Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Music Salon in May

What can devoted readers of the Music Salon expect during the month of May? Well, I will be traveling, like today, so on travel days you won't get much. But on non-travel days you will get observations about Spain: people, concerts, things to see, food, wine and so on. Spain is one of my very favorite places. It has museums and art and architecture to rival most other European countries (only outdone by Italy, France and possibly England) and you can enjoy these and other delights for much less than in France or the UK or Germany or Italy. Yes, Spain is very reasonable.

I was looking at hotels in Valladolid, which I plan to visit. The very best hotel, in a historic building on the central square is available for a mere $77 US a night. And it is a lovely hotel. The other ones in the top ten, also lovely hotels, are around $60. I can tell you, in San Miguel de Allende, where I live, the best hotel runs $700 US a night and for $60 you get the bare minimum.

Best hotel in Valladolid

Restaurants are also very reasonable. My favorite last year featured two excellent courses with wine (not just a glass, basically as much as you want) for €11.50. The only time I was disappointed was when I wandered into a tourist trap restaurant and ended up paying twice as much for food half as good. Avoid that! Tourist traps are those places located right on the major streets--this one was right across from the Prado--and populated largely by tourists. You will always do much better if you just walk a block off the main drag.

Speaking of tourism, this is a major industry in Spain and parts of the country, such as much of the Mediterranean coast, are a solid wall of high-rises fronting on beaches stuffed with middle-aged English and German persons, some of them sunning themselves in their underwear. This is to be avoided. Just about anywhere else in Spain is charming, uncrowded and inexpensive.

But I don't want to get ahead of myself, so I will shut up now and finish my packing! Leaving you with an envoi by Manuel de Falla. This is his Ritual Fire dance from the ballet El Amor Brujo. This version is from the film by Carlos Saura and the principal dancers are Antonio Gades and Cristina Hoyos.

Saturday, April 29, 2017


You won't get much blogging from me for the next couple of days as I will be traveling and recovering from traveling. After that, though, posting should be pretty frequent. But I did just run across something that struck a few resonances with me. The Wall Street Journal today has one of their travel pieces, this one titled "How to Spend a Perfect Long Weekend in Portland." Sample:
BEFORE PORTLAND, ORE., established itself as a hipster utopia and beleaguered punch line—a land of vegan tattoos, fastidious food-truck chefs and all things crafty and pickled—visitors were already taken with its abundant natural attributes. The Willamette River divides the city, forest trails wind throughout it, and Mount Hood and the coast each sit just over an hour’s drive away. A cleverly planned long weekend in Portland will tap both aspects: sampling urban obsessiveness and the abundant verdure of the Pacific Northwest.
You should especially look at all the photos that accompany the article, like this one:

Let me hasten to say that I have never been to Portland so what I am really going to critique is just the image of the city represented by the article. I also know quite a few really lovely people from the area. But what resonates is how very much Portland seems to resemble a place I was very familiar with: Victoria, British Columbia, something of a Canadian Portland with its own very similar natural beauty and cultural amenities. The same kind of rustic hipster vibe seems to emanate from both. Must be a Pacific Northwest thing.

So what do I think? I would really, really hate to spend any time there. Why? For me, all the cultural values are wrong--and likely false. These places reveal an emptiness in our culture precisely because they seem to enshrine a kind of secular paradise.

Now there is nothing wrong with any individual element: natural beauty in the form of gardens, forests, mountains and oceans (in the case of Victoria, if not Portland) is a Good. So are things like locally-sourced gourmet foods, craft breweries, cycling around town, shopping for all sorts of odd things and so on. Portland also has a very large and famous bookstore, Powell's.

What I want to point out is what is missing. This is hard to do without sounding like a snob, but here goes. Apart from that bookstore (which I haven't visited so cannot comment on), there really doesn't seem to be any actual culture here. By culture, I mean "high culture". Of course, they don't want any of that stuffy crap. That's why they are hitting the craft brewery tasting rooms, the gourmet locally-sourced donut shops and cycling around town to the vegan mini-mall. I know this culture quite well. Just look at that photo of the craft brewery tasting room. Everyone is relaxed, laid-back, casual, just enjoying life. A life entirely free of anything challenging or intellectual or genuinely aesthetic. This might seem a low blow, but c'mon, these people have absolutely no idea how to dress, but they are likely quite smug about it! They're hicks in logger shirts thinking they are sophisticates. That room is like an empty warehouse with no aesthetic pretensions whatsoever.

The last photo in the WSJ photo gallery on Portland is what really clinches my argument: it is of the Arlene Schneitzer Concert Hall, a renovated 1927 theater. So what cultural events are presented there? Here is the list from now until October. Standup comedians like Patton Oswalt and Jerry Seinfeld, progressive activists like Shaun King, popular musicians like Lyle Lovett and Bryan Ferry, crossover artists like the Piano Guys. And in all that long, long season there is one and only one classical music concert: the Portland Youth Philharmonic. This gives us a pretty good insight into the cultural values of Portland. They like entertainment like popular music and comedy, they like some crossover because that is, again, popular entertainment, they like social activists and they are willing to tolerate a bit of classical music if the justification is education and "for the children." All of this is flattering to the attendees, both culturally and morally, while demanding absolutely nothing from them. It's kind of like a cultural craft brewery tasting hall, all hoppy and vacant.

Isn't all this perfectly and absolutely vacuous and banal? Well, not if you have never known anything different, no. And that's the problem. This is a lovely and paradisiacal environment where no-one is consciously aware of what they are lacking. Any curmudgeonly bitching about the programs at the concert hall such as I have just engaged in is going to be greeted by simple puzzlement or outright denial.

What I believe is that the beauty and consolation of art must always be earned. You can't just suck it up like craft beer. In music, beauty, without the fraught journey towards beauty, is just melodrama and kitsch. Everything worthwhile has to be earned.

Let's see if we can find an envoi that illustrates this, sonically. Here is a challenging symphony by the Swedish composer Allan Pettersson, this is the Symphony No. 7 with the Stockholm Philharmonic conducted by Antal Doráti:

Friday, April 28, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

The world would be a duller place without the adroit satires of The Onion. Here is a piece about the delight one orchestra expressed about an upcoming pops concert with John Mellencamp:
“To repeat the same sequence of eight notes over and over again while staring at the back of John Mellencamp’s head as amplified guitars and boisterous audience members drown out most of the sound—I can’t think of a greater privilege than that. The only thing better would be playing with Jon Bon Jovi, but I’m not getting my hopes up.”
* * *

Ringo is just about to turn 75--if you can believe it--and The Spectator has a tribute: Ringo's no joke. He was a genius and the Beatles were lucky to have him which to my mind is the simple truth.
...the Beatles were great only because of the greatness of four men composing and playing together. Without Starr in the mix, they would have sounded quite different, and probably not as wonderful.
Ringo got subtler the further the band left touring behind and the more experimental, from mid-1966, they became in the studio. Without him, there’d be no Beatles track like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, which ends the album Revolver. With its tape-loop screeches and Lennon’s eerie vocal, the whole is held together by Starr’s astonishing, off-the-beat control on slackened tom-toms. His drumming makes this piece of music shamanic and, still, utterly fresh.
So the next time you listen to a Beatles tune like Harrison's "Something", listen to what Ringo is doing. Without him, the song would be something quite different and not nearly as good.

