Sunday, September 2, 2012

Discovering Musicians, Part 1: Richard Tognetti and the ACO

I think this will be the start of a new series to set alongside my "Masterpieces of Music" and maybe the "Catty Micro-Reviews". Every now and then you make a real discovery of a fine musician that you have just never heard of before. The latest for me is Richard Tognetti, artistic director and leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, who seems to have all the right abilities, attitudes and principles. I ran across him in this informative article. Some quotes that seemed to me indicative:
– someone’s got to interpret the music; it’s my job as artistic director. It’s still collegial, absolutely. But being collegial doesn’t just mean it’s all positive and glowing. That’s just as destructive to the music as if you’re at each other’s throats.
He is describing genuine discussion of aesthetic issues.
While most artists I talk to are in it for self-promotion, a conversation with Tognetti is an intellectual ice bath.
For instance, when I tentatively ask whether his habit for making arrangements might be toying with the composers’ wishes, he slaps the question back at me: “Can you give me an example of a composer giving an explicit demand that people shall not arrange?” As I grope around my brain for an example, I can hear the rumble of Tognetti’s revving up. “I mean, let’s investigate based on research. Of course, there are letters from composers bemoaning that an arrangement has been made. I think that’s quality control; I don’t think it’s integrity control. And now if it’s quality control, why aren’t we also talking about bad performances rather than just bad arrangements?” 
And this is also about focusing on the question of aesthetic quality.
“There’s got to be that desire to experiment. If you just want to play it like everyone else, you’re doing the music a disservice."
Again, aesthetic quality demands experimentation.
On the subject of instruments, I can’t resist bringing up the recent double-blind test in which two Strads and a del Gesù were proved to be inferior to modern instruments. In one of the kookier meetings between science and music, violinists were kitted out in welding goggles and perfumed scarves before playing, to ensure they had no idea what instrument they were holding. Of the 21 violinists, most opted for new, inexpensive instruments over the million-dollar relics.
“It’s a joke! It’s a complete joke!” Tognetti almost bounces from his chair with indignation. “That thing about the scarves is a complete fallacy – you can’t smell the difference between a new and an old violin. And we don’t even know who was playing. You have to hear these instruments in a hall, for a start. If you put Anne-Sophie Mutter’s Stradivarius, my del Gesù and a modern violin in a hall together, anyone would be able to hear the difference. We’ve done our own tests, but where the people listening in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House were blindfolded. Do you think we wanted to pay all this money for violins that sound exactly the same?”
I had some similar points to make about this silly test.

There is so much talk lately about how classical musicians need to adapt themselves to the contemporary realities. Too much of it seems to boil down to marketing concepts like 'branding' yourself. Or worse, more cleavage! This always seems to me like pushing on a string--the causality is reversed. The way to distinguish yourself is to, wait for it, distinguish yourself. Be what you would like to seem. Richard Tognetti seems to be doing this pretty well by focusing on aesthetic quality and interesting experiments. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so let's hear what he does, not just what he says.

One of his arrangements is of the third and last movement of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata for violin and piano. This is a whirling tarantella in 6/8 that reminds me a bit of another tour de force, the high-velocity last movement of the String Quartet op 59 no 3, the Allegro molto.

For comparison's sake, here is a performance for violin and piano in the original version:

And here is Tognetti's arrangement for the Australian Chamber Orchestra:

Well, I don't know about you, but I think that works just fine--as well, if not better, than the original. As a rule I think you should stay away from arrangements of Beethoven, as I have argued in the past. But this performance makes me realize just how much that is merely a rule of thumb that could be expressed as: "from past experience, usually arrangements of Beethoven don't work out, so don't waste your time." But there are exceptions! Why does this work? Looking at the score, it is easy to see that most of the time there are implicitly if not explicitly three or four voices: one in the violin and the other two or three in the piano part. Arranging this for four-part chamber orchestra is mostly just a question of unpacking the piano part, spreading it out among the second violins, violas and cellos/bass. Tognetti treats the violin part a bit like a soloist, but it sounds as if at times he gives some of the part to the second violins when they don't have enough to do. The rest consists of filling in some gaps. The real creative act here is looking at the score and seeing that it would work just fine for chamber orchestra.

Richard Tognetti's experiments go a lot further than a little arranging of Beethoven. With singer Katie Noonan, here is an arrangement of Radiohead's "How to Disappear Completely" from Kid A.

And here is the original version:

Well, ok. What helps this out is that part of the inspiration for the way the original of the song was produced was the string music of Penderecki. I still find the music of Radiohead to be mostly expressing a kind of dull stupor, but perhaps I need to get over that prejudice...


RG said...

In the sense you (both) have used the term here, what exactly is an arrangement?

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much for this comment! I try not to use more technical terms than I need to, but sometimes I use one without even realizing it!

An 'arrangement' of a piece of music consists in altering it in some way so it can be played with, for example, different instruments. Given the day-to-day exigencies of practical musicians, this is very common. You go to a wedding and a harpist is playing the well-known "Wedding March". This piece is originally for orchestra--one of the movements from the suite of incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream by Mendelssohn. The harpist, therefore is playing a much-reduced arrangement of the original. Typically you retain the most recognizable features such as the melody, the rhythm and the basic harmony.

Tognetti's arrangement of the Beethoven violin sonata is a different kind: instead of reducing and abbreviating the original, he is trying to create a new artwork by, well, I used the word 'unpacking' and that captures it fairly well. He makes explicit lines and harmonies that were implied in the original.