Thursday, October 17, 2013


 I like to check in now and then with Alex Ross' site The Rest Is Noise even though I rarely find anything interesting there. He did make an intriguing statement on one recent post. Talking about some of the silly remarks that have been made recently about women conductors he makes the very good point that
the "physical aspect" or the "problem of maternity" hardly impedes the careers of female pianists, violinists, or opera singers. What is the difference with conducting?
But then he goes on to say that "the art of conducting is wrapped up in mythologies of male power." That is the sort of remark that sounds like unexamined propaganda and leads me instantly to ask, what mythologies of male power? Is it just waving that little baton? What is the evidence for these misty mythologies?


There is a new online journal of music criticism, Classical Voice North America, that is the Journal of the Music Critics Association of North America. Let's have a look at one of the items on the site. I know a bit about Beethoven symphonies and Tafelmusik, so I want to look at this item: "Tafelmusik Shows Virtues, Limits in Beethoven Concert". Tafelmusik, a leading ensemble in Toronto since their formation in 1979, has previously released a recording of the Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 of Beethoven in 2008. Regarding the present concert the critic Colin Eatock says:
Let’s start with the strengths. Thanks to Tafelmusik’s three-decade regime of period performance, this band has no truck with the Romantic ideal of the grande ligne. That’s good, because Tafelmusik’s players have instead cultivated a style that emphasizes detail, balance and transparency. Performing Beethoven in this way was illuminating: phrasing was clear, and every inner voice was heard to good effect.
But the other side of the coin wasn’t always so shiny. Since Tafelmusik — expanded for this concert to 36 players — was unable to produce the voluptuous sound of a large modern orchestra, the players, when striving for volume, resorted to an edgy attack that sounded forced and harsh. And throughout the concert, the wind instruments – equipped with only a few keys, or with no valves at all – struggled with intonation, not always successfully.
This seems very balanced, doesn't it? Journalists love to strike a middle path, finding things to compliment and things to criticize as that usually means that no-one can get too mad at them. But I often have the feeling, reading most music criticism, that the writer is simply walking down the aisles grabbing two or three positive things to say and one or two negative things to say without basing them on too much. Tafelmusik is a "historically-informed performance" group so the last thing they would be presenting is "the voluptuous sound of a large modern orchestra". Similarly, they would have been using wind instruments from the period, not ones that were developed later in the 19th and 20th centuries. Now I wasn't at the concert so I can't speak to whether they played in tune or "resorted to an edgy attack that sounded forced and harsh", but there are clips of Tafelmusik on YouTube playing Beethoven. Here they are with the Allegretto from the Symphony No. 7 of Beethoven with the same conductor, Bruno Weil:

Perhaps that could have been more dynamic here and there, but I liked the warm string sound and I didn't find the winds particularly out of tune. It is pretty common nowadays to have Haydn symphonies played on period instruments and Beethoven, especially in the earlier symphonies, is really working with pretty much the same orchestra that Haydn did, but with a few more strings. In limiting the orchestra to thirty-six players Tafelmusik is simply letting us hear what the concert-goers would have heard when Beethoven was alive.


Here is the cello of the future:

Oddly enough, looking at another photo in the article, it looks as though they are still using the Cello Bow of the Past!

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