Friday, August 16, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

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?

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Blogging Will Recommence Shortly

I'm back in Music Salon World Headquarters and working on tomorrow's miscellanea. Also, look forward to the rest of my review of the big Esa-Pekka Salonen box from Sony and all sorts of other good things.

It is basically a two-day trip getting back from Europe. First there was a feeder flight on Austria airlines (all they play on the airplane sound system is Viennese waltzes and Mozart), then the long, long eleven hour flight to Mexico City. Frankfurt airport is quite big and I found a place to have some lunch between flights. Pretty good food and the prices were reasonable:

I went through the security check in the tiny Salzburg airport so didn't have to do it again in Frankfurt. A very nice Lufthansa lady gave me an upgrade to what they call "premium economy" which is supposedly more legroom, more refreshments and better meals. Can't testify to the legroom because she also gave me a seat at the emergency exit, so there is no seat immediately in front. The meals were good, though.

It was around 7:30 pm  before I got through immigration and baggage pickup in Mexico City and as that was plus seven hours for me, i.e. 2:30 in the morning, I just couldn't face a three hour bus ride. So I headed for my usual hotel, the Courtyard Marriot. I was in a different end of the terminal and got some very bad directions so I went the wrong way and ended up in front of the Camino Real hotel at the other end of the terminal. I had never stayed there and couldn't face the long walk back so I took a room. Big mistake! Public service announcement: do not stay at the Mexico City airport Camino Real. It is very expensive and the breakfast is a joke. Haphazard and confused management and stodgy design. The rooms are ok. The Courtyard Marriot is much cheaper and much better with a terrific breakfast buffet. You're welcome!

Here is something I learned on this trip to Europe that would have helped me out at the airport finding the hotel: use the map function on your smartphone to give walking instructions when you are in strange cities! For some reason I never tried that before, but it works pretty good. That's how I found the wineshop and how I found my hotel in Salzburg one day after taking a wrong turn. Now I'm sure everyone reading this already does this as I came late to the iPhone, but if you haven't used it, it works great.

Let's see, when I left they were just premiering their production of Oedipe by George Enescu, a piece I am completely unfamiliar with. This is the prelude and act one from a different production:

If I go again to the festival, and I well may, I think I would try to attend all the operas as that seems to be where the most creative energy is directed. This year they put on nine operas in one month, nearly all of them new productions (possibly all? anyone know?). Wow!

Monday, August 12, 2019

Let's Talk About Clothing

I live in what is, in Mexico, an expensive town. At the very top, it is possible to spend $50 on a meal for one (with wine) and $1,000 on a hotel room. Normal prices for these items are $10 and $100. So Salzburg does not look to me too terribly expensive. Meals are not cheap, but they are very high quality. Taxis are similar to rates elsewhere. Wine is also quite reasonable for the quality. But when it comes to clothes, different story.

I noticed in Madrid when I was there a couple of years ago, that clothes were horrifically expensive. I went to this big department store and after browsing the clothes a bit, I walked out, shell-shocked. I had forgotten that. So, I needed some underwear shorts and socks and found a clothing store nearby. Two pairs of shorts and a pair of socks? Nearly 80 Euros!!!

30 Euros for a pair of shorts! Sure, they are good quality, but come on! I get three pairs of Fruit of the Loom underwear shorts from Amazon for $14. And $22 for one pair of socks?

So what is the deal in Europe? Insanely high tariffs? Never import anything from China, Vietnam, Bangladesh? Really powerful domestic clothing industry with a lot of lobbyists? By my estimate, Europeans pay roughly four times what they should for clothing. And I suspect that a lot of that is tax, like the 20% added to the total above.

This concludes our public service announcement for today.

UPDATE: Here, let me show you why I was so nonplussed at the price of socks. Here is my receipt from the wine store where I picked up four nice wines: a Grüner Veltliner (that's Austria's characteristic white grape) from a highly recognized producer, an Eiswein from a small producer (in Canada they are super-expensive), a nice rosé and a Zweigelt (red wine grape) from an excellent region. Total price: just under 58 Euros. Or you could almost buy two men's underwear. Isn't this just crazy?

A Trip to the Wine Shop

I wanted to take home some Austrian wines so I tracked down a wine store this morning which proved to be quite a good one: Rieger Weinshop. I even found an Austrian icewine. More about those when I get back. On the way I got a good view of the Kapuzinerberg, one of Salzburg's in-town mountains. It puts Montreal's Mont Royal to shame for sheer steepness, if not for area:

Tomorrow is a travel day, or rather a two-day travel day, so you won't see any posts for a few days. Leave some comments! If you like the posts on Salzburg, let me know. If you disliked them, then what are you doing here?

Here is a good envoi for today, the "Wine, Women and Song" waltz by Johann Strauss:

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Musing on Austria

The last time I was in Austria was as a student thirty some years ago. It presents such interesting contrasts to where I live now, Mexico, and where I lived for most of my life, Canada. Mexico is struggling not to be a failed state while possessing boundless natural resources: gas, oil, gold, silver, copper, two seacoasts with abundant fisheries, huge tourist industry and a hard-working population. But still, the battle with the drug cartels is ongoing and the educational levels are abysmal. Austria, on the other hand, is very like a paradise on Earth. This is an extremely well-run state with extremely low levels of crime and very high levels of education (gee, I wonder if there is a relationship). Austria's history is interesting. It was once a great, imperial power, ruling over much of central Europe. At the time of WWI the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the second-largest state in Europe, second only to Russia. The 18th and 19th centuries were mostly prosperous and the 19th, at least, fairly peaceful. But then came the horrors of the 20th century: two world wars that first tore away all of her empire and second saw her a mere apprentice to the new horrors of Nazi Germany.

Nowadays, Austria is viewed as being a kinder, gentler Germany with much less weight of guilt than its larger neighbour. I suspect that one factor in this was the movie The Sound of Music, which personalised Austria and separated it emotionally from the sins of Germany. Austria, in some mysterious fashion, also managed to not be divided into separate zones by the four occupying powers at the end of WWII. In 1955 it achieved its complete independence and the occupying powers left.

I was saying that Austria is very like a paradise. It is a mature culture with an enormous amount of historic, aesthetic and human capital. Vienna, no longer the capitol of empire, still has the architecture of one. Austria's cultural capital is enormous, including vast amounts of fine art and architecture, literature and, of course, music. Vienna and Salzburg are two of the most important centres of music in the world and attract large numbers of visitors every season (including myself). For someone who loves music and culture (and skiing too, I imagine), Austria is a wonderful place to be. I suspect it is not so welcoming to entrepreneurs because of the weight of tradition which shows itself in high taxes, a lot of regulation and just the sheer weight of custom. But, with a bit of money, you can live extremely well here.

Speaking of which, almost by accident I wandered into one of the finer hotels here today, looking for a place to eat lunch, and stumbled across an excellent lunch buffet with pretty much everything you could possibly imagine, including a bottomless glass of sekt (they refilled mine three times and started on a fourth when I stopped them and switched to cappuccino). The dishes were too numerous to itemize, but I did take photos of the dessert area. I would tell you what these are, but apart from Sachertorte and Tiramisu, I haven't the foggiest idea!

This one, for example, had an orange-colored baby plum on top, a chocolate mesh, and the dessert itself was a kind of citrusy cream, not too sweet. None of the Austrian desserts I tried was heavily sweetened.

So, ok, this plus Mozart is just one kind of paradise...

A Visitor in the Night

This is going to sound a bit like an opera plot: I was awoken the other night by furtive scrabbling sounds by the window of my room. Pulling back the curtains, I didn't see anything, so I tried to go back to sleep. In the morning I noticed evidence of a visitor in the form of little black "droppings" on the window sill. Without thinking I cleaned them up, but when I reported the incident to the desk downstairs I realized I should have left them as evidence. A bit later I noticed a couple of smaller droppings I missed, so the manager came up to view the scene. I had looked around, including under the bed, but saw nothing. However, they instituted a thorough search and, hours later, after I got back from lunch, they told me that my visitor was a bat! He flew through my partially-opened window and got hung up in the heavy curtains. They captured him for later release and thoroughly cleaned the room. Insects are not much of a problem in Austria so they don't usually have screens on the window.

Speaking of insects, when I was here as a student I noticed these huge hornets flying around a nest just outside the window of my practice studio. They were really huge, making thudding sounds as they bumped against the windowpane! Maybe screens might be a good idea...

Let's have some Heinrich Isaac. Not bat-related, here is his Virgo prudentissima for six voices:

And, as a bonus, here is the quite bat-related overture to Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II:

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Mozarteum Orchestra: Stiftung Mozarteum Grosser Saal

I heard the Mozarteum Orchestra today and they were very good indeed. Mozart is sort of a good way to end this festival for me. Some of the best performances of these pieces I have heard and that is including recorded versions. The program was the Divertimento in B flat, K 137 written when he was fifteen, the Piano Concerto in B flat, K. 595, written just eleven months before his death and the Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550.

Mozart began composing when he was five years old (a simple minuet) and died when he was thirty-five, so he had thirty good years. With most composers, everything they write before they are twenty is usually what is called "juvenilia" that is, pieces in a tentative or mixed style where the composer has not yet "found" himself. But I don't think I have ever heard a piece by Mozart that you could call juvenilia. He was capable of writing a very respectable aria for soprano and string orchestra when he was nine and he wrote his first opera, in Latin, when he was eleven. The Divertimento K. 137 is a finely written three movement piece for strings that appears entirely mature.

The piano concerto was very well played by Francesco Piemontesi, a young Italian pianist. He played an encore and I am going to go out on a limb and say it was probably by Schubert, though I am not sure of the piece.

The final piece, the Symphony no. 40 was as well played as I have ever heard it: crisp, dynamic, energetic and passionate. I was most interested to see that the horn parts were played on natural horns without valves. I found they really added a lot as their sound, especially in the upper register is much brighter and has a tinny edge to it that I really like. I don't mean "tinny" in a bad sense, just that the sound is flatter and cuts through more. The rest of the winds looked like modern ones so I wonder if the Mozarteum orchestra is in transition to an original instruments group. The conductor, the English Andrew Manze certainly has experience in that area.

The concert was in the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum (not to be confused with the Grosser Studio) which is a lovely hall with an 18th century ambiance:

If you look very closely you might be able to see the natural horn held by the fellow kind of in the middle, second row from top:

Click to enlarge
Afterwards was a nice dark weissbier and half a pig's knuckle for lunch. It looked ok, but was rather tough and salty, the first disappointing dish I have had here.