Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Voice and Lute

This concert was posted on April 2nd from a concert given at the Festival de Maguelone last year. The singer is Lea Desandre and Thomas Dunford plays the very ungainly Baroque lute. The music is by a variety of 17th century French composers. What is most unusual is that both artists perform the whole concert from memory--something you often see with singers but never with accompanists. The program is all songs, with solo lute pieces by Robert de Visée and Marin Marais interspersed. Really a lovely and very unusual performance.

Encores included Debussy and Handel. You don't hear Debussy on Baroque lute very often. Nor harmonics, for that matter.

UPDATE: Looks like they were reading the encores at least from a discretely positioned iPad.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Guitar Concert Today

I don't listen to a lot of guitarists these days because, frankly, they are not that interesting. But I make exception for Marcin Dylla who is both technically adept and musically masterful. A couple of days ago he put up a performance of the Bach Suite in E minor, BWV 996 that is really outstanding:

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Post 3,002!

Now how did I miss that!! Putting up these daily concert posts threw me off and I lost count. The 3,000th post was actually the "Concert of the Day" one this morning. Oh well. I'm sure you have the general idea. I hadn't even decided for sure what I was going to do for the 3,000th post. Probably put up some compositions for the grand finale. Well, ok, here are a few.

Comments welcome, of course.

The Beatles and the Rolling Stones

That's mostly true, of course. The Beatles never managed to become the long-lasting commercial enterprise that the Stones did. In fact, the Stones probably learned how to handle their business by noting all the mistakes the Beatles made.
The Beatles stopped touring early in their rise to stardom, reportedly because the screaming and carrying on from fans got out of hand. The boys from Liverpool hit the big time with their 1963 release of “Please Please Me,” but they broke up in 1970, with McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison all going their separate ways. Lennon was murdered in 1981 at age 40, while Harrison passed away from cancer in 2001 at age 58.
The Stones, meanwhile, have been one of the largest touring bands every decade since the 1970s. All the members — Jagger, Richards, 76, Charlie Watts, 78, and Ron Wood, 72 — are out on the road every couple of years with a new show, which feature elaborate sets and amazing light shows.
All true. The Stones and the Beatles were/are fundamentally different kinds of musical acts. The Beatles were singer/composers who could also play their instruments. The Stones, once they settled into their groove, have always been a solid rhythm and blues band with a rough originality. The Beatles wrote hundreds of songs, each one unique, even the bad ones, like "Obladi-Oblada," are uniquely bad. The Stones have essentially delivered the same product, in different packaging, hundreds of times. It is a bit like the difference between Bach and Vivaldi. What the Stones do is great, but they do it over and over. This is undoubtedly why they are so long-lasting and so successful. The Beatles, on the other hand, couldn't stand to repeat themselves and their creative ferment drove them apart in less than a decade.

Now the Stones have a new number one single, the first in a long, long time, and it is again, a solid, blues-based tune a lot like their other stuff:

A while ago they did a tribute album devoted to some old blues standards like "Ride Em Down," an old Eddie Taylor tune from the 50s and, with a funky video starring Kristen Stewart driving a classic Mustang, it was really well done:

Here's the original:

But again, still in the same basic blues groove. And why not, that's what they do and that's what people like.

But the Beatles were always a different story. With everything they did, they tried to break new ground. And succeeded. Some samples:

Yeah, French horn solo.

Completely different harmonic scheme and vocal treatment.

Again, completely different harmonic structure, this time alternating between major and minor.

I choose all these from a fairly early period in the Beatles just to show what variety they were capable of even early on. Later, of course, they did a lot of radically innovative things. They even did a couple of solid blues-based tunes...

Concert of the Day

At first it looks like a video on fence repair, but that's just the intro to this Concertgebouw concert introduced by the principal flautist Kersten McCall. The program is Rossini, La Gazza Ladra overture followed by the Symphony No. 5 by Prokofiev written in 1944 during the Second World War. The music starts around the 12 minute mark and the Prokofiev around the 22 minute mark.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Today's Concert is Solo Flute

Just posted today, this concert is by the principal flute of the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra, Sebastian Wittiber, who plays music by C. P. E. Bach, Debussy and J. S. Bach.

Friday, April 24, 2020

A Brief Visit with David Hurwitz

A commentator alerts me to this editorial over at Classics Today by David Hurwitz, author of several books on classical music. The essay itself combines some rather odd ideas with some good common sense:
Considering how culturally valuable and self-evidently important classical music is supposed to be, its proponents are a surprisingly defensive group. At performing arts organizations, press departments fret that the slightest negative comment about an artist might attract public notice. What little marketing that takes place with respect to recordings always assumes that the latest issue is necessarily “the best,” or at all events of earth-shattering importance. Classical music, we are assured, is really “good for us” intellectually, spiritually, and even physically, the aural equivalent of cod liver oil.
That's in the first category. This immediately shows itself to be one of those defences of classical music that Taruskin, in a scathing essay, regarded as being in the "with friends like these, who needs enemies" category. The problem is that this is a gross exaggeration. Yes, classical music people can be a bit defensive, but that is because, in North America, the art form is under threat of simply being erased. When he simply advocates critical judgement he is on solid ground:
I propose a radical new idea: Tell the truth! Stop insisting that the classics consist of an unbroken chain of perfect masterpieces of equal worth, and let people compare, judge, and even (gasp!) dislike some of them.
But when he goes on to list examples, categorizing them as "ten of classical music’s dirtiest secrets" he shows how unreliable his own judgements are in practice. Let's have a look:
  • Mozart really does all sound the same.
  • Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is just plain ugly.
  • Wagner’s operas are much better with cuts.
  • No one cares about the first three movements of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique.
  • Schoenberg’s music never sounds more attractive, no matter how many times you listen to it.
  • Schumann’s orchestration definitely needs improvement.
  • Bruckner couldn’t write a symphonic allegro to save his life.
  • Liszt is trash.
  • The so-called “happy” ending of Shostakovich’s Fifth is perfectly sincere.
  • It’s a good thing that “only” about 200 Bach cantatas survive.
It's like Charles Ives fused with Wilford Brimley and weighed in on classical music!