* * * 

And again the Globe and Mail has a dreary article about Canada's "cultural policy" which always seems to boil down to limiting the choices of Canadians by forcing them to support local tv, music and movie production no matter how mediocre on the theory that Canada has to "listen to its own stories." But it seems the culturecrats seem to have met their match with the Internet. How do you stop Netflix without looking like an idiot?
Ms. Joly seems aware of the contradiction of mandating Canadian content rules for domestic services but praising the exploitation of a free and open Canadian Internet for foreign cultural products. But after months and months of consultations, it seems we’re no closer to either putting something on that Heritage table to address the contradiction; nor is it any clearer whether Ottawa might be ripping the government-supported Band-Aids off altogether and letting everyone be free.
Net neutrality may be good Internet policy, but it’s not a substitute for a cultural policy.
* * *

Sorry for the appallingly brief miscellanea this week. If you had the kind of week I have had... Let's end with a delightful envoi. This is the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich played by Hilary Hahn with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Mariss Jansons:

That's the only violin concerto I know of to begin with a nocturne.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Patricia Janečková

Too busy this week to do much blogging, but here is a treat for you: very young soprano Patricia Janečková singing an aria from Le nozze de Figaro by Mozart: "Voi che sapete" followed by "Ach, Ich Fühl's" from "Die Zauberflöte"

For a classical singer, she is very young, still only eighteen.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Farewell to Robert Pirsig

I see that Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, passed away yesterday. I ran across this book at a friend's house where I was staying way back in the 70s. I like to read in bed before I go to sleep and I picked this up off the shelf because of the unusual title. But I ended up reading the entire book instead of sleeping! Years later I read it again a couple of times. I was just thinking a couple of weeks ago that I was due to read it again. This is a profoundly unusual book. The idea of the title has been copied many times, but the idea of the book has not. It is as much about Plato as it is about Zen. And it is as much about life and psychology as it is about philosophy. I recommend it highly.

The Horrors of Flying Just Got Worse

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Opera in Canada

It is illuminating to compare the origins of opera in Italy with opera in Canada where an iconic opera commissioned for Canada's centenary in 1967 has just been revived and revised to celebrate Canada's 150th. The opera is Louis Riel, the story of a Métis rebel in 19th century Canada. There is a review of the revival in the Globe and Mail by Robert Harris:
It’s hard to remember a production more eagerly anticipated than the Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Harry Somers’s and Mavor Moore’s Louis Riel, which opened Thursday at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre. Here was the iconic Canadian opera, conceived on a grand scale, commissioned for Canada’s centennial year and revived for its sesquicentennial. A co-production of the COC and the National Arts Centre. A Canadian opera presented in two major houses. An all-star Canadian cast. A renowned Canadian director.
And how did it turn out?
The problem with the COC’s and director Peter Hinton’s Louis Riel is that a surprisingly small story, in the end, was played very large. I’ve never seen the gargantuan Four Seasons stage seem so immense and lonely, with vast open spaces yawning between characters who should have been in intimate connection. Sometimes characters in conversation are 20 or 30 feet from one another. Perhaps that was Hinton’s idea, to portray the power of our landscape on stage, but the unoccupied spaces tended to drain the drama from the story, make everything into tableaux, turn intimacy into historical set-piece. Hinton used space this way because he had, in effect, two choruses on stage for virtually the whole opera – one representing white Canada, often arrayed in a jury box that stretched across the entire stage; the other a collection of Indigenous people, mute, the Land Assembly, as he calls it, one of his innovations to try to restore the Indigenous reality left out of the original Riel production. I wondered before Thursday whether the Land Assembly would seem irrelevant, or powerful, and in the end it was neither, actually. It was a dramatic technique that sometimes added to the sense of the story and sometimes provided mere visual interest, but tended to dissipate the drama on stage rather than heighten it. Often, the onstage chorus interceded between us and the main characters, diminishing our response to the drama those characters represented.
The composer was Harry Somers:
But the basic problem that all cast members had, as well as the COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus, is that Somers’s score for Riel has not aged well in the 50 years since its composition. Somers wrote Riel in something of a quasi-dissonant, highly angular, international style in the mid-sixties, sort of the musical equivalent of all those anonymous steel and glass office towers that clog North American cities today. The problem with the style is that it is consummately anti-lyrical, refusing the human voice its natural concourse and ambit, and so fails to reflect a human story with essential warmth and needed passion.
I suspect there might be another layer of problems, both with the original and with the revival and it is one endemic to the arts in Canada. There is this deeply rooted belief that Canada always has to have a "national policy" for everything: crises, economics, and, sadly, the arts. There is always a kind of deadening collectivity like a blanket of mediocrity over everything. The essential truth about the arts is that there, as in everything, creativity always comes from individuals. Perhaps the greatest Canadian musicians were Glenn Gould and Leonard Cohen, both of them very unusual individuals and for that reason, often treated with suspicion by their fellow Canadians. Success in the arts in Canada is dependent on the good regard of your colleagues who run those sources of publicity, support and promotion: the Canada Council, the Canadian Opera Company, the National Arts Centre. All of them following some sort of national policy. And just as the individuals were lost on the stage of the Louis Riél opera, so the creative individuals in Canada tend to fall through the cracks of the "national arts policy". Good God, why would anyone think that the arts come from government bodies and policies! But that seems to be the view in Canada.

It doesn't work that way. My evidence is that there are no Canadian composers who are internationally known. The only two who come close are Claude Vivier and R. Murray Shafer and unless you are Canadian, I suspect you have never heard of either of them.

As an envoi, here is some music by Claude Vivier, Lonely Child, for soprano and orchestra:

Monteverdi and the Opera

The composer more responsible for the creation of the genre of the opera than any other is Claudio Monteverdi who wrote operas over a forty year period from L'Orfeo of 1607 to L'incoronazione di Poppea of 1643. We only have a partial picture of the early development of the opera because we are missing all the operas written during a thirty year span in the middle! Seven out of Monteverdi's ten operas (two incomplete) are lost with only fragments surviving. The most famous fragment is the Lamento d'Arianna, an extended recitative from the opera L'Arianna relating the classical story of Theseus' abandonment of Ariadna on the island of Naxos. This lament, surviving in three different versions, the original solo song, a five-voice madrigal and a sacred hymn, was the model for operatic laments for a hundred years and more. Let's have a listen. The singer is Anna Caterina Antonacci:

The full-fledged opera grew out of a host of musical theatre pieces of different kinds that were created for the amusement of the noble courts of northern Italy in the late 16th century. The first actual opera was not by Monteverdi, but by Jacopo Peri in 1597. This was Dafne, written for a circle of humanists in Florence, but first performed in Venice in 1598. The libretto was by Ottavio Rinuccini who also wrote the libretto for Monteverdi's Arianna. Indeed, one recurring theme in all these vocal works is the tight and interactive relationship between the text and the music that we see not only here, but in the madrigals we were looking at. Unquestionably, the most important poetic text for the development of this relationship was Il pastor fido, the tragicomic pastoral by Giovanni Battista Guarini published in 1590 and the source of the texts for a host of madrigals.

The first opera that we have complete that is regularly performed today is L'Orfeo by Monteverdi on a libretto by Alessandro Striggio, but it was very much inspired by the second opera by Peri, Euridice, on a libretto by Rinuccini, first performed in 1600. Euridice was, of course, the wife of Orfeo, whom he attempted to rescue from Hades. This is rather as if another playwright had written a play titled "Juliet" which Shakespeare emulated by writing one titled "Romeo"! It is remarkable what a close circle of creative poets, composers, musicians and noble patrons were responsible for the birth and flourishing of opera.

We are going to spend at least one post on the remarkable opera, L'Orfeo, by Monteverdi, but that will be for next time. For now, let's listen to a performance that attempts to recreate what the original might have sounded like. This rather magnificent performance was directed by Jordi Savall:

Friday, April 21, 2017

Who was your triangle teacher?

This is rather entertaining:

A Restaurant Review For the Ages

Food is a fairly rare tag here, but I do occasionally mention it. I'm prepping for my trip to Spain and stumbled across this restaurant review in The Guardian. It is a masterpiece of adroit criticism and I am deeply jealous:
There is only one thing worse than being served a terrible meal: being served a terrible meal by earnest waiters who have no idea just how awful the things they are doing to you are. And so, to the flagship Michelin three-star restaurant of the George V Hotel in Paris, or the scene of the crime as I now like to call it. In terms of value for money and expectation Le Cinq supplied by far the worst restaurant experience I have endured in my 18 years in this job. This, it must be said, is an achievement of sorts.
This meal for two cost €600 and was a truly memorable experience:
The canapé we are instructed to eat first is a transparent ball on a spoon. It looks like a Barbie-sized silicone breast implant, and is a “spherification”, a gel globe using a technique perfected by Ferran Adrià at El Bulli about 20 years ago. This one pops in our mouth to release stale air with a tinge of ginger. My companion winces. “It’s like eating a condom that’s been left lying about in a dusty greengrocer’s,” she says. Spherifications of various kinds – bursting, popping, deflating, always ill-advised – turn up on many dishes. It’s their trick, their shtick, their big idea. It’s all they have. Another canapé, tuile enclosing scallop mush, introduces us to the kitchen’s love of acidity. Not bright, light aromatic acidity of the sort provided by, say, yuzu. This is blunt acidity of the sort that polishes up dulled brass coins.
Even the decor receives a rapier thrust:
The dining room, deep in the hotel, is a broad space of high ceilings and coving, with thick carpets to muffle the screams. It is decorated in various shades of taupe, biscuit and fuck you. There’s a little gilt here and there, to remind us that this is a room designed for people for whom guilt is unfamiliar. It shouts money much as football fans shout at the ref. There’s a stool for the lady’s handbag. Well, of course there is.
"Thick carpets to muffle the screams." How I wish I had said that! Now this, instead of another smug excursion into virtue-signalling, is what we need in classical music journalism. A review that gores someone's ox so thoroughly that all that is left is oxtail soup.

Do we need an envoi after this? Of course we do. In honor of French music, this is the Symphony in C by Georges Bizet, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernhard Haitink:


Friday Miscellanea

Everything is going smooth and soft in today's miscellanea, in tune with our first item "Soft, smooth and steady: How Xanax turned American music into pill-pop"
21st-century pill-pop has a sound, too. It’s a smoothness, a softness, a steadiness. An aversion to unanticipated left turns. It isn’t new, but it’s increasingly everywhere. You can hear it in the Weeknd’s demulcent falsetto, in Rihanna’s unruffled cool, in Drake’s creamier verses, even in Justin Bieber’s buffed edges. Out on the dance floor, it’s most evident in the cushiony pulse of tropical house, a softer style that Kygo and other big-time producers have used to mitigate the intensity at various EDM festivals in recent years.
"Demulcent?" Ah, tropical house:

Yes, I see what they mean. Unfortunately both tranquilizers and this music have a similar effect on me: they make me anxious and uneasy. What's wrong with me?!
the pill-pop aesthetic and the streaming experience go hand-in-hand. Crafting a hit single with sleek synthesizers, pillowy electronic drums and Auto-Tuned purrs might be enough to get you in the game, but it isn’t enough to win. Dominance belongs to those superstars willing to replicate their softness in abundance, and then roll it out on the streaming platforms — the way that Drake and the Weeknd have each done on their wildly successful, shamelessly overlong albums of late (“More Life” and “Starboy,” respectively). Instead of forging new sounds or fresh styles, these guys are defining the era by taking leisurely laps back and forth across their respective comfort zones.
I dunno, sounds a lot like the fifth circle of Dante's Inferno to me.

* * *

I think we need to clear the palate with a Shostakovich string quartet. This is the String Quartet No. 9 from 1964 played by the Emerson String Quartet:

You're welcome.

* * *

The Wall Street Journal has a book review about the fortunes of musicians and songwriters in a digital universe. "Whose Song Is It Anyway?"
Musicians have a long, if not always distinguished, history of political advocacy. Of late they’ve taken supposedly bold positions on climate change, gun control, Brexit and low voter turnout. One advocacy effort is notable for its obscurity, however: Last year, nearly 200 luminaries, from the young ( Taylor Swift ) to the old ( Paul McCartney ), urged Congress to modernize the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The 1998 law, they said, enriches YouTube and other corporate platforms while providing only meager benefits to artists and songwriters: “We ask you,” they declared, “to enact sensible reform that balances the interests of creators with the interests of the companies who exploit music for their financial enrichment.”
Mr. Taplin sees a “massive reallocation of revenue from creators of content to owners of platforms.” Facebook and Google, he says, seek to “extract as much personal data from as many people in the world at the lowest possible price and to resell that data to as many companies as possible at the highest possible price.” Platforms also show a “blatant disregard for the artist’s intellectual property.”

* * *

Speaking of creativity, Jordan Peterson, the psychology professor who seems to have something to say about everything, talks about the risks and rewards of being creative in this clip. Some hard truths are stated:

* * *

The New Yorker is nothing if not predictable. Their new slogan is "Fighting fake stories with real ones" so let's have a look at their latest music item: "What Du Yun's Pulitzer Prize Win Means for Women in Classical Music"
Conversations about gender and diversity in contemporary composition have intensified in recent months, prompted in part by the Metropolitan Opera’s staging, last fall, of Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin”—the first opera by a female composer to be produced by the company in more than a century. Last year was a notable year for women in classical music more broadly: Julia Wolfe won a MacArthur “genius” grant, Debora L. Spar became the first female president of Lincoln Center, and the conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was appointed music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony. In December, the Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed declared 2016 to be classical music’s “year of the woman.” The hashtag #HearAllComposers, a social-media campaign advocating against gender, race, and socio-economic discrimination in contemporary music, has galvanized members of the classical-music community. Following the Pulitzer news this week, some wondered whether the all-female lineup might signal a permanent shift in the stodgily male profession.
Heavy sigh. Talk about stodgy, this meme is so threadbare that apparently it cannot even be sent out to be washed. If we are to express delight, and why should we not?--then let it be for the individuals, not the collective. Creativity is not a collective attribute and celebrating the creativity of women, or conductors from Quebec, or Finnish composers, or left-handed redheads as being about women or Quebec or Finland or lefthandedness or redheadedness is nothing more than a category error. Go ahead and read the rest of the article, noteworthy for its absolute uniformity of utter balderdash. Nothing is preventing women from working in classical music in any role whatsoever. I have had lots of women colleagues in every possible area in music in the whole time I have been in the profession: composers, conductors, performers, theorists, deans, administrators and so on. You Are Not Excluded!

* * *

After that, a suitable envoi would seem to be a piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Du Yun. This is "When a Tiger Meets a Rosa Rugosa" written for violinist Hilary Hahn and released on her album of contemporary encores. Very oddly, Blogger won't allow it to be embedded, so you have to click on the link:

We talked about this piece before in the multiple posts on the album.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Grigory Sokolov: Bologna, May 15

I have been trying to get a ticket to see a concert by Grigory Sokolov while I am in Spain this summer. At first, I was unsuccessful, but with the aid of a friend who speaks Italian, I finally succeeded. I got the email for the promotors of a concert in Bologna on May 15 and they just got back to me, saying that all the tickets were sold, but that I could put my name on the reserve list if a ticket became available on the day of the concert. I wrote back asking what the chances were as I would be making a special trip from Madrid just for the concert. They answered saying as I was coming from another city, that they would set aside a ticket for me in "first Stall", which I think is a good seat! Wow, this is just amazingly kind!

I can't help but contrast it with my experience last summer with our local chamber music festival. First of all, the most interesting concert (almost the only interesting concert!) was going to be pianist Jeremy Denk with a violinist doing all the Charles Ives violin sonatas. I even studied up on them. Then, just a couple of days before, it was canceled. Ok, not their fault. So I went to the office wanting to exchange my ticket for a different concert and they said they couldn't do that. I had to buy a new ticket and later on, after the end of the festival, they would refund the first one. Ok. But it didn't happen. They never refunded the ticket for the concert that was canceled.

I am very, very tempted to write an essay for the local newspaper explaining "Why I Don't Attend the Chamber Music Festival Concerts Any More!" In the meantime they have downgraded themselves by renaming it the "International Music Festival." Thanks but no thanks!

We just have to listen to some Grigory Sokolov, don't we? This is a performance of forty-eight minutes of François Couperin, the XIII and XVIII Ordres from a 2001 concert:

To my knowledge, none of Sokolov's performances of Rameau or Couperin have been released on CD. He doesn't do studio recordings, so the only CDs available have been of live recordings. The company that released these was Naive, but they are out of business. Luckily Deutsche Grammophon has started releasing CDs of his concerts. But so far they have just been of the more conventional repertoire such as Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven.

Way back in the 70s the Early Music Movement became a powerful force with performances of Bach and pre-Bach repertoire on original instruments following supposedly historical performance practice. These performances have gotten better and better so for a lot of this repertoire I automatically default to the Early Music guys. In fact a lot of orchestras and pianists have simply stopped playing the early stuff, ceding the turf to the original instrument players. So Rameau and Couperin and all the other harpsichord composers are hardly ever heard on piano these days.

Sokolov, however has been playing a lot of Rameau and Couperin. In a concert he might play a whole suite or two and recently he has been playing six pieces by Rameau as his first six encores! The thing is, that he plays this music so extraordinarily well that I have come to prefer him to the harpsichordists! So get with it Deutsche Grammophon!

Here is a little Couperin encore called "Tic-Toc-Choc":

Monday, April 17, 2017

Cultural Appropriation

I don't often read Teen Vogue (ok, never), but someone linked to this article on "How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation at Coachella" so I had a look. Apparently "cultural appropriation" is Bad. According to Wikipedia:
Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation is sometimes portrayed as harmful, framed as cultural misappropriation, and claimed to be a violation of the intellectual property rights of the originating culture. Often unavoidable when multiple cultures come together, cultural appropriation can include using other cultures' traditions, fashion, symbols, language, and cultural songs without permission. According to critics of the practice, cultural (mis)appropriation differs from acculturation, assimilation, or cultural exchange in that the "appropriation" or "misappropriation" refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of representatives of the originating culture.
Of course "cultures" don't actually have intellectual property rights, but what Teen Vogue is on about is the use of elements of fashion by Westerners in order to give themselves a festive, but exotic air:

Click to enlarge
 Well, ok, but what about the music? The Music Salon can reveal that pop music is mostly appropriated from a whole bunch of places. First of all, sure, white pop artists have been covering and recycling black musician's work for decades, but we can go deeper. Did you know that every single pop artist has appropriated--without permission--the entire harmonic and melodic structure of Western European music? Yes, it's true! The scales and chords that pop artists use every single day were taken whole from European musicians who developed them over hundreds of years. Not to mention the instruments. Yes, the electric guitar was an American invention, but the guitar itself and its system of tuning goes back to Medieval and Renaissance Spain and Italy. The piano was invented by an Italian in the early 18th century. Drums? Woo-hoo, they go back a long, long way, but a lot of their use was transmitted through Islamic and Turkish cultures (who also gave us the cymbals and high-hats of the drum kit).

Wait, it's even worse! All, all, of the terminology used in music like "melody", "harmony" and "rhythm" comes from the ancient Greeks who also invented the idea of the scale and intervals. Now there's some cultural appropriation for ya! What about song lyrics? Well, the pop musicians themselves come up with them, of course, but the whole idea of "lyrics" is taken from Greek poetry, sung to the lyre, hence the name.

And hey, that diadem of flowers worn by the woman in the photo above? Well, of course that whole idea also comes from the Greeks. The word is διάδημα, "diadema" which means "band" or "fillet". Actually the Greeks probably stole it from the Egyptians. The sunglasses are also a European invention, by the 18th century English optician James Ayscough.

So this whole idea of "cultural appropriation" is historically confused. Let a hundred flowers bloom I always say...

Let's listen to some culturally appropriated pop music that no-one has complained about so far. This is "Love You To" by George Harrison from Revolver, who was busily appropriating North Indian classical music. Unfortunately, the original is not on YouTube, but this is a very accurate cover version:

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Four Fifths

This will not be a post about bottles of bourbon!

I had a theory professor once, when he was teaching 20th century theory, would devote one class to compositions written in the year 1951--the only reason for this was that was the year of his birth. But looking at things from a seemingly arbitrary angle can be interesting and rewarding because it shakes you a bit loose from the standard or common perspectives and allows you to, perhaps, see things from a new angle.

So the idle thought crossed my mind the other day of comparing, putting together, four different symphonies that all happen to have the number five. Number five, number five, number five, number five...

The first one is the venerable and much admired and discussed Symphony No. 5 by Beethoven, the mother of all fifth symphonies. It is a tightly-written piece that has been a kind of icon for tightly-written (or "organic") pieces ever since. It absolutely fixates on the falling third interval and the three short and one long note rhythm that we hear at the open.

Incidentally, while these little rhythmic cells are often (by me and others) referred to by the names they have in metric prosody, this one never seems to be given its proper name, which is quartus paeon. Another odd thing is that, while Beethoven often sought to emulate Mozart, in this particular realm he is really following in Haydn's footsteps, who was the one who invented this extremely focussed kind of composition. A perfect example is his "Quinten" quartet, the entire first movement of which is based entirely on two falling fifths in half notes!

The Beethoven symphony was began in 1804 and first performed in 1808. It is inconceivable that either Haydn or Mozart would have taken four years to write a symphony!

Let's listen to the Beethoven as the first of our fifths. This is the enthusiastic Gustavo Dudamel conducting the equally enthusiastic Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar of Venezuela in a recent performance in Paris:

The next fifth is by Franz Schubert and it was written in September and October of 1816.  In some ways it is in an older tradition than Beethoven's and is a bit reminiscent of Mozart. Schubert did not really carve out his unique symphonic voice until his last two symphonies. This one is full of charm and grace, quite different from the Beethoven. Let's have a listen. This is Franz Brüggen conducting the Orchestra of the 18th Century:

We are going to jump way into the 20th century for our next two fifths. The first one is by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who wrote his Symphony No. 5 in 1916 and revised it in 1919. In this period of his life Sibelius was feeling not only the storms of the First World War like any European, but also the stresses coming from the feeling that his kind of composition was being made obsolescent by the early winds of modernism. His Fourth Symphony, premiered in 1911 was the first to receive mixed reviews, perhaps because there had been so many new kinds of writing from composers like Debussy, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. My feeling about this symphony is that it is a kind of structural marvel, like an intricate kaleidoscope of beauty. Sibelius wrote this about it in his diary: "It is as if God Almighty had thrown down pieces of a mosaic for heaven’s floor and asked me to find out what was the original pattern." This is Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Bayerischer Rundfunk:

For our final fifth, I choose the Symphony No. 5 of Dmitri Shostakovich. This is certainly one of the most exigent symphonies ever written. Faced with the disapproval of Stalin, who, in the company of his cronies had recently heard a performance of the composer's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and was very offended by it, Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony, already in rehearsal, and set out to salvage his career (and possibly his life) from disaster. He somehow had to write something that would both reach out to the long-suffering Russian people and satisfy the demands of "socialist realism" required by the apparatchiks. Bear in mind that the symphony was written in 1937, right in the middle of one of Stalin's most devastating purges. Millions of people, including army officers, artists, government and party officials and just anyone who might be suspected of pretty much anything were sent into Siberian exile or simply shot. This might have been Shostakovich's fate, like so many other artists, if he had not been able to write a successful symphony. But he did and the Symphony No. 5 had a spectacular premiere with a half-hour standing ovation. Listening to it, you almost feel that you lived through these times along with him. This is Valery Gergiev conducting the BBC Symphony:

Friday, April 14, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Opening, unapologetically, with the most recent paean to the concert dress of Yuja Wang, this time in the Guardian. Just to get our attention, they offer this photo:

Click to enlarge, you know you want to!

I love the quote they chose for their headline: "if the music is beautiful and sensual, why not dress to fit?" And if the music is gnarly and tormented?

* * *

It is fascinating to see creativity break loose. Here is an example from an all-star performance of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". This is one of George's best songs, and certainly his best title, and all-star memorial performances of it have been popular since he passed away. One really memorable one was on the Concert for George DVD with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and others. But all-star performances have a tendency to be, well, a bit over-stuffed and sometimes a bit mediocre--more sentiment than music. This clip features Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne and some other folks and it trudges along, played well, but nothing special, that is, until around 3:45 when Prince steps out and solos to the end. This is the very incarnation of creativity. While the other guitar soloist contented himself with roughly reproducing Eric Clapton's excellent solo on the original, Prince just launches himself into new territory (and almost offstage in the middle). He ignites the whole performance and at the end throws his guitar somewhere, but who knows where? Remarkable...

* * *

I've got another example for you. This is from Eric Clapton's tribute to Robert Johnson. He has just about the best blues session guys in the business including Billy Preston on organ. It's really pretty good, but we can see where all the real creative energy is coming from. After solos by Billy Preston and Doyle Bramhall II and later by Chris Stainton the music is marching dutifully along. Then Eric takes a solo and almost instantly it is as if a bunch of different guys took over. By the end of the solo and the song they are really cooking. It all happens with the first phrase of his solo at the 3:58 mark.

* * *

Speaking of session musicians, there is a new documentary out called The Wrecking Crew that looks good. Here is the trailer:

And here is a review
Just about every popular musical group back then, from the Beach Boys to Elvis, relied on session musicians for their song recordings, the best of which was a group of 10-20 (depending on who you ask) session players known as The Wrecking Crew.
This band of industry legends was led by guitarist, Tommy Tedesco. His son, Denny, produced and directed the 2015 documentary, The Wrecking Crew, based mostly on past and recent interviews from its members. He began work on the film in 1995 after his father was diagnosed with cancer. It was a struggle for Denny Tedesco to secure the necessary music licensing for his film, but with help from a Kickstarter campaign, he was finally able to release it.
I met Tommy Tedesco in Toronto in 1978 at a guitar festival. Don't remember what we talked about! But it is sure true that there are a bunch of guys out in Los Angeles that can play, at sight, pretty much anything you can write. What wasn't widely known before this documentary was that they were the guys that played the instrumental tracks on just about everybody's recordings.

* * *

Returning to Yuja Wang for a moment, I was listening to various things on YouTube last night and after several clips by Grigory Sokolov it occurred to me that I haven't listened to much by Yuja Wang lately. So I looked at what was there. Eliminating all the concerto recordings I saw some Chopin, Scriabin, Liszt, Prokofiev and so on. I discovered that I lost interest pretty early on in each clip. I'm not sure why. But there just didn't seem to be anything there other than the notes. But she has a zillion fans and the comments were full of praise--extremely fulsome praise along the lines that this is the greatest pianist who ever lived. I just don't hear it.


* * *

The latest volley in the war to preserve classical music comes in the form of a new book of classical music appreciation by Jan Swafford. He explains Wagner's career by asserting that he was a meaner son of a bitch than any of his critics. Hm, that wasn't exactly the way it was taught when I was in school...

* * *

An interview with pianist Steven Osborne brings some interesting passages:
I don’t really know what to do with Chopin. The only thing I’ve played in the last 20 years by Chopin is the Cello Sonata. I enjoyed doing it, but it was hard work finding my way into the style: I worked out what gestures were going to work and did my best to make it organic. With the music I love playing I don’t have to think in those terms because the gestures come immediately from the feeling I have about the piece. Some day I might suddenly fall in love with Chopin—but the world doesn’t really need another Chopin pianist.
Now that is interesting. I think I would prefer it if a lot of the people playing Chopin would admit something similar and have done with it--Chopin the way it is often played is little more than a soppy audience-pleaser...

* * *

For our envoi, let's listen to Steven Osborne play La Valse by Ravel:

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Vihuelistas

The who? Yes, the vihuela, an important musical instrument historically, is not well known. I do have a "vihuela" tag, though as I have mentioned the instrument in several posts. The vihuela is largely a Spanish instrument though there is a Mexican vihuela, obviously descended from the days when Mexico was a Spanish colony, that plays a role in mariachi music. You should read the whole article on the vihuela in Wikipedia that I linked to, but here is an excerpt:
Plucked vihuelas, being essentially flat-backed lutes, evolved in the mid-15th century, in the Kingdom of Aragón, located in north-eastern Iberia (Spain). In Spain, Portugal, and Italy the vihuela was in common use by the late 15th through to the late 16th centuries. In the second half of the 15th century some vihuela players began using a bow, leading to the development of the viol.
Here are a couple of pictures of vihuelas. The first is of one of the three surviving vihuelas and the second of a modern reproduction:

Click to enlarge

The vihuela looks rather like a guitar, but its double-courses are tuned the same as the lute, which was the primary harmonic instrument in the rest of Europe. I don't think I can cite any sources for this, but a fairly widespread view is that the lute was not played in Spain because it derives from the oud, an instrument of ancient origins, but primarily used in the music of the Islamic cultures from Persia through North Africa. It was undoubtedly brought to the Iberian peninsula when it was conquered by the Moors in the 8th century. Towards the end of the 9th century, the idea of a "reconquista" began to take root amongst the Christian kingdoms remaining in the northwest. This took a very long time and was not complete until 1492, just before the discovery of the New World by Columbus.

Getting back to the music, one can see, I think, the appeal to the Spanish of an instrument that was not associated with the culture of the Moors, but had a similar musical function. In a remarkable flourishing, starting in 1536, a group of Spanish composers, all of whom played the vihuela, published a series of books of music of considerable importance. The first one was by Luis de Milán titled El Maestro. Here is the frontispiece to that book showing Orpheus playing the vihuela:
This book was followed by many others. This was very early in the history of printed music and luckily, copies of several books by different composers have survived. Here is the list from Wikipedia:

These formed an important part of my own musical education as my own maestro in Spain, José Tomás, assigned me a lot of pieces from these books in the first few months of my time with him.

The importance of this repertoire is that it contains a lot of firsts: among the first instrumental music (though there are lot of pieces for voice and vihuela as well) to be printed, the first sets of variations, some of the first instrumental arrangements of vocal music, the very first tempo indications to be printed and so on. But more important than those historical features is the aesthetic quality of the music. All these composers were employed by high-ranking members of the nobility, Milán by the duke of Valencia, Narváez in the royal chapel of Charles V, Mudarra by members of the court of Charles V and the cathedral of Seville and so on. Apart from Valencia, residence of Milán, most of these composers were resident in Valladolid, an important center before the institution of Madrid as the royal capital.

Along with the spectacular vocal music by Tomás Luis de Victoria and others, this was the music of Imperial Spain at its most powerful which is itself interesting. When I visit Spain next month, I am going to spend time in both Valencia and Valladolid and hope to get a tiny sense of the vihuelistas from that. But I am also mulling over the idea of purchasing a vihuela and wondering why I didn't do so decades ago. I suppose it was because vihuela music fits on the guitar quite well, requiring just a small tuning change, but also because my commitment was to the classical guitar and the vihuela repertoire is just a small portion of that repertoire.

But I find myself more and more interested in the music, and the times, of the vihuelistas and playing that music on the original instrument (or a modern copy) is a worthwhile project. 

Let's end with some clips of that music. Here is Pedro Alcacer in a 2007 performance of the first six fantasias by Milán for the Vihuela Society of Valencia:

Here is a long clip of music by Luys de Narváez played by the very fine Hopkinson Smith. Alas, no details on the tracks is available and the original recording cannot be found on Amazon.

Here is one of Narváez' most famous pieces, his variations on the romanesca "Guardame las vacas" (if you want to hear Hopkinson Smith's performance of "Guardame" in the previous clip, it starts around the 17:10 mark):

And his "Cancion del Emperador" so-called because it was the favorite of Charles V. It is actually a transcription for vihuela of the famous "Mille Regretz" by Josquin des Prez. The performer is not indicated, but it is quite a nice version.

I hope you find some of this music pleasing!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Jordan Peterson on True Passion

University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson has a lot of clips up on YouTube, some of them short, like this one, some of them full lectures. They are usually worth your time. It is amazing how you can tell he is worth listening to almost instantly:

We always seem to keep coming back to the transcendentals of the ancient Greeks: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. I'm quite clear about music being a meaningfully engaging passion for me because, well, for a long, long time now what music is and what it does has absolutely fascinated me.

But yes, there are moral requirements as well. And eschewing deception, that is, "making truth your highest value" otherwise you can't even know yourself and whether you are meaningfully engaged or not. You see, he hits all three: the Good, the True and, if your meaningful engagement is with an art form like music, the Beautiful.

Let's hear some of that beautiful music (and no, it isn't that soppy stuff labeled as such on YouTube). This is the Symphony No. 6 by Jean Sibelius with the Swedish Radio Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen:

A Rose is a Rose

I've noticed before that the Wall Street Journal likes to put up a lot of reviews of jazz artists, though they seem sometimes to have an aversion to actually calling the music "jazz." The latest is a review of a new album by Linda May Han Oh titled "Walk Against Wind." Here is a piece from YouTube titled "Ebony":

That's actually rather interesting. The very syncopated "rondo" interspersed with improvisational episodes makes for a listenable structure. But I admit I do have a problem with jazz--I'm just not receptive to the mood space of it, which to me seems to always take us on the same journey, however interestingly inflected.

Both jazz and classical seem to have the same problems attracting a mass audience, if that is even a problem. But they approach it in different ways. Jazz doesn't have the deep institutional history that classical does, but it has a coolness factor that compensates for that. I haven't checked around, but do other media, like the Wall Street Journal, fudge that it is actually jazz they are reviewing? I notice that sometimes the only indication that we are talking about jazz is the final byline:
—Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.
Not true in this particular instance, but in a number of other reviews. A lot of the time it seems the underlying assumption is that a lot of new music is about "blurring the lines" which seems to mean jazz with some added flavorings like flamenco or world music or, in this case, string quartet. I suppose that speaks to the extent to which jazz welcomes diversity.

Here is another clip of Linda Oh, titled "Lucid Lullaby:"

She is a very good musician, isn't she? But I'm still not a jazz fan. I wonder why?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Monteverdi's Colleagues and Competitors

One of the things musicologists do is to examine the context surrounding composers and their work. In the popular media this is largely restricted to biographical information, the more scurrilous the better, but a more interesting approach is to look at the musical context, which means looking at the musical environment, a large part of which is other composers, performers, patrons and so on. Late 16th century northern Italy was an extremely musically active place with each regional court supporting its own artists, writers and musicians. The madrigal (and other related forms like the villanella and canzonetta) was a creative union of poetry and music that was perhaps the most salient musical high art of the time and place. Different madrigal styles were developed in Mantua, Ferrara and Florence in particular.

Though born in Cremona, where he also studied at the University of Cremona, Monteverdi spent most of his career at the court of Vincenzo I of Gonzaga in Mantua. Along with Monteverdi, Vincenzo also employed the painter Peter Paul Rubens.

We learn from Tomlinson's monograph on Monteverdi that "The Mantuan style of 1595 - 1600 is above all a homophonic language of flexible, text-inspired declamatory rhythms ... Imitative textures are infrequent..." Also: "The Ferrarese style, in contrast favors mercurial, single-subject imitation at quick rhythmic intervals." He goes on to point out the differences in harmonic structure: the Ferrarese style is more undirected and has a wayward sound to modern ears. In the Mantuan style the bassline is more distinct and freer to support a harmonic foundation.

The very unusual composer Carlo Gesualdo was himself a nobleman, born in Venosa, then part of the Kingdom of Naples. On the death of his father he became Prince of Venosa. He was dedicated to music his whole life and took up residence in Ferrara because of its role as a center of musical activity. After a few years he returned to his castle at Gesualdo bringing with him a number of musicians and singers from Ferrara. Gesualdo was known for a style using extreme chromaticism and some of his madrigals seem to have influenced Monteverdi who knew his work.

Let's listen to a couple of pieces from Gesualdo's Fourth Book of Madrigals. First, "Sparge la morte" performed by the Ensemble "Basiliensis":

Next, "Ecco morirò dunque" performed by the Monteverdi Choir conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:

Working alongside Monterverdi in Mantua was Benedetto Pallavicino, here are the Ensemble Basilensis with his "Deh, dolce anima mia":

Another Mantuan violinist and composer was Salamone Rossi, one of the first Jewish composers we know of. This is his Sonata Duodecima (sopra La Bergamesca):

So I hope that gives you a bit of musical context of late 16th century northern Italy, a place that was the birthplace of a great deal of great music.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Education in the Arts Postscript

I've been waiting for a commentator to rake me over the coals for saying in my post yesterday that "They want to bring pop, folk, jazz and world music into the curriculum. At first this seems a good idea, but over time, they start to edge out the classical music. They are easier to enjoy and the technical standards are not so demanding so if you don't have a very strong handle on exactly why you need to be teaching the classical traditions, then pretty soon you will just stop bothering." The bolded passage is the one that I felt sure would attract some criticism, after all, jazz, rock, pop and world musics all demand a level of technical precision and accomplishment that is as demanding as anything in classical music. Right? Right?

Ah, but in many ways they don't. But first let me point out ways that they do:

  • All forms and genres of music contain examples of real virtuosity because musicians learn how to do tricky and complex things and they like to show them off
  • In every kind of music, there are some players for whom fast passages come naturally
  • In jazz, virtuosity is expressed, not only in technique, but in improvisational ingenuity
I'm sure I could quote all sorts of examples from Alvin Lee to Van Halen to gypsy fiddlers to flamenco guitarists, but no need. We have all heard instrumental virtuosity of this kind. Heck, even actors can fake it a bit (sorry, Blogger won't embed):

But here is the difference: all of this virtuosity, all, is based on instrumental athleticism, finding how to do quick and clever things on the instrument. It is also something that each individual virtuoso develops based on their own individual skills. This is entirely different from the technical command necessary to play classical music really well. What is the difference? I think the main one is that non-classical instrumental virtuosity (and that practiced in classical music as well, up until the 17th century) is based on finger (or lip, or throat) virtuosity, but in classical music for quite a while now, it is all about precise control of dynamics, articulation, phrasing, timbre and a bunch of other subtleties that we don't have names for. And all this is directly related to the specific musical context, not to the performer's skill set.

Now you might protest that other kinds of virtuosity, for example that of Stevie Ray Vaughan, is all about intense expressivity and that is true. But it still emanates from and is based on the skill set of the performer, not the objective requirements of the composition because, in the blues, the individual voice of the performer is, to a large extent, the composition. But if you are playing a sonata by Beethoven, you have to accept and master a very complex set of skills that are entirely developed to allow the musical content and structure to be communicated clearly and beautifully. Completely different thing:

And then there is this, where, except for the trills, there is almost no conventional virtuosity--it is all in the expression:

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Education in the Arts

I suppose I have a somewhat jaundiced view of education in the arts because that was my racket for most of my life. I taught music in one form or another for roughly thirty years and, while it was often fulfilling and engaging, it was also often very tiresome and mind-numblingly boring. Sorry! After the five hundredth time you have explained that there are two quarter notes in a half note, it starts to lose its delight.

But that is all just subjective whining, the objective truth seems to be that education in music and art is crucial in involving people with the arts and music in their entire life. The Pacific Standard has the story: The Lifelong Effects of Music and Arts Classes. Researcher Kenneth Elpus tells us:
“Rather than disengage from art-making and arts attendance upon graduation, students of school-based music and arts education were significantly more likely (than their peers) to create art in their own lives, and to patronize arts events,” Elpus reports.
Even after taking such factors as race, sex, and socioeconomic status into account, “Both music performance and music appreciation courses are strongly associated with later arts participation as patron/consumer and performer/creator,” he writes. For example, compared to their peers, “Former music-appreciation students were 93 percent more likely to attend classical music or opera performance as adults.”
This is one reason why I think it is so extremely important to preserve and enhance our traditions and institutions of classical music performance: if they are not passed on, both in performance and in the provision of music education (the real thing, theory, history and notation) then we start to lose touch with one of the greatest achievements of Western Civilization.

I think that one of the most intractable problems with this is that the very teachers whose job it is to pass on these traditions are sometimes either incompetent or simply lack commitment to the aesthetic traditions. These are the folks, possibly corrupted by contemporary educational ideology, who start talking about diversity and stuff. They want to bring pop, folk, jazz and world music into the curriculum. At first this seems a good idea, but over time, they start to edge out the classical music. They are easier to enjoy and the technical standards are not so demanding so if you don't have a very strong handle on exactly why you need to be teaching the classical traditions, then pretty soon you will just stop bothering.

I can see this happening in our two local concert series. The one, without anyone at the helm with musical training, keeps getting worse and worse pianists each season. They probably don't see the difference between a really good pianist and an insensitive banger, so hey, why not hire the cheaper one? The programming gets less and less creative and more and more formulaic each season, but the pleas for donations get ever more strident. As an economic formula, it works, but I attend fewer and fewer concerts each year. The situation with the other series, a shorter one in the summer, is even worse. They have started to have the occasional less formal concert in the off season and I just noticed that this week it is a jazz quartet. Sure. Even more telling is that they have changed the name. it used to be the "Chamber Music Festival" but now it is the "International Music Festival." You can see where that is going. Trying to re-organize your concerts to appeal to people who don't like classical music is going to end by dispensing with classical music.

These are inevitable trends and the justification is always the attraction of more attendees, budget demands, audience demographics, the need for more contemporary works and so on. The only actual defense is aesthetic and no-one knows how to make aesthetic judgements or arguments anymore! In Europe there is an enormous critical mass of appreciation and support for the arts and music, but in North America it always seems to be on life-support or being taken off life-support. The people that run the institutions seem to too often misunderstand what they should be doing or, most saddening, to be manipulative scam artists taking advantage of an opportunity to advance their career.

The only path that can lead to understanding of the arts and music and their true role and importance in our societies is through aesthetic understanding. Statistics, psychology, sociology and economics are not going to do it. What those disciplines tell us over and over is that classical music is of almost no importance or significance whatsoever. All the real action is in popular music.

The only answer to that is this:

Friday, April 7, 2017

How Tall Was Beethoven?

I just learned this and immediately had to pass it on: Beethoven was only 5'3! I learned this here, where I also learned that Prince was only 5'2! Paul Simon is 5'3 and Pablo Picasso was 5'4. Bob Dylan, 5'6.

Let's have a little Beethoven. Oops, sorry! This is Igor Levit playing part of the  Piano Sonata op. 110:

Friday Miscellanea

Leading off this week is the Wall Street Journal with an article deceptively titled "Julliard Students Photographed in Their Element." Yes, these are, I assume, Julliard students and they seem to be photographed on-site, but the deception is that this is actually a fashion shoot! The WSJ does this from time to time: goes to a particular company or institution and builds a fashion shoot around the people. Here, see what I mean:

It's about the pose, the clothing (she is wearing over $5000 worth!), the hair, the makeup. Now, there is nothing wrong with that. I'm all in favor of nice clothes. But doesn't it say something that while the WSJ would run a piece like this, it is less likely they would run one talking much about what these students actually do at Julliard?

* * *

This is the silliest music-related story so far this year: UK Violist Sets World Record For Fastest Runner Dressed as a Musical Instrument:

* * *

A little follow-up on the piece on how learning how to read music is elitist. The Guardian has published the protest letter signed by six hundred musicians:
Gill’s comments about “limited repertoires of old, mostly classical music” are unfounded and presented without evidence: composing, listening, singing and playing are embedded in much musical education, which also widely encompasses jazz, popular and non-western traditions. Claiming that classical music comprises a limited repertory is inaccurate: composers have been adding to its repertory for centuries and continue to do so. We agree with Gill that aural and other skills are just as important as those in notation. However, through her romanticisation of illiteracy, Gill’s position could serve to make literate musical education even more exclusive through being marginalised yet further in state schools.
My feeling is that illiteracy is illiteracy, though, of course there are a lot of genres where it is only of small importance. My mother, an "old-time" fiddler, never read a note of music, but was an accomplished musician in her field.

* * *

Slipped Disc alerts us to the dumbing down of music at Harvard. Details from the Harvard Crimson:
Under the current requirements, students enter Music concentration through two introductory theory classes. The new curriculum eliminates the theory requirement and permits students to count certain freshman seminars and General Educations courses towards concentration requirements.
* * *

Believe it or not, there is a Don Rickles (who just passed away) clip with a classical music theme. Here is an excerpt from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson interviewing Frank Sinatra. He poses the intriguing musical question, "Frank, when you are in a romantic mood, and you're trying to make out, whose records do you put on?" The answer he gives is Daphnis and Chloe by Ravel and The Sunken Cathedral by Debussy. So, Frank leans towards the impressionists. I didn't know that. Then Don Rickles comes out and steals the show by making a bunch of Mafia jokes:

* * *

There are a lot of interesting things in this interview with Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. Here is a sample:


Sure, you get videos and pictures of shoeless Dutch musicians standing around without a conductor. But this isn’t a form of activism or even iconoclasm if the people on stage have set up a scheme of exclusion. It’s play politics, like many trends of the 1960s. One of my favorite quotes by composer Morton Feldman is “Pop Art is Socialist Realism for white people.”
I like that!

* * *

 Our musical envoi for today is the ballet Daphnis et Chloé by Ravel with, of course, Charles Dutoit and, of course, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.