Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Quick Evaluation

While they are all still fresh in my mind, I want to do something rather unfashionable these days: rank the concerts I have seen this month. While there is a widespread distaste for this kind of activity, I find it has a lot of real benefits in that it focuses your thinking, uncovers things that you might not have noticed and digs into the concert experience. While the public profile is made to seem non-judgmental, I'm pretty sure that every musical organization and granting body works very hard on these kind of evaluations--they just do it behind the scenes.

So here goes, the eight concerts I have seen this month ranked in order of quality from lowest to highest. But just a couple of caveats first: yes, it is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison as the range is from solo piano recital to huge orchestra to major opera production. But I am looking at this from a reception point of view only: how well-received, by me, was the performance? There are still some incommensurables, but I will just mention them and move on.

  • Spanish National Orchestra, Bruch and Shostakovich, Pinchas Zukerman, violin, cond. David Afkham
  • Reina Sofía Chamber Orchestra, Grieg and Mozart, cond. and concertmaster, Nicolás Chumachenco
  • Palau Reina Sofía production of Werther by Massenet
  • Teatro Real production of Bomarzo by Ginastera
  • Teatro Real production of El Gallo de Oro by Rimsky-Korsakov
  • Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, Glinka, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, Leticia Moreno, violin, cond. Yuri Temirkanov
  • Grigory Sokolov, piano, Mozart and Beethoven
  • Frankfurt Radio Orchestra, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, Gautier Capuçon, cello, cond. Andrés Orozco-Estrada
Oddly enough, the operas are some of the most incommensurable items, even among themselves. I think that is because each opera production tends to create its own world of design and meaning that is a kind of little cosmos in itself. I notice this particularly with the three (two this year, one last year) productions I have seen at the Teatro Real. They are very, very different from one another. So one could argue for a different order in the three operas and I wouldn't resist too much. But they all fall in the middle of the range: quite interesting, but not superlative. I attribute this mostly to the composers, I think. Massenet, Ginastera and Rimsky-Korsakov are all second-rank composers. Oops, there's another thing you aren't allowed to say: all composers, like all cultures, are equally wonderful. Well, if that's true, why isn't the New York Philharmonic playing my orchestral music?

The two Spanish orchestras are down towards the bottom because, while it was sincere and warm music-making, they have neither the fire of the Russians nor the precision and authority of the Germans. As for the two highest ranked, Sokolov and Frankfurt, again, they could easily swap places. It is hard for anything to compete with Stravinsky's astonishing use of the large orchestra in the Rite, let alone a solo pianist. But you could also argue that for sheer transcendence and subtlety, no-one can really compete with Sokolov, which is true. One thing for sure, these two concerts were the most exciting musical experiences of the trip with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic coming close behind.

Mind you, if I had caught a Teatro Real production of, say Don Giovanni, a great opera by a great composer, that might have come in first.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Miscellaneous Photos of Madrid

Here are a few photos I shot that didn't get put into a post for some reason. I hope they are interesting!

A wall of different plants next to a contemporary art gallery:

Even tapas have tapas (a smoked salmon tapa, with its own little chorizo tapa--a tapa is a little dish of something that comes free with your drink, but it has evolved into a whole bunch of mini-meals that now are charged for, but sometimes they come with their own little tapa):

Bikes you can rent:

Contemporary art exhibit in Retiro Park:

No-nonsense placemat at a restaurant listing their plusses and minuses:

Click to enlarge

The plusses are as you would expect; it is the minuses that are interesting:

  • Terramundi is always too full and there is little space between tables and people
  • We can't always guarantee that our dishes will last to the end of the day
  • We know that our attention to the client isn't always the highest priority, our service is sometimes too hurried and not pleasant enough; we work fast to satisfy the needs of our regular customers
(My attempt at an idiomatic translation.)

A typical Spanish full breakfast: only one egg but lots of bacon--and salad?

The equivalent to Times Square in Madrid might be the Plaza Callao on Gran Via. The big skinny store is FNAC a giant "cultural technology" store which means they sell phones, videogames, but also CDs and DVDs. That's not a poster, that is a giant video screen that changes every few seconds.

And, finally, a lone busker playing the allemande to the Cello Suite No. 1 by Bach, outside the FNAC:

Which gives us our envoi. Here is the allemande played by Mischa Maisky:

Coughing in Concerts

Let's get the science out of the way first. Musical sounds tend to range between 60 decibels (normal piano practice) and 130 decibels (loud symphonic music). A human cough ranges between 70 to 90 decibels. Yes, it's true, here's the link. So if you cough in a concert you will completely blot out several musical notes, likely ruining the perception of the entire phrase, for everyone seated within thirty or forty feet of you. Every time you cough you seriously impair the concert experience for fifty people or more. The only mystery to me is why we do not fall on these people en masse and throw them out?

You may not cough in concerts.



Got it? Europeans may know when to clap, but they cough in concerts as much as anyone. Some people seem to cough with no attempt made to stifle it, just as if it were completely normal and acceptable.

You may not cough in concerts.



And at the concert last night, they even had a stack of boxes of cough drops for sale at the bar at intermission. Why don't people get this? No, you are not at home where your cough will bother no-one. You are in a highly sensitive acoustic environment where your cough will disturb many, many people. You can avoid coughing in concerts. I have been going to concerts for forty some years and I have never, NEVER, coughed during a musical performance. I had a hell of a tickle once and stifling the urge to cough was really hard (and I did cough between movements) but I did not cough during the performance.

You may not cough in concerts.



I hope that is clear? Sure, most musicians and audience members just ignore it and stay focussed. But make no mistake, every time you cough in a concert you are seriously disturbing both the audience members and the musicians. Please stop.

This has been a public service announcement from The Music Salon.

The Golden Cockerel

Last night was my last concert outing on this trip with a return to the Teatro Real for Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel. You should read both those Wikipedia entries so I can avoid rehearsing the story here! As discussed in the essay by Joan Matabosch, artistic director of the Teatro Real, in the program booklet, the origins of the opera came out of two political events in Tsarist Russia: the absurdly incompetent conduct of a losing war with Japan in 1904 and the brutal putting down by the Imperial Guard of a peaceful demonstration with more than a thousand casualties on "Bloody Sunday" in 1905. Rimsky-Korsakov completed the opera, on a libretto by Vladimir Belsky, in 1907. It was banned from performance and not premiered, even then with alterations, until 1909, after Rimsky-Korsakov's death. It is a bitter satire, full of black humor and offers little in the way of consolation: the Tsar and his sons and officials are incompetent and ludicrous, their military is incompetent and brutal and the people have neither the will nor the ability to rule themselves. There are really no good guys in the opera. The Tsar Dodon is a fool, the mysterious Tsarina Shemakha is taunting and exotic, but causes the downfall of the Tsar, the Astrologer, who manipulates everyone, seems the incarnation of an amoral fate.

The production was excellent, though completely different from the two I have previously seen at the Teatro Real. Those others were both modernist works and were done with a modernist production, which was completely appropriate. This production was much simpler, but very effective. It began with a brilliant device: for the prologue, the Astrologer sticks his head out from behind the curtains and is illuminated by a bright white spot. He tell us he has the power to breathe life into puppets and to prove it, he is going to animate "the burlesque masks of an old tale." While he is singing this, his head slowly ascends, still poking out between the curtains, until he is 30 or so feet above the stage. Then he disappears, the curtains open and the opera begins. The first and third acts take place in the Tsar's bedroom with a dark stage occupied by a huge bed. Color is very important in this production. Virtually every costume is white, grey or silver, the sole exception being the Golden Cockerel itself, in canary yellow. The costumes are wonderful, simple, but effective, which is true of the whole production. The second act takes place in front of the Tsarina Shemakha's tent which they have realized like a great horn of openwork steel containers from small to large that contain lights. Hard to describe, but again, effective. The Tsarina has a group of demonic black followers with heads like dogs and she, the very essence of Oriental eroticism, is dressed in silver and black. Her opening aria is a Hymn to the Sun and a very challenging one. Here is a performance from a different production by Olga Trifonova:

In another passage she gives a catalogue of the excellence of her various body parts. The poor Tsar really didn't have a chance!

The opera has usually been performed in either French or English in most opera houses but this is a new co-production with the Opera National de Lorraine and it is sung in Russian. The sur-titles were in Spanish and English. Of course for this you need a whole cast of Russian singers--two actually as all the main roles had two singers for alternate performances. This evening the Dodon was sung by Dmitry Ulyanov, his two sons by Sergei Skorokhodov and Alexy Lavrov, the Astrologer (a rare tenore contraltino part) by Alexander Kravets, and Shemakha by Venera Gimadieva (whose part includes a couple of extremely high E notes!)

I'm certainly not an expert on Russian singing, but everyone seemed to do a good job, especially Mme Gimadieva whose virtuosity dominates Act II.

Just a note on the composition. I am not very acquainted with the music of Rimsky-Korsakov apart from Scheherezade, a recording of which I had for many years and which I have also heard in concert. But this is my first opera by him. The brilliance of the orchestration was no surprise, nor were the chromatic orientalisms usually associated with Shemakha. Russian composers often feel themselves as being caught between European and Asian worlds. What I did find surprising was that Rimsky-Korsakov relies so heavily on melodic sequences and not very creative ones, at that. After a while they got to be a bit predictable: write a short melodic idea, repeat it, repeat it again on a different pitch. I will have to listen to more of him and see if this is a common trait.

It was nice to return to the Teatro and I had a seat much closer in this time. Here are some photos. I was on the ground floor, which was closer to the stage, but offered no view into the orchestra pit:

Click to enlarge

I did walk up at intermission and take a picture. You can see the score requires two harps:

Here is a shot of the boxes for the high dollar customers. Note the gold leaf. Each box also has a large mirror so you can check your makeup:

But where does the royal family sit when they attend? After all, it is their theatre. Ah, right in the centre, of course. Note the royal crest:

Here is a shot of the downstairs lobby at intermission. As you can see, there are five levels of people enjoying their cavas:

I tried to get a photo of the bows at the end, but they just didn't come out. This is about as good as any with Shemakha taking her bow:

Click to enlarge
It was an entirely satisfactory end to a wonderful series of concerts. I will have more posts musing over this and that in coming days, but for now, this is it. Let's end with a clip of the whole opera from the Bolshoi in 1989, Evgeny Svetlanov conducting:

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Concerts and Audiences

This is going to be one of those posts on a theme that I don't really have a tag for. I'm going to talk about audiences and the effect different audiences might have on performers and performances. My evidence comes from having attended thousands of concerts and played hundreds of concerts, but, of course, it has no statistical rigour. This is just anecdotal, but based on a lot of experience.

Audiences make a difference. But without interviewing them all, or collecting personal data, how can you claim to know anything about any particular audience? The answer is by the way they behave. There is also another level, but it is so subtle that it may be easily misread, and this is the feeling a performer gets from the audience.

Some data: I have attended seven concerts so far on this trip (tonight is Rimsky-Korsakof at the Teatro Real) in which I have heard one chamber orchestra, one pianist, two operas, and three symphony orchestras. Except for the chamber orchestra (hall seated about 700) and the piano recital (hall seated around 1,200), each of these concerts had an audience of perhaps 2,000 people.