  • Mozart sounds the same in that it is all in Classical style, but someone who thinks that the Requiem and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik sound the same should not be allowed to go to concerts unattended
  • The Grosse Fuge has its intense moments, yes, but nothing about it is "just plain."
  • Even with this incitement it is hard for me to defend Wagner--but lots of others would!
  • Well, Berlioz... Still, there are some good bits.
  • Schoenberg is an acquired taste like pickles or olives or single malt. Perhaps Mr. Hurwitz should start with the Gurrelieder?
  • Ok, I agree with him re Schumann's orchestration. He tends to be obsessive about rhythmic patterns sometimes too
  • Bruckner has other qualities
  • Saying Liszt is trash is like saying Hungarian cuisine is trash--you obviously are oversimplifying
  • Ah, Mr. Hurwitz is engaging in a bit of mind-reading--not only of Shostakovich, but also of his audiences.
  • As for dismissing all the Bach cantatas so cavalierly, now I am sure Mr. Hurwitz is going to hell!


Friday Miscellanea

I honestly don't know whether to categorize this as "woo-woo newagism," scientism or actual fact, but here it goes anyway: Can music boost your immune system?
Noah Potvin, a professor of music therapy at Duquesne University, said classical music’s cultural associations include relaxation and refinement and a certain health image, and this is likely driving listeners to the genre.
“Think of any Lexus or Mercedes commercial with soaring classical melodies,” he said. “That sense of security and peace is attractive right now.”
Mr. Potvin is skeptical of some of the research linking music with the immune system, questioning whether it’s healthy to use music or any other tool to suppress anxiety.
“The research is superficial, though I don’t mean that in a pejorative way,” he said. “I think the information we have is valuable, but we need to go deeper.”
Music therapists use music to treat acute anxiety and stress, but Mr. Potvin said a more valuable use is exploring how music can help listeners work through anxiety and stress instead of simply covering over such sensations, which can be counterproductive. Using music for progressive muscle relaxation is a common technique at the moment, he said.
Listening to music is not a cure-all. It’s another example of the much-discussed “mind-body connection” that has so captured the public consciousness in recent years, which deals with how emotional and mental health have physical outcomes.
“I’m a skeptic by nature, so when I first heard of the mind-body connection I thought it was new-age woo-woo,” Dr. Levin said. “However, the more I learned about human physiology, and in particular neurophysiology and neurology, I became increasingly convinced that we actually underestimate how profound this connection is.”
The research is spotty and no conclusions possible yet, but why take the chance? Listen to some Prokofiev today!

* * *

Here is a piece on how Canada's cultural institutions are trying to put their content online during the virus crisis: Going digital not easy for cultural institutions.
Forced to close by the coronavirus crisis, Canada’s museums and public art galleries quickly redirected visitors to their digital offerings: social-media feeds, 3-D gallery tours, videos of curators’ talks, online exhibitions and image banks of their collections. Virtual experiences beckon, yet the truth is that only a tiny fraction of Canada’s public collections can be seen online.
* * *


* * *

Germany seems to be doing well in the crisis. Not only are rates of infection low, but they are giving impressive support to their artists, even solo musicians.

* * *

All musicians, dancers, theatre artists and other performers long for the return of the days of live audiences, but even when the lockdown ends, it seems unlikely that live streaming will vanish along with our N95 face masks. It’s a relatively inexpensive way for musicians to keep in touch with fans, and the intimate atmosphere has proven popular with many audiences.
If live streaming is here to stay, however, there are still some technical hurdles to be overcome. When it comes to live music streaming, and in particular, the capacity to play together real time over the internet, the technology could be said to be in a nascent state — still very much under construction.
One problem is latency, or the time lag for transmission:
Latency is essentially the amount of time it takes for the digitized audio of a performance to zap through the ethernet, and the actual live broadcast of that sound. Think of it as a lag time. Simply put, information takes a minimum of 5 microseconds per km to transmit over the internet. Along the way, that signal may also have to be rerouted or switched, and may travel over different types of networks that may impede the speed.
But a bigger problem that I have heard is balance: especially with a large group of musicians, achieving the right dynamic blend seems to be particularly hard.

* * *

The Spectator has an article praising Mozart as a letter-writer: The marvel of Mozart’s letters.
It’s 1771, you’re in Milan, and your 14-year-old genius son has just premièred his new opera. How do you reward him? What would be a fun family excursion in an era before multiplexes or theme parks? Leopold Mozart knew just the ticket. ‘I saw four rascals hanged here on the Piazza del Duomo,’ wrote young Wolfgang back to his sister Maria Anna (‘Nannerl’), excitedly. ‘They hang them just as they do in Lyons.’ He was already something of a connoisseur of public executions. The Mozarts had spent four weeks in Lyons in 1766 and as the music historian Stanley Sadie points out, Leopold had clearly taken his son (ten) and daughter (15) along to a hanging ‘for a jolly treat one free afternoon’.
Mozart’s letters deliver many such jolts — reminders that, however directly we might feel that Mozart’s music speaks to us, he’s not a man of our time. But for every shock of difference, there’s a start of recognition. Composers’ letters can make frustrating reading. Beethoven’s are brusque, practical affairs; Brahms hides behind a humour as impenetrable as his beard. But with Mozart, you get the whole personality — candid, perceptive and irresistibly alive.
* * * 

Musicians worldwide have lost their income. The New York Times has the story of a young quartet: A String Quartet Is Crushed by the Coronavirus.
Since its formation in 2008, the Tesla Quartet has been showered with critical accolades, released two recordings, hired a manager and lined up a full schedule at major concert halls around the world.
Even so, life as a professional string quartet has been a hand-to-mouth existence. The four players, aged 34 to 38, have long relied on relatives, friends and concert presenters for temporary housing, while stashing their few possessions in a storage locker. Only during the past year did their advance bookings give them the confidence and means to rent their own apartments in New York.
And then, in early March, their delicate world fell apart. 
Then came a cascade of cancellations and postponements. Foreign travel was suspended. By late March, their performance calendar through June, which had been full, was bare.
Classical musicians are typically paid only after a performance is over, so the players suddenly confronted the prospect of no income for the foreseeable future. They doubted the few remaining summer festivals on their schedule would come through.
Read the whole thing.

* * *

Let's start our envois with the Tesla Quartet playing Haydn in the 2016 Banff competition:

And here is the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, mentioned in the Spectator piece:

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Today's Concert

Something a bit different today, a concert of Debussy and Stravinsky by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra introduced by their principal bassoonist (and you get a brief glimpse of how bassoonists make their reeds). The concert was posted yesterday and the music starts around the 7 minute mark.

UPDATE: Posted yesterday, but not performed yesterday, I think, because the concert is played for a live audience so it was given before the pandemic.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Working Up to the 3,000th Post: Guitar Recordings

As you know if you read my biography, my main professional career was as a classical guitar soloist. I did a number of recordings in those years and some of them are quite listenable--well, you be the judge! They are mostly of the standard Segovia repertoire with the addition of some contemporary pieces. Here are some links:

This is the first clip I posted. It is the Carora. vals venezolano by Antonio Lauro. The video has some photos from my career as a guitarist.

There are a bunch of others scattered around on the blog under various titles, so I will just post some clips here. If they looked greyed out, don't worry, they will play anyway. It is just that they are not posted on YouTube. I intend to set up my own YouTube channel any day now!

This is one of the warhorses of the guitar repertoire: Asturias (Leyenda) by Isaac Albéniz, originally transcribed by Segovia:

And this is another one, the big tremolo piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Francisco Tárrega:

Here is a very Spanish piece by Joaquin Rodrigo: En los trigales:

This is a piece from Brazil by Isaías Sávio called Serões:

These take so long to upload that that is all I am going to post today. Incentive to get my YouTube channel up and running.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Working Up to the 3,000th Post: the Least Serious Posts!

One of my old friends in the early days of this blog commented that there was a lot of humor that he hadn't noticed at first. Well, yes. There are brief glints of humor and even wit occasionally in most posts. But for some posts I go all out: low humor, Canadian humor, musical humor and yes, moments of wit and of course, lots of satire. So here is a collection of some of the funnier posts.

  • This one dates from way back and gives a number of examples of Musical Humor. Sadly, a lot of the links have succumbed to link-rot and back then I didn't provide hints in the text.
  • Here is a recent post on satire in music with some great examples from Couperin.
  • A post on humor in the personal lives of musicians: The Power of Humor.
  • Waay back in the blog I started a series called "Catty Micro-Reviews" in which I just typed an individual letter into YouTube and make a brief comment on whatever came up. I had fun, at least. Here is the first one in the series. I think my favorite comment was on the Kenny G. clip: "Pachelbel on Xanax walks into a smoke-filled jazz club and knocks back three shots of tequila, plus, shouldn't this video be illegal?"
  • The next one was really brief, but included this comment on Josh Vietti: "Nicolo Paganini is given a lobotomy and when he wakes up, finds himself doing a gig with a drum machine."
  • And finally, a kind of summation of the genre. I think I quit doing them because while I was enjoying them, no-one was leaving comments so maybe I was the only one.
  • The Friday Miscellaneas were often home to some funny bits like this item from December 2015: "I don't want to depress anyone unnecessarily, but here, from Amazon, are the Hot New Releases in Classical. By "classical" you have to understand that odd little niche in the current commercial marketplace where you put crossover, classical/pop, Italian tenors, groups of Italian tenors, seasonally-oriented heavy metal, aging Italian tenors and the occasional classical album by Yo-Yo Ma that is crossover oriented. And may God have mercy on our souls."
  • Sometimes I do a humorous typology like this one: Hacks, Artistes, Dullards and Con-Men describing different kinds of performers.
  • Some of my best efforts went into critiques of various kinds of publicity: Grigory Sokolov, Ready for His Close-up?
  • Here is another good one on Celebrity Musicians, branding, publicity and so on.
  • I enjoyed writing satirical captions for some musician publicity photos.
One of the funniest pieces ever written is this polka from an early ballet by Shostakovich:

Monday, April 20, 2020

Working Up to the 3,000th Post: Some Serious Posts

Over the nearly ten years I have been doing the blog, there have been a wide range of different kinds of posts. One category was of the "miniature doctoral dissertation" variety where I, with little preparation and more chutzpah than finesse, try to take on some daunting topic. I think this might be because I did all the seminar work for a doctorate in musicology, but dropped out before the dissertation! Anyway, here are links to some posts where I took on a rather serious topic. Not always with great success, but with a certain flair:

That is a somewhat haphazard selection of a few serious posts. Stay tuned, because next time I am going to collect a bunch of my least serious posts. Yes, and Yma Sumac is likely to make an appearance.

Our envoi today will be another of the Frankfurt daily concerts. This is a really unusual one. Oliver Leicht is a solo clarinetist and saxophonist who works with electronics. Put up on April 15:

Sunday, April 19, 2020

A Concert Every Day

It is worth checking every day to see what the Frankfurt folks have scheduled. Today is some lovely playing with Florin Iliescu, Violin and Anna Naretto, Piano. That violin sound is truly ravishing.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Today's Concert from Frankfurt

Today is a mini-concert by a husband and wife violin and viola duo playing Three Madrigals by Bohuslav Martinů:

Isn't it great to hear all this unfamiliar chamber music?

Working up to the 3,000th Post

I started this blog on Sunday, June 5, 2011 with this post: Welcome! At first it felt like a cross between an email to friends and a brief class in music. While early on I just talked about my own experiences and the experience of blogging, over time the blog evolved. For quite a while it became oriented towards education with posts on basic musical ideas like What is Counterpoint? I posted a lot about harmony like this one Harmony Revisited Part 3. My view on harmony and music theory generally is largely from a composer's perspective as a few years before I started this blog I launched myself into music composition in a serious way. I rather think most musicians should do a little composing as I argued in this post: Why You Should Compose.

For quite a few years I got involved in long series of posts on different repertoires and composers. For example, there was a long series on the Beethoven Piano Sonatas. Another on the Shostakovich String Quartets. Yet another on the Haydn String Quartets. A big reason for doing these was that, despite eight years in music school in which I earned two degrees (one a Bachelor in Performance with Distinction and the other a Concert Diploma) and did all the seminars for a Doctorate in Musicology, there was remarkably little time spent on the core repertoire. For example, while I recall spending time in one theory course on a Haydn string quartet, I don't recall spending any time on a Beethoven piano sonata! I did a seminar on Shostakovich symphonies, but we never discussed in any course his string quartets. I can't blame the universities too much--the truth is that you can't cover everything. But it is amazing how little of the repertoire you really know on graduation.

Tom Service at The Guardian newspaper did a couple of long series on the Symphony and 20th century composers so I answered that with my own series on the Concerto. While these were purporting to be educational for others (and I did receive an award as a music education blog, number 43 in the world as I recall) the real purpose was my own education. I always feel there are blanks to be filled in.

The fun thing about doing a blog is that there is plenty of room for whimsy so I have posts on official didgeridoo performance costs, catty micro-reviews (which I don't do any more) and a bunch of other posts on things like weird album covers. This blog has its satirical side.

Occasionally I would put up posts with clips from my career as a performer. Here is a very brief one of a wild little piece by Czech composer Štěpán Rak (b. 1945). There were lots of other ones of the basic Spanish guitar repertoire such as Asturias by Albéniz. If you follow those links, the clips may look greyed out as if they are no longer functional, but they work just fine when you click on them. I think it is because I uploaded them directly instead of through YouTube.

I recent years I have gotten more interested in things like aesthetics and the philosophy and sociology of music in posts like these: Introduction to Aesthetics and Aesthetics, part 2 and Aesthetics, part 3. Incidentally, some of these posts attracted a lot of great commentary.

Speaking of commentators, this would be a good place to mention that the most surprising thing about doing the blog has been, for me, the variety and quality of the comments I have gotten. There have been about ten thousand of them and apart from two or three offensive ones that I have deleted--yes, literally two or three--they have all been interesting contributions to the discussion. What I didn't expect was how much I stood to learn from my commentators. These have included some significant figures in the music world: composer Jennifer Higdon, professor Ethan Hein, jazz historian Theo Gioia and most recently musicologist Richard Taruskin.

I have also attempted series of posts on composers like Sofia Gubaidulina, Luigi Nono and Arnold Schoenberg, though apart from the latter, I never completed these series! As for Schoenberg, he is of such continuing importance that I just put up posts now and then with no idea that they will have a conclusion.

The one perennial series, for the last few years at least, has been my Friday Miscellanea. Though some months I post much less than others, I never miss putting up a hodge-podge of links on Fridays. Every one is different so here are some examples.

I have also occasionally posted some of my compositions. Here is an early work for guitar orchestra in moment form: Long Lines of Winter Light. A song from a set of twelve: Goe and Catch a Falling Starre. At that point I was trying to reinvent harmony. A piece for violin and piano just for fun: Chase.

After not doing any traveling for several years, recently I have spent some time in Europe each year, enjoying the art, the food and, of course the music. I spend a month in Madrid a couple of years ago. Here is a post about an opera I saw at the Teatro Real. And last summer I spent a couple of weeks in Salzburg at the festival. Sadly, due to the virus, it is not certain whether there will be a festival this year.

Well, that is a lot more than I planned on for this post, the 2990th! Let me end with something unusual. I was reading this morning that recluse Fiona Apple has a new album out titled "Fetch the Bolt Cutters" so I had a listen and actually got through five songs before I lost interest. Usually half a song is enough. But this music is quite original. There are places where I am reminded of John Lennon and there are faint traces of Bob Dylan, but musically it is quite fresh. Have a listen:

Friday, April 17, 2020

Friday Miscellanea

Some weeks it is tempting to just link to a bunch of Slipped Disc posts on Friday. It is the silly post of the week, after all. Some examples:




But I do have standards...

* * *

Alex Ross does the valuable public service of listing a number of livestreamed concerts we can watch:
April 16
7pm CET: Igor Levit Hauskonzert.
7pm CET: Alan Gilbert conducts the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in music of Torbjörn Iwan Lundquist, Mozart, and Haydn.
8pm ET: Musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra perform from their homes.
See also Recital Streams.

April 17
7pm CET: Daniel Barenboim and Michael Barenboim play Mozart sonatas at Boulez Saal.
830pm CET: At the Schinkel Pavilion, Tabea Zimmermann and Francesco Piemontesi perform works for viola and piano.
73opm ET: Pianist Pedja Muzijevic performs music of CPE Bach, Antheil, Glass, Satie, and Cage, courtesy of the 92nd St. Y.
730pm ET: Violinist Alexi Kenney performs in lieu of a scheduled concert with the New Haven Symphony
April 18
2pm CET: Dante Boon performers Tom Johnson's An Hour for Piano.
April 19
5pm ET: The American Composers Orchestra presents the first in a series of commissioned solo works. Miranda Cuckson plays a piece by Ethan Iverson. Ticketed event on Zoom, with proceeds going to benefit artists.
April 20
830pm CET: At the Schinkel Pavilion, pianist Severin von Eckardstein performs Prokofiev, Medtner, Chopin.
April 24
830pm CET: At the Schinkel Pavilion, Gabriel Schwabe and Nicholas Rimmer perform cello-and-piano works by Schubert and Chopin.
6pm ET: Live-stream from ThingNY.
April 25
6pm ET: Live-stream from ThingNY.
April 26
5pmET: American Composers Orchestra presents harpist Ahya Simone playing a new work by Shara Nova. Ticketed event on Zoom, with proceeds going to benefit artists.
6pm ET: Live-stream from ThingNY.
Other lists of this kind: VANWKAR.
* * * 
 Another Canadian orchestra steps up to the plate and rescinds layoffs: COVID-19: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra rescinds layoffs and looks to online offerings.

* * *

The Royal Family of the UK is one of the last remaining niches of aristocracy and recently demonstrated that they can be useful patrons of the arts: John Tavener's 'magical' last opera to be staged for first time.
A newly discovered opera by Sir John Tavener is to be staged for the first time after the late composer’s friend Prince Charles flagged up its potential.
Tavener, one of the most acclaimed British composers of his generation, completed his final opera, Krishna, in 2005 but it has remained in manuscript form, unperformed and largely unknown, since then.
A number of years after Tavener’s death in 2013, Prince Charles approached Sir David Pountney, then artistic director of the Welsh National Opera, to ask if he would take a look at Krishna to see if it was a viable opera project.
“I did look and I thought yes it was definitely an interesting project,” said Pountney. “I was astonished to discover this massive complete work, never performed, and on a subject which is so close to Tavener’s music and life. It is a very exciting prospect.”
* * *

Here is a little account of just how devastating the coronavirus shutdown has been for musicians: The Day the Music Stopped: Standing Still Together.
It was a Thursday, the day the music stopped. For us musicians, the emails and phone calls started as a trickle that turned into a flood. Two weeks of dates cancelled, and then before we knew it, two months. Every single concert, opera, festival, club date–our calendars were wiped clean. When it happened, some of us were out on the road, and we made our way home in confusion and panic. Some of us were getting ready to head out on tour, and we cancelled flights, unpacked suitcases. We were all stunned. It was surreal and impossible. 
Musicians like me exist in the present and the future at the same time, with our schedules planned out years in advance and our daily practice focused on performances months ahead. Always moving forward, never standing still. Always focused on tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. But that Thursday, when the scale of the global COVID-19 pandemic stopped us all in our tracks, I had to stop, too. Tomorrow was unknowable. As the world spun out of control, I had to stand still, and it made me dizzy.
* * *

For our envois today, first, another streamed concert from Frankfurt with Maximillian Junghanns and Asli Kilic playing the Beethoven A minor Violin Sonata:

And on the more popular side, Martin Scales & Paul Höchstädter play some tunes by John Lennon, Bob Marley and others:

From the beginning of the pandemic, here is the Vancouver Symphony conducted by Otto Tausk in a performance of the Symphony No. 6 by Beethoven to an empty hall.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Coronavirus Harp Concert

Every day more interesting chamber music from Frankfurt. Today harpist Anne-Sophie Bertrand plays Hindemith, Debussy, Fauré, Liszt and Hasselmans.

Wonder if they have any guitarists on tap?

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Coronavirus Concerts

Early on in the epidemic we saw a whole concert from the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra, streamed live, but, eerily, from an empty hall. Things have gotten even stricter with now, no more than two musicians allowed to perform together at the same time. Here are Rachelle Hunt, violin and Stefanie Pfaffenzeller, viola in a concert of duets, again from an eerily empty hall. Music by Mozart, Telemann, Bartók and Haydn. Nice opportunity to hear a lot of chamber music we would not normally encounter.

This was just put up yesterday so, really fresh!

Friday, April 10, 2020

Essence or Context

One of the chapters in Taruskin's recent collection Cursed Questions, is titled "Essence and Context" and it deals with the "ontology of music," specifically with the idea of "music as music" that is, music considered in the abstract, without considering context. Opposed to this is consideration of music as inextricably linked to a context--social, historic, etc.

This makes me think that there is really a sort of spectrum from music that, at least on the face of it, is pretty much music as essence. At the other end of the spectrum is music that is all about the context. At the abstract or essence end is a piece like this, perennially popular with theorists:

Or this, also popular with theorists:

Typically, at this point a musicologist would start to dig into the pieces to show that yes, even these, supposed abstract musical "examples" still do have a context. But I want to go in a completely different direction. Let's see if we can find some music that is all about context with a minimum of abstract musical interest. How about this?

The tune, "Mansions of the Lord" is a hymn, written in traditional style, by Randall Wallace with music by Nick Glennie-Smith. It was used in the soundtrack of the film We Were Soldiers. The performers here are the West Point Band and West Point Glee Club. Context? Layers and layers of context. The text honours fallen soldiers, the music is in the style of a traditional hymn, the performers are young people destined to become soldiers and the audience are undoubtedly soldiers and relatives of soldiers. This is a kind of niche in which music preserving a style hundreds of years old is entirely suitable. This is about 95% context and 5% pure musical interest.

Here is another example, but using a non-Western musical genre, the haka. The haka is a war chant used by the Maori in New Zealand. It has found its way into two cultural niches in modern New Zealand: as a suitably demoralizing pre-game ritual by the New Zealand Blacks rugby team, and also to honour fallen comrades by some New Zealand army units. The words, gestures, dance, facial expressions are all traditional.

Now, of course, I am trying to think of some examples not connected with armed services, but perhaps there needs to be a niche this strong to resist the temptation to any sort of musical innovation! The haka dates back a couple of hundred years.

Friday Miscellanea

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I'm starting to have just a trace of hope that Salzburg will go forward: Bregenz Festival: We're Going Ahead.
The Austrian lakeside festival, which begins late July, has issued an ebullient statement:
As things stand at present, the Bregenz Festival should go ahead as planned from July 22 to August 23 2020. As last year’s production, ‘Rigoletto,’ is returning for its second run on the lake stage, considerably less preparation is needed than for a new production. Rehearsals are due to start in mid-June.
This note also fosters hope.
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British orchestras are pretty much screwed, though: British Orchestras are in Critical Position.
Dire warning from the director of the Association of British Orchestras, Mark Pemberton:
There’s no easy way of saying this: the Covid-19 emergency has placed the UK’s orchestras in a critical position.
Unlike orchestras in continental Europe and other parts of the world, which receive significantly higher levels of public subsidy, British orchestras are heavily dependent on earned income from ticket sales, international tours and commercial activity such as recordings, at an average of 50% of turnover. And for the many ABO members that do not receive public funding, the level of earned income is that much higher. With the forced closure of entertainment venues and recording studios, that income has plunged to zero.
It isn’t just in the past few weeks that this has hit the orchestras hard. Tours to Asia, a crucial revenue earner for our members, started to be cancelled back in January, and it has escalated from there, with first international touring, and then concerts in the UK, grinding to a halt. This in turn threatens the financial sustainability of our members, and the livelihoods of the musicians who work for them.
The 65 member orchestras of the ABO have different employment models for their musicians, with some, such as the BBC, regional symphony and the major opera and ballet orchestras being in salaried employment, and the rest, including the London self-governing orchestras and the chamber orchestras, operating on a freelance basis.
There are over 2,000 members of the UK’s orchestras, of which 50% are self-employed, plus 12,000 engagements annually of freelance extras….
* * * 

One of my particular pleasures is intellectual humor. Here is a tasty example (quoted in Taruskin's latest Cursed Questions):
There is an old East European joke, concerning the differences between science, philosophy, and Marxism. What is science? It is trying to catch a very small black cat in a very large, entirely dark room. What is philosophy? It is trying to catch a very small black cat in a very large, entirely dark room, when it is not there. What is Marxism? It is trying to catch a very small black cat in a very large, entirely dark room when it is not there, and pretending that one has caught it and knows all about it.
Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
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I think that the realization is starting to dawn that shutting down the whole classical music live performance world for a few months could result in inconceivable damage. Some musicians will simply not return. So some orchestras, like the Calgary Philharmonic, are working out a compromise: CPO musicians to work part-time from home during COVID-19 crisis.
Two weeks after temporarily laying off staff and musicians, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra is offering them reduced hours. Everyone will be able to work 70 per cent of regular hours per week at home while the CPO is shut down.
“Our musicians and staff have shown incredible dedication over the past two weeks, continuing to work hard and connect with audiences online even while facing layoffs,” says CPO president and CEO Paul Dornian. “We are so relieved to be able to give them a chance to earn more than they would be making on EI during this difficult time.”
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Amid the welter of bailouts, at least one voice is asking to Bail out classical music!
Classical music is just as important in Cincinnati and Kalamazoo as it is in Washington. At a time when most of the 1,224 symphony orchestras scattered across the United States were already struggling financially, the cancelation of the spring musical season is nothing short of a disaster. When it finally becomes possible to hold public concerts again, it is likely that nearly every major orchestra and opera company in this country will be struggling to reopen the doors. 
If it is worth bailing out restaurants and bars and other places where people congregate together for merriment and diversion, we must not neglect those institutions in which men and women come together for something that satisfies all the deepest longings of our species.
While I applaud the initiative, I doubt that going to the symphony necessarily satisfies the deepest longings of our species. I think food, drink and sex might come first.

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Standard punk, but maybe there’s more I should have picked up? He was the first number: Deal Wiv It. I was surprised he had his shirt off and trousers down so quickly. It takes a bit longer for a symphony orchestra.
And the pop critic on the symphony:
My initial thoughts about the Philharmonia doing Mahler’s second symphony? There was an entire city on stage. 245 people in total. And two harps! It was fascinating enough solely from the point of view of economics – how on earth does the money work? Like a bumblebee seems too big for its wings, this sort of orchestral piece should be too big to stage. The vastness of the endeavour, so many parts pulling together, conducted by Jakub Hrůša, a conductor straight out of central casting, was truly impressive. I loved that there were “surprise” brass instruments playing from the circle. The massed voices of the choir had a humbling dynamic range.
Well, a whole village, at least. And the short answer is no, the money doesn't work. No performance of a Mahler symphony has ever earned enough at the box office to actually pay the musicians.

* * *

Since we have so much time at home these days, let's have a bouquet of envois. First up, some lovely Couperin on piano. It is not only Grigory Sokolov who makes it work. This is Iddo Bar-Shaï:

In 1982 Ligeti wrote a Trio for violin, horn and piano, an "Hommage à Brahms"! This was a bit of a turning point for the post-war avant-garde in that it marked the turn, if not to traditional tonality, then to a less dissonant harmony. The performance starts just after the 5 minute mark.

And here is the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Saint-Saëns with Gautier Capuçon, Violoncello, 
Alain Altinoglu, Conductor and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Thirteen Ways of Looking at "Dark Dream": An Analysis

A couple of years ago I was writing a piece for violin and guitar that I ultimately titled Dark Dream. This piece went through several stages and ended up being the longest single piece of music I have written. We recorded it in Toronto a little over a year ago and it ended up being fourteen minutes in length. The process of composition involved writing the piece and then taking it apart and rewriting it several times. I could check, but I think it took about two years before it assumed its final shape.

As the piece seemed to me to be a significant breakthrough I have recently decided to do an analysis of it akin to what Schoenberg did with some of his pieces in the transition from tonal to serial composition. He would write a piece in free atonal style and afterwards try to discern how it was put together.

There are so many different ways of approaching an analysis that I am going to take a cue from Wallace Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and try and find thirteen ways of looking at Dark Dream. Also because I am pretty sure that it will not fit within any of the usual analytical methods.
I was of three minds, 
Like a tree 
In which there are three blackbirds.
--Wallace Stevens
1. The piece is for violin and guitar, a favorite ensemble of mine. One of my most satisfying musical relationships was with violinist Paul Kling with whom I gave quite a few chamber concerts of music by Giuliani, Paganini and others. He was a violinist of outstanding abilities. But my relationship with the violin is complex as my mother was a violinist, a "fiddler" in her words. The violin always represented to me a hemisphere of music to which I, as a guitarist, did not have access. In my mother's hands it was a folk instrument. In the hands of Paul Kling it was, along with the piano, another instrument that I did not have access to, the supreme instrument of Western Music. In one concert Paul played the Bach Chaconne in D minor as a solo offering. All I could come up with in response was a Tombeau originally for Baroque lute by Sylvius Leopold Weiss, a friend of Bach's. In Dark Dream there is an interesting fusion and then separation of the two instruments. The piece begins with a unison possible because the violin and guitar share one open string in common: the 4th string of the violin is the same pitch as the 3rd string of the guitar. The opening uses these strings, plus some octave displacements, to unfold a G nexus. 

Click to enlarge
The guitar sounds an octave lower than written as you can see from the clef, so what look like octaves here are actually unisons. This idea of the two instruments fusing together and then separating is also realized in the speeding up and slowing down motif, one of the basic themes. Later on each instrument has a cadenza:

Click to enlarge
The violin's is extended into a more lyric melodic idea that returns at the end of the piece:

It also appears, for both instruments, in the "moment form" section. Here is how it appears at the end:

I suppose that what I was doing, in part, was to place the guitar and violin as equals, but at the end, the guitar returns to a sonority unique to itself, as does the violin. Separate but equal? The violin certainly wins out melodically. But the guitar, with its mysterious sonority at the end, preserves its identity. By "preparing" the guitar by putting a paperclip on the 6th string, you get a complex mixture of pitches, vaguely bell-like. The violin, with its col legno on the 4th string open, contributes its own uniqueness to the composite. So one aspect of the structure of Dark Dream is my personal relationships with both the guitar and the violin.

2. A composer that I became interested in, in recent years, was Sofia Gubaidulina, a Russian/Tatar woman who never quite fit into any of the niches available in the Soviet Union and eventually emigrated to Germany. One thing I learned from her music is that a "theme" does not have to be melodic or motivic but can be a texture or a timbre. This is why I use a number of different coloristic ideas in the piece as building blocks. These include:
  • pizzicato for both instruments
  • harmonics for both instruments
  • col legno and sul pont mainly for violin
  • "prepared" guitar using a paper clip
  • glissandi for both instruments
  • trills for both instruments used as a texture more than a harmonic or melodic device
  • unmeasured tremolandi on two strings for both instruments similarly
  • "snare drum" effect on the guitar which is achieved by crossing the 5th and 6th strings over one another for a rustling metallic effect
3. The ineffable influence of Zeno of Elea. I have always been fascinated by the paradoxes of Zeno of Elea who seems to show that, for example, Achilles can never catch the tortoise. This paradox seems to point to the question of whether or not space divides into infinitely small points. Or so I understand it! For my purposes I want to see the temporal flow of music as being of two kinds: with an underlying pulse or with no pulse and extended sounds. Pop music always has a rigid beat while Gregorian chant has floating sonorities. Is time more like a march or more like a river? A big part of the structure of Dark Dream is based on contrasting these two concepts of time. For example, in the very beginning we have a single note, fermata, with no fixed duration. This is followed by a simple rhythmic counterpoint. This in turn leads to the speeding up and slowing down motif which the two instruments play against one another. The contrasts are throughout the piece. Other similar contrasts are between fixed individual pitches and glissandi. On a higher structural level the two outer sections of the piece use a traditional score layout. In the middle there is a contrasting section in "moment form" in which each instrument is given a collection of musical moments that they play in any order. This is repeated so there is another ordering. The effect of this kind of texture is that not only is there no narrative direction, but there is of course no shared pulse between the instruments. The music floats.

Click to enlarge

4. There are four basic motifs in the piece:


Two are with pulse, A and D, and two, B and C, are without pulse. Only D resembles a traditional motif. These ideas are developed in various ways.

5. In order to avoid traditional tonal implications, I use different forms of the octatonic scale in the piece.

6. The piece really avoids a structure with "directed motion." When I started to do a Schenkerian analysis what seemed to be coming into view was a movement from G up to D flat! Rather upside down. I am going to go back and go into that more carefully later on.

7. Silence has a significant role in the piece. This is on analogy with the layout of traditional Chinese art which tends to have a blank or "negative space" in the centre where Western art would have a focus or climax. In Dark Dream, the climactic moment really comes at the end of the moment form section which is a silence followed by a kind of recapitulation.

Well, there are seven ways of looking at Dark Dream. Rather sketchy, I know! Here is the original post with the clip of the recording:

Comments are welcome, of course.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

All Kinds of Brows

Reading a new collection of essays by Richard Taruskin, in this case Cursed Questions, is always a disconcerting experience because it is, on the one hand, stimulating and informative, and on the other hand, dismaying and destabilizing. It is stimulating to question our common assumptions, but also disturbing. Taruskin assembles such a large cast of characters and delves so deeply into the cross-currents of culture that at the end of the day, one scarcely knows what it is safe to think or believe.

The essay I am currently wrestling with is titled "Which Way Is Up? On the sociology of taste" and it is a knotty one indeed. The issue revolves around the problem of modernism and modernity and the sociology of taste, specifically how the taste for the finer arts, classical music and its more challenging examples, has been promoted to the masses as an enlivening and upwardly mobile product. The issues are complex and Taruskin skillfully unveils the history of what used to be called "middlebrow" taste and aspirations. Everyone is going to learn to like Beethoven, and perhaps even Stravinsky, whether they want to or not! He remarks:
More advanced technique is now to be equated with enhanced moral standing. That way is now up. And so it is with the politicized critical vocabulary we use today, in which progressive is given a default aesthetic privilege and conservative is stigmatized.
Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
Taruskin takes aim at some of the more uncompromising figures in this project such as one of my own heroes, Joseph Kerman, as follows:
Was there ever a musical writer as militantly highbrow as Macdonald? None but Joseph Kerman comes to mind. His Opera as Drama—derived from a series of critical essays he had written in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when he was a very young man, for the Hudson Review, one of the many “little magazines” devoted to high culture in midcentury America—is the only musicological book (or perhaps I should say, the only book by a certified, sheepskin-carrying musicologist) that seems to exemplify in all its purity the highbrow or snob position defined by Richard Peterson, the leading American sociologist of brows, as “moralistic contempt for and distancing from all cultural manifestations that do not fit with what is taken to be proper.” Kerman’s book has been compared with F. R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition as an exercise in winnowing. Its ten chapters comprise what John Updike (thinking of Vladimir Nabokov’s literary judgments) called a “willful little pantheon” of exemplary works. Its tone is suitably irritable and prim, in keeping with the class anxiety to which snobbery gives outward expression. As Peterson writes, to a thoroughbred highbrow “even the ‘serious’ study of popular culture by academics is a threat to ‘standards,’ because, within the received perspective, it is seen as lending legitimacy to that which is vulgar, and it thus threatens the sanctity of the status boundaries distinguishing between what is fine and what is common.” Opera as Drama starts right off with a warning that “flabby relativism is certainly the danger,” and with foreboding: “it is hard to think that all our operatic activity can proceed much longer without standards.”
Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
Ignoring the recurring slaps ("moralistic contempt," "proper," "willful little pantheon," "irritable and prim," and so on) that Taruskin assembles to cue us as to how to evaluate Kerman's stance, I pretty much am on Kerman's side here. But, as aforementioned, with a disturbed uneasiness. Perhaps my own belief in some sort of aesthetic standards and purity is just so much codswallop. But I really can't disavail myself of the notion that yes, despite the enormous intellectual smokescreen Taruskin releases to hang over the battlefield, there is such a thing as aesthetic vulgarity. I offer as evidence a truly nauseating arrangement by André Rieu of the middle movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo with the guitar solo given to a set of bells.

But after Taruskin has delivered his devastating analytical blows to the whole sociological history of high, middle and lowbrow consumption of art, one almost wants to emulate Whoopi Goldberg and simply shave off one's eyebrows!
A religious, ethical impulse undergirds all art promotion that sees art consumption as a means of self-improvement. That especially includes middlebrow promotion, going all the way back to Matthew Arnold himself.
Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
If one sees the idea that art can improve oneself in some way as being illegitimate, then what does that leave? Art as a purely formalistic pleasure with no social context? Surely that is not what Taruskin is arguing?
I had a bit of sober academic fun debunking these religious appeals in The Oxford History of Western Music, as regarded both César Franck and Elliott Carter. Nobody paid much notice in the case of Franck, but there was a furious reaction to the discussion of Carter, especially because the Carter chapter was paired with one on Britten to illustrate what I was calling “the essential question of modern art,” namely, “whether artists lived in history or in society.”126 Pretty much everyone with a stake in the question assumed I was coming down heavily on the side of society, and therefore on the side of Britten. That is how I gained my middlebrow and antimodernist spurs.
Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition. 
Taruskin makes the claim that the history of the 20th century, specifically that of the relationship between the Nazis and classical music, forever severs claims to the moral benefits of classical music.
Without a moral claim, what is left of our brows? Just taste, which, to remind you, Bourdieu defined as “manifested preference.” The definition is important: it shows why de gustibus non est disputandum gets it wrong. We incessantly declare and dispute, in pursuit of social capital or (as it used to be called) social advantage, the very thing that the proverb tells us is beyond dispute. In an important sense, then, our tastes are not even tastes unless we are disputing them. As long as there was perceived social advantage in a taste for high art, and as long as its pursuit mandated the negation and avoidance of the low, the middlebrow could thrive—but, much more vitally, so could high art itself in countries, like the United States, without a tradition of aristocratic patronage. The middlebrow was part of the support system that sustained the art that could not pay its way, of which classical music was perhaps the archetype. The middlebrow’s much-deplored, easily derided commercial enterprises gave classical music a purchase it now seems to be losing irreversibly.
Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
 But, you know, my own personal history is at odds with this. I really never pursued classical music because of some notion of social advantage as there was none--not where I came from. There was only a sort of diffuse notional advantage in that knowledge of classical music, along with literature, philosophy, history and so forth, did offer one a wide perspective that, patently, was not very common.

I think the most disturbing thing about Taruskin's discussion is that he seems too fastidious to make any simple claims of value. He won't argue outright for cultural relativism, but he acts as if it were an unavoidable truth. Or am I just missing the point?

At the end of the day, Richard Taruskin, in addition to his monumental five-volume history of Western Music, wrote another monumental two volume, 1,800 pages, devoted to the music of Igor Stravinsky. Not André Rieu!

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Saturday Musings

This is how my day is going:

* * *

The English have a unique approach to every crisis:

Next I expect the Bavarians to show us how it is done with excerpts from Wagner blatted from assorted balconies on tuba.

* * *

The Finns show a unique courtesy and grace: Opera Star Notifies Neighbours She is About to Resume Practicing.
Dear neighbours, I am temporarily living on the 7th floor, apartment 30. I will begin practising my singing on the coming Friday. My aim is to practise daily for around 2 hours between the hours 14-18.
My apologies in advance for the extra noise caused.
Kind regards,
Karita Mattila
* * *

Khatia Buniatishvili gets praise and blame for different things, but she has sparked some interest in the Liszt piano concertos for me:

* * *

There always seems to be something interesting going on in Iceland. This is Arngunnur Árnadóttir playing the Clarinet Concerto K. 822 by Mozart with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Cornelius Meister, conductor.