Saturday, December 2, 2023

Asymmetrical Culture War

If scruffy protestors invade the shrines of high culture, I guess this counts as asymmetrical culture war: The Usual Grotesques

So there I was, in the middle of the opening night of Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera, when the shouting started. “Climate protesters,” or “climate activists”—the usual grotesques—were shouting “No opera on a dead planet,” and other such inanities. They placed themselves around the theater, timing it so that when one was arrested, another started shouting somewhere else. I counted five interruptions, though the first press reports say there were only four; did I get it wrong? The audience was displeased; I heard shouts of shame! and even, briefly from one member of the audience, U.S.A.! U.S.A.! The management finally announced that the program would go on no matter what, keeping the lights on so that security could remove people more quickly; either the thugs were exhausted, or the remainder figured that it wasn’t worth bothering with. So we finished the opera, with too much light, and (at least for me) some nervousness at every loud noise, thinking it might be another interruption.

There have been at least two previous intrusions at operas, in Amsterdam and Milan.

Music performances of this kind are somewhat fragile--it doesn't take much to shatter the necessary atmosphere and ruin the performance. If we think this kind of asymmetrical culture war is illegitimate, how do we combat it? Without actually crippling the exercise of culture by the burden of security measures? I'm not sure there is an easy answer to this.


"I Hate Music"

 In quotes because it is the title of a brief song-cycle by Leonard Bernstein:

This is by way of introducing this essay: Who Doesn’t Like Music? Nabokov, For Starters

I don’t doubt that for some listeners, music delivers profound, transcendent experiences. It does it for me, and probably for you, too.

But music is also tremendously overhyped. Every day, heaps and heaps of superlatives are shoveled onto it by people who, in truth, did not feel what their words tell you they felt. They heard a record/went to a concert and had a pleasant time, whereupon they tell you that their mind exploded into a million iridescent fragments, propelled around the cosmos on waves of dervish ec­stasy. Or they declare that they would rather gnaw off their own arm than have to listen to a certain song again. Really? Their own arm? Gnawed off? Music, even more than the visual arts or Literature, seems to give people a license to bullshit.

No journalist would dare to say that if you don’t love model trains, T. S. Eliot, jogging or Star Wars, you must be clinically dead. They feel free to say it about your failure to adore their favorite sounds.

Lots of interesting thoughts in the essay. Worth a read. What if you like just some music a whole lot and most music not at all? I don't think he covered that possibility. That would involve getting into the forbidden realm of aesthetics.


Friday, December 1, 2023

Friday Miscellanea

The New York Times has an excellent article on the new music string quartet: For New Music, There’s No Quartet Like JACK

The group formed in the heady atmosphere for new music at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., in the early 2000s. The players in the original lineup — Richards, Otto, the violinist Ari Streisfeld and the cellist Kevin McFarland — were united by decisive encounters with the work of the German composer Helmut Lachenmann, a master of sonic extremes. Lachenmann traveled to Toronto to coach three of the JACK members in his first quartet, “Gran Torso,” and the group flew to a festival in Mexico with other Eastman musicians to continue working with him.

“I am their father, or something — their grandfather,” Lachenmann, who turns 88 this month, said with a laugh recently. “They were totally precise, and very musical. And there is for me one word that is very important: They are serene. When I met them, immediately it was clear, the honesty and the concentration. I don’t find better groups for my music than them.”

* * * 

Finally someone, other than myself, with something nice to say about Schoenberg: The Case for Challenging Music.

On December 1, 1900, at an intimate concert hall in Vienna, a respected local baritone gave the premiere of some early songs for voice and piano by Arnold Schoenberg. Today this music, though written in an elusive harmonic language, comes across as exuding hyper-Wagnerian richness and Brahmsian expressive depth. But the audience in Vienna broke into shouts, laughter, and jeers. From that day on, as Schoenberg ruefully recalled two decades later, “the scandal has never ceased.”

The author Harvey Sachs relates this story, and describes the songs sensitively, in his new book, Schoenberg: Why He Matters.

I mentioned this book previously, but it was, I think, a different review.

* * *

According to The Guardian: Culture is not trivial, it’s about who we are. That’s why Labour needs a plan to save the arts.

The scale of the challenge is vast. The Tory destruction began in 2010, as soon as the coalition came to power, with George Osborne’s austerity cuts. The then culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, removed an instant £19m from Arts Council England’s budget, while the overall budget of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was reduced by 24% between 2010 and 2014-15, pulling it down from £1.4bn to £1.1bn. These seem tiny figures because they are: utterly inconsequential when set against Osborne’s total cuts, irrelevant when compared with overall government finances. Still, they were enormous enough when applied to individual arts organisations.

* * *

Somewhat quizzically, the Wall Street Journal reviews the California Festival: Was the California Festival Really a Festival?

For many music lovers, the essential concerts were likely the three programs in which Mr. Dudamel led a full-force Philharmonic. All three featured Latin American orchestral music, a specialty of the conductor. But the first two, under the banner “Canto en Resistencia” (loosely “Singing in Resistance”), also cast the spotlight on a bevy of female pop stars from south of the border who clearly attracted their own fans: Ana Tijoux, Catalina García, Ely Guerra, Goyo and Lila Downs on Nov. 9, and Silvana Estrada from Nov. 10 through 12.

Both programs opened with Roberto Sierra’s short but bright “Alegría” (1996) and Tania León’s kaleidoscopic “Stride,” which won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and proved a fine showcase for the orchestra’s trumpets. But the second bill added Mr. Márquez’s alternatingly sultry and toe-tapping “Danzón No. 2” (1994), a piece Mr. Dudamel has conducted here since 2017 and which is by now, after many joyful performances, virtually his signature work.

More significant in this context was the premiere of a new arrangement of the Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz’s “Seis Piezas a Violeta” (“Six Pieces to Violeta”), originally a piano quintet from 2002 now enhanced for piano and string orchestra. An often spare and sometimes astringent piece, it held one’s attention with its blocky piano chords and arpeggiated string writing, often recalling music by Philip Glass, Alban Berg and Bela Bartók. Joanne Pearce Martin, the orchestra’s resident keyboardist, handled the solo piano passages with especially spirited aplomb.

* * *

To me this reads like a report from Alpha Centauri: Spotify Wrapped 2023: 'Music genres are now irrelevant to fans'

From Goths to punk rockers, genre can imply a lifestyle as well as a way of simply categorising music. However, in the digital age, around 100,000 new tracks are uploaded to Spotify every day, and they're sorted into one of more than 6,000 genre classifications.

Hundreds have been added in the last year alone, from Dream Plugg (a spaced-out brand of hip-hop) to Zomi Pop (a fusion of Mayanmar's traditional Zomi music and Western pop).

* * *

How about 21st Century Baroque?

Nuova Pratica, a group of up-and-coming performer-composers who aim to re-open the book on Baroque composition, wants you to know that the language of the past is very much alive. Formed in 2020, during the early days of the pandemic, the ensemble’s musicians write, record, and perform their own Baroque-inspired music. Rejecting the idea that what they do is mere pastiche, they don’t seek to imitate or emulate. They just want to write music they enjoy, informed by the styles and sounds they love the most.

Here is a sample:

For these performers their "contemporary" music is actually Baroque music.

Now for some envoi: here are some early Schoenberg lieder. The performers are Ellen Hartla Faull and Glenn Gould. We often forget how Gould was a keen advocate of the music of Schoenberg.

 And the JACK quartet with Grido by Helmut Lachenmann:

Here is "Seiz piezas a Violeta" by Gabriela Ortiz in the original chamber music version:

And here are the first and last movements of the Bach Partita No. 6 in E minor from Igor Levit's complete recording:

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Today's Listening

Cover of Levit, Beethoven, Late Sonatas

 One of the things I have admired about Igor Levit is how he launched his recording career: with four double CD sets. The five late piano sonatas by Beethoven, followed by the six partitas of Bach, followed by a collection of three variations: the Goldbergs of Bach, the Diabelli of Beethoven and the big set by Rzewski (actually, that's three CDs) and then the Preludes and Fugues in all the keys by Shostakovich. Whew, after that, a lot of pianists would just retire. This is what you record at the end of your career, not the beginning.

Anyway, here is the Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major by Beethoven in a live performance by Igor Levit from Wigmore Hall:

Would it be inappropriate to note that Beethoven re-invented the design of the piano sonata with every one he composed? This one is in three movements:

  1. Vivace ma non troppo (compressed first movement in under four minutes--he establishes the tonic, states the first theme and modulates to the dominant, all in the first seven seconds or so)
  2. Prestissimo (one of Beethoven's brilliant scherzos)
  3. Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung (Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo) --six transcendent variations which take up two thirds of the length of the sonata

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Musical "Structure"

"It is not possible to step into the same river twice" --Heraclitus

Why? Because πάντα ρει, "panta rei," "everything flows." We might not think everything flows, but we certainly think that some things flow, rivers, for example. Oh, and music. Yes, music definitely flows which makes the idea of musical structure a very peculiar one. Music is like a river in that it flows through time, always changing (and even if it is not changing, your perception of it is changing). If you can't step into the same river twice (different time, different water) then you perhaps cannot hear the same piece twice. You certainly can't play it exactly the same twice, not can you listen to it the same twice. As an example, Six Pianos by Steve Reich:

Sure, that's an articulated flow, but the flow of the river can be articulated as well, with wavelets. It's still a flow. And how do you structure a flow? In time, with beats, or a pulse. Is that a structure? Maybe not. In the case of the river, the water is given a structure, shaped by gravity and the river bed. But in itself, it has no structure, it just flows. Like music. Sure, we talk a lot about musical structure: measures, meter, phrase, dance rhythms, harmonic structure, harmonic rhythm. But this is only talking about how the flow is articulated. Does it have a structure? I'm assuming you have been listening to the Steve Reich piece. Have you heard the structure yet? What was it?

When people try to show the structure of a piece of music, they sometimes resort to schematics like ABA or very elaborate sketches like this:

Click to enlarge

With a great deal of listening and study you can, somehow, "visualize," perhaps, this structure. But really any schema you can put on paper is just a wildly distant metaphor. You have to go listen to the piece. Then you are hearing the "structure" which is really just the articulated flow. Music structure is not spatial, it is temporal.

Music has no structure!

It just has time.

Friday, November 24, 2023

Friday Miscellanea

New edition of Tárrega

Yuri Temirkanov:

As head of two of Russia’s leading musical institutions, the Kirov (later, Mariinsky) Opera and Ballet Theatre (1976-88) and the Leningrad (later, St Petersburg) Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he was principal conductor for more than three decades from 1988, Yuri Temirkanov, who has died aged 84, was at the forefront of music in the Soviet Union for nearly half a century.

I saw Temirkanov conduct the St Petersburg Philharmonic in a concert in Valencia a few years ago. In that post I said:

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.

So, Mravinsky was music director for fifty years but Temirkanov only lasted for thirty-five years. One thing you can say, no conductor ever retires from the St Petersburg Philharmonic. in the last eighty-five years they have only had two conductors!

* * *

The dire state of music education: Don’t stop the music

Music degrees are expensive to provide. They often require performance spaces, practice rooms, studios, equipment and technicians, instruments, and extra staff for instrumental and vocal teaching and ensemble direction. Of course, science degrees also require costly labs, facilities and technicians, but there is a wider range of government grants available for STEM subjects. Music is considerably more resource-intensive than non-performing arts and humanities subjects, many of which require little more than individual lecturers and spaces for lectures and seminars. Cutting a music programme can represent a significant saving for universities facing financial difficulties. 

At the same time, the sector itself cannot be wholly absolved of responsibility. In the name of “decolonisation”, the study of classical music is regularly impugned, associated with imperial domination, white supremacy, elitist hegemony and more; a glance at a range of leading conferences or journals makes clear how well-established such perspectives are.

It is impossible to summarize that article, so read the whole thing.

* * *

We seem to have a remarkable number of neglected black female composers. Her Music Fell Into Obscurity. Now It’s Back at the Philharmonic.

For Perry, a Black composer who died in 1979 at age 55, the 1950s and ’60s were replete with success, the summit of a career that fell into obscurity despite musicians’ admiration of her work. The mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, who will make her Philharmonic debut on Wednesday performing in the “Stabat Mater” solo part, said of the piece: “I love the vocal writing. It’s intense, it’s very introspective, it’s very intimate and also very extreme.” Dima Slobodeniouk, who will conduct the program, described it as “logically and beautifully written.”

* * *

My last trip to Europe was so challenging that I decided to hold off on long flights for a while. I'm going to spend a few days in Mexico City in a couple of weeks. And then I ran across this article: The world’s best cities for culture. Number one is Mexico City.

Mexico’s charismatic, cosmopolitan capital nabbed the top spot, with locals scoring their city exceptionally high for both the quality and affordability of its culture scene. And while architecture, theatres and street parades like Dia de Muertos all got the nod in our survey, it was the city’s mighty museum scene that got the biggest shout-out. CDMX’s museums showcase everything from Aztec artifacts and folk art to surrealist paintings, and many of them are housed in showstopping buildings – just check out the grand, neo-baroque Palacio de Bellas Artes or the twisty, shiny and ultra-modern Museo Soumaya. Best of all? Many are either permanently free or offer free entry on Sundays for those with Mexican residency.

Yes, all that is true, but I have yet to find much in the way of classical music concerts--or maybe I just don't know where to look. 

* * *

Sparse content this week so let's curate some envois. First up the very fine Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang with Ian Bostridge in a fine performance of the Songs from the Chinese by Benjamin Britten. You can watch the whole thing, which includes an interview with Xuefei Yang, but the Britten starts at the 38:48 mark:

Here is the Stabat Mater by Julia Perry, written in 1951.

Francisco Tárrega seems to be enjoying renewed popularity these days. There is a lovely new complete edition by Les Productions d'Oz and lots of performances. When I was a student I played the shorter pieces and got into the habit of thinking of him as a composer of little bon-bons. And Recuerdos de la Alhambra was too difficult! But of course he wrote lots of great concert pieces among which Capricho Arabe is one of the best. Here is a recording by Segovia:

We have to end with Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic. I can't find the Glinka overture they began with in Valencia, which was truly terrifying, but here is the Symphony No. 4 of Tchaikovsky:

Friday, November 17, 2023

Some Images

I'm just going to share a few images for the heck of it. First up, a lovely watercolor of a frog by a long time reader to whom I am grateful. I just got it framed.

I was out looking at some vineyards and took this photo of the sky:

Standing on a terrace in front of some 17th century churches:

A colleague walking in a Day of the Dead procession:

A sculpture at the entrance of a new hotel:

Finally, a light-hearted piece I wrote a number of years ago.