Sunday, September 29, 2019

Symmetry and Harmony

I just noticed a rather odd and surprising overlap between Stravinsky and Schoenberg. In the latter's analysis/discussion of his Four Songs with Orchestra, op. 22 [reprinted in Perspectives on Schoenberg and Stravinsky] he points out numerous instances of the use of a particular little set of intervals: the minor second and minor third, in various configurations and sometimes expanded to a major second and major third in various configurations. Now notice something about the first set, the minor second and minor third. Depending on how you organize them, with the minor second within the minor third, for example, as Schoenberg often presents them, if you extend that over the octave you get, that's right, the octatonic scale, which was used extensively by Stravinsky (he got it from Rimsky-Korsakov).

I don't want to imply any influence here, but I do want to note that the octatonic scale is a symmetrical way of dividing up the octave, as opposed to the major and minor scales of common practice harmony, which are asymmetric ways of dividing up the octave. Composers like Bela Bartók were also exploring symmetrical alternatives, in his case it was often the tritone.

Unsurprisingly, I am not the first to notice this. Taruskin offers extensive quotes from Russian modernist critic Vyacheslav Karatïgin on the Rite of Spring and mentions that:
Like Myaskovky, Karatïgin professes to see a deep kinship between Stravinsky and Schoenberg--prompted in his case, no doubt, by the enthusiastic letter he had received from the Russian composer about the German. [Tarusin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, p. 1029]
Stravinsky heard Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire in Berlin on 8 December, 1912 and that was the occasion for the letter to Karatïgin where he says:
I saw from your lines that you truly love and understand Schoenberg--that truly remarkable artist of our time. Therefore I thought you might be interested to learn about his very latest composition, in which the whole extraordinary essence of his creative genius is most intensely concentrated [i. e. Pierrot Lunaire]. [quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 824]
Another commentator on connections between Schoenberg and Stravinsky was theorist Allen Forte who said in his 1978 study of The Rite that: The Rite of Spring Stravinsky employed extensively for the first time the new harmonies that first emerged in the works of Schoenberg and Webern around 1907-08 [quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 1022]
In later years both Schoenberg and Stravinsky said a lot of critical, even derogatory things, about one another, which illustrates more the fact that they were career rivals.

For an envoi let's hear some of Pierrot Lunaire, one of the most unusual pieces in Schoenberg's output:

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Writing About Music: Then and Now

This is a followup to an item in my miscellanea yesterday. I mentioned that nowadays there is never anything in the mainstream media that requires the slightest acquaintance with music to understand--and that applies specifically to articles supposedly about music! --I know!

I'm finally getting around to reading volume 2 of Richard Taruskin's magisterial book on Stravinsky: Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra. He could only have written this if he were intimately familiar not only with every piece that Stravinsky composed, but also every letter he ever wrote and every letter that was ever written to him (if it were preserved in some archive somewhere) as well as every article every written about Stravinsky in any language whatsoever. And he is not shy about offering voluminous quotes and musical examples. This two volume monograph should be the model for any future publications of this type. Sadly, I suspect that there will be virtually no future publications of this type! Who has the intellectual capacity to do it? Right now I am wishing that there were a similar book(s) on Arnold Schoenberg, because surely he deserves it. But never mind, let's just have a brief sample of the Taruskin to get my argument started.

Stravinsky was feted by the French avant-garde, especially by one Jacques Rivière in the pages of the Nouvelle revue française. This kind of magazine really doesn't exist any more. It was an aggressively nationalistic (as Taruskin describes it) literary forum and ironically it looked to the aesthetic revolution heralded by Stravinsky and the ballets russe as a model. As Taruskin describes it:
Henri Ghéon, one of the founding editors, would announce: "Our dream has been realized--and not by us." The Russians great gift to the French had been an object lesson in "two principles common to all the arts, unity of conception and respect for materials [respect de la matière]." The exemplar of exemplars had been The Firebird, which "confronts us with the most exquisite miracle of equilibrium--of sound, movement, form--that we have ever dreamed of seeing... [Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, p. 990]
Rivière was particularly eloquent about the Rite:
The great novelty of Le sacre du printemps is its renunciation of "sauce." Here is a work that is absolutely pure. Bitter and harsh, if you will; but a work in which no gravy deadens the taste, no art of cooking smooths or smears the edges. It is not a "work of art," with all the usual attendant fuss. Nothing is blurred, nothing is mitigated by shadows; no veils and no poetic sweeteners; not a trace of atmosphere. The work is whole and tough, its parts remain quite raw; they are served up without digestive aids; everything is crisp, intact, clear and crude. [Rivière, Nouvelles études, 73, italics added by Taruskin, quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 992]
There are a couple of points I am trying to make. First, that the music of Stravinsky was important to the art scene in general. Paris was a major, perhaps the major center of artistic activity and Stravinsky was at the heart of it. As such he received real criticism, not just positive as in this case, but lots of negative as well. His work was a nexus of aesthetic debate. Second, notice who Stravinsky is being contrasted with. Who was active in Paris in the early part of the century whose music could be described as atmospheric and poetic? Debussy, of course. Despite that fact that they were friends, it was necessary in terms of the aesthetic battle to see Stravinsky as being the counterpoint to Debussy. Another thing to note here is that the coming neo-classical period of Stravinsky is being hinted at with phrases like "crisp, intact, clear."

Sadly, musical discussion in the mainstream media these days is really not about any kind of aesthetic questions. It consists of puff pieces that simply advertise upcoming concerts such as the piece I mentioned in the miscellanea yesterday. This probably covers 90% of the writing. The other kind of piece revolves entirely around identity politics: why are there not more women conductors, why are there not more black composers featured and so on.

The inevitable conclusion is that, apart from being a small source of income for a few people, classical contemporary music really has very little importance in society and there is virtually nothing at stake musically!

Let's listen to The Firebird for our envoi. This is Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in 2000:

Friday, September 27, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

The Plácido Domingo affair continues to unfold: Domingo withdraws from Met Opera after harassment reports.
The Metropolitan Opera announced Tuesday that Plácido Domingo had agreed to withdraw from his slate of scheduled performances at the opera house following allegations of sexual harassment made by multiple women in two Associated Press stories. The opera legend indicated that he would never again perform at the Met.
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We have obtained a pre-publication look at an upcoming Babylon Bee article titled: Opera companies in the US, unable to confirm that no tenors, basses or baritones have committed sexual harassment against their co-stars, promise that all future productions will feature women-only casts. Directors of Russian opera productions most affected.

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Warning: exposure to this next clip may make you feel that life is no longer worth living, at least if you happen to love the middle movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo:

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I don't know if music is in such dire straits that this is the most creative and interesting musician practicing today, but it certainly seems as if the MacArthur people think so: SMALL PICKINGS: JUST ONE MUSICIAN AMONG 26 MACARTHUR GENIUS GRANTS.
Among the 26 creators and thinkers who will each receive $625,000 MacArthur Fellowships over the next five years, there is one musician.
Here’s the citation
Mary Halvorson, 38, guitarist and composer
“Experimenting at the intersection of jazz and rock with a signature sound on her instrument and an aesthetic that evolves and surprises with each new album and configuration of bandmates.”
And the clip:

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Another in the seeming never-ending series of stories about long hidden sexual harassment in the world of classical music: Music's Perpetually Open Secret. The discussion there is very hard to excerpt, so go read the whole thing.

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Anne Midgette, one of my favourite music critics, is resigning from her post at the Washington Post.