At home, in my relatively small town in Mexico* (though renowned as a cultural centre) with audiences of between 200 and 800, at every single concert I have attended, dozens of concerts at least, a significant number of people clap after the end of the first movement of the first piece. This diminishes over the course of the concert as they, presumably, notice that a lot of people are not clapping after each movement and by the end of the concert, the last piece usually goes without any inter-movement applause.

Why do I mention this? After all, every season there are hosts of articles chiding the classical music concert scene for its fuddy-duddy rules about dress and not clapping between movements and boring old classical "canon". The Guardian has a long-running interview series in which they ask every interviewee their opinion on clapping between movements and the expected, nay, required, response is how totally ok it is. Leaving all that to one side, clapping between movements is probably the most salient item in audience behaviour with which one can estimate how used to attending concerts they are. An audience that claps whenever there is a momentary cessation of sound is one that is not very used to classical concerts.

So what have I seen in Europe? Not once in any of the concerts has a single person out of the thousands and thousands of audience members clapped between movements. Not one person, not one time. In fact, in the Grigory Sokolov concert, they didn't even clap between pieces! He structured the concert with all Mozart in the first half and all Beethoven in the second half and the audience waited until the end of each half before clapping. And it was not through apathy! No, at the end of the first half there was so much and so long-lasting applause that Sokolov had to come back and bow four times!

This is just one indictor, of course, but it is a very striking one. Other things I have noticed about European audiences is that they are not particularly elderly. North American orchestras are constantly worrying about their ageing audiences who are a sea of grey heads. Yes, there are lots of older people in the European concerts I have seen, but there are also lots of younger people as well. I have seen many, many groups of young people and lots of young couples. Who also, by the way, do not clap between movements.

Also the concerts are well-attended, every one I have been to has had at least 85 to 90% attendance, so they must like what they hear. What are they hearing? For North American audiences what I have been attending might seem rather esoteric: obscure operas and pianists, Shostakovich symphonies and concertos, Stravinsky? But no, this is the standard concert fare. There are lighter programs, but they seem to be in the minority. There are a lot of music promoting organizations in Madrid and I picked up some brochures for the coming season. Let me walk you through the 17/18 season with Ibermúsica:

  • London Symphony, cond. Bernard Haitink in two programs of Mendelssohn, Brahms and Beethoven (symphonies and concertos)
  • Evgeny Kissin, piano, playing Beethoven sonatas and Rachmaninoff
  • Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, cond. Yuri Temirkanov playing Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Haydn and Rimsky-Korsakov
  • Bamburg Symphony cond. Jakub Hrusa playing Sibelius (violin concerto) and Dvorak
  • Orchestra of Castille and Leon cond. Andrew Gourlay playing Rueda, Glazunov and Stravinsky
  • Orquesta de Cadaqués and choir, cond. Giandrea Noseda, Mozart Requiem
  • Daniel Barenboim, piano
  • London Philharmonic, cond. Vladimir Jurowski, Grieg and Tchaikovsky
  • Gürzenich Orchester Köln, cond. François-Xavier Roth, Beethoven and Bartók
  • Munich Philharmonic, cond. Pablo Heras-Casado, Haydn, Bartók and Dvorak
That is about half of what one organization is offering next season. There are lots of others! The Grandes Interpretes season, for example, devoted to solo recitalists, is bringing Daniil Trifonov, Andras Schiff, Leif Ove Andsnes, Angela Hewitt, Piotr Anderewski and Grigory Sokolov among others. They have presented Sokolov in almost every season since 2000.

You know, the constant drumbeat of articles in the North American and British press about all the manifold problems of the classical music world are really just a part of the picture. What they really reflect is not a horrible crisis in classical music--in Germany more people attend classical music concerts than attend soccer matches--but rather a problem in North American culture--less so in Britain.

To put it bluntly, but correctly, we're hicks.  Yes, I say "we" because I grew up in this environment and only through chance wandered away from it.

The problem playing for audiences who are not accustomed to classical concerts, but rather to pop music, is that they really aren't with you. If you do anything unusual or challenging, they pull in their ears and clap half-heartedly and won't come to your next concert. Given that atmosphere, you will rarely play your best and will be cudgelling your brain to try and figure out how to please the inherently unpleaseable audience. This leads to crossover and pops concerts and classical music lite. It's not a good trend and it is a self-defeating one. At the end of the day you just cheapen the music itself.

What I have described applies to small and medium urban areas, but not to all large metropolises. In North America, New York, San Francisco, Toronto and Montreal are exceptions. I have only spent a lot of time in one of those cities and less time in two others so I can't speak from much experience, but I suspect that the picture I have painted is somewhat true even there, but with lots of exceptions and caveats.

Please let loose in the comments!

Our envoi is the Sibelius Violin Concerto. The soloist is Viktoria Mullova, the soloist in the Bamburg Symphony concert listed above:

UPDATE: *I should mention that this town in Mexico has a very significant American and Canadian population and the concert-going audiences are at least 90% from this group.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Orquesta Nacional de España

Last night I saw the last orchestra concert of this trip, the Orquesta Nacional de España in the Auditorio Nacional, same venue as last night. Slightly better seat, though, more in the centre section. I have some more photos of the Auditorio. I also found out that the chamber hall seats just under 700 and the symphony hall, just under 2300. Here is the view from the upper level to the second level lobby:

Click to enlarge
That shiny floor is all granite, by the way, as are these stairs leading to the various entrances.

There are fourteen entrances to the hall and that, combined with these staircases enable everyone to easily get in and, more importantly, to get out at intermission for a refreshing cava:

This is the lower lobby at intermission. On that table in the foreground are stacks of brochures promoting next season's concerts. I will get to them later.

