Monday, January 22, 2018

Huffpost Explains Why Classical Music Is So Awful

This reminds me of an occasion, years ago, when I was walking through the central plaza just a few days before the chamber music festival was due to begin and I overheard one visitor say to another "chamber music is so boring!" Well, so are superhero movies, dear.

The article over at Huffpost is titled: The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained and you should follow the link and read the whole thing. Here is an excerpt:
there are a great many “clap here, not there” cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by. I found myself a bit preoccupied — as I believe are many classical concert goers — by the imposing restrictions of ritual behavior on offer: all the shushing and silence and stony faced non-expression of the audience around me, presumably enraptured, certainly deferential, possibly catatonic; a thousand dead looking eyes, flickering silently in the darkness, as if a star field were about to be swallowed by a black hole.
I don’t think classical music was intended to be listened to in this way. And I don’t think it honors the art form for us to maintain such a cadaverous body of rules.
One step therefore we might take to make classical music less boring again is simply for audiences to quit being so blasted reverential.
The most common practices in classical musical venues today represent a contrite response to a totalitarian belief system no one in America buys into anymore. To participate obediently is to act as a slave. It is counter to our culture. And it is not, I am certain, what composers would have wanted: A musical North Korea. Who but a bondservant would desire such a ghastly fate? Quickly now: Rise to your feet and applaud. The Dear Leader is coming on stage to conduct. He will guide us, ever so worshipfully through the necrocracy of composers we are obliged to forever adore.
All this falls into the general category of what I would call "let's make classical music palatable to those people who have no experience of it by making the experience as much like pop music as possible." But Mr. Dare goes overboard with his purple prose, doesn't he? A "thousand dead looking eyes?" Eww. Classical music is just like slavery! Or North Korea! And this is the guy that Huffpost lets write about classical music?

Let me break it down for you. Yes, in the past the etiquette of concerts was quite different. In the 18th century the nobility liked to sit in their private boxes when the attended opera so that they could not only eat and drink, but also have liaisons with their mistresses. However, as time went by, a certain etiquette grew up along with the development of public concert halls and subscription series that was designed to reduce the annoying behaviour of some concert-goers and allow the others to hear the music without distractions. Honestly, you can learn this etiquette in about two minutes. None of this applies to pop music, of course, but since it is normally performed with the aid of massive stacks of amplifiers and speakers, it is virtually impossible for any kind of behaviour, no matter how noisy, to actually distract from the deafeningly loud music. The same is not true of a Beethoven adagio.

I could deliver a similar, equally baseless, critique of pop music performances. I find them very unpleasant because of the crush of people, the confusion, the deafening amplification and not least the mechanical drum machine rhythms.

Let's listen to some of that awful music. This is the Emerson Quartet performing the "Dissonance" quartet by Mozart:

Reviews and a Concert

I just ran across a delightful piece of journalism that is a bit of a homage to nasty, critical reviews. It is full of gems ranging from restaurant reviews to record reviews to movie reviews: Why everyone likes to read a negative review, but nobody likes to be reviewed negatively. A sample:
When Pete Wells, restaurant critic at the New York Times, descended upon Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square in the winter of 2012, and returned to his desk to pen an outrageously scornful open letter to owner and namesake Guy Fieri (in lieu of a straightforward review), he transcended New York, transcended his reputation and transcended even the circulation of the Times. “Guy Fieri, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square?” Wells writes, worked into a paroxysm of sardonic fury. “Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?” Those, by the way, are some of the milder barbs. Even a harmless Baked Alaska Wells eviscerates as nothing less than “a representation in sugar and eggs of the experience of going insane.” Wells is, of course, an influential and prolific critic, and a fine writer. Not one word he has written before or since is quite as famous as these.
Restaurant reviews, like movie reviews, can be even more entertaining than their subjects. Music reviews, alas, rarely are. Not sure why, unless it is because popular music reviews tend to be largely advertisements for the product while classical music reviews have to avoid the kind of technical detail that would make for a really telling critique. Mind you, this was much less true in the past. Apparently Hanslick's review of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto haunted him the rest of his days and he was able to quote large portions of it verbatim! Nowadays most classical musicians trudge along, suffering the humiliation of no reviews at all, with the occasional ones consisting of a kind of bland boosterism: "audiences thrilled this past weekend to concerts by ******* and ****** as they performed a selection of music by ******** and *******.