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I am developing this theory about the social presence of music: all discussion of music in mainstream society must now revolve around politics and specifically identity politics because the general public no longer has the knowledge or interest in the aesthetic aspects of music. Case in point, this initiative: Hearing injustice a concert based on a group of pieces responding to the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
As Portland composer Kenji Bunch watched last year’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which included accusations of sexual assault, he “had this weird idea of a concert” based on the hearings.
“It was such a fraught moment, a watershed event,” Bunch recalled. “Something about the theatricality of that hearing just seemed to me that it could work for this kind of artistic exploration.”
Another piece I saw today was about the role of black composers in American music. What is common to both of these stories and, frankly, to just about all the other stories in the mainstream media, is that the subject matter is immediately comprehensible to any reader, even if they have absolutely no knowledge of nor interest in music as such. Everyone understands the ideas of sexual harassment and racism. No need to explain anything. On the surface at least. And if there are explanations they are political or social ones, nothing to do with the music as music.

I have just been reading some of the journalism that was written about Stravinsky's Rite of Spring around the time of its premiere and it is remarkable how it focussed on the music itself and the choreography of the ballet. Magazines even published pages from the score as musical examples. The whole focus was on the aesthetic innovations of the music. Not a trace of that in the above article! This is as close as they get to actual mention of the music:
She and Bunch both believe classical music brings unique authority to bear on today’s issues. “We have a richer harmonic palette that lets you explore complex emotional things without words, so people can bring their own meaning to them,” she says.
And, of course, that comment about a "richer harmonic palette" is mere hand-waving likely based on no actual musical facts. I seriously doubt that their "harmonic palette" is any richer than that of Stravinsky or Schoenberg.

            * * *

 That brings us to our envois for today, of which we will have two. First, a piece for piano trio and percussion by Kenji Bunch. (I have heard the Ahn Trio play music by Kenji Bunch in a couple of concerts in our summer chamber music festival.)

Good stuff, but the harmonic palette is not hugely rich. Next, the Piano Concerto, op. 42 by Arnold Schoenberg:


Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Evolution of Taste

Ted Cohen has a paper on taste in the Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics titled "The Philosophy of Taste: Thoughts on the Idea." He begins by mentioning that there seem to be two senses of the idea of taste. In the one, there is the idea of a preference for better things as in "his taste in music is impeccable." The other sense is the one in which there is the idea of discrimination between different things as in when a master of wine is able to identify different vineyards and vintages by tasting them. These two different senses are often run together because there seems to be a link between them. The wine connoisseur is able to distinguish finer from lesser wines because of his ability to identify, i.e. "taste" the various flavor and odor components in the wine.

Ted Cohen identifies a possible problem in the logic of this by looking at the case of literature. Is it really possible to definitively agree that one person's taste in literature is better because he prefers poetry to thrillers? Or a particular poet to another? This argument would likely not be compelling to most people because they are likely to assert some variation of "one person's taste is as good as another's" or "taste is entirely subjective." But, following Cohen, if we change the questions slightly, we might ask what if you reflect on your own personal taste over time? What if, over time, you find your tastes changing, as they do. Cohen mentions the examples of Smetana and Mozart. What if, over time, you find yourself enjoying Smetana less and Mozart more? What is going on there?

Is it the case that your faculties are becoming more capable of finer differentiations? Are we just born with a set of capacities or can they be developed or trained over time? The whole educational establishment, with some reason, certainly believes so. Else why would we have all those ear training courses?

I bring all this up because of a listening experience I just had. Let me give a little background first. I have been around music all my life and so in one sense I have had my faculties with regard to music and sound cultivated for my whole life. But I also attended the music departments of two different universities where I took several courses of ear training designed to develop my ability to hear and write down in notation rhythms, melodies and harmonies as well as to sing melodies at sight from notation. Music history courses also acquainted me with the specific sounds of widely ranging musical styles. As a performance major I was focused on the execution of pieces of music.

But in the last decade and more, I have been approaching music from a different standpoint, that of a composer. I find that I am listening a bit differently, though in exactly what way I am puzzled to describe. Let me offer an instance.

When I was in first year, I had a roommate that loved Ravel and used to listen to his Daphnis et Chloé quite frequently. I confess I didn't pay a lot of attention to that particular piece. Over the last couple of months I spent quite a lot of time listening to the box of CDs from Esa-Pekka Salonen a conductor who is also a composer. Therefore, there was a great deal of modern music in the box, but no Ravel (there were a couple of discs of Debussy). There was some Schoenberg, the Piano Concerto, the Second String Quartet and Verklärte Nacht. Also, not long ago I was listening to the Violin Concerto. Then, this week I read a couple of essays on some early Schoenberg, op. 16 and op. 22 and I also listened to those pieces. So you might say that my faculties were "cued up" for Schoenberg.

Browsing around on YouTube I noticed a clip of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé which I hadn't heard since undergrad. I was anticipating a lovely experience as Ravel is a fine composer and this is a well-known piece. But I was greatly surprised to find that the music had no interest to me. It seemed to have virtually no content whatsoever, nothing but long-held harmonies with irrelevant noodling. Extremely boring! So what has happened here? Am I just a nincompoop, unable to appreciate the subtleties of M. Ravel? Or have my faculties been fine-tuned by Schoenberg and other contemporary music to where I find the information content of Ravel to be unacceptably low? I think I might vote for the latter as, where before I found Schoenberg rather difficult to listen to, now I am hearing him as being very rich with content and a delight to hear. Good lord, next I might even be liking Elliot Carter!

Ok, musical examples. Schoenberg, Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16, followed by Ravel Daphnis et Chloé:


Monday, September 23, 2019

Tablet Trials

I've been trying for a while to get into the wonderful world of tablets, inspired, I confess, partly by that commercial for the iPad that Salonen did a while back, but mostly by some clips on YouTube about all the things you can do with GarageBand. Alas, I discovered that while GarageBand comes free on the iPad, the iPad itself is far from free. Far from! In fact, it will cost you around $800 to get a simple iPad--and that's an Air, not a Pro.

I noticed that "refurbished" iPads were cheap, like $144, so I ordered one. That turned out to be a complete mistake. The Amazon rep that I called to complain was courtesy itself and he immediately had a replacement sent. Which also didn't work, but in a different way than the first one. It merely had "touchscreenitis" which is a condition where the touchscreen just fires off randomly. The first one would hang up during the bootup. So neither was useable. Plus I had spent several hours on the phone with tech support. At that point I simply gave up. There is no saving if you have to spend hours and hours on the phone.

But I had had just enough exposure to the tablet format to be really intrigued so finally I decided to look at non-Apple tablets since there are a million out there and they are reasonably priced. I am typing this post on a new Lenovo Tab 4 10, which is a 10.6 inch tablet with pretty good reviews. Miracle of miracles it worked right out of the box. I just now got a keyboard and case for it and, after seven or eight tries, actually managed to pair the keyboard. So I guess I am good to go.

What proved to be the most challenging was trying to figure out how a non-Apple tablet works. It is completely enslaved to Google, of course, and the Android operating system, which seems to mean that everything is really, really non-intuitive. With no explanations anywhere. I have been to "settings" twice now and I have no idea how to find it again! But hey, this seemingly quite useable tablet (once I figure it out) only cost $119. So that's a plus.

Now I want to add a nice musical clip as an envoi and I cannot see how to add a new tab so I can go to YouTube while still keeping this tab open. Ok, well I got to YouTube and found the video. Here is Grigory Sokolov playing Les Cyclopes by Rameau (largely because it was too frustrating to find something else--plus it is really lovely).

UPDATE: Here is that commercial with Salonen.

Rare Video

Every now and then you run into something really unusual on YouTube--and sometimes the clip is completely mis-labeled. Take this one for example. It says it is Chet Atkins, Leo Kottke and Doc Watson jamming around on "Last Steam Engine Train" when it is obviously a colorized clip from 1931 when Arnold Schoenberg was in Barcelona working on Act II of Moses und Aron. While there, he was visited by his students Anton Webern and Alban Berg. In the clip, Schoenberg is seated on the right, Webern on the left and in the middle, at the back, is Berg. You will notice that, uncharacteristically, it is Webern that takes a solo with, for him, a plethora of notes. Notice that he does make reference to his usual pointillistic style. Towards the end, Berg essays a few ideas while throughout it is the teacher, the elder Schoenberg, who provides a strict harmonic framework for his two students.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Work and "Werktreue"

Nothing so illustrates the gulf between the classical genre and the pop and jazz genres so well as the ontology of the musical work. As Richard Taruskin describes in an essay in Text and Act:
Pop (or jazz) culture, in starkest contrast to classical, has a concept of work-identity so fluid as to be practically indefinable. (It is a famous unsolved problem of musicology, in fact.) Classical performers are constantly exhorted to make themselves into transparent vessels: Zaslaw rails at one point against ignorant performers who are "reduced [!] to ... seeking a personal 'interpretation' based on such necessary intangibles as musicality, taste, instinct or inspiration." These, of course, are qualities pop or jazz musicians, and their audiences, prize without irony or apology. Indeed, they are an absolute requirement.
Richard Taruskin. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Kindle Locations 3589-3592). Kindle Edition.
When we listen to, say, the Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16 by Schoenberg, the performance is certainly of some passing interest, but the real focus is on the musical structures and expression presented by the score, in other words, it is the "work" that is foremost. What is Schoenberg doing with, say, the imitative counterpoint? On the other hand, with pop and jazz music, the "work" is of surprisingly little interest! It is the nuance of how it is performed that attracts the greatest attention. It is hard not to see this as a focus on what is perhaps the more superficial aspect, to the neglect of the more essential aspect. But as Stravinsky averred somewhere, the most interesting thing about jazz is how it is played, the compositions themselves are of little interest. Sorry for the haphazard recollection, if someone knows the source of the quote, please let us know in the comments.

In regards to the exhortations to classical performers, they used to be asked to be transparent vessels, but nowadays they are exhorted to develop their personal "brand" to pay more attention to marketing and so on. To be, in other words, like pop performers.

But let me quibble a bit at Taruskin's subtle implication that things like "musicality, taste, instinct or inspiration" are prized more by pop and jazz musicians and their audiences than by classical musicians and their audiences. Au contraire! The best classical musicians, of course, are chock full of musicality, taste, instinct and inspiration, but these elements are used to reveal and present the musical work and not just for the glorification of the charisma of the artist.

And composers? What are composers supposed to be or to do these days? God only knows...

The essay the above Taruskin quote is taken from is on Mozart and how his compositions were much more for a specific occasion and the use of the performers, including Mozart himself. The specific occasion of the essay is that it is actually a review of the, at the time, new complete recording of the Mozart piano concertos with Malcolm Bilson on forte piano and the English Baroque soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. One of my favorite Mozart recordings, by the way, and one of Taruskin's as well. Let's listen to K. 449 from that set:

Taruskin's best point in his essay is that recordings like the one above are really more monuments and exemplars of our time than Mozart's and one of the reasons he says so is that our commitment to "werktreue" or fidelity to the work, i.e. score, means that we simply don't embellish the notes and improvise cadenzas as Mozart provably did.

Taruskin doesn't mention it, but there are some isolated examples of "werktreue" in pop and jazz. I recently saw a clip of a live performance of the entirety of the Sgt. Pepper's album of the Beatles by a tribute band. Recordings themselves are an interesting example of "werktreue" in pop and jazz. Miles Davis' album Kind of Blue has great renown as a musical "work" as do pop albums such as Sgt. Pepper's and Revolver by the Beatles. The recording is both the "work" and the ideal interpretation all together.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

What Am I Reading Now?

Yeah, and who cares, right? That's what I usually think when I see a title like that. Sure, 90% of the time it is just bragging or virtue-signaling, and it probably is this time too. But I am reading some interesting stuff right now. For example:

  • Perspectives on Schoenberg and Stravinsky, ed. Benjamin Boretz and Edward T. Cone. This is a book that I used to have and just recently replaced. Delighted it is still in print. The essays are taken from the journal Perspectives of New Music, a journal first published by Princeton, now by an independent corporation. Its focus has always been on theoretical aspects of new music. I am a bit surprised to see it is still being published. The glory days were undoubtedly the 60s and 70s from when these essays originated. I just read the first essay by Robert Craft on Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16, written in 1964 or thereabouts. This was almost fifty years after the pieces were composed in 1909. Of course now we are another fifty years later and it may almost be time for these pieces to find an audience! Re the last piece Craft writes:
"I have come across six identical descriptions of this piece (Das Obligate Rezitativ)--such is the vis inertiae of music commentators (and the taedium vitae of their readers)--but failed to learn any more from them than that the listener is faced with an "example of the free chromatic idiom"; as if there were anything free about it, and as if idioms for this sort of thing were to be found lying about ready-made. But I can do little better myself; and I am running out of those escape clauses which are making my account of the music read like an insurance policy. I lack the tools to verbalize the logic which I have no trouble in following with my ears..."
Well, they don't write music theory like that any more. Especially with Latin tags.

  • A History of Opera: The Last Four Hundred Years by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker. I'm reading this to fill in a shocking hiatus in my music education. I'm not sure why they say "The Last Four Hundred Years" as the first operas that we recognize as such were composed by Monteverdi and a couple of other Italians around 1600. Were they planning a volume two titled "The Four Hundred Years Prior to the Last Four Hundred Years"?
  • The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, by Umberto Eco. This is a surprisingly accessible book on an area of aesthetics that I am almost entirely ignorant of. Is Beauty a transcendental property of Being like Goodness and Truth? Well you may ask!
I'm also reading some light fiction, but I will spare you the details. But we really need to listen to the Five Pieces for Orchestra by Schoenberg. They are like music history distilled down to its essence...

First a live concert: Haitink conducting the Vienna Philharmonic:

Second, with the score. I think this is Robert Craft conducting the London Symphony:

UPDATE: No, this really isn't atonal music.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

Over at Wikipedia they actually have an article on "music considered the worst." Sadly, it seems to be restricted to pop music, which is a shame. After all, there are some real clunkers in the classical world as well. I think Norman Lebrecht had something about that that I posted a while back. As for the Wikipedia list, the one that I noticed was "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" from the White Album, written by Paul McCartney. Yep, likely the worst Beatles song.

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The Violin Channel has a clip of the New York Phillies rehearsing a new Philip Glass piece, the "King Lear Overture."

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Jessica Duchen is celebrating Clara Schumann's 200th birthday this week and has a clip of the second movement of her cello concerto, Romance, played as an encore at a festival in Bucharest.

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While over at Musicology Now, there is a new piece up on Harnessing the power of sound and music to inspire positive ecological action. The piece is by Geoffrey Cox.
This essay looks at one such product, Tree People, a 45-minute documentary film I made that portrays the efforts of a local community-based group to plant trees in the valley they live in and, as much as image, uses music and creative sound design to not only convey its message, but to give life to the audience’s imagination. The film is part of my on-going research as a composer of acoustic and electronic music, filmmaker and writer, investigating the use of sound and music in documentary film. This has resulted in several solo and joint film productions (with Keith Marley) since 2000. The work focuses on how sound, especially creatively treated, can be a powerfully emotive signifier in documentary, perhaps even more so than image, and thus emphasises the potential of the form’s aesthetic aspect.
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Slipped Disc alerts us to a piece lamenting the disappearance of the music critic: IN MEMORY OF THE CRITIC’S TRADE.
there are likely no more than 20 Americans who still make most of their living writing in newspapers about classical music. In the mid-1980s, The New York Times published more than 1,000 concert reviews a year and there was a column every Sunday devoted specifically to debut recitals. The Daily News had a full-time critic, as did the New York Post; Newsday, after 1987, had two. Reviewing was a good way for young writers to make a poor living: In addition to the newspapers, there were classical music reviews in New York Magazine and the Village Voice as well as in those publications specifically devoted to the field – Ovation, Keynote, Classical, Musical America and others. Coverage at The New Yorker was so copious that critic Andrew Porter was able to assemble a large volume of his published criticism every three years or so.
* * *

Anne Midgette celebrates regional orchestras in the Washington Post. Here is one of the five mentioned:

The New Orchestra of Washington

NOW — this young ensemble’s preferred acronym — aims to present an alternative to the model of the mainstream orchestra. Take the annual “Dia de los Muertos” concert, in which the group performs Brahms’s German Requiem (with the Choral Arts Society) in the characteristic, ornate white-skull makeup traditional to the Mexican Day of the Dead, playing before an ofrenda at the Mexican Cultural Institute.
Founded by the husband-and-wife team of conductor Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez and pianist Grace Cho, the orchestra sees every concert as a chance “to interact with the community in unique, transformative ways,” Hernandez-Valdez says. NOW is a chamber orchestra, therefore smaller — and more flexible — than the other groups on this list, and it takes advantage of that by performing in a range of venues and doing repertoire ranging from song cycles to a program of composers labeled “minimalist,” from John Adams to Henryk Gorecki.
Founded: 2012.
Venues: seven different spaces around D.C. and Maryland.
Number of players: 12-24.
Concert season: five classical programs and two family concerts a year, most performed twice.
Tickets: Single-ticket prices have yet to be announced.
Next performance: Nov. 9-10 (“Dia de los Muertos”). (The season opener was Sept. 14, with music by Shostakovich, the 20th-century Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz, and Bernard Herrmann).
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As someone who spent a few years writing program notes, this item struck particularly hard: WANT TO MOVE YOUR AUDIENCES? START WITH PROGRAM NOTES.
Truth be told, I enjoy reading just as much as I enjoy listening to music. And, as a lover of words, I’d once held the opinion that “Notes on the Program” are bound to be mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly boring – or one of the more effective embalming tools for classical music.
The piece continues with some good suggestions about how to write program notes for concerts of new music.
* * *

The Guardian takes a stab at The best classical music works of the 21st century. It is really hard to excerpt this long piece, which talks about twenty-five individual pieces. Yes, of course, one of them is John Luther Adams' Become Ocean.

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Have we posted anything by Brahms lately? No, so here is his German Requiem with the Köln Philharmonic conducted by Jukka Pekka Saraste.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

What is a Piece of Music?

It's not a trick question, or not quite. It has been discussed on this blog a few times. But I just ran into a very concise answer to the question and thought I would post it. It is in Taruskin's collection of essays Text and Act:
a piece of music does depend on the prior existence of score or performance or both, but the piece cannot be wholly identified with either. The score is a plan for the work and the performance an instance of it, but the work as such is a mental construct only.
Richard Taruskin. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Kindle Locations 2531-2532). Kindle Edition.
Yep. My emphasis.

Saturday, September 14, 2019


Petrushka is my favorite ballet, and not only that, but sometimes I think that the music to Petrushka is my favorite music ever--of the 20th century at least. It is just so striking in so many ways: the cinematic effect of the montage, the swirling textures, the sardonic and pathetic wind writing, the humor, the joy. It seems to have just about everything. Here is a crystal clear clip of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada whom I saw conduct in Madrid a couple of years ago.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

Does this count as world music?

* * *

This seems to be a perennial item: really unfortunate album cover art.

You rarely get to hear the Northumbrian pipes these days. Especially in duet.

It just doesn't give me a relaxing vibe...

Oh, if only electronic music sounded as interesting as that looks.

* * *

Over at The New Yorker Alex Ross is tsk-tsking the appointment of Kyrill Petrenko to the Berlin Philharmonic. You know, I really should have been able to predict not only this article, but the stance he takes. After recalling how Simon Rattle began his tenure with a new work by Thomas Adès, Ross writes:
Kirill Petrenko, the forty-seven-year-old Russian-born conductor, who replaced Rattle in August, shows no interest in picking up where his predecessor left off. The main work in his first concert was Beethoven’s unavoidable Ninth Symphony. A short tour of European festivals also included Tchaikovsky’s inevitable Fifth. Marginally more modern repertory fleshed out the programs, in the form of Berg’s “Lulu Suite” and Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto. New music was conspicuously absent, and none appears in Petrenko’s remaining concerts during his first season. Conservatives in the orchestra and in the audience may be reassured, but this retrenchment is a troubling signal from a historically great orchestra that ought to be assuming a leadership role in global classical music.
Progressivism is like a ratchet: there can never be retrenchment or consolidation, only advance into the adventure of the future. As an ideology, it always reminds me of those Soviet posters of Great Leaders staring off into the golden future. While the masses starve in the Ukraine, but never mind.

Alex Ross describes Petrenko in terms that remind me a bit of his bemusement at the glowing reception Grigory Sokolov received in Salzburg last year:
Because of his avoidance of publicity and his reportedly monkish immersion in the music, Petrenko has acquired a cultish mystique. A German critic has described him as a “maestro without myth,” whatever that might mean. In fact, classical music has no older or hardier myth than the notion of rising above worldly concerns and letting eternal beauty speak for itself. 
The idea of a "monkish" immersion in the music is very consistent with the idea of music as a true vocation, something one pursues on its own terms and not just because you are looking for a nice career. That this might result in a "cultish mystique" is pretty much in the eye of the beholder. The idea of a "maestro without myth" seems quite appropriate. The conducting profession is littered with people layering themselves with myth, largely to build careers (among whom, Simon Rattle comes to mind). Petrenko reminds me very strongly of Sokolov who also refuses to do interviews--even when Deutsche Gramophon is doing a documentary about him! This seems to be a Russian proclivity. It brings to mind the great Russian mathematician, Grigory Perelman who turned down the two biggest prizes in mathematics (the Field Medal and the Millenium Prize, both with million dollar awards) simply because "the prize was completely irrelevant to me." So, the "myth" of rising above worldly concerns turns out to be one that is not limited to just Petrenko. Indeed, it seems to be shared by most members of the Berlin Philharmonic who voted him in as their new music director.

* * *

Just to provide fuel for a hearty debate I offer this quote from an essay by Richard Taruskin on the aesthetic principles underlying the Early Music Movement:
I would go so far as to suggest that all truly modern musical performance (and of course that includes the authentistic variety) treats the music performed as if it were composed--or at least performed--by Stravinsky.
Richard Taruskin. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Kindle Locations 1503-1504). Kindle Edition.
The term "authentistic" is one coined by Taruskin to identify the historically informed performance practice, also known as the early music movement. The particular essay from which this quote is taken is "The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past" a particularly salient and challenging essay that I strongly recommend.

* * *

Your smartphone can now identify art for you: Wondering Who Did That Painting? There’s an App (or Two) for That.
Magnus is part of a wave of smartphone apps trying to catalog the physical world as a way of providing instantaneous information about songs or clothes or plants or paintings. First came Shazam, an app that allows users to record a few seconds of a song and instantly identifies it. Shazam’s wild success — it boasts more than a billion downloads and 20 million uses daily, and was purchased by Apple for a reported $400 million last year — has spawned endless imitations. There is Shazam for plants or Shazam for clothes and now, Shazam, for art.
Aw, and I was all ready to say, where's the music app? Maybe if I have time this weekend I will download Shazam and try it out on very obscure Baroque composers. Plus some tricky ones like the Symphony No. 37 by Mozart (actually by Michael Haydn with an introduction by Mozart). Or maybe some aleatoric music by Cage or a baryton trio by Haydn. Honestly, I should be able to stump a mere AI ten times out of ten. Right?

* * *

Let's have a couple of envois today. First, a couple of those baryton trios by Haydn. Why, oh why couldn't the Prince have been an amateur guitarist? The music starts around the 2 minute mark.

Next, the Symphony No. 37 by Mozart, which is actually by Michael Haydn with a slow introduction by Mozart. It is still sometimes programmed by ensembles that don't realize it isn't actually by Mozart as I discovered when writing program notes a few years ago.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Contrarian View

This is one of those posts that I am stumped to find a tag for. I went with philosophy but for no particular good reason. I started reading this article in aeon, Splitting the Universe, and it got me thinking about the role of contrarians generally. Here is how it starts:
One of the most radical and important ideas in the history of physics came from an unknown graduate student who wrote only one paper, got into arguments with physicists across the Atlantic as well as his own advisor, and left academia after graduating without even applying for a job as a professor. Hugh Everett’s story is one of many fascinating tales that add up to the astonishing history of quantum mechanics, the most fundamental physical theory we know of.
What fascinates me about this is how it resonates with a lot of my observations over the years. I came from very humble roots, basically farmers and homesteaders on the Canadian prairie, but I have worked within a number of institutions including government ministries, universities, colleges, conservatories and private business. What I have noticed over the years is that all institutions tend to be founded by people who are most interested in ideas and goals, but over time they are nearly all taken over by people who are most interested in their careers and the growth of the institution itself. Sometimes this is expressed in the form of a law. A related observation is that the behaviour of most organizations can best be explained if they are thought to be controlled by a cabal of their enemies.

What all this, and the aeon article, capture, is the fundamental contradiction between the discovery of ideas and principles and how they tend to be applied in the world. They are typically, perhaps exclusively, discovered by contrarian individuals who don't think in the usual channels. Then, when the ideas are found to be valuable, they are developed through institutions that are, inevitably, taken over by careerists and opportunists. It is just the way of the world. What is most irksome is that the mediocrities running the institutions are smug and arrogant while the people who actually discover things are humble and often forgotten. Hence the story of Hugh Everett.

There are a few contrarians in the field of musicology: one is Joseph Kramer, though you might not think of him as a contrarian. Another is Richard Taruskin who tends to write the occasional polemic, so he is more likely to be thought of as a contrarian. These days, a contrarian in musicology is someone who, ironically, does not view everything in terms of identity politics. In tomorrow's miscellanea I will have an interesting example of Taruskin's contrarian thinking.

Our envoi is a harbinger of that. This is Christopher Hogwood conducting and directing from the keyboard the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 by Bach:

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Was Pierre Bourdieu Right About Taste?

I know what you are thinking, who the heck is Pierre Bourdieu? Some French sociologist of no relevance to us, probably? Well, that's half right. He was indeed a French sociologist, but every time you read someone pontificating about how classical music is just rich people showing off or how it has no "relevance" to modern life or how it is just another way of oppressing victim groups you are getting Pierre Bourdieu at second or third-hand. So let's have a look at what he proposed first-hand. As Wikipedia says, Bourdieu "argues that judgments of taste are related to social position, or more precisely, are themselves acts of social positioning." Further:
For Bourdieu each individual occupies a position in a multidimensional social space; a person is not defined only by social class membership, but by every single kind of capital they can articulate through social relations. That capital includes the value of social networks, which Bourdieu showed could be used to produce or reproduce inequality.
For me, this is rather like trying to understand the individual by examining what shoes he wears and what restaurants he goes to. Or perhaps trying to understand musical aesthetics by doing a rigorous examination of how everyone dresses at a Salzburg Festival concert. Lots of people wear Converse runners, but as far as I can tell they are all individuals. Lots of people wear suits and ties or evening gowns to Salzburg concerts but they too are all individuals. We could do a Venn diagram of the "multidimensional social space" of any particular person attending a concert and come up with, what? Probably a different one for every person. Sure, there are certainly group characteristics, but I think that people like Bourdieu have the causality backwards. In other words, the "social class" does not define the individual supposedly "belonging" to that class; rather the nature or characteristics of the class are determined by the people who comprise it. You read out the nature of the class by looking at the individuals, not the other way around. The idea that the class defines the individual is not only a kind of Marxism, it is deeply bigoted.

I have told this story before, but let me tell it again. I came from a lower class or lower-middle class in Canadian society even though we never thought of it in those terms. We were certainly poor by most standards. Expensive music lessons were out of the question! Also, where we lived there weren't even any expensive music teachers, so no problem. When I applied to the School of Music at the University of Victoria in 1971, I was so out of touch that I didn't even know I was supposed to audition on my instrument (I had taken up the classical guitar about a year earlier, before that I played electric bass and six-string.) So the conductor of the school orchestra, who happened to be hanging around, dragged me into a practice room and tested my musical aptitude. He played a high note on the piano and asked me to sing it back. Played a low note on the piano and asked me to sing it back. Played two notes separately and asked me to sing the interval. I think he may also have played a triad and asked if it was major or minor. That was it. I passed. This wasn't hard as I had been playing in a rock and blues band for a few years and had even written a bunch of songs. Obviously neither I nor the conductor cared a whit what "social class" I might have been in. It was the same all through my years at university. There were obviously students from social classes both high and low. But all that ceased to exist at the door. All that anyone cared about was: could you play your instrument? If a performer, that is. Otherwise, could you deliver the goods in whatever area you were in?

When you move from the professional musician part of the culture to the audience/media part, things can get rather fuzzy. For one thing, most of the patrons are, of course, wealthy (though people contribute at all levels), and as well, people writing about music may or may not be musicians themselves, so they may get deceived to a greater or lesser extent by all this social class stuff. But the reality is that classical music is pretty much ruled by its own internal standards. You can prove this for yourself by just looking at the backgrounds of composers. They rarely come from any sort of elevated social class. Beethoven: drunkard father, lower middle class. Mozart, father was a violin teacher, again, lower middle class. Sibelius' father was a doctor, but he died of typhus when the composer was three years old, leaving a mountain of debts. Stravinsky's father was a bass in the opera and his family did descend from minor Polish nobility, but they were not wealthy. Bach, of course, came from a very long line of organists and church musicians but he himself had to go to work as an ordinary church musician from age seventeen. Philip Glass' father owned a record store and he had to work as a plumber and taxi driver until well into his forties. I could go on and on, but it seems perfectly clear that musical ability may have something to do with genetics, but nothing to do with social class. What about musical taste, which is what Bourdieu is talking about? For that we need to take a closer look at his theory.
[Bourdieu] advances the bold claim that all cultural symbols and practices, from artistic tastes, style in dress, and eating habits to religion, science and philosophy—even language itself—embody interests and function to enhance social distinctions. The struggle for social distinction, whatever its symbolic form, is for Bourdieu a fundamental dimension of all social life. 
Swartz, David. Culture and Power (p. 6). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
(I am quoting from this secondary source because Bourdieu's original prose is often rather dense.) In relating the anecdote about my audition for university I was making the point that this incident and, in fact, my whole career at university was a powerful instance of how an educational institution can overrule social class. This is a fundamental reason for having institutions of higher education. Bourdieu however sees it differently.
Bourdieu maintains that the educational system—more than the family, church, or business firm—has become the institution most responsible for the transmission of social inequality in modern societies.
Swartz, David. Culture and Power (p. 190). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
Why does he think this?
The education system, Bourdieu argues in Reproduction (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977:177–219), performs three central functions. It first of all performs the “function of conserving, inculcating and consecrating” a cultural heritage. This is its “internal” and most “essential function.” Schooling provides not just the transmission of technical knowledge and skills, but also socialization into a particular cultural tradition. Analogous to the Catholic Church, the school is “an institution specially contrived to conserve, transmit and inculcate the cultural canons of a society” (Bourdieu 1971c:178). It performs a cultural reproduction function.
Swartz, David. Culture and Power (pp. 190-191). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
Yes, it is quite true that there are essential practices (what Bourdieu encompasses in his concept of habitus) that socialize students into a particular cultural tradition. You could describe these practices as virtues as they include things like honesty (thou shalt not copy other's work), truth-seeking, disciplined practice (thou shalt practice scales and arpeggios until they are easy and automatic), perception and understanding of aesthetic quality (what is a well-shaped phrase?, for example) and so on. Some of this is taught directly, but much by example. Bourdieu might call these "underlying nexuses that reinforce social-class relations" but that probably says more about the cultural tradition of Marxism that his work tends to follow. To be fair to Bourdieu, he is much less doctrinaire than other sociologists.
Bourdieu differs, however, from other reproduction theorists in that he does not see education as directly determined by the state, the economy, or social classes. In contrast to both functional and Marxist theories, Bourdieu argues that “relative autonomy” rather than close correspondence characterizes the relationship between the education system and the labor market.
Swartz, David. Culture and Power (p. 191). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
Unlike Bourdieu, I didn't come to a theory of practice by studying Algerian peasants or the French educational system. But I am pretty familiar with the educational system of classical music. While the majority of music teachers might be inculcating uncritical adherence to a simple canon, the real peaks of the profession, from which the fundamental criteria of quality flow, are based on a deeper aesthetic understanding. Let me illustrate with a couple of examples. My best grasp of the technique of classical guitar playing came from three sources: the first was private study with José Tomas in Spain. Tomas was one of a small group of players that were all taught directly by Andrés Segovia. The group included Alirio Diaz from Venezuela, Oscar Ghiglia from Italy, John Williams from England and José Tomas from Spain. Except for Tomas, they all had exceptional careers as performers and Ghiglia also excelled as a teacher. Tomas, while an excellent performer, specialized more in teaching and was Segovia's assistant at the famous master classes in Santiago de Compostella where a whole generation of young guitarists learned their trade. I studied with Tomas in Spain and later on with Ghiglia in Banff, Alberta where he gave an excellent master class. The other source of my understanding came later when I was in two master classes taught by Pepe Romero, one in Canada and the other at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Pepe came from a different tradition. Though the Wikipedia biography acknowledges no teachers, I believe Pepe's father studied with Daniel Fortea, a student of Francisco Tárrega, the founder of modern classical guitar technique. So of the two major schools of guitar playing, that coming from Tárrega and that coming from Segovia, I was lucky enough to have studied with masters in both traditions. There is a third important school of guitar technique, that coming from the pedagogy of the Uruguayan Abel Carlevaro, that I was able to observe in a master class he gave in Toronto in the 1970s. I say "technique" but there is always an expressive palette, what you might call a set of aesthetic practices, that are both enabled and suggested by the technique. Let me just hint here that there really is no suggestion of the malevolent influence of "social class" in any of this.

One more example: you might think that this delightfully egalitarian scenario is just because of the guitar being a lowly, plebian instrument. But another example might confirm my theory. The great violinist Paul Kling proposed to me once that every great violinist in the 20th century was either a Russian from the Caucasus, or studied with one! You can research that for yourself.

Now compare Bourdieu's view:
An important theme in Bourdieu’s work on education is his assertion that academic selection is shaped by class-based self-selection. Whether students stay in school or drop out, and the course of study they pursue, Bourdieu argues, depends on their practical expectations of the likelihood that people of their social class will succeed academically. Bourdieu believes there is generally a high correlation between subjective hopes and objective chances. A child’s ambitions and expectations with regard to education and career are the structurally determined products of parental and other reference-group educational experience and cultural life. Working-class youth do not aspire to high levels of educational attainment because, according to Bourdieu, they have internalized and resigned themselves to the limited opportunities for school success that exist for those without much cultural capital.
Swartz, David. Culture and Power (p. 197). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
Bourdieu is apparently an expert mind-reader if he knows what all those children's ambitions and expectations are. It is claimed that he is an empirical sociologist, but all I see is mind-reading. I am pretty much a counter-example. I came from a "working-class" family and hated high school. But I had intellectual and cultural curiosity (perhaps that was why I hated high school) and after high school, while working at menial jobs for two years, I continued to pursue cultural interests such as classical music and Japanese art. One evening I was hanging out with some friends who had gone to university and one of them said "you are definitely university material." After that, I started thinking about it and eventually applied and was accepted. So it seems that a bit of curiosity and a modicum of intelligence trumps all of Bourdieu's "class-based self-selection." I would add to this the example of a friend of mine and likely the smartest person I have ever met. He was permanently expelled from the British Columbia school system in Grade 7 for being difficult (intellectually difficult, not physically!) and worked at menial jobs for several years. He also was a novitiate in a monastery, but did not take the vows. During this time he also began to educate himself by learning Italian, Latin and Hebrew. Partly with my encouragement he applied to university and was accepted. He did a double honours major in Greek and Latin, followed by a Masters in Philosophy, a Doctorate in Philosophy and an MBA. After that he entered the professional world first as a corporate loans officer at a bank and then as the chief administrator at one of the largest hospitals in Canada. He came from a lower middle class environment and left home at age sixteen.

I think the problem is often the use of mass statistics which really tell you absolutely nothing about exceptional people. And all the people that have significant amounts of cultural capital are exceptional.

From my own experience the idea that someone's musical taste might be the product of their social class is a questionable one. Yes, the environment you grow up in certainly has an influence. But in today's world where literally every culture is at your fingertips, I think this is less and less true. Sadly, the seductive lies of Marxism, that there are Dark Forces (capitalism, social class, racism, sexism) oppressing you, is always an easy sell for politicians who always have a plan to help you. Oddly, in the long run their plans never seem to work out as the only real beneficiaries are the politicians and their minions.

For our envoi here is Maki Namekawa playing two piano etudes by that very downtown composer, Philip Glass:

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Footnote to Salonen Collection

The main thing I take away from the Salonen collection, which was, on the whole, a very enjoyable listening journey, is that Igor Stravinsky really is the most important composer of the 20th century. Previously I tended to discount his later neo-classical and serial works, but I am starting to think that that is a mistake. The Symphonies of Wind Instruments was a work that always attracted me and puzzled me, but I am starting to understand what is going on there. It is really a kind of experiment with moment form, i.e. music with intentional discontinuities and lacking the traditional dramatic narrative. It doesn't look anything like moment form, but it actually fulfills a lot of the definition. 

Another question of how exactly Stravinsky's neo-classical works relate to tradition and how they contradict tradition is probably one that is far from being answered.

Two years ago I did a long series of posts on how Stravinsky came to compose the Rite of Spring, mostly titled "The Road to the Rite" that started with this post. Now I see I need to do another series on his neo-classical music. The Salonen box, apart from its other virtues, is like an implicit argument for aesthetic quality. Stravinsky is rated very highly--at seven CDs, the highest of all. Also highly rated are Lutosławski, Bartók, Ligeti, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Debussy, Messiaen and Nielsen. But all these are well below Stravinsky. And the collection makes the argument very well. It is really Stravinsky that sticks in the mind. Not every piece, of course, but the Rite of Spring, Petrushka, the Symphony in Three Movements (and the Symphony of Psalms which is not in the box for some reason), the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Oedipus Rex, L'Histoire du Soldat (also not in the box) and several other pieces demonstrate that Stravinsky was the most interesting, the most capable and the most inventive composer of the century with a range of expression that no-one else quite matched.

Here is a performance of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments with the score. Salonen conducting the London Sinfonietta:

Salonen's Complete Sony Recordings, part 5

Finally coming to an end! The final post covers discs 50 to 61. This has been an enjoyable journey with almost no exceptions. An interesting selection of repertoire played with expertise and conviction. I will have a general comment on Salonen's conducting at the end, but up front I want to point out that one of the best aspects of his creativity is his wide-ranging choice of repertoire.
  • Jean Sibelius: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor; Carl Goldmark: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor. Joshua Bell, violin with the LA Philharmonic. Recorded in 1999. As far as I can tell, the Sibelius Violin Concerto is the only piece that Salonen has recorded more than once. It appears twice in this collection and there is a third recent recording with Hilary Hahn. Like some other works by Sibelius, this was composed in the intervals between alcoholic binges (along with the Valse triste and other incidental music for a play). It was not initially successful. Not until Jascha Heifetz took it up in the 1930s with a brilliant recording and many concert performances, did the concerto enter the mainstream repertoire. After this I went back and listened to part of the Hahn recording. I think, particularly in the last movement, her recording has more point and grace. The Goldmark concerto dates from 1877 and in its day was very popular. Recently it has re-entered the repertoire.
    • Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen, Duet Concertino for Clarinet, Bassoon, String Orchestra and Harp, Capriccio: Prelude. Recorded in 1987 with the New Stockholm Chamber Orchestra. Metamorphosen, the main work on the album, is a very unusual piece, a thirty minute long chamber piece for twenty-three solo strings! It started out as a septet and expanded to eleven and then twenty-three instruments. It was written towards the end of WWII on a commission from Paul Sacher and was partly a pretext to allow Strauss to travel to Zurich for the premiere. The work was completed in April 1945 and premiered in Zurich in January of 1946. The music is deeply introverted and both autumnal and elegiac as one would expect. From what Strauss wrote in his journal, the tribute is to the death of German culture at the hands of the "twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany's 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom."
    • Igor Stravinsky: Petrushka, Orpheus. Two ballets launch a seven-disc survey of Stravinsky's orchestral music. These were previously available in a box from Sony. Petrushka, composed in 1910-11, immediately prior to the Rite of Spring, is a remarkable piece full of Russian folklore set to striking music. Orpheus, a re-telling of the most popular of all Greek myths, for musicians at least, was composed in California in 1947 and premiered in 1948. This recording is from 1991 with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Salonen does very well with the montage cuts in sections like the Shrovetide Fair and Russian Dance. He is rhythmically crisp when that is needed and expressive when that is needed; more the former than the latter in Stravinsky.
    • Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird, Jeu de cartes. Another early ballet, The Firebird, premiered in 1910, was Stravinsky's first for Diaghilev and was an instant success. Stylistically it shows the influence of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, but perhaps a bit improved. The plot blends two Russian folktales. Jeu de cartes, a neo-classical work, was written in 1936-37 with choreography by George Balanchine and premiered in New York. The recording dates from 1988 with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Their brass and percussion sound particularly robust in The Firebird. Jeu de cartes is suitably jaunty.
    • Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps, Symphony in Three Movements. Again with the Philharmonia Orchestra, recorded in 1989. I grew up with the 1968 Cleveland recording with Pierre Boulez. A couple of years ago I heard a terrific live performance with the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra. This performance is excellent. Rhythmically tight when needed, expressive when needed and above all, clear textures and well-defined dynamics. The Symphony in Three Movements was Stravinsky's first major piece written after his move to the US--composed between 1942 and 45.
    • Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella, Ragtime, Renard, Octet. Pulcinella, a one-act ballet, was Stravinsky's first neo-classical work, dating from 1920. It uses characters from the 18th century Neapolitan commedia dell'arte. The rest of the disc is a couple of shorter works and Renard, an unclassifiable one-act opera-ballet called by Stravinsky an "Histoire burlesque chantée et jouée." It was written in 1916 and is based on a Russian fable. The recording is from 1990 with the London Sinfonietta. If Pulcinella were the first thing you heard by Stravinsky you would wonder what the fuss was all about. But in context, the atonal avant-garde world of 1920, it was the most radical thing he could have done. The last piece, the Octet, was completed in 1923, another early neo-classical work. It experiments with sonata-form, variation-form and fugue.
    • Igor Stravinsky: Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, Movements for Piano and Orchestra. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Stravinsky relocated to Western Europe. Unfortunately he was cut off from royalty payments that would have been owed him by Tsarist Russia. In order to provide himself a living he wrote music that would provide playing opportunities for him, hence two of the works on this disc: the Capriccio and the Concerto, both for piano and orchestra (of winds in the former). Both were composed in the 1920s. The Movements were the result of a commission. Composed in 1959, the piece is twelve-tone and was influenced by Webern. The Symphonies of Wind Instruments is a homage to Debussy. Written in 1920 it is a work of experiment that has attracted a lot of interest from theorists. Paul Crossley is the pianist with the London Sinfonietta and the recording was made in 1988.
    • Igor Stravinsky: Apollon musagète, Concerto in D, Cantata. Apollon musagète, "Apollo, leader of the muses" is a rather undramatic ballet depicting the birth of Apollo who is then visited by three muses. It was composed in 1927-28 in neo-classical or perhaps neo-baroque style. It certainly recalls the ballets of Lully. The original commission was $1,000! The Concerto in D was commissioned by Paul Sacher for the Basel Chamber Orchestra and composed in 1946. The Cantata dates from 1951-52. The texts are anonymous fifteenth and sixteenth century English poems from a collection given Stravinsky by W. H. Auden (edited by him and Norman Pearson). This recording was made in 1990 with the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra. The Cantata is with the London Sinfonietta and Chorus. How's the playing? Excellent as always.
    • Igor Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex. The work is billed an "opera/oratorio" and it is performed in both versions, as a concert oratorio or staged as an opera. The libretto was written in French and translated into Latin. The narrator's introductions are in the language of the country where the performance is held--in this case they are in French. The story is after Sophocles tragedy of the king of Thebes who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. The work is in Stravinsky's neo-classical style, composed in 1927. This recording was made in 1991 with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The Wikipedia article is not very useful as it is too short and very uninformative about the work. The review in Gramophone is probably more informative. Oedipus Rex is a strange and strangely compelling work.
    • Toru Takemitsu: To the Edge of Dream (guitar and orchestra), Folios (guitar), Toward the Sea (alto flute and guitar), 12 Songs for Guitar (transcriptions by Toru Takemitsu), Vers, l'arc en ciel, Palma (guitar, oboe d'amore, orchestra). This disc is the only one in the box that I purchased when it was released in 1991. That was because of the guitarist, John Williams, and the composer. I barely knew who Esa-Pekka Salonen was. In any case, fine collection of Takemitsu's compositions for guitar with the added treat of his transcriptions ranging from Gershwin to the Beatles. The orchestra is the London Sinfonietta. Lovely recording, of course.
    • Henri Tomasi: Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, André Jolivet: Concertino for Trumpet, String Orchestra and Piano, Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra No. 2. Wynton Marsalis, trumpet, Philharmonia Orchestra. The recording dates from 1985. Spectacular trumpet playing of these French concertos.
    • A Nordic Festival. Hugo Alfvén: Swedish Rhapsody no. 1, Jean Sibelius: Valse triste, Edvard Grieg: Sigurd Jorsalfar (3 orchestral pieces), Hugo Alfvén: Vallflickans dans, Jón Leifs: Geysir, Carl Nielsen: Maskarade, Armas Järnefelt: Berceuse, Jean Sibelius: Finlandia. This collection of familiar and popular Scandinavian music for orchestra was recorded in 1990 with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. It is like a selection of encores to the box as a whole. And quite a nice one.

    General observations

    Esa-Pekka Salonen is not only a very musical conductor and one that is particularly good at challenging repertoire, he is also a real workhorse conductor capable of handling a large number of difficult pieces in a short time. In the two years 1987 to 1988 he recorded the Messiaen album of Des canyons aux étoiles and the two shorter pieces for piano and winds, the Nielsen Symphony No. 2, the Symphony No. 5 and excerpts from Masquerade, the Sibelius Violin Concerto, the Nielsen Violin Concerto, an album of Richard Strauss with the Metamorphosen and some shorter works, two Stravinsky ballets (The Firebird and Jeu de cartes), an album of concertante music by Stravinsky including the Capriccio for piano and orchestra, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments and the Movements for piano and orchestra! As he was born in 1958, this was all when he was twenty-nine and thirty years old. No wonder he looks so young on the covers.

    The composers he particularly focuses on include Carl Nielsen, Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen, Györgi Ligeti, Claude Debussy, Bela Bartók, Witold Lutoslawski, Gustav Mahler, and Jean Sibelius (though a bit less than one would expect). Composers he entirely avoids, at least in this collection: Beethoven, Mozart and, except for one disc of transcriptions, Bach. I suspect the most likely reason was that, as a young conductor, his primary interest was to find repertoire that he could put his individual stamp on. With the heavily-trodden repertoire of the three great masters, there is not a whole lot that a young conductor can bring to the interpretation that hasn’t already been done. He has recorded very, very little Shostakovich and not much more Prokofiev so one wonders if he just feels no empathy with that music.

    One of the things I enjoyed most about this collection was the way each disc was organized as a short concert in itself. The combinations were always stimulating and internally consistent.

    For our envoi, here is Salonen conducting the Rite of Spring with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra:

    Friday, September 6, 2019

    A Musical Family!

    I noticed a new album of Clara Schumann mentioned over at Alex Ross' site but when I followed the link I ended up discovering a whole family of classical musicians, the Kanneh-Masons. You will undoubtedly have heard of cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason who won the BBC Young Musician of the Year award in 2016. He is now twenty years old. But the pianist with the new Clara Schumann album on Decca is his sister, Isata Kanneh-Mason, twenty-three. You had better follow the family link above. There are seven sibling musicians in this family! What, no guitarists? I suspect we will be hearing from most of them in coming years.

    I tagged this post "Bach family" simply because that is the only tag I have that mentions family. But music tends to run in families. The Bach family are simply the most famous. That family of musicians were active in Germany from the 1500s. Three of J. S. Bach's sons dominated composition in the next generation, just before Haydn and Mozart came on the scene. The Couperins were another famous family with both Louis and François achieving great renown as both composers and harpsichordists. Heck, my mother taught four sisters old-time fiddle playing and they went on to modest regional fame as a group.

    Seven performers of professional level quality in one family is pretty unusual though! Let's have a listen. First, Sheku, who just played the Elgar Cello Concerto at this years Proms:

    That is certainly impressive. You can also find his Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 on YouTube. But now let's listen to his sister Isata. Here she is playing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2.

    Not a professional recording, so let's listen to the first movement of the Clara Schumann Sonata for Piano in G minor on the new Decca album:

    Also on YouTube is Isata's younger sister Jeneba, age fifteen, playing the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2:

    Keep an eye on these kids!

    Friday Miscellanea

    If you have ever played in the opera pit, you know what this is about.

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    I somehow neglected to include this item in last Friday's miscellanea. Canadian Composer Julien Gauthier Has Been Killed By a Wild Bear Attack.

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    The Violin Channel: Hilary Hahn is taking a one-year sabbatical from performing just to hang out. This could be a good model for young musicians who, I suspect, tend to drive themselves too hard and rarely take time to step back and re-evaluate.

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    Oh, god, I just noticed, thanks to Jessica Duchen, that we are on the verge of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven. Brace yourselves for lots of concerts and new complete editions.

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    Strike with the Band, an article at The Baffler, takes on some of the most challenging career questions in music.
    Classical music is cruel not because there are winners and losers, first chairs and second chairs, but because it lies about the fact that these winners and losers are chosen long before the first moment a young child picks up an instrument. It doesn’t matter if you study composition, devote years to an instrument, or simply have the desire to teach—either at the university level or in the public school system. If you come from a less-than-wealthy family, or from a place other than the wealthiest cities, the odds are stacked against you no matter how much you sacrifice, how hard you work, or, yes, how talented you are.
    You really need to read the whole piece. This is the core of the very pessimistic argument. I have to say that my experience was quite different. I came from circumstances just as unfavorable as anyone's but I managed to get an excellent education and graduated nearly debt-free. My career failures were due largely to myself and related to my limited conception of what sort of musician I was. Though I constantly struggled with money and had to miss out on opportunities as a result, I had a very fulfilling career in a number of ways and have continued my career in music with this blog and composition. No complaints! The problem with the article is that it is full of complaints and self-pity. If you go looking for musicians who are unhappy with their lot, you are bound to find some.

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    The Paris Review has a very a propos article about how to listen to music.
    Listening, for most of us, doesn’t feel like doing anything. It’s more of a sensation than activity, a dreamy, ill-defined feeling stretching through us. We’re often not aware we are doing it, or even fully conscious. We literally—when we forget to shut off the television or our Spotify playlists—do it in our sleep.
    It doesn't feel like you are doing anything because you aren't! I have suspected that this is how most people listen to music--and it does tend to explain the career of a lot of pop stars. Sadly, after this promising beginning, the article slumps into a tired recital of bromides:
    Ratliff believes that tone is where the humanity lies, where the emotion sneaks in. The tonal quality that a musician places around a note reveals something about them. It’s a confession: this is how I’m feeling right now. To understand tone, try blending your senses, seeing, feeling, and even tasting the tone. Ratliff suggests imagining the tone as a physical object. How close are you standing to it? How big is it? Is it fat or thin? What is it made of? Wood? Cotton? Melted chocolate?
    Listening is an active skill. Departments of music have time-tested ways of training people how to listen that involve simple things like clapping back rhythms, identifying intervals and singing back notes and intervals. Higher levels involve writing down melodies and harmonies and singing melodies at sight. This is basic ear training. On still higher levels you learn the characteristic textures and structures of important pieces of music so that you can identify them from hearing just a fragment.

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    The LA Times has a review of two Berlin Philharmonic concerts at the end of the Salzburg Festival (I knew I should have stayed longer!).
    SALZBURG, Austria  —  There is so much being made about the mystique of Kirill Petrenko, the seemingly otherworldly 47-year-old conductor from Siberia who began his tenure as Berlin Philharmonic music director last weekend, that it hardly seems like mystique at all anymore. The fact that he does not sell himself has been made a selling point. He shies away from interviews and is said to be truly shy, a rare and you would think undesirable trait for a conductor. He is also said to leave his ego, if he even has one, at the stage door. Again, it is said (everything comes secondhand with Petrenko), that rather than genuflect before the greatest orchestral machine the world has ever known, as many a maestoso maestro has for the most sought-after job in the profession, Petrenko was genuinely surprised to have been selected by the players, who pick their music director themselves.
    Read the whole thing.

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    From just a few days ago, here is Kirill Petrenko conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in an open air concert of the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven:

    (His conducting style reminds me a tiny bit of that of the long-time conductor of the Leningrad/St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Yevgeny Mravinsky.)