Friday, June 22, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Violinist Anthea Kreston is a member of the Artemis Quartet and pages from her journal have been appearing at Slipped Disc for a while now. The most recent is about recording the Quartet No. 7 of Shostakovich.
Our recording location this week was in a charming, repurposed dance hall on the outskirts of Berlin. The herringbone wood floor, high ceiling and tall windows made for warm and clear acoustics, and the old stage is now an enclosed recording booth. This Shostakovich 7th is one of the first pieces I learned with this Quartet and, in fact was one of my audition pieces. As all Shostakovich, it requires both extreme power-playing and extreme stillness – endless, almost inaudible notes which (on a recording especially) must have perfect sustain, impossibly controlled.
I have recorded enough times, and with enough different people to realize that there are two main camps, philosophies. One is – I must control this, and present a perfect picture. The second is – perfection is the job of the people in the booth – my job is to play like I have never played before in my life.
I was lucky, this week, to be surrounded by people who believe the second, and not the first. Recording in this way (any way, actually), is exhausting. It is a combination of running a marathon, stopping frequently for high-intensity-interval-training, performing spinal surgery, and arguing a case before the Supreme Court. My feet ached, my arms and back felt like I had just mowed the lawn at Versailles, and my brain felt like I had just finished a chess match with Nikolić–Arsović. And that was at the end of day 1.
She really captures the experience well!

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 One of Norman Lebrecht's crusades has been against corruption in music competitions and to that end he has a piece in The Spectator: You vote for my pupil, I’ll vote for yours – the truth about music competitions.
A young Korean, 22 years old, won the Dublin International Piano Competition last month. Nothing unusual about that.
Koreans and Chinese, raised in a school of hard knocks and rounded off in western conservatories, are winning most prizes. A few — like the phenomenal Lauren Zhang who made child’s play of Prokofiev’s second piano concerto in the BBC Young Musician of the Year — are prodigious talents with bright futures ahead. Dublin’s winner Sae Yoon Chon is probably not one of them.
His Prokofiev, an effortful shadow of Zhang’s electrification, trundled along at pedestrian pace with one or two stumbles. I was therefore surprised to see that Chon won. I also noticed that he is a student of the jury chairman.
While the unsuspecting pupils remain none the wiser, this kind of outcome has become familiar at international music competitions, of which there are 300 every year. You can count on one hand those that are fair, honest and transparent. They include the BBC, the Chopin in Warsaw and, latterly, the Tchaikovsky in Moscow. You can imagine the jurors’ conversations elsewhere — you vote for my pupil, I’ll vote for yours. Like Fifa’s World Cup ballot, this business is largely controlled by a bunch of time servers, in this case professors at major conservatories.
That's the basic argument, read the whole thing for the details.

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The American Scholar has a list of the twenty-five best American symphonies:
That distinctly European art form known as the symphony began to flourish on American soil in the latter part of the 19th century. Not surprisingly, the earliest American symphonists composed in a style heavily indebted to Brahms, Schumann, and Mendelssohn, among others. Only with the advent of a certain insurance executive–cum–maverick composer named Charles Ives did the American symphony begin to truly come into its own.
In last week’s column about Walter Piston, I happened to list a few of the most essential American symphonies. Immediately I began thinking of works that I’d neglected to mention. So this week, let’s expand the list. For the sake of a nice, neat number, I am identifying 25 great works—hardly a comprehensive tally, and somewhat arbitrary. Looking over the finalists, I began second-guessing at once: Why no Virgil Thomson or David Diamond? Why Bernstein’s First and not his Second? Why not Ives’s Third? I have not, moreover, included symphonic works that do not bear the title Symphony; therefore, I have left out Samuel Barber’s Essays and Joan Tower’s Concerto for Orchestra. What do you think I ought to have included?
Go read the rest. The list includes a lot of pieces I have never heard!

