Saturday, July 2, 2022

Taruskin has died

The New York Times has the obituary: Richard Taruskin, Vigorously Polemical Musicologist, Dies at 77

“He was the most important living writer on classical music, either in academia or in journalism,” said Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, in a recent interview. “He knew everything, his ideas were potent, and he wrote with dashing style.”

At a time when the classical canon was considered sacrosanct, Mr. Taruskin advanced the philosophy that it was a product of political forces. His bête noire was the widespread notion that Beethoven symphonies and Bach cantatas could be divorced from their historical contexts. He savagely critiqued this idea of “music itself,” which, he wrote, represented “a decontaminated space within which music can be composed, performed and listened to in a cultural and historical vacuum, that is, in perfect sterility.”

You should read the whole thing, which is a pretty fair summary of his career. Right now I am exactly halfway through my third reading of his Oxford History of Western Music, likely the finest historical summation we are ever likely to see. On the occasion of his latest collection of essays, Cursed Questions, published in 2020, I wrote a post discussing some of the knotty issues presented. Richard Taruskin honored this blog by posting a comment which I treasure:

Hello Mr Townsend, and thanks at long last for reading me so seriously and commenting so seriously on what I've written. You are of course right: I love classical music and high art as much as anyone (even as much as you, I'll bet). My question is whether I am entitled by my love for it to regard myself as a morally superior person. I of course say no, and the piece on which you are commenting is my lengthy justification for my refusal to pat classical music lovers on the back. It's the sober academic version of that Musical Mystique piece from the New Republic a dozen years ago, about which people got rather exercised. But neither piece was an attack on the music or anyone's love for it.

All good wishes, Richard Taruskin

So I am forever disabused of the notion that listening to classical music makes you a better person. Though perhaps the jury is still out on whether playing it might help.

Our heartfelt thanks to Professor Taruskin for his lifelong commitment to the critical examination of classical music and its scholarship, a project that too few actually pursue.

UPDATE: There is a nice followup in the NYT by James Oestreich: Music’s Towering Intellectual, With an Appetite for Trouble

Friday, July 1, 2022

Friday Miscellanea

 Over on the right you will notice a kind of blog "seal of approval" that was awarded this blog several years ago. At the time as I recall, I was number 43 on the list. Just out of curiosity I went over there the other day and it seems I have crept up to number 19. Yahoo! Even though I really don't do nearly as many didactic posts as I used to.

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One blogger that does a lot of educational stuff is Ethan Hein. Here is a post he did recently on one of my favorite Talking Heads songs, "Psychokiller."

“Psycho Killer” may have unusual subject matter for a song, but there’s nothing unusual about it in the broader context of American culture. In addition to Patrick Bateman, there’s the Hannibal Lecter cinematic universe, there’s Dexter, there’s Nicole Wallace on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and so on. The genre of the first-person shooter has enabled millions of gamers (myself included) the simulated experience of killing people on a whim. The fascination with “psycho killers” is weird, though, because there very few of them in real life. Murderers usually have a close relationship with their victim; woman are most likely to be killed by their husband or boyfriend. So why is Hannibal Lecter such a popular character? You don’t have to agree with Professor Sarat that we are secretly jealous of him, but otherwise it is very difficult to explain why he looms so large in Americans’ imaginative lives.

I think the answer is that evil is inherently fascinating--because it tempts us.

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And speaking of evil characters: THE DEVIL DEFEATS MUNICH

Message from Bayerische Staatsoper:

To our great regret, the second performance of the new festival production THE DEVIL OF LOUDUN on June 30, 2022 has to be cancelled. Due to the current infection, there are several personnel outages in the crew, which cannot be replaced due to the complexity of the show.

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The group of fans of Yuja Wang also includes fans of her fashions. Here is a clip of some of them:

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I'm often talking about the value of tradition in the arts and this newspaper article uncovers one specific example: At the S.F. Symphony, long collaborations are the key to success
At the moment, the San Francisco Symphony is at a sharp inflection point, in ways that are both exciting and potentially worrisome. The arrival of Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director signals a shift for the orchestra, both in the repertoire it tackles and the aesthetic priorities that will guide its performances of that music.

At the same time, the orchestra is facing a comparatively large turnover in personnel, due in part to the number of members who decided that the pandemic shutdown was an opportune time to retire. So even as Salonen gets a chance to stock the orchestra with musicians who share his artistic outlook — something Thomas did before him during his 25-year tenure — there will also be a rupture in some of those deep collegial traditions going back decades.

“This is one of the reasons I feel bad about leaving now, when there are so many openings,” Braunstein said. “Because the culture of how the orchestra plays needs to be nurtured, so that the good things we’ve achieved over the last 30 or 40 years won’t evaporate.”

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And speaking of California: Why new music has come roaring back in L.A.

New music has become a way of life, be it, and in no particular order, at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Broad Stage, Zipper Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, REDCAT, Royce Hall, the Ford, the Wende Museum, the Wallis, First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica, 2220 Arts + Archives, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Hauser & Wirth and Descanso Gardens. New music pops up in small galleries in alleyways and at the Mount Wilson Observatory. The Monday Evening Concerts, the longest-running new music series in America and possibly anywhere, began in 1939 as Evenings on the Roof in a small studio atop an unpretentious Silver Lake home, where, before long, it attracted the likes of Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

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Here is a definitive performance of "Psychokiller" from the film Stop Making Sense:


Here is a new production of The Soldier's Tale by Stravinsky from the San Francisco Symphony directed by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Today's Listening

First up an interesting performance of Haydn's Farewell Symphony:

 The last time I saw Patricia Kopatchinskaja in concert was at the Salzburg Festival last summer where she was directing and doing the vocal part to Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire--truly a multi-talented musician! And yes, she composed the added cadenzas.

And now the ultra-enigmatic Prelude op. 28 no. 2 by Chopin:

Monday, June 27, 2022

Re a disappearing conservatory

Over at Slipped Disc Alexis Hauser, the artistic director of the McGill Symphony Orchestra weighs in with a fierce rebuttal to the closing of the McGill Conservatory. SSoM stands for "Schulich School of Music" at McGill.

I must express my shock about the foreseen imminent closing of the McGill Conservatory, to say nothing about how it was communicated.

I know many of the 66 Conservatory instructors, all of them immensely dedciated, one of them my wife with 55 (fifty-five!) students, nearly all of them resp. their parents have already indicated their definitive plan to continue their studies with her, with or without a Conservatory.

The motives in the letter are completely false, with no numbers given, no previous talks/warnings ahead, nothing but a fait accompli of the exiting Dean of SSoM. “With heavy heart”…I agree:, heart of stone! Its contents is in total contrast to the facts:

Regarding space:

As professor of the SSoM faculty I was always willing to share my studio with Conservatory professors, and so did several colleagues of mine. Besides, I cannot understand that the classes must take place in the Strathcona Music Building which indeed suffers with space, but everyone familiar with McGill’s total amount of buildings, rooms etc. in different parts of the city, cannot take the space claim seriously, certainly not with instruments which can be brought to the lesson by teacher and student ( = all Instruments except keyboards). With a bit of research, good will and endurance, this “problem” can be solved!!!!

Number of students:

I cannot speak for other instructors than my wife, but as mentioned, supportive letters of nearly all her students/parents have already poured in, protesting the decision, speechless over its short term (!!!) and assuring that they want to continue the lessons.

When some years ago, the existence of some Conservatoires within Quebec was threatened (except for Montréal and Québec City), not by a politician, but by a Conservatoire insider (!), I was one of many who wrote a protest note to the Minister of Culture, arguing that Quebec would seriously harm its position as the distinct province, ruining its exceptional cultural reputation within Canada. Fortunately, the crisis then was eventually solved positively.

Now we experience the same with the McGill Conservatory, a disastrous decision signed by two insiders, an exiting and an incoming Dean (none of them, by the way, with any closeness to performance!) with obviously no concern for the long term negative effects:

– Many Conservatory students moved on to professional music studies, won prizes and even performed in special programs in New York’s Carnegie Hall

– A large part would go into other professions, but because of their early-in-life musical education are/will/would be future enthusiastic concert goers, genuine melomanes.

– SSoM, by far the most important music faculty in Canada and well known internationally, is (has been to the brdt of my knowledge the only one with the inclusion of a Conservatory, an excellent method to secure a rich cultural life on all levels, on stage and in the auditorium (in Asia, Universities start even with music kindergarten!). It is/was again something that made Québec the one distinct province, far above all other provinces, the only one, I for one and several other international colleagues of mine, feel (felt) proud to work here and not anywhere else within Canada.

I dare say that no Dean with a direct background/link to Music Performance would have ever allowed that to happen (this I know as a fact and can elaborate on it). But a slimy letter like this, with false claims, fatal and not thought through in all consequences, tarnishes the good McGill name internationally of our beloved institution, ruins with one stroke what has been built over many years with enormous care and enthusiasm by dedicated teachers who have been made jobless from one day to the next, while their instigators are moving on (one of them simultaneously even receiving an award….!) “Strategic Planning”: eliminating an immensely important pedagogical institution with catastrophic consequences for so many instructors and frustrations/protests from numerous students/parents, all this with vague excuses saying nothing concretely.

In what world are we living??? Nothing can convince me that no other ways would be possible for a solution, acceptable for the teachers and the students/parents alike. Therefore, all facts, numbers, room options (and for Heavens’s sake including outside the Strathcona Music Building, in one or more of McGill’s countless buildings all over the town), should be brought forward and turned upside down for evidence and strategic thinking which deserve the name to secure the good name of McGill. What we have right now is a huge disgrace!

Hoping for a very constructive Townhall Meeting,


Alexis Hauser Artistic Director, McGill Symphony Orchestra Montréal

Here is the maestro conducting the McGill Symphony in the first movement of the Symphony No. 5 by Tchaikovsky:

Friday, June 24, 2022

Friday Miscellanea

A profound observation about the contribution of subjectivity to aesthetics:

"the real and express content that the poet puts in his work  remains as always finite; the possible content that he allows us to contribute is an infinite quality."

                                                                        --Friedrich Schiller 

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Some statistics about music education: The surprising musical instrument many parents want their kids to learn

More than half — 1,200 — of the parents surveyed said they have played at least one instrument in their lifetime.

The survey revealed one of every four Americans can play an instrument — with 17% picking up old musical habits during the coronavirus pandemic and 37% saying they’d learned an instrument in the past but don’t currently play anything.

A quarter of respondents said they have never learned an instrument and only 9% of parents said their children hadn’t yet expressed any interest in learning an instrument.

In addition, 26% believe that music education should be encouraged in schools, and 29% think it should be required or prioritized at school.

* * *

The headline at Slipped Disc is rather misleading, but the story is that McGill University School of Music has decided that they have to shut down the affiliated Conservatory, largely as a result of the Covid hiatus.

The Conservatory of Music at Montreal’s McGill University is to cease operations next summer, after 118 years of teaching.

The Conservatory, which was run by the university’s Schulich School of Music, was open to the greater Montreal community, giving courses to students of all ages and offering teaching space to instructors, free of charge.

According to the school, the pandemic showed that “the Conservatory is no longer financially viable nor sustainable.” While there were over 550 students before COVID-19 hit, predictions showed that fewer than 100 students would sign up in the coming year.

The Covid crisis is having many long-term unfortunate consequences for classical music.

* * *

Also from Slipped Disc is some important news for John Adams fans:

Around the middle of the last century, the elegant head of Columbia Records Goddard Lieberson told his friend, the composer Igor Stravinsky, that the label would record every work he wrote, juvenile to old-age, under his own supervision.

Lieberson was as good as his word and the result is an incomparable monument of 20th century culture.

No label has sought to emulate it with a living composer.

Until now.

Nonesuch is about to release the complete works of John Adams, the most successful American composer of our time.

It includes, in addition to the familiar operas and Harmonielehre, such esoteric adventures as ‘Guide to Strange Places’, ‘American Berserk’ and ‘Christian Zeal and Activity.’

* * *

 Here is an article and clip about the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic: What's the secret behind the Vienna Philharmonic's unique sound?

Explaining the dark quality of the Viennese sound, Ottensamer adds, “What always strikes me is the subtlety in the sound. You try not to play too directly in certain passages. Notes gradually rise and don’t always have a clear beginning." Some of the orchestra’s instruments are quite different from those played elsewhere in the world.

“The [Viennese] clarinet is built with a little bit more wood. It’s a little thicker, more voluminous, and therefore creates a darker sound. This brings us to the Viennese sound itself. This sound blends particularly well with the other instruments in the orchestra,” says Ottensamer.

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Method Singing is an article about the influence of "method acting" on opera:

While stage and screen acting was revolutionized during the 20th century by the thinking of Russian actor-director Constantin Stanislavski and his “System”—later a foundation of Method acting—it sometimes appears as though his innovations passed opera by entirely. But Method acting has a history in opera, and it begins earlier than you might think. Even before his Moscow Art Theatre toured the United States and galvanized famous disciples like Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, Stanislavski was trying out his acting techniques with opera singers.

* * * 

Slim pickings this week, so let's get right to some envois. First up, Friedrich Gulda playing the third movement of the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Beethoven with the Vienna Philharmonic.

And here is Franz Liszt's remarkable rethinking of themes from Don Giovanni, layered and with thematic transformation:

Finally, the first song from Dichterliebe, Schumann's cycle on poems by Heinrich Heine sung by Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake, piano

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

War on Stereotypes

There are a limited number of set pieces in music journalism. You know what they are: exciting new songs by someone you have never heard of, world tour by aging rock gods, outrageous production of much-beloved opera where everyone is dressed as a Nazi--or nude, the horrible unlistenable modern music and so on. In the last category we have this from the Wall Street Journal: ‘The War on Music’ Review: Songs Without Listeners. The article refers to:

the near-total inability of post-World War II America and Europe to produce more than a small number of classical works that any normal person would want to hear. That failure is slowly killing classical music. You can’t expect the public to remain engaged with works of the distant past if the present doesn’t produce anything interesting. Today’s concertgoers are not antiquaries; they, too, no less than music lovers in centuries gone by, want to enjoy and rave about the latest thing.

This piece is actually a book review:

The great virtue of John Mauceri’s “The War on Music: Reclaiming the Twentieth Century” is that it acknowledges what many writers on the subject know but can’t say: that something went badly wrong in music in the 20th century, and especially after 1945. The time has come, Mr. Mauceri writes, “to ask why so much contemporary music played by our greatest musical institutions—and supported overwhelmingly by music critics—is music that the vast majority of people do not want to hear—and have never wanted to hear.”

This is a venerable genre--critics were writing books about how modern music had gone all wrong starting in the 1920s when "modern" music had barely arrived. The reviewer doesn't buy the arguments of the book as to why modern music was the way it was, but makes this observation:

The rise of the 12-tone compositional method, invented by Schoenberg and elaborated by his many imitators, produced nothing of greatness and signified a sickness at the heart of Western music. That the book’s survey of 20th-century music begins with Igor Stravinsky’s revolting ballet “Rite of Spring,” which glorified pagan savagery and premiered a year before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, suggests that Mr. Mauceri, too, suspects the war on music began well before the guns started firing in 1914.

This is all just a mélange of clichés and stereotypes, of course. That simple, pleasant music enjoyed by the majority is largely pop music these days is not much of a mystery. That there is also more esoteric music enjoyed by a minority is also quite obvious. There is a marvelously varied spectrum from innocuous pop music like that of Ed Sheeran all the way to the avant-garde experimentation of Captain Beefheart. And that's just in the pop world. There is a similar spectrum in the classical world from Vivaldi to Stravinsky or Philip Glass to Sofia Gubaidulina.

There is music literally for every taste and when you call the Rite of Spring a revolting glorification of pagan savagery you are just saying it is not to your taste and you don't like it. My saying I love the Rite of Spring just means that it is to my taste and I do like it. None of that is interesting, of course. It only gets interesting when you start to talk about why you like or don't like something and how the music creates a certain atmosphere or mood. Of course, you don't find much of that detail in journalism--or even in very many books either!

Sunday, June 19, 2022

An Orchestra Disappears

Whenever I see an orchestra in concert or watch a clip of a particularly engaged orchestra, such as that of musicAeterna I put up the other day, I am again struck with what a wondrous thing a fine orchestra is. The fruit of a thousand years of musical development in terms of notation, theory, orchestration, performance practice, and instrumental training, it is really a metaphor of what a harmonious society could be. I always delight in the sight of so many different kinds of people united in a single project, the performance of a piece of music. Young people, old people, people of various different ethnic groups and, less visibly, of different economic classes in society, of different social groups, often hinted at by wildly different hairstyles. A symphony orchestra is a model of a well-functioning society. Or, conversely, of a society with deep-rooted problems.

In one orchestra I knew very well, the principal French horn and the principal trumpet had a nasty breakup and afterwards the horns and the trumpets refused to tune to one another. I forget how long that lasted, but it was not optimal! You could draw a lot of interesting sociological conclusions from observing orchestras of which the most mundane might be that engaging in working together does tend to unify a group of people. The well-defined lines of responsibility tend to reduce the possibility of intra-group friction, for example. Also, an orchestra is not a simple democracy as it is the conductor's job to direct and mold and train the ensemble. Overall leadership also devolves to the concertmaster who has special responsibilities in the string section and generally. Within each group of instruments there is a principal as well. An orchestra is a kind of corporation, though with a very low hierarchical profile. There is a democratic dimension, however: in many European orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the orchestra votes on who they want to appoint as music director.

This is all inspired by this news story: San Antonio Symphony to Dissolve Amid Labor Dispute.

For almost nine months, the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony were on strike, resisting steep cuts proposed by management that they said would destroy the ensemble. As the dispute dragged on, much of the 2021-22 season was canceled, the players found part-time jobs and mediators tried to negotiate a compromise to save the 83-year-old orchestra.

The impasse came to an end on Thursday with the announcement that the symphony had decided to file for bankruptcy and dissolve. The symphony’s board, which had argued that maintaining a large orchestra had grown too costly, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, said it did not see a path forward.

And that was that. Yes, symphony orchestras are costly, and opera is even more so. But in this, as in everything else, you get what you pay for and if you don't want to pay for something, you don't get it. It seems that San Antonio did not contain sufficient wealthy donors who were willing to support the orchestra.

It is a sad truth that the artistic elite have a tendency to believe that art makes us better people, which is not supported by the evidence. But the arts do have a valuable role in society in terms of inspiration, consolation, the realization and development of personal growth and a bunch of things that are very hard to describe or categorize. Suffice it to say that civic life in San Antonio just got a little less fulfilling, a little less culturally rich and a duller place. A society without art is not a very enjoyable one, even though it might be materially prosperous.

There is not much on YouTube from the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra, but here is the coda to Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov: