Friday, September 8, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

The Boston Globe has a nice article on composers and birdsong prompted by a four-day festival at Tanglewood that celebrates birds and music.
This week, Tanglewood and Mass Audubon will be joining forces to follow Messiaen’s advice. An imaginative four-day minifestival called “Tanglewood Takes Flight” is being billed as a celebration of birds and music. It starts up on Thursday at 5:30 a.m. with a guided bird walk in Lenox’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, followed by a 7 a.m. concert in the Pleasant Valley barn by the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a peerless interpreter of Messiaen’s music, who will be performing selections from the epic “Catalogue d’oiseaux.” The minifestival runs through the weekend, concluding in Ozawa Hall on Sunday morning with a chamber program that features Messiaen’s “Oiseaux Exotiques.”
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 These seem to be the top five best-selling classical albums--at least for some values of the word "classical."


I know what the number one album is, so let's have a listen to the second one, the first song of which is Russell Watson singing Nella Fantasia which is a song created from music written for The Mission by Ennio Moricone, so I guess "crossover" is the genre.


Honestly, nothing against Russell Watson, who seems a nice fellow with good vocal technique, but there is nothing here of what I look for in music. It is lulling, soporific, emotionally shallow and predictably clichéd. Which is, I suppose, its appeal!

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We live in very strange times--so strange that someone has actually decided to play violin. While skydiving. Naked. I kid you not. Glenn Donnelly did this on his 30th birthday. For a longer clip go here.


And, not unsurprisingly, he is Australian. Now it all makes sense...

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The Guardian alerts us to a new study that claims that listening to happy music makes you more creative! Writers unblocked? Happy music boosts imaginative thinking, say researchers:
Simone Ritter from Radboud University in Nijmegen and Sam Ferguson at the University of Technology in Sydney decided to test the power of music by setting 155 people in their late teens and twenties a series of puzzles to tackle in silence or while listening to classical scores ranked as either calm, happy, anxious or sad.
Music turned out to have no effect on convergent thinking. But when compared to sitting in silence, listening to happy music boosted people’s scores on divergent thinking from an average of 76 to 94. In the study, that meant more and better ideas came from people who listened to Vivaldi’s uplifting Four Seasons, than from those who heard Samuel Barber’s sad Adagio for Strings; Holst’s anxious Mars movement from The Planets; or the calm Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns.
Ok, so if a composer wants to boost his creativity, he should listen to Vivaldi? But will this help him write a really gloomy piece of music? That seems, ah, counterintuitive.

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Perhaps my favorite conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen just directed an ensemble of the combined orchestras of the Julliard School and the Sibelius Academy in a concert of music by the late Steven Stucky, himself, and Jean Sibelius, the early “Lemminkainen Suite,” which includes "The Swan of Tuonela." The New York Times favorably reviews the concert:
Through much of the 20th century, it bears recalling, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius remained a puzzling figure, an outlier from the frozen north largely preoccupied with exotic local color. His music, urgent and pulsating, was either very hot or very cold — no one could quite be sure. His reputation rode a pendulum: in one generation, out the next.
Strangest of all, Sibelius fell almost completely silent during the three decades before his death in 1957
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The Guardian has another piece on the commercial radio station Classic FM that offers some interesting data on listening habits:
 some classical music purists have always been a bit sniffy about Classic FM. They don’t like the way the station seldom plays a work in full. They don’t like the “don’t frighten the horses” emphasis of its output. They don’t like crossover artists such as Katherine Jenkins and Ludovico Einaudi. They don’t like the way film and video game music is treated on a par with Mozart and Chopin. 
Classic FM’s success has been built on a creative tension between innovation and an instinctive desire to play safe. Nowhere is this more evident than in its playlist. If you want to listen to opera, then tune in elsewhere. The most you are going to hear is the very occasional bit of Puccini or Mozart. Nor will there be much in the way of mainstream composers such as Mahler, Bruckner or Britten. And certainly nothing from the likes of Bartók and Schoenberg.
Lots of obscure second-rank composers like Henry Litolff and William Boyce, though. I have the impression that the tendency is to create a kind of "smooth classics" genre.

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 Huib Schippers is the director and curator of Smithsonian Folkways, the iconic non-profit record label of the Smithsonian that I spent a fair amount of time listening to years ago when they were all on vinyl. He recently penned an essay titled How We Can Support the World's Rich Musical Diversity:
a great number of “small musics” are being marginalized. Just as we can access music from inner Mongolia and the Amazonian rain forest, people in those regions are listening to Christian hymns, military band tunes and Western pop music, often pushed with considerable force by missionaries, colonial powers, and the—now effectively collapsed—international music industry that has for more than a century largely determined what we listen to.
While musics have always emerged and disappeared through changing tastes or circumstances, some “small musics” are —in the words of former Smithsonian Folkways director Tony Seeger—“being disappeared” by non-musical influences and powers. That is causing a substantial reduction in the diversity of music we can access and enjoy now, and even more so in the future.
While any effort to preserve and support this rich diversity seems to be laudable, there are some assumptions here worth notice. The underlying ideas are structuralist and post-modern which means that everything is seen in terms of power structures, not aesthetic or even social value. For example, these "small musics," meaning very specific genres confined to small numbers of performers and geographic regions, have always been small--by definition. So they have always come and gone as enthusiasms wax and wane. The big intervention here is the project to sustain and support them, possibly at the cost of hindering the development of a different "small music." Also, I doubt very much that "colonial powers" are pushing much music these days as the days of colonialism are long gone. Also the idea that a shadowy "international music industry" has largely determined what we listen to just sounds paranoid. Finally, to talk about how the diversity of music is being "disappeared" seems even more odd in a context where much more music is available to many more people now than ever before in history! Still, lots to admire in the kinds of projects they are involved in. Read the whole thing for an overview.

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History Today has a fascinating account of the loggionisti of La Scala in Milan and their long-standing practice of booing productions and performances they don't like. This provides an opportunity to review the history of noise-making audiences for music:
When the first public opera houses were founded in the mid-17th century, they were designed more as venues for social interaction than as sites of aesthetic experience. Fanning out from the stage in glittering tiers were the boxes. Owned or leased by aristocrats or wealthy bourgeois, these intimate little spaces were perfect for entertaining guests, exchanging gossip or simply being seen. Down below was the parterre. Usually left open and generally without seating, this was the preserve of lower-income groups, including soldiers, students and servants, who used the space to meet friends, share a drink and gamble. Accordingly, the music was treated with noisy indifference, at best, or vocal contempt, at worst. Audiences were more interested in their own conversations than with what was happening on stage. They might perhaps listen to an aria, or watch the ballet (if there was one), but no more; and, if they did not like what they heard, they would make their displeasure known. 
Not until the late 19th century did silence come to be expected of audiences. Even then, it took longer to reach some countries than others. An amusing illustration of the difference between Britain and Italy can be found in E.M. Forster’s novel Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905). Hoping to talk their widowed sister-in-law out of marrying an Italian, the interfering siblings, Philip and Harriet Kingcroft, rush off to the Tuscan town of Monteriano. Soon after arriving, Philip spots a poster announcing a performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and tries to persuade the sceptical Harriet to go with him. ‘However bad the performance is to-night’, he warns, ‘it will be alive. Italians don’t love music silently, like the beastly Germans. The audience takes its share – sometimes more.’
The evolution of the idea of silent appreciation of music was quite complex and tightly interwoven with the nature of the music itself, but this article provides some clues.

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Finally the LA Times has an article on the Salzburg Festival with some numbers to put in in perspective:
the grandest classical music gathering of opera, orchestral concerts, recitals, young artist projects, opera camps for children and new music series remains in Austria. It has been around for 97 years, and glamorous, big-name performers continue to flock to Mozart’s birthplace at the scenic foot of the Austrian Alps. Music bigwigs wheel and deal at restaurants facing a festival theater built into the side of a mountain. They pay whatever it takes to see and be seen, parading in finery that ranges from black tie to the occasional formal lederhosen. 
The final report of this summer’s six-week festival, which ended Wednesday, said 97% of all tickets were sold. Attendance was 261,500, more than double the capacity of the Coachella music festival.
The article has some history of the festival, which is interesting, but some of which is flatly wrong. Discussing a new director, appointed in 1992, they say:
With a gift for studied outrage, Mortier immediately pushed aside the refined Vienna Philharmonic and superstar conductors for the brash Los Angeles Philharmonic and its newly appointed 34-year-old modernist music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Mortier replaced fusty opera directors with the likes of another 34-year-old, Peter Sellars. To program new music concerts at the festival for the first time, Mortier brought in a third 34-year-old — an Italian-born, Viennese-trained pianist who specialized in playing American avant-garde composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman. They were underwritten by the Beverly Hills patron Betty Freeman.
The only problem here is that the festival had programmed lots of new music previously. In 1988, when I was there attending a master class with Pepe Romero, they had Karlheinz Stockhausen with his ensemble perform seven concerts of his chamber music. Also that year Witold Lutosławski conducted the premiere of his violin concerto. Isn't it awkward when the facts don't quite fit your narrative?

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For our envoi today, let's listen to that early Sibelius Lemminkainen Suite which dates from the early 1890s. The performers are the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen:


15 comments:

Christopher Culver said...

Sorry, Brian, but if you traveled much in the Third World where American evangelical missionaries are active, you’ll see that Westerners trying to wipe out local musical traditions is still something very common in 2017. They often push a view that southern American music of the Gospel genre is the only acceptable thing to play – not just in its religious text, but in the music itself, its melodies, rhythms, and harmonies. Native traditions are disparaged as lascivious or satanic. These missionaries may no longer have the force of arms behind them like sometimes happened in the Victorian era, but they do put a lot of economic pressure on the locals, promising all kinds of material benefits or English courses in exchange for conversion and fidelity. The result is that a lot of people become interested, and while many if not most of them eventually fall away, there is a fatal break in the transmission of the local music.

The strictures placed upon them go well beyond music. For myself, who comes from a family a branch of which are all members of such a church, it is often a shock to go to a foreign country (or even just a neighbourhood of the city I live in in Eastern Europe) and see people wearing clothes and hairstyles that seem to have been imported direct from Northern Alabama, for the missionaries told them that particular cultural expression was the only righteous way to live.

(It's not always American missionaries. Sometimes it is South Korean Protestants who have already adopted the same worldview nearly whole-hog. One has to give the Roman Catholic Church credit here, however, their missionaries are often more open to maintaining local musical traditions within the context of community life and even worship.)

Bryan Townsend said...

That's an interesting perspective that I hadn't really considered. I live in Mexico and yes, there is a fair amount of proselytizing that goes on, largely by Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. But I have never noticed any attempt to change anyone's musical tastes or clothes and hairstyles.

Jives said...

Hey Bryan
you ok? hearing about a BIG earthquake in Mexico, here's hoping you're all right.
best
JIves

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, for asking! Yes, we are all fine here. Where I live in Mexico we don't have earthquakes. This one was in the Pacific, off the southern coast.

Anonymous said...

I asked same question on previous post. Didn't see your reply on this one. Glad to hear you're fine.

Marc Puckett said...

Had never heard of Hayley Westenra or Russell Watson, tsk. I think they can be safely dismissed (just joking!). For a different value of 'classical', I saw, earlier this evening (at sometime commenter Steven's blog), a top ten list (from Bachtalk) of classical composers most often performed in 2016 that includes Pärt, Glass, Reich, Widmann, MacMillan, Kurtag, and John Adams. I may wonder about how they assembled that list but it is much more comprehensible to me than the Classic FM one (300 albums! of mostly pointlessness).

I had to roll my eyes this morning when I read about the earthquake-- the NYT and WaPo were going on and on disproportionately about Mexico City because (perhaps) we deplorable folk are presumed not to be too sure about what Chiapas and Oaxaca and Tabasco are, or where; of course it's possible that the reporting was centered on the DF because that's where the newspapers and wire services keep journalists and photographers. Sad business, in any case.

Lots of interesting things this week! but I'm about ready to fall asleep sitting here.

Marc Puckett said...

That Bachtrack list is here.

Jives said...

The story about the "disappearing" music of Vietnam was interesting. It was so stuffed full of buzzwords it made my head swim, but I finished it. I find it provoking my cynical side.
I think Christopher's point is well taken, and I don't approve of the sort of meddling he describes. I do know some people who do missionary (broadly speaking) work in Africa and Asia though, and I shouldn't think they were the sort of people who would do that. And they are often professional people, surveyors, engineers, etc, who do very important work and give freely of their time and money to help with water projects, sanitation, construction.
But the whole article felt like a bait and switch to me. What I thought was going to be a sad tale of complete extinction turned out to be a success story. Not that I was rooting for the former, but what point exactly is the article making? Ca tru's popular support was SAID to be cratering, due to a confluence of local circumstances. And an organization of academics swooped in from outside to salvage it, and then we are treated to encouraging details of its subsequent rejuvenation as an art form.
So the questions I'm left with are...
Who's the hero of this story?
Was Ca Tru really ever in danger of extinction if popular support was so readily reactivated?
In whose opinion, were the circumstances of Ca Tru's purported demise the wrong sort of circumstances?





Bryan Townsend said...

The reason I put up the Smithsonian Folkways story was because some red flags were going up for me as well. Note to Christopher, I actually omitted mentioning anything about missionaries in my comment, which was directed to other areas. Jives, I think I see who the heroes of the story are: Western bodies like UNESCO and the Smithsonian who supported the revival of the genre.

What has corrupted scholarship in recent decades is the replacement of value judgements by structural analyses of power relationships. That might seem far-fetched, but isn't what we are reading here a publicity piece to raise "awareness" and political support for certain institutions: marketing in other words? Most of what we read about what were previously scholarly activities, whose sole goal was some form of truth, are now publicity and marketing exercises.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Marc. I was looking in vain for the list of the busiest pianists, violinists and guitarists, though. Some of those top ten most popular contemporary pieces I have never even heard of!

Marc Puckett said...

When the Daily Mail is noticing nonsense at the Oregon Bach Festival you have to know that something untoward is going on. It looks increasingly possible that the UO did indeed fire Maestro Halls because of some perceived 'racism' (which, in the absence of any information from the principals, means that an increasing number of people seem prepared to believe that, yes, the UO is capable of something as stupid and ill-advised as that).

Am getting ready to listen to Sibelius's Second Symphony, from the Berlin Philharmonic. The conductor, Susanna Mällki, is a cellist and she's certainly beautiful in her movement on the podium-- the interviewer during the interval asked her about this, if there is a connexion between her instrument playing and the conducting. Had to smile because I believe he (one of the BP cellists, I think) stuttered just a bit, perhaps realising he was using potentially assaultive patriarchal language. At least they are both not POC.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, if the Daily Mail story is true that is a really horrible commentary on the University of Oregon. I don't think this cultural civil war is going to end well...

Steven said...

Bryan, I wondered if you've followed the BBC Proms this year? As it's just come to an end, it is depressing to look back at how unusually political it is been (see http://www.overgrownpath.com/2017/09/classical-music-should-be-ashamed-of.html?m=1). And of course the more usual problems of what was once the best behaved audience in the world now consisting of so many sweet-chomping, fidgeting, coughing, bored-looking people.

But some excellent music. Rattle conducting the LSO for Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, premiere of James MacMillan's European Requiem, Benedetti did a great Shostakovich Violin Concerto, Tom Service and the Aurora Orchestra did a surprisingly brilliant on-stage analysis of the Eroica symphony... A lot to recommend.

Bryan Townsend said...

Steven, no I didn't! Just saw the occasional review. Looking at the link you sent, I see what you mean. I saw a couple of these, but seeing all the political sallies put together is depressing. Every year I wish I had been there. As you say, excellent concerts! Next summer I am planning on spending a couple of weeks in Salzburg, if it is feasible. Perhaps the year after I might make the Proms. I did see an excellent Shostakovich Violin Concerto 1 in Valencia with the St. Petersburg Orchestra and an excellent young Spanish violinist.

Steven said...

Ah of course, I remember you writing about the concert. I think I'd rather go to Salzburg than the Proms, from what I've read. Look forward to enjoying it vicariously through you writing, if you go.