This past weekend I did attend a concert by visiting artists Dmitry Kousov, cello and Yulia Kousov, piano in a concert of music by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Prokofiev and quite enjoyed it. I have to admit to a fascination with Russian music and musicians in recent years. This was true even before my mammoth series of posts on Stravinsky (and before him, Shostakovich). Russians, as a people, just seem to take music so very seriously. The first piece on the program was the Sonata in C major, op. 102 for cello and piano by Beethoven. I don't know the Beethoven cello sonatas very well, but from the very first notes, the performers gave an engaging and committed performance. What do I mean by that? As a matter of fact, a lot of performers in classical music are what I call "note-spinners." They go onstage and deliver the right notes in the right order and right rhythm, but one senses that they don't mean a lot by them. They are something less than deeply committed artists. Audiences often don't pick up on this and regard these performances, if they involve enough virtuoso fireworks, as being perfectly acceptable. I find them boring. How is this manifest? It is really in how the details are handled: the timbres, the balancing of harmonies, the minutia of how phrases are shaped. This is where the soul of the music is communicated. In any case, our Russian duo were very much in the music and it was communicated very well.

The second piece was the Cello Suite No. 3, also in C major, by Bach and this was a lively performance. Actually, I thought the prelude was rather too fast. Also, I wish he had done the repeats, at least of the first halves of the dance movements, which he did not, apart from the second bourrée. Very enjoyable nonetheless.

In the second half the Schumann was beautifully lyrical, just as it should be. The Prokofiev was successful as well and I need to investigate his chamber music more. I was puzzled by the enthusiasm of the audience at the end of this piece, given as it was the most challenging on the program. But my companion explained it to me: the audience leapt to their feet and shouted bravo partly because this was the last piece and it is sort of expected. Ah. The performers came back and gave an encore, the Vocalise by Rachmaninov. Luckily we have a YouTube clip of the artists playing that very piece:

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 7

Continuing our journey of discovery through the music of Gubaidulina. The Composers Union has a creative retreat in the town of Sortavala in Karelia where she had spent a few weeks in the summer of 1970. In the fall of 1971 she returned there and found the peaceful solitude immensely stimulating. She proceeded to write her first string quartet to test some musical possibilities. She later wrote about the piece in these words:
The idea of disintegration, dissociation, lies at the heart of the First Quartet. I have to say that there is a certain amount of pessimism in it, a metaphor for the impossibility of togetherness, of understanding one's neighbor, a metaphor for the utter deafness of humanity (life itself in those years was so dark, so sad and hopeless...) The work grows out of a single pitch, from a common point. But various aspects of the musical material--the rhythmic and melodic successions, the types of articulation, and the dynamics--gradually begin to contradict one another. [quoted in Kurtz, p. 97]
There is a performance on YouTube by the Molinari Quartet, so let's have a listen. No score, alas!

In early 1972 Boris Berman commissioned Gubaidulina to compose a piece for harpsichord and percussion. She ended up selecting three instruments from the collection of Mark Pekarsky, the chang, a dulcimer-like instrument from Central Asia, byan chung (Chinese bells), and Chinese cymbals. To these she added antique cymbals. The piece was premiered in April 1972 and received a very enthusiastic response from the audience. Sadly, this piece does not seem to be available on YouTube. I have posted this before, but never mind, let's have a listen to In the Beginning Was Rhythm, written in 1984:

Friday, January 19, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Whetting your appetite with a picture from a travel article on Budapest. This is a local confection, Esterházy torte, with layers of almond meringue and buttercream frosting. Named, of course, after the noble family that employed Joseph Haydn.

Click to enlarge
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Here is an interview with Paul McCartney on his life as a bassist. Here is a sample:
It seems to be around Rubber Soul that you start to hear the basslines a bit more.
That’s right, yeah.
And that coincided with the arrival of the Rickenbacker.
Yeah, it did. Also, it coincided with us being allowed in the control room. It was very much us-and-them in the beginning, where you just entered by the tradesman’s entrance, set your stuff up, did your session, and left by the tradesman’s entrance. We were hardly ever asked to come up to the control room. Maybe at the end of a session. [Adopts posh voice again.] "Would you like to come up and hear it, boys?" [Switches to young awed voice.] "Oh could we? Thank you, mister."
It was really like that?
Oh yes, very much so. Tradesman’s entrance. You never entered through the studio until years later. And engineers had to wear shirts and ties. No trousers [laughs]. And all the maintenance men had white coats, very BBC.
* * *

This is an interesting contrast with our posts on Sofia Gubaidulina: Steeped in Guns N’ Roses and Philip Glass, Missy Mazzoli is a leading composer of her generation
Mazzoli’s story is something of an American dream — from the time that she, as a high schooler, was teaching tap dance to children and one of the fathers put up a sign in the studio advertising piano, drum and composition lessons. “Oh my God — you can study composition?” she thought, and was soon taken under this teacher’s wing (he was a percussionist with the Philly Pops).
Now a teacher, and a leading woman in a field that still has too few of them, she has set out to provide role models for teenage would-be composers. The Luna Composition Lab, a partnership with New York’s Kaufman Center, provides mentorship, regular lessons and field trips to concerts for a small group of female-identifying composers between 13 and 19, drawn from every corner of the country. Now in its second season, the program is “a very simple pattern,” she says, “but I think it’s very effective.” As a female composer, she says, one is aware “I’m entering a world that is inhospitable to me.” Strong role models can make a huge difference for the next generation of black sheep.
* * *

The fall from grace, or perhaps it might be better described as a complete erasure from history, of conductor Charles Dutoit, has created a bit of a problem for the CBC as regards recordings of perhaps Canada's finest orchestra the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal:
“We are aware of the serious allegations against Charles Dutoit and the OSM third-party investigation that is currently pending,” writes Emma Bédard, from the corporation’s public-affairs department, in response to an email. “And we have carefully considered our actions in light of this.
“As you know, the recordings of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra make up an important part of our Canadian classical repertoire on CBC Radio Two.
“While the allegations made towards Charles Dutoit are serious, we truly believe that removing these recordings entirely from our broadcasts would unjustly diminish the efforts of the many talented musicians who are featured in them. At this point, we are no longer crediting Mr. Dutoit as conductor.”
If there were a video, I suppose we might enjoy the sight of an orchestra playing along while the conductor was blurred out, like one of those anonymous witnesses.

* * *

At a time when an inordinate number of prominent figures in the fields of politics, academia, entertainment and the arts seem to be falling like dominoes, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that much of our creative/intellectual elite are hopelessly incompetent, morally bankrupt, cowards or worse. Someone who contrasts with all that by being genuinely learned instead of ideologically blinkered is University of Toronto professor Jordan B. Peterson, like myself, hailing originally from Northern Alberta (and also, like myself, an alumni of McGill University). His public profile and influence is growing fast and is started to be noticed even outside Canada. Here is a typical article on the phenomenon from the Chronicle of Higher Education: What’s So Dangerous About Jordan Peterson? While not presenting him in a negative light, the writer does not quite grasp what is going on. There is a pretty good biography of Peterson and a reasonable sketch of his current popularity. It is very hard to excerpt the long article, but the intellectual shallowness of the writer comes out in passages like this:
To understand Peterson’s worldview, you have to see the connection between his opposition to gender-neutral pronouns and his obsession with the Soviet Union. He believes that the insistence on the use of gender-neutral pronouns is rooted in postmodernism, which he sees as thinly disguised Marxism. The imposition of Marxism led to the state-sponsored slaughter of millions. For Peterson, then, the mandated use of gender-neutral pronouns isn’t just a case of political correctness run amok. It’s much more serious than that. When he refers to the "murderous ideology" of postmodernism, he means it literally.
Peterson is not only a very learned man and also a very wise man, he also has a rare courage. The simple truth is that he is head and shoulders above virtually everyone he has been interviewed by or debated with, with the exception of fellow professors Jonathan Haidt and Camille Paglia. He is Canada's Socrates, speaking truths that most do not want to hear. His courage and wisdom have won him a tremendous following among young men in particular who find in him the moral compass that is lacking in contemporary society. It is likely that he is one of the wisest thinkers in Canada, which also makes him the most dangerous.

