Monday, July 23, 2018

Alphorn Festival

I recently suggested that Switzerland is an unmusical country and, surprisingly, did not receive a host of angry comments! However, in all fairness, I just noticed a characteristically Swiss music festival and thought I would bring it to your attention. Actually, the festival just came to a close yesterday, so too late to attend this year. The publicity describes it as:
The Valais Drink Pure Alphorn International Festival of Nendaz is a musicians meeting place, an official competition, a grand traditional procession, concerts, performances by folk groups, traditional dances and ‘morceaux d’ensemble’ (with over 150 players). In brief : a true festival devoted to tradition and folklore.
Here is the link.

What is an alphorn you ask? Here is what they look like:

Click to enlarge

And here is a piece written for last year's festival:

Click to enlarge

Let's have a listen. Here is a clip from the 2011 festival:


I wonder what an ensemble of alphorns and didgeridoos would sound like?

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Tips for Concerto Players

This blog certainly does not lean towards populism, despite the occasional post on Kanye West, but this post is aimed at an even smaller readership than normal! I like to pass on whatever little nuggets of wisdom I have accumulated in fifty years of being a musician. Some of them are of wide application, but others are not. Tips for concerto players are in the latter category. How many guitarists play concertos with orchestra in an average year? We can get a very rough idea from looking at how many performances of the Concierto de Aranjuez are scheduled. Here is a helpful website. What would be your guess? I was ready to say around one hundred, but after looking at the Rodrigo website, it looks like it might be around two hundred! Every small orchestra in the known world seems to have scheduled a performance. I would really like to know the names of the guitarists, but that is not shown on the Rodrigo website.

So if there are around two hundred performances of the most-played guitar concerto annually, then one might guess that the total number of guitar concerto performances would be no more than three or four hundred as I suspect that all the other concerto performances put together would not exceed the number of performances of the Aranjuez, the archetypal guitar concerto. Who is playing all these concerts? Not my new favorite, Marcin Dylla, who only has fourteen concerts listed on his website for the year, none of them with orchestra. Pepe Romero is getting on in years, but still does a respectable number of concerto performances. His website lists what look to be three or four concerto engagements this year. Ana Vidovic lists five concerto performances, three of the Aranjuez, on her website. Manuel Barrueco's healthy concert schedule includes six concerto performances, all of the Aranjuez! Eliot Fisk's website lists just one Aranjuez performance, in Massachusetts, but I see it was in October of 2017.

So how many guitarists are there in the world out there on the concerto circuit? Not very damn many! But what the heck, I'm going to do a post of advice for prospective concerto players anyway, directed to all those guitarists who would like to be out there playing concertos.

Playing as a soloist with orchestral accompaniment is really the zenith of one's career as a classical musician. The challenges, technical, musical and even logistical, are formidable. But so are the rewards, not least because the fee for a concerto performance is the largest you are likely to receive. What are my particular credentials in this area? I have actually played quite a few concertos, not always with a large orchestra as some are better suited to a small orchestra and a couple were with just piano accompaniment, but still in a public concert. Here are the ones I recall:

  • Karl Kohaut, Concerto for Lute (my transcription)
  • Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto in D for Lute
  • Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Concerto in D
  • Joaquin Rodrigo, Fantasia para un Gentilhombre
  • Joaquin Rodrigo, Concierto de Aranjuez
  • Heitor Villa-Lobos, Guitar Concerto
I also learned a couple of others, ones by Manuel Ponce and Leo Brouwer, for example, that I did not get the opportunity to perform. Most of my work was done on my own as you don't learn a lot about concerto playing from teachers who have never played one! But I did spend one summer studying the Aranjuez with Pepe Romero in Salzburg: that was of inestimable value and a lot of what I have to say was learned from him.

When you are playing a concerto you are in reality an ensemble musician and one thing that I learned from Pepe is to rehearse facing the orchestra. They are curious about you and this is an excellent way of establishing a rapport with the musicians. In a lot of concertos, including especially the Aranjuez, there are interchanges with soloists in the orchestra that you can cement by rehearsing facing towards your fellow musicians, rather than away from. I'm thinking of those great staccato passages in the first movement of the Aranjuez that you share with the bassoon and the brilliant passage in thirds in the last movement that are echoed by two muted trumpets. You might share your intention with conductor in case he has an issue with it. On one occasion this practice caused me difficulties in the performance. When we got to the third movement and I was playing the guitar solo that introduces the movement (again, the Aranjuez) I suddenly noticed in the background the conductor furiously conducting all the measures of rest (which alternate between 2/4 and 3/4) for the orchestra. Very distracting! I hadn't noticed it in rehearsal because I was looking at the guitar neck and away from him. But in the concert, facing the audience, he was in the immediate background. So watch out for that!

But the more you make a connection with the conductor and the orchestra, the better. The soloist who just drops in, plays his virtuosic passages, and leaves, is not likely to give the most musical performance. The audience will also enjoy a good interaction between you and the musicians. Of all the guitarists I have seen play concertos, either in person or in video clips, the ones that have the best rapport with the orchestra are Pepe Romero and John Williams. Not too surprising, really.

Your rapport with the conductor is also very important. You should know the orchestral score as well as your own part and be prepared to share ideas with the conductor, if he asks. You can help him out sometimes in passages where the orchestra comes in after a big solo. Pepe suggested to me that after this one big scale in the last movement of the Aranjuez, you should really give the conductor a nod so he will know for sure where the downbeat is going to fall.

Regarding more mundane questions, be sure you know what the dress code for soloists is with each orchestra. Sometimes there is a lot of leeway, others there is not! Be aware.

Now for some more universal advice: practice slowly! I used to be friends with a French horn player who told me that when he was with the Dallas Symphony and Pepe was playing a concerto with them (guess which one) he passed by his dressing room and heard him practicing the first movement with a metronome. At one-quarter tempo! I have heard a very similar story regarding John Williams. These guys have very solid, reliable technique because they maintain it. Practicing at one-quarter speed is certainly not necessary if you are playing the Spanish Romance or other bon-bons. But if you are playing a big challenging concerto I seriously recommend it. When I was studying in Salzburg I went out to this little building in back of the residence that was divided up into several little practice rooms to go over the Aranjuez first movement that I was due to play for Pepe in the morning. On my way in I passed a room where a violinist was practicing. It sounded like he was playing this one brief passage in thirds from the cadenza to the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto over and over again. Slowly. So I went on, did my work, which consisted of playing the first movement a few times at quarter tempo. A couple of hours later, when I was on my way out I passed the same studio and guess what, the same student was still playing that same passage...

Virtuosity takes a lot of work.

For our envoi, let's listen to a performance of the Aranjuez with Pepe Romero:


Nobody does the rasgueado better.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Top Ten Large Pieces for Classical Guitar

I am doing this new post, one of at least three I am planning, to refine the project a bit. My four year old post on Top Ten Pieces for Classical Guitar has risen to be the most popular post here, so I thought I might have another go. Of course we all know that the Internet just loves lists and they are often little more than clickbait, still, it is an interesting exercise to perform. I am a big believer in qualitative judgements, but it is all in how you go about them. As in most things musical, I am moved by pragmatic estimates of quality. Actually, the inspiration for this particular list was looking at the clips online of the outstanding Polish guitarist Marcin Dylla. He tends to play exactly the larger pieces that I have long regarded as being the best in the repertoire. And why not? After all, any performing artist, unless they are driven by marketing considerations, is going to always be seeking out the most substantial repertoire to perform. Why waste time on the lesser stuff?

So how do I define "large pieces"? While there are lots of exceptions, the guitar repertoire tends to fall into a few categories, just as the keyboard repertoire does, which makes sense as it is mostly modeled after the keyboard repertoire (since the 18th century, at least). Looking just at pieces that have a total duration of at least fifteen minutes (we could set it lower, but that would make me want to create another category of "medium length pieces" and I don't want to do that right now!), we find that there tend to be four sub-categories: the first is pieces that are more or less sonatas for guitar, modeled after the classical and romantic piano sonata. These pieces usually have three or four movements, but are conceived as a single piece. Then there are sets of variations that have a larger number of shorter sections, but these are all based on the original theme. A third category is the suite: a set of several movements that contrast with one another. The model for that is probably the Baroque suite. The other category is the concerto: a three movement work for guitar and orchestra. That pretty much exhausts the large piece category.

One final note, I am trying to pick the ten best pieces in this category, but I am not claiming to be able to order them within the category. In other words, they are not in order of quality. The thing about outstanding pieces of music is that they tend to be unique, i.e. not comparable to one another.



1. "Variations sur Folia de Espana et Fugue" by Manuel M. Ponce. This is a truly outstanding set of variations, certainly one of the very best in the guitar repertoire. It was written for Andrés Segovia and takes nearly half an hour to perform. There is an excellent recording by John Williams and an excellent recent performance on YouTube by Marcin Dylla. There have even been dissertations written on the piece: https://repository.arizona.edu/bitstream/handle/10150/282122/azu_td_9706159_sip1_m.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y


2. Nocturnal, by Benjamin Britten. Speaking of variations, the other great variation piece for guitar was written for Julian Bream and it reverses the usual order by putting the theme, a song by John Dowland, last, preceded by the variations.


3. Sonata "Hommagio a Boccherini" by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. I suppose the inclusion of this piece is a bit of advocacy on my part! It does not seem to be very popular these days. The only clip of the whole piece I could find in YouTube was by a guitarist I had never heard of. Still, I think this is a fine piece and, frankly, there are not a lot of capably-written guitar sonatas!


4. Castillos de España by Federico Moreno Torroba. This is a fine example of the suite. There were originally eight short pieces, each inspired by a different castle in Spain. Later he added another six pieces, but it is often played in the original form. Written for Andrés Segovia. There are good recordings by Segovia and Ana Vidovic among others, but it is hard to find a good recording of the complete suite on YouTube! I originally put up a few separate clips. But then I found the complete Segovia recording. You have to skip ahead to the 18:55 mark for the beginning of Castillos de España:



5. Sonata romántica by Manuel M. Ponce. Yes, Ponce gets another one on the list because he, unlike most guitar composers, wrote a lot of larger pieces. This sonata is modeled after the piano sonatas of Franz Schubert and while certainly not in their class has a great deal of charm. There are outstanding recordings by Segovia and Ana Vidovic among others.


6. Five Preludes by Heitor Villa-Lobos. If anything these pieces are over-played! Together they form a kind of suite, always popular with audiences while posing some interesting technical challenges. There are recordings by almost everyone, but the ones that stick in the memory are those by John Williams and Pepe Romero.


7. El Decameron negro by Leo Brouwer. I was torn between this piece and the Sonata by Ginastera and gravitated towards the Brouwer because it seems to be just a bit more popular among guitarists. I was actually the first person to record the piece! There are outstanding versions by John Williams among others.


8. Rossiniana Op 119, No. 1 by Mauro Giuliani. This is the odd-man out on the list. It is a potpourri, a 19th century genre that was popular at the time, but less-so now. This particular piece is a medley of themes from operas by Rossini, set for guitar by Giuliani. It has become popular as a virtuoso display piece because of a really stunning recording by Julian Bream who brings out its insouciant nature.


9. Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo. This is by far the most popular guitar concerto. In fact, it is probably one of the most popular concertos for any instrument written in the 20th century. It has been recorded by absolutely everyone and by the leading artists, such as John Williams and Julian Bream, at least three times! It is fiendishly difficult, but the spectacular melody of the second movement makes it all worth while. Williams did a lovely performance of it in the Proms several years ago.


10. Guitar Concerto by Heitor Villa-Lobos. There could have been lots of other possibilities for this slot as there are many fine guitar concertos other than the Aranjuez. The ones by Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Leo Brouwer come to mind as well as the others by Rodrigo. But the Villa-Lobos is a perennial and has a unique quality that sets it apart. There are recordings by Bream and Williams, of course as well as a live one of me playing it with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra buried somewhere deep in the CBC archives.


I might add some runners-up in the future!

UPDATE: I just realized that, with the exception of the Castelnuovo-Tedesco Sonata and the Nocturnal by Britten, I have played every one of these pieces in concert! Yes, even the concertos, but I only played the Villa-Lobos on one occasion.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

This August will be the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, composer, conductor and all-round brilliant musician. The Guardian has an article in celebration: 'He was high-brow, low-brow, every-brow!' – the genius of Leonard Bernstein.
Bernstein was impossibly brilliant in so many different areas: a genius conductor, composer, author, pianist, thinker, activist, educator and entertainer. But for me, his genius was in connecting the dots between all of these. Everything he read and experienced influenced everything he thought and did. I think he once said that he didn’t know whether he loved music or people more.
He had passion, enthusiasm and intense and boundless curiosity about our world. Bernstein did not think about education and music as being separate entities; for him, they were part of a systemic, organic, whole-person educational approach. He was at the forefront of interdisciplinary learning - both a radical new concept and a harkening back to the Greeks. Education as a whole was important to him: information as food, nutrition, a source of power and, most importantly, possibility.
One of my favorite Bernstein moments is something only he could have pulled off: conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the last movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 88 without actually conducting, except with facial expressions! I think this was an encore and his tribute to the orchestra that he particularly loved was to just stand there while they played without direction.


* * *

For another view, we can go to Slipped Disc where Norman Lebrecht links to his review of a new recording of the Bernstein symphonies:
The third symphony, ‘Kaddish’, written in 1963 in memory of John F. Kennedy, is an embarrassment from start to finish. Josephine Barstow’s restrained narration claws back some of the worst mawkishness, but the text reads like an early script of Fiddler on the Roof and the best of some very bad music is lifted wholesale from West Side Story. There’s a place for us. Not in this place.
Go to the Slipped Disc site for some entertaining comments.

* * *

Daniel Barenboim was forced to stop a concert twice to harangue the audience! Normally one would think that this was both rude and overkill. But in this case, perhaps not.
Daniel Barenboim is having trouble with his Buenos Aires compatriots.
His Brahms concert started at 8.20 because the audience were late to arrive.
They applauded between movements.
Barenboim stopped the music and asked for them to wait before clapping until the sound had died away. He also put in a request for no applause between movements.
The next time he stopped the concert was because people were taking phone pictures.
‘It hurts my eyes,’ he said.
The comments over at Slipped Disc are, again, quite amusing.

