Friday, November 29, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

I almost forgot to put up my Friday Miscellanea! Just too much excitement this week, I guess. First up, here is a new video from Kanye on the song "Closed on Sundays":


I wonder what effect Kanye is having on the culture? This is a pretty interesting video from that point of view. Thoughts?

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Shall I rub salt into the wound by linking to this tweet from the BBC: Clara Schumann is the greatest composer of all time!

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After the musicologists, historians and theorists have all had their way with George Frideric Handel, is there anything left for the accountants? Yes, apparently.
George Frideric Handel was a master musician — an internationally renowned composer, virtuoso performer, and music director of London’s Royal Academy of Music, one of Europe’s most prestigious opera houses. For musicologists, studying his life and works typically means engaging with his compositional manuscripts at The British Library, as well as the documents, letters, and newspapers that describe his interaction with royalty, relationships to others, and contemporary reaction to his music. But when I began to explore Handel’s personal accounts at the Bank of England twenty years ago, I was often asked why. For me the answer was always ‘follow the money’. Handel’s financial records provide a unique window on his career, musical environments, income, and even his health.
Read on for a discussion that is just as dull as one would expect...

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I don't know if I ever said so in so many words, but I basically ended my concert soloist career by going on strike. One day I just said "enough!" A new book by a pianist informs us about the vicissitudes of a concert artist:
Before reading the book, I would have said that I had a fairly good understanding of the work that goes into the career, but I was dreaming. Here are some of the more stressful examples: In London, Hough gets a call to play Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, which he knows, but hasn’t played for a couple of years, with the Chicago Symphony, ie in Chicago – the next day. Another cancellation has him playing Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which he has only played once before with a youth orchestra (badly, he says), at the gigantic Hollywood Bowl, where the “heads of the audience in the back rows were as small as the notes on the page of my miniature score”. Again, when he is in Amsterdam to play the Grieg Concerto, a cancellation offers him the opportunity to play it with another orchestra – on the same day. He rehearses at 11 am with the first orchestra, at 12 with the second, gives performance one at 2:15, has a dress rehearsal at 6:15, performance two at 6:30. Or simply the extraordinary task of playing both the Brahms concertos on the same programme. I would find that emotionally draining even as a listener. You might say that Hough had it in his power to turn down some of these opportunities, but that is not the life of a freelance artist, where the only good excuse for turning down a gig is that you are already booked for another one.
And this is the life of someone whose career is doing really well.

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 If you will forgive the pun, here is a piece beating the drum of multiculturalism in music: CULTURAL APPROPRIATION IN CLASSICAL MUSIC?
A lucid example of the Western music aesthetic versus an indigenous one would be to consider the concert hall experience and that of a powwow. In the concert hall, the quality of the sound becomes the preeminent value, conceptually superseding the players and the audience. In a concert hall, the audience and orchestra are kept in separate spaces, and the flow of activity is directed from the orchestra to the audience, which remains seated, silent, and motionless. The performers all wear black to hide any individuality, and concerts are typically appraised on the “ugliness” or “beauty” of their collective sound.
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Over at The New Yorker, Alex Ross has a laudatory piece on the record label ECM that has put out a host of great contemporary recordings: The Pristine Empire of ECM Records.
ECM is one of the greatest labels in the history of recording. Manfred Eicher, who founded ECM and remains its sole proprietor, has forged a syncretic vision in which jazz and classical traditions intelligently intermingle. ECM’s catalogue of some sixteen hundred albums contains abrasive sounds as well as soothing ones, clouds of dissonance alongside shimmering triads. All benefit from a crisply reverberant acoustic in which an instrument’s timbre is nearly as important as the music played on it. Simply put, Eicher’s releases tend to sound better than other people’s. Some of ECM’s best disks were made in league with the Norwegian recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, who died earlier this month.
The occasion for this column is a new Beethoven cycle with some interesting twists by the Danish String Quartet.



Every now and then I forget that the level of culture in, well, our culture has been declining for the last few decades. And then along comes an article that reminds me: Three quarters of young Britons have never heard of Mozart while one in five think Bach is still alive, poll reveals. And this is in the UK, which is usually presumed to be more culturally educated than North America.
Three quarters of young people in Britain have never heard of Mozart, a survey reveals.
One in five think composer Johann Bach – who died in 1750 – is still alive, fewer than one in five had heard of violin star Nicola Benedetti and only a third knew that Sir Simon Rattle, who performed at the 2012 London Olympics, is a conductor. 
By contrast, 94 per cent knew Adele was a singer. Leading composer Debbie Wiseman said she was alarmed by the findings, which revealed a widespread ignorance of classical music.
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In her last column for the Washington Post, Anne Midgette reveals what she really thinks of the National Symphony:
People often say that an orchestra is a metaphor for excellence. But it’s also a metaphor for life itself: not an isolated event but an activity to be engaged in, through dry spells and misfires and, sometimes, moments that overwhelm you with their sheer magnificence. Orchestra lovers are like fans of a baseball team, who accept that it sometimes does badly and exult when it does well, and like a sportswriter, I call out the bad moments while, in my heart, always rooting for the group to do its best. In that spirit, I can say that “Zarathustra” on Thursday had some shockingly lackluster spots, like the dry, piercing flute notes on which the piece ended, and some richly beautiful ones that made me appreciate the depths of a score usually remembered only for its first 60 seconds.
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 We haven't had any Richard Strauss for a while, so let's listen to Thus Spake Zarathustra. This is Jonathan Nott conducing the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra at the Proms in 2009:


Kronos: 25/Discs 3 & 4

Disc three is devoted to one long (80 minutes) piece by Morton Feldman. A good friend of mine, Anthony Genge, did a doctorate in composition with him at SUNY Stony Brook. Feldman wrote a lot of very long pieces in his later years and the Salzburg Festival is doing a mini-festival of his music next summer. Listening to Piano and String Quartet from 1985 is a strange experience. The piece is simplicity itself, with slow arpeggios on the piano answered by quiet sustained chords from the string quartet. The music slowly changes like the movement of clouds in the sky, or the slow advance of the tide on a lonely beach. As the music goes on, the piano and quartet change roles, occasional pizzicati appear, but the simplicity remains. One realizes that this music has a healing quality. It is as if a hundred hours of bad, crashing, awkward and unpleasant music was slowly washed away by the honest simplicity of these chords.

This is a performance by Víkingur Ólafsson (piano), Sigrún Edvaldsdóttir (violin), Bryndís Halla Gylfadóttir (cello), Una Sveinbjarnardóttir (violin) and Thórunn Ósk Marinósdóttir (cello) from a festival in Iceland in 2013:



Disc four has String Quartets 2, 3, 4, and 5 by Philip Glass. They are so terribly busy after listening to the Feldman. At this point Glass' music is hardly surprising. He somehow manages to find more possibilities within the fairly narrow range of rising minor thirds, lots of eighth notes and diatonic scales. Mirabile visu, Glass has managed to construct a new tonality that offers a stable, repeatable platform for any number of string quartets, symphonies (is he up to ten by now, or eleven?), concertos, operas and so on. He is the Vivaldi of the late 20th century avant-garde.

For some reason Blogger won't embed the Kronos recording, so here is the Catalyst Quartet with the Closing of the Mishima quartet, No. 3:


As I recall, we had the Catalyst Quartet down here for a winter series chamber concert a few years ago and they may have even played this piece.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Kronos Quartet: 25 Years

At my talk yesterday, one person asked about the Kronos Quartet. Coincidentally, that same day I received from Amazon the box of ten CDs of their 25th Anniversary collection.


The Kronos Quartet, as we learn from the extensive notes in the booklet accompanying the discs, was founded in 1973 in Seattle by violinist David Harrington. In the first few years there was some turnover of personnel before settling into the long-term lineup that included violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. The plan from the very beginning was to reconceive the string quartet in a new way that would be an ideal medium for composers in the last quarter of the 20th century and on into the future. They were spectacularly successful in this regard and ended up commissioning some four hundred pieces by a wildly diverse group of composers. They created an audience of young, enthusiastic listeners who were open to all sorts of new kinds of music.

What the heck, let's review the box. Disc 1 is devoted to John Adams and Arvo Pärt. I have mixed feelings about John Adams--some pieces I really love, but others I find tedious. The music here, John's Book of Alleged Dances (1994) is new to me and on first listening, it is a real winner, displaying Adams' humorous side with titles like "Dogjam" and "Toot Nipple." The music is a suite of crazed and inventive dances that continues to surprise. This is followed by four pieces by Arvo Pärt that, while not very surprising if you know his music, are certainly a faithful performance of his mystical, hazy harmonies. The piece new to me was the Missa Syllabica for string quartet and quartet of singers.

Disc 2 is music by Ken Benshoof, the first composer commissioned by the quartet (first commission payment was a bag of donuts!) and Harrington's composition teacher at the University of Washington. The  first piece, the original commission, Traveling Music (1973), is a real delight, moving imperceptibly from downhome sashaying to more incisive expression. Also included is a newer piece, Song of Twenty Shadows (1994). The rest of the disc is devoted to music by Astor Piazzolla and the quartet are joined by the composer himself on bandoneón. This is a very faithful performance of Piazzolla which means that since I didn't like his music much before, I like it even less now. Sorry! But I find Piazzolla to be tedious in the extreme with his meticulous exploration of two and only two moods, neither of which I care for.

Up next are two discs devoted to Morton Feldman and Philip Glass which I will take up in a future post. For now, let's have an envoi of Ken Benshoof's Traveling Music:


Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Talk on Composition

Yesterday I gave a short talk on composition. I was asked to give the presentation by a friend, Ben, who lives in a grand and rustic house in the country. Apart from a couple of friends I really didn't know who was going to show up. I was surprised and pleased to see two ex-presidents of the chamber music festival there. There were also a few writers and painters so it was an artistically aware group. Here is a shot of the space:

Click to enlarge
That doesn't give a good sense of the room, which had a fourteen foot ceiling and lovely bullseye windows on the other end. Just right for this sort of presentation. My violinist was out of town so I played some recordings of my music and talked a bit about what composers do and what different kinds there are. I mentioned that historically composers largely provided music for the church and nobility. Nowadays an important group of composers are those nearly anonymous Swedish songwriters that provide a lot of the material for the pop divas. Yes, Swedish! Then there are the film soundtrack composers like John Williams. And finally, there are the "contemporary classical" composers like myself.

I played some of my older pieces, like this song, "Listening to a Monk from Shu" on a poem by Li Po:


I explained that the influences on that piece were the sound of the pipa or Chinese lute. Next I played a piece for violin and guitar that is influenced a bit by Debussy called "Cloudscape."


Next I played a piece for violin and piano called "Chase." This was a pièce d'occasion written for a couple of friends of mine and it uses some Latin American rhythms. The intent was merely to be musically enjoyable. Here is the link:


Finally I played a recording of my new piece, "Dark Dream." I am going to finally post that piece over the weekend. I have been hesitating because it was such a departure for me, the first piece in which I really feel I have ventured onto unexplored ground and brought something new to composition. Though, indeed, there is some Asian influence and it owes a bit to the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina. But more about that later.

What impressed me so much was the reaction to my music. Everyone was so positive. They said they really felt that the music was deeply expressive and took them on a journey. In other words, my music touched them. As a composer, you spend so much time working alone and often you don't know how your music will be received, especially if it is exploring new territory. So this experience was very gratifying for me. Here are some photos afterwards.

From left to right, our host, Ben, a guest, myself, Barbara (ex-president of chamber music festival) and John, author of numerous books
Myself, with Barbara, who has asked me to give some presentations at her house in town next year

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Salzburg Festival 2020

I just placed my order for tickets to next summer's Salzburg Festival. Looking at the offerings I decided to focus on concerts in the second half of August. Here is what I ordered:

ORDERS (9)


15
Aug
CONCERT 11:00, Grosses Festspielhaus

Vienna Philharmonic · Muti

1 Ticket
Category 6
€ 85.-

16
Aug
CONCERT 19:30, Stiftung Mozarteum — Großer Saal

Beethoven Cycle 8 – Levit

1 Ticket
Category 3
€ 55.-

17
Aug
OPERA 20:00, Felsenreitschule
Richard Strauss

Elektra

1 Ticket
Category 6
€ 75.-

20
Aug
OPERA 18:00, Grosses Festspielhaus
Modest Mussorgsky

Boris Godunov

1 Ticket
Category 7
€ 75.-

21
Aug
CONCERT 18:00, Stiftung Mozarteum — Großer Saal

Camerata Salzburg · Lonquich

1 Ticket
Category 4
€ 60.-

23
Aug
CONCERT 11:00, Stiftung Mozarteum — Großer Saal

Mozart Matinee · Á. Fischer

1 Ticket
Category 4
€ 60.-

25
Aug
CONCERT 19:30, Felsenreitschule

Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester · Metzmacher

1 Ticket
Category 4
€ 85.-

27
Aug
CONCERT 19:30, Grosses Festspielhaus

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra · Honeck

1 Ticket
Category 6
€ 80.-

28
Aug
CONCERT 11:00, Grosses Festspielhaus

Vienna Philharmonic · Dudamel

1 Ticket
Category 6
€ 80.-

The Vienna Phillies are performing the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven which I have never heard in concert. The Levit concert is part of his complete cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas. This concert includes op. 109, 110 and 111, three of my favorites. Back in the late 80s when I was a student there, they did a lot more of this. That year Brendel played all the Schubert sonatas, the Alban Berg Quartet did all the Beethoven quartets and Stockhausen's ensemble did seven concerts of his chamber music.

Then I am going to two operas. I chose operas I didn't know over a couple of Mozart operas which I sort of know! Hope I made the right choice. I am really looking forward to Boris Godunov. This version was orchestrated by Shostakovich. The concert on the 21st is rather a marathon. It goes from 6 to 11pm and will include ALL the Beethoven piano concertos with Alexander Lonquich both as soloist and conductor. The Mozart Matinee includes an early symphony and the 41st. The Mahler Jugendorchester has this program:
MODEST MUSSORGSKY
Prelude 'Dawn over the Moscow River' from the opera Khovanshchina
Songs and Dances of Death
DMITRY SHOSTAKOVICH
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43

The Pittsburgh Symphony concert includes the Beethoven Violin Concerto and the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. The Dudamel concert includes a Liszt Piano Concerto and the Firebird. And I forgot to book a ticket to the Daniil Trifinov concert with a terrific program of 20th century music. So I went back and added that one. Sometime around the end of March I will find out if I have been "alloted" the tickets.

So, looks like a very full and satisfying festival. Will I see any of my readers there?

For our envoi, how about that Symphony No. 4 by Shostakovich? This is the one he withdrew from rehearsal in 1936 after he was denounced in Pravda. He wrote the Symphony No. 5 to restore his standing with Stalin. Bernard Haitink probably conducting the Concertgebouw:


Sunday, November 24, 2019

Could Beethoven be Canceled?

Frank Zappa is reported to have said that "All the good music has already been written by people with wigs and stuff." In today's environment he might add that they were also white males. Culture produced by dead white males is the target of "cancel culture," the drive to eliminate anything that might be construed as "oppressive." There was a recent example of a Canadian school eliminating Shakespeare from a literature course in favor of works by Indigenous authors. Today I read an article about a move to cancel Gauguin, another dead white male: The move to cancel Gauguin could kill off Western culture.
At a current Paul Gauguin exhibition at London’s National Gallery, visitors are warned that the famous French painter had sexual relationships with young girls, including two with whom he fathered children.
A wall text notes, “Gauguin undoubtedly exploited his position as a privileged Westerner [in French Polynesia] to make the most of the sexual freedoms available to him.” 
The “warnings” against Gauguin are another step toward excommunicating every Western creative talent from the realm of permissible enjoyment. If left unopposed, the PC fascists will inevitably ban everything by Western-world artists, writers and musicians due to perceived “sensitivities” or “colonialist” violations.
This is likely an exaggeration of course, rhetoric to make a point. Alongside projects to show only women painters or publish only women writers, it does make one wonder, will we get to the point where someone like Beethoven, undeniably a dead white male, will simply be "canceled" in favor of Clara Schumann or Fanny Mendelssohn? It really doesn't seem possible at the moment. I was just at a concert a few weeks ago where music by Clara Schumann for violin and piano was programmed alongside music by Beethoven and frankly, the comparison was not to her advantage. Will music-lovers simply ignore the fact that Beethoven is at the heart of the Western classical tradition and replace him with lesser composers simply because they are women or of a racial minority? It doesn't seem possible, does it? But a few years ago we would have denied the possibility of replacing Shakespeare by Indigenous authors.

The whole idea makes me uneasy... You might remark that Beethoven's biography does not offer the kind of shortcomings that we find in Paul Gauguin: no dallying with young girls or owning of slaves [UPDATE: I didn't mean to imply that Beethoven owned slaves; I was thinking rather of the accusations against the Founding Fathers in the US, some of whom did own slaves]. But I have the distinct impression that the real reason great artists are being "canceled" is simply that they are great artists and greatness is perceived by those who are mediocre as being, well, oppressive. Pathetic, really.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Musical Art tout simple!

I saw this too late to include in this week's miscellanea, but it is well worth a look: Finding Hope At the Concert Hall: A recent recital at Lincoln Center was a victory over the tribalism of identity politics.
Sometimes an artistic experience can assume an elevated sense of urgency due to its context. After 9/11, the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies at Carnegie Hall felt like a triumphant assertion of a civilizational inheritance in the face of lethal attack. Last month, German baritone Christian Gerhaher’s recital of Mahler songs at Lincoln Center seemed no less momentous. While not as cataclysmic as 9/11, the current assault on the tradition that gave birth to those Mahler songs may prove more devastating over the long run. Gerhaher’s transcendent performance was a reminder of what is at stake.
A few markers of our present moment: every arts institution in the United States is under pressure to discard meritocratic standards in collections, programming, and personnel, in favor of race and gender preferences.
I really don't think that most people are aware of how destructive this is to the practice of art (not to mention science and just about everything else). I notice that the singer Christian Gerhaher is giving a lieder recital at the Salzburg Festival and I was planning on attending that one.
When Christian Gerhaher and his long-time accompanist, Gerard Huber, stepped onto the stage of Alice Tully Hall on October 29, in other words, they were entering what university precincts call a “contested” space. Their featured composer—Gustav Mahler—is a dead white male; Gerhaher and Huber are themselves white and male. And they were offering works that represent the pinnacle of a civilization routinely denounced in the academy and the political arena as the font of the world’s racism and sexism. Gerhaher and Huber demonstrated why the preservation of that inheritance is the most pressing imperative of our time.
Not just preservation of, but continuance of! I haven't previously thought of Heather MacDonald as being a music critic as she writes on many things, but she gets quite involved in the details of this recital and her aesthetic judgment seems sound.
This sublimation of the performer’s ego to the composer’s genius became a key feature of classical music in the nineteenth century. In a world dominated by identity-based narcissism, when individuals obsess over ever more arcane aspects of their allegedly victimized selves, to witness Gerhaher and Huber’s all-consuming commitment to a mind outside of themselves reaffirmed our common humanity and inducted the audience into a higher realm. Their recital was a triumph over the tribalism and hatreds of identity politics.
Let's listen to one of the songs from the recital:

Friday Miscellanea St. Cecilia's Day

Who was St. Cecilia and why do we care? She is the patron saint of music, which is why there are odes and masses by Purcell, Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti and Haydn named after her. There are also modern works honoring her by Britten and Arvo Pärt. Here is the Ode for St. Cecilia's Day by Henry Purcell:


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Ok, now Kanye has the Correctional Service doing promotional videos for him:


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Wasn't there supposed to be a tequila shortage a while back? Doesn't seem to be one here in Mexico:


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And while we are doing images, here is an Irish Wolfhound with sub-woofers:


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Here is something interesting from The Strad: Bows of the 18th century have been ignored by string players for too long.
Much 18th-century repertoire suffered the same fate as the bows of that era. In the 1800s, such works were considered fit to be studied but were rarely performed. Rameau (1683–1764) is an example of a composer whose works were thus neglected, and attempts to play his music with a ‘modern’ bow (one made in the 19th or 20th century) cannot do justice to the articulation required. This is because modern bows have a different balance – they have considerably more weight at the tip than their 18th-century counterparts. In particular, inégalité (unequal weighting of down and up bows) is very difficult to execute with a later bow.
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I can identify with this: MY JOURNEY WITH BIRD SONGS. When I was a child I would wander around in the primal woods of northern Canada for hours and try and imitate the sounds of the birds.
For the past 11 years, I have been working on incorporating bird songs into my music. When I say “my music”, I am talking about my improvisations, because all of the music I compose starts with improvisation, which I then sculpt into compositions. To me, this is a more “natural“ way to go, but then again, that’s been my approach my entire life. When the composition is set, I leave space for improvisations based on the bird songs, as well as motifs created from the surrounding soundscape. Six of my bird song compositions that are currently in my repertoire were originally created back in 2008 during a 5-week residency at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
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I have thought for a long time that the secret to reviving classical music in North America is to get more people actually playing instruments instead of passively listening. This project sounds like it might help: DSO to give musical instrument to any Detroit child who wants to learn to play.
It's a visionary plan that still has a million details to be ironed out. 
But if the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has its way, in a couple years every single Detroit schoolchild who wants to play an instrument will get one, free of charge, as well as access to musical instruction. 
Detroit Harmony, as the project is called, represents a bid to dramatically expand music education throughout the city, one that hopefully will generate demand for an entirely new workforce of music teachers and craftsmen to repair and refurbish used instruments.
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Here is a gloomy piece over at NPR: The 2010s: Classical Music's Decade Of Reckoning.
The pianist and scholar Charles Rosen once said, "The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition." His humorous bon mot simultaneously pokes at the perennial hand-wringers who forecast the demise of a centuries-strong art form and reminds us that the classical music fortress is not impenetrable.
The past 10 years in classical music, which this episode of All Songs Considered explores, has been a roller coaster ride of high points and derailments. Hence the dramatic title, "A Decade of Reckoning." Symphony Orchestras and opera companies floundered financially, some going belly up and others rebounding as newly created organizations flourished. Women seemed to take a few steps forward and a few backward: While five of the last ten music Pulitzers were awarded to women, their music was conspicuously absent from our symphony halls. And tragically, both women and men, in many facets of classical music, were victims of sexual abuse and harassment.
The thing that always gets me about these kinds of essays is the assumption that the fortunes of classical music in North America are the whole story. As we see from the Plácido Domingo fiasco, classical music has quite a different narrative in Europe.

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Here is something all too rare: a conductor candidly talking about problems in an orchestra: BSO music director Marin Alsop criticizes how symphony is run, hints she is “nearing the end” of her tenure.
“One of the challenges for arts organizations is that as they get more threatened financially, they tend to get more conservative artistically," Kaiser said. “The number one thing it takes to be a financially healthy arts organization is to create really amazing art.”
That’s when Alsop spoke up.
She said she’s proposed several innovative programs she believes have the potential to get widespread attention, unite the city and develop a new audience. But she said that even when initiatives get adopted, they don’t receive sufficient publicity and supportive programming to allow them to achieve their maximum impact.
Baltimore has a lot more problems than the deficit of the orchestra.

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I confess that I read this article in The Guardian mainly to see if the author was aware of Richard Taruskin's critique: Bach to the future: how period performers revolutionised classical music. The answer is yes! ...sort of...
The US conductor and scholar Richard Taruskin argued fiercely that what was seen as the recreation of an authentic past was in fact the creation of a newly modern and vital performing style. His intervention did not deter either performers or record companies, now boosted by the arrival of the CD, from re-recording masterpieces in period-style performances
Well, no, of course not. His point was not to discourage anyone from reinterpreting the music, but just to recognize that all this stuff about "original instruments" and "authentic" performance practice was just propaganda and marketing to conceal that fact that what was being promoted was a new way of playing entirely suited to 20th century taste that might in some ways correspond to what we know about historic practices (and be utterly different from them in other ways).

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Yuja Wang played the new John Adams concerto at The Barbican the other night and it seems her clothing budget was slashed again! Norman Lebrecht calls these "backless dungarees."


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Our envoi will be the Missa Sanctae Caeciliae by Joseph Haydn:


Thursday, November 21, 2019

"Science Can Explain..."

You can guess already how much I dislike this kind of headline: Science Can Explain Why Some Songs Are Universal. (This might be behind the Wall Street Journal paywall, in which case you might try Googling the headline.)
To eliminate the biases of culture, sexism, music perception and Western scholarship, the researchers used a machine learning algorithm to sift musical data for significant patterns, cross-checked by musicologists and more than 30,000 listeners recruited through online crowdsourcing.
Those damned Western scholars! Always biased about something.
To start, they drew on ethnographic reports documenting 315 cultures around the world that had been collected at Yale University. For more precise analysis, they then focused on music behavior in 60 especially well-documented societies, coding mentions of singing for 60 variables ranging from the age and sex of the singer to the time of day the song was performed and whether the singer was in costume.
Clearly the age and sex of the singer, the time of day and what the singer wore are crucial elements telling us ... uh, what, exactly? Certainly nothing about universal elements in song.
“We wanted to build data sets that properly sample human cultural and geographic diversity,” said Manvir Singh, a cognitive and evolutionary anthropologist at Harvard University, who was a co-author of the study. “But there is no standard way to represent music across cultures.”
See, now, this seems like the foggiest of foggy thinking. Obviously that shibboleth of cultural progressivism, "diversity" has mucked up the project from the beginning (and another, sex, was also lurking). I wish I knew what could possibly be meant by "there is no standard way to represent music across cultures." Western music notation has become the international standard largely because there is no good alternative.
In sifting the data, the scientists asked music experts and people with no musical expertise to listen to snippets of songs and then categorize each as a lullaby, a dance, a healing song or a love song based on acoustic features such as tempo, rhythm and pitch. To cross-check the results, they also used a sorting algorithm to match music to behavior.
So they picked obvious and wide categories, all linked to obvious and wide categories of behaviour, crunched a lot of data and, I'm guessing because they don't share a single specific bit of results with us in this article, end up with the earth-shaking discovery that lullabies (the world over!) are usually quiet and soothing, while dances are more dynamic with a strong pulse. Amirite?

These pseudo-scientific studies always seem to fall into a few obvious and wide categories themselves. This one I think we can label as Scientists Contrive a Laborious and Data-Heavy Study to Conclude Something That Musicians Have Known for Millennia. In every one of these studies the two common elements are first, a disparagement of regular music scholarship and second, the surreptitious insertion of the necessary progressive demands of diversity, inclusiveness and equality.

After that we need a Brahms lullaby:


UPDATE: From a Colby Cosh column in the National Post I find what I think is a link to the study. Here is an abstract of their conclusions:
Music is in fact universal: It exists in every society (both with and without words), varies more within than between societies, regularly supports certain types of behavior, and has acoustic features that are systematically related to the goals and responses of singers and listeners. But music is not a fixed biological response with a single prototypical adaptive function: It is produced worldwide in diverse behavioral contexts that vary in formality, arousal, and religiosity. Music does appear to be tied to specific perceptual, cognitive, and affective faculties, including language (all societies put words to their songs), motor control (people in all societies dance), auditory analysis (all musical systems have signatures of tonality), and aesthetics (their melodies and rhythms are balanced between monotony and chaos). These analyses show how applying the tools of computational social science to rich bodies of humanistic data can reveal both universal features and patterns of variability in culture, addressing long-standing debates about each.
That just prompts a lot more questions than it answers! The fact that music exists in every society means that it is universal? Well, in that extremely broad sense, so is clothing, eating utensils, language, hierarchical structures and every other element and aspect of human behaviour. That is to say, the term "universal" in this context is simply meaningless. Music is used in diverse behavioral contexts. Yep. And if they had asked I could have told them without the effort of making the study. I have no idea what they could possibly intend with the reference to "formality," "arousal," and "religiosity," but presumably that is explained in the text. Here is a good one: "all musical systems have signatures of tonality." What exactly do they mean by that? All music is tonal? What is meant by "tonal"? Well, whatever is meant by it, it certainly does not include moment form, John Cage and myriads of other music. This just confirms my belief that "applying the tools of computational social science to rich bodies of humanistic data" will not only reveal nothing we didn't know before, but will be misleading and tend to deceive us about what we do and don't know. Aren't all these kinds of studies and projects just make-work for underemployed scientists?

Theme and Variations Form

I had to create a new tag for this, which means I haven't talked about it much--if at all! The theme and variations form has been a perennial genre for the last five centuries at least. I have had one of the very first examples of it in my repertoire for most of my career: Guardame las vacas by Luis de Narváez. Here is that quite simple piece:


That is played on the vihuela, an instrument that looks a lot like a guitar, but sounds a lot like a lute.

The variation form is particularly attractive to composers because it poses the basic problems of variety within consistency that underly all composition. The idea is that you take a simple theme--folk melodies are often popular--or a harmonic progression (this one is a romanesca, a melodic-harmonic formula popular in the 16th and 17th centuries) and see what you can do with it. Repeating the basic phrase and harmonic structure in each variation provides the consistency so you just have to come up with the variety.

But composers have found many different ways of approaching the form. A particularly interesting one was the Nocturnal by Benjamin Britten for guitar using the air "Come Heavy Sleep" by John Dowland as the theme, but instead of beginning with it, he places it at the end and works his way toward it. Quite ingenious! Here is a performance by Marcin Dylla:


Another very ingenious approach was taken by Beethoven in his "Eroica" Variations for piano. He first states the bass line to the theme and does four variations on it before giving us the actual theme followed by fifteen variations and a finale which is a fugue on that original bass line (plus its inversion) followed by an Andante con moto which is another variation on the theme, not the bass line. Here is a performance by Pierre-Laurant Aimard:


And I haven't even mentioned any of the really famous sets of variations. So it might be interesting to do a survey of the theme and variation form and how composers have worked with it. What do you think?

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Salzburg Festival 2020

Holy cow, I thought they didn't announce the programs until December, but I just noticed that the offerings for next summer's Salzburg Festival are already up. Let's have a look: eight operas including Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, Electra, Boris Godunov and Don Pasquale. But also operas by Nono and Morton Feldman (the latter in concert performance). A few plays including Richard III by Shakespeare. Five concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic plus a host of guest orchestras: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra · Orchestre des Champs-Élysées · SWR Symphonieorchester · West-Eastern Divan Orchestra · musicAeterna · ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien · Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester · Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra · Berliner Philharmoniker. Igor Levit is playing eight concerts that look like they include all the Beethoven piano sonatas!

There are all sorts of hidden gems such as the series of Moments Musicaux concerts where they don't tell you the program in advance, but it is sure to be good. On July 20 there is a chamber concert pairing Steve Reich's Different Trains with Olivier Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps. How could I miss that? On August 12 is a chamber concert devoted to a single long piece by Morton Feldman, Crippled Symmetry for flute, percussion and piano. How could I miss that? And the day after, the Belcea Quartet play an evening of Beethoven and Webern. August 4 is a Grigory Sokolov concert and it looks like half will be Mozart. July 30 there is a lieder recital by Christian Gerheher and Gerold Huber of works by Schubert, Berg and Fauré. Plus a gazillion other concerts including a bunch by students of the Mozarteum, stars of tomorrow.

Here is that Feldman piece, Crippled Symmetry:


I think I wrote something a lot like that, only it was four minutes long...

UPDATE: On August 28 Daniil Trifonov is playing this program:
ALBAN BERG
Piano Sonata, Op. 1
SERGEY PROKOFIEV
Sarcasms, Op. 17
BÉLA BARTÓK
Out of Doors – Five Pieces, Sz. 81
AARON COPLAND
Piano Variations
OLIVIER MESSIAEN
'Le Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus'
from Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus
GYÖRGY LIGETI
Musica ricercata for Piano Nos. 1–4
KARLHEINZ STOCKHAUSEN
Klavierstück IX
JOHN ADAMS
China Gates for Piano
JOHN CORIGLIANO
Fantasia on an Ostinato for piano

And how could I miss that! I think I am going to be buying a lot of cheap tickets just so I can see more concerts. For this concert tickets range from 25 to 120 Euros.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Volans with a small blanket

This is the most interesting piece for a solo percussionist I can recall hearing. Kevin Volans, She Who Sleeps with a Small Blanket performed by Tomasz Kowalczyk:


There must be a couple of dozen performances of this piece on YouTube by different percussionists, but this one really stands out.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

I rather like 89-year-old Clint Eastwood's retirement plan. Last weekend there was a 34 acre fire close to the Warner Brothers lot in Los Angeles and they asked everyone on the lot to evacuate just as a precaution. Clint refused to leave saying he had work to do. And this was a Saturday. His retirement doesn't even involve weekends off!

* * *

Here's the pull-quote: "The digital age has given us two "gifts." The technology used for playback sounds terrible and our recorded music no longer has any monetary value" and here is the article: What the digital age means for my music — and my paycheque.
I had recently come to the conclusion that the record business is more profitable than the film and television business.
I explained that last week I received my royalty statements for a TV series I had created and produced. It cost $1.2 million to make and had been on YouTube for a year. My royalties, for 12 months were — are you sitting down? — .01 cent. Cent. Not even plural. No "S" required. .01 cent!
On the other hand, I got my music statement for our 11th CD recording and for only three months we got the whopping sum of .01 cents. But it was only for three months. You don't need an MBA to see how much more profitable music is!
The situation for the vast majority of working musicians is beyond horrible.

* * *

I was trying to find a good performance of the Symphony No. 7 by Shostakovich the other day and stumbled across this one:


Blogger won't embed but that is Klaus Mäkelä conducting the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra. His conducting style really reminds me of two Russian conductors: Yevgeny Mravinsky and Yuri Temirkanov, both conductors of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

* * *

From Slipped Disc comes the news that Plácido Domingo has been engaged to sing in a Verdi opera at next summer's Salzburg Festival. The comments are nearly all supportive. How interesting and odd that he has been fired from all engagements and employment in North America, but from none in Europe (that I know of). Now there's a cultural divide.

* * *

Also at Slipped Disc is an eloquent essay about how one orchestral couple are leaving their jobs and moving to Italy. You have to read the whole thing, but here is an excerpt:
Over my career in American orchestras, I’ve found that the proportion of pops to classical in my orchestra job has vastly shifted. I always knew Pops would be a part of my career, and in the right proportion, I found it engaging and fun. But the proportions are well out of whack, at least for what I am willing to do. Compounding that issue is the fact that the concerts have gotten louder and louder, with seemingly no reasonable solution or end in sight.
Maybe the tipping point was when I had to purchase lawn-mower-guy ear cans to use in addition to my earplugs, or maybe it was the first time I puked in the bushes in front of patrons after a concert from the concussive effects of extended exposure to extreme levels of sound. Or maybe it was just the first time that I realized that I counted down the days until the season was over, instead of what I used to do, count down the days until it began.
Turning my focus to the classical portion of our programming, I realized that something very important was missing. As I grew older and more experienced, I had more ideas and skills, not fewer. At the same time, my opportunity for contributing anything artistic seemed to shrink to zero. I wanted to contribute more than what was deemed appropriate or desirable within the string section of an orchestra. A lot of what I love about being a violinist was not appropriate in an orchestral setting: moving with the music, interacting musically with other players, choosing how to turn a phrase. It hit me like a thunderbolt when I realized that facial expressions are the only thing I have control over.
* * *

Here's something fun for the whole family. A clever fellow has put together a video of Steve Reich's Clapping Music that shows exactly how it is put together. It really is the simplest of musical ideas. Like much of his music from around this time (1972) it is in 6/4, though without a meter shown. The entire composition is a one-measure syncopated rhythm. The two performers clap this rhythm in unison eight times, then one of the performers simply moves one eighth-note ahead and that configuration is repeated eight times. Then one more eighth-note and so on with each configuration repeated eight times until the two performers arrive back at the original alignment which repeats eight times. End. That's it. A beautifully simple and elegant musical idea. Get with someone and try it out. Waaay harder than it looks!


* * *

The Montreal Gazette has an item about an incident with a guest conductor: OSM guest conductor Schiff 'flew off the handle' in rehearsals, musicians say.
The Hungarian-born pianist, who was scheduled to play and conduct in the Maison symphonique on Oct. 23 and 24, ended up performing only before intermission in both concerts. Schiff withdrew from the second half of the program after an acrimonious rehearsal in which OSM sources say he criticized the players unfairly and even accused them of “sabotage.”
The incident resulted in a letter to Le Devoir from the orchestra’s CEO, Madeleine Careau, in which she fiercely defended the professionalism of the players and decreed a policy of “zero tolerance” of the abusive language Schiff is alleged to have used.
Three musicians consulted by the Montreal Gazette said Schiff walked out of the first rehearsal on Oct. 21 after less than an hour of unproductive work on Bartók’s Dance Suite, a score with frequent changes of time signature and tempo. The trigger, according to these sources, was a testy exchange with a brass player who was himself on the verge of making his exit.
“What is the problem?” Schiff is alleged to have asked. “You are my problem,” was the response from this musician, whom no one consulted by the Montreal Gazette was willing to identify.
The Montreal Symphony or Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, to give their French title, do not suffer fools gladly, even if they are great pianists like Sir András Schiff. They have quarreled previously with Charles Dutoit who is a real conductor. Not everyone who stands in front of an orchestra and waves a baton is actually a capable conductor. As a friend of mine used to say, "there are conductors, semiconductors and choral conductors."

* * *

The New Yorker weighs in on the Scorsese controversy: Martin Scorsese’s Radical Attack on Marvel Movies.
Scorsese isn’t inveighing against fantasy but against a system of production that submerges directors’ authority in a network of dictates and decisions issued from the top down—a network in which the director is more of a functionary than a creator.
Scorsese doesn’t so much lament the existence of such a corporatized and impersonal mode of production as decry its dominance. He contends that this system is rooted in “the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption.”
For years I have made similar complaints about pop music. The presentation of the character and imagery of the pop star overshadows the fact that the music itself is a kind of industrial product.

* * *

The obvious choice for an envoi today would be that tricky Dance Suite by Bartók. Here is the very capable Slovak conductor Juraj Valčuha with the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra:


Sunday, November 10, 2019

Some Schoenberg Quotes

Most composers are either poor at communicating in words or tend to lie. One of the exceptions is Arnold Schoenberg who left quite a lot of written prose on a wide variety of topics--mostly music related of course. There is a fat book, Style and Idea, collecting his writings over his whole life that is worth looking into. I am also going through his text, Fundamentals of Musical Composition, and I notice some very quotable passages there and not ones that tend to appear when he is quoted. Here are a couple:
  • "A piece of music resembles in some respects a photograph album, displaying under changing circumstances the life of its basic idea--its basic motive."
  • "The concept that music expresses something is generally accepted. However, chess does not tell stories. Mathematics does not evoke emotions. Similarly, from the viewpoint of pure aesthetics, music does not express the extramusical. But from the viewpoint of psychology, our capacity for mental and emotional associations is as unlimited as our capacity for repudiating them is limited. Thus every ordinary object can provoke musical associations, and conversely, music can evoke associations with extramusical objects." [Compare to Stravinsky's famous comment that "Music is powerless to express anything at all."]
  • The first sentence of his essay "My Public" reprinted in Style and Idea, written in 1930: "Called upon to say something about my public, I have to confess: I do not believe I have one."
  • From "On My Fiftieth Birthday, September 13, 1924": "I am obliged to mention one clear symptom of age which is present in my case: I can no longer hate as once I could. Sometimes, and this is worse still, I can even understand without feeling contempt."
  • From "Circular to my Friends on my Sixtieth Birthday, September 13, 1934." Forced to leave his post in Berlin because of the Nazi regime, he landed in the US with some disappointing teaching jobs. On the occasion of a performance by the Boston Symphony, which he thought quite good, he mentions: "The permanent conductor is Serge Koussevitzky, once a travelling double-bass virtuoso, who in the ten years he has been there has never played a single note of mine. In my firm opinion he is so uneducated that he cannot even read a score..."
There is probably a book to be written about the influence of political circumstances on the careers of the two most significant composers of the first half of the 20th century, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Schoenberg had to leave Europe because of the rise of anti-semitism and did not easily adapt to circumstances in the United States. Despite some handsome offers from Juilliard and other institutions in New York and Chicago, he could not accept them because his health could not endure winters in the Northeast. He ended up in Hollywood (as did Stravinsky) where his music was less well understood. Stravinsky adapted much better to life outside Russia. First in France, where he was lionized, then in the US. He was always given many performances, unlike Schoenberg. It might also be interesting to note that Stravinsky, at least before the Second World War, was an admirer of Mussolini.

Schoenberg wrote an essay titled "How One Becomes Lonely" in which he tries to explain how his music is not as difficult to enjoy as many early listeners thought. In it he cites examples from Verklärte Nacht and his String Quartet No. 1. Certainly at this point in time, it is hard to see how the audience at their first performances reacted so strongly.