7/31/08

Most Brilliant Analogy of the Day!

There are so many reasons why this is deserving of the "Most Brilliant Analogy of the Day" award. So numerous, in fact, that if I were to list each one, the internet would become inundated with Detrital bytes. Inevitably, they'd clog-up the tubes and all the computers in the world would explode. Since I don't want that--I know some of you need your Alex Ross fix--I'll just lay it out and you can find your own favorite reasons:

Experiencing a concert at a festival of contemporary music is much like visiting a contemporary art museum.

Wow. Brilliant. Speechless.
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7/30/08

Fueling the Elitist Fire

Annoyingly long posts often suck the life out of a blog, or so I’m told. But hey, look on the bright side, you’ve got your health. So be grateful. Enjoy it while you got it. And if you want to stay for a spell, just put on some background music, dim your screen and let me take you on a long ride in a short bus.

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The LA Times writers have been quite aggressive these past few days, penning what seems to be a large number of opinion pieces dealing with attitudes toward art (a whole two articles, in fact). Both Scott Timberg’s High culture meets low culture in a mass-media world and Mark Swed’s Elitism is not a dirty word have garnered numerous responses on the blogosphere and elsewhere. Most are favorable and they incite a load of discussion. Awesome. They deserve it.

So what are they all about and why am I here? Scott Timberg’s subtitle lays out the problem quite nicely:

Many stigmas are gone as the lines between highbrow and lowbrow blur. But will a loss of quality be the price?

To me and, I’m sure, many of you, this is not a new thought. In fact, I can’t remember a time when this wasn’t part of the discussion. But here it is in the Times, published this past Sunday, as if it were novel. However late it may be, it’s still worth the time to read and consider (props to the Tim and the Times).

Tim goes on to talk about the blurring of the lines:

Most people I know share my disparate taste, enjoying " South Park" alongside Franz Schubert, the crisply plotted novels of James M. Cain as well as the philosophically searching films of Antonioni.

“Hey Franz, remember the underwear gnomes?” Good times.

He goes on:

I WONDER sometimes if we may have succeeded too well in getting rid of distinctions, though. It's hard for me to avoid a low-grade worry that we're losing our ability to recognize quality itself.

A fine concern, indeed. To help him sort it out, Tim talks with people he knows, including music critic Alex Ross, book critic Laura Miller and film critic Steve Erikson. They all have interesting things to say. But it’s what travel writer Pico Iyer says that catches my attention.

"What we seem to have nowadays is more of a hierarchy of media," said Iyer, "whereby, for example, dance, classical music, opera, and even theater and books, all of which commanded their own sections in Time magazine only a generation ago, are now regarded as lofty and remote subjects for only a handful of connoisseurs." Those pages, he said, are "given over now to a Britney watch or extended investigations into the new iPhone."

Uh, Tim. Pico. As I read it, arts are still separated into hierarchies. So, there is no blurring of the lines, after all? Are you saying that things are separated into, you know, third tier, second tier, mezzanine, orchestra pit, books?

Also, classical music, because it’s regarded as “lofty and remote,” sure sounds elitist, doesn’t it?

Instead of feeling guilty about reading pulp novels, he said, we worry that we've become "elitist" if we go see chamber music or jazz.

Really? That’s the worry? The fear of becoming an elitist? That precedes peoples tastes? Being an elitist? Really?

“You know, honey, whenever I hear Carl Orff on an advetisement, I feel this inexplicable and sudden urge to go the symphony. I think I really like this kind of music.”

“That’s great! But don’t forget, if you go to a concert, you’ll look like an elitist.”

“Ewww. I don’t want that! Maybe it’s better to stay home and enjoy it in private. Or better yet, let’s go see the Lakers, instead!”

I bet Mark Swed has something to say about this.

EVERY NOW and then, writers at The Times lose a word. Mainly these are adjectives subject to misuse. Some years ago we were advised to let go of legendary. Similarly, don't expect to see iconic, which has become equally cheapened, in the paper much anymore.

The adjectival criminal I'd like to see handed over to the word police is elitist, especially in its relationship to the arts and popular culture.

I know, right? I’m in complete agreement.

To explain:

In the "elitist" Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of "elite" is the "choice part, the best (of society, a group of people, etc.)," none of which sounds so terrible. But that is not what is meant when, say, classical music, my field, is scorned as elitist, as it regularly is.

And to echo Pico:

The arts are seen as for the select few -- too expensive, too inaccessible, too chichi for the general public devoted to movies, pop music, television and sports.

Ah. To remember the days of Bernard Holland, elite of the elite...

...Oh, right! Stay focused.

Mark drives home an important division: that the word elitist has been thrown about so much in the pejorative sense, even though it is by its very definition innocuous, that it has taken on a new and very strong negative connotation, which is often used to describe classical music. And that sucks.

Why?

In fact, the reverse can just as easily be true.

Ever see High Fidelity?

A ticket to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic in fancy-schmancy Walt Disney Concert Hall may not always be easy to come by at the last minute and top seats are now $147. But for most programs, bench seats behind the stage (which many love) go on sale two weeks before the concert for $15. Do I need to detail the princely sums in the thousands it takes to attend an NBA playoff? On Broadway, $400 tickets no longer raise eyebrows. At Disney, we are a democratic audience who sit together. In the supposedly populist Staples Center, luxury suites resemble nothing so much as the royal boxes in European opera houses of old. Anyone can go to an art museum, but not anyone can get past the bouncers at the latest in-crowd club.

In other words, things that make you think are elitist. At least that’s my crooked interpretation, given the analogies. Just kidding, maybe.

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By the way, let’s do away with the adjective academic, too. I mean, is Elliott Carter really academic? Or is it in the mind of the beholder?

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Either way, the word elitist can apply to anything. So it must go. And I agree.

More importantly, if it can apply to anything, then the lines between media hierarchies, in Tim and Pico’s sense, have indeed been blurred. The question then becomes, strangely, why is elitism worrisome? And that’s something even Mark wouldn’t touch, because it’s so thorny.

But enough of that tenuous thread. It’s a little too hyper-inter-textually meta-nitpicky for my taste. There are a few things we can take from all this, though:

1) Classical music is often seen as elitist, but that distinction has blurred.
2)The word elitist is cheapened when it’s applied to anything; therefore, it must go.
3)Once we get rid of elitism, a synonym for “best” or “choice,” there’s a void for adequate descriptors.
4)How do we best fill that void?

Take it away Tim:

Having some standards seems more and more important in a time when the traditional arts have lost a bit of their prestige, some of their audience, and all of their monopoly on perceived quality.

If we’re going to continue to make or criticize art or music or art music, which is an important part of making our way through the blurry flurry of culture, then we might want to set up some standards. Good idea, sort of. This is how I might start.

1) Don’t refer to something as “elitist.”
2) ...

3) Profit!

This can get a little tricky, especially if you want to avoid being an elitist know-it-all. Nonetheless, and harmless enough, Tim hypothesizes what this kind of blurred-lines kind of art might look like:

The great 21st century work seems to me to merge this promiscuous blend of pop styles with a rigor and discipline that comes from the old-school approach to serious art.

To the contrary, I might say that the great 21st century work blends this promiscuous rigor and discipline with pop styles. Whatever. Who knows? Right?

It's what I expect to find when I see " The Dark Knight"...

Ugh.

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Empiricus, what’s your point? Why the song and dance routine?

I’m glad you asked. And thanks for your patience, again.

