas unavailable in the West

Another source of disparagement came from one of Rimsky-Korsakov's own pupils, Igor Stravinsky, who, in the process of creating his own set of origin myths, decided that it was a good strategy to depict his ex-teacher as a shallow academic. In an essay in a recent collection, Russian Music at Home and Abroad, Taruskin fleshes out the picture for us in a paper titled "Catching Up with Rimsky-Korsakov."

Speaking of Stravinsky, the theorist Arthur Berger, back in 1963, discovered some interesting things about some of his compositions, i.e. that they make use of something Berger labeled the "octatonic scale" which is a scale consisting of alternating whole and half tones:

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This came out of his studies of pieces such as Les Noces, but it explains things like the famous Petrushka-chord which is a C major chord and an F# major chord superimposed. As you can see from the scale, all six of those notes are contained in it!

As I was saying, the official discovery of this scale is attributed to Arthur Berger, who analyzed it in a scholarly paper and named it. But the scale existed before any of that. As a good music historian, Taruskin uncovers the historical origins of the scale, which was mentioned (though not by name) in Olivier Messiaen's book on his musical language. But it was also widely known in Russia as the gamma tonpoluton, the "tone-semitone scale" but also as the korsakovskaya gamma, the "Rimsky-Korsakov scale." Rimsky-Korsakov himself mentions in his autobiography that he had run across the scale in a symphonic poem by Franz Liszt. Rimsky-Korsakov's sketchbooks as well as his finished compositions are full of examples of the scale and illuminate its properties. There are even examples of the Petrushka-chord in pieces like Heaven and Earth and Tsar Saltan.

Taruskin initially thought that his music theorist colleagues would be delighted that his historical research had turned up so many preceding usages of techniques that Stravinsky later developed. He says, "there is nothing in Stravinsky up to the time of Petrushka, insofar as technique is concerned, that is not also in Rimsky-Korsakov." Well, that was a short-lived hope! The theorists quickly circled the wagons and defended the originality of Stravinsky. Why? Stravinsky is one of the defining figures of not only 20th century music, but modernism generally. The whole idea of modernism is that it was a brilliant and NEW development. No-one wants to hear anything about any historic forebears, except someone like Debussy, who is credited with the origins of modernism in music. But he is safely French! There is also, Taruskin avers, a bias against Russia and its culture.

But enough of that particular debate, let's have a look at the Golden Cockerel. This was Rimsky-Korsakov's last opera and was only premiered after his death. The libretto is based on a poem by Pushkin which itself is based on two chapters from Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving. The final result is something like a traditional Russian folktale, told from an absurdist angle. It appears from the Wikipedia article that this upcoming performance is a co-production with Brussels and the Opera National de Lorraine.

This is a 1989 Bolshoi production:

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

El Gallo de Oro

I just got an email from the Teatro Real about the Rimsky-Korsakoff opera that I will see towards the end of the month. Looking forward to this:

Doesn't that look interesting!

Xostakóvitx en Valencia

I mentioned that the orchestra concert, the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, was in an entirely different hall, the Palau de la Música, as opposed to the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía:

This is more of a conservatory with several smaller halls downstairs and it is the home of the Orchestra of Valencia. It is quite a lovely place with a huge glassed-in conservatory with restaurant/bars at each end:

The hall itself is a good size:

I'm amazed I got a ticket (purchased online a couple of months ago) as every single seat was sold:

I mentioned that the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic only takes on a new musical director on rare occasions. From 1938 to 1988 they were directed by Yevgeny Mravinsky, famous for his sober and restrained conducting style. Regarding the orchestra, David Fanning remarked:
The Leningrad Philharmonic play like a wild stallion, only just held in check by the willpower of its master. Every smallest movement is placed with fierce pride; at any moment it may break into such a frenzied gallop that you hardly know whether to feel exhilarated or terrified.
So, rather than furiously provoking them into playing as so many modern conductors do (*cough* Dudamel *cough*), Mravinsky had to hold them back. Their current conductor, Yuri Temirkanov, who took over from Mravinsky in 1988 and is still at the helm, has a bit of the same style. No baton, conducts with sober movements, occasionally looks as if he is about to dig a trench, and then a moment later is beckoning gently for more lyricism. The orchestra are really excellent. The opening overture by Glinka, from his opera Ruslan and Ludmilla, opened at a furious tempo and was impressive with its sheer orchestral virtuosity. They do not play with any feeling of antiseptic precision, but with gusto.

Next was the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. The title of this post uses the Valencian spelling of Shostakovich, which I find extremely entertaining! It reminds me a bit of some Nahuatl place names in Mexico. The soloist was the young Spanish violinist Leticia Moreno who studied at that same Escuela Superior de la Música Reina Sofía in Madrid that I took a photo of the other day. She has recorded the Shostakovich concerto with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon. She played it very well, with precision, passion, delicacy, ferocity--all of which it demands.

Shostakovich was working on the Violin Concerto No. 1 at the time of his second condemnation in 1948 and the work was not able to be premiered until 1955, by David Oistrakh, the dedicatee. The structure is very unusual: the first movement is a nocturne that Oistrakh described as a "suppression of feelings"; the second movement, a scherzo, he described as "demonic"; this is followed by a passacaglia of profound feeling and the last movement is a devil-may-care burlesque. I don't think I have ever heard of a concerto with nocturne and burlesque movements. In any case, it is a remarkable piece of music, dark and complex, and it was very well played. Ms Moreno had to return and bow several times. She was playing an instrument by Nicolò Gagliano from 1762 and it seemed to me to be perhaps too smooth a sound. It was often like the smoothest velvet, but I think I would have liked a bit more crunch.

The second half of the concert was the Symphony No. 5 by Tchaikovsky and I don't have a lot to say. I'm not sure you can say that this orchestra actually owns this music, but they certainly have an extended lease. Wonderful stuff and I was very happy to have heard the concert.

Here is a YouTube clip of Ms Moreno playing the last two movements, Passacaglia and Burlesque, with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov: