Sunday, March 29, 2020

There is No Hope for Art?

I'm reading Richard Taruskin's newest collection of essays, just published a few days ago. One of the largest pieces in the book is the one titled "Is There a Baby in the Bathwater? On aesthetic autonomy" from which this passage is taken:
To single out as “music worthy of human beings” a music that is inaccessible to all but an infinitesimal, self-congratulating, and possibly mendacious fraction of actual humans seems to me no different from claiming that only the tiny fraction that possess the right bloodlines, or the right class affiliation, or the right racial or religious heritage, are fully human. If this is the use to which the doctrine of aesthetic autonomy is to be put, then the baby has drowned and it might as well be thrown out with the bathwater. 
For if the grim history of the twentieth century has not discredited the idea of redemptive high culture and undermined the authority of its adherents, then there is no hope at all for art.
Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
He is quoting Theodor Adorno and this passage comes in the last section of the very long essay. The music referred to is that of Arnold Schoenberg. Despite the fact that he has built up to this with a meticulous discussion of many examples from many perspectives it feels as if, finally, he has thrown out at least part of the baby! The question is, is art truly autonomous, floating like a fragrant cloud over the messy reality that it offers an alternative to? Or is it possible for a fine art like contemporary classical music to be an active and non-hypocritical agent in the world? In an earlier section that I have to quote at some length Taruskin notes that:
The ideal of aesthetic autonomy at its pinnacle of purity, by fostering a now-discredited and hopelessly academicized avant-garde, has contributed heavily to the social and cultural marginalization of music as a serious fine art. A tragicomic example of that marginalization comes by way of the Pulitzer Prize, one of the most prestigious awards an artist or scholar can earn in America. (And it is also a stunning example of the independence of cultural capital from monetary, because the Pulitzer purse is negligible.) The annual prize recipients in fiction, history, biography, and drama, even (sometimes) poetry, are almost always figures of interest to the public at large. Those awards are publicly debated; sides are taken; approval and disapproval are vehemently aired. The prize in music, until very recently, traditionally went to somebody the general music public had never heard of (often enough to somebody I’d never heard of), and nobody ever cared who won it, except jealous fellow-professionals. 
And then even the professionals began to despise it. When the composer John Adams won it in 2003 for his 9/11 memorial On the Transmigration of Souls, he expressed what one critic called “ambivalence bordering on contempt.” To another he wrote, as if paraphrasing my own judgment, that “among musicians that I know, the Pulitzer has over the years lost much of the prestige it still carries in other fields like literature and journalism,” for “anyone perusing the list of past winners cannot help noticing that many if not most of the country’s greatest musical minds are conspicuously missing, . . . passed over year after year, often in favor of academy composers who have won a disproportionate number of prizes.” With the award of the prize in 2018 to the rapper Kendrick Lamar, about whom a large public certainly does care, the Pulitzer judges have come around to recognizing the meaninglessness of their habitual public recognition of artists without a public. The decision was widely viewed as an attempt to make amends. Can the prize now ever go again to composers of contemporary “classical” music? Or has their marginalization been effectively pronounced hopeless?
Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
I have just the suspicion of a feeling here that Taruskin is perhaps just a tad too competent in his job of ripping away the veil. As a composer of contemporary classical music who has won no prizes and sought no vainglory (nor money for that matter) I think it would be kind and perhaps even moral of Taruskin to point out, oh, just occasionally, that perhaps people in general might look to classical music, even in its contemporary manifestation, as something that might contain expressions and experiences coded in musical terms, that could be widely enjoyed. Of course, he would riposte, this is not his job as historian. True, that. Still...

As an envoi I offer the Six Little Pieces, op 19 of Schoenberg played by Michel Béroff:

Friday, March 27, 2020

Friday Miscellanea

The Verbier Festival in Switzerland is canceled:
The festival has just announced ‘with infinite regret and sorrow’ that its 27th edition, planned for July 17 to August 2, has been called off.
This makes me nervous for the Salzburg Festival. However, the latest word is that all is ready for the festival to proceed with a final decision being taken on May 30.

* * * 

From the Guardian, here is a review of the disc by Barbara Hannigan I posted about the other day: La Passione review – Grisey's masterpiece endures.
On Barbara Hannigan’s recording with the Ludwig Orchestra, she pairs Quatre Chants with a Haydn symphony, No 49 in F minor, which gives its nickname, La Passione, to the entire disc. Hannigan’s performance of the Grisey (which she conducts as well as sings) is cooler, perhaps less immediate than the other version available on disc, with Catherine Dubosc and Klangforum Wien, but it evokes the work’s haunting, unclassifiably expressive world more vividly than ever.
* * * 

The Wall Street Journal Magazine has a feature article on Kanye West this week: The Creation and the Myth of Kanye West. He is actually the only current pop artist that I am a fan of. This might be behind the paywall, but here are some quotes.
West, who mentioned in passing that he was preparing to record a new album in Mexico this spring, has 21 Grammys, including four for best rap album. He has been called an “American Mozart” by Atlantic writer David Samuels.
But West aims to be a great designer of all kinds of things. For more than a decade he has pursued plans to have the phenomenal impact in fashion that he’s had in music. West admires Steve Jobs. And McDonald’s. And the Gap, where he worked as a teen, when it was cool in the 1990s. “I believe that Yeezy is the McDonald’s and the Apple of apparel,” West says. “In order to make the Apple of apparel the next Gap, it has to be a new invention. To invent something that’s so good that you don’t even get credit for it because it’s the norm.” 
Possibly the most lucrative business decision West ever made was to retain ownership of the Yeezy brand. Today he produces sneakers and slides in a partnership with Adidas. The Yeezy merch, the apparel and nonathletic footwear—the products that he has been working so diligently to develop this past year—are West’s alone. During an appearance on James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” segment last October, West told the talk show host, “Yeezy [is] worth $3 billion.” An Adidas representative declined to confirm West’s estimate, citing a confidentiality agreement. West, who says it bothers him that people don’t think of him as a successful businessman, repeated the estimate to me in February when he explained how he could afford to support so many endeavors. “The fact that Yeezy does $1.5 billion in revenue per year and the valuation is $2.9 billion means that money does not have to enter into the equation.” I later reviewed documents that reflected those numbers.
* * *

The Ojai Music Festival has also been canceled.
“As we were monitoring the COVID-19 crisis over these last several weeks, we considered the unpredictability of travel as well as the safety and comfort of our artists and patrons,” Eberhardt said in the announcement. “It has also become clear that the institution cannot shoulder the projected financial burden due to the forecasted drop in festival revenue and increase in festival expenses.”
* * *

This is a very bad time for all musicians and performing artists. Some very prominent artists, including Anne Sophie Mutter and Plácido Domingo, have contracted the virus. At least one prominent artist's management agency in England has gone out of business, nearly every symphony and opera has canceled the remainder of its season with some paying their artists and others not (coughTheMetcough). Music festivals are canceling right and left. Dark times indeed. But I think that perhaps things are not as bad as they seem and that we will recover, perhaps sooner than we think.

* * *

Let's have some optimistic envois today. Here is Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks, for chamber orchestra, from his neo-classical period:

Here is the estimable Hopkinson Smith playing all the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin by Bach on the Baroque lute:

His justification, not that he needs one, is that Bach did a version of at least one of these pieces, the Partita No. 3, for Baroque lute. Here is Khatia Buniatishvili playing the Rondo from the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Beethoven. There is just something exhilarating about this performance.

Hilary Hahn playing the Presto from the First Violin Sonata:

Let's end with something diverting. How about the Divertimento K. 563 for violin, viola and cello by Mozart, perhaps the most substantial divertimento ever written?

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Analysis is Paralysis!

The phrase is a quote from a French horn player I used to know. From a performer's view this is certainly true! But is it true generally? I have the impression that more and more analysis is being used as a tool to teach music composition. Graduate composition students often have to do an analysis of pieces they have written. This is reminiscent of what Schoenberg was doing in the transition from tonal to pan-tonal music. He would write a piece and then sit down and try and analyze what he had done. The process of creation was instinctive, but his idea was that he had to understand what structures or ideas underlay the music composition.

A lot of composers, I suspect, just write intuitively with perhaps the development of "filters" to trim down the possibilities to ones that are most useful. Other composers follow worked-out systems of composition (the serialists). Others create systems and move on to new systems with each piece (Stockhausen). Others modify traditional styles by distorting or stripping them down to essentials (Prokofiev? Feldman? Stravinsky?). Others are what theorists like to call "refractory to analysis" meaning probably that they just have no idea what is going on.

Music theory and music analysis are somewhat different animals. Music theory is the search for general principles of music construction while analysis is more focused on the specifics of individual pieces. They overlap to a considerable extent, of course.

I have been reading this book, which though a bit dated (1987), is proving to be very informative. The author was a professor at Southhampton University in England.

His writing style is clear and informative and he gives a good overview of various different approaches. Analysts seem to prefer shorter pieces as the process of analysis can be very exhausting and time-consuming. The first prelude in Bk I of the Well-Tempered Clavier is a particular favorite:

It is amazing how much analysis you can do of a two minute piece. Another popular one is the brief (two and a half minutes) song from Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin, "Das Wandern."

On first listening, both these pieces might sound very simple, trite even, but one thing analysis can do is refresh your listening so you are hearing with new ears.

In our everyday lives we are constantly hearing music in public spaces that is run-of-the-mill, routine music, music that sounds a lot like a lot of other music. This dulls our aesthetic sense so we become less capable of hearing into a piece, hearing past the surface.

So now that we are all locked down for a while, we can sit down and do some serious listening!


Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Tuesday Miscellanea

I was driving to the university many years ago with the radio on (CBC) and suddenly this song came on:

No need to announce who that was. Apart from the great trio of songs he wrote with the Beatles (Strawberry Fields, A Day in the Life and I Am the Walrus) I think my two favourite Lennon songs are this one and Don't Let Me Down. As for the video, well, what other music video do you know that has cameo appearances by Fred Astaire, George Harrison, Dick Cavett and Andy Warhol?

Great song and, I think, very appropriate for this week.

My least favourite Lennon song? Imagine.

* * *

Let's have a bunch of clips today. This is French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau playing the Bach Chaconne from the Second Violin Partita:

* * *

We need some Dylan. I bought this album way back in 69 or 70 and at the time I was taken aback by the utter simplicity of it. Which now I appreciate.

And that has to be THE most unprepossessing album cover photo ever.

* * *

Another piece for harpsichord. This is Continuum by Ligeti, composed in 1968, so just a year after John Wesley Harding.

* * *

This one is from a bit later, 1982: Laurie Anderson with "O Superman."

* * *

This is Gustav Leonhardt playing a piece by the French harpsichordist François Couperin named after another French harpsichordist: "La Superbe ou La Forqueray."

* * *

We need a finale, I guess and I can think of no finer symphonic finale than the Molto Allegro to the Symphony No. 41 by Mozart. Here with the Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie conducted by Mark Laycock.

As the old Australian saying goes "we're not here to f**k spiders!"

Monday, March 23, 2020

Ana Vidovic DVD

I think this is the third post I have put up on classical guitarist Ana Vidovic. The first one was on her Naxos CD which she made just after winning a major competition. That was twenty years ago! So, no longer a child prodigy or even a young artist. The second post, this one, was a brief look at two guitarists that were getting quite well known, her and Roland Dyens. I described him as "the world's best restaurant guitarist" which is a rather left-handed compliment. I gave Ana a good review, but with a slight caveat: "Ana Vidovic is a very fine player with loads of technique. Sometimes she misreads an accidental--I've noticed a couple in Moreno Torroba--but she is a young player and has room to grow as an artist. Well worth listening to now and in the future."

I'm afraid I am going to have to retract that last comment. She does not seem to have developed as an artist. Let's have a look at this clip from YouTube:

I just want to talk about the first piece, the three movements of the Suite Castellana by Moreno Torroba. This is a lovely piece that is not well-known in its full form, with all three movements. The reason for that is likely that Segovia only recorded the first two. Ana Vidovic's tendency to misread accidentals in Torroba (partly because there are some misprints in the published scores) returns here with a vengeance--there are a bunch of them in the Fandanguillo. If you either play this piece, as I do, or know the Segovia recording, you will be wincing several times. Another problem is the phrasing: she seems to just have the wrong instincts about where and how to use rubato. Another problem is the tuning once we get past the 40' mark the guitar sounds out of tune. More misread notes leading up to the worst musical phrase: the last pizzicato section taking us to the final chord is rhythmically weird and confused. The pizzicato isn't even very good and it is inconsistently applied.

She redeems herself with the Arada, the second movement, but it is nothing really special. The Danza is where things go horribly wrong. Honestly, if you want to know how this movement should sound you have to listen to Pepe Romero, he is the only one who "gets it." Vidovic plays the opening phase much too fast and leaves out a beat in the third iteration. Then she slams on the brakes for the middle section. The repeated note phrase that begins the movement and leads us back into the opening theme she delivers with absolutely no shape.

Two mysteries here: first, what is going wrong with Ana Vidovic? It now appears that she was never terribly gifted as a musician, but had considerable technical skills. She still has them, but is growing careless, especially about musical matters. I even hear a few sloppy places here and there. The other mystery is in the comments to this clip on YouTube:
No micro-mistakes wow... this is high-level virtuoso playing! Ana is truly a one in a million guitar player with outstanding memory, dexterity and musicality
Ana Vidovic has such a clarity and mastery of technique, my only regret is that I did not discover this great artist sooner.
This amazing artist brings a whole new level of sensitivity and a superb technique to these pieces. Beautiful to listen to and so calm and relaxing to watch.
Such beautiful playing - true artistry - letting the musicality of the peice ring out rather than playing too fast. Brilliant.
And hundreds more! What to think of that? Of course, I could simply be wrong about her. But I'm not. If you like I can consult the score and tell you exactly what notes she misreads and what beats she drops and what places she obviously phrases poorly. These things are not subjective. Mind you, you do have to know the piece and have played it for years. But I have long had this naive belief that real musicianship is always sensed by even non-professional listeners. And that they can also discern poor musicianship even though they may not be able to put what the problem is into words. I guess I was wrong about that...

Ok readers, time for you to weigh in.


Music and Philosophy

There are a number of odd connections between music and philosophy including increasing interest in the field of the philosophy of music. But I keep running across incidental connections like Ludwig Wittgenstein's dislike of Mahler. Reading about the analytical method of Heinrich Schenker, I get the strong feeling that his basic stance toward music is Hegelian (or perhaps Schopenhauerian). Before all of your eyes glaze over, let's figure out what that means.

Schenker developed a kind of musical analysis that delved below the surface to reveal the "deep structure" as it were of how music worked. He showed how, in many 18th and 19th century compositions there is a linear unfolding that is responsible for the structural coherence of the music. If you have noticed that there is a kind of inevitability to the way a piece by Bach or Beethoven unfolds in time, then you are hearing it in a kind of Schenkerian way. His claim is that this is the right way to hear music and music that does not correspond to this kind of analysis or hearing is not good music. Schenker was very much a musical elitist. His methods are often characterized as being about the psychology of how we listen. But I think you could also see them as being akin to German idealism in philosophy, the idea that there is some kind of overarching metaphysical drive underlying reality and therefore, perhaps, music. I'm making no claims of influence either way, of course, just noticing that there is certain harmony of outlook.

What happened in music history is that the creative discoveries in harmony by the French and Italians in the 17th and early 18th centuries were developed by the Germans and Austrians in the later 18th and 19th centuries (to brutally oversimplify things!). They also absorbed the contrapuntal discoveries of the centuries before. The result was the brilliant, charming and expressive language of the "common practice" period that stretches from Bach to Brahms and includes the majority of what we call the classical "canon." This kind of "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" is how Hegel characterizes history as a whole.

Towards the end of the 19th century this synthesis started to come apart as people like Wagner and Schoenberg on the inside and Bartók, Prokofiev and Stravinsky on the outside took music in entirely different directions. What philosophical approach might correspond to theirs in music? Well, I haven't decided yet, so please weigh in if you have thoughts...

Perhaps a double envoi might be suitable. On the one hand one of those inevitable sounding syntheses of Bach. This is the E major Fugue from Bk II of the Well-Tempered Clavier played by Glenn Gould:

And this is the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde by Wagner, Zubin Mehta conducting Bayerische Staatsoper Bayerisches Staatsorchester:

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Barbara Hannigan: Soprano/Conductor

A new CD, La Passione - Works by Grisey, Nono & Haydn, is about to be released by Barbara Hannigan who both sings and conducts. The first piece, by Luigi Nono, is Djamila Boupacha, a heart-rending cry for solo soprano, paying tribute to a freedom fighter tortured by French paratroopers during the Algerian war; Picasso also portrayed her in charcoal. This is followed by the Symphony No. 49, La Passione, by Joseph Haydn and the disc continues with Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil by Gérard Grisey which she both sings and conducts. Hannigan is particularly known for her performances of contemporary opera.

And she is Canadian! Here is a wonderful clip of the Nono followed by the Haydn--the transition is lovely.

There is no reason you can't appreciate both Nono and Haydn.

Saturday Musings

Are we ready for coronavirus/music humor yet?

* * *

The 19th century equivalent of the "album," a collection of songs that might be interrelated somehow or have a narrative, was the song cycle. Of ones by Schubert, Schumann and Hugo Wolf, called "lieder" in German, perhaps the greatest is Winterreise, a cycle of twenty-four songs composed in 1827, the year before Schubert's death at thirty-one. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was perhaps the greatest lieder singer of all time and in 1979, accompanied by the great Alfred Brendel on piano, he made a film of the cycle. The last song, "Der Leiermann" is possibly the darkest song ever written.

* * *

Here is a fascinating article on Furtwängler and Shostakovich, two great musicians who lived through horrific times and somehow provided a message of unity: Furtwängler and Shostakovich, Bearing Witness in Wartime.
Shostakovich the composer, and Furtwängler the conductor, possessed a genius for channeling the moment. On opposite sides of a devastating conflict, both served a great city facing extinction. A sincerely Soviet artist, Shostakovich practiced attunement to a mass of listeners: Spurning art for art’s sake, he prioritized his audience. Furtwängler pertinently insisted that he could only make music in the presence of sympathetic hearers. Equally significant was his baton technique: He notoriously eschewed clear downbeats. Rather than imposing a detailed interpretive blueprint, he bonded with his players in a transporting communal rite. Shostakovich’s symphonies say “we,” not “I.” It is the same with Furtwängler’s performances. This is what makes them feel empowering.
* * *

 Philip Kennicot has a book out titled Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning and it is reviewed by Oliver Soden in The Spectator.
Were this a less good book than it is, it would be called How Bach Can Help You Grieve. As it is, Counterpoint serves very well, describing the American art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott’s intertwined themes: his reaction to the death of his mother, with whom he had a fractious and traumatic relationship, and his attempt to learn Bach’s Goldberg Variations, through which he considers the ability of the greatest music to ease us out of a senseless pit of grief.
This is a deeply serious and often affecting book, combining the ‘grief memoir’ with the genre created by Alan Rusbridger in Play It Again, an account of an amateur pianist learning Chopin’s Ballade No. 1. Kennicott’s two strands, of memory and music, become the first and second subjects of a book in sonata form, developed and recapitulated into a satisfying whole. He has written a voyage around his wounded and wounding mother, by way of an aria and 30 variations.
 There are few mentally healthier activities, I am sure, than sitting down and learning a piece by Bach. So I will wrap this up and continue my project of learning two Bach gavottes.

* * *

Here are the Bach Goldberg Variations in the 1982 recording by Glenn Gould:

Friday, March 20, 2020

Friday Miscellanea

Of course we here at TMS have always been in touch with Western Civilization, but this is an interesting account of how some institutions lost their way: Rediscovering Western Civilization.
We begin in Part One by critiquing a landmark of modern historical deconstructionism: the claim that the very idea of Western civilization is a modern invention devised during World War I as a way of hoodwinking young American soldiers into fighting and dying in the trenches of Europe. This thesis, propounded in 1982 by the historian Gilbert Allardyce, was cited by key players during the original Stanford controversy. Those scholars used Allardyce to show that elimination of Stanford’s required course on the history and literature of the West was not a major break with the past.
In the decades since the Stanford dustup, the Allardyce thesis has been invoked to justify the replacement of college and K-12 Western Civilization courses with World History, or with heavily globalized versions of European and American history. The Allardyce thesis shows how a wildly improbable bit of scholarly radicalism virtually unknown to the general public can nonetheless sweep the academy and transform American education. The Allardyce thesis is also an early and influential example of the sort of debunking continually churned out by historians nowadays, yet almost never itself subject to critical scrutiny. It’s time the debunkers were debunked.
Despite the report being focused just on the United States, I think it is a useful perspective on similar policies and strategies in force elsewhere.

* * *

Wenatchee the Hatchet has a long essay musing on "whiteness" in music theory and the role of non-white guitar composers like Leo Brouwer.
Music education that's geared toward the idea that students will be making a living recording music actually seems like a more pernicious myth than the myth that Western music notational conventions are somehow "white" when we have more than enough classical music composed by black composers to prove that's not the case. For that matter, when there are classical composers from Asia and of Asian American descent who use the Western musical notational systems; when the first published musical work in Western notation by a Native American was back in 1863 with Thomas Commuck's Indian Melodies hymnal; I don't think it's even historically fair or accurate to say Western musical notation is "white".
Go have a look.

* * *

Here is an update from Salzburg. They are planning to go forward with the Whitsun Festival, but the Easter Festival is canceled:
On March 10, the Austrian government published an order by which outdoor events with over 500 participants and indoor events with more than 100 participants must be cancelled through 3. April 2020.
For the Salzburg Festival, this currently means: On the basis of the current risk assessment (current as of 5. March 2020), all events of the Whitsun Festival (29. May to 1. June 2020) and the Summer Festival (18. July to 30. August 2020) will take place. If the risk assessment should change substantially, events would be cancelled only if they were prohibited officially by the government authorities.
* * *

The Guardian has an interesting piece up: The best classical music works of the 21st century. As the century is only 20 years old and a sober evaluation takes several decades, this is highly speculative. But worth a look. There are some familiar names like Max Richter. Here is an excerpt from a larger piece, The Blue Notebooks.

That is well into Górecki territory and sounds rather like Vivaldi in super slow motion. There is also Steve Reich's meditation on WTC 9/11 which uses similar techniques to his Different Trains.

There are twenty-five works in total with familiar and unfamiliar names. The number one choice is  Hans Abrahamsen's orchestral song cycle Let Me Tell You (2013). Here is an excerpt.

* * *

Wow, a Shostakovich festival I didn't know existed:
The annual Shostakovich festival at Gohrisch in Saxony, where Shostakovich composed his eight string quartet, has won the right to premiere 10 newsly discovered Shostakovich manuscripts, some dating back to his teenage years.
The performers include Tchaikovsky winner Dmitry Masleev and Chopin winner Yulianna Avdeeva .
The festival opens July 1.
* * *

These are very trying times for all music institutions. Opera Australia is in a real bind:
Opera Australia may be forced to sell off one or both of its properties in Surry Hills and Alexandria to stave off the threat of bankruptcy caused by the COVID-19 crisis.
Chief executive Rory Jeffes revealed management had been in crisis talks to keep the company afloat after it announced it would cancel the remainder of its Sydney Summer season, including its flagship Opera on the Harbour event that was to open on March 27.
* * *

Now here is a 21st century headline: As Dallas Opera learned, when algorithms decide, we all lose.
The [Dallas] opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors is a groundbreaking program helping to overcome gender inequality among the world’s leading classical conductors. As we reported during another successful Hart Institute residency in November, only five of the 100 busiest conductors in the world are women. Industry insiders say there aren’t as many opportunities for female conductors and so a group of leaders in Dallas decided to do something about that. They created the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors, a two-week residency designed to identify promising female conductors and invest in their growth.
The Hart Institute is a point of pride for Texas arts lovers and the kind of program that can actually achieve what Facebook’s algorithms were supposed to address.
And yet last Monday, when the opera’s director of artistic administration David Lomeli posted a photo calling for applicants, Facebook removed the post and informed Lomeli that the opera can’t gear its communication only to female applicants.
This is very likely a laudable initiative, but we should also take into account that there are long-standing discriminatory practices in education that are most certainly NOT laudable. At one US college there are seventy scholarships available just for women and only one for men.

* * *

Alex Ross has a very topical piece at The New Yorker: Coronavirus Concerts: The Music World Contends with the Pandemic.
The ad-hoc concerts are a welcome stopgap, helping musicians to keep working and listeners to stay engaged. Yet they shouldn’t be seen as any sort of wave of the future. We are already too sedentary and technology-addicted in our relationship with the arts. The monopolies that rule the digital realm possess unheard-of power, and non-celebrity artists increasingly struggle in a marketplace where audiences no longer expect to pay for recorded music. 
Perilous times for working musicians lie ahead. “Force majeure” clauses in artist contracts—releasing companies from liability in the event of disruptions—mean that many opera singers and freelance instrumentalists, not to mention actors, dancers, and backstage technicians, will go unpaid for the duration of the pandemic. The tenor Zach Finkelstein has written about the force-majeure issue on his blog, predicting that “many household classical music names will likely be insolvent or in dire financial straits by this coming summer.”
* * *

For our envoi, what better choice than the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra with the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra conducted by Andés Orozco-Estrada:

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Non-commercial Pop Music

Around here popular music often gets criticized for being too commercial because, well it is. But not all pop music is primarily oriented toward commercial success. Sometimes it just happens because it can. The best example I can think of is the odd group called the Traveling Wilburys. Sadly, due to the untimely death of Roy Orbison, the group was short-lived. Along with Orbison the members were George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty. The whole thing seems like it just fell off a truck by accident. They recorded in Bob Dylan's garage in Malibu and wrote the songs the day before. Musicians this talented and experienced can, if the chemistry is right, just do whatever they want. The result was some of the most relaxed music you will ever hear. Here is the song "Handle With Care."

This is the next stage beyond slick professionalism. Lovely music and while it did sell a lot of records, I don't think that possibility even crossed their minds when they were working on this.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

What's Wrong with Haydn Opera?

After Haydn opera came up briefly in the comments the other day I decided to have a listen. I've had this big box of Haydn for a while:

I have listened through the whole box, 160 CDs, but I don't recall the operas at all. So I put on his last opera, L'Anima del Filosofo, composed in 1791 and never performed (due to a dispute between King George III and the Prince of Wales) until 1951! So what is wrong with Haydn operas? Search me. The music sounds up to the usual Haydn standards of excellence: well-crafted orchestral parts, tuneful arias, rousing choruses. Nothing wrong that I can hear. Perhaps the libretto is seriously flawed, but I can't tell. What makes an opera successful? And why are Haydn operas not successful? You got me.

I just discovered that there is a fine performance from 1995 on YouTube with Concentus Musicus conducted by Nicolaus Harnoncourt and with Cecilia Bartoli singing the part of Euridice (despite the title, the opera is on the perennial tale of Orpheus and Euridice.

So you tell me--what's wrong with Haydn operas?

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Tuesday Musings

As someone once said "well, that escalated quickly!" Amidst the global pandemic and the rubble of the stock market, it is nice to have a refuge. Music has always been that for me. I notice that when things are not going so well in the outside world, I often find that I have more time and energy to be creative. I started work on my song cycle during the last economic crisis. So if you are self-isolating at home, take this time to do a bit more listening, a bit more reading, and if you are a musician, a bit more practicing and composing.

* * *

I'm reading Culture and Value, a collection of notebook jottings by Wittgenstein and ran across a passage where he mentions Mahler:
If it is true that Mahler's music is worthless, as I believe to be the case, then the question is what I think he ought to have done with his talent. For quite obviously it took a set of very rare talents to produce this bad music.
Mahler, Richard Strauss and other famous musicians were frequent visitors at the Wittgenstein family palace in Vienna. He goes on, but offers no specifics as to why he thinks Mahler's music is bad. I agree with him, by the way, but I have no specifics to offer either! I think that what holds me back, at least, is the enormous effort it would take to do an analysis of a Mahler symphony sufficient to produce such specifics. I have always liked Das Lied von der Erde, by the way.

Ludwig Wittgenstein came from a very wealthy family of Viennese industrialists. His brother Paul was a concert pianist who lost his right arm in WWI and subsequently commissioned concertos by Ravel and Prokofiev for the left hand alone. Three of Ludwig's five brothers committed suicide!

* * *

I'm learning a pair of Bach gavottes right now and am once more amazed at the harmonic delights he creates. For example, he manages to incorporate some really severe dissonances, but handles them so adroitly that they sound beautiful and haunting, not harsh. For example:

Click to enlarge
This is the opening phrase. The so-called "Third Lute Suite" is an arrangement for Baroque lute, by Bach, of the Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor. In the cello original the harmonies are different with usually one fewer voices. What is so lovely about this opening is the minor/minor seventh chords such as the one on the first beat of the first complete measure, on D. Indeed we have a string of seventh chords on the next three beats: G7 (minor/major) then C with a major seventh, B minor/minor seventh and finally a V-i cadence in A minor with the seventh delayed onto the next downbeat. If Meghan Trainor is all about the bass, then Bach is all about the sevenths. Let's look a bit more closely. How does he get away with this string of seventh chords, some, like the one on the downbeat of the second complete measure, rather dissonant? If you look at the middle voice you see that the opening C is repeated. Bach, while he follows the basic rules of counterpoint, often interrupts a melodic line. Here, the C on the downbeat of the first complete measure is a suspension from the previous measure. It resolves into the B on the second beat (over the G bass). Then this B is suspended into the next downbeat where it forms a major seventh with the C in the bass. That B then resolves into the A on the next beat, which in its turn resolves to the G#. This whole middle voice is a series of suspensions. There are even more remarkable dissonances, which don't sound dissonant, later on in the second half. But they follow the same technique of suspension/resolution.

Look how much discussion it took to do a simple analysis of four measures of Bach! (And I didn't even mention the rising fourths sequence in the bass line.) That's why I haven't analyzed Mahler.

* * *

Let's have three envois! First, "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" from Das Lied von der Erde by Mahler. This is Jonas Kaufmann with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Next, the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 4 for the left hand. This is Alexei Volodin with the Symphony Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre conducted by Valery Gergiev.

And finally, the Bach Gavotte played on Baroque lute by Yair Avidor.

Monday, March 16, 2020

A Froberger Transcription

When I was a young performer I transcribed quite a bit of music. Most of it was from the Renaissance and Baroque. There were already a lot of very well done transcriptions of more recent 19th and 20th century music by very expert transcribers like Segovia and Bream, but the transcriptions from the earlier periods were fewer (in comparison to the repertoire available) and often unreliable. As a young artist I was drawn to the early repertoire and to the contemporary repertoire and I didn’t feel I had a huge amount to add to the interpretations of the mainstream Spanish and Romantic pieces.

So I did a lot of transcriptions of things like Elizabethan lute music, especially the duets, which were wonderful music and at the time there were few editions available. I also took a stab at some Baroque music like Sylvius Leopold Weiss and J. S. Bach. Later on I published a whole book of Bach transcriptions. But I was especially drawn to the French and French-inspired repertoire. The transcription I was most happy with from those days was an unusual little piece by Johann Jakob Froberger (1616 - 1667). He was particularly known to historians for standardizing the Baroque dance suite. This was largely the creation of the French lutenists and harpsichordists like Denis Gaultier and François Couperin. In their hands the suite consisted of a highly variable number of movements in dance or rondo form--with Couperin there could be anything from four movements to a dozen or more. While using dance forms like the allemande, gigue and sarabande, Couperin, following the lutenists’ practice, gave the movements fanciful titles like Le Gazouillement or L’Ame en Peine.

Froberger reduced the multitude of movements to just four and fixed, temporarily at least, the order to allemande, courante, gigue and sarabande. In later composers the last two were reversed, ending with the gigue. Composers such as Bach often added a prelude before and a pair of galanterie or colorful added dances before the gigue. These might be menuets, gavottes, bourrees or some other kind.

However, at times Froberger wrote single occasional pieces such as his tombeau on the death of M. Blancheroche or the piece I transcribed. These pieces were often in allemande form, a sober dance in duple time. The piece that I transcribed has a very French type of title: Plainte faite à Londres pour passer la Melancholie, la quelle se joue lentement avec discrétion . Now there’s a title for you! Here is my transcription:

Click to enlarge

As you can see, I did this transcription before we had music software!

There is a story to go with this piece. Apparently Froberger was on a trip to London and very short of cash. He happened on a fine organist that he wished to hear and in exchange for the privilege of listening he agreed to work the bellows for the organ (this was before electricity of course). After a while, affected by the music, he fell into a deep melancholy and forgot to blow, at which point the organist kicked him out on the street. And so he wrote this piece.

The Plainte is very much in the stile brisé style of the French lutenists though it has the more developed harmonic language of the clavecinists. I have always found this to be a delightful and expressive piece, though I have to admit, audiences did not always share my evaluation! Perhaps I will do a recording of it--in the meantime, please feel free to play my transcription.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Bad Commentator

The Music Salon has been extremely blessed with its commentators, a wonderfully knowledgeable group. But this week, for only the third time, I have had to ban a commentator. The first time was years and years ago when casual mention of Narciso Yepes, a guitarist I rather like, led to a vicious war between one critic and a couple of deranged supporters. I had to shut down the whole discussion. This is what led to my now moderating all comments. Then there was a single obscene and nasty comment a couple of years later and I don't even recall the post. Until this week, that was it. Absolutely amazing considering this is the Internet. The vast, vast majority of the thousands of comments that have appeared here have been excellent contributions to the discussion.

But as I say, we had an objectionable one this week on my post Bach vs Beethoven. I would like to share it with you. Here is the whole comment:
Comparing composers is a childish waste of time and anyone involved is such an endeavor needs seriously to re-examine their lives.
Worse, is the declaration that one genius is "superior" to another.
Just shut up, keep your opinions to yourself (they are meaningless anyway) and enjoy the music.
I didn't block this one, but allowed it to be published as it is such an excellent example of a certain kind of attitude--and eminently enjoyable as such. Notice the absolute certainty with which these half-witted opinions are expressed. Anyone who compares composers needs to "seriously re-examine their lives." I'll get right on that! All composers are geniuses so one cannot be superior to another. Ah, the tyranny of equity! I have run into that before. Then the elegant call for cancelation: "Just shut up" he explained. And, the final touch: your opinions are meaningless, while mine are absolute truth. I don't think I have ever run into a clearer example of intellectual fascism!


Let's hear a little Narciso Yepes for our envoi. Here he is with a Scarlatti sonata.

Friday Miscellanea

Finally regular orchestras are absorbing music by Steve Reich into their repertoire. Here the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony and Choir perform The Desert Music.

* * *

"Pieces of music composed at the piano, on the keyboard, those thought out with pen on paper and those just composed with imagined sounds in the head must all be quite different in character and make quite different kinds of impression.

I am sure Bruckner composed just by imagining the sound of the orchestra in his head, Brahms with pen on paper. Of course this is an over-simplification. But it does highlight one feature."

[from Culture and Value, by Ludwig Wittgenstein, translated by Peter Winch, p. 12e]
What is that one feature?

* * *

Concerts are being canceled left and right: Canada mostly closes down:
The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) last night cancelled 11 concerts, running up to April 5, 2020.
There was coughing and sneezing at a Toronto Symphony rehearsal. Some players called the media. Hours later, the orchestra shut down.
Just in from Vancouver Symphony: BC Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has directed the cancellation of all gatherings larger than 250 people in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19. As such, VSO concerts through to April 5th are immediately cancelled or postponed.

Also Carnegie Hall and the Met.
* * *

And yesterday the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra gave a live streaming concert with no audience:

* * *

The important American composer Charles Wuorinen has passed away. Here is his Fourth Piano Concerto from 2003:

* * *

The Salzburg Easter Festival has been canceled. Fingers crossed for the big one in July/August. Plus a host of European nations have canceled concerts for the rest of March.

* * *

I know of numerous composers who suffer from tinnitus — that ringing or other sound in the ears which never shuts off. And even violinists tend to end up with hearing damage in the left ear, since that is the one closest to the sound of the instrument. It is, of course, the sounds we don’t make ourselves that we are most disturbed by. Noise from neighbours can be fatal. It is not unknown for disputes to end in murder or suicide.    
When Franz Joseph Haydn visited London he found the noise so intrusive he was unable to work. He wrote to Maria Anna von Genzinger in January 1791 that in spite of being showered with honours, “I wished I could fly for a time to Vienna, to have more quiet in which to work, for the noise that the common people make as they sell their wares in the street is intolerable.” He solved the problem by moving.
* * *

I have a confession to make. I recently invited a pair of friends who had never heard a live orchestra to a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performance. They left at intermission — at my suggestion. 
They weren’t clapping at the wrong time or dressed inappropriately. They had heard enough.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve advised newcomers to stay for half a concert, and it won’t be the last. Concerts traditionally last two or three hours, a big commitment for neophytes as well as passionate regulars. With all of today’s cultural and entertainment options, the competitive opportunity cost for attending concerts continues to climb. 
My solution: Classical music concerts should be shorter.
I'm not sure he's wrong. Sometimes I feel that programs are too short with too little substance prefaced by entirely too much talking, but there are certainly occasions when the program felt too long. And yes, I have left a number of concerts at intermission over the years.

* * *

 Brahms is now early music? Here is the Symphony No. 3 conducted by Philippe Herreweghe:

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Two Kinds of Guitarists

I played a concert at The Banff Centre once and Oscar Ghiglia, who was holding a master class there that summer that I attended, was in the audience. I had already played for him a few times, but I guess something about my approach puzzled him. He came up to me afterwards and said, "you used to play folk guitar, didn't you?" I had to confess that I had started on bass guitar and steel string, both acoustic and electric. I don't know what he heard that tipped him off, but I didn't play much folk, mostly blues and rock.

In any case, I am learning a pair of gavottes by Bach that I haven't played before and I notice something about the fingering that might be interesting. The editor, much of whose fingering I changed right off the bat, must have been a rhythm guitarist at one point. This might seem an odd claim to make about a classical guitarist, but in North America especially, most of us who end up as classical guitarists actually started out as some variety of pop guitarist playing steel string and electric guitars. Among pop guitarists (meaning just "non-classical") there are two basic kinds of guitarists. Let's call them JL guitarists (after John Lennon) and EC guitarists (after Eric Clapton). John Lennon was a solid, even outstanding, rhythm guitarist; Eric Clapton a really great lead guitarist. In most bands from the "guitar era" there was one of each in each group. Keith Richards, rhythm, Brian Jones, lead; John Lennon, rhythm, George Harrison, lead and so on. In Cream, of course, all three of the players were so busy there was hardly room for a rhythm guitarist--Jack Bruce did some rhythm guitar on the bass when he wasn't doing "lead" bass!

In the classical world, of course, all concert artists are pretty much "lead" guitarists but sometimes a guitar editor might reveal his roots. And so it was with my edition of the Bach. Let me show you what I mean. Here is the first phrase of the gavotte in his fingering:

Click to enlarge
The first half of the phrase is all bar chords with no open strings. Here is my fingering:

Click to enlarge
That inner voice C is on the third string. I have two things I am aiming for: first of all, to try and connect voices by putting consecutive notes on the same string when possible and connecting by moving a finger along a string. The first two notes of the melody, for example, are on the first string, the next two on the second string, there is one note on the first string open, and then it returns to the second string. The falling fourths are usually going to be on two adjacent strings. The other thing I do is avoid bar chords whenever possible. This is for two reasons: first, they immobilize the left hand and, especially when prolonged, create fatigue. Second, they tend to turn melodies into arpeggiated harmonies. Take the first few beats, for example. I want the E A F G E F to sound melodic, not harmonic. I also want to do the rests as they let air into the line.

If you sit down and play through the two fingerings this will all be clear!

The two kinds of guitarists, rhythm guitarists and lead guitarists, we can see as guitarists who focus on the harmony and ones who focus on the melody. Of course a good classical guitarist is focussing on both, plus rhythm, phrasing, counterpoint and so on.

There are a lot of editions out there by "rhythm" guitarists. One thing I notice is that they are rarely concert artists. As soon as I saw this edition I went to my shelves to find the edition by Oscar Ghiglia, but sadly, that was one score I lost years ago. Ghiglia has an excellent fingering, of course. This gavotte is from the 3rd lute suite published by Suvini Zerboni. Other editors with good fingerings are Leo Brouwer, Andrés Segovia and José Tomas--all also concert artists.

Let's have some music! I had to go through five or six guitarists before I found one who does, pretty much, my fingering. This is Jason Vieaux with both gavottes:

And just for fun, this is the only clip that I know of where we can see John Lennon and Eric Clapton playing together. Bonus: Keith Richards is playing bass. The song starts around the 1:05 mark:

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Beethoven vs Mendelssohn in the Piano Concerto

My post yesterday provoked a couple of interesting comments so I would like to do a follow up. Please go and read the post and especially the comments:

What I was doing in the post was contrasting Beethoven, at the core of the classical music canon, with Mendelssohn, a composer whose position seems to be sinking a bit, and Shostakovich, a composer who is rising in the musical world's estimation. My commentators presented some statistics on the one hand, showing that Mendelssohn is performed quite a lot, and with some words in support of Mendelssohn's piano concertos and of Hummel, a rather neglected composer. Let's set Hummel to one side for now and look at the piano concertos of Mendelssohn alongside those of Beethoven.

But before getting into that, I want to briefly note that mere statistics of how often a composer is performed can be deceiving. As I said in my comment, it is where and by whom that is more important. For example, when Leonard Bernstein conducted the Symphony No. 9 of Beethoven on the occasion of the falling of the Berlin wall, that was acknowledgement that Beethoven, and that work in particular, is at the heart of Western musical culture. When Igor Levit, one of the most promising young pianists today, made his recording debut on Sony he chose to record all five of the Beethoven late piano sonatas. This coming summer, the Salzburg Festival is programming all of the Beethoven piano concertos in one mammoth concert--oh, and Levit is playing all the sonatas in a series of eight recitals. Sure, this is partly because of the Beethoven 250th anniversary. But programming all the sonatas, or all the string quartets, or all the symphonies is not that unusual in a serious European festival. When I was there as a student they had the Alban Berg Quartet playing all the string quartets in a series of concerts and it wasn't any kind of anniversary.

