Friday, October 20, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

I'm alerted to this post at On An Overgrown Path music blog where we find a different analysis of the woes of classical music:
the Guardian uses editorial algorithms to unashamedly slant its journalism towards the prejudices of its readership, and concert promoters use subjective algorithms to present concerts of familiar and non-challenging repertoire. The problem is that no one cares that this is happening. In fact everyone feels very contended in their own comfort zone with ever faster broadband, ever cheaper streamed content, ever more friends and followers, ever more selfie opportunities and - most importantly - ever fewer challenges to their prejudices. And the media - particularly the classical music media - is quite happy to play along; because keeping your readers in their comfort zone means keeping your readers.
Whereas I follow the slightly different policy of challenging my readers, which seems to attract a different kind of reader (even if perhaps fewer of them)!

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The popular music world also has its crises and the latest one seems to be that the big pop divas Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry just aren't cranking out the hits like they used to. The Wall Street Journal has the story:
So far this year, 20 of the 25 most-streamed songs on Spotify, Apple Music and other on-demand audio services are by R&B/hip-hop acts such as Kendrick Lamar, Migos, Childish Gambino and Lil Uzi Vert, Nielsen’s data shows. Two are by male pop stars (Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars). Not one is by a female pop artist.
Historically, the core of the traditional pop-diva audience has been teen girls. Yet several experts say these same fans aren’t as interested in the staged artificial personas of many pop stars such as Lady Gaga. They are now interested in hip-hop where lyrics are often more direct and true to life. “It’s the era of authenticity,” says Peter Edge, chairman and chief executive of RCA Records, which represents Kesha, Ms. Cyrus and SZA. “What are you really going through? What do you really think? How much are you really speaking to what’s going on with you?”
I think that captures why I don't find pop music too interesting these days: they aren't very interested in musical things and I'm not very interested in what's going on in their personal lives. Oh dear, the tragedy of being a celebrity!

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 Back to classical: Gramophone has the fifteen worst classical record covers of all time. A sample: first we have an album from Leif Segerstam, a very serious Finnish conductor and composer who has written over three hundred symphonies.

 Next, an album of very serious Bach solo music for violin by the sober Canadian violinist Lara St. John (like Yuja Wang, she recently had her clothing budget slashed):

You might be forgiven for thinking that this album was the dance music from the Star Trek episode with the Orion slave girl, but no, this is the highly respected opera singer Birgit Nilsson performing Salome by Richard Strauss with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Georg Solti:

And here, for comparison, is the aforementioned Orion slave girl from Star Trek:

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The New York Times has a piece on the cancelation, by the government of Venezuela, of a tour of Asia by Gustavo Dudamel. Of course it is not Gustavo Dudamel that is being canceled, it is rather the orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra. President Nicolas Maduro mocked the maestro saying "Welcome to politics, Gustavo Dudamel!" The maestro replied:
Mr. Dudamel, in his statement Thursday, called on the players in the orchestra and the young people of Venezuela to “remain strong and proud.” He added, “our spirit will not be broken, our hope will not waver, our music will not be silenced.”
“I shall never stop defending freedom of expression and the values of a just society,” he wrote. “Dark days like these are difficult, but standing together, we can rise to the challenge of improving our society.”
As often with the New York Times, the carefully ignored elephant in the room is socialism. The real reason that the tour was canceled was more likely the fact that the Venezuelan government has finally run out of other people's money. They are not only broke, with billions of dollars in foreign debt payments due, they have been printing money at a pace that has resulted in an inflation rate of around 2,300%! People are starving, eating zoo animals and cats. Venezuela simply hasn't any money to pay the expenses of a touring orchestra. But the New York Times would rather point to Dudamel's criticism of Maduro as the reason for the cancelation.

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While I'm at it, let's have a look at what Alex Ross is saying about the Met and the New York Philharmonic:
The Metropolitan Opera opened the season with its hundred-and-fifty-seventh performance of Bellini’s “Norma.” The New York Philharmonic began with its hundred-and-nineteenth rendition of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. This is the safe course that many performing-arts groups are choosing in precarious times: the eternal return to the world that was. Both works are masterpieces that deserve to be heard repeatedly. Yet the implicit message is reactionary. As the nation contends with its racist and misogynist demons, New York’s leading musical institutions give us canonical pieces by white males, conducted by white males, directed by white males.
I was just going to quote the first bit, but the ideological buzz words just kept coming. Leaving aside the works themselves, let's pick out the underlying subtext. We are in "precarious times." Oh yes, the Dow Jones Industrial Average just topped 23,000, up 25% since the beginning of the year. Unemployment in the US is at a low 4.2% down from 5% a year ago. What is precarious about that? Oh, it is the nation's racist and misogynist demons that must be the problem. And what could these demons be, if we were to drop the metaphor? Right away he tells us: white males! Being a white male himself, Alex knows whereof he speaks. Well, ok, job one is obviously to fire him and hire a non-white, non-male music critic for the New Yorker. What's that? No immediate plans? Ok, just get back to me. It is also amusing to note that Alex describes the works in question as "masterpieces that deserve to be heard repeatedly." So what's the problem? Oh, right, it is not the actual pieces of music, it is their authorship! Too many white males... Well, ok, let's find some works of equal stature that were not written by white males. Uh, Aida? Nope, Verdi is another white male. I know, Don Giovanni! Oops, Mozart, another white male. Could it possibly be that, as of yet, there are no absolutely first rank operas not written by white males? Moving on to the symphony, I kind of suspect that we might have the same problem: Beethoven, white male, Haydn, white male, Bruckner, white male, Stravinsky, white male, Philip Glass, white male. Oh well... So I guess that what we have here is Alex Ross just signaling his virtue to us: he knows about this terrible racism and misogyny and he has to let us know he knows. Once that is over with the rest of the essay is a standard review of performances. You know how we know that this is just virtue-signaling and not an actual practical critique? Because he offers no suggestions for works by non-white, non-males that might have been programmed instead of Norma and Mahler Five.

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Let's have a listen to part of Norma by Bellini, one of the finest examples of bel canto opera in the repertory. This is Anna Netrebko in a concert performance of "Casta Diva," one of the showpiece arias:


Marc said...

Have only read Alex Ross up to his description of the "gym-toned extras" in the McVicars Norma; he's intimating he wants opera to feature fat and out of shape extras?

Bryan Townsend said...

Watch it Marc, there will be no "fat-shaming" here at the Music Salon! We believe that extras and principals, not to mention conductors, bassoonists and everyone, can be as chubby as they want.

Christopher Culver said...

The Segerstam cover clearly says "orchestral favourites for children", and in that context I don't think there is much to protest at here.

Jives said...

Hilarious and spot-on analysis of Ross. Obviously, he must go. Does he see how carefully and consistently he's painting himself into that corner?

Gene said...

"L'amour de loin," Kaija Saariaho's opera premiered in 2000, would be my candidate for an opera by a woman that merits a place in the standard repertory. The Met's HD broadcast last spring was a highlight of the year for me. That said, white males obviously dominate the field.

Bryan Townsend said...

The Segerstam cover is the least objectionable of the three. Graphically it is noisy and cluttered, though. But extra points to you Christopher, for knowing your Finnish!

@Jives: The ability to trace out logical consequences doesn't seem to be a skill taught in journalism schools.

@Gene: yes, we are likely to see a few operas and possibly symphonies by women composers enter both the canon and the repertory in the next few decades.

Will Wilkin said...

"L’Amour de Loin" was indeed a fabulous opera, very beautiful music and very well-done by the Met last year, not just musically but also sets that were highly artistic and effective. But it doesn't seem good business to open a season with an opera just produced a few months ago in the same house. That doesn't seem like a "decent interval," despite the conservative repertoire noted by both the "Overgrown Path" writer and by Mr. Ross.

I love opera as great singing and great music and great human drama. I could not care less the race or gender of the composer or performers (except I like male and female characters to be sung by persons of the same gender as the character they portray), and my guess would be that anyone who truly loves any art form will love that art regardless of the supposedly politically important racial or gender identity of the artists.

And in a sad and ironic thread connecting some parts of this week's Friday Miscellanea, I at first thought there was a typo in the "Overgrown Path" line saying "everyone feels very contended in their own comfort zone," but I suppose in Mr. Ross's case that appears to be literally true. And the larger point being made by the Overgrown Path passage --that the [aesthetic] prejudices of the audience are guiding the repertoire selections made by the management in the music business. However unadventurous that is, for those responsible for the continued financial viability of their enterprise, it is highly rationale and in fact dutiful. In the case of the Metropolitan Opera, a world-class opera company that obviously chooses its repertoire and performers and all personnel based on their being the best in the genre, the prejudices employed are indeed aesthetic (tempered by the aforementioned financial-fiduciary conservatism), and for that I'm very glad.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, I'm sorry I didn't see/hear the Saariaho opera. I will have to look around for it.

Yes, I puzzled over the word "contended" as well, wondering if it was a misprint.

Petar said...

Bryan I do hope that someday you find someone to talk with and work through this Alex Ross obsession of yours.

Bryan Townsend said...

You mean the one that was described as "hilarious and spot on" by another commentator? I think what energizes my comments on Alex Ross are the combination of his very grand stature in the world of music criticism and the silliness of the things he says.

Petar said...

Haha ah well I had no idea 'another boy thought it was funny.' I see someone's never had children!

Bryan Townsend said...

Petar, you are coming from a very odd place...