The situation that both Tim and Mark present us with is, for better or worse, post-modern. It’s a world where the lines between one thing and another have been erased. Pre-established hierarchies of quality have collapsed, leading to a lack of standard weights and measures. In other words, tradition has been bucked, but somehow we need to get back on the horse. Aware of this, Mark sees an opportunity to throw out some useless descriptors. Originally innocuous, elitist takes on derogatory meanings, often specifically in reference to classical music. But, given post-modernism’s set of goggles, just about anything exclusive can be viewed as elitist (as a negative); so why use it?

As he concludes:

But elitism, in its pejorative sense, is a state of mind, not a cultural phenomenon.

From our perspective, here at the Detritus, this is something we’ve argued for since the beginning, only in a different way. Since our meta-goggles are focused on criticism, it makes sense to evaluate reviews with similar sensibilities. How are reviews elitist? How can we reconcile inflated language so that it’s not inappropriately self-aggrandizing? What responsibility does criticism have toward its readers or culture in general? So, if I were to rephrase Marks conclusion toward our purposes, it might be a tiny bit different:

Elitism, in its pejorative sense, is a state of mind, not a cultural phenomenon; this state of mind, however, is not limited to the word elitism, it is easily observable in critics’ unnecessarily inflated language.

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Take for instance Richard S. Ginell’s review, published a day after Tim and Mark’s pieces (also in the LA Times):

Mordern approach works for I Palpiti

It’s pretty standard fare...until we dig a little deeper.

By the time the Festival of International Laureates' I Palpiti string orchestra enters Walt Disney Concert Hall for its annual showcase...

In other words, they are displayed annually. Sounds like a special occasion. A rare treat. Is that elitist?

...it usually sounds ready to take on the world.

The group is world-class. Better than most. A hierarchy rears its ugly head, no?

Such was the case again Saturday night; the young 24-member ensemble played with a ripeness and polish...

Ripe = ready to eat, perfect taste; polish = silverware? And this is all pretty standard vocabulary—showcase, world-class, ripe, polished. No fault to Richard, this is the kind of language he inherited.

[Conductor-founder Eduard Schmieder] reached into the contemporary sphere and brought forth a profoundly moving threnody...

Profoundly moving!? I don’t know, but it sounds like Richard came out of this concert a new man, a man with a radically positive perspective on life; perhaps afterwards he made himself a resolution to donate twenty-percent of his paychecks to charity. That’s how profoundly moving it was.

[...] by Britain's John Tavener, who started out as a Beatles-sponsored wunderkind...

Wunderkind, to me, smacks of a kind of word-elitism. Why not use prodigy, instead. Why use the fun German word (I know it’s a common, so lay off)? Just saying.

...and evolved into one of the most popular of the so-called holy minimalists.

First, he evolved past the Beatles; he’s better, more popular. Second, he’s one of the “most popular.” Third, “holy minimalists?” It's not Richard's term, but still. If that’s not inflated language, I don’t know what is.

How about this?

...mystic trills...

If I had a nickel for every time some said that...

Or, how about this?

...everyone in the hall finally fell under the piece's spell.

Because, you know, pieces cast spells. Ugh.

So, that’s the Tavener. What else?

Malcolm Arnold's lushly neo-classical Concerto for Two Violins and Strings was a robust chaser.

Do you mean to tell me that something neo-classical is lush? It simply does not follow. Lush seems like an inflation, to me. Is that elitist?

And finally, the Grieg transcription:

...I Palpiti passionately nailed the Serenade's tough, fast unison runs.

How do string players passionately nail things?

...

You’re all filthy.

Like I said, I don’t fault Richard—this is the language he inherited. We all did. It’s just that, if classical music is to be seen as not elitist, then it’s up to our critics to call a concert a concert, instead of turning it into the second coming, which is very elitist.

(in an Andy Kaufman-like voice) tank you bery much.

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I almost forgot, you can listen to Mark on Talk of the Nation defending his article, here.
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7/28/08

Missing Persons

Where in the world is St. Louis Post-Dispatch critic Sarah Bryan Miller? STLtoday.com is of absolutely no help. (click to enlarge)










I haven’t seen her for about...I don’t know...a month or so. All traces of her presence have been eliminated. Seriously. Does anyone know if her secret island vacation spot was blown asunder by a once-thought-to-be-
dormant-but-not-so-much-anymore volcano? Did she manage to escape only to find herself abducted by a band of Filipino pirates in desperate need of English tutors? Where’d she go? Any information leading to her safe return will be greatly appreciated.

Otherwise, I might have to pull out my favorite painting. I hope not.
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[Edit 7/29/08] Well that was a bit embarassing. If you haven't already read the comments, anonymous informed me, well reminded me, that I can be dyslexic. Apparently, all this time, I've been misspelling Sarah's middle name. It's Bryan, not Byran. So, to correct the situation, I've fixed all the tags and the typos in all the posts that lead to Sarah. Sorry. That's plain dumb.

On a happier or sadder note, when you search for "Sarah BRYAN Miller," one receives the same strange absence of hits. (click to enlarge)










But, you can find her on the "blog"--good luck locating it--which is attached, like an appendage, to STLtoday, which has a ton of advertisements, links to the Post-Dispatch store, the requisite "The Rest is Noise" link (ugh), an ever-fun tag cloud, and the same old yellow Chopin prelude with a big, green "Classical Music" on it.

The Land of Cleves

Recently Mrs Arepo and I spent some time in the Cleveland area. Naturally, I decided to take the opportunity to check out the local criticism scene; unfortunately our hosts do not take the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Forced to the intertubes, I found the Plain Dealer’s classical music critic and read an interesting column:

“Cleveland Orchestra’s plans for opera, centennial have Eurocentric ring”

Huh, I wondered, what’s that all about?

Much of the news about the Cleveland Orchestra that poured from Severance Hall recently in a single press release verged on the momentous:

Franz Welser-MÖst's contract extended to 2018. Education programs to be expanded. Orchestra to perform centennial commissions. Staged opera to return to Severance Hall. Miami Ballet to appear with the orchestra at Blossom.


First, that sounds fantastic. It’d be great to live in a place with such a vibrant arts scene. Second, I marvel at the inability of a major civic newspaper to be able to manage to make lower-case o’s with umlauts. (This of course does not reflect on the critic.)

You get the drift. A slew of hopeful projects is in the works. Many could prove to be vital contributions to our musical life.

Yes, yes I do get the drift. Go on…

But hold on. Before we pop corks in artistic celebration, let's take a closer look at two of these endeavors: commissions and opera. They're exciting, if also conventional. And they happen to be almost uniformly Eurocentric.

Exciting…and…conventional?

First, commissions. The centennial project of five world premieres leading to the orchestra's 100th season in 2018 is itself admirable. Orchestras and audiences are in constant need of replenishment through works by composers who savor the colors and expressive richness a mass of instruments can produce.

I heartily applaud the commissioning of new works. Composers are, by and large, in need of commissions. (At least the ones I know are.)

By looking forward, however, the orchestra actually is going retro. In 1958, the institution celebrated its 40th anniversary with a commissioning project of 10 works.

Um, okay?

George Szell led the nine 1958 premieres (one was delayed), just as music director Welser-MÖst is expected to conduct the centennial scores by Marc-André Dalbavie, Osvaldo Golijov, HK Gruber, Matthias Pintscher and Kaija Saariaho. Although this group is distinguished, each composer has had a work performed by the Cleveland Orchestra in the past decade - none is American. Others deserve a creative shot.

Along with the composers in the centennial project, the orchestra's programs in coming seasons will bring premieres by Britain's Julian Anderson, George Benjamin and Oliver Knussen, Austria's Johannes Maria Staud and Germany's JÖrg Widmann. The sole new American work next season, Paul Chihara's viola concerto, will be led by Jahja Ling.


Aside from Chihara's concerto, subscription audiences next season will hear music by only three other Americans (John Adams, Samuel Barber, Charles Ives). Two others, Sean Shepherd and August Read Thomas, will be relegated to a single new-music concert led by Knussen.

Orchestras have a duty to perform music by composers of many nations and styles. An American orchestra should pay more than passing attention to its own country's composers, including such established and rising figures as William Bolcom, John Harbison, Nico Muhly and Ollie Wilson.

Ah, there’s the rub. And I think I mostly agree.

While it seems that one would want the highest quality works possible, regardless of country of origin, several factors make me want to have commissions for more works by Americans.

First, American composers are highly under-represented in many orchestras in the US. Second, there is a general public lack of knowledge about American composers from the last hundred years or so. Third, many European countries have better public/governmental support for the arts than we (to say the least) and we should get American composers some recognition for their work. Fourth, we need to expose young composers and their idioms to the public, too.

(Nothing negative, but I doubt Bill Bolcolm and John Harbison need the money at this point.)

So, yeah, in the balance, I agree. What do y’all think?



Oh. Sorry. I had one sentence with which to take issue.

Who wouldn't look forward to hearing the Cleveland Orchestra, a longtime aristocrat in Mozart, play three of his greatest operas with the accompaniment of sets, costumes and lighting?

“An aristocrat in Mozart”? In? Can one be an aristocrat “in” things?

Also, who ever heard of an opera “with the accompaniment of sets, costumes, and lighting?”?

Ah, gentle ribbing. Good article though. Read the whole thing and let us know what you think.

7/27/08

Grand Re-opening!

Thanks for being patient, everyone. Both Sator and I have been on a weeklong hiatus without easy access to the intertubes, hence such stagnant content. But be warned! We’re back. Refreshed and invigorated from our repose, it’s full-steam ahead!

First up, some fun with silly opening premises.

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Cheryl North of the Oakland Tribune treats us to this opening doozy:

Is the music of Mozart really "classical"?

Just what does it mean when the word "classical" precedes the word "music"? The answer can be a bit confusing.


Upon first reading, I was excited by all this. It sounds like something one might find in some scholarly journal. You know, a fine essay probing the etymology and epistemology of the term’s usage.

Bzzzt! Wrong.

In current common usage, "classical music" usually means serious music from the educated Western European tradition appropriate to concert halls, churches and other, more or less formal venues. Folk, rock and pop music would generally appear at the other end of this spectrum.

I’ll bite. Go on.

Or — "classical" more properly means the very specific style of music composed from about 1750 to around 1810. The definitive composers of this era were Franz Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven during his early years. The period's signature music, as well as much of its architecture, painting and literature, was characterized by an emphasis on well-defined form, clarity and harmonious, balanced proportions. More often than not, classical art forms were beautiful, esthetic and pleasing to both the senses and the soul.

Sure. (skeptically) Your conclusion?

A majority of musicians agree that Mozart's music almost perfectly meshes with all the classical criteria.

Four out of five doctors agree that...

Cheryl, I want the names and addresses of those musicians who did not agree, so I can slap them upside their heads. That is, if you actually polled musicians. And some of them actually disagreed with your definitions. Which would be actually pretty lame. Because you probably didn't need to poll musicians in order to find a majority that agreed. And the rest of your article had nothing to do with the opening premise.
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7/16/08

Pianist Stabbed in the Bach

Every day at the Detritus we get to observe what happens to a review when the critic is confronted with the unfamiliar, i.e. new music. Since new music doesn’t come with a pre-established descriptive vocabulary, critics are left to their own devices, often exposing tiny inadequacies, more so than usual. Arnold Schoenberg’s music becomes “thorny.” Xenakis’ music becomes “caucophonous.” And in another case, John Corigliano’s music becomes the sum of the program notes. Or John Adams’ music is either more or less similar to Nixon in China. This is understandable, to a degree, and often hard to fault.

But what happens when the critic is charged with reviewing something terribly unfamiliar in a familiar context? Or more precisely, what happens when the familiar piece of music is interpreted in an unfamiliar way?

Let’s take a look at how Vivien Schweitzer handled a different interpretation of the “Goldberg” Variations.

A Pianist Offers Bold Ideas About a Standard by Bach

Since I feel like being lazy, here’s the background to the performance in Schweitzer’s words, which also happens to be 40% of the total number of words in the review:

According to Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who wrote the first biography of Bach, that composer’s “Goldberg” Variations were commissioned by the Russian diplomat Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk. An insomniac, the count reportedly wanted Bach to write a musical sedative that Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (a talented young harpsichordist who lived with Keyserlingk) could play to soothe his restless nights.

The legend has been discredited, and Bach’s monumental work is so gripping in any case that it would doubtless have fueled the count’s insomnia.


Objection, your honor! Hearsay.

But there was unfortunately something soporific about the pianist Beth Levin’s performance at the Bechstein Piano Center on Friday. The concert, held in an intimate space at the back of the showroom, was a benefit for the Children’s Orchestra Society, a training organization founded in 1962 by H. T. Ma (the father of the cellist Yo-Yo Ma). It presents children and teenagers in orchestral and chamber concerts with their peers and established artists.

Got it? The piece was once thought to be a sedative, but that’s not the case. And Beth Levin’s interpretation was tediously boring or monotonous as to cause sleep. Clever tie-in. Whoop-dee-doo.

But this is where Vivien gets into the nitty gritty. And so do I.

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The “Goldberg” Variations (like much of Bach’s music) offer pianists a chance to make a personal statement...

Like Major League Baseball and Visa: “Express your fanhood through your credit card!” Or Random Phone Company: “Express yourself with a new ring-tone for only $5.99!” Yuck.

The “Goldberg” Variations (like much of Bach’s music) offer pianists a chance to make a personal statement and can withstand a wide variety of interpretations.

What exactly is the width of the variety of interpretations that a piece of music can withstand? But more importantly, what is it withstanding?

It seemed to be more about her than about Bach...

See, two things I don’t subscribe to are 1) the New York Times—I just get the Sunday paper for the crossword puzzle—and 2) the notion that black dots on a page, written at a time when improvisation flourished, are owned more by a composer than a performer, or vice versa. I prefer to think of those black dots more as the composer’s architectural blueprint and the performer the craftsman—one is no more important than the other—the final result being a collaboration. Maybe I’m a Communist.

...and her idiosyncratic decisions sounded jarring and unnatural.

Another thing I don’t subscribe to is the notion that “jarring” and “unnatural” (whatever that means) are inherently bad things.

Harshly attacked accents, as in Variation No. 3...

By definition (I’m guessing here, so I leave it to you to look it up) notes that are accented are more harshly attacked than notes that are unaccented. So, “harshly attacked accents” is redundant.

Harshly attacked accents, as in Variation No. 3, gave the listener musical whiplash...

Remember a long time ago when Schweitzer said that the performance was soporific? Yeah. Me too. You know, I usually sleep through whiplash. How about you?

Besides, I think “musical whiplash” is synonymous with “something that takes you in a different direction.” We can’t have any of that in our music!