* * *

We haven't visited NewMusicBox for a while. They have an article up about women in music: PLAYING LIKE A GIRL: THE PROBLEMS WITH RECEPTION OF WOMEN IN MUSIC.
The year was 1942. In the USA, all-girl orchestras toured extensively, rather like a jazz version of A League of Their Own. Audiences were surprised to find that these girls played “just like men!” As in A League of Their Own, though, when the men returned, women were expected to go back to homemaking or other acceptably female professions. Those women who were leaders found themselves in the background once more. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington play large in the bylines of the Swing Era, but women’s bands such as the Sweethearts, the Melodears, and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s “All-Girl Orchestra” disappeared.
Essays like this can be painfully ideological when they set out to "prove" a predestined conclusion, but this one is rather more thoughtful.

* * *

There is another interesting piece in The Guardian, this one about the scandal surrounding the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In the eyes of its members, there is no more important cultural institution in the world than the Swedish Academy. The members, who call themselves The Eighteen (always in capitals), are elected for life by their peers, and meet for a ritual dinner every Thursday evening at a restaurant they own in the heart of the old town in Stockholm. And once a year, at a ceremony brilliant with jewels and formality, the permanent secretary of the academy hands out the Nobel prize in literature and all the world applauds.
But this year there will be no prize and no ceremony. In November 2017, it was revealed in the Swedish press that the husband of one of the academy members had been accused of serial sexual abuse, in assaults alleged to have taken place over more than 20 years. Jean-Claude Arnault, a French photographer and cultural entrepreneur, is married to the poet and academician Katarina Frostenson. In addition to assault accusations against him, the pair are accused of misusing academy funding. Arnault has denied all accusations, and Frostenson has refused to comment.
The academy is paralysed by the scandal, which was followed by a slew of resignations and expulsions. Six of The Eighteen have withdrawn from any part in its deliberations; another two were compelled to do so. The statutes say that 12 members must be present to elect any new ones, so with only 10, no important decisions can be taken and no new members elected. The vacuum has been filled with invective.
Worth a read. One the one hand, art and culture seems to benefit enormously from deep wells of tradition. Just look at J. S. Bach whose brilliant genius rested on a foundation of three hundred years of music traditions in the Bach family. On the other hand, the conservatism of long-established institutions can be used to shelter corruption, incompetence and distasteful attitudes. It's complicated.

* * *

On the more practical side, here is an illuminating article from Dance Magazine on what can happen when an artist without much financial experience receives an unrestricted grant:
"I had no knowledge of how to invest, or deal with the tax implications. I wound up losing a fair amount of money because I didn't know how to properly channel the money so it could accrue interest. I kept it in my savings account and when tax time came around I was really shocked and scared by some letters from the IRS!"
 Every government over time makes the tax structure more and more complex. The reasons are manifold, but there are always incentives to tailor the tax structure to aid activities that either make politicians look good or help out their major donors. Over time you end up with a system of terrifying complexity. The very wealthy handle it with ease because they can hire squads of lawyers and accountants. Poorer people, however, are always caught in the net of complexities. The solution is a simpler tax system. Every now and then someone comes along and launches a real reform. They are always met with universal criticism!

* * *

One of the great tragedies of history, for me at least, was the loss of all the great libraries of antiquity. The library of Alexandria was probably the most famous. It was finally burned around 279 AD. There is some hope that the library at Herculaneum, buried in the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, might be accessed with modern technology:
The scrolls represent the only intact library known from the classical world, an unprecedented cache of ancient knowledge. Most classical texts we know today were copied, and were therefore filtered and distorted, by scribes over centuries, but these works came straight from the hands of the Greek and Roman scholars themselves. Yet the tremendous volcanic heat and gases spewed by Vesuvius carbonized the scrolls, turning them black and hard like lumps of coal. Over the years, various attempts to open some of them created a mess of fragile flakes that yielded only brief snippets of text. Hundreds of the papyri were therefore left unopened, with no realistic prospect that their contents would ever be revealed. And it probably would have remained that way except for an American computer scientist named Brent Seales, director of the Center for Visualization & Virtual Environments at the University of Kentucky.
* * *

Desiring to Desire is a fascinating essay over at the Times Literary Supplement about the construction of taste:
So why should I pursue classical music so ardently? In part, because I already grasp, murkily, how I will later value such music. So pursuit speaks to the self that I am becoming. What of reasons that speak to my current self? Well, perhaps I want to impress someone or gain a qualification. Any such consideration will complete the justification for aspiration.
I aspired to appreciate classical music because I desired to understand a value that was opaque to me. Further, while I may not have desired to listen to classical music, I desired to desire it. That is, I wanted my desires to change. Why, then, did I pursue classical music so ardently? Because I desired to understand its value and wished to desire it. This justifies aspiration, without any need to mention the values of the person I am attempting to become.
* * *

I just ran across this, which perfectly fulfills the need for one silly item in the Friday Miscellanea:


* * *

Hm, quite a varied menu this week, but not enough actual, you know, music! So for our envoi today, let's listen to one of the most unusual composers in music history, Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa. This is his Tristis est anima mea performed by La Compagnia del Madrigal:


Thursday, July 19, 2018

Marcin Dylla and the Guitar

I know that I have been posting less frequently lately, just two or three a week instead of the daily posts I usually try and keep to. Apologies! One of the reasons is that I have been playing more regularly. I have actually managed to put practice time in on the instrument every day for more than a week now. Yes, I know that doesn't sound like much! When I was a full-time professional guitarist I would practice around four hours a day and spend another four or five hours teaching which also involved some playing. In recent years, I have been lucky to get more than two or three hours in in a whole week. Not good. Mind you, I have lots of other things to do. But if you play infrequently, as I have been, it never feels good when you do play, which discourages you. So getting into a more regular schedule has been productive and my hands are starting to feel much more capable and responsive.

I also ran across a very fine guitarist on YouTube the other day, Marcin Dylla, who is from Poland. His Wikipedia entry merely lists his teachers (one of whom, Oscar Ghiglia, we shared) and a long list of competitions he has won. When I was doing my list of the top ten classical guitar pieces, I recall searching without success for a good clip of the Ponce Folias variations. Well, that is no longer a problem as Marcin Dylla has done an excellent version:


He is a very muscular guitarist, with an impeccable technique. He has an excellent tone and good dynamic range. Sometimes I wish he had just a bit more refinement in the details, but that is just a quibble. He is very listenable and musical. I am sad to say that I find most guitarists these days pretty much unlistenable, but not Dylla. Here he is with a very fine performance of the Five Preludes by Villa-Lobos:


Here he is with the Sonata romantica by Ponce:


He is obviously of the serious artist school of guitar playing, not the glitzy it-is-all-about-the-marketing school that seems to be dominant in recent years. He only seems to have a couple of discs available: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=marcin+dylla

I like his repertoire, which focuses on the big pieces. In fact, I am thinking of re-doing my top ten list, which continues to get a lot of attention. I am thinking of refining it into three lists:
  • Top Ten Large Pieces for Classical Guitar which will include things like the Ponce Variations, the Britten Nocturnal, the Ginastera Sonata, the Castelnuovo-Tedesco Sonata and the Invocation and Dance by Rodrigo
  • Top Ten Shorter Pieces for Classical Guitar which will include the Nocturnal by Moreno Torroba, Elogio de la Danza by Brouwer, En los trigales by Rodrigo, La Catedral by Barrios, the Fandanguillo by Turina and the Capricho árabe and Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Tárrega
  • Top Ten Transcriptions for Classical Guitar which is where I will put pieces like the Bach Chaconne, Asturias and Granada by Albéniz, Valses poéticos by Granados and pieces for lute and vihuela commonly played on guitar
Any comments? Does that sound like a good idea?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Fidel Leal, Piano

Friday night I attended a local piano recital, part of a series titled the Steinway Series, largely because, for much of the year, they have the use of a quite good Steinway grand. The concerts are held in what used to be a nunnery and is now an arts center. The concert was well-attended by permanent residents rather than the transient population that we find at the winter concert series, Pro Musica.

