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.


Marc Puckett said...

Apples and oranges, yes, but as you wrote, it's your 'reception' that we're reading about, interesting for itself. Am giving a first listen, on the commute to and from work today, to an opera called L'Aiglon by Arthur Honegger and Jacques Ibert. We shall see; upon this depends whether I'll sit down and listen at some point when I've got the time.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have never heard of L'Aiglon before and didn't even know that Honegger and Ibert had written an opera! I am going to have to read a good history of the opera as that is one area that is still a bit terra incognita for me.

Marc Puckett said...

It is... interesting. There is a grand waltz, and the melody of Ubi caritas, and some cabaret. Still have no idea of the plot, except that it has to do with Napoleon fils, l'Aiglon. The entire 90 minutes is at YouTube, the same Montreal production that I've been listening to at Spotify. Not Don Giovanni, no.

Anonymous said...

>> all composers, like all cultures, are equally wonderful.

Yes, all composers are equally wonderful. Well, all except one, who's just a tad more wonderful than all the others. His name is Bryan Townsend. :-)

Will Wilkin said...

Its funny Bryan, how very "classical" I am (broadly conceived, meaning love of early music & baroque through contemporary --so long as schooled and played on traditional acoustic instruments, composed and read/memorized rather than jammed, not vulgar, no metronomic use of percussion, sung with trained and controlled voices), yet moving away from the perfectionist standards common in the classical world and increasingly embracing the human and spontaneous and imperfect and authentic/feeling approach of popular live music. In other words, I listen to classical but with a more forgiving and experiential attitude rather than seeking technical perfection.

Maybe its just because I'm such an amateur myself, teaching myself violin with sheet music much harder than my ability yet roughing it out and feeling good, aspiring to be the star of my front porch, to accompany my son locally in our future early music consort (but also doing some country gospel and saloon songs). Not that you're wrong in your approach, and at times I enjoy the clinical analysis of the ensembles and composers I hear. But overall, music to me is human experience more than technical perfection.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for all these excellent comments!

@Marc: I will have to seek out that clip on YouTube, thanks for the tip.

@Anonymous: Let me quote from Richard Strauss: “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.” Oswaldo Golijov stole this same quote to use in an interview, though the interviewer did not know the source. I am tempted to say that "I am a really good third-rate composer!"

@Will: Yes! Much of the really important music-making is done by amateurs in a warmly human, but technically imperfect way. Also, most music in history! Thanks for reminding us.