Friday, February 16, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

The Wall Street Journal has a piece on composer/impresario Paola Prestini that is likely worth your time:
Born in Trento, Italy, and raised in Arizona by a single mother, Prestini was one of only three women in her composition class of 50 at Juilliard, where her taste for experimental opera and large-scale multimedia works put her at odds with the school’s more conservative teaching. In 1999, while she was still a student and thinking ahead to staging her own pieces after graduation, she co-founded the scrappy production company VisionIntoArt; its ups and downs gave her a real-world education in getting music in front of an audience. A decade ago, Prestini met Kevin Dolan, a Washington, D.C., tax lawyer and arts patron looking to launch a venue for emerging talent. Seven years and $16 million later, National Sawdust opened its doors. Today it boasts a staff of 16 (10 of them women) and hosts seven diverse performances a week. Prestini dreams of opening satellites in London and Tokyo.
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Curious about the Reigning Divas of Carnatic Music? Well, so was I!
India’s national instrument, the Saraswati veena, has been patronized by many artists over the decades. Even the legendary vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi was a trained veena player. In recent times, the undisputed queen of the veena is Jayanthi Kumaresh, who hails from a family of Carnatic music practitioners. Her mother Lalgudi Rajalakshmi was also a noted veena player. Her maternal uncle was the famous violin maestro, the late Lalgudi Jayaraman. Known for her technical expertise, strict classicism and authenticity, Kumaresh’s music has gained considerable global popularity. Kumaresh is also a composer. Her albums, like Mysterious Duality (2013), and her work with the Indian National Orchestra, a syndicate she formed along with 20 other musicians in 2011, have shown her to be a composer of high musical standards.

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The Globe and Mail has a thoughtful article on the reign of Charles Dutoit in Montreal before his fall from grace:
An old story caught up with the board and administration of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra last week, as allegations of psychological abuse of players by former music director Charles Dutoit were spelled out in detail in two francophone newspapers.
The scenario resembled that of many recent accusations of sexual misconduct – including those against Mr. Dutoit – with one important difference: The players' complaints of bullying from the podium were made very public 15 years ago, and ignored.
An open letter alleging the abuse, in April, 2002, was the precipitating factor in Mr. Dutoit's abrupt resignation days later. "The reality of life in the MSO for most players," wrote Quebec Musicians' Guild president Émile Subirana, "is unrelenting harassment, condescension and humiliation by a man whose autocratic behaviour has become intolerable."
Regarding the way marketing and promotion can lead to abuse:
As shown by the Dutoit case, and by that of James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera, selling your leader as an indispensable wizard makes it hard to control him if he steps out of line. It also confuses the public about what an orchestra is. It's not a band of puppets waiting to be activated by an inspired pair of hands. It's a gathering of individual artists, who together maintain the sound, traditions and personality of the ensemble. However great the conductor, nothing would be heard without the craft, dedication and art of the players.
There is a complex relationship between the conductor and the orchestra. I was just talking with someone about her experiences. For quite a few years they had to contend with an erratic and abusive conductor. He was finally replaced with another, much easier to work with but, at the end of the day, rather boring! Some of the best conductors can be temperamental, but as long as it does not become actual abuse, that probably gives better results than a conductor who is bland and mediocre.

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And the soap opera that is the Oregon Bach Festival just keeps a'coming:
Destrubé said he couldn’t continue as program director. “I have … relinquished my role as program director of the Berwick Academy,” he said by email. “As it was I who invited Jaap ter Linden, also at the suggestion of several of the other faculty members, and as the OBF/UO administration decided to un-invite him following your article, unjustifiably in my opinion, I felt that my position as program director was untenable. As simple as that.”
It's complicated, but as best as I can make out, the festival administration's hypersensitivity to anything outside the strict parameters of political correctness, combined with their utter lack of a sense of humor, seems to be causing a string of firings and resignations.