...and slow tempos and exaggerated phrasing rendered many variations awkwardly stilted.

Since “exaggerated phrasing” means nothing to me, Vivien, I’ll ask this: what is the slowest tempo that the Goldberg’s can withstand and still be natural? Keep in mind that Bach didn’t indicate the tempos for the variations. Ready?........Go!

Variations Nos. 4 and 29, for example, were so ponderous and stretched out, particularly in the opening measures, that the music sounded distorted.

Ugh.

The performance lacked an overall cohesion and architecture, partly because the vital sense of a dance pulse was lost.

Ugh. Dance rhythm, not “dance pulse.” Very different things.

Vivacious, sparkling variations like No. 5 sounded lackluster.


Geez. Don’t hold back, Vivien.

Had the livelier numbers been more energetic, Ms. Levin might have made her point better when playing the slower variations.

Ugh.

But there was sometimes a strange sameness in a work that should be full of contrast, veering from merry wit to profundity.

Ugh. The work should be...

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So how did Vivien handle the unfamiliar familiar? By comparing and contrasting it with the billions of previous recordings and performances of the Goldbergs she already knew and loved. Awesome, because that’s how we do it. That's how we make judgments. That is, if it leads to a better understanding of what is being compared and contrasted.

Granted, Beth’s interpretation might have been boring. I wasn’t there. But...

Unlike reviews of new music, the Goldbergs are accompanied by a mountain of pre-established descriptive vocabulary, as well as performed or recorded models with which to compare. It’s no surprise, then, that Vivien was already influenced (Heck, I would be, too). But, here’s the difference, as I see it. It seems that Vivien used previous models to demonstrate why she found the performance stilted, rather than attempting to use previous models to understand why Beth Levin made the performance choices she made. Vivien, instead, entered the concert hall with her ideal model already formulated and any deviation, any different or unfamiliar interpretation, outside a narrow range of varied possibilities, was doomed before it began. Hence, we get statements like:

  • “idiosyncratic decisions sounded jarring and unnatural” To whom? Vivien.
  • “slow tempos and exaggerated phrasing rendered many variations awkwardly stilted” To whom? Vivien.
  • “Variations Nos. 4 and 29 [...] were so ponderous and stretched out [...] that the music sounded distorted.” To whom? Vivien.
  • “The performance lacked an overall cohesion and architecture, partly because the vital sense of a dance pulse was lost.” Vital to whom? Vivien.
  • “But there was sometimes a strange sameness in a work that should be full of contrast” It should be what to whom? Full of contrast to Vivien.
There was no attempt to understand, let alone appreciate, Beth’s interpretation. And before y’all chime in, I understand that Vivien is entitled to an opinion. It’s just that her opinion was made up before the concert began. And that's not cool.

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It often sounded as if Ms. Levin, who took some repeats and read from the score, were playing Beethoven, Schumann or Prokofiev.

Ugh. Is that a jab at Beth for taking repeats and reading from a score? Because that has nothing to do with anything, ever. On the bright side, good news for Schenkerites: all good music does sound the same!

Bach’s spirit rarely shone through.

Ugh. I challenge anyone to write an essay that expresses your interpretation of Bach’s spirit and how it shines through things, without waxing too poetic. Oh, and make sure it can withstand a variety of interpretations, within reason, of course.
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Stereotypes Are Outstanding

I know, I know. Before you start, we've discussed this before: critics frequently are not responsible for the titles of their articles. So I'm not blaming the New York Times' Steve Smith for this.

Many factors, including space (column inches) come into play. But who thought they were clever, funny, or in good taste when they came up with:

Enlivening Classical Series with Brazilian Spices


?

Ha ha! South Americans are Spicy! So clever. Thanks, New York Times Classical Editor!

Fuck.

7/15/08

Disambiguation

I really only have issues with two sentences, but in fairness to Charles Ward of the Houston Chronicle (who does an otherwise fine job) I’ll let his context breathe. To wit:

Beethoven heads to the country at Dollar concert

The Houston Chronicle Dollar Concert is a long-standing tradition that, hopefully, introduces new listeners to the Houston Symphony.

That is outstanding, and an admirable goal! Huzzah!

Fittingly, the best playing this year came in the program's major orchestral work: Ludwig van Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.

I don’t know why that’s fitting, but...sure. Fine.

Sunday's concert was sold-out but Jones Hall wasn't packed (no-shows being another long-standing Houston tradition). The audience was a pleasing mix of young students, families (with a couple, mandatory squalling kids), and at least one man lured there under some sort of pretences.

Sold-out? Sold out? Not sure about the hyphen usage, I could be wrong. Also: “a couple, mandatory squalling kids”? That seems...like strange comma usage. Surely one of our grammar-loving readers will set me straight.

He grumpily left during the concerto — Edouard Lalo's, for cello, with the winner of the orchestra's 2008 concerto competition — and was sitting a table waiting to yell, "Can we go now?" as his companion left the auditorium at intermission.

That is one odd-ass sentence disambiguating the concerto between m-dashes in the middle of describing the unhappy patron. But let’s chalk it up to style, eh? Great.

Grant Llewellyn, music director of the North Carolina Symphony and the 193-year-old Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, was the conductor. He and the orchestra clicked very well on Beethoven's Symphony No. 6.

Not “Handel-and-Haydn Society”? Heh. Just playin’.

Beethoven, the revered giant of 19th-century composers,

Really? That Beethoven? Not Camper Van Beethoven?



Really?! Oh. If ever a composer did not need disambiguation...

may have legitimized so-called "program music" for them. At the time of its premiere, the Pastoral Symphony was highly unusual for its overt reference to events external to the music.

What? For whom? Let’s take another look:

Beethoven, the revered giant of 19th-century composers, may have legitimized so-called "program music" for them. At the time of its premiere, the Pastoral Symphony was highly unusual for its overt reference to events external to the music.

For whom did Beethoven legitimize so-called “program music”? 19th century composers? The Handel and Haydn Society? The pissed-off patron who left during the concerto—Lalo’s, for cello, with the winner of the concerto competition? I am baffled.

The outer movements addressed feelings — cheerful ones after arriving in the country and grateful ones after a thunderstorm — while the other three were pictorial. The most famous was the brief thunderstorm, in which Llewellyn and the musicians managed to provide a pretty fearsome clap of thunder. The performance was utterly charming and seldom overstressed (mostly in the biggest moments when players forgot to lighten up a bit). The gurgling brooks, the peasant dancing, and the elevated sense of gratefulness in the last movement were beautifully laid out. A staple of the orchestra repertoire was once more fresh.

Nicely put, sir. What else?

The soloist in the Lalo concerto was Laszlo Mezo-Arruda, first-place winner of the 2008 Ima Hogg National Young Artist Competition.

I really had to look up “Ima Hogg” to avoid making cheap jokes at her expense. Turns out she was a famous Texas musician!


According to her Wikipedia entry (and I never would have guessed this) while her father was governor of Texas they lived in the Governor’s Mansion! Who knew?

His best playing came in the slow sections of the middle movement (of three). He brought a quiet elegance to lyrical melodies that become very beguiling. Elsewhere, the playing was too much by-the-note and plagued with intermittently loose intonation.

Brought...become? Became? But nicely phrased.

Llewellyn and the orchestra began the evening with Johannes Brahms' Academic Festival Overture. From the start, Llewellyn urged the musicians to play with urgency and intensity. The opening moments thus had a hushed sense of intrigue that gave way to the overture's main point: celebrating Brahms' receiving an honorary doctor degree with a potpourri of high-spirited student songs, at least one perhaps urging a swig or two at the local pub.

That is an hilarious conjecture!

Brahms is known for his intellectually and emotionally elevated exploration of traditional forms of classical music but Sunday's spirited performance of the overture left a burning question unanswered: Was Brahms a party animal at heart?

But...you turned your hilarious conjecture into the...parting shot in your review? After all of that wonderful descriptive language, you're leaving us with "Was Brahms a party animal..?"?

Why?

Knocking It Off

Pianist Gloria Cheng recently released a recording of newish music on the Telarc label, which included a few pieces by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the composer. And of course, there’s a bevy of reviews.

However, rather than attack these one by one, I thought it would be fun to stream together some of what was written about the works, because...shit...I’m more confused now than before I read them. See if you feel the same way after this short survey of the Salonen.

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[Cheng] plays music by three composers on the CD. What about Salonen?

An apt question, if I do say so. Let’s get going!

[...] Salonen’s pieces have their turn to enchant and seduce the ear, with their shimmering filigree, streams of notes, and often-gentle aura.


Ms. Cheng on the Salonen:

“The earliest work, Yta II (1985), takes its title from the Swedish word for surface. He’s written a series of three Yta s for different instruments, written mostly in the 1980s for friends while he was still based in Finland. He writes in his notes about how surfaces, for a Finn, are often snow-covered and can appear either blurry as in a blizzard, or clean and sparkling as in ice. That imagery appears in the music. I also find a great deal of humor in Yta II , and can’t help but imagine a high-strung little creature that goes through a transformation into something rich and beautiful by the end of the piece.”


Mr. Salonen's ''Yta II'' (1985) is a seven-minute whirlwind of hyperfast riffs and runs that spiral across the keyboard.


The deft Philharmonic soloist punches out the Finn’s übervirtuoso writing as if it were “Chopsticks.”


Imagine an atonal Art Tatum.


Art Tatum, snowflakes and a little metamorphosizing, high-strung creature.* Got it.

Ms. Cheng, again:

“Dichotomie, the major piece by Salonen on this disc, was composed in 1999–2000. The first movement, ‘Mécanisme,’ is just a romp, and I’ve confided to Esa-Pekka that I find this movement to be all about misbehaving (laughter). It’s like a kid who insists on jumping on the bed and making all sorts of trouble, but every so often has to come back and behave, and does so with passages of great eloquence.”

Mécanisme also...

[...] has a vigorous, toccata-like opening, with transient “robotic” tendencies that alternate with a definite dance-like esprit.


Sometimes eloquently dancing robots misbehaving vigorously. Check.

Also, also wik:

Mr. Salonen's ''Dichotomie'' (2000), a fearsomely difficult work, begins like some fractured Finnish avant-garde update of Stravinsky's ''Petrouchka'' with oscillating chords and relentless, headily dissonant repetitions.


The second movement of Dichotomie, entitled ‘Organisme,’ was conceived with the metaphor of a young willow in mind, a tree that bends in the wind. The sensibility of that movement is very French.


Finnish interpretation of France and their trees. Yes.

“Organisme,” showcases prickly, experimental rhythmic patterns that steer in the direction of a Cecil Taylor lesson in free jazz.


Art Tatum plus one free lesson from Cecil Taylor. Check.

The exuberant second movement climaxes in fitful bursts of leaping cluster chords and shimmering glissandos for both hands.


There are three preludes, too.

In the first prelude, “Libellula meccanica,” a mechanical dragonfly lazily drifts on a hazy summer’s day before darting hither and yon with more vigor. The steady rhythmic motion of the second prelude, “Chorale,” seems to grow out of the even pacing of traditional chorales but also has its quicker moments.


It also has quicker moments. Well said.

And now for something completely Ms. Cheng, again:

“[...] the last of the three, ‘Invenzione a due voci,’ is the hardest piece I’ve ever laid eyes on, with two independent lines that are parallel, and yet not, unrelenting, gnarly, and requiring a sound that is completely effortless and relaxed.”


“For a two-minute piece, it’s a huge challenge for the pianist.” Reflecting on her superb performance, [Robert Schulplaper] commented that however daunting its appearance, it’s obviously playable. “But almost impossible. Of course, some 14-year-old will come along and just knock this stuff off.”


It’s so difficult that some 14 year-old can knock it off? Don’t you mean, “tear it up,” “bang it out” and other appropriate clichés? Or did you really mean this: Urban Dictionary?

The French influence, which was clearly Ravelian in the Lutoslawski, is in Salonen’s works, as in Stucky’s, less definable, but perhaps no less real.


?

Comma, confusion!

[Robert Schulslaper] could invoke the usual clichés—clarity and elegance, Ravel’s lapidary technique, Debussy’s artful portrayals of natural phenomena, as well as Messiaen’s bird portraits—and indeed they apply. But the best way to appreciate where Salonen, Stucky, and Lutoslawski fit into the French continuum is to listen to their music.


The works by Salonen [...] encapsulate the emergence of a compositional wisdom.


But how has that compositional wisdom manifested itself?

In an April talk-back session at Symphony Center, Salonen addressed the question of whether living in America influenced his writing: “If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be alive,” he said.


Sheesh.

Well, consider him mystically undead. This mostly Frenchy-Euro [edit: Frenchy-Euro-American] modernist fare calls to mind the nascent music breeding ground of early-20th-century Paris.


Much of this piano music feels nostalgic, referential and pastichelike, rather than something wholly new. But that’s not a knock; as Jean Cocteau asked, “Doesn’t all good music resemble something?”


Only a Sith deals in absolutes, Cocteau.

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*What I learned about Esa-Pekka’s music today:

Art Tatum, snowflakes and a little metamorphosizing, high-strung creature.
Sometimes eloquently dancing robots misbehaving vigorously.
Finnish interpretation of France and their trees.
One free lesson from Cecil Taylor.
It also has quicker moments.
It’s so difficult that some 14 year-old can knock it off [sic].
Cocteau was a Sith Lord.

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Links to the reviews at: Time Out Chicago, Fanfare Magazine, ArkivMusic.com, NY Times, soiveheard.

7/9/08

Thunder Stolen by Brits

Crud. I was going to blog about this:

Admit it, you're as bored as I am

from the Guardian UK. But they let one of their own beat me to it:

Why Joe Queenan is wrong about new classical music

Damn! So much snark and righteous indignation wasted.

Ah, well, perhaps next time. And by "perhaps" I mean "definitely".

Please go read both links. The arguments are fascinating.

Oh, and shame on you, Joe Queenan. You're not helping.

7/8/08

Serialism Is Over! Someone Call Milton Babbitt!

Daniel J. Wakin of the New York Times recently wrote about B. A. (that’s Bernd Alois) Zimmerman’s epic, impossible-to-stage anti-war opera “Die Soldaten”. I have no issues with Mr. Wakin’s writing. My issue is with the stage director, who…well, let’s see.

First, though, the production sounds awesome. The audience is moved around an empty armory on bleachers on rails! So freaking cool. And, well…let’s just read on.

The Brutality of War, on a Big Stage

A FOREST of aluminum greets a visitor to the normally cavernous drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory. The thicket of metal forms the backside of what is essentially a giant, horseshoe-shaped set of bleachers filling much of the space.

The structure looks as fixed as a rock. It is not. Underneath are 12 railroad tracks, on which the structure and its nearly 1,000 seats glide back and forth, straddling a ribbon of stage running the length of the hall.

That is awesome.

It is on this stage that a 40-member cast of singers, dancers and actors will play out “Die Soldaten,” Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s dark and brutal opera steeped in post-World War II despair, starting on Saturday as part of the Lincoln Center Festival’s opening weekend. The audience periodically travels back and forth, at a top speed of seven and a half inches a second — the rate of a slow creep — as the scenes evolve onstage.

For a month now, technicians have been loading and building the set at the drill hall in one of New York’s most logistically complex opera productions this year. It will also represent a milestone in the armory’s recent transformation into a performance and visual arts space.

How cool is that? Answer: deeply cool.

“Die Soldaten” is considered one of the 20th century’s most difficult operas, both logistically and, for the audience, emotionally, because of its difficult subject matter. The orchestra numbers 110; it also has a separate percussion ensemble, a jazz combo and recorded sounds. The film of war scenes that the score calls for has been discarded as outdated.

I think that the war scenes films being discarded is too bad, since it was the composer’s intent to include them, but the rest of that is all kinds of super-modern/postmodern kinds of fun.

Based on a 1775 play by Jakob Lenz, the opera chronicles the fall of Marie, the daughter of a French merchant, at the hands of soldiers. She is raped and turns to prostitution. For the audience it is a work of total theatrical immersion, in which Zimmermann sought to portray past, present and future action simultaneously.

Sounds like more modern/postmodern kinds of fun. What else?

Zimmermann composed a thoroughly thorny 12-tone score.

Uh-oh. Sounds fascinating to me, but is potentially critical dynamite…

There are overwhelmingly loud passages, but also delicate moments of chamber music, jazzy rhythms and Bach-inflected passages.

Passages passages passages. But still, sounds interesting…

Sometimes three sections of the orchestra play completely different rhythms. In one passage percussionists embedded in the chorus tap out rhythms with spoons on bottles, as jazz dancers sound out a cross-rhythm. The demands on the singers are formidable. One particularly devilish vocal passage will be recorded and played back during the performance, a compromise sanctioned by Zimmermann himself.

Wow. I bet that’s a spectacle to behold, I wish I could see it.

“It’s incredibly challenging from the technical point of view,” said the conductor, Steven Sloane, who will lead the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, of which he is music director. “It’s been billed as unplayable all these years.” Yet each scene is constructed according to traditional musical forms, like rondino and nocturne. There are flashes of Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier” and Berg’s “Wozzeck” and “Lulu.”

Modernist techniques are combined with older forms and influenced by other works, creating an intertextual opera with multiple influences, and, potentially, interpretations. Awesome! Sounds like a graduate student’s Instant Dissertation Topic (TM).

“It is one of the monuments of 20th-century music,” said David Pountney, the stage director. “You can say, ‘I don’t like it,’ but you can’t ignore it.

I have no desire to ignore it! I am jealous of people going to see it! But wait…

It’s the end point of 12-tone music, really.”

Really? “Really”? Because, no.

This opera was written in 1957.

Nineteen Fifty-Seven.

Here, with a really minimal modicum of research, is a list of composers who wrote 12-tone music after 1957.

Wait. First, I will now go compose a 12-tone piece…

…okay, back. It’s short, but I did it. Now for my list:

Louis Andriessen
Hans Erich Apostel
Milton Babbitt
Arthur Berger
Pierre Boulez
Robert Ceely
Luigi Dallapiccola
Ernst Krenek
Joseph Johnson
Bruno Maderna
Donald Martino
Luigi Nono
George Rochberg
Roger Sessions
Nikos Skalkottas
Karlheinz Stockhausen
Stefan Wolpe

So, yeah. Not the end of 12-tone music. You can keep wishing it’s still 1842, but (news flash) it’s not.

The rest of the article is available via the link at the beginning of the post.
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7/7/08

Enjoy Your Symptoms, America!

We’re a little late on this one, but if you haven’t heard, the Miami Herald had to navigate a 17% cutback. And, as usual, classical music is the first to take one in the ass. Critic Lawrence A. Johnson has been offered an involuntary buyout, which he accepted, or, as Musical America noted, was forced to accept.

I know we’ve had our differences with Lawrence at times, but we still love him. So, on behalf of The Detritus Review:



















Stop making us wash your dirty underwear, newspaper higher-ups! You don’t deserve our arts, anyway.

According to Musical America, both the KC Star (Paul Horsley) and the Herald are owned by the same parent company, McClatchy Co., who is trying to offset the vast debt incurred from its purchase of the media conglomerate Knight Ridder (terrible name, by the way).

And as we have said too often before: Good luck in the blogosphere! Lawrence, as a parting/welcoming gift: a way for everyone to find your new blog, South Florida Classical Review, from us.

(Upset With Undewear by Jana Bartouskova)
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Get Your Priorities Straight, Buster

It’s good to hear from St. Petersburg Times critic John Fleming. I was starting to get worried that he might have been abducted while in Denver during the recent NPAC Convention—I heard he’s a sucker for promises of ice cream. Luckily, that’s not the case. He’s alive and well and back at the keyboard recalling a Denver lecture given by the CEO of Target Resource Group, Rick Lester.

The topic? Surviving a recession.

This ought to be good.

Rick Lester, CEO of Target Resource Group, an arts marketing consultant, had some pithy advice on setting priorities during hard times. These no doubt found resonance among the considerable Tampa Bay delegation, which included folks from the Florida Orchestra, Opera Tampa, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and Sarasota Opera:

Ready for the advice?

1) The importance of opening night. "Most first-time subscribers,'' Lester said, "make a decision to renew or not renew based on the first performance they attend.''

Mmmm. Market research. Small sample sizes. Suspect methods.

Okay. But how do we cash in?

2) Focus on blockbusters. "You have to take care of your flagship productions — the Beethoven Nines — in tough times. Put your artistic risks at the end of the season, when you've already got the renewal money.''

So, fuck ‘em when they’re not looking. Perfect! They’ll never see it coming. (Sounds a little like Shawshank Redemption, doesn’t it?) But, first make sure to pocket the money.

Got it. Now who do we fuck over?

3) Market to the affluent. "People who buy expensive seats are always better prospects than those who buy less expensive seats.''

Geez. In tough times, you get to fuck everyone over! You’ll get to extract money from the wealthy and shun the poor. Sound business tactics, if you ask me. Pun intended.
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7/6/08

You Have a Question? I Have an Answer.

After a pretty innocuous, but informative, review of a disc of new-ish brass ensemble pieces, the Editor in Chief of ClassicsToday.com asks a stupefying question. No, it’s not David Hurwitz; he’s the Executive Editor and Advertising Manager, silly. I’m talking about the “Editor in Chief,” David Vernier. After informing us that he “knows” what composing is all about—admitting a stop by the New England Conservatory in the late 60’s (I bet that was a raucous time)—he has the audacity (as Editor in Chief) to ask this mind-boggling, foot-in-mouth question. The Editor IN Chief (Editor-in-Chief ["E.D.I.T.O.R." I.N. "C.H.I.E.F"]) asks:

Why have I avoided describing the actual music?

Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! (emphaticly raises hand) I know! Pick me!

Okay. Um...on one hand, I think I know the answer. On the other hand...well, this is ClassicsToday. But, here’s my best guess why you avoided describing the music (this is for you AnthonyS):

Rating System and Review Philosophy

Recordings are rated on a simple scale of 1 (unacceptable, no redeeming qualities) to 10 (superior, qualities of unusual merit) for both performance and recording. However, it's our belief that the performance rating far outweighs the significance of the sound rating. The best recordings are those in which the listener's attention is primarily drawn to the music itself. Great sound adds to your enjoyment of the music, bad sound interferes with it. In addition, most recordings from the early stereo era on can be remastered to sound acceptable, if not outstanding, on compact disc, and some of the best-sounding recordings ever made date from the late 1950s and early 1960s. So we see no point in withholding a 10/10 recommendation from a great recording of the past simply because it was made before modern digital recording techniques existed, provided that its sound has been carefully restored. Nor do we believe that a superb modern performance should be penalized unduly because it is not self-evidently an "audiophile" product. If the performance under review is truly exceptional and is supported by sound that neither artificially enhances, detracts from, nor draws attention away from the music, the critic may award a 10/10 rating.


The problem with any rating system, however cleverly devised, is that it tends to place undue emphasis on differences that ultimately may be trivial at best, and misleading or inconsistent at worst. The standard of classical music performance today is relatively high, and the difference between say, a 9 and a 10 may be self-evident to the critic, but either inaudible or irrelevant to another reviewer or to individual listeners. For this reason, whenever possible and appropriate, we include with each review a "reference recording" of the music in question. Wherever possible, critics will indicate their personal recording of choice in the repertoire under consideration. This recording may be old or new, still available or out of print. Our goal is to give you, the reader, the opportunity to make the same comparisons that our critics make when listening to the music. You should feel no compulsion to agree with our critics; in fact, disagreeing is equally important, because the ultimate purpose of ClassicsToday.com is to enable you to find the music and recordings that suit your personal taste. You do this by taking the advice of the critics you find sympathetic, and by ignoring the advice of the ones whose perspective leaves you cold. Either way, you learn how to pick and choose your way through the immense musical legacy that is our classical music culture.


In other words, there's nothing in the review philosophy that indicates you're supposed to review, i.e., judge, the music. So this is why you didn't describe the music. Right?

Wrong!

I knew it was too easy. Here’s the actual answer:

Because the words "ferocious fun" and "infectious" and even "impossible" [which were cited from the liner notes in the preceding parts of the review] are better than if I used the words "cacophony", "rhythmic riot", "harmonic black hole", or other imperfect terms, which may mislead some listeners to think that there's nothing here for them.

But...

But...

Did I get this right? You didn’t want to give me the wrong impression by using certain descriptive words. So you made it a point to use them when explaining this to me, thereby negating your original intent, meanwhile stomping all over the review philosophy. Or were you just softening your dislike of the music?

I don’t get it. And I don't care.

Editors, Davids, let’s make things easy, why don’t we? One, don’t use Hypophora; it wasn't an effective device. Two, just stick to the review philosophy so we won’t run into any more problems. Or, on the other hand, throw it in the trash (literally, not figuratively)—same result.
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7/5/08

Flies, French Critics, and The Worst Word in The Lexicon (Apologies to George Carlin)

Film composer (see: Lord of the Rings) Howard Shore has been commissioned by Placido Domingo (now director of the LA Opera) to write an opera (his first) based on David Cronenberg's 1986 film "The Fly". Coincidentally, the first-time director of the opera is...David Cronenberg. The opera premiered in France last week, and excerpts from the New York Times' Alan Riding are, uh, excerpted below.

The ultimate insult is included (not by Riding, rather by a French critic).

Trying to teach 'The Fly' to Soar Operatically

This week, in a co-production with Los Angeles Opera, “The Fly” had its world premiere at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, with Mr. Cronenberg again directing, and Plácido Domingo conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Four more performances in the next week here will be followed by six performances in September at Los Angeles Opera.

Yeah, I summarized that information above. My bad.

The unveiling of a new opera is always a nail-biting occasion. To keep the genre alive, major houses make a point of commissioning new operas. But over the past half-century very few have entered the canon, with composers often trapped between the public’s yearning for melody and the critics’ preference for the innovative.

This last sentence is undermined by what transpires below. Also, it is not really my experience that critics prefer the innovative to melody. Also, this.

“Howard Shore has written an opera that goes with the story,” said Mr. Domingo, who as general director of Los Angeles Opera commissioned “The Fly” in 2005. “There are very moving moments, very melodic moments. But as the narrative advances, the orchestration becomes harder. Had he done it another way, it would not have worked.”

Okay, Mr Domingo liked it. That sounds promising...

At the premiere on Wednesday the audience responded warmly to the 2 hour 20 minute work, but French critics were less persuaded. Eric Dahan of Libération said Mr. Shore had “perhaps overestimated his ability to write a lyric work,” while Christian Merlin wrote in Le Figaro that the production “confirmed that cinema and theater, above all opera, are two very different arts.”

Yes, Mssr Merlin, theater (theatre) and opera are indeed, not the same thing. Good empirical skills. I should introduce you to my friend Empiricus!

In Le Monde, while praising the soloists, Renaud Machart described Mr. Shore’s score as that of “a moderately gifted pupil of Arnold Schoenberg.”

Good lord. Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits, Arnold Schoenberg.

The ultimate swear word/insult.

I expected better from the Le Monde critic.

[Edit: I forgot to link the NY Times article, link is now up and working.--SA]

7/1/08

Straw Men and Ghettos


Part One: Sator Arepo


Bizarre. Mr Swed has a piece up celebrating Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 50th birthday, and describing the accompanying festivities—some of which were web-based; you know, in teh intertubes. But before all of that perfectly reasonableness, we get the following as an appetizer:

Classical music online: Salonen, Sellars and Mozart

You can see a discussion about critics not writing their own titles here, but I am pretty certain that in American usage it’s customary to use a comma before the “and” in a list of more than two things. Just sayin’.

I do not unconditionally celebrate the Internet,

That’s odd. Because, you see, I’m reading what you wrote on the internet. The LA Times is, besides not being my local paper (ugh), not worth the price of subscription. Because, you see, I can read it for free on the internet. And yet, somehow [hint: ads, ads, pop-up ads, more ads] y’all still manage to get paid. Oh, sorry, you were saying?

particularly its intrusion into classical music

Agh! Intruder alert! Intruder alert!










Man 1: “You got your internet into my classical music!”

Man 2: “You got your classical music into my internet!”

Sheesh, seriously? Because it’s like all kinds of 2008 and shit. “You kids get off my lawn!”

As replacements for the record store, Amazon and iTunes have become necessary evils.

Meh, I’ll grant you that it’s easier to find a decent margarita in Boston than find a good classical record store anywhere.

Typical commercial downloads are sonic shadows of the superior sound of CDs.

Yeah, but on Amazon.com you can actually purchase CDs. Classical ones. Really! Lots of them!

Blogs ghettoize critics.

I…you…what? Wow. Ghettoize.

You have music degrees. I have music degrees. You have a job at the LA Times. I have a computer in my mom’s basement, am 13 years old, have an acne problem, no girlfriend, and eat cereal for every meal.

Fuck. This whole “bloggers are unqualified to express their opinions” deal has pretty much played itself out, don’t you think? Surely in the sports blogosphere it came, publicly, to a head and imploded.

If you feel “ghettoized” by a bunch of unpaid amateurs/academics freely expressing their opinions while you sit at your desk at the LA Freaking Times, you have some sort of victim complex. My sister’s a psychologist, shall I send you her number?

YouTube is pretty much a toy.

Whatever.

But there was no denying the Internet's potential as a genuine window onto the wider world this past weekend. Two recent European events of great interest to Angelenos went online, and that felt like a breakthrough.

Oh, goodness gracious. That whole first atrocious paragraph was just a straw man for you to knock down.

You’ve discovered that the internet can be cool and useful! You’re John Fucking McCain!

Crap. The internet is a “genuine window onto the wider world” and, in other news, rain falls from the sky.


-------------------------------------------------------


Part Two: Empiricus

Hold it right there cow-guys and gals! Just to let y'all know we're not exactly done, here's an eye-catching color. Sator Arepo graciously allowed me to ride the tail end of his post, because I cried, then whined, then cried some more for inclusion (I’m only 11, you know. So I can still get away with such things. Also, I don’t have acne yet, but I do have a little soul patch down you-know-where—I’m almost a man, dammit!). Really, though, I’d like to add my four halfpennies, because I feel strongly about some of the topics brought up herein and therein. And away I go, in letter form...

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Dear Mark (May I call you Mark? Or is it Mr. Swed all the way up there on your critic pedestal? Hello? Fine. Mark it is.),

Listen, Mark. I don’t think you were specifically referring to our blog, when you said, “blogs ghettoize critics.” However, I can’t help but to think that we are a part of your so-called “intrusion into classical music,” because, after all, we are a blog and we criticize the critics of classical music, hopefully disrupting your consequence-free world. Thus, I feel the need to respond.

Don’t get us wrong. We don’t have contempt for you, nor any critic. What we think of you as a person is not correlated with your writing, nor for whom you write. Most critics, in fact, seem to be jolly folk, with a good sense of humor. What we read of yours never leaves the page...er, the virtual page. What we dislike, on the other hand, is the content of what critics like you write. That’s where we take issue.

Early on in our endeavor, I can see how one might have thought otherwise. We certainly had our faults. And as you say, “the internet—It doesn’t keep secrets.” In the beginning, we were, perhaps, a little too aggressive, too scathing, or simply over-critical. But, we have changed. For the most part, I’m happy to say that we’ve have corrected many of our errors of journalistic naivety. While the message hasn’t changed, our tone is more civil, cussing is less directional, and the points clearer and, hopefully, more prescient.

Even in our mellowed tone, we still take issue with bad writing and thinking. Again, to qualify myself, we value the service that critics provide. In my opinion, we need experts to break-down the music. There’s too much for one person to learn in a lifetime and critics can help bridge that gap. As musicians ourselves, however, it is heartbreaking to read each and every ill-informed, misconceived, deceiving and, yes, prejudiced generalization that critics type, like, “blogs ghettoize critics”—oh, to think of the poor soul at the paper-end of the process reading that dreck! To judge things at your level is a privilege, not a right. And we hope that, if you don’t do your job well, there’s some recourse.

Our blog is where that happens. We’re not calling for your heads; we don’t want out-of-work critics. We simply want to discuss the issues that concern how we talk about and judge music. Hopefully, by doing so, we can ameliorate our poor level of musical dialog for the benefit of your readership, the average, non-musical person. To quote my namesake:

[...] the greatest indication of the vast and limitless difference in the intellect of human beings is the inconsistency of the various statements of the dogmatists concerning what may be appropriately chosen, what avoided [...]

Okay, we also want to poke fun in your direction, like a slap on the wrist.

That said, we can be wrong. In fact, we have been wrong. This is why we feel it imperative to seek others’ input, retorts and comments. We don’t moderate our comments section, because everything we write is, in the end, open-ended. Everyone’s input is valuable. It’s an ongoing discussion.

And this leads me to the internet, specifically blogs. Mark, as you noted, there is “no denying the Internet's potential as a genuine window onto the wider world...” Everything is at your fingertips, no doubt about it. The internet is replete with choices. There are countless blogs about this and that and classical music. Everyone gets their say. As with anything else, however, there will be same proportion of the good mixed with the bad, like good criticism and bad criticism. What is inherently special about the internet is that you, the reader, get to choose what and who you read, unlike, say, when reading the L.A. Times. And I think it goes without saying, but, without a readership the newspaper dies. So, too, do blogs. Yet, the good ones have a way of sticking around and the bad ones fade away. Whatever you choose to read, your experience of the internet and blogs is only what you make of it. So, you see, there is no reason to generalize about blogs ghettoizing critics. You've shown perfectly capable on your own.

Finally, a note about who is qualified to write about music. Honestly, I don’t know the answer. Mark, I received my master’s degree in music from Mills College, too. So, before you knock critic-bashing blogs, in general, it might be helpful to keep in mind that some of us have the same or more musical qualifications than you. Alright? We are qualified ambassadors of music. So get off your high horse, partner. We are qualified to speak about music, wherever we choose, even on a blog. And we do so for the love of music and the people who love music, not for the money that accompanies a job--that would be a luxury. If maintaining this blog were an actual job, we’d proofread it once in a while.

Mark, I hope you will join our dialog,

Empiricus
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Flee the Chicken or Fight the Egg?

Stuff like this turns me off:

...[Native Hungarian András] Schiff has made a further contribution to Beethoven's legacy.

It turns me off not because I don’t agree, but because I find it hardly necessary—Beethoven doesn’t need any more help climbing over others on his way up the stairway to heaven (two points: Led Zeppelin reference). I think Gary Oldman did enough (one point: Immortal Beloved reference). Sorry if that’s a little harsh. But, then again, everyone’s heard me go off on the ineptitude of Beethoven’s fugues (and that’s not even my idea!). So deal with it.

However, I’m not here to poke fun at David Weininger of the Boston Globe for thinking highly of Schiff’s Beethoven lecture. It really does sound interesting. In fact, David paints Schiff as very articulate, thoughtful and insightful.

Schiff's descriptive language is fresh; his turns of phrase, delivered in a broad Hungarian accent, succinctly capture the contours of the music.

Fine. He’s a regular Miklós Zrínyi. (five points) Whatever.

It's just that this master of rhetoric is not immune to circuitous logic.

"I think all human beings need a sense of coming home," he says.

Bernard Holland? Is that you? (one point)

"This is something I very sadly miss in today's music. . . . Because there is no tonal system, to me it's like a foreign language.”

For an Hungarian who rarely had the opportunity to use vowels in your native tongue, you seem to speak English very well.

“And this [the tonal system] is a language I understand."

There are multiple ways of reading this, of course. Instead of listing the different possible interpretations, I’ll just ask some questions.

Is it because you understand, or are familiar with, the tonal system that the less familiar non-functional harmony* leaves you cold? Doesn’t a familiarity with another language help your appreciation of it? How well did you understand English before you learned to speak it? Is it really because we desire a sense of return (coming home) that precludes non-functional harmony’s effectiveness? Isn’t “coming home” an admission of departure?

Just saying, which came first, the chicken or the egg? The need for coming home or home? The appreciation of English or the learning of English? Non-functional harmony or the tonal system? Dialectic failure for the chicken and the egg...

Communication breakdown, it’s always the same! (Two points)

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*Here, I use “non-functional harmony” instead of “atonality,” because non-functional harmony can be used to describe triadic harmony, non-triadic harmony and atonality, all of which stand in contrast to a “tonal system,” here taken to mean functional harmony.
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