The Steinway Series is organized by a transplanted New Yorker, Frederic Dannen, who does a pretty good job. For this concert he booked a young Cuban pianist named Fidel Leal who is currently a graduate student at the Hayes School of Music in North Carolina. Here is his program:

J. S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B major (WTC Bk I)

Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat major

I. Cervantes: Cuatro Danzas Cubanas

Carlos Fariñas: Dos Sones Sencillos

Ernesto Lecuono: Dos Danzas Cubanas

Encore: Intermezzo by Manuel Ponce

The Bach was very well played in a brisk sort of way. The Prokofiev was excellent, but the last movement was just too fast for the rhythms to be clearly audible--mind you, everyone except Grigory Sokolov makes this mistake. The Cuban music was excellently played, of course.

It is a bit of a puzzlement to me why the musical cultures of Latin America vary so widely. Some nations, like Cuba, Brazil and Argentina are just overflowing with lovely and expressive music. Others, like Peru, Bolivia and, I'm sorry to say, Mexico, just don't seem to have the same gifts. Let me hasten to say that this is not a phenomenon restricted to Latin America. We see the same thing in Europe where the massively unmusical country of Switzerland is wedged in between two of the most musical nations of all, Italy and Austria. Sorry, Switzerland!

The Cuban music was charming, if a bit inconsequential. The only thing about the concert that didn't really work, I think, was the combining the fairly light Cuban pieces, with the more serious Bach and Prokofiev. The most striking and successful performance, certainly from the audience's enthusiastic reaction, was the Prokofiev so I would have put the Bach first, the Cuban music in the middle and the Prokofiev at the end. Incidentally, the program was played without intermission.

The Ponce is a lovely, haunting little piece, the perfect encore, especially in a concert in Mexico. Manuel Ponce, an exceptionally gifted musician who wrote a great deal of music for guitarist Andrés Segovia, was of the first generation of Mexican composers to take the traditions of the local popular music seriously.

What was particularly interesting to me in this concert was the high quality of the performance. Indeed, this is the best piano recital I have heard here in quite a while. The winter concert series, with the exception of a concert by Israeli Ran Dank, seems to get more and more mediocre players every year who pound away as they deliver one dreary and predictable program after another. Yet that is the supposed "professional" series. I would rather listen to young artists like Fidel Leal with solid musicianship.

About the only thing in the program that I found a bit tiresome were the lengthy verbal introductions to the pieces. I suppose they are necessary in these days when most audience members know almost nothing about the music beforehand. But still... A concert where no word is spoken is one that preserves the magic of the musical journey. One with constant verbal commentary does not.

Let's have a listen to that Intermezzo by Ponce. The pianist is Mauricio Nader.


Friday, July 13, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

The first item is particularly miscellanea-worthy: The 30 Harshest Musician-on-Musician Insults in History.
15. Elvis Costello on Morrissey
“Morrissey writes wonderful song titles, but sadly he often forgets to write the song.”
Unfortunately, most of the rest were very disappointing! Simple calumny with no wit. I could do better! "U2 play as if they secretly realize they are talentless frauds."

* * *

Musicians' creative response to airline luggage policy: AIRLINE REFUSED TO BOARD THIS ORCHESTRA’S INSTRUMENTS, SO….
…. the musicians checked in empty cases, but carried their naked violins on board. And started playing.
* * *

Dhahran - The first international theater that opened at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithraa) Saturday will feature various international musical productions after opening with Russian orchestra Mariinsky who performed on the second and third days of Eid al-Fitr.
President and CEO of oil company Saudi Aramco Amin Nasser said “the theater will have a significant role in enriching the cultural and creative landscape in our country.”
* * *

Anne Midgette in the Washington Post reviews "Hamilton": Art by heart: ‘Hamilton’ is opera for our time.
Broadway shows have better production values than operas. How could they not? For all of the stereotypes about large-scale opera productions, and for all of their tremendous costs, opera generally comes to the stage after four to six weeks of rehearsal. Although the piece is almost always a known quantity, often adorned with the label of “masterpiece,” that amount of rehearsal time isn’t anywhere near enough to bring to the stage a well-oiled machine like “Hamilton,” honed over months of crafting and, by now, years of performance.
The irony is that what “Hamilton” represents now is exactly what opera used to be: a thrilling, contemporary, immersive stage presentation that’s a union of story, text, music, image and movement, and that gets under the skin and into the blood of a wide audience that feels it speaks profoundly to them.
I guess I will have to give it a listen.

* * *

Here is a very interesting piece on the rise and fall and rise again of sumptuary rules: The Evils of Cultural Appropriation.
In ancient Rome, only Roman senators were allowed to wear Tyrian purple on their togas—ordinary Romans could not. In feudal Japan, people of every class submitted to strict laws about what they could and could not wear, according to their social rank. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, the nobility policed the clothing of the middle classes, making sure to keep them in their place. In any society in which there has been high levels of inequality—where monarchs and aristocrats have ruled over commoners and slaves—equality in dress has been considered, at the very least, bad manners.
While sumptuary laws (rules that govern conspicuous consumption, especially of food and clothing) fell mostly out of fashion in the West during the Enlightenment period, they appear to be back in style again, thanks to the orthodoxies of social-justice activism fueled by social media.
The whole essay is well worth reading for its account of recent instances of cultural appropriation. Then there is this:
In their newly released book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, the moral sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning describe the three main moral cultures that exist today, which they give the shorthand labels of dignity, honor, and victimhood. A dignity culture, which has been the dominant moral culture of Western middle classes for some time, has a set of moral values that promotes the idea of moral equality and was crystallized in Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision that people ought to be judged according to the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
Victimhood culture departs from dignity culture in several important ways. Moral worth is in large part defined by the color of one’s skin, or at least one’s membership in a fixed identity group: i.e., women, people of color, LGBTIQ, Muslims, or indigenous peoples. Such groups are sacred, and a lack of deference to them is seen as a sign of deviance. The reverse is true for those who belong to groups that are considered historical oppressors: whites, males, straight people, Zionists. Anyone belonging to an “oppressor” group is stained by their privilege, or “whiteness,” and is cast onto the moral scrapheap.
In a recent interview in the online magazine which I edit, Quillette, I asked Campbell and Manning what they thought about cultural appropriation. They explained that they found such complaints baffling, like everybody else, but that they also “illustrate victimhood culture quite well.” One of the key components of victimhood culture is its projection of collective guilt, social offenses between individuals are no longer about the actual people involved, they are about “one social group harming another.”
To which I again reply that moral agency and desert is individual, not collective as anyone who has been accused of something their brother did will acknowledge.

* * *

We need something, uh, less serious now. How about a young violinist who can play some pretty fine fiddle music while hoola-hooping? Pauline Lee … The 10-Year-Old Hula-Hooping Violinist. I can't embed the video so y'all will have to follow the link!

* * *

A propos of absolutely nothing, let's have a listen to Miles Davis' take on the Rodrigo guitar concerto Concierto de Aranjuez from the album Sketches of Spain:


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Anna Meredith


I've run across a couple of clips of music by Anna Meredith, a British composer, lately. My first impression was that it sounded like Vivaldi being mugged in an alley by members of Metallica. The first piece in the concert above doesn't stray far from that characterization! The second one, with shaky singing by the composer and the band, is quite different. She sort of sits in that odd zone between composition and song-writing which is, I guess, these days, not odd at all but almost the recommended place to be, from a career point of view at least.

I don't know what you think, you will let me know in the comments, but I actually found this listenable. The second piece, or song, reminded me of the Incredible String Band if they had had a tuba player.

I love her shirt.

I think...

The third piece, song, item, whatever, was also pretty interesting with a wildly divergent texture held together by one of the most frenetically difficult rhythm guitar parts I have ever heard. But interesting, no doubt. And original.

And they are undeniably having a lot of fun. Which makes it all more interesting, not less! Well, not the tuba player, of course. But the cellist is having an indecent amount of fun so it all balances out. Hell, I had fun!

Friday, July 6, 2018

SLAVery and Aesthetics

One of the major productions of the Festival de Jazz de Montréal this year was the theatre revue SLAV directed by Robert Lepage. Margaret Wente at the Globe and Mail has a column on the controversy.
Are white people entitled to perform songs composed by black slaves?
The answer, it appears, is a resounding no. This week, in the face of mounting protests, the Montreal International Jazz Festival cancelled the show SLAV only a few days after it began its sold-out run.
SLAV is (or was) a theatre revue that explored slavery and oppression throughout history, using the vehicle of black slave songs. Its star was a white singer named Betty Bonifassi. Four of its six supporting cast members were also white, and so was its director, the legendary theatre great Robert Lepage. That spelled trouble from the start. Protesters denounced the show as a racist appropriation of black culture. “Is there nothing y’all won’t steal?” one sign read. “White culture is theft.”
The column also takes a look at the trend:
Complaints of cultural offence are widespread these days. They have shut down two separate theatre productions of Othello in Canada, where the directors had the idea of casting Othello as a woman. In Britain, a student production of Aida was shut down because activists warned that white people (instead of, presumably, Egyptians) might be cast in the leads. Yet when the Stratford Festival cast a black actor in the lead role of The Music Man (that whitest of all shows), everybody cheered. How does this make sense?
Something else that doesn't make a lot of sense is condemning the star, Betty Bonifassi:
Ms. Bonifassi has been performing these songs for 15 years, based on material she researched and developed herself. She has released two albums related to her research. This show was five years in the making. She has an impressive voice and a huge stage presence. She’s not just a hired gun. She created the show. Without her, it wouldn’t exist.
So, if you are white, you are not allowed to make creative use of black culture as that would be cultural appropriation. If we were to apply that more widely the music of, among others, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton would be disallowed. What if we reversed this logic? What if other ethnicities were not allowed to use anything from white culture? It sounds weird just stating it. But things like music notation, tonality, 12-bar blues and a host of other structural underpinnings of music would be disallowed under that criterion.

The underlying moral truth that I think is being violated here I would state as moral agency and moral desert are individual, not collective. In other words your moral and aesthetic worth, positive or negative, has nothing to do with your ethnicity or any other collective grouping. It is individual. This truth was behind the creative understanding of the producers:
But Ms. Bonifassi never had a chance. She was doomed by the colour of her skin. She was also doomed by her explanation that she wanted the show to be colour-blind. “I don’t see colour; to me it doesn’t exist, physically or in music,” she told the Gazette’s music critic. ”We don’t talk about black and white in the show. We talk about human pain, experienced together. All cultures and ethnicities suffer the same.”
Alas, even saying that is not allowed these days and the production was cancelled early in its run. Strange days. Here is a clip of Eric Clapton re-creating a great Robert Johnson song (that was also covered by the Rolling Stones), "Love in Vain":

Friday Miscellanea

One of the topics that I find endlessly fascinating is the economics of the art world and here is a new scholarly paper on the subject: The Economics of Renaissance Art. Sadly, I don't think you can access it unless you have a subscription to The Journal of Economic History, but here is the abstract:
I analyzed the market of paintings in Florence and Italy (1285–1550). Hedonic regressions on real prices allowed me to advance evidence that the market was competitive and that an important determinant of artistic innovation was driven by economic incentives. Price differentials reflected quality differentials between painters as perceived at the time (whose proxy is the length of the biography of Vasari) and did not depend on regional destinations, as expected under monopolistic competition with free entry. An inverse-U relation between prices and age of execution is consistent with reputational theories of artistic effort, and prices increased since the 1420s.
The music world does not have an equivalent to Vasari that enables us to calibrate the relative reputations of Renaissance composers. I suppose that Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music might have to do.

* * *

There was a rare performance of Gruppen, Stockhausen's formidably difficult piece for three orchestras, in London recently. The Guardian has a review:
Stockhausen’s 1958 masterwork Gruppen für drei Orchester (Groups for three orchestras) involves no helicopters, but the forces it does require – three spatially separated orchestras comprising about 100 musicians all told, and three conductors – plus its sheer intricacy, are enough to make it a rare work to experience live. But this is as much an art installation as a concert work, and in many ways it was right at home in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.
Go read the whole review. Gruppen was preceded by Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum:
The public nature of the space felt entirely appropriate and the music made a forceful impact, but there were moments of quiet, intense beauty too. The final movement, with the gong pulsing, suggested a giant creature slowly breathing; then the sound grew into a mass of noise that seemed to feed off itself. It was exhilarating to the ear.
* * *

Apparently I am not alone: What Classical Music Can Learn From Kanye West is a new article in The Atlantic.
Since 2016, Feigenbaum and the conductor Yuga Cohler have periodically put on performances they call “Yeethoven,” including two in Los Angeles and one at New York City’s Lincoln Center. With a contingent of classical instrumentalists, they trace the similarities between the works of a 21st-century rapper/producer and a 18th- to 19th-century composer.
“We wanted to figure out why it was that the two of us, and a lot of our friends in classical music, were so enamored with Kanye’s music,” Feigenbaum said before an abridged Yeethoven set last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival (sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic). The five songs they played comprised selections from 2013’s Yeezus—a noisy and divisive album that Cohler and Feigenbaum hear as a turning point in West’s career—and 2016’s The Life of Pablo. Some of the tracks were mashed up with Beethoven compositions. One point of comparison: the jarring tonal switch in the end of “New Slaves,” recalling the turn at the close of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Another: the way West’s “Waves” uses its high end to keep time and its low end to convey melody, much like in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8.
Here is a sample: some Beethoven (the Egmont Overture followed by "New Slaves"):


One of the interesting things there is the audience reaction: as soon as they hear something they recognize, they start clapping. And I'll bet Viennese audiences did the same as soon as they recognized the themes of their favorite arias in The Magic Flute.