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Once a meme gets firmly rooted, it is hard to get rid of it. Case in point, the ongoing complaint that classical music programs are larded with compositions by dead, white males to the exclusion of women and people of color. While there is certainly truth in this, the explanation of why this is so and the social justice ideology surrounding it are both deeply flawed. Let's look at this recent example: Systemic Discrimination: the Burden of Sameness in American Orchestras.
Classical music lovers feel a rush of excitement each year when orchestras release their plans for an upcoming season. Marketing brochures feature glossy photos of conductors and soloists, hopefully enticing patrons to swoon over the year’s top-flight catches. But many listeners also take a closer look at the musical programs. And every year, social media platforms explode with disappointment as one orchestra after another tries to sell a season riddled with music by dead white men.
I like that "riddled with" phrase: it suggests that white men are akin to termites or a deadly virus. Crude claims like this are the norm:
Simply put, lack of diversity on concert programs is built into the institutional structure of American classical music organizations, leading to systemic discrimination against women, people of color, and other historically underrepresented musicians.
Let's dismantle this, shall we? First of all, the buzzword "diversity" is simply code for saying that concert programs, membership in orchestras, conductors, soloists, and in every other aspect, classical music organizations must mirror exactly the gender and racial makeup of the society as a whole. Why is this? It is nothing more than a numbskull's concept of "justice." I think that one of the best ripostes to this kind of argument was Jordan Peterson's to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's virtue-signalling action of making sure exactly 50% of his cabinet were women. His reason? "Because it is 2015." Peterson's comment was that this was idiotic because what you have to select for in cabinet posts is not gender balance, but competence. Justice is not served when group identity trumps everything else. Similarly, we should apply a multivariate analysis to these other claims. For a variety of reasons that undoubtedly include child-bearing and raising, education, social biases, interests and the fact that men and women tend to have different goals, European music history has vastly more male composers than female ones. There are no women composers of the stature of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven. Now, if you want to simply decide by fiat that your music history starts in the year 1950 or 2000, then fine. I'm sure that you can find a great number of women composers. But good luck getting audiences to attend your concerts! Oh, and the whole notion of "systemic" discrimination is only hauled out when you can't find an actual individual to blame.

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So if you don't get to shoehorn in women composers and composers of color just because they belong to "oppressed" identity groups, then how do they enter the canon? Just the way dead, white males did, through merit. Joseph Haydn is not widely performed because he is dead and white. If that were the case then his brother Michael, also a prolific composer, would also be widely performed. He's not and the reason is that Joseph is the far better composer. The process of canon formation is a constant one and there are always people advocating for the addition of neglected composers. A good case in point is a recent article by Alex Ross in The New Yorker about neglected composer Florence Price who was a woman and partly black.
Price was born in 1887, in Little Rock, Arkansas, and grew up in a middle-class household. She returned home after attending the New England Conservatory, one of the few conservatories that admitted African-Americans at the time. Her early adulthood was devoted largely to teaching and to raising a family. Life in Arkansas was oppressive; lynchings were routine. In 1927, Price moved with her family to Chicago, where her horizons began to expand. She divorced her husband, who had become abusive, and struck out on her own. Until then, her compositional output had consisted mostly of songs, short pieces, and music for children. She increasingly essayed larger symphonic and concerto forms, winning support from Stock, a conductor of rare broad-mindedness.
Beginning in 1931, Price wrote or sketched a total of four symphonies. The First and the Third have been published by A-R Editions, under the scholarly guidance of the late Rae Linda Brown, and recorded by the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble and the Women’s Philharmonic, respectively. The Second was apparently never finished; the Fourth, whose score turned up in the St. Anne house, will receive its première by the Fort Smith Symphony, in Arkansas, in May.
And that is how it starts. Over time, the music of Florence Price may or may not find a niche in the repertory. What will determine that is the collective aesthetic judgement of performers, conductors, critics and audiences.

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Here is a piece by Paola Prestini for solo cello with pre-recorded cellos and electric bass titled "Mourning" from a larger piece titled Body Maps. The cellist is Jeffrey Ziegler.


And here is the first movement of Florence Price's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major. Blogger doesn't want to embed, so just follow the link:

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I every time spent my half an hour to read this website's posts all the
time along with a mug of coffee.

Will Wilkin said...

As an aspiring amateur violinist, I'm always interested in hearing a new (to me) concerto. So I turned off the Bach "Musical Offering" CD I was listening to and clicked the Florence Price Violin Concerto #1 you linked. Very nice, very much of the romantic style, and often surprisingly reminiscent of the Tchaikovsky concerto. Based only on this movement (listened to twice now), I find her to be not just a great composer for violin but also a very good orchestrator. Beautiful use of winds in dialogue with the soloist. This winds-soloist dialogue is something I was also admiring a few nights ago when I heard the New Haven Symphony play Mozart's piano concerto #20. One aspect of concerto composing I always find mysterious and amazing is how a composer who probably is not a virtuoso player can write music so knowingly of the potentials (and limits?) of the solo instrument.

Bryan Townsend said...

So, Florence Price has your vote! Yes, I noticed a bit of reminiscence of the Tchaikovsky concerto as well. Same key. Lots of nice things in this piece. Do you know the Mozart violin concertos? They are worth a listen. He wrote them for himself as he was a virtuoso violinist as well as pianist.

Composers who do not play the violin, like Brahms, tended to consult with violinists about specific passages. But a lot of composers just put in a lot of study of the possibilities of the instrument as part of their trade. All of the famous guitar concertos were written by non-guitarists which is why some of them are so difficult. Segovia did not hesitate to edit out impossible chords and passages in concertos written for him.

Will Wilkin said...

Regarding the risks of the cult of leadership in classical music, I've lately been reflecting on how the fall of James Levine has even hurt me, and how very much moreso this must be true for the great artists who performed in the operas he conducted. Although I only attended one NY Met Opera performance live in NYC (opening night of John Adams' "Death of Klinghoffer"), I've had the joy of seeing (and especially hearing) probably 20 other NY Met performances via the superb "live in HD" simulcasts I see on the big screen at local cinemas. Virtually all were conducted by James Levine. Although I may not be the sophisticated and critical listener like Joe Horowitz (who recently wrote "I never heard from Levine much evidence of emotional variety or depth. According to my experience, he had little capacity to organize a long stretch of music, or to powerfully shape a climax or pregnant phrase. He did not produce a sonic signature – as Furtwangler and Krips did; as Gergiev and Muti do. He did not possess an ear for color or texture."), I was very much impressed with the beauty, the artistic and human integrity of the performances, the deep musicality --ok, I can't write as expressively as Mr. Horowitz who, in a different article reviewing completely different cast in opera, wrote "...with an instrument unlike any Wagner tenor I have previously encountered: clear and piercing, with a vinegar timbre."-- but the music was GREAT in my opinion.

Now here's where the cult of leadership has backfired back to hurt not just possible victims in the inner circle, but the audience at large: my favorite Sirius XM radio station, Met Opera, seems to have completely banished from the playlist all performances conducted by Levine! Yes, it's been interesting to hear all the historical performances they now play, from many decades of their history, but I sadly miss the Levine sound and especially hearing again the NY Met productions that introduced me to many operas for the first time.

Last week I was playing the Sirius Grateful Dead station and they played a recording from Worcester Massachusetts from October 1984 and I was able to say to my 18yo son and a friend who were in the car "I broke my foot at this concert!" Basically I pounded it into the concrete floor too many times in rapturous dance. My point being those reminiscences of loved concerts are too sweet to lose! And what about all the superb musicians who sang and played in those banished Levine-led performances? They now suffer the fate of also disappearing from the radio, becoming "collateral damage" to the blacklisting of James Levine! Its to the point where I am looking for the biggest box set I can find of recent Levine-conducted Met operas....

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much, Will, for adding your personal perspective to this debate. I empathize with everything you are saying! The same applies to the defenestrating of Charles Dutoit, as conductor of the Montreal Symphony and of numerous recordings by them, he is probably the most prominent conductor in Canada. And now the CBC, while still playing his recordings on air as they have no viable replacement, are now simply refusing to credit his role.

The only thing this reminds me of is the falsifying of history by the Soviet Union under Stalin and as depicted in George Orwell's 1984. The solution, to my mind, is to simply punish individuals who have committed crimes according to criminal law and not making disappear everything they were involved with.

We live in strange times...

Marc said...

Strange times indeed! There is a saying from the milieu of the Desert Fathers, attributed to the great St Anthony: "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, 'You are mad; you are not like us.'" Whatever the circumstances or event actually referred to, it certainly seems appropriate to these days.

Personal nonsense having been sorted out more or less and life returned to normalcy, as it were, and so on and so forth, I hope I'll be able to add a comment or two now and again (I've been keeping up via the 'feed reader' Netvibes).

Don't get me started on the OBF! Have been trying to attend to the musical events for this season and not to the distressingly obnoxious management (have 'deleted' my Facebook account, among other things, at least in so far as they let one delete an account): the premiere of Richard Danielpour's The Passion of Yeshua (it "creates space for voices traditionally silent/silenced in retellings of the Biblical narrative" i.e. the libretto will have been assembled perhaps by 21st c so-called 'progressive' non-believers-- perhaps not, of course, but I feel intimations of The Woman of Salt) and Philip Glass's Piano Concerto no 3, performed by Simone Dinnerstein, are the 'big events' so far as new music is concerned; Brandenburg Concertos and the Elijah of Mendelssohn are the major non-new works. Eh. We shall see; my impression is that, whether due to the d. o. m. issues or for other reasons, there are not a few programs not yet finalised; this may be par for the course in these matters... but I suspect not.

Bryan Townsend said...

Marc, welcome back! Your comments have been sorely missed.

All those pieces are going to be heard in the next Bach Festival? Shouldn't there be more, uh, Bach?

Marc said...

There is also a concert of Bach and his sons, and I'm sure Paul Jacobs's organ recital will feature Bach, and there are two evenings of his cantatas too. But there are (am on my way out...) perhaps five or six 'crossover' concerts-- brass, classical musicians whose names I cannot recall at the moment doing popular music, more and different brass-- which is more than in the recent past (one or two being the norm in the last three years anyway). From the beginning, though, OBF has included plenty of music not Bach's. That there is not one of the great vocal works, or more of the cantatas, though, is probably due to the management issues, I'd guess.

Bryan Townsend said...

I really should have a look at the program myself, now shouldn't I!

Marc said...

Here you go-- this should do it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Marc. Looks pretty good actually. One nice thing is the chance to hear composers talk about their music. Lots of all-round entertainment and the chance to hear more Bach than you usually can!