Friday, June 8, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

What's new this week? Annilese Miskimmon, director of opera at Norwegian National Opera has a piece in the Guardian about the problem of staging Madama Butterfly. The story is a sordid and brutal one of exploitation, betrayal and suicide, which simply means that it is an excellent example of Italian verismo opera. Ms. Miskimmon describes her approach:
As a modern composer who was as equally a man of the theatre as he was a man of music, Puccini refused to let the piece fail, even in the face of a disgusted first-night audience who greeted the onstage revelation of the child with what biographer Mosco Carner described as “an uproar of hisses, obscene sneers, [and] laughter”. They jeered at Butterfly’s perceived sexual licentiousness despite an unequivocal first act that establishes that she has understood herself to be legally married. This chaos continued in the theatre even during the stunning orchestral music accompanying Butterfly’s silent vigil for Pinkerton’s return. But despite the extremity of these reactions – which came as a shock for Puccini after a very successful dress rehearsal at which the orchestra had applauded him – the composer refused to dilute the brutality of the tale.
Therefore, to wallow in his orchestral beauty and ignore the hard truth of the libretto that inspired it is to disrespect both Puccini and the many real, anonymous Butterflies past and present who haunt every bar of this savage masterpiece. Puccini’s opera joins the long list of works of art that after years of unquestioning admiration are now problematic in our more enlightened modern times. But to continue to grapple with the story of Madama Butterfly, much as Puccini did himself, is to honour the empathetic impulse that inspired its creation: the strange and wonderful connection between an Italian opera composer and his imaginary geisha.
The attempt is to say that all is different now that the "metoo" movement has brought so many crashing down. But the moral landscape of the original was quite clear: Cio-Cio-san is the tragic romantic lead and Pinkerton the exploiting bad guy. Was there ever any doubt? This is pretty much exactly the narrative of "metoo" isn't it?

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Slipped Disc has a brief item about auditioning to busk on the New York subway. The comments, as usual, are quite interesting. As I recall, you also need a permit to busk in the Montréal Metro and lots of other places. Of course, these rules are often not enforced. In Montréal you sometimes saw musicians from the city's numerous music schools out in public trying to raise a little cash. I have seen violinists whipping off Bach solo suites, cellists playing Britten and all manner of ensembles.

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The Roanoke Times (of Virginia) has a hard to summarize piece by Benedict Goodfriend on the economics of regional orchestras. Let's let him set it up:
To understand the hierarchy of American orchestras it is instructive to parallel them with professional sports teams. One could call 20 or so U.S. Orchestras the major leagues. The high end of this group would be Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, LA Philharmonic and San Francisco, which pay average section player salaries of $120,000-$145,000. The lower end would include Houston, Dallas, National Symphony and a number of other orchestras paying in the $60,000-$80,000 range. All of these orchestras tour nationally and internationally. The minor leagues could include, at the triple A level, orchestras such as Rochester, New York, and Indianapolis, Indiana, down to single A level, with salaries of $20,000-$35,000, including orchestras like Richmond, Virginia Symphony, Jacksonville, and Charlotte. 
The departure point of my analysis was the simple question “What percentage of an orchestra’s budget is devoted to paying the orchestra members?”
The average percentage of the budget that pays the orchestra musicians (not including conductor or guest artists) is in the vicinity of 30 percent. Orchestra A pays 38 percent, Orchestra B percent 13 percent...yes it is not a typo, it is 13 cents on the dollar.
I encourage you to read the whole article. I found some of the analysis hard to sort out, but the general finding is clear: some regional orchestras treat their musicians pretty well, but others don't. In the latter case, it seems that the lion's share of the budget goes to the conductor and executive director. Hmm, I wonder who it is that makes these decisions?

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The New York Times has a lavish report on what they call an "interdisciplinary extravaganza" organized by Esa-Pekka Salonen to round off his three-year stint as composer in residence with the New York Philharmonic.
“The concert experience has become predictable,” the composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen said this week. “I’m not talking about artistic quality or content of the program, but the ritual itself. It’s quite predictable — and, visually, mostly dead boring, to be totally honest.”

Mr. Salonen, jet lagged after flying in from London and fresh from a rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic, was speaking at David Geffen Hall while preparing for “Foreign Bodies,” a one-night-only interdisciplinary extravaganza on Friday that marks the end of his three-year tenure as the orchestra’s composer in residence.

But the program isn’t only a showcase of Mr. Salonen’s work; he shares billing with the New York premiere of a violin concerto by Daniel Bjarnason, a video installation by Tal Rosner and choreography by Wayne McGregor. If anything, the evening is a manifesto for what Mr. Salonen thinks the 21st-century concert could — and should — be.
Oh, and drinks will be allowed in the hall — a rarity at Lincoln Center.
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Also in the New York Times is a piece on an unusual amateur ensemble:
The New York Times is a big place, full of people who have interests aside from journalism and are happy to share them. It’s one of the joys of working here.
There is a strong contingent of classical musicians in the building, many of whom play in outside groups for the sheer pleasure of it. It seemed convenient to band together on the premises during off hours.
I knew, from an orchestra we happened to be in together, that Laura Chang, deputy editor for The Upshot, played the violin. The grapevine sent us other musicians: William Davis, an assistant editor for News Platforms (another violinist); Aaron Krolik, a developer for Interactive News (a violist); and Margalit Fox, a senior Obituaries writer (a cellist).
We bonded in an empty conference room over Mozart and Brahms two years ago, gathering after work on a regular basis. We call ourselves the Qwerty Ensemble.
Go read the whole thing, it is too long to excerpt and contains all sorts of interesting glimpses of how people reconcile amateur music-making with their professional lives.

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Canadian composer, critic and music blogger Colin Eatock has decided to hang up his pixels:
For more than three decades, I’ve written for various newspapers, magazines, websites, and for my own blog, “Eatock Daily” (which you are now reading). But for the last year or so I’ve been wondering if I really want to continue reviewing concerts and writing about music.
In January, I respectfully severed my ties to the last few publications that would still pay me a modest fee for my work.  And now, I’ve also decided to stop posting concert reviews to this blog. 
Why? The demise of music criticism in the mainstream press is certainly a discouraging factor. However, I don’t share the view that some people in the business hold as to why this has happened. I don’t think it can be entirely blamed on declining print-media revenue, or on philistine entertainment editors who care only about pop culture. These are contributing factors, to be sure – but I think there are more deep-seated reasons.
I believe that our culture (and by “our culture” I’m talking about North America, and perhaps also Europe, to some extent) has undergone a fundamental shift. Expertise is no longer much valued in the cultural sphere; rather, it seems that the currently prevailing belief is that any one person’s opinion is as good as any other’s. Furthermore, if critical judgements are acknowledged at all, they are the judgements of the masses, expressed in economic terms: what is best is what sells the most.
There are some determined “elitists” who steadfastly oppose this trend. I wish them well, but I’ve come to the conclusion that to stand against this sea-change is to defy the incoming tide, as King Canute once tried to do. And even Canute knew when his feet were wet.
Well, I suppose I might be one of those referred to! For which I make no apology.

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Over at Musicology Now there is a call for papers for a special issue of the Journal of the American Musicological Society (JAMS) devoted to "Music, Race and Ethnicity."
The Planning Committee’s initial effort was to organize the special session on “Race, Ethnicity and the Profession” at the 2016 Vancouver AMS meeting.  What came out of the session supported and augmented many of the positions that were coming out of the responses to the blog post, the #AMSSOWHITE hashtag, and so on, in that was that there was a lot of professional despair out there about whether people of color had any real purchase on the profession. We already had Matthew D. Morrison's article in the 2012 JAMS colloquy, basically warning people that that that the profession seemed to be driving away some of its brightest scholars of color. Concerns were expressed that young scholars, particularly scholars of color, would be or had already been penalized for working on race, or for speaking out about these issues in their writing, or that issues of race and ethnicity were considered a peripheral area of musicological scholarship, which could in turn influence hiring, awards, and grant and subvention decisions.
Isn't this another instance of reverse causality? Perhaps musicology is not the most fertile ground for race and ethnicity based scholarship.
ED: The idea that questions of race are somehow not central to music and its history seems utterly untenable right now—both in the context of our discipline and in of our current political climate.
Is this true, and if it is, why is this the case? And what "questions of race" are meant?

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This has been a very talky miscellanea today, so let's have a couple of envois to end. First, a great aria from Madame Butterfly. This is Cio-Cio-san's aria "Un bel di vedremo" sung by Angela Gheorghiu:

And now, the same aria sung by Leontyne Price:


Patrick said...

I don't think the National Symphony (of Washington, DC) is on the lower end of the pay scale. I believe they are in the 6 figures. And the new director, Noseda, seems to be inspire engaged playing!

Bryan Townsend said...

You could be correct about the pay scales, but I think the National Symphony, while in the major leagues, is, as he says, in the second rank.

Marc said...

I imagine that Annilese Miskimmon is simply making a pro forma declaration of adherence to the #metoo business, knowing full well that there are ideologues out there who would suppress any production of e.g. Madama Butterfly or Turandot if they could, and perhaps also hoping to defend herself against any charges that she has sold out and betrayed her own. As pointed out, we know Pinkerton misuses Butterfly and presumably we most of us can "wallow" in the opera's beauties without at the same time endorsing Pinkerton's evil choices (or Otello's, or Don Giovanni's).

It's good that the journalist-musicians have their music to fall back on because that Mexican oligarch, Mr Slim, isn't going to subsidize the 'failing New York Times' forever; I'd probably fire three of them yesterday. But I do appreciate Margalit Fox's obituaries.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, thanks for articulating that! Ms. Miskimmon is likely making the necessary genuflection to PC.

I thought the NYTimes revenues were up slightly? I largely stick to the Wall Street Journal for my reading pleasure...