Friday, April 25, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

I've got a few things for you today. First up, Canadian tenor Ben Heppner takes an early retirement. I'm very sorry to say that I have not followed his career, not being much of an opera fan, nor Wagner fan. He made his name especially singing the big Wagner tenor roles. I should have known him better as we actually hail from the same part of Canada: he grew up in Dawson Creek and I grew up in Pouce Coupe, which is about five miles down the road. Both towns are in the isolated north-eastern corner of British Columbia. He attended the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and I attended the University of Victoria nearby. In recent years Heppner has suffered from problems with his voice and in 2011 withdrew from a production at the Met where he was due to sing Siegfried. He will trade his singing career for a broadcast one at the CBC.

The life of a singer, like that of a dancer, is not easy. A guitarist can change his strings, have his instrument repaired or just buy a new guitar. A singer has no such options: he has to live with his instrument which is part of him. Opera singers, particularly ones who specialize in Wagner, have particularly difficult challenges to meet. Like dancers, their careers can be cut short if they suffer injury. Let's hear Ben Heppner singing one of his characteristic roles: Walther from Die Meistersinger. This is my favorite Wagner tune, the "Prize Song":

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Over at Sinfini Music ("chopping away at classical"), Norman Lebrecht gives five stars to a bunch of new Shostakovich recordings.

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In this meandering essay, Grant Chu Covell talks about what it is like to be a reviewer of new music recordings.
If you start to think about it, there really ought to be more negative press out there. We have all attended poorly prepared performances and have heard completely forgettable pieces. To compensate for the major labels’ disinterest in new music, countless vanity projects have sprung up. There are fewer barriers to self-publication and so it follows that the standard of quality would slip. Proportionally we ought to see more negativity, but in the interest of time and sanity, I think the critical legion is trying just to keep up with the good stuff.
His basic principles are these:
1)      Always be factually accurate
2)      Whenever possible, gently attempt to educate an unfamiliar reader
3)      Whenever possible, gently attempt to inform the composer/performer
But I think you really need more. For example, instead of trying to calculate how negative or positive you should be, I think that just being honest about what you hear would be a good idea. Also, it is nice to have some aesthetic principles as well. He mentions some things he dislikes here:
  • Orchestral pieces which were clearly written on a synthesizer and scored using a paint-by-numbers technique
  • Noisy or dimly recorded live performances (unless they have historical merit)
  • Pieces where the composer doesn’t recognize the limits of their material (perhaps doesn’t develop it enough, or conversely doesn’t know when to let it alone)
I'm not quite sure how these work in practice, though, except for number 2.

Now here is something interesting. Quite a while back I did an odd sort of post comparing the singing of Bob Dylan and Céline Dion. But I see that a few years ago someone published a whole book about how horrible Céline Dion is. Let's let Mary Galtskill at Slate tell us all about it. It is hard to summarize or even pull a quote from so I just recommend reading the whole thing. What I noticed is that they really talk about images and perceptions rather than the music. I'm not so fond of Céline Dion myself, but it is more about the music. Still, let's have a listen. Here is the big love song from the movie Titanic:

That's the same mixture of maudlin sentimentality and glitz that I associate with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Very popular with most people, I guess.

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 The most popular classical piece in Great Britain, according to listeners to FM radio, is Ralph Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending. Ok, let's give that a listen:

Quite pretty. It was inspired by a poem of the same title by George Meredith that you can read here.

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And finally, in a Globe and Mail article about next season's offerings by Toronto's Royal Conservatory, we see this item:
Through no fault of their own, the good programming folks at the Royal Conservatory of Music often fall just under the radar in the classical music world in Toronto. No longer. Their gutsy, eight-concert festival devoted to the music of today makes quite a statement about their desire to be at the forefront of concert life in the city. With 12 world premieres (including four commissions, appearances by artists as diverse as famed pianist Marc-André Hamelin, Chilly Gonzales, Eve Egoyan and the ARC Ensemble, and music by John Cage, Morton Feldman, Louis Andriessen and Christos Hatzis), the festival has the makings of a major cultural event. New music means so many different things today. The 21C Festival aims to explore most of them in one go.Royal Conservatory of Music, 273 Bloor St. W., Koerner Hall, Mazzoleni Concert Hall, May 21 through 25.
Perhaps, almost certainly I suppose, the writer just chose a few familiar names from a longer list, but doesn't it strike you odd that the composers listed to be played in a concert "devoted to the music of today" consists of four people, two of whom are dead, another of whom has been a figure in the contemporary music scene for many decades and only one of whom you might loosely think of as writing the "music of today"? Let's listen to a piece by him, Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis:

He also contributed a piece to Hilary Hahn's encore album.

And that's it for today...

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