Mendelssohn does not get the same attention. Yes, during 2009, the 200th anniversary of his birth, there was some celebration--a performance of the rarely-heard Symphony No. 2 "Lobgesang" at the 2009 Proms, for example, and a conference at Oxford University. But, very telling, the conference was devoted not just to Mendelssohn, but to four composers who all had an anniversary that year:
This conference combined a consideration of four major composers Purcell, Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn. Each composer had a relevant anniversary in 2009 – Purcell, 350 years after birth; Handel, 250 years after death; Haydn, 200 years after death; and Mendelssohn, 200 years after birth...
Let's get to the music. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Here is the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Mendelssohn with Stephen Hough and the Radio Philharmonic:

Let's put that alongside the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Beethoven, here played by Krystian Zimerman and the Vienna Philharmonic:

Now, try and remember the opening theme of the Mendelssohn. No? I think that the most salient element in a really outstanding piece of music is its individuality and hence its memorability. Sorry to say, but the Mendelssohn seems almost generic next to the Beethoven. The pianist is playing a forest of notes, but to little effect. Is this just my subjective impression? Do you agree? I don't want to sit down and start analyzing the scores and I think that we can easily hear the difference. How about a different pair of concertos? Here is Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 2:

And Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, chosen because it is also in a minor key:

Hm, well, more of the same. Undistinguished music from Mendelssohn and really memorable themes from Beethoven. But don't take my word for it. Here is what Robert Schumann had to say about the Mendelssohn:
This concerto, to be sure, will offer virtuosos little in which to show off their monstrous dexterity. Mendelssohn gives them almost nothing to do that they have not already done a hundred times before. We have often heard them complain about it. And not unjustly! ...
One will ask how it compares with his First Concerto. It's the same, and yet not the same; the same because it comes from the same practised master hand, different because it comes ten years later. Sebastian Bach is discernible in the harmonization. The rest, melody, form and instrumentation are all Mendelssohn.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Beethoven: Canonic Iconoclast

As we swing into the Beethoven 250th anniversary year (I tried to put that into Latin a while back with mixed results), it might be interesting to look at the current reception of the Viennese master. The celebration itself is a bit of a slap in the face to the new musicologists who poo-poo the whole notion of a canon. Beethoven, like Bach, Mozart and Schubert, looms so large that no matter what you say about him, he will continue to be at the core of the canon.

I define "canon" as simply those works of music that are truly indispensable, ones that are performed very frequently and that all young players have to come to terms with. Ones that listeners consistently seek out decade after decade. The canon is always in flux, of course, as composers wax and wane in the estimation of musicians and audiences. Concert promoters and orchestra managers are always reviewing attendance figures to see what music and what performers are popular. If your music remains unpopular or receives unenthusiastic response for long enough, you will slowly fall out of the canon.

I think that this is what is happening with Mendelssohn, though this may be just a personal opinion. What is happening with him is that he used to be in the front rank of composers based on a lot of very charming music and a wide appreciation of his whole oeuvre. More and more, however, much of his output has fallen by the wayside. Some of his symphonies are rarely performed. His "Songs Without Words" for piano used to be much more popular than they are. What does get performed is a pretty short list consisting of the Violin Concerto, the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, a couple of symphonies and the Octet. This is how a composer fades, with only a few works remaining in the active repertory. (Please vehemently disagree with me in the comments.)

Some other composers slowly fight their way from obscurity to prominence and one of these is Shostakovich. I was having lunch with a patron of the arts last week and she declared that Shostakovich was one of her favorite composers. This was not always so! When I was an undergraduate he was never studied and rarely mentioned except in connection with a supposed satire of him in the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. Now his symphonies, concertos and string quartets are performed in virtually every concert season and music festival.

Schubert, now in the very front rank of composers, was once considered to be second rank at best. He was known only for a couple of symphonies and a host of lieder. But in recent decades his stature has grown and grown as his chamber music and piano music has become better and better known.

But Beethoven, since his debuts in early 19th century Vienna, has been, along with Bach, simply the most important composer in classical music. With the exception of opera, where he only wrote one significant work, he looms large in every genre: his symphonies are unexcelled, as are his string quartets, piano sonatas and concertos. He is at the center of musical thought and the only reason that more musicologists are not cranking out books on him is simply that they have written so many already. The one piece of music that seems to lie at the core of classical music is the Symphony No. 9 of Beethoven whose theme is used as the anthem of the European Union. I am rather looking forward to hearing the Vienna Symphony perform it in August at the Salzburg Festival as I have never heard it in concert.

While other composers rise and fall, for the last two centuries Beethoven (yes, along with Bach and Mozart) persists. He will be with us for a long time to come. So why do I call him an "iconoclast"? For a long time, the basic narrative assigned to Beethoven, based on some empirical evidence, was that he was a revolutionary, someone who uprooted music and rewrote all the rules. This, while containing a grain of truth, is only part of the story. If we consult Donald Francis Tovey we find the other side of the coin: for him, Beethoven's music was built on a solid foundation of musical "normalcy" not tortured dysfunction. What Beethoven did more and more as he developed as a composer, was delve into the very depths of musical expression and structure. As his music became more transcendent it became more profound--just one of those contradictions we find in art.

This is Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony:

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Lost History of Music?

I ran across an article heralding an upcoming report for the National Association of Scholars titled: The Lost History of Western Civilization.
Thirty-two years ago, this country was divided by Stanford University’s decision to ditch its Western Civilization requirement in favor of a multicultural alternative. Claims that Stanford had built a racist curriculum around the likes of Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, Marx, Freud, Voltaire, and Darwin made for a sensational cultural side-show. Today, the Stanford dust-up has become our politics.
This is specific to the United States, of course, but there are echoes of this in other developed Western countries, certainly including Canada and the UK. The author, Stanley Kurtz, goes on to say:
The report draws on a deep refutation of academic “deconstructions” of Western Civilization to develop a new way of looking at the battle between multiculturalism and traditional American conceptions of citizenship. The report then explains the link between the relativist skepticism of academics and the moral certainties driving constant accusations of racism and bigotry on campus and beyond. By unearthing the work of great but long-forgotten historians who taught generations of Americans about Western Civilization, the report also casts a new light on the meaning of American exceptionalism.
I have a bit of a problem with "American exceptionalism" because it is not quite as exceptional as is usually claimed. Western civilization ultimately derives from two ancient sources: Jerusalem and Athens, was given a profound alteration during the High Middle Ages by people like Thomas Aquinas, was further developed by a host of Europeans during the Renaissance and Enlightenment (try and imagine Western art without the Renaissance or Western politics and philosophy without the Enlightenment). True, the Founding Fathers of the US were a brilliant group with both courage and will, but the so-called "exceptionalism" consisted in adopting ideas, such as the separation of powers from the French thinker Montesquieu, the "laissez-faire" free market system from thinkers like Adam Smith and Jean-Baptist Colbert and the whole of the English common law tradition to name just a few examples.

As a Canadian, whenever I hear about American exceptionalism I want to say, hey, we're a bit exceptional as well! But never mind, my point is just that the US is not the only heir of the traditions of Western Civilization--indeed, there is a large group of nations that share the benefits.

Two questions come to mind: is Western Civilization being lost and if so, can it be rescued before it is too late?

I tend to be an optimist. For one thing I have lost my taste for dystopian fictions. I find none of them believable. What I do find plausible is a continuation of the amazing success of Western Civilization over the last five hundred years. I also find less and less credible all those artworks that depend on a deep belief that we are on the verge of a horrific future. Makes for a nice story, but a lot of fiction by people like Joe Haldeman I just find unreadable now. And wow, is there ever a lot of dystopian narratives on television and Netflix these days. The Walking Dead, for example. In order to find these stories plausible you have to stop believing in the competence of scientists, doctors, and a host of other professions. Now I admit I am pretty skeptical about a lot of the so-called "clerisy" these days, as they seem to have a seriously flawed set of assumptions, but still the accumulated human capital of Western Civilization, even if a bit worn around the edges, is astonishingly immense. (Joel Kotkin has a very illuminating essay on the "clerisy" at Quillette.)

Another problem for me is that a lot of the right-wing critique of the culture is based on a variety of anecdotal evidence: Stanford University cuts the Western Civilization requirement, another university drops the requirement that English majors actually study English poets, and other examples do not really prove that the history of Western Civilization is being lost. I know the field of music best of all and I really don't see any evidence that music schools are dropping the requirements of music theory, ear-training and history. They may have added some courses in pop music, but the others are still central. In fact, our understanding of the history of music is better now than it has ever been. Not only that, but there is near universal access to recordings and scores of this history. What would concern me would be solid data on dropping enrollments or the lowering of standards of admission. Haven't seen that either.

But it is very likely the case that the familiarity with classical music of the general public, at least in North America, has diminished. How much? It would be good to know, but I don't seem much research in that area. All that being said, I will have a look at the upcoming report to see if has much to contribute.

We haven't had much Schubert for a while. Here is Grigory Sokolov with the Impromptu No. 1.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Friday Miscellanea

Friday is when we put up the funnest stuff, like this performance of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on baroque lute:

I once heard Jakob Lindberg play "Across the Universe" on baroque lute as an encore after a solo recital. Baroque lutes and the Beatles must be a thing. "Helter Skelter" anyone?

* * *

Anthony Tommasini has an interesting review in the New York Times of recitals by two pianists: Two Pianists Test the Meaning of Virtuosity
Yuja Wang and Daniil Trifonov have different artistic personalities. But they’re similar in how they recently took audiences on unusual musical journeys.
I'm big on the metaphor of music as a journey, it is one I used myself in a recent talk.
In a program note and recorded message played before the concert, Wang explained that she would not perform the works in the order originally listed; instead, she would give the recital “its own life” by responding to how she felt in the moment and playing whatever piece struck her. This raised some difficult questions that have stayed with me, and it seemed to leave many audience members shuffling through their programs trying to figure out what they were hearing — especially with less-familiar fare by Berg, Monpou and Scriabin.
I believe that should be "Mompou" the Catalan pianist and composer? I kind of like the idea of playing the music in a different order each concert. It adds a level of spontaneity and challenges the audience to identify the piece (the works are listed in the program, but not the order of performance) a bit like a blind tasting of wine. Yuja Wang has been playing this program in a number of recitals lately. Daniil Trifonov is playing an all-Bach program:
The main offering, though, was “The Art of Fugue,” which was left incomplete at Bach’s death. It includes 14 elaborate fugues, about an hour’s worth of the most riveting, complex and astonishing contrapuntal music ever written. I have never been so impressed by Mr. Trifonov’s virtuosity — the most musically comprehensive kind, which is what it took for him to play this work so magnificently.
I have a ticket to hear him in Salzburg in August where he is playing an all contemporary concert from Berg to Adams.

* * *

From Slipped Disc, a troubling experience for Yuja Wang:
On arrival at Vancouver International Airport on Friday, I was detained for over an hour and subjected to intense questioning which I found humiliating and deeply upsetting. I was then released, giving me very little time to travel to the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. I was left extremely shaken by this experience.
When I was dropped off at the venue for my recital that evening, my eyes were still visibly red and swollen from crying. I was in shock. Although I was traumatized by what happened, I was determined not to cancel the recital, but to go ahead with the performance and not to let the audience down, which included my dear teacher Gary Graffman. I decided that wearing sunglasses was the only way to prevent my distress from being seen, since I wasn’t yet prepared to make a statement about what happened.
I have occasionally experienced rude and inconsiderate behaviour from immigration officers--even in Canada where you might expect a certain amount of courtesy. Touring musicians have always faced challenges, but this seems to have been a particularly unnecessary one!

* * *

This piece in The Guardian, 'It's hopeful and generous': Thurston Moore's experimental record shop, asks the poignant question:
who in their right mind would open a record store now? There is no money in it. Even on this gentrified street there are empty shops, the rents are extortionate and landlords are keen to turn properties over to property developers. What about profit? “What about artistic profit, creative profit, intellectual profit?” replies Moore.
To which I would add: "who in their right mind would be a composer? Or classical musician generally? Or a poet? Or work in any field in which aesthetics, not profit, is the prime motivator?"

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Speaking of musicians and touring, here is a compendium of disasters: ‘I’ve seen a forklift go through a guitar case’: Musicians share their air-travel horror stories.
In 2014, Christopher Wilke, a lute player and University of Cincinnati music professor, had his $10,000 instrument destroyed on a Delta flight. Wilke was fastidious with his instrument, even placing a humidifier inside the case to prevent drying. Delta paid for repairs, but he put the blame for these incidents squarely on careless policies from both TSA and the airline.
“The apathy of the TSA and airlines to protect rare instruments from harm greatly hinders the opportunity for musicians and audiences to connect,” Wilke said. The experience shook him so deeply that, despite recent collaborations with rock and hip-hop artists and offers for national tour dates, he won’t baggage-check his instrument and can’t afford the cost of an extra airplane seat, and therefore doesn’t perform beyond a day’s driving distance from Cincinnati.
I had a number of unpleasant incidents travelling with a guitar on Canadian airlines and so was apprehensive about a trip from Mexico to Toronto to make a recording a year ago. My travel agent printed out the Aeromexico policies which clearly stated that a guitar case was within the dimensions of carry-on luggage and as it turned out, everything went smoothly. But for many years I simply would not travel with a guitar.

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Here is something interesting: Chords and discords.
Classical music is a rare remaining area where citizens of countries that are at loggerheads (or worse) with one another can interact in a productive manner. “The most important aspect we’re missing in the public debate today is the ability to listen. Listening is fundamental in music-making,” Noseda, an Italian, told me. Indeed, long before the US State Department coined the phrase Track II Diplomacy—encounters between hostile states involving think tank and other civil society experts—in the early 1980s, classical music was Track II. “The world needs to find a layer where we can talk, and that layer is music,” Noseda suggested.
True and very heartening, but this transcendent aspect of music is exactly what is put at risk by the contextual approach of the "new" musicology. Music for them is not above the social context, indeed, the identity of the performers, composers and listeners is crucial. But if this were so, then the assumptions of the above article would be challenged. You can either see music as a kind of transcendent bridge between places, peoples and cultures, or you can see it as entirely the product of particular places, peoples and cultures--which one is more true? Or more beneficial?

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I think we should have some lute music today, don't you? This is master lutenist Paul O'Dette playing all the galliards by John Dowland: