Friday, April 3, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Let's start off with a piece of serious aesthetic criticism on the music of Philip Glass: "Philip Glass Half-Full". The essay, by Terry Teachout, is well worth reading. Most stimulating quote:
One reason musical modernism finally collapsed under its own weight in the 1970s was that Glass and his like-minded contemporaries refused to kowtow to the anti-tonal regime of the postwar avant-garde musical monopoly. As a result, there is no longer a “mainstream” classical-music style. Instead, all compositional styles—including the minimalism of Glass, John Adams, and Steve Reich—are deemed equally acceptable.
This is a widely-accepted account of music history in the second half of the 20th century and you can find it discussed here at the Music Salon as well as other places. Regarding the music of Philip Glass in particular, Terry has this to say:
Yet despite his own cultural ubiquity, Glass’s pieces are not all that widely performed in this country. While his stage works have been produced by the Metropolitan Opera and other major houses, his instrumental music has yet to be taken up other than sporadically by any world-class soloist, conductor, or ensemble. It is no secret that virtuoso performers loathe his music, which they regard as monotonous and devoid of interpretative challenges. As a result, it is mostly known from the performances and recordings of modern-music specialists and his own Philip Glass Ensemble, as well as from its use in such films as The Thin Blue Line and The Truman Show.
Forgive me for saying this, but this also reads a bit like a received opinion. Did Terry determine this from his own experience or in conversation with someone who possibly had an ax to grind? Now it does seem to be the case that no leading virtuoso has taken up any of his concertos and in some cases it is easy to see why. The Violin Concerto No. 1 is certainly rather tedious:


But you often hear his string quartets in the programs of younger string quartets--and Kronos, of course, who count as virtuosos, I think. At least one European orchestra, the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, are fans of his symphonies, having commissioned eight of them. I think they would also qualify as "world-class". So, while not being the biggest Philip Glass fan around I would still have to disagree with the mostly negative tone of that paragraph. Philip Glass has written quite a lot of chamber and orchestral music that works rather well:



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This is a nice account by the fine critic Allan Kozinn of a concert of some recent orchestral works. So glad that the Wall Street Journal is publishing him after he was foolishly let go by the New York Times. An excerpt:
[Esa-Pekka Salonen's] compositions have won awards and glowing reviews, and the 20-minute “Nyx” is a fine example of his command of the orchestral palette. Like Mr. Adams and Mr. Adès, he draws from everywhere, sometimes transparently: “Nyx” includes Debussian wind lines, stomping for low strings, brass and percussion that evokes early Stravinsky, and patches of lush string scoring in which Mr. Salonen tips his hat to Sibelius. But in the end, Mr. Salonen’s language, with its playful humor and alluring changeability, is very much his own.
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"Creative People Say No" is the title of an interesting piece that you might find interesting--if you have the time. Mind you, I just browsed quickly through most of it as I got the point about halfway through the second sentence. I can't tell you how many articles on the internet I have started and not finished because the writer wasn't going anywhere and had already said what he had to say. So, don't feel guilty if you turn down people who want to use your time. You probably have something better to do.

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Singer and scholar Ian Bostridge has an enormous review of a new three-volume book on Schubert songs by Graham Johnson in the New York Review of Books that takes the occasion to sum up the importance of Franz Schubert. I suggest reading the whole review. This gives a sense of it:
Johnson has strong roots in the practices of the past: a protégé of Gerald Moore, the greatest lied pianist from the 1930s to the 1970s; an assistant to Benjamin Britten in the early 1970s; and a trusted friend of and collaborator with the tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s partner in some of the greatest recordings of the lied repertoire. He has by now almost single-handedly transformed the fortunes of the lied. Known for his lengthy and scholarly booklet notes for the Schubert edition, he has now taken the material, expanded and rewritten it, and produced what will surely stand as one of the great modern monuments of practical musicology, his vast three-volume encyclopedia, handsomely published by Yale University Press.
Living in North America one might get the sense that the lieder recital has faded entirely from the concert scene. But due to the efforts of Johnson and some dedicated performers, this is certainly not the case in Europe. Where I live, the only songs that have appeared in any of our chamber music series were some that I wrote and finagled onto the program.

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 Here is an article about the most recent efforts by the San Francisco Symphony to draw in younger audiences. A hint of the approach:
Each set lasts 20 to 30 minutes, with ample intermissions to mingle and buy drinks. And at $25, the price of entry here is a fraction of higher-tier symphony seats.
I have long had misgivings about this approach, which seems to me to be not very different from trying to turn classical music, or the presentation of it at least, into a kind of sub-species of pop music. I recently ran across some support for my views in one of the definitive texts on aesthetics by Monroe C. Beardsley. He defines the aesthetic value of something as "its capacity to impart--through cognition of it--a marked aesthetic character to experience". That phrase "through cognition of it" is crucial. Later he points out that "once we distinguish the aesthetic capacity of the painting (how much it is capable of giving those who are able to appreciate it fully) from the capacities of the viewers (who may vary enormously in their ability to appreciate it) we eliminate many common confusions." Such as, for example, the puzzles of why there is such variation in the estimation of the aesthetic value of different pieces of music. Some of it is variation in the capacity of the work and some of it is variation in the capacity of the listeners (in the case of music). This doesn't account for all variation in judgement, of course, but probably a great deal of it. 

So these ongoing efforts to attract a bigger, younger audience by reworking the presentation (and probably the repertoire) of classical music always seem to me to have a bit of the feeling of pushing on a string. The problem really isn't with the horrific deficiencies of classical music or the way it is presented. We have an enormous catalogue of superb music, played wonderfully by talented musicians in beautiful and expensive concert halls specially built for the purpose of hearing music. The problem is actually all on the other side: the capacities of the audiences have been plummeting and they are less and less able to appreciate the music. Short programs with easy bar service and cheap tickets held in rehearsal halls may make these folks feel more comfortable, but all you are doing is diluting the symphonic experience. Until you actually try and improve, through education, the capacities of the audiences, you are trying to fix the wrong thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with classical music or the way it is presented.

I suspect that this is widely recognized in professional circles, but it is just that no-one is willing to state this truth publicly.

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As an envoi to today's post, we couldn't improve much on this performance of the opening of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring played by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in their beautiful concert hall:


So what's wrong with that? I don't see anything that needs "fixing" to attract a younger audience. Except of course, a better-informed younger audience!

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UPDATE: I just can't wait until next Friday to share this piece with you: "Review of 'Björk' at the Museum of Modern Art: An Unlikable Crowd-Pleaser." Just to give you a taste of it, commenting on other reviews:
Not content with simply loathing the shoddiness of the Björk presentation, some writers have unleashed their rhetoric on bigger targets. In a widely circulated piece last Tuesday on Artnet, Christian Viveros-Fauné called for the show’s organizer, Klaus Biesenbach, to be fired. Others have suggested that MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry, should be held accountable for the mess. By late last week, the debacle’s list of culprits included MoMA’s trustees, for allowing inane blockbusters to flourish. Critics are savaging—and caricaturing—one another, as elitists clinging to outmoded hierarchies or yahoos ready to dumb down Modernism.
And:
the exhibition itself tells you nothing—and I mean nothing—about [Björk's] artistic process. How she works with her directors, combines music samples with images, chooses archetypes from children’s art or Icelandic lore is nowhere explained, as if her young international fan base would be bored by analysis of such matters.
Instead, “Songlines” features props from her videos—the red leather and Velcro shoes from “Hyperballad”; the bell dress from “Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, My Pain on the Right)”; and, of course, the white swan dress she wore to the Academy Awards in 2001. There are also notebooks full of her writings. You would never guess reading this drivel that their author was capable of arcane musical thought. 

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

For operas and recitals the added value of a live performance is self-evident, but for symphonic music it's a real dilemma. I can listen to any symphony I want from the comfort of my home with a sound quality to die for. My last visits to the concert hall have been, frankly, disappointing. Expensive tickets, bad seats, people coughing, low volume, and the boring "spectacle" of a guy gesticulating with a baton for hours before a sea of quasi-motionless musicians.

The musical experience I get at home is far superior, so why bother? There is nothing visual of compelling interest in the performance of a symphony.

Of course, it's a different matter with an opera or a ballet or a piano recital.

My last live performance of the Mass in Bm is equally disappointing: excellent ensemble (Koopman) but refusal to amplify the sound meant that I could barely hear the sopranos from where I was.

In this day and age where you can buy the complete works of Bach (say, by Rilling) for about $200, the economics just doesn't work for concert halls.

Anonymous said...

Too bad Blogger doesn't have an edit function... Apologies for the typos.

Bryan Townsend said...

For me it is usually a question of repertoire: the kinds of pieces I want to hear are not often featured on programs in my area. Chamber music and orchestral series both tend to keep turning up the same pieces. I'm longing to hear some Rautavaara or Pärt and they are playing Schumann. But the last orchestral concert I attended I did enjoy while also noting that, just as you say, with a good sound system, you can have virtually the same experience at home. Ironically, sometimes I find concerts annoying when they are trying too hard to make it an "experience" by, for example, talking too much before each piece (or at all), or making a big deal out of moving about or tossing of hair, that sort of thing. Listening to a recording you are not distracted by redundant visual elements.

Marc Puckett said...

Am going to hear the premiere performance of the Delgani String Quartet Tuesday and will let you know if they include a piece of Glass's.... Well, no. Dvorak's 13th and Shostakovich's 9th, and the premiere of Jason Heald's 5th-- part of it before the D. and part between the D. and the S. and part after-- apparently, that's how traditional Irish airs go in traditional Irish shows, ahem. We shall see. The violist has recorded the works of Gino Gorini (of whom I had never heard)... and they're on Spotify, ha. A viola sonata, a piano quintet, inter alia. Hmm.

The Oregon Bach Festival is featuring Part's Passio at the end of June....

Bryan Townsend said...

Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 9 is an excellent piece that I wrote about here:

http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2011/10/shostakovich-quartets-part-5.html

Looking forward to a report on the Jason Heald quartet.

Marc Puckett said...

The two pieces of Heald were short, two or three minutes and then perhaps five or six; excerpted from his 5th Quartet, written for the DSQ. (Their first concert next season, in November, includes the entire quartet, perhaps.) Named Gramachree, and the second Croghan a Venee, but I don't know my Irish folk melodies so no idea how he would describe the relations between sources and his own invention but I think there was certainly some underlying song brought into the second passage. Quite lush and sonorous, flowing and nary a whiff of dissonance, complementary to the spikiness of the Shostakovich they preceded and followed.

Music-- Pujol, Boccherini, and Ginastera-- for guitar and strings next March, with James Edwards, guitarist.

(The pasta was clever, but the Nahuatl? street sign name remains my favorite and was the most challenging.)

Bryan Townsend said...

Which Pujol? There are some nice quintets with guitar by Boccherini. What Ginastera I wonder? He wrote a solo sonata for guitar.

Sorry, I'm not sure what the reference is in your last sentence? Nahuatl?

Marc Puckett said...

Sorry! I so often forget to check the 'email when there are additional comments' button.

Just the composers' names were advertised on the other night's program.

Saw last night that the Eugene Symphony next year-- it's their 50th anniversary season-- are performing Varèse's Amériques, Adam's Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Ginastera's Estancia and his Piano Concerto no. 1. Roberto Sierra and Mason Bates. Duruflé's Requiem. Beethoven's... yes, that one, and Mahler's 4th.

The 'prove you're not a robot' thingey-- last time, of a dozen images, select the pasta. The best was a street sign in Nahuatl or some cognate Mesoamerican language, twenty odd letters of it. :-)

[http://www.eugenesymphony.org/Events/2015-16-Season/]

Bryan Townsend said...

Where I am we do not have our own orchestra, though there are a couple of orchestras nearby. So I am a bit envious of all the programs you can attend live.

Lately I have to prove I'm not a robot every time I leave a reply to a comment. The really twisty ones over black and white backgrounds drive me nuts so I just keep hitting "give me another one" until I get a readable one. Occasionally they give you beer, sushi or pasta for variety. But I haven't seen the Nahuatl street sign yet. Where I live we actually do have Nahuatl street signs like "Huitzilopochtle".

Marc Puckett said...

The only part of Mexico I'm at all familiar with is Oaxaca; there are plenty of names Nahuatl-ish etc in Oaxaca; therefore, I presumed you were setting up the reCaptchas yourself: very bad logic, that. :-) Looking forward to the Friday Miscellany but work imposes just now, tsk.