* * * 

The Globe and Mail has a lengthy piece introducing Verdi's opera Rigoletto ahead of upcoming performances in Toronto. They actually go into a bit more musical detail than usual in the mainstream press:
In Act I, you'll hear Caro nome ("Dear name"), one of the opera's many famous numbers. It's sung by Gilda, Rigoletto's overprotected daughter, who has just fallen for a man whose name she thinks is Gualtier Maldè (it's not). Gilda begins from the place of a young woman, properly flustered and blushing after being swept off her feet by this man; by the end of her aria, she's in full mating-cry mode. It's as though Verdi has written a musical version of a woman's sexual awakening.
A great soprano will seem to pant with anticipation in the first few minutes of Caro nome; Verdi writes stuttering, broken lines for Gilda as she describes her "Gualtier Maldè," punctuated by sexy upward portamenti (Italian for "carrying," when the singer slides between two pitches). Listen for the ease the soprano brings to the gentle jabs up to high Bs, and the stretchy, jazzy riff she sings up to a high C-sharp about halfway through the aria. The real test comes at the end, as Gilda sings her cadenza (an unaccompanied chance for singers to show off their best tricks); often the hardest part for the soprano is to stay in tune, so that when the orchestra joins her on her last note, it sounds magical, not twangy.
* * *

Let's have a listen to Mazzoli's chamber opera Breaking the Waves:

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 6

Reading Michael Kurtz' book on Gubaidulina (translated from the German original) the truth that they take music very seriously in the Soviet Union and Russia is underlined again and again. The person that headed the Composers Union was an important figure whose role was to essentially control who got performances and commissions according to political ideology. After the crushing of the "Prague Spring" in August 1968 by Soviet troops, the Party loyalist Serafim Tulikov was chosen to head the Moscow Composers Union. The response of the non-conformist composers like Gubaidulina was to form a tight network of mutual support with both performers and listeners. Despite this there was a continuing problem of getting permission to organize concerts.

Pyotr Meshchaninov was an important organizer of chamber concerts using members of the State Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately nine out of ten applications were turned down. Programs featuring composers like Gubaidulina and Denisov were typically rejected with the Party representative simply crossing out their names!

Very occasionally Gubaidulina received a performance abroad. In 1971 the Royan festival in France featured Eastern European composers and two works by Gubaidulina were performed, the Piano Sonata and the premiere of Concordanza, a new work for chamber ensemble. I suspect that this piece may be been revised at some later point as one writer, Doris Redepenning, refers to four instrumentalists, but the performances on YouTube have ten players. Here is the Esbjerg Ensemble:

One thing that stands out are the enormous contrasts: between simple unisons and massive dissonances, between soft, slow harmonics and rapid cascades of percussion, between fierce rhythms and lyrical melodic passages, between clearly defined pitches and glissandi. But at the same time, one has the sense that everything is there for a purpose. What I enjoy about this performance is how they handle it as chamber music, without a conductor. You can see the musicians providing one another with cues, which leads to a more unified performance.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Need for Criticism

A hat tip to Slipped Disc for sending me to this article about the need for criticism: The Reviewer’s Fallacy: When critics aren’t critical enough.
The Reviewer’s Fallacy is a different sort of phenomenon, less premeditated than baked into today’s critical enterprise. One of the root causes stems from Sturgeon’s law, named after its originator, science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, who once observed, “It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” The “It can be argued” part usually isn’t quoted, and the figure is very ballpark. But it’s inarguable that the majority of what comes down the pike, in any medium, is mediocre or worse. It would be tiresome for critics to constantly be counting the ways that the work under review is crap, nor would their editors and the owners of the publications they write for be happy with a consistently downbeat arts section. The result is an unconscious inclination to grade on a curve. That is, if something isn’t very good, but is better than two-thirds of other entries in the genre—superhero epics, quirky or sensitive indie films, detective novels, literary fiction, cable cringe comedies—give it a B or B-plus.
Which can be summed up as "mediocre works reviewed by mediocre critics lead to a universe of mediocrity!"

What is the situation in classical music? One thing that skews both criticism and audience reaction is the impact of popular music. Economically, classical music is dwarfed by the huge amount of money devoted to popular music. In the world of classical music itself, contemporary music is dwarfed by the (relatively) large amount of money devoted to the standard repertoire. I see the trend toward streaming as yet another kind of pressure on classical music and contemporary music in particular. In the past, and still the case in Europe, classical music was so deeply rooted in the culture that it retains a high visibility. concert halls and opera houses dominate the cultural landscape in major urban centers and there is a strong, healthy festival culture that attracts very large numbers of listeners.

The Glastonbury Festival in the UK, five days devoted to popular music, attracts a total audience of 135,000 (figures from the last two years available) while the nearly 100 year old Salzburg Festival in Austria attracted 261,000 last year. Mind you, this is over a six-week span.

Along with the deeply-rooted presence of both standard repertoire and contemporary repertoire in the leading European music institutions, goes a level of criticism that also participates in the traditional aesthetic values--I am speaking here largely of Europe. It is only in the occasional pocket in North America that one encounters much genuine music criticism. When I lived in Montreal, for example, it was only found in the French newspapers and among them only in the most intellectual, Le Devoir. (Real intellectualism seems to be almost restricted to the French press where we also find it in Le Monde and Le Monde diplomatique.) You might also expect it in, for example, the New York Times, the New Yorker and perhaps the Globe and Mail. But, in my view, this is not the case. I have mentioned on a number of occasions my reservations with the writing of Alex Ross at the New Yorker and, absent the occasional column in the past from Richard Taruskin, I don't find a lot of criticism at the New York Times. What is missing? Largely the critical spirit and the tools necessary to express it. Instead we find a slavish genuflection to the received wisdom of the progressive left.

It would take a great deal of courage, backed up with considerable knowledge and expertise, to go against any progressive shibboleth, of course. And I have only seen this exhibited with much finesse in the popular press by Richard Taruskin, who has both in abundance. And even he is very careful to only opine in areas where he has overwhelming expertise.

For a good read, go to the comments on the Slipped Disc post.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Note on Bachtrack

Looking over the Bachtrack statistics for 2017 from the link I posted on Friday, I notice something interesting. If you go to the complete infographic and scroll down to the "Busiest Instrumentalists" section towards the bottom you will see a section on pianists. At the top is Dénes Várjon with 64 concerts followed by a tie between Daniil Trifonov and Yuja Wang with 57 concerts each. Conspicuous by his absence is one of the most active pianists, Grigory Sokolov. A quick trip to his website shows an impressive list of concert dates for this season, 74 by my count, which should have put him at number one on the list. Now why did he not appear? Another quite active pianist is Khatia Buniatishvili, also not listed and on her website I count 42 upcoming concerts this year. Yes, perhaps she would have been number 11 on the list, just under Kirill Gerstein. But the absence of Sokolov is simply inexplicable. So, obviously the Bachtrack numbers cannot be trusted...