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The Pacific Standard has an interesting article on instrument-builder Caleb Byerly:
Byerly began making instruments in 2007, when he was a 22-year-old Christian missionary in the remote jungles of the Philippines. He was working in the mountains with the indigenous Tigwahanon tribe, largely isolated from the outside world. Byerly immersed himself in their culture, and, as an avid musician, asked them about their music. "We noticed that he really loves to play any indigenous instruments," says Eddie Payaron, a Tigwahanon teacher whom Byerly met in the Philippines. Soon, Byerly learned that the musical elements of Tigwahanon heritage had been taken from them by outsiders much like him. The elders spoke of missionaries from the mid-1900s who had admonished the tribe that its traditional music, used to worship ancient gods, was profane. The Tigwahanon artisans who built the time-honored instruments gradually lost interest in their craft, and the kuglong and its kin were lost.
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Here is a somewhat philosophical article about the classical music tradition and the Future Symphony Institute:
The Future Symphony Institute, which launched in 2014 after around a decade of preparation, seeks to research the viability of classical music today, and put forth ideas and approaches to secure its future. It is, as talking to Balio makes clear, about finding ways to increase the audience for classical music, and because of its U.S. focus, it recognizes and accepts it must play to the market forces that dictate much of what orchestras there can do. (As opposed to the kind of government arts funding more common in Europe.) 
To me at least, tradition has become something to be embraced with caution, lest it look like you’re getting too cuddly with all those almost exclusively white and male figures that dominate the classical canon, and continue to dominate its programming. There’s also a wider issue—not only in the classical music world—of those promoting tradition doing so while spitting vitriol at newer art forms and simultaneously pushing some fairly right-of-center politics. However, in an effort to air out the echo chamber of criticism against the term, I got in touch with Balio to see whether it might not play a key role in the future of classical music. To argue against it in any musical genre, especially in classical music, would be not only difficult, but completely at odds with how art works. The question at hand is how it can be incorporated within the future.
Here is a passage you might want to debate:
The core difficulty with reconciling traditional aesthetics and ideas with the contemporary world is that, try as we might, no art is immune to politics. This is not to say that all art is political, but that all art will have political implications quite out of the hands of the artist. Common accusations that social discourse and identity politics, or leftist academics, hijack art and instrumentalize it toward a political aim fail to see this distinction. It’s not necessarily the art itself that is politicized—enjoying Wagner does not mean your politics coincide with his—but the social consequences of that art; what its existence says about broader social structures, and how we interact with it.
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I was studiously trying to avoid even a hint of politics in today's miscellanea, but that proved to be impossible as nearly every article published on music these days, concert and record reviews aside, seems to be about music from a political point of view! Or complaining about music being too political. Or not political enough! Let's end with an envoi of the String Quartet No. 7 by Shostakovich mentioned in the first item above. This is a 1982 concert video of the Borodin Quartet:


Steven Watson said...

I don't think that list doesn't make American music look particularly good. Of those I know, the Chadwick and Copland I like, but they're not great. The particular Piston, Sessions and Adams works I don't know, but I generally find their work disagreeable. The Bernstein symphony I saw live once, and it was tack. The Barber is quite good indeed, if I recall.

To my mind there are only two great symphonies in the list: Ives's Holidays Symphony and his Fourth Symphony (the Second Symphony is good fun, but in terms of his more conservative work, as it were, the Third Symphony is the masterpiece).

Maybe it's the case that the best American music has not been symphonic. Even with Ives, I'd say his best works might be his Concord Sonata or his Orchestral Sets -- perhaps even some of his songs.

But in terms of American symphonies, there is one other great work that comes to mind: Korngold's Symphony in F# major. Okay, Austrian born, but a naturalised citizen by the time of the symphony, and a key figure in Hollywood history. I truly believe his symphony is one of the best of the century.

Bryan Townsend said...

No, I suspected as much. The symphony does not seem to be a strong genre in American music. I can think of some pretty good string quartets and a lot of orchestral music that is more in the tone poem category than the symphonic one. But, as you say, not a lot of really strong symphonies. I will have to have a listen to the Korngold. His name keeps coming up, but I really don't know his music.

Steven Watson said...

Oh you must, excellent stuff. His violin concerto too.