One thing about the hall that looks good and I'm sure helps the acoustics is the beautiful wood ceiling:

A few early-arrivers in the orchestra, warming up:

And here they are, all ready to play:

The program was just two pieces, one in each half. The first half was the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor by Max Bruch and the soloist was Pinchas Zukerman. When I was just discovering classical music, and buying every LP I could afford, back around 1970, one of my very favorite recordings was one by Maestro Zukerman of concertos by Weiniewski and Vieuxtemps and shorter pieces for violin and orchestra by Chausson and others. Since I lost that LP at least twenty years ago, you can tell I liked it a lot! I used to listen to it first thing in the morning. He was in good form last night and it was great to hear him in person.

The conductor scheduled to direct the concert was Vladimir Ashkenazy, another old friend of mine from recordings, but moments before the concert started an announcement was made that he was indisposed and the program would be conducted by David Afkham, the main conductor of the orchestra. In any case, the second half was the Symphony No. 10 by Shostakovich, which was the reason I came to the concert. The only other Shostakovich symphony I have heard in concert was the Symphony No. 7, so I was really looking forward.

Here is the interesting thing, the difference between a really great orchestra, or pianist, or other musician or group of musicians and a pretty good orchestra or pianist, etc. is huge. And this was reinforced for me by these two concerts with the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra and the Spanish National Orchestra. The latter, as shown in the concert last night, are pretty good. At the end of the Shostakovich there were many bows and the conductor singled out specific members of the orchestra who had big solo parts for individual bows and there were lots of bravos for particular players. So all was good. Good concert. Not to forget Pinchas Zukerman who did a very fine job with his concerto and also had to come back several times and bow.

But here's the thing: the night before the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra and their soloist Gautier Capuçon each had to do encores--and offhand I can only recall one other occasion when I have seen an entire orchestra do an encore--but last night there were no encores. I wonder if it is partly anticipation: the Frankfurt guys and their soloist just knew they were going to do a heck of a concert and prepared encores accordingly. The Spanish orchestra? They didn't have the same level of confidence.

In truth, I was pretty bored halfway through each half of the program. In the first half I thought it was the fault of the piece, by Bruch, that I wasn't familiar with. But the same thing happened with the Shostakovich. Somewhere in the slow movement I just lost interest. And that's weird as I'm a big Shostakovich fan. So what was the problem? Maybe it was the last-minute change of conductor? Who knows? In order to really compare two different orchestras you not only have to hear them playing the same repertoire, but it should also be under the same conductor. But we never get to make those kind of comparisons. So I am left with the very strong feeling that the Frankfurt orchestra are head and shoulders above the Spanish one. I was literally on the edge of my seat through the whole Stravinsky. But last night...

If I had to say what the problems were I guess it comes down to things like ensemble precision. The Spanish orchestra while excellent individually, just do not seem to have the kind of unity the German one did. Phrases, while tapered off well, lacked dynamic direction. There was a lack of clarity, a kind of muddle, all the time. Bear in mind that I am talking about details, small differences. But they add up and what they add up to is ... boredom.

I think a good envoi today would be one of those pieces that was on that early LP by Pinchas Zukerman. This is the Polonaise in D major by Wieniawski:

Friday, May 26, 2017

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra

Last night I heard the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, the third orchestra I have seen so far on this trip--tonight will be the fourth, the Orquesta Nacional de España. One thing I notice with all these orchestras is that with very few exceptions they all dress very formally. Every male player is in white tie formal dress and the women are in formal evening gowns. The exceptions? The Reina Sofia chamber orchestra was in "casual formal" and the conductor last night was all in black while the soloist was black tie. A bit odd.

So, last night was in the Sala Sinfónica at the Auditorio Nacional. The hall was about 90% full. Here are a couple of photos:

Sorry for the quality: iPhone 5, low light. Just enjoy the gritty verismo! The evening called for three different sized orchestras: small classical orchestra for the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 that opened the evening with pairs of winds, one tympanist and eight first violins, the rest of the strings accordingly.

Click to enlarge

The second piece was the Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra by Tchaikovsky and for it a place was made for the soloist and the orchestra slightly modified. But the big change came in the second half when the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky was played. This is for a large orchestra:

Click to enlarge
I hope you can make them out: in the back are two tympanists playing a total of nine tympani, plus four other percussionists. There are eight French horns, six trumpets, three (I think) bassoons and two contrabassoons, a few trombones and tubas, three flutes and two piccolos, more strings (ten firsts, I think) and so on. You can make a lot of noise with that much power! I just decided to check online to see how close I am re the instrumentation. Here is what I find:
piccolos (2), flutes (3), alto flute, oboes (4), English horn, clarinet (E flat), clarinets (3), bass clarinets (2), bassoons (4), contrabassoons (2), French horns (8), piccolo trumpet (D), trumpets (4), trombones (3), tubas (3), timpani (8), bass drum, triangle, antique cymbals, strings.
Missed the alto flute, English horn (actually, I saw it, but forgot to mention it, it has a prominent part),  the piccolo trumpet and, yes, the triangle!

Now to the music. The Beethoven is a lovely piece showing a lot of the promise of his later symphonies. He didn't complete it until his 30th year, so it is in no sense a juvenile work. The orchestra played with conviction, aplomb and total command, just as one would expect. The young French cello solist, Gautier Capuçon, I was not familiar with, but he is a superb player. His upper register was brilliant and perfectly tuned. The performance was excellent. At the end, after many bows, the soloist played an encore, but it was rather different from the usual, where the soloist pulls some bon bon out of their solo repertoire. This encore was performed with accompaniment by the cello section of the orchestra. I'm afraid I couldn't make out the composer or the whole name of the piece--it was "Chanson de something"--but it was lovely and lyrical and beautifully played. A nice touch, I thought.

Then, intermission. I'm not sure how many bars are in the hall, there are several different entrances, but the one I went two had two extremely harried women serving cava like there was no tomorrow!

The second half was the Rite of Spring and it was a performance that will stick with me for a long time. I just realized that I have been listening to the Rite for around fifty years! The piece itself, premiered in 1913, just had its hundredth anniversary. It may have been the first classical piece I ever heard as way back in Grade 9, our English teacher played us this very odd piece in class one day. I have the feeling that it might have been the Rite. Then, in 1970 or 71 I bought the Boulez/Cleveland recording that had recently been released and listened to it a lot. But last night I heard things that I never noticed before. I have to underline, if there is some music you think is very good or very important, then you really have to hear it live, an actual performance. Recordings, while good in their way, always seem to miss the existential reality of the music with those little misalignments and tiny flaws that tell you that you are hearing the Real Thing, being played right in front of you by Real Musicians.

The performance was stunning, largely because of the music itself, but also because an orchestra, these days, can play this music with real authority. The score is fearsomely complex and poses huge challenges to both musicians and conductor. Oh, the conductor last night was Andrés Orozco-Estrada, a young Columbian conductor who is music director of the Houston Symphony, principal conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the London Philhamonic. How do these guys do it?

Most unusually, for me at least, the orchestra played an encore after the Stravinsky. Again, I missed the name of the piece and composer, but I think it was by a Columbian composer and was a calm and lyrical piece that settled us down after the Danse sacrale of the Stravinsky.

So, great orchestra, great music, great concert. In fact, I am inspired to do a whole series of posts on Stravinsky and the Rite. The thing about this piece is that it is very, very good. It is so incredibly powerful and not because of the large orchestra and loud percussion--those are saved just for the big climaxes. No, the reason it is powerful is because of the astonishing invention. No matter how many times you have heard this piece (I think I have heard it a hundred times at least) it is just as powerful--or more so! For months and months Stravinsky sat alone in a tiny 8x8 foot room in Switzerland, just him and a piano, struggling to write this piece. What an accomplishment.

The only possible envoi today would be the Rite of course. This is a hundredth anniversary performance at the Proms in 2013 introduced by Tom Service and conducted by François-Xavier Roth. The performance itself starts at around the 6 minute mark:

This Music Prize is Contemptible

I had this in this week's miscellanea, but realized it deserves its own post. As part of the celebrations around Canada's 150th anniversary, Vancouver announces a classical music competition, the 2017 Vancouver International Music Competition. The site preens itself with the following text:
In its 150 years, Vancouver has grown into a cosmopolitan city nestled in the great outdoors. Enjoy the snow-capped mountains, waterfront forests, cityside beaches, Olympic history and the world’s highest suspension bridge.
Yes, all that is true except the part about the suspension bridge. Vancouver doesn't seem to make the list of either highest suspension bridges or tallest structures anywhere that I can see. But the rest, yes, Vancouver is a remarkably beautiful city, but it has always had a bit of a challenge when it comes to supporting the arts. The symphony has gone bankrupt on more than one occasion, for example, and the Vancouver Opera just closed down doing a regular season of productions in favour of three productions clustered together in the spring--what they are calling a "festival" format.

But what I find annoying, no, not annoying, contemptible to a high degree, is the fluffing and preening of announcing this award compared to the minuscule prizes given to the winners.

The instruments are piano, strings (including harp and guitar) and voice. In the very grand tradition of Canadian awards and commissions that I have previously covered--would you believe a princely $800 commission to write a new piece for the carillon in Ottawa?--the grand prize in each group, piano, strings and voice, is, wait for it, drumroll please. One thousand dollars. Canadian dollars. Which comes to $746 US. Are you kidding us? Mind you, this does reveal in stark clarity just how really, really important the arts are to Canada. Not very damn.

To get the full sense of how astonishingly tiny these prizes are, let us compare them to, oh, the cost of purchasing a home in Vancouver, one of the hottest real estate markets in the world. Here, from an article in the Globe and Mail, is a brief summary of house prices in Greater Vancouver:
Sales volume peaked last March, while the average price for detached homes sold in the area called Greater Vancouver hit record highs that surpassed $1.8-million during the first quarter of 2016, according to real estate board data. The price for Greater Vancouver detached homes averaged $1.61-million in November, down 8.6 per cent from $1.76-million in July.
That includes all those remote suburbs, what about in the City of Vancouver itself?
The price for detached homes sold within Vancouver’s city limits recently averaged more than $2.6-million. 
That is the AVERAGE price. I saw another article that listed typical fixer-uppers in urban Vancouver. Yes, for around 1.5 million you get a two bedroom bungalow, one bath, about 900 sq ft. And it's a fixer-upper.

Now let's go back to those "prizes". Honestly $1,000? That reminds me of a scene from The Color of Money with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. Tom wins what he thinks is a big pot playing pool, it was a few hundred dollars, and Newman replies "you know what that buys you? One shoe!" Yep, a thousand dollars Canadian, especially in Vancouver, doesn't go very far. One night in a top hotel. Lunch for you and a few friends. Yes, this is how really proud Vancouver is of its musical talent.


Hey, Vancouver? You want to have a music competition? Offer some real prizes instead. $50,000 for each category. That would come to $150,000 or less than 10% of the cost of ONE average home sale in the Greater Vancouver area.

Otherwise, just keep your money, because you obviously can't afford to spend any of it on something as trivial as music.

No envoi for this one.

Friday Miscellanea

It's going to be a grab-bag today. Wait, that's what the Friday Miscellanea always is. Ok, then. First up, courtesy of Slipped Disc, is this little video from cellist Inbal Segev about how she uses technology. It's not on YouTube so you have to click the link.

* * *

Music teachers believe a lot myths about neurological research into music, this article in the Pacific Standard tells us:
Asked to evaluate seven "neuromyths" regarding music, a sample of German music teachers incorrectly labeled them as scientifically proven 40 percent of the time. Disappointingly, a group of young people studying to become music teachers did no better.
"There is a gap between the state of research in neuroscience related to music education, and the knowledge of current and future music teachers about these findings," writes a research team from the Hanover University of Music led by Reinhard Kopiez. It reports instructors are particularly prone to accepting false assertions when they are accompanied by certain brain-related buzzwords.
This really shouldn't be surprising as the media are constantly pumping out articles on questionable scientific research. But one thing to realize is that none of this has anything to do with their actual jobs: to teach music! Yes, the sheer irrelevance of this kind of research to practical music-making is almost as salient as its vacuity as science.

* * *

It is absolutely astonishing how this long essay on John Lennon's song "A Day in the Life" (with help from Paul) has almost nothing whatsoever to say about the song itself, except for the lyrics. At the end of the article, you are rather more ignorant than you were at the beginning. But you feel you understand something. We live in truly diminished times as far as public discussion and understanding--of almost anything!--goes. An example:
The song has so much happening that when I casually listen I feel the accumulated effect, but attempting to really figure out what’s going on, I fear may take the fun out of it. Liking songs is risky. They are aural fireflies, and you can get too close and lose them. If “A Day in the Life” is about anything, it speaks to the way the daily unfolding of worldly events touches the private fragilities of ordinary people. It’s Ulysses in a pop song, the typical day made unforgettable.
But here goes. What exactly is happening? In the best rock songs, you can almost see it. When Paul tells me that a girl was just 17 and I know what he means, in fact I don’t know what he means, which is the point. “A Day in the Life” is filled with a collage of images in enticing half focus. Lennon, the crowd, you, and I are all voyeurs, transfixed by something horrible, the newsworthy death. Everybody recognizes the victim but nobody knows exactly who he is.
Yes, and we really have almost no idea of what you are talking about. This is the kind of musical listening that depends on the near-total vacuity of the listener. No, liking songs in this way is really not risky and you are in no danger whatsoever of taking the fun out of it.

 * * *

Music blogger Slugging a Vampire weighs in on the music-by-committee writing of pop songs and makes some interesting points:
I think it’s very obvious that this trend is ruinous. Their music globalises and helps eviscerate local cultures. The ‘elites’ in society, for want of a better word, all swear allegiance to it where once they would have been the patrons of high culture. Politicians become too scared to be seen at the opera. Society becomes more musically illiterate as people’s musical imagination is severely restricted by the homogeneity of omnipresent pop music, and people struggle to find ‘relevance’ in serious music. Music literacy will then genuinely become the preserve of the privileged. People lose a source of profound beauty and, in the case of pop music especially, of social and communal bonds, and are given a miserable opioid substitute.
* * *

Jessica Duchen, another music blogger, recommends an upcoming concert by the Curtis Institute orchestra and has an alumnus explain what is so great about Curtis:
"But what is this Curtis Institute?" I hear you cry. Well, it's probably the greatest music college on the planet. The place that probably trains more of the solo pianists, violinists, orchestral concert masters, principal clarinettists, Met Opera singers, composers, and conductors than any other institution in the world. From my time studying there alone, Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, and Jonathan Biss are at the forefront of pianists; the concert masters of Vienna Philharmonic, Atlanta Symphony, Met Opera Orchestra, Minneapolis Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony and soloists with every reputed orchestra. Juan Diego Florez is the most famous of the swaths of singers who have trained there; Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, Jennifer Higdon some of the most adorned composers etc.
A bassoonist friend of mine attended Curtis and yes, it is a remarkable place. Everyone is on full scholarship. She had to learn a new Vivaldi concerto every week.

* * *

The Guardian has a review of a DVD release of the Kirov Opera (now Mariinsky Theatre) production of The Golden Cockerel conducted by Valery Gergiev:
Valery Gergiev’s Philips recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov’s stage works, with the singers and orchestra of the Kirov Opera (as the Mariinsky in St Petersburg was still called then), remains one of the landmark operatic achievements of the 1990s. Gergiev had recorded only five of Rimsky’s 16 operas when the series was halted; the most significant of the works he did not get around to were The Snow Maiden, May Night and the last and perhaps most forward-looking opera of all, The Golden Cockerel. But three years ago he conducted a new staging of the latter at the Mariinsky, directed by Anna Matison, and to some extent this DVD of that production fills the gap.
Not entirely, though. Today’s Gergiev is not the same hugely inspirational figure he was in the 1990s, when his performances of the Russian repertory in general and Rimsky in particular were so compelling. This version of The Golden Cockerel is never less than well played, and it’s occasionally very beautiful, but there’s none of the sense of crusading zeal and energy that coursed through Gergiev’s accounts of operas such as Sadko and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh two decades earlier.
* * *

 Let's listen to Maestro Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in 2005 in a performance of Scheherezade by Rimsky-Korsakov:

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Minor Post about Food

Valencia is particularly known for two food items: paella valenciana and horchata. I've had a couple of paellas in Madrid, so I didn't make a point of looking for some in Valencia where I sought out some nearby Asian restaurants. But I did have some horchata there. Horchata is a favorite summer beverage and I remembered it fondly from when I lived in Spain many years ago. It is also available in Mexico, but it just doesn't seem the same there. And now I know the reason why. In Spain, horchata is made from chufas, in English, earth almonds, which are an edible tuber. In Mexico, it is made from rice with vanilla and cinnamon and usually comes out too sweet and rather tasteless. But when made from chufas, it has an earthy tang and is wonderfully refreshing. This is one of the elements in Spanish culture traceable to the Muslim rule. Here is a picture of horchata with the main ingredient, chufas:

I popped into a supermarket in Valencia where they had a refrigerator showing the wide variety of crustaceans available:

Shown are six or seven different kinds of what we would lump into the general category of "prawns." Here there are gambas, langostinos and others for which I don't know the Spanish name.

Another excellent dish is broiled scallops on the half shell:

And finally, a little ice cream stand with a lot of very yummy looking ice creams:

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Prepping for Le coq d'or

I am going to prepare for the performance of El Gallo de Oro (Spanish), Le coq d'or (French), The Golden Cockerel (English) or Zolotoy petushok (Russian) by doing some reading up. Musicologist Richard Taruskin makes the point that the reputation of Nikolai Rimsky-Korskov has suffered in the West from a number of causes. He is known for three examples of "orientalist kitsch": Capriccho espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture and Scheherezade. But most of what he wrote, his fifteen operas are, apart from the Golden Cockerel, barely known. The Flight of the Bumblebee, arranged for virtually every instrument there is, is a very brief excerpt from his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Taruskin only escaped this conventional wisdom due to his descent from Russian jews. As a youth, he was sent recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov operas unavailable in the West

Another source of disparagement came from one of Rimsky-Korsakov's own pupils, Igor Stravinsky, who, in the process of creating his own set of origin myths, decided that it was a good strategy to depict his ex-teacher as a shallow academic. In an essay in a recent collection, Russian Music at Home and Abroad, Taruskin fleshes out the picture for us in a paper titled "Catching Up with Rimsky-Korsakov."

Speaking of Stravinsky, the theorist Arthur Berger, back in 1963, discovered some interesting things about some of his compositions, i.e. that they make use of something Berger labeled the "octatonic scale" which is a scale consisting of alternating whole and half tones:

Click to enlarge
This came out of his studies of pieces such as Les Noces, but it explains things like the famous Petrushka-chord which is a C major chord and an F# major chord superimposed. As you can see from the scale, all six of those notes are contained in it!

As I was saying, the official discovery of this scale is attributed to Arthur Berger, who analyzed it in a scholarly paper and named it. But the scale existed before any of that. As a good music historian, Taruskin uncovers the historical origins of the scale, which was mentioned (though not by name) in Olivier Messiaen's book on his musical language. But it was also widely known in Russia as the gamma tonpoluton, the "tone-semitone scale" but also as the korsakovskaya gamma, the "Rimsky-Korsakov scale." Rimsky-Korsakov himself mentions in his autobiography that he had run across the scale in a symphonic poem by Franz Liszt. Rimsky-Korsakov's sketchbooks as well as his finished compositions are full of examples of the scale and illuminate its properties. There are even examples of the Petrushka-chord in pieces like Heaven and Earth and Tsar Saltan.

Taruskin initially thought that his music theorist colleagues would be delighted that his historical research had turned up so many preceding usages of techniques that Stravinsky later developed. He says, "there is nothing in Stravinsky up to the time of Petrushka, insofar as technique is concerned, that is not also in Rimsky-Korsakov." Well, that was a short-lived hope! The theorists quickly circled the wagons and defended the originality of Stravinsky. Why? Stravinsky is one of the defining figures of not only 20th century music, but modernism generally. The whole idea of modernism is that it was a brilliant and NEW development. No-one wants to hear anything about any historic forebears, except someone like Debussy, who is credited with the origins of modernism in music. But he is safely French! There is also, Taruskin avers, a bias against Russia and its culture.

But enough of that particular debate, let's have a look at the Golden Cockerel. This was Rimsky-Korsakov's last opera and was only premiered after his death. The libretto is based on a poem by Pushkin which itself is based on two chapters from Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving. The final result is something like a traditional Russian folktale, told from an absurdist angle. It appears from the Wikipedia article that this upcoming performance is a co-production with Brussels and the Opera National de Lorraine.

This is a 1989 Bolshoi production:

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

El Gallo de Oro

I just got an email from the Teatro Real about the Rimsky-Korsakoff opera that I will see towards the end of the month. Looking forward to this:

Doesn't that look interesting!

Xostakóvitx en Valencia

I mentioned that the orchestra concert, the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, was in an entirely different hall, the Palau de la Música, as opposed to the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía:

This is more of a conservatory with several smaller halls downstairs and it is the home of the Orchestra of Valencia. It is quite a lovely place with a huge glassed-in conservatory with restaurant/bars at each end:

The hall itself is a good size:

I'm amazed I got a ticket (purchased online a couple of months ago) as every single seat was sold:

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. The orchestra are really excellent. The opening overture by Glinka, from his opera Ruslan and Ludmilla, opened at a furious tempo and was impressive with its sheer orchestral virtuosity. They do not play with any feeling of antiseptic precision, but with gusto.

Next was the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. The title of this post uses the Valencian spelling of Shostakovich, which I find extremely entertaining! It reminds me a bit of some Nahuatl place names in Mexico. The soloist was the young Spanish violinist Leticia Moreno who studied at that same Escuela Superior de la Música Reina Sofía in Madrid that I took a photo of the other day. She has recorded the Shostakovich concerto with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon. She played it very well, with precision, passion, delicacy, ferocity--all of which it demands.

Shostakovich was working on the Violin Concerto No. 1 at the time of his second condemnation in 1948 and the work was not able to be premiered until 1955, by David Oistrakh, the dedicatee. The structure is very unusual: the first movement is a nocturne that Oistrakh described as a "suppression of feelings"; the second movement, a scherzo, he described as "demonic"; this is followed by a passacaglia of profound feeling and the last movement is a devil-may-care burlesque. I don't think I have ever heard of a concerto with nocturne and burlesque movements. In any case, it is a remarkable piece of music, dark and complex, and it was very well played. Ms Moreno had to return and bow several times. She was playing an instrument by Nicolò Gagliano from 1762 and it seemed to me to be perhaps too smooth a sound. It was often like the smoothest velvet, but I think I would have liked a bit more crunch.

The second half of the concert was the Symphony No. 5 by Tchaikovsky and I don't have a lot to say. I'm not sure you can say that this orchestra actually owns this music, but they certainly have an extended lease. Wonderful stuff and I was very happy to have heard the concert.

Here is a YouTube clip of Ms Moreno playing the last two movements, Passacaglia and Burlesque, with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov:

Werther at the Palau

My first night in Valencia was spent at the opera. I've talked about the Palau Reina Sofía a lot. It is part of the City of Arts and Sciences complex, so let's start with the rest of my photo tour. Skipping over some minor items such as the radio-controlled model boat club that meets at the other end of that lagoon from the science museum, we finally come to the Palau. Notice that that huge curvy bit on top just hangs there, it is not supported by anything you can see from this angle:

Click to enlarge
That shiny white exterior is made up of millions of tiny tesserae. They are used to finish surfaces throughout the entire complex, as you can see in this photo of the edge of the lagoon:

Yes, little ceramic chips, as in mosaics. The interior walls of the hall are also finished with ceramic chips, tesserae, but in blue, not white. I think you can see the light reflecting off them in this photo:

Here is another photo of the exterior:

Sorry, for the angle, but I can't straighten it out without losing part of the photo. What you are seeing, starting from the bottom is a restaurant, then some meeting and classrooms (the complex includes a training centre for opera singers under the patronage of Plácido Domingo) and above that, the big window is to the lobby where opera-goers hang out at intermission. Here is a closer photo of the lower two levels:

And from the inside, looking out, during the intermission. What you are seeing, from left to right are, way in the distance, the towers of my hotel, then one end of the science museum, the Hemispheric (IMAX theatre), the suspension bridge, and on the far right, the roof garden on the parking garage. In the foreground is another bridge, for cars and pedestrians.

Here is a better photo of the folks gathered below.

As you can see, they are enjoying a wide assortment of snacks and champagne:

What are those ropes, guarded by black-clad ushers for, you ask? Ah, those delightful refreshments are only for the patrons of the opera! Quite different from the Teatro Real, where everyone had equal access, on payment, to the intermission refreshments.

But let me finish my photo-tour. Here is a look at the other end of the Palau which is on a higher level:

This is the entrance to the box office and to the hall and that big pylon has a guide on it:

And here is a photo from underneath the pylon which gives an interesting angle on the architecture:

Here is a nearby poster for upcoming events:

What troubled me about that poster was that there was nothing about the symphony concert the next night. So I asked around and it turns out that I have been confusing and conflating two different places! This Palau is only an opera house (and training centre). The symphony concert is in an entirely different Palau a couple of miles away:

Good thing I discovered that!

Now, about Werther: I don't know Massenet much and, apart from reading the Wikipedia article, I don't know the opera, though I have some acquaintance with the book, by Goethe, that it is based on. It is a late romantic opera, quite successful outside and inside France--the premiere was actually in Vienna. The performance was very well done; the orchestra were excellent and the leading singers quite good. The tenor, Jean-François Borras was very good. He is also scheduled to sing the role of Werther at the Metropolitan Opera in New York this year. Not sure of his age, but he seems a young artist as he only debuted in 2012. I was less impressed with the female lead, Anna Caterina Antonacci who, frankly, seemed too old for the role. I thought this in the performance itself and only just now looked her up to see that she is in her mid-50s. Her voice revealed that hooty wavering that sopranos seem to fall into as their voices age. If I am being indelicate, please forgive me! I'm only a guitarist, after all, and have no special expertise in understanding the voice. But, for me at least, there was a bit of a mis-match in the two leads.

The production was a bit disappointing: here we are in this ultra-modern opera house and the production seemed all too traditional. Apart from the largely ineffective use of a large video screen (made to look like a huge mirror) that dropped down from time to time, the production could have been from decades ago. Not that there is anything wrong with that! Perhaps we don't want to inflict a post-modern production on Massenet! The opera is interesting enough. One commentary talks about how the character was a huge revelation to the public when the novel appeared in the mid 1770s. It was an entirely new kind of person, one not defined by the church or the old class system, but one who creates himself out of romantic ideals--and then kills himself, of course! But while the production was certainly adequate, there was nothing in it that seemed particularly noteworthy. This is rather ironic, isn't it? The really dynamic and creative productions are at the 200-year-old Teatro Real in Madrid while the somewhat stogy ones are at the super-modern Palau de les Arts that opened in 2005!

Here, through the magic of YouTube is a 2010 production from the Opéra National de Paris with Jonas Kaufmann as Werther and Sophie Koch as Charlotte:

UPDATE: I lightened up one of the interior photos as it was very dark.

Train to Valencia

Now that I have access to my iPhone photos, I can go back and fill in the gaps. Let me say right up front that my preferred mode of travel is definitely the Spanish AVE trains--mind you, I haven't tried all the others though I did take a short trip in a French TGV quite a few years ago. Access and security are efficient and easy, the trains are lovely and comfortable, much quieter than an airplane, they serve a snack and beverages and you get to see the countryside. What's not to like? Here is a slightly blurry photo of the interior and yes, those seats are comfortable:

This is the streamlined front of the train:

Streamlined because, did I mention this?--the top speed is 300 kilometers per hour.

The train to Valencia takes around an hour and three quarters (which includes two brief stops), a distance of around 400 kilometers. By the way, Spain has the second largest number of high-speed train routes by kilometers in the world. China is first and Japan is third.

The history of civilization in Spain goes back to the founding of Cadiz by the Phoenicians around 1100 BC, which makes it over three thousand years old. Travelling through the countryside you see that just about every square inch of land is in use. For the first half of the trip, there were mostly olive groves:

But for the second half, grapevines. Sorry for the photo!

And that's about it for the train to Valencia. I didn't take any photos on the return because my iPhone was out of juice.

I'm going to divide up the posts so the next one will be on the opera at the Palau Reina Sofía.