In addition to their traditional duties within established institutions, an increasing number of conductors run independent organizations, launch musical and civic initiatives, serve as catalysts for the development of new work, and use their positions to cross disciplinary boundaries. In bypassing institutional gatekeepers, these conductors have brought relevance, vitality, and an expanding number of previously unrepresented voices into the field. Indeed, the dynamic new “catalyst-conductor” could help bring the revitalization that the classical music industry so desperately seeks.Well, yeah, but that sounds rather a lot like corporate happy-talk.
At the small-budget organizations I led, I was involved not only in the musical and programming activities but also oversaw marketing, fundraising, production, and other areas. I learned about all aspects of administration, moved percussion instruments, built opera sets, recruited board members, folded solicitation letters, and created budgetary spreadsheets. It was an insanely packed life that was only possible to sustain for a limited period. Throughout most of my 20s, my peak score study hours were 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., after the rehearsals and meetings were complete, emails were answered, and I could have a solid chunk of time without interruption.That sounds more like today's "gig economy." The whole article is worth reading for its examination of the changing role of conductors.
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The New Statesman has a piece on the perennial (and extremely tiresome) topic of Beethoven's political dimension. Beethoven’s political resonance: Beethoven was a musical revolutionary – but was he a political one, too? Let's see if the author brings anything new to the table:
On 2 July 2019, the 29 Brexit Party MEPs attending the European Parliament in Strasbourg turned their backs as a saxophone quartet and an opera singer performed the European anthem. Their protest caused discord. The European Parliament’s then president, Antonio Tajani, said it was “a question of respect”. Richard Corbett, the Labour Party’s leader in Europe, described the gesture as “pathetic”. The tune of the anthem in question is “Ode to Joy”, an extract from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.Argh! I think anyone with a shred of musical decency would not only turn their backs on a rendition of the theme from the last movement of the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven performed on saxophone quartet and singer, but would flee from the scene post-haste. After mentioning some of the ways that Beethoven's music has been seen to have a political aspect she goes on to say:
The significance of this political undercurrent has not been overlooked – in 2012 Nicholas Mathew published a biography entitled Political Beethoven – and it is also the chief motivation behind John Clubbe’s new study of the composer, Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary. In it he argues that Beethoven’s “complex greatness” can be attributed largely to his engagement with the political turmoil of the time; that his revolutionary spirit, inspired by Napoleon, gave way to revolutionary music.The writer, Emily Bootle, does quite a good job of walking us through Beethoven's personal history as well as the way he has been mythologized over the years. In reviewing the new book by John Clubbe, she makes this very good point:
Without musical analysis, the argument for political influence becomes one of correlation rather than causation: to believe the music is politically charged, surely we need to know what exactly makes it so.
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Alex Ross has a piece up at the New Yorker: Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Opera Composer Who Went Hollywood.
“That sounds like film music” is a put-down that deserves to be retired. The usual intention is to dismiss a work as splashy kitsch. Over the past century, though, enough first-rate music has been written for the movies that the charge rings false. Hollywood composers have employed so many different styles that the term “film music” has little descriptive value. Worst is when the pejorative is used to discount figures who brought distinctive personalities to the scoring business, thereby elevating it. Such was the fate of the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who began his career, in Vienna, as one of the most astonishing child prodigies in musical history and who reached maximum fame writing film scores, in Los Angeles, in the nineteen-thirties and forties. A master of late-Romantic opulence, Korngold shaped the sonic texture of Golden Age Hollywood. To say that his work sounds like movie music is an elementary fallacy, a confusion of cause and effect.Ok, that's a pretty good opening argument. Ross goes on to give us some detail about Korngold and to talk about the music performed at the Bard Music Festival. Well worth reading. But let's take a look at that opening argument. What does it mean to say that something "sounds like film music"? Could there be any actual musical qualities that are being referred to? Perhaps some might be splashy kitsch, but that is rather a straw man. Film music might indeed use some striking orchestrations and textures, but what really distinguishes it is that it is an accompaniment to a visual and dramatic narrative. In other words, the story is on the screen, the soundtrack merely supports it (often by giving an ominous atmosphere to a mundane visual). For this reason, film scores tend to be weak in overall structure and have an episodic feel because it is not their job to drive the narrative, but to support it. A free-standing symphonic score, in contrast, carries the entire dramatic weight. And yes, it is pretty much that simple. The other reason Korngold was not given his due was that he was, like others in his generation, an apostate from the church of modernism and it was the modernists that controlled the historic narrative until fairly recently.
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Some surprising and depressing allegations against Plácido Domingo this week. Read the account in the LA Times for what seems a balanced treatment.
I happen to be listening, as I write, to a broadcast from this summer’s Proms in London of a glorious performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto featuring Martha Argerich as soloist. This is one the most popular concertos ever written (and turned into a pop song as well), and Argerich is an incomparable pianist.Well, Tchaikovsky happened to be a vile anti-Semite. And, Argerich happens to be an unrelenting defender of her ex-husband, the conductor Charles Dutoit, who has been accused of not only unwanted sexual advances but actual rape, which he denies. Argerich refuses to perform in the U.S. as long as Dutoit remains persona non grata here. He still gets gigs in Europe, Russia and Asia, where response to #MeToo charges generally is less reactive without a day in court. That is to say that norms are still not universal and may explain why Domingo remains welcome in Salzburg.
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Ludwig Van in Toronto has a really interesting discussion of how classical music is booming in China: The Piano Market Is Booming, And It's All Because Of China.
From 2013 to 2017, the number of orchestras in China leaped from 32 to 82. In 2019, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 140th season, and the orchestra, along with its conductor, was recently signed to the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label for a multi-year deal.It’s an unprecedented explosion of appreciation for Western classical music, and for one instrument in particular. There are many internationally prominent Asian violinists like Korean Kyung-wha Chung, but for the Chinese public, the influence of superstars Lang Lang, Yundi Li, and other pianists has created a tremendous momentum for the piano in particular. It is estimated that over 40 million Chinese kids are studying the piano today, with some sources going as high as 50 million.
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Can we have a Friday Miscellanea without a single item from Slipped Disc? Why yes, yes, we can!
For our envoi, the absolutely lovely Lucia's cavatina from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti sung by Anna Netrebko with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov:
And another spectacular soprano, Regula Mülemann with two movements from Exsultate Jubilate by Mozart.
Why this focus on sopranos? Do I have to have a reason?