5/31/08

Tmolus of a Different Color

When I came across the first sentence of the Denver Post’s Fine Arts Critic Kyle McMillan’s puff piece about composer Osvaldo Golijov, I had a deviant, critically fanciful thought: what would happen if I did a little research about this commercialized cliché and, subsequently, its use as metaphor?

Osvaldo Golijov is the King Midas of classical music.


To explain: King Midas (from Greek mythology), as we all know, had the “Midas touch,” turning whatever he touched into gold, the possession of the power known in alchemy as chrysopoeia, or the Philosopher’s Stone.

Simple, right? Kyle’s just saying that Golijov is very successful. Well, these meta-critical eyes read into it a little more than that, perhaps too much. I tried to find out what’s beneath this reference to see if we can really say whether it’s an appropriate metaphor in this context, because, often times, metaphors can go astray in unusual ways.

Now, what follows is not a critique of Kyle. Nor am I putting words into his mouth. It’s a more discursive critique, a critique in general, because we all understood Kyle’s initial reference—it was successful. But!

When we dig in, however, we find some disturbing things. And if I were Osvaldo Golijov, I might have strong reason to believe that the “Midas touch” was, indeed, inappropriate, because there is much more to the story of King Midas.

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The Abridged Story of King Midas with Observations of Note

Silenus, Dionysus’ teacher, got drunk, wandered away and passed out. King Midas took him in and entertained him for ten days. Midas returned Silenus to Dionysus on the eleventh day. Grateful, Dionysus offered Midas a reward. King Midas asked for a “golden touch,” which he received. He loved it at first, but grew to despise it—everything he touched, including his food, turned to gold. He begged Dionysus to take it back. Dionysus consented, telling King Midas to wash it off in the river, which he did.

1) King Midas was greedy
2) King Midas eventually saw his “golden touch” as a curse.
3) King Midas was cleansed/baptized in the river.

Afterwards, he hated wealth. He came to worship Pan, the God of shepherds, hunting and rustic music. Pan is thought to have studied music with Orpheus. On one occasion, though, Pan challenged Apollo, the God of the Lyre, to a musical competition, with Tmolus, the mountain God, as the judge. Apollo handily won. Among the spectators, the only dissenting opinion was made by King Midas. Ticked off at his awful ears for music, Apollo turned them into donkey’s ears. Ashamed, King Midas hid them by wearing a turban.

4) King Midas no longer troubled himself with wealth, favoring a simple life, as exemplified in his God of choice, Pan.
5) King Midas had terrible ears for music.

That's King Midas on the left, with donkey ears.
(painting by Jacopo, il giovane Palma, 1548-1628)




So, you see, there is a lot to the story. And since it’s a metaphor, after all, we have to substitute Osvaldo Golijov for King Midas, greatly changing Kyle’s initial meaning.

1) Osvaldo Golijov was greedy
2) Osvaldo Golijov eventually saw his “golden touch” as a curse.
3) Osvaldo Golijov was cleansed/baptized in the river.
4) Osvaldo Golijov no longer troubled himself with wealth, favoring a simple life.
5) Osvaldo Golijov had terrible ears for music.

Or further...

6) Osvaldo Golijov was Dionysian (of chaos and ecstasy), as opposed to Apollonian (of order and harmony).
7) Osvaldo Golijov worshipped a musically inferior God.
8) Osvaldo Golijov wears a turban.

Given a tiny bit of knowledge about Greek mythology, Kyle’s first sentence is deeply troubled, that is, if taken out of context. Of course, this isn’t what he’s pointing at, but still. It’s the equivalent of saying, “Osvaldo Golijov is the next Jacko,” or “Osvaldo Golijov is the next Britney Spears.” Is that a good thing? Maybe. Maybe not.

Is this metaphor apt, then? Sure, if it’s qualified. However, Kyle’s sentence didn’t mention the “Midas touch,” it referred to King Midas, the person-myth--a much broader topic than just the "Midas touch.".

I know I’m belaboring a super-super-super-small point, but it also gave me the perfect springboard to ask another question. Can anyone tell me why Allan Kozinn called Messiaen’s colors, colors for Britney’s sake, harsh?

In the more expansively dense sections Ms. Archer played [the organ] with an unflagging power and assertiveness. Those are necessary qualities here: the best way to deal with this score as a listener is to stop wondering why Messiaen painted God in such harsh colors and let the music envelop you. When it does, Messiaen’s vision becomes clear.

Perhaps, he’s taking the super-super-super stupid, clichéd, stereotypical, facile route: dissonance is objectively bad. I guess, to Kozinn, dissonance doesn't jive with the whole "good" God thing. Oh well. I suppose it takes a donkey's ear to know a synesthete.
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5/30/08

The Perfect Allegory

You need to go over to The Rambler. That's all I'm going to say. Enjoy!
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5/29/08

Why?

Last week, Steve Smith of the NY Times wrote a nice article about a Boston new music ensemble called Xanthos. It’s called:

Modernism, Rapid-Fire or Dreamy

But don’t go and read it yet. Hold on a sec.

…Xanthos Ensemble of Boston, which came to Roulette in SoHo on Saturday night with a program featuring works by three uncompromising modernists: Pierre Boulez, Mario Davidovsky and Charles Wuorinen. And in the hands of musicians so copiously skilled and confident, this undeniably challenging music had genuine appeal.

Yes! Challenging, appealing music! Hooray!

That Mr. Boulez is modern music’s foremost voluptuary is no secret. Much of his ensemble music seems as much descended from the gauzy Impressionism of Debussy and the instrumental brilliance of Ravel as from any modernist vein. “Dérive I,” a brief work scored for the now-standard “Pierrot”-plus configuration — flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion — was a brief, intoxicating cloud of trills and flutters.

I’m not entirely sure what “modern music’s foremost volupturary” means (and my Google search for that phrase returned zero results), so I’m not sure that it’s no secret. The sentiment, though, is welcome, and tracing Boulez to Debussy is something all-too-infrequently done.

I also like the image of a “brief, intoxicating cloud”. Sounds like we’re smokin’!

Equally mysterious if less outright sensual was Mr. Davidovsky’s “Flashbacks,” in which sharp eruptions and skittering figures repeatedly rupture a placid rumination. The percussion part makes daunting demands of its player with its rapid-fire alternations of timbre and technique. George Nickson handled the role with ease and flair.

I am a sucker for alliteration.

Most appealing of all was Mr. Wuorinen’s “New York Notes,” in which six players mix and match in a cheerfully choreographed bustle. The opening movement is filled with jazzy rhythms and snatches of nostalgic melody. A throaty cello monologue in the second movement is followed by a passage in which flute and violin curl seductively around a lonely clarinet. In the final movement, a wild barrage of impressions, you can’t help but be swept away by Mr. Wuorinen’s giddy thrill in writing for virtuoso players.

Wuorinen: serialist holdout. You know, for those people who claim that “nobody writes 12-tone music” at all ever anymore, and why would they, blah blah blah.

Among four newer pieces, only Derek Charke’s “What Do the Birds Think?” could be said to extend the modernist tradition. The work’s animated outer movements call for a catalog of unorthodox expressive techniques. In between, an onstage trio (alto flute with muted violin and cello) is juxtaposed with an offstage duo (bass clarinet and percussion). While physical separation was impossible here, the layered sounds still proved fascinating.

Sounds great! What else?

In Daniel Knaggs's "Three Nature Songs," a premiere, the soprano Jennifer Ashe sang sweet, airy melodies accompanied by instrumental impressions of chirping birds and croaking frogs. "Aria IV," bu Pozzi Escot, had Ms. Ashe ritualistically intoning vowels over a droning flute and tinkle of finger cymbals. Donald Hagar's playful "I Am Not a Clock" alternated between bustling, mechanical rhythms and slow, dreamy interludes.

Actually, Escot’s piece sounds like it “extend[s] the modernist tradition”, too. But, whatever.

Why am I writing about this? It was a great review. It treated the pieces fairly, and on their own merits. It was well-written with lots of style.

Why?

Because I omitted the beginning of the first paragraph, reproduced below:

The word has been out for decades now: The bug-eyed monster of musical modernism is vanquished. Try telling that to the young, accomplished members of the Xanthos Ensemble…

Why? Why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why?

Why begin a wonderful review of young, scrappy, new music-advocating players playing new music you liked and reviewed well by reiterating old-hack adages about the death of dumb old “bug-eyed monster” modernism?

Why?

Aargh! “Everyone knows modernism sucks/sucked, but here’s my review of some modern music that was actually good!”?

Besides reinforcing damnable and clichéd stereotypes, it undermines the article before it even begins.

Why?

Ovo, Hold Your Applause

I don’t know how I missed this silly little piece. It’s from way back on May 11, by Christopher Hyde of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Telegram.

Curious Phenomenon, the standing ovation

If this were a piece of music on a concert and it had just finished, I would be sitting, staring at the performers in bewilderment, frozen, no thoughts of clapping, let alone standing and clapping, or standing and clapping and shouting, “Bravo!”

To give you a better idea of what I mean, I’ll you give my Cliff’s Notes on the article:

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Empiricus’s Cliff’s Notes to Curious Phenomenon by Christopher Hyde

A regular concert-goer wrote to [Christopher] the other day inquiring about the increasing frequency of "standing ovations" at Portland Symphony Orchestra concerts. They do seem to be more prevalent nowadays and often have nothing to do with the merits of the music.

Conjecture. Conjecture. Pseudo-fact. Conjecture.

Maybe the orchestra is getting better all the time. (True.)

Conjecture. Something about sold-out concerts and the parking situation. Back to the “regular concert-goer.” A definition of “claque.” Then...

I was hoping that the Latin root of the word ovation might be the same as that for egg (ova), hence the theatrical phrase "laid an egg," but it was not to be. "Ovation" comes from the Latin verb [Empiricus: it’s ovo, in case anyone was wondering] meaning "to triumph."

Conjecture about the nature of standing ovations. The last rose of summer. Conjecture. Pseudo-fact. Rotten oranges. We’re too nice. Pseudo-fact. Pseudo-fact. Conjecture.

And yes, it’s okay to applaud religious music, even in church.

Rhetorical question.

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There you go—my Cliff’s Notes. Before I go, however, I’ll leave you with my favorite thread.

I don't know what's behind the increase in jumping to one's feet like King George II at the "Hallelujah Chorus."

And later...

I wonder if King George clapped after the "Hallelujah Chorus?"

My guess is that he just jumped to his feet. Everyone else sat silent, staring at their beloved leader enduring another “episode.”
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5/28/08

Correction, Kosman!

In your lovely review of Simone Dinnerstein’s inventive interpretation of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, one thing needs to be corrected. (By the way, I don’t really like to correct columns on papers’ websites—it just feels dirtier than if we did it here, in a more niche environment.) Anyway, you said that:

[Her rendering] was most memorable in the opening Aria, the spare, richly ornamented melody that forms the basis of the entire 90-minute work.

...when everyone knows that the melody isn’t the basis, but rather its bass line, harmonic progression and rhythmic structure.

Though there are numerous similar and more in-depth analyses, the earliest account of this (that I could find, anyway) was made by Wanda Landowska, Landowska on Music (New York: Stein & Day, 1964), p. 215.

Just saying.
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5/27/08

Parting Shots: Not so "so long," after all

Dear Detritusites, I need to ask you a big favor, well, two favors: One, please be patient, this is a long ‘un. But most importantly, two, would you please hold your anger-filled comments and death-threats until the end? This might sting a bit, but, if you can accept for a moment that I may not be entirely crazy, then this will be easier on all of us. Besides, if, by the end, you still feel the need to tear me a new one and shove a fistful of wadded-up Lachenmann scores in the open wound, by all means, go ahead. It’s your right, and I’ll take it with a grin on my face. Now, you could be asking yourselves, what could be so bad that Empiricus felt he needed to issue a disclaimer? Well, people, I’m going to throw-down with Alan Rich.

As you may or may not know, Alan’s post as classical music critic at the L.A.Weekly has been terminated. And this is his last entry at that post (though he’ll remain there, albeit in a limited role).

Parting Shots

I must say, at the onset, that we have not gone after his work, until now, because it is utterly stupendous. Aside from his keen knowledge and ear, his prose is gorgeous. Here, he puts his brilliant knack for imagery and insinuation into motion right away.

Helmut Lachenmann cuts a solitary figure in today’s musical world. At a time when much of the talk centers on accessibility, on a generation of composer-heroes — Adams, Adès, Reich, Saariaho, Salonen, just for starters — who have found ways to reach out to audiences with serious and imaginative creativity, that old notion of the composer on his private Olympus, proudly and defiantly cloaked in his mantle of inscrutability, rests almost solely with this tall, gaunt yet smiling German gent whose music ground its way through Zipper Concert Hall last Monday.

That’s ridiculously clever, maybe even poetic. However, what lies beneath this elegant prose—which, by the way, sets up the rest of the review perfectly—is almost pure anti-modernist venom, couched in populist (?) idealism. To get a better sense of what I mean, let’s take a closer look.

At a time when much of the talk centers on accessibility, on a generation of composer-heroes — Adams, Adès, Reich, Saariaho, Salonen, just for starters — who have found ways to reach out to audiences with serious and imaginative creativity...

He’s just setting up and defining the contrary, yet popular, point of view by naming Lachenmann’s aesthetic adversaries and their accomplishments. In fact, he’s hailing their accomplishments, while making clear that their work represents the present: “at a time when,” “composer-heroes.” This places Lachenmann, where?

...that old notion of the composer on his private Olympus, proudly and defiantly cloaked in his mantle of inscrutability, rests almost solely with this tall, gaunt yet smiling German gent...

Lachenmann is placed on Lonely Mountain, as it were. Or, as we’ve seen so many times before, in his own selfish, ivory tower. But he’s placed there as a relic (“old notion,” “gaunt”), happy to swim upstream. He’s seen as the last of a dying breed (“old notion...rests almost solely”).

Put all of it together we come up with something like this, which sounds a lot like someone else we’ve dealt with before: Lachenmann is an old-school, aloof, who-gives-a-shit-about-comprehensibility kind of composer-God, who doesn’t care about pleasing his audience, unlike “Adams, Adès, Reich, Saariaho, Salonen, just for starters,” who, by the way, are heroes. Salonen, really?

And also, apparently, good riddance, Lachenmann! (I read ahead)

Okay so far?

Well, no. I’m not okay. BEGIN STUPID RANT STOP Accessibility in music means popularity. If that was, indeed, the penultimate goal, then every composer would be imitating this guy. And the only things you get by imitating that guy, besides money and paparazzi, is awards. I mean, where are these composers now? Where is their music being performed? Are these popular Pultizer Prize winners in the canon?: Douglas Stuart Moore, Gail Kubic, John la Montaine, Robert Ward, Leslie Bassett, Richard Wernick, Stephen Albert (Seriously, Google them. YouTube them. Did you find anything? Any music?) What did popularity ever do for them? END STUPID RANT HERE STOP

Okay so far?

Yes, I suppose I’m a little better. Thanks. I needed to get that off my chest. Anyway... you know what? No. Come to think of it, no, I’m not better, because this tripe continues.

“He is the world’s greatest composer,” proclaim a few holdouts in the new-music community who dote on inscrutability.

Unpopular Lachenmann fan = doter on inscrutability. Great. Thanks, Alan. Thanks for nothing. Way to avert the unfamiliar! Way to close your mind! Way to conform. Baaaaah!

At them in response, I fling my favorite James Thurber line: “ ‘He’s God!’ screamed a Plymouth Rock hen.”

For those of you not familiar with “The Owl Who Was God,” here you go. Note the “moral” of the story, near the bottom. (I love unintentionally ironic references)

Now, in defense of poor Helmut, I’ll lob over a favorite Morton Feldman quote: “The only fanatics I have ever met were conservative musicians.” Take that, conformists!

Yet the concert drew a large crowd, and there were many who stood and cheered at the end.

That’s an ordinary, reasonable response; people go to concerts they might enjoy. This, however, isn’t a reasonable response:

I would love to know what they heard.

And why is that? Take it away, Alan!

Prior to this concert, I knew Lachenmann mostly from the ECM recording of his setting — “opera” in the broadest sense — of the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Little Match Girl,” onto which he has hung the whole paraphernalia of his “fractured aesthetic” (Alex Ross’ term), culminating in a horrendous musical mishmash in which the ghosts of every composer in Lachenmann’s own scrapbook, Mahler, Berg, Stockhausen, Boulez, pass by simultaneously as if in some horrendous wet dream.

A game: Find the Epistrophe!

(Jeopardy theme music)

Find it? The answer is: "horrendous." By repeating horrendous twice with regards to one subject, he’s strongly emphasizing how Lachenmann’s opera is (list of possible synonyms) dreadful, awful, terrible, shocking, appalling, horrifying, horrific, horrid, hideous, grisly, ghastly, gruesome, gory, harrowing, heinous, vile, unspeakable, (takes breath), nightmarish, macabre, spine-chilling, blood-curdling, loathsome, monstrous, abhorrent, hateful, hellish, execrable, abominable, atrocious, sickening, foul, nasty, disagreeable—you get the idea.

But, why wasn’t that a reasonable response? Well, “just for starters,” if a newspaper is going to assign a critic to review a concert, it might be nice if they sent someone who has a general interest in the music to be played. It might also be nice to have a critic open to new possibilities, instead of one who can’t fathom alternate definitions of “opera,” in quotation marks (in quotation marks: in "quotation marks"). Also, also it might be nice if the reviewer was familiar with the music, you know, say the reviewer knew more than one piece by the composer. Just an idea. But who am I to question these things?

Does that lovely, sad Andersen story deserve that?

I didn’t know stories deserve things.

Do we?

To be fair, I don’t know that we deserve “horrendous wet dreams,” either.

Did we on Monday?

Hell no! Everyone is aware that we only deserve “horrendous wet dreams” on Tuesdays, and sometimes Fridays depending on the tide. Mondays are simply out of the question, what with the morning rush-hour commute and all!

But I digress, too. Go on, Alan. Spew more Lachenmann derision.

I had never before endured pain at a Monday Evening Concert; this time I did: pain and anger.

You can’t blame Lachenmann for the burritos you ate at lunch! Lachenmann + burritos = the runs.

The music by [...] Helmut Lachenmann reflected the nastiness dear to so many German and Austrian creative hearts these days.

Whoa! Where’d you come from? Who are you? Get out of here! Go. Get!

[...] Mr. Lachenmann's ''Movement (Before Paralysis)'' seemed almost to jeer at the easygoing spirit and borderline sentimentality of the [preceding] American pieces [...].

Shoo, I said! I mean it!

“Movement (Before Paralysis)” seems proud of its complications. Hard, angular, percussion-ridden, highly uneven in movement, this is the art of unease. Mr. Lachenmann produces wheezes, whines, shudders and whooshes that are sophistication itself.

Go on! Get out of here! And stay out! That's better.

“Played,” by the way, often consisted of blowing through only the mouthpiece of a wind instrument, banging on the case of a piano, delivering frenzied blasts through a brass instrument and otherwise violating the customary sound possibilities of various instruments.

But that’s not new. However, saying that Lachenmann rapes the instruments is new; that’s a new one on me, anyway.

Such procedures are not new,

See.

and they have a certain joke value the first time around.

Odd, but not necessarily new, procedures = a joke, the first time around. Just like sul ponticello, right?

The Lachenmann works were long enough to allow these things to happen several times, and you all know what happens to a joke when you tell it more than once.

It gets old. I got it. You were clear about tha...

Hold it. (sniffs the air for a cheesy taint)

Mr. Rich, sir. Are you saying that...(thinks... “grmphblhpt”)...I don’t know what you’re saying. See, if you’re saying that novel sounds are a joke, but lose their comic luster (?) when repeated, then... I mean, if you’re saying that odd instrumentations, which may not be new, are funny, except when they’re reiterated, which makes them bad things, then...

I’m confused. Let’s go backwards.

These things I can grasp and accept: Lachenmann is not popular. You don’t like his music. Presumably, you do like Adams, Reich, etc. (Salonen, hmmm). They are (more) popular/accessible.

But, therefore...? Lachenmann is a joke? Because he’s not accessible? Because he utilizes odd sounds? Because he’s a modernist? Because his music causes the runs?

There’s a “parting shot,” indeed. (super-slow fade to black)

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If this had been an actual meta-critique, this is how it might have gone. But, fortunately for Alan and a number of you, this is where your patience will be rewarded, because it was not a critique, per se—even though a lot of points stand—because, Alan, like I said at the beginning, is a fine, fine critic, a critic we’ve never before tried to tear apart. Then why go through all this rigmarole, Empiricus? Why parody yourself? So I could make obvious that there is almost no difference between Alan’s opinions and those of other critics, opinions that generally warrant a long, scathing Detritus-like whipping.

What’s the difference, then? Simple. First-person.

Listen, I don’t agree with anything, anything in this review (except maybe the part about Lachenmann being one of the last modernists). Let me just make that clear. Alan and I have polar opposite opinions. I don’t think that if we ran into one another at a concert, that we’d become BFFs.

But, because he uses the pronoun I to express himself, I can’t fault him. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. And he’s calling it as he sees it. No disembodied, third-person generalizations vomited as objective truth. Just him, and his opinions.

I can’t fault Alan, but I can fault the newspaper higher-ups and whoever gave Alan that particular assignment. I think its pretty clear that Alan can’t stand Lachenmann’s music nor “ivory towerites.” Then why send him to review a Lachenmann/modernist concert? That makes no sense. “Let’s send ol’ Mel Gibson over to cover the bat mitzvah.” That doesn’t make any sense either. So why do it?
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5/24/08

I'm Lovin' It!

Whew! This stuff is addictive like greasy fries: Sarah Bryan Miller puts on her Official Detritus Meta-goggles.

It’s CAR-mi-na, not car-MEE-na!

Well played. Well played, indeed.
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5/23/08

Composer of the Day!


Today’s Composer of the Day is Melinda Wagner.

(b. 1957)

I must admit, I hadn’t heard much about Melinda Wagner, which is why I decided to try to find out more. What I managed to dig up was intriguing, however, it isn’t all that substantial.

Born in Philadelphia, she studied with a couple of familiar faces, including George Crumb and Shulamit Ran. She has been performed quite a bit, won her share of awards, including the 1999 Pulitzer Prize, taught and lectured here and there, and then, well...I’m not so sure. At the bottom of her Theodore Presser biography, it says that she currently lives with her husband and children in New Jersey. There’s not much else on the inter-wide-web-surfing-place.

Although, last year Anne Midgette glowingly reviewed the premiere of her trombone concerto:

[...] Ms. Wagner’s piece practically leapt off the stage, so vital and fresh did it sound, compared with what had gone before it. And this concerto certainly belongs on a program of unusual instruments. It is thickly sown with interesting sounds — not sound effects, but a range of timbres and textures, partly supplied by a large and varied battery of four percussionists, woven into the fabric of the music. To balance the mellow trombone — played with a beautiful, burnished richness by Joseph Alessi, for whom the piece was written — the composer pitched her work dark: lots of viola, cello, bass and other trombones anchored the music.

Ms. Wagner writes strikingly well for orchestra; this piece used the whole spectrum of colors available to her without ever becoming dense or cloying. The thickest textures came in the second movement, “Elemental Things,” and even here, where movement slowed to the measured pace of a large beast waking up, long-held notes were brought into focus by details: the whisper of a brushed cymbal, the punctuation of piano.


This smart, complex score retained an organic quality throughout, a kind of clear emotion running through its rich variety; [...]


Her Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion is what put her name on the map, winning the 1999 Pulitzer Prize. Here’s a recording at Art of the States (you’ll need realPlayer to listen). The same recording was given quite a friendly review by Detritus favorite David Hurwitz.

The sheer sound of this piece is utterly beguiling. Cast in the traditional three movements, Wagner's idiom in this concerto is fundamentally atonal, though with motives and tunes that are clearly recognizable and often quite beautiful. The extraordinary slow movement reveals the composer's gift for sustaining interest over a lengthy span of intensely quiet music [...]

That’s quite a compliment!

You should listen to her music!
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5/22/08

The Long Road through Spain to Russia

“Houston Symphony takes the long road through Spain

Ah, yes. The long road through Spain. That sounds delightful. The sentiment is full of lazy, siesta-filled Mediterranian spirit. Surely there are tapas and tempranillos and a sense generally of unhurriedness.

The Houston Symphony's management may have survived paying overtime to its musicians by a whisker, but I sure felt the audience deserved some overtime compensation after the long slog through Thursday's Spanish-themed program in Jones Hall.

Or…not so much with the unhurried Spanish-ness. Fine. Surely the audience should be compensated for getting extra music to hear for the same price.

(Also: Fuck you Houston Symphony, for not paying your musicians for overtime.)

Somehow, an idea for a light, cheery season-ending program turned into a methodical no-stone-unturned traipse through a formula.

A traipse…through a formula?

It didn't help that guitarist Eliot Fisk was allowed to append his pre-intermission performance of Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez with two encores and blowsy gabbing. By the time the performance reached 10 p.m. there was still had a full work to go.

Read that again. …[T]here was still had a full work to go. The…what? Grammar…melting…

The first culprit was the full orchestral version of Manuel de Falla's ballet El Amor Brujo (Love, The Magician). Like many ballet scores, it has strong and weak moments.

As opposed to most music, or works of art, or anything, which do not have strong and weak moments.

As an opener it set a drowsy pace despite music director Hans Graf's sharply crafted and lovingly conducted performance (the essential character of his and the orchestra's work all evening). It was also difficult to hear the soloist, mezzo-soprano Katherine Ciesidecornski in the Grand Tier. She sang with style but not carrying power.

That seems fair…

Two sides of Spanish orchestral/solo music followed.

What?

Concierto de Aranjuez clearly placed the guitar at the center with the orchestra skirting around the instrument and helping to deliver the timeless yet ever popular melody of the second movement. Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain used the piano as decor, always adding ambience even when it clearly had the lead.

Are…are the “two sides” using the…guitar at the center…and the piano…as décor? Huh. Clearly, two well-known sides of Spanish orchestral/solo music.

Fisk was in take-charge mood and performed forcefully yet gracefully.

Take-charge mood? Definite article?

Shai Wosner, the pianist in Nights in the Gardens of Spain, was a little too dutiful. Decoration that needed the flexibility of chant was too metrical.

“Too dutiful to the score” is what I think is intended. Which is fine, unless you think musicians should be dutiful to the score. I’ll let our composer-readers chime in on that.

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol was an abrupt change-of-pace as the ending work.

Change of pace, I think, should only be hyphenated when used as a compound adjective, and not when used as the noun, as in this sentence. But whatever.

It may have looked nice on paper, but it was out of place.

The piece looked nice on paper? Or the program, with a Russian finale to a Spanish concert?

The brazenly Russian music, which essentially was a miniature version of the composer's Scheherezade with plenty of percussion, didn't relate to much of anything that preceded it.

Why might it have looked nice on paper? Also: "brazenly Russian"? That seems odd, because the composer's name was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

The performance of Capriccio Espagnol did earn lots of bravos and applause. They made me wonder, as I headed to the exit, whether the performance would sneak under the wire of contractual obligations. I think it did.

I really don’t know what this means. The “bravos and applause” made Mr. Ward wonder if the performance snuck under the “wire of contractual obligations”?

At least he thinks it did? What?

To conclude: the long road through Spain was too long, which traipsed through a formula, and ended in Russia, which looked nice on paper, but eventually snuck under the wire of contractual obligations, therefore the audience should have been paid overtime, but not the musicians.

Did I get that right?

Unrequited Italics

Italics mine.

Some people will tell you that music, especially orchestral music, is an objective thing: It doesn't exist beyond the notes, which simply are to be played as the composer instructed.

Everything else [according to “some people”] - the emotions, the supposed story line of a given piece - is
your own projection onto the music.

Well, yes. Unless the writing is on the wall, it’s your interpretation, your projection. It’s difficult to work your way around it. Structural signposts or other cultural tropes may contain associations, but, then again, linking those associations is, in my opinion, hard to do, let alone justifying a correct interpretation of concrete meanings, intents, purposes, narratives. Therefore, without help, you’re doomed to project yourself onto the music.

Besides, that’s silly. It’s also about context. “Music” is a pretty broad topic. I’d like to know who said that so I can show “some people” how that statement doesn’t really say anything, especially in a vacuum. I mean it can be true and, on the other hand, it can be false depending on the context in which it is said. So, I’ll leave it to Richard Scheinin to provide us with some context.

Well, if you actually believed that while going into Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday, you probably would have abandoned the theory by the time you left. Because soloist Yefim Bronfman's soul-stirring account of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor was one in which he stepped into the shoes of the composer, young Brahms, grappling with his impossible love for a woman, and played that role for about 50 monumental minutes, an actor on the stage, with the San Francisco Symphony, led by Michael Tilson Thomas, as his consoling Greek chorus. [*]

At least that's how
I heard it. [Italics still mine]

I just hope that the whole beginning was an attempt at humor. Otherwise, I’d have to stop laughing and strap on my Empiricus Hard-helmet™.

If we’re going to contradict ourselves by acknowledging that the performance was, at best, your interpretation (“that’s how I heard it”), you might as well give up and call it a day, go outside, sit down in the hot sun, and think, nay meditate, about your transgression of logic. Be sure to wear some sun screen and drink plenty of fluids. If, however, you can manage to better articulate your argument and show us why your interpretation was justified (by “justified” I mean: not your projection onto the music), please, go ahead. Bets, anyone?

In those years, Brahms drew close to Robert Schumann, the composer, and his wife Clara Schumann, the pianist and composer, adopting them as mentors and surrogate parents, but also wildly falling for Clara, 15 years his senior, fighting his passions for her (as she did for him), even while grieving for Robert, who descended through madness and institutionalization to his death.

That's the story line, [...]


(securely fastens the strap on the Empiricus Hard-helmet™)

Oh boy. That is not the “story line” of Brahms’ piano concerto. There’s no way. What proof is there? Am I crazy?

Just to show that I’m not entirely off my rocker, I will acknowledge a few things. There is some truth to the story. Brahms probably loved Clara; though no one knows whether or not the relationship was ever physically consummated. Also, the slow, middle movement of the concerto may even be a musical portrait of Clara (where I found this tidbit of information is now lost; and Wikipedia is no help nor is it exactly reliable).

So there may be an element of truth to Richard’s impressions. However, to quote a famous thinker:

I think it clearly indicates the composer's deep seed estrangement from [his] 1st cousin (once removed) on [his] mother's (older) sister's side, most-likely over a dispute during a game of pinochle in which [Brahms] originally claimed a trick with [his] Trump Marriage, but then decided to replay [his] cards as part of a double run. Calamity ensued. Anybody who knows anything about music would know that...it's made perfectly clear in the manner in which the crotales double the clarinet obligato (which can only occur after the presentation of invertible counterpoint in the upper strings, otherwise it would suggest the game of Chutes and Ladders) and resolve using a Landini cadence in augmentation while foreshadowing a crab canon. And the high B in the piccolo...how could you hear anything but [Brahms’] cousin telling [him] that her mother makes terrible oatmeal raisin cookies and the whole family has been lying to protect her feelings. I think it's pretty easy to make that out. -Gustav

Unless there is proof, i.e., if Brahms had, in Mahlerian fashion, scribbled clues in the margins of the score (or the title), written program notes, letters, email or text-messaged the story to us, informing us that the concerto’s “story line” was, in fact, definitely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, concrete—unless there is that kind of proof, the sounds that reach your ear, from the performers’ instruments, played by performers with brains, led by black dots on a page and a conductor to help keep everyone together, written by a composer who was, “experimenting and feeling [his] way,” then those sounds must be, must be interpreted by the listener.

Do you now see how it’s your fanciful story projecting itself onto the music? Yes? Good.

Also, this is why we often butt heads with critics. When they say things that are only vaguely true, or simply false, we can’t help but think of the poor layman reading this stuff, what effect it might have on their musical perceptions, their tastes, their knowledge. And, as a composer, I worry a lot about having to explain my work to the audience in these terms, terms that may not apply or dumb down the conversation. “Uh...the narrative of my piece is...uh, butterflies.” I mean, the audience is intelligent, but the information they receive is often...well, backwards, at best.

And this is why we exist, to repeat myself for the billion-googleth time, to help close the gaps in our dialog.

Speaking of dialog, here’s a delicious writing assignment: Yummy Fun!

And the Brahms Piano Concerto in D minor, Op. 15, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5

*Winner of the coveted “Most prepositional phrases in a sentence fragment” prize.
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5/20/08

Palate Cleansing Joke

Knock, knock.

Who's there?

Funny.

Seriously. Funny? Okay. Funny who?

No, silly. It's pronounced Ferney-hoe.













(painting by Takashi Murakami)

Serious stuff to follow.
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5/19/08

Roach Motel

Like I’ve said numerous times before, ClassicsToday is a fantastic idea—it reviews all sorts of recordings that most newspapers pass up; it’s convenient; it’s relatively navigable; that’s about it. But somewhere, deep in their basement lies a dank, moldy, cracked wall in desperate need of repair. Even when it’s only gently inspected, it crumbles open and, in stereotypical Hollywood fashion, it spews out cockroaches by the thousands, ravenous, mindless, and uneducated in the ways of the tritone.

Chicago-based composer Shulamit Ran offers two large-scale works in a familiar modern style--consistently dissonant and chromatic, and nearly always atonal.

My new favorite catch-phrase: “nearly always atonal.”

It's no secret that a composer who chooses to forgo use of tonality must substitute some other factor to generate expressive variety and momentum.

Detritusites, welcome to the DeVry School of Music! Your online course to criticism success!

She mostly achieves the same kind of ambiguous emotional fog as we hear in hundreds of forgettable atonal works by other forgettable composers.

Okay class! Take your online seats.















Let’s begin by reviewing the music, even though we’re not supposed to review the music.

Blecht!
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5/17/08

Help the Detritus, Save the Queen

Give this CD review a gander:

Paul Lewis’ Beethoven piano sonatas lovely, but a bit too British

Today’s question for the Detritusites: what is it exactly that Cantrell says about British comportment?

First, Lewis is described as able, thoughtful, eager, lovely and elegant. Then, somehow, his inner-Brit gets in the way. Cantrell wants more wit, more danger and more ecstasy, just like he received from Schiff’s recording.

And Mr. Lewis misses the songlike qualities of the variation themes in Op. 109 and 111; the former is too foursquare, the latter too slow.

Foursquare: unless Cantrell is referring to a church, waterproof jackets, rum, an American architectural style, an archaic definition or a video production company in San Diego, he’s saying that the performance of Op. 109 was childish or simplistic, like the game. Sure, he could’ve meant “square,” as in "conventional or boring." But "foursquare" is an archaic English definition of the geometric figure; it's not related to the informal shortened form.

Now, dear Detritusites, I'll ask again: what about the British demeanor that makes for an unsatisfactory Beethoven performance?
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5/16/08

Puffy Pandering's Plateau

Seriously, who cares?

HOW DO you add sparkle to a fatigued operatic war horse? Bring out the jewelry and let it shine under the spotlight.

(blank stare)

But not just any old jewelry. For its latest revival of "Tosca," opening Saturday, Los Angeles Opera has obtained a rare stage artifact -- the jewelry worn by Maria Callas in 1956 for her Metropolitan Opera debut as Giacomo Puccini's tragic heroine.

Made of nearly 200 tear-shaped Swarovski crystals, the jewelry was created specifically for Callas by the Atelier Marangoni in Milan, Italy.


The three-piece set, which consists of a tiara, earrings and a fanned-out necklace, is worth approximately $85,000, according to Swarovski, the current owner.


"To wear this talisman -- I have to pinch myself," says soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, who shares the role of Tosca in this revival with Georgina Lukacs. "People were taken aback by how bright they were during rehearsals. It doesn't bother me, but I hope it won't be a distraction for the audience."


Pieczonka will wear the Callas jewelry in Act 2 of "Tosca," which is the most vocally and physically demanding section of the opera.


You know, I heard through the grapevine that the Berlin Philharmonic will be touring North America under the direction of a secret, but famous, conductor to be announced later. He/She will be wearing Karajan’s underwear. The very underwear the maestro was sporting during a random performance of Strauss’s sweaty, super-physically demanding “warhorse,” Ein Heldenleben. And in case you're wondering, the Maestro's extra-special change depository hasn't been washed for nearly thirty years.

I mean, really, who cares? That's as deep as this analysis is going. Take it or leave it. Don't like it? Whatever, I do what I want.
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5/15/08

On the Times Co.

Hey! Times Co.! I thought about it long and hard and have come to a decision.



















Stop being stupid. In fact, all newspapers should stop being stupid. And that's all I have to say about that.

(Unfortunately, this painting is already sold)
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And the Nominee for Best Faux Aphorism Is...

Sam Richards of the Oakland Tribune for his stylish

If you’ve got something good, you might as well use it.

It sure is a mind-bogglingly clever take on, “if you got it, flaunt it.” Also, one of the best openings to begin an article, ever! Congrats to Sam for a job well done. More nominees to be announced later.
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5/14/08

Oh My Gods! Frak!

By now, I’m sure that we’re all aware of the Detroit Symphony’s latest shtick: Asimo, Honda’s robot human helper, conducted the Symphony on Tuesday. Well, actually, it conducted one paltry Broadway tune, not a full-length symphony. Anyway, the AP press picked up the story as did Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free-Press and a handful of others. It even made its way across the pond.

Asimo the robot: OK, but does he seduce the sopranos?

Richard Morrison of the Times Online (“News Site of the Year” -The 2008 Newspaper Awards) apparently has some reservations. Perhaps we ought to test the humanity (read competence) of our conductors by their ability to womanize. Sweet. I like where this is going.

Before hailing Asimo, Honda’s robot conductor, as the Toscanini of our age, I think we would need its technique and interpretative powers to be put through a sterner test than is provided by that cheesy Sixties ballad, The Impossible Dream.

Right. How many sopranos can he shag? That’s the litmus test.

What I find fascinating is how the role of the conductor is reinterpreted by each age.

(with sarcasm) Wow! Why don’t you give us an absurd reduction of the roles of conductors through each age. That would be fascinating.

In the Victorian era the conductor was the epitome of the Romantic artist as demigod — treated with awe and reverence. After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union attempted to abolish conductors altogether, instructing orchestras to rely on collective decision-making and socialist comradeship to get them through performances (an experiment that lasted for about three weeks of cacophonic anarchy).

In the age of the great dictators, conductors such as Otto Klemperer and George Szell were given licence to terrorise orchestras with vicious sarcasm and impossible demands. Whereas in the chilled-out Sixties, the leading conductors — as epitomised by Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn — were laid-back, groovy dudes, as comfortable on a chat show as on the podium.

(more sarcasm) Wow! That was fascinating. You managed to isolate a few conductors who somehow represented all the rest, whittle their eccentricities down to generalizations about the age and, simultaneously, move forward in time to bring us to the precipice of the actual topic: can Asimo get laid?

Fine work, so far. Now, how about today? You know, the conductors. What about them?

And our generation? Well, we have reinvented the conductor as a robot.

We did? I seem to remember an article, not too long ago, that mentioned that one robot conducted one piece that only lasted only about three minutes.

To say that the entire generation is defined by Asimo, the one time conductor, is the lamest thing I’ve heard of since that thing about God being mad at us, which is why he unleashed Katrina on New Orleans.

How apt for an age that is increasingly replacing human-to-human communication with impersonal technological interfaces.

Again, Asimo conducted a symphony orchestra once. That’s it. Once. It was a novelty, an amusement. In fact, it was a fucking advertisement! Honda donated one million dollars to Detroit Symphony Orchestra education program(me)s (talk about economic irony) in exchange for a performance lead by Asimo (see Mark Stryker above). It would seem that the human-to-human element is, well, greedily opportunistic. Asimo: just a conductor (a programmed conductor at that); not an apt expression of musical, nor social, progress.

But is Asimo the finished article?

No. But then again, he was never intended to conduct a symphony; he’s supposed to be able to help the elderly with mundane tasks. This Detroit Symphony business was a one time deal, worth one million dollars. An advertiss-ment.

Does he have an ego the size of Belgium?

No. It’s a robot.

Does his agent demand that he gets a fee equivalent to the rest of the orchestra put together?

No. It’s a robot and, in this case, a prop, a plug, an advertisement.

And how many young sopranos has he seduced?

Ugh. None, because it’s a robot. So?

Until we know the answer to these vital artistic questions, we can’t really call him a true maestro.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure what this article is about. Or, I have ideas, but none that jump out as correct, because I have a number of questions.

I mean, why does Richard initially represent Asimo as a thing (it), then later assign it a gender (he)? I thought he was poking fun at Asimo’s lack of humanity, lack of human-to-human communication. Does that mean Richard is really poking fun at human conductors’ fallibilities? Why is this necessary? Is it a problem? I thought we’ve been living and dealing with egos for...since the beginning of time.

If I may attempt some conjecture...

1. If the point of the article is to deride conductors or their stereotypes, through Asimo, then whoops. Richard said that it’s human to be fallible, which is a logical step backward. It doesn’t work.

2. If we can’t cheer Asimo in the same way as a real-life conductor, because Asimo is not human, then this is perhaps a strangely (unintentionally) veiled advocation of misogyny.

3. Shucks. Just insert Battlestar Galactica “toaster” reference here.

Anyway, if the purpose of this weirdness was to get a rouse out of its audience, or bring up the ol’ man vs. machine debate, or waste some space, then it worked. But I have trouble believing that this is an idle, opinion-less piece. How about you?
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[Edit Empiricus] I have rightly been corrected: The $1 million dollar gift to the DSO was not directly linked to Asimo's appearance. Instead, it was truly philanthropic, thus rendering that thread...uh, excessive and perhaps unfair. Cheers! And a new color for edits!
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5/13/08

Bad Metaphors Are Bad

Lawrence A. Johnson of the Miami Herald has a nice piece about the state of orchestras in America. It seems that the Concert Association's new director's bottom-line philosophy is causing the subscribers some consternation.

This is a huge problem. The state of concert attendance, coupled with the state of the economy, is causing orchestras (and, evidently, numerous newspapers' arts sections) financial difficulties.

However, bad metaphors are still not allowed.

Concert Association moves worry ticket subscribers

I bet they do!

Ten days ago, London's Philharmonia Orchestra roared out the end of Mahler's Symphony No. 1, closing the Concert Association of Florida's season on a resoundingly successful note.

Ah, the music season ended on a note. Classic. Pedantic, perhaps, but classic. And apt! Carry on...

But there are minor-key discords on the horizon.

But...What? No. Because, see...

Discords. Minor keys. Both of these things (more concepts than things, really) have...some connotations of sadness, negativity, and the like. But in trying to extend your musical analogy, you have failed. Choosing either minor keys or dissonance to make your point would have been...adequate.

Dissonance is the same in minor and major keys.

Dissonances require resolution (in tonal music). Regardless of the key.

Minor keys have a (completely societal) extra-musical connotation of sadness, gravity, and so forth.

"Minor-key" (why the hyphen?) "dissonances" is just nonsense. Nonsense? Nonsense!

OMG, OMG, OMG, OMG, OMGomgogmo

Um...

More to follow?

Squeee!!!!!!!!?
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A Rebuttal, In Memoriam

Schoenberg just made me smile!



Sayonara.

Ho Hum

Another Bernard Holland article. Ho hum.

Schoenberg and his school do not make us smile,

(yawn) Ho hum.

but then, they rarely try.

Ho (yawn) hum.

Ho. Hum. Yawn.
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In Memoriam: A Seattle Supersonic

Melinda Bargreen is gone. No, not like that, but enjoying retirement at the hands of Seattle Times staff reductions. Even though we've had our bones to pick with her on several occasions, it is truly sad that the Times sacked one of Seattle’s only music critics after almost 31 years of splendid service.

Way to go, fuckheads! Enjoy the cloudy weather!



















Painting by Jana Bartouskova.

5/9/08

Why the Detritus?

I enjoy Anne Midgette’s articles. She’s thoughtful. She’s articulate. She’s eloquent even—a nice fit with the venerable Washington Post. But today...

Somebody forgot to tell the violinist Hilary Hahn that Schoenberg is ugly.

This is, by far, the most disappointing thing I’ve ever read from a respectable, industrious, (how about) progressive critic. More importantly—because after all that was only my opinion—she crossed the boundary between impartiality and partiality. “Schoenberg is ugly” is declarative in the worst, most biased sense. This is something we expect from others, but not our Anne!

And now for something completely different:

The music of Arnold Schoenberg, of course, isn't ugly at all;

How can this be? She just said, “Schoenberg IS ugly.” I don’t get it. What kind of twisted negative rhetorical device is this?

(loud, pissed-off sigh)

Sorry. Well, I’m not sorry. No one gets to have it both ways. Either Schoenberg is or he isn’t. So, Anne, choose the form of the destructor.

in fact, he's one of the last of the romantics.

Let me understand this correctly. Schoenberg isn’t ugly, BECAUSE he’s a romantic composer; if he were a modernist, he’d be ugly. Is that really the direction you want to take this, Anne?

...

Fine.

Her new recording of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto on Deutsche Grammophon, released last month, shows no traces of the spiky, unpleasant angularity that represents Schoenberg in the popular consciousness.

You, Anne, and all critics are the everyday opinion-molders of the popular consciousness. Thus, Schoenberg’s reputation is your doing. You are the one(s) responsible for his unpleasantness. They are your descriptors.

I mean, listen, really listen, to what this says:

Both musicians [Esa-Pekka Salonen and Hahn] are smart enough not to get tied in knots by Schoenberg's score, and to see through it to the composer's inner romantic.

It says that the conductor and violinist smartly mined romanticism out of Schoenberg’s otherwise ugly, difficult, spiky, unpleasantly angular, dense, clotted, ferocious piece (all adjectives found previously within the article).

Do you now see how Schoenberg and modernism get their reputations? Reviews like this, which say, “Despite Schoenberg, the music is beautiful, because of the performers.” What kind of dismissive, backhanded logic forgets that the composer put those sounds, those romantic, angular notes, onto paper and not the performers? Apparently articles like these:

To sweeten the pill for non-initiates, Hahn pairs Schoenberg with Sibelius [...]

I am truly disgusted and disappointed, today. But, then again, this is why we are here: to defend good writing and trash the bad.

(By the way, I didn’t say “fuck” once, but I wanted to. Congrats Empiricus! Thank you.)
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5/8/08

Specificity Required

Let’s try a bit of deductive reasoning to identify this enigma, this mysterious “Allegro,” to which Sabine Kortels of the Denver Posts refers.

Closing the delightful, well-paced program with flair and finesse, Spivakov led the [Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra] in a light, breezy reading of Mozart's brief "Allegro."

Okay, the facts. It's a piece by Mozart. Allegro means fast. It was written for orchestra, presumably without a soloist. It is brief. It is, loosely, “light” and “breezy.”

All we have to do now is find a list of Mozart’s works and start to rule out pieces that don’t fit the facts.

List

(scanning....scanning...)

I wonder if I can include the allegro movements from his symphonies? How ‘bout another list?

List 2

(scanning...scanning...)

Dammit! I give up. Sabine, please just give us the Köchel Number, or some other identifier.
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We Are the Dohnanyi, You Will Be Assimilated

I don’t know if he meant it that way, but Mark Swed made a curious reference concerning London Philharmonic conductor Christoph von Dohnányi and his old-school ways.

One can fight Dohnányi's stern approach. I tried. But the players clearly revere this conductor. And in the end, when the brass stood and played too loud for the hall, when the clotted strings and winds became a sonic army, when Dohnányi's sense of mission produced a startling climax, resistance seemed futile [it. mine].

If anyone was to deserve this reference, musically speaking, I thought maybe Hanz Pfitzner would be the ideal candidate. Or even, Richter. Klemperer. Strauss. Furtwängler.

Sheesh. How jejune. Anyway, silly Germans.
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5/7/08

Call for a Moratorium

Alas, it has long been tradition to make puns and jokes using musical terms and names. I love puns and jokes, sometimes even especially music-based hilarity. But some traditions have played themselves out. Like:

Q: Why couldn't Mozart find his teacher?

A: Because he was Haydn!


See! An alarmingly clever --and super-tired--play on words. Or this:

Q: Why did Mozart kill all of his chickens?

A: They kept saying "Bach! Bach! Bach!"


Great. That's just great.

It is, more than anything, the puns on the name "Bach" for which I am calling a moratorium.

Alas, I am too late. The normally-reliable John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune offers this gem, in re: the upcoming Bach Week Festival.

Cue the choir. Sound the trumpets. Bang the drums.

Why, whatever for?

The Bachanalia is about to begin!

Can we please, please stop the madness?

RESEARCH UPDATE:

Very unfortunately, there is already a group of the same name.

Color me...unsurprised.

Metaphoric Boos

Today’s winner of the “Failed Food Metaphors” tag comes from Burkhardt Reiter of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with his review:

Quartet overcomes venue limitations for intimate concert

We certainly have seen some ham-fisted food metaphors in our day, but what follows just might take the cake.

If the New Hazlett Theater were a martini, it would be a very dry one.

Of course, what he’s saying is that the Theater’s acoustics were dry, meaning dull, boxy and/or non-reverberant. It also helps explain the title: it was a good show despite the hall’s dryness. Fine. No problem.

Unless you prefer your martinis dry.

But here’s where Burkhardt shakes it up, when he’s supposed to stir:

Despite the New Hazlett's acoustic drawbacks, the quartet projected a sense of intimacy in this space that a more reverberatory venue may have lacked.

A contradiction: the dryness of the theater is what made the quartet metaphorically taste sweeter! That is the opposite of a dry martini, sir. See Vermouth. FAIL.

-

Unfortunately, Burkhardt doesn’t stop cooking up metaphors there.

Served as an appetizer to the rest of the concert, the quartet presented three movements from "John's Book of Alleged Dances" by John Adams...


Then,

The meat of the first half was Terry Riley's "Mythic Birds Waltz" and Wayne Peterson's "Jazz Play."


What could possibly be the dessert? I’m dying for chocolate-covered strawberries.

Sadly and wisely, the dessert is only implied. But it’s still rather disturbing, because it's what I’d expect from modernist-hater Bernard Holland, not Burkhardt Reiter and his warm review of newer pieces. It’s...

...(drumroll)...

the only romantic piece on the concert. By. Beethoven! Yeah!

Boo and FAIL.
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5/6/08

Zest and Zeal and Editors and Sentences

Zesty ROCO concert starts on slower note

As noted in this space before, columnists are not necessarily responsible for titling their efforts. Mr. Ward may not be culpable, here. However, if some editor wrote the title above they 1) read only the first paragraph when choosing the title, and/or 2) did not bother to edit the rest of the article. Because it needs editing, which I will now elucidate. Begin!

The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra needed a few movements to warm to guest conductor Joel Smirnoff. When it did, it took to music of Maurice Ravel, Joseph Haydn and Brad Sayles with relish and zeal.

I’d prefer “warm up to”, but I’ll accept “warm to” in the interest of brevity. However, I do not like relish. I do, though, like zeal in my martinis. “Give me a dry martini with zeal,” I’ll often say.

In the practice of today, ROCO named its final program of the season The Philosopher.

“In the practice of today”? What does that mean? Read that sentence again. I’ll wait. See? What? I…don’t know.

Taken from the nickname of Haydn's Symphony No. 22, it was a silly choice.

Um, okay?

Only one of the three works had anything substantial to do with philosophy: Sayles' Echoes of Invention after the popular public radio program of John Lienhard.

What? How has the connection between the work’s title (let alone the piece itself) been shown to have “anything substantial” to do with philosophy? Sayles’ piece is “after” a popular radio program? What? Named after? Inspired by? I really…

Smirnoff and others soon gave up trying to pack the music inside that title during their comments.

They…gave up…packing music…into the title…during comments? You…how does one pack music into a title? Perhaps the intended sentiment is something like “…they failed to show how the music conformed to the rubric “The Philospher” during their pre-concert talk”? But that’s the most sense I can make of this madness. Is it me? Am I dense? The…

The first performance, Saturday afternoon at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church, was the closest ROCO has come to a standard concert-giving.

“A standard concert-giving”? Passive voice much? Is “a standard concert-giving” in “the practice of today”? Has anyone proofread this? Common usage is on the what now?

Only the excessive chattiness marked any departure.

Ugh. A common complaint. Critics hate it when artists take the time to try to explain the music to an audience. Especially because they’re trying to attract new audiences, often people who are less-than-familiar with the repertoire. My theory is that critics secretly hope classical music will just finally fucking die, so they don’t have to do their dreary jobs (attending concerts and subsequently writing about it) anymore. Perhaps they all secretly want to be laborers?

Much of the talk added little to the music.

See above.

It was particularly embarrassing to hear St. John Flynn, KUHF's new director of cultural programming and host of the arts program The Front Row, place Smirnoff as the new head of the Cincinnati Institute of Music when the correct city is Cleveland and Cincinnati's major school is the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Smirnoff, a longtime faculty member of the Juilliard School in New York and first violinist with the Juilliard Quartet, corrected him amicably.

Okay. That is really, really embarrassing. I’ll give you that. That is, in fact, unconscionably stupid, and Herr Ward is totally on the money here. Here’s a hint, St. John Flynn (director of cultural programming, for fuck’s sake): If you’re addressing a bunch of people, know what the hell you’re talking about.

[Edit: This was not his fault; see comments section. However, I will not delete the paragraph in the interest of honesty--SA.]

Smirnoff opened with Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, which looked back at Baroque dance movements for inspiration.

Le Tombeau de Couperin looks at things now? Since when are musical works sentient? Perhaps it was Ravel who was…

The first two movements went by as if everyone were on cruise control, rolling down the musical highway with highly tuned technique but little roar from the emotional engine. But midway through the third movement, Menuet, a swell of volume and energy turned into a swell of commitment and alertness. For the rest of the program, Smirnoff and musicians really clicked.

I don’t like the construction here. “Emotional engine”? However, the sentiment expressed is a valid criticism couched in a bizarre, if apt, metaphor. Fine. But:

In Haydn's symphony, Smirnoff and the musicians gave listeners a vivid reminder of Haydn's penchant for the unexpected:

It wasn’t Haydn that reminded listeners that he did strange things...it was the performance?

a seeming wrong turn in harmonies there,

Seemingly? (Note: adverbs modify verbs.) Also, some other performance of the same piece would not have “reminded” listeners of the seemingly wrong harmonic turn?

or, in the first movement, an unusual music texture.

Ah, yes. This is the one that really got me. “Unusual music texture”? Music texture? The…I…whew. No explanation, no elucidation, no…anything. First, “music texture” is redundant, since the article is about music. That’s like calling a cow a “land cow.” Second, that is the most awkward turn of phrase…ever. And what in The Flying Spaghetti Monster’s name does it mean?

The horns opened with a question, as Smirnoff termed it, and English horns answered, while the lower strings gave a very good imitation of the walking bass from American jazz. That's not the usual opening heard in Classical-era symphonies.

You…you just intimated—no, asserted—that Haydn’s 22nd Symphony (I assume, because you’ve failed to mention which symphony was played) IMITATES AMERICAN JAZZ. Can I please have your time machine? Because you’ve lost all track of the linear flow of history. I like the piece where Bach imitates Charles Ives. It’s my favorite!

The orchestra played with zest

As noted, I love me some zest (and/or zeal)! Especially with gin. Mmmm.

and distinctive style. The second movement had a low gusty roar, in part because the strings played with lots of grit to

“to” = “in”?

their bowing. The fourth movement, the last, sped along with woodwinds churning out repeated notes with surprising clarity.

The fourth movement was the last in a Haydn symphony? Dang!

Sayles' work comprised a series of six segments using text by Lienhard. The subject was "ghosts." They often were unexpected things that reminded us of the past in ways that might discomfort us, like the mummy found in the Alps in 1991 that upset notions about how humans developed.

What? Who are “they”? Do you mean “there”? Also: What? Mummies?

A recording engineer at KUHF, Sayles surrounded the words with a comfortable, eclectic style that suggested here and there movie themes of John Williams, the repetition of Philip Glass, soaring movie scores in general, pseudo-tribal dances, and a few other styles. The music sounded comfortable but the compositional technique was sure and the emotional shape of the music instinctively first-class.

John Williams’ movie scores, Glass, and, oh, also, movie scores. And a few other, non-specified styles. Great freaking sentence, wordsmith. Also the “emotional shape” (whatever that means) totally has extra leg room, a drink before take-off, and no charge for headphones for the in-flight movie. Instinctively.

KUHF's Dean Dalton narrated. Unfortunately, his body microphone wasn't well sited and many of his words came across slightly distorted and, often, overwhelmed by the accompaniment.

Finally, a coherent thought. About microphones.

Back to the top, and title: How, if at all, does the bulk of the article elucidate how the concert “started on a slower note”? What? Not at all? Only the first paragraph? Oh. Fine. I'll just show myself out...

Somewhere in Houston there are a bunch of dead proofreaders buried under, I don’t know, a construction site, or something. What? No? Then you explain this…this…thing.

Hot Stuff from 1944, Ewww!

I must say, at the onset, that ClassicsToday is a good resource for those looking to find assessments of new recordings that often get overlooked by newspapers. And most of the reviews do, in fact, take into account the review philosophy set down by Executive Editor David Hurwitz. Only, he doesn’t write those ones. Historically, he forgoes the review philosophy completely, opting to address the quality of the music, which tends to expose his blatant dislike, nay disdain, of new music (by “new,” I mean music written after 1900).

So, from now on, I’m going to treat David Hurwitz as if the review philosophy didn’t exist. I won’t go on and on about how he didn’t address the “sound quality” or the “performance.” Instead, I’ll focus on what he says about the music. I think it would be easier on both of us.

That said...

Steven Stucky's Son et Lumière is one of those modern, anonymous-sounding "texture" pieces,

...this is fucked up beyond all recognition. He admits that he lumps—maybe categorizes if I were nice—music into modern/not modern, anonymous/authored and “texture”/ “_____” subsections worth easily dismissing. How condescending is that “those!” It’s like, “We need to build a gigantic wall to keep those Mexicans out!” “Texture” in quotations? Give me a break, David.

I would like to propose a new word to describe the irrational hatred of unfamiliar music: xenophonephobia.

Take that Bernard Hollands of the world!

...but it's no less rewarding for that as Stucky writes for the orchestra with great flair and confidence and the piece delivers exactly what the title promises: interesting sounds featuring an enjoyable interplay of light and shade.

Well, the title...only sort of. Wiki magic! But,

David actually...gulp...liked the piece? That might be a bit strong. I think that he was pleasantly indifferent to it.

*Have you ever gone to new music concert, mingled with the composers afterward and said something like, “Your piece was...um...interesting...and um...well-written,” but you didn’t really care for it and you were just being nice? No. Screw you! That’s happened to me.

Either way, Hurwitz sort of apologizes for his outright dismissal of one of “those” pieces, because it was interesting. Could he be turning a modernist corner?

Gabriel Ian Gould (no relation to Morton) is a young (b. 1974) composer whose Watercolors for English horn and orchestra is a sort of Swan of Tuonela for the New Millennium. If my preferences remain firmly with the old swan, this is still an attractive 12 minutes of pastels, the perfect contrast to Stucky's "in-your-face" opening.

“Attractive?” Wow. Maybe Hurwitz finally jumped on the 20th-century bandwagon.

But now comes the really hot stuff.

What’s that? Hot stuff? (puts on swimming goggles)

John Harbison's Cello Concerto (1993) strikes me as one of his most successful instrumental works, largely on account of very colorful orchestration that features an "East meets West" assortment of gongs and tuned percussion. The result avoids the timbral dullness that afflicts many of Harbison's other works, as does the inventive solo part that cellist David Finckel (of Emerson String Quartet fame) plays with admirable relish. You can enjoy this repetition-friendly work at first hearing and return to it with increasing pleasure as your familiarity with its captivating sound world deepens.

Amazing what can happen when you don’t outright dismiss things.

The main event, Morton Gould's Symphony No. 2 "On Marching Tunes", will come as a shock to those who think that the subtitle, the composer's reputation as a musical populist, and the date of composition (1944) mean that we're going to be treated to some sort of nationalistic pot-boiler. Indeed, the opening Variations and zesty third-movement Quickstep offer plenty of evidence to support that notion. They are brilliant and tremendous fun. But the second movement, Bivouac, really is a tenderly nostalgic berceuse, and the long, slow finale, Memorial, carries the music into regions inhabited by the finale of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, which it strongly resembles in its grief-stricken emotional ambiance and quietly ambivalent "major-key" ending.

The only problem I have with this is that Hurwitz likes the oldest piece best; it’s his most favoritest. Though, I’m not surprised with his preference, being a xenophonephobiac and all.

Let’s play a quick game. Queue the soundtrack. And. Go!

Son et Lumière (1988)
Cello Concerto (1993)
Watercolors (1998)
Symphony 2 (1944)

That was fun, wasn’t it?

[...] I have no doubt that it deserves to be ranked among the finest of 20th century symphonies.

Because it resembles Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony’s “grief-stricken emotional ambience?” Air-tight logic that I will not attempt to crack. Not in a million-billion years.



















Even if you don't
respond positively to the other pieces on the disc (and they all are a touch more "modern" than Albany's musical average), you will find owning Gould's masterpiece well worth the outlay.

That sucks. He fucked up an otherwise good, for David Hurwitz, review (don't forget that we omitted the review philosophy) with one little, stinking “modern” in quotation marks. I mean, he was doing well for a while, then, thhbbbt! He shoved new music to the side, once again.

It’s sad. Even if we don’t hold Hurwitz up to the same review standards, which he penned, as we do others at ClassicsToday, we’re still left with shoddy writing and a classic case of xenophonephobia.
-

5/3/08

Holy Shit.

Here, we wouldn’t dare say “music is the universal language of mankind,” without rightly extending Wordsworth's sentiments to include women.

But, then again, in some corners of the world we could, just not classical music.

Judging by the reactions of some Saudis to Mozart, I worry that by finally introducing "romantic climaxes," Beethoven might be revolutionary once again, but for vastly different reasons, i.e., if it’s not too boring.

Because we all know it is!