* * *

A really unfortunate holiday, related in Standpoint Magazine:
The most notoriously unsuccessful holiday in the history of classical music was that taken by Chopin and his androgynous literary lover George Sand (and her family) in Majorca in 1838-1839. The trousered, cigar-smoking Sand was derided by Baudelaire as possessing the morals of a janitress; her future lover Alfred de Musset mordantly observed of the silver dagger which pinned her hair that “a woman of such slight virtue hardly required so immoderate a weapon”. Chopin’s characteristically acidulous comment on his first encounter was, “What an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?” That was in 1836; by 1838 the two were lovers. They numbered Delacroix (who painted them both) and Heine among their Paris friends.
* * *

The Spectator weighs in on the "new musicology" in a piece by Damian Thompson: The virtuoso virtue-signallers of classical music. This will not be an unfamiliar theme for Music Salon readers:
If you’re looking for virtuoso virtue-signallers, then classical music is the place to start. But right-on competitions are merely the gruesome fruit of something more deeply rooted: an intellectual culture poisoned by late 20th-century identity politics and postmodern verbiage. That’s a problem in other disciplines, of course, but at least artistic and literary pseuds attract mockery. It flourishes in university music departments because no one gives a toss what happens there.
From my experience, university music departments have a kind of dual nature. On the one hand, a minority of the students and professors are involved in musicology and are to one degree or another affected by the tenets of post-modernism. On the other hand, however, the majority of the students and professors are practical musicians who are focussed on delivering a good concert experience. The world of performers is less influenced by what you might call "extra-musical" criteria. The Slipped Disc post referring to this article has attracted some interesting comments.

* * *

I think the first piece I ever heard by Messiaen was Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum an excerpt of which was on a sampler album I purchased around 1970. I believe the conductor was Daniel Barenboim, just starting his career as a conductor. Let's have a listen. This is the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conductor: Myung-Whun Chung:


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Should Art Make You Uncomfortable?

I read Ann Althouse's blog on a regular basis, largely because she talks about a wide range of things, nearly all of which I don't talk about. She also has a good comment section. Very occasionally she writes about music. This recent post is an example: "This is the definition of art that has always most excited me: the feeling of being taken to the boundary of the universe, then beyond that boundary..."

Go read the whole post. The quote is from this article in The Atlantic. Here is the whole paragraph:
This is the definition of art that has always most excited me: the feeling of being taken to the boundary of the universe, then beyond that boundary into the surrounding darkness, and you’re the first person to ever be there. It’s not an experience that happens very often, but I’m willing to wait. I’ve never been someone who’s enjoyed music in general, or contemporary fiction in general, or films in general, or theater in general. I feel I’m standing on the runway waiting for the next big one to come in, carrying some of that outer darkness with it.
That is something that resonates with my understanding. It also echoes some comments Jordan Peterson has made about art, that artists are those people who go out into the darkness (the chaos) surrounding the comfortable fire of society and discover/gather new things and ideas to inspire artworks. In case you don't know it, here is the first track from the album Bitches Brew released in 1970. I think I bought it on vinyl the year it came out.


This was certainly an influential album and quite an experimental one. Ann brings in the fields of comedy, religion and politics, asking if they should also make you uncomfortable. I guess my view is that some art (comedy, religion and politics) certainly should make you uncomfortable, but not all. A lot of people listen to music, not to be made uncomfortable, but to be soothed. Similarly with religion and politics. Comedy I am less sure of. I'm not sure if uncomfortable is the right word for what I look for in music. Again, different musics provide different kinds of experiences. I think what I look for is music that takes us somewhere, on a journey, perhaps. It doesn't have to take us to an uncomfortable place, just a different one. If that place is interesting and unusual and unfamiliar, then the journey was particularly successful. But the experience of most people with most music is probably that of comfort and familiarity! That is often what we look for. And when we get bored with it, then we look for the new and unusual and will tolerate some discomfort. It is always a bit uncomfortable to stretch yourself, but usually a very healthy thing to do.

Here are three pieces of music that may make different listeners a bit uncomfortable. The first one is "All of the Lights" by Kanye West that is very likely to make classical listeners very uncomfortable:


Next is something that would apparently drive away "loiterers" from outside 7-Elevens, Concerto No. 3 from L'Estro Armonico by Antonio Vivaldi:


And finally something that would make most listeners uncomfortable unless they are in that small group that seeks out this kind of thing: Eight Songs for a Mad King, by Peter Maxwell Davies:


Monday, July 2, 2018

A Moment with Louis Couperin

I just stumbled across a lovely recording of suites by Louis Couperin (c. 1626 – 29 August 1661). This is Blandine Verlet and I think she is playing on a 1624 Ruckers.


The 17th and 18th century French music, that is, the music of the ancien regime, for some reason I find particularly elegant and expressive. It is both lively and melting, warm and piercing, and with a unique intimacy. I suspect the reasons for this might include that it was composed and performed for a small class of highly refined listeners, the nobility, who were great music lovers and strongly supported talented musicians. Yes, I'm sure there was a lot of competition, back-biting and so on. But it was all on the personal level, not at the industrial levels we have today.

You might find the tuning to be unfamiliar. I'm not sure of the exact temperament she is using, but it is certainly not equal temperament! There are a lot of possible choices, from meantone to Werckmeister III and I can't distinguish them offhand. I'm pretty sure it's not meantone as that would be a lot crunchier!

One thing I particularly like about this music is the rhythmic "feel" of it, the way it rolls over and wanders expressively. It is propulsive without ever having the lead-footed heaviness that seems to plague pop music.

What do you think of this music?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Citizen Lebrecht

When I lived in Montréal I enjoyed the benefits of a bi-cultural and bi-lingual city. You could see first-run English films and you could see first-run French films. You could walk down to the corner newsstand and pick up a copy of not only the New York Times but also Le Monde diplomatique. For the local newspapers there were two (now just one) middle-of-the-road English newspapers, very like I was used to in other parts of Canada, but on the French side there was a very discernible hierarchy. At the bottom was Allô Police a weekly tabloid specializing in lurid photos and blood-drenched headlines. Sadly, it disappeared in 2004, but while it was there it was the gritty foundation of the newspaper world in French-speaking Montréal. I suspect they would only have had a classical music item if the conductor of the symphony was murdered! The middle was occupied by the respectable La Presse and Le Journal de Montréal where you would find lavish coverage of the Festival de Jazz de Montréal. At the top of the hierarchy was the organ for the intellectual class, Le Devoir, where you could find lengthy, detailed, critical reviews of organ and harpsichord recitals. I just checked and in the current issue there is a review of a new recording of Haydn's Stabat Mater.

I recount all this because I am just reading an interview in Van with Norman Lebrecht, the author of that other classical music blog Slipped Disc. One with a zillion times the readership of mine, I hastily add. It's a pretty good interview. He characterizes what he does as follows:
I came into music because nobody was writing about it in a way that interested me. Musicologists were writing arcane and abstruse things which had no relation to who the composer was, where he or she was at that particular time in her life. They weren’t answering the questions of, “Why is this piece meaningful to me, why is this phrase meaningful to me?” In the way that you’d ask in every other human transaction from the restaurant to the bedroom. And so I started asking those questions. 
What is important to somebody who’s just got out of bed, had a shower, got dressed, and is having their morning coffee? It’s not Sibelius Four. It might be, “What happened to this conductor last night?”
It wouldn't be too hard to satirize this, of course. The things musicologists write have no relation to who the composer was? Oh, you mean regarding the personal life of the composer? Right! Why is this piece meaningful to me? I guess we are talking about the reader. Well, that's pretty hard to know without actually, you know, knowing the reader personally. So the focus is on what the conductor was up to last night because while abstruse musical things are not universal, gossip certainly is. Heh!
I’m at war with musicology as a whole, alright? I’m not the first person to say this, but musicology is a phony discipline. 
WHY?
It’s like parapsychology. It’s a cultish thing which makes up its parameters as it goes along. It started out as a quasi-science. In the late 19th century, people were calling everything Wissenschaft. And so this became Musikwissenschaft. Probably the first credible musicologist was Guido Adler, Mahler’s friend, who was actually a pioneering scholar of Gregorian chant and early church music. The people who followed in Adler’s wake were not scientists, but fact-based scholars, at least.
After that it went through two phases. The first phase was its academization, in which they turned it into a kind of forensic study of the notes. That’s not of interest to musicians, who just want to play what’s on the page, and it’s not of interest to people who love music. And then it went to the next phase, where music is actually not about music at all anymore, it’s about values. It’s about social equality, and it’s about inclusivity and how all musics are equal. 
YOU DON’T BELIEVE THAT?
I don’t. Call me a heretic.
Well, sure, call me a heretic too. But while true of a lot of current musicology, this critique is largely directed at a straw man. None of these bullets hits musicologists like Richard Taruskin who makes sense of a great deal of music in a grandly historical manner. But I also have to say that I strongly agree with Lebrecht's thoughts on the inequality of musics of different cultures. Go read the whole interview.
There’s good music and bad music. Let’s just try and find the good stuff. But I see it as a falsehood to say that simplified music forms are equivalent to sophisticated music forms. It’s like saying that the witch doctor is as good as my general practitioner. 
Slipped Disc, which I read on a regular basis, especially on Fridays, is a bluff, blustery collection of who died, who got hired, who got fired and who has been hit with scandal. It is unique in its way and probably indispensable. But at the end of the day it is not Le Devoir of classical music. Or even perhaps La Presse. It is probably more similar to Allô Police but a bit less lurid.

For our envoi today, let's have a listen to that Stabat Mater by Haydn, whose religious music is pretty darn good. This is Davide Lorenzato conducting the vocal ensemble AllaBreve with the Tiroler Kammerorchester:


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Musicians and Jealousy

I was watching a video of Hilary Hahn playing an encore, the Presto to the Violin Sonata No. 1 by Bach, and I was shocked to see a whole bunch of comments to the effect that the violinists in the orchestra behind her were all bitter and jealous of her success and skill! Here is the clip:


And here is a sampling of the comments:
"If you look closely, you can see the jealous mofos in the background."
"Yep, and it's a little bit sad.. I don't even see a face with positive vibes in beteween the other musicians. :/ Just jelous little bastards."
"yup so obvious, their careers have gone nowhere and they are bitter"
"The envy in the faces of the violinists behind her....."
"The orchestra violinists may look jealous.. but none of them will ever reach Hilary's technical level."
Mind you, most of the comments are very positive. But these ones struck me for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is astonishing how adept the commentators are at reading minds! This "mind-reading" ability is something that a couple of online commentators have been talking about lately: Ann Althouse and Scott Adams for example. Once you notice you start seeing it everywhere. Political writers are notorious for inferring the inner thoughts of both the people they oppose and those they agree with and this without a shred of evidence. This all falls apart when they are confronted with unidentified quotes that they often misattribute.

But back to the musicians. Non-musicians or non-professional musicians often mistake the expressions, or lack thereof, of orchestral musicians. The reasons for this are manifold. Orchestral musicians spend their working lives in front of the public, but not as exposed as the conductor or soloist. So sometimes you catch an unguarded or spontaneous expression. But most of the time they cultivate a neutral demeanor as being more professional. If you see a musician yawn onstage, it is more likely that they are relieving stress than that they are bored. Similarly, if they have a neutral expression this does not indicate that they are filled with burning jealousy. They usually have a neutral expression!

Also, in general, it is likely that most professional orchestral musicians are not jealous of Hilary Hahn, but rather respectful of her musicianship and technical accomplishment. I say this because this has been the typical attitude of orchestral string players I have discussed her with. A lot of them are fans. But at the same time, they are also highly accomplished musicians who likely spend more hours a week playing concerts than Hilary does. They are also very fine musicians and technicians. It would not surprise me in the least if a significant percentage of the seated violinists in the clip could stand up and give an excellent performance of either this or similar movements from the solo Bach repertoire. They all spend their formative years playing this stuff after all. Perhaps the performance might not be quite as perfect or as enthralling as Hilary's but most listeners might not even discern a difference in quality.

Are there jealousies in the musical world? Yes, certainly. But while there are all sorts of stories and anecdotes about what this soprano did or said about the other soprano (applies to pianists and guitarists and other soloists as well) instead of tarring all musicians or soloists with the same sin, it is probably better to assume that people with poor emotional control are more likely to be susceptible to jealous fits than more emotionally mature people. Musicians or not.

Now let's listen to that same movement played by a non-celebrity violinist. This is one of my favorite violinists, Kristóf Baráti, who is hardly known at all outside Hungary and eastern Europe:


This is Anna Savkina who just graduated from the Moscow Conservatory:


I could probably put up a dozen others if I looked! And this is not to diminish in any way Hilary's accomplishment, just to point out that, by objective evidence, there are lots of violinists that don't need to be too jealous!

Friday, June 29, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Starting with something silly: Big guitar outside Hard Rock Hotel contains big typo
A 30-foot guitar installed outside of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City in New Jersey was corrected after onlookers pointed out a massive typo.
The sign, installed Thursday at the corner of Route 30 and Virginia Avenue, contains the details of a Gibson Les Paul guitar, including a rhythm and treble pickup selector switch with a giant misspelling, "RHYTHEM."
In the original Greek it is spelt: ῥυθμός.
* * *

Here is a pretty long piece about how music (and the other arts) make their impact by setting up and then defeating expectations:
Contrary to the proverbial tree-falling-in-the forest quandary, a musical note that fails to materialize is at least as present in our brain as it would be had it actually sounded. That’s because neural substrates of imagined sound correlate with those of perceived external sounds. The more vivid the image of what must happen, the more jarring it is when that certainty is subverted.
Lots of little musical examples there, which puts this article head and shoulders above most other ones!
We found the brain recognizes and reacts to violated expectations in highly specific ways. Not only does it register a wrong event, it also—even more strongly—reacts to the missing event. Furthermore, both the cortical and sub-cortical responses to violated expectation—particularly when a silence replaces a firm and specific expectation—suggests a well-integrated network of brain activity that draws from experientially acquired schemas to focus the auditory system on expected events, and to immediately register and react to failed expectations.
Yep. All the great composers work with this constantly. I encourage you to read the whole thing, which is permeated with interesting musical examples.

* * *

Alex Ross has his annual piece on the Ojai Music Festival up over at The New Yorker:
The Moldovan-born violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, this year’s music director, had selected her programs long before December, but they spoke with eerie aptness to a town that had faced an apocalypse. The central composer was the twentieth-century Russian ascetic Galina Ustvolskaya, who wrote spiritual music of flagellating force. A world première by the Baltimore-based composer Michael Hersch harrowingly evoked the spread of cancer in a body. Works by György Ligeti and György Kurtág mixed bleakness with black humor. The concerts were heavy going at times, but Kopatchinskaja invested them with vital purpose.
The "apocalypse" he is referring to is the wildfires that came close to the town last December.
Not all of Kopatchinskaja’s ideas cohered. On the first night of the festival, she presented a program entitled “Bye Bye Beethoven,” which protested classical music’s excessive dependence on the past—the sense of being “strangled by tradition,” as she has said. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, a versatile Berlin-based group that was on hand throughout the festival, accompanied Kopatchinskaja in a most unusual performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, in which the soloist was ceremonially swaddled in yards of fabric before she played. (Her arms were not constrained, fortunately.) Toward the end, the musicians enacted a rebellion against routine, throwing down their music stands and stalking offstage while a chaotic electronic collage of Beethoven excerpts swelled on the sound system. Kopatchinskaja battled on alone and then collapsed in defeat, as the back wall parted to reveal replicas of various composers’ tombstones.
The theatrics were arresting, but the message felt less than fresh.
Yes, that does sound rather 70s. The tour-de-force of the festival was likely the performance of all six of Ustvolskaya's piano sonatas in a single concert by Markus Hinterhäuser who, as Ross notes, in his spare time runs the Salzburg Festival. I think I may have put this up before, but here it is again. This time, give it a listen!


* * *

The weaponizing of music continues apace: He Writes the Songs That Make the Neighbors Cry ‘No More Barry Manilow!’
A Rite Aid spokeswoman said last week that customers had found it difficult to enter “a select few stores” because of loiterers, so Rite Aid was exploring various ways to make it easier, including the use of Barry Manilow. “We are in the early stages of exploring this approach and have not made any decision about the potential rollout of this to additional stores,” she said.
To tell the truth, I find this somehow more comforting than hearing they were using Mozart and Bach to drive away loiterers. But does the shift to Barry Manilow imply an improvement in the musical taste of the "loiterers"? Will they move on to Celine Dion next?

* * *

By chance I ran across this on YouTube. This is the kind of thing that never appears in the mass media these days: a half hour of conversation with Igor Stravinsky. Sure, you might see a composer interviewed on television, but it would be all cut up, interspersed with performances, rehearsals and scenes of him (or her) walking in the park with wind-blown hair. Oh, and for sure there would be one of those slick talking heads interviewing him (or her).


Apparently, in Hollywood in 1957, there was a serious shortage of piano tuners.

* * *

The Toronto Star launches a new series of heretical (their term) opinion pieces with one slagging the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven: ‘Ode to Joy’ has an odious history. Let’s give Beethoven’s most overplayed symphony a rest.
Western classical music usually thinks of itself as being apolitical. But the Ninth is political. Beethoven saw it as political when he wrote it in the early 1820s. And his fellow Germans, looking for a sense of identity, embraced it with fervour.
Beethoven’s Ninth became the musical flag of Germanness at a time when nationalism was a growing force in all of Europe. It also became a Romantic monument to the artist (Beethoven, in this case) as a special creature worthy of special treatment.
Franco-Argentine scholar Esteban Buch analyzed these intersections and the good-evil paradox in an insightful book, Beethoven’s Ninth: A Political History. Buch argued that the Ninth was the right piece of music at the right time — socially, politically and aesthetically.
But from today’s perspective we know that unilateral calls to world brotherhood in joy have a flip side, which is tyranny. We appreciate now more than ever that joy is accessible to everyone only if some people are taking antidepressants.
If you follow the link and read the whole piece looking for the argument, you won't find much more than I have quoted. The influence of this piece on music and composers is monumental and very complex and its political influence no less so. It is surprising to see all that reduced to the odd critique that, if this particular joy is not accessible to everyone, then it is a form of tyranny. If we apply a little reductio ad absurdum to that we might conclude that all great art, whether it be expressing joy or sorrow or existential despair or perhaps just sheer elegance, is also some kind of tyranny because it is not equally accessible to everyone. The writer, John Terauds, needs to look up "tyranny" in the dictionary and perhaps the word "aesthetics" as well.

What does the "odious history" of the headline refer to? Here is the relevant passage in the essay:
Adolf Hitler adored the Ninth Symphony. Musicians waiting for their deaths in Nazi concentration camps were ordered to play it, metaphorically twisting its closing call to universal brotherhood and joy into a terrifying, sneering parody of all that strives for light in a human soul.
Ah, odious by association! Hitler's favorite composer was actually Franz Lehár, but we don't hear anyone calling for a moratorium on The Merry Widow. I knew one of those musicians who spent time in a Nazi death camp and he would be shaking his head at the absurdity of attaching blame to Beethoven. Honestly has everyone completely lost the concept of moral agency?

* * *

I'm actually not a huge fan of the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven, especially of the last movement the "Ode to Joy," but my reasons are different from Terauds'. I just think that it was an error of genre to slap a half-hour long cantata in as the last movement of a symphony. But hey, what do I know! Let's give it a listen. The first movement alone is a spectacularly brilliant piece of music. This is the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Christian Thielemann:


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 14

I see that I have not put up a post on Gubaidulina since April 9! Past time to continue this series which began in December last year.

The next piece in her series of religiously inspired works is In Croce (1979, revised in 1992). This was written quite quickly, commissioned for a performance in Kazan. The original version was for cello and organ, but it has also been performed with bayan and accordion replacing the organ part. Gubaidulina says:
In that particular combination I imagined the organ as a mighty spirit that sometimes descends to earth to vent its wrath. The cello, on the other hand, with its sensitively responsive strings is a completely human spirit. The contrast between these two opposite natures is resolved spontaneously in the symbol of the cross. I accomplished this first of all by criss-crossing the registers (the organ takes the line downward, the cello upward); secondly, by juxtaposing the bright major sonorities of natural harmonics, played glissando, and expressive chromatic inflections.
Here is a performance with cello and accordion with Julius Berger, violoncello and Stefan Hussong, accordion:


After a couple of intervening works, the next piece in the series is Offertorium for violin and orchestra which brought the composer world-wide recognition. The seed for the composition probably came from a casual remark by violinist Gidon Kremer, just becoming famous in his own right, when he shared a taxi with the composer after a concert in Moscow: "Wouldn't you like to write a violin concerto?" She made a study of what she called his "musical signature," the way he handled extreme contrasts and the transitions between them, but above all the surrender to and focus on the tone. In keeping with the idea of offering, the work uses the "Royal theme" from Bach's Musical Offering.
The violin concerto consists of three continuous movements. In the first movement the theme disintegrates step by step in a succession of variations: in each instance one single note of the theme is omitted at both the beginning and the end, until, in the second movement, which is not thematically related, only the pitch E remains. "You cannot be reborn until you have died." In the third movement, in the "Chorale," a seemingly new theme emerges one note at a time in the bass line of the harp and the piano which eventually--in the closing violin passage--turns out to be the original theme in retrograde. "The first shall be last and the last shall be first." [quoted from Kurtz, op. cit. pp 149-50]
The way the theme is orchestrated in the beginning, in pointillistic style with each note on a different instrument, is a homage to the other main influence: Anton Webern's orchestration of the Musical Offering.

The score was completed in March 1980 but not performed until May 1981. Gubaidulina's disfavor with the Soviet authorities (not to mention Gidon Kremer's refusal to return to the Soviet Union) meant that the score had to be smuggled out. Kremer, the dedicatee, managed to arrange a first performance at the Wiener Festwochen. The conductor was the Finnish conductor and composer Leif Segerstam. After this performance, which perhaps suffered from insufficient rehearsal time, the composer made some cuts in the work. The new version was given by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Charles Dutoit a year later and in this iteration has been enormously successful.

Here is a performance by Gidon Kremer with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit:


And here is a live performance by Vadim Repin, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski: