11/26/08

Spicy, Passionate, Cliche'

How to turn out a quick column on a deadline? (Yes, we're not entirely unsympathetic.) Why, just go with the obvious!

Bocelli: I prefer to sing of love


Oh, good. Where are we going with this? Obviousland?

OK, opera fans, want to know what makes superstar tenor Andrea Bocelli tick?

Is it... Italian? I bet it's stereotypically Italian. Also, he's more of an Oprah celebrity; not that he couldn't sing me under the table, but...just sayin'.

Amore.

Awesome. That couldn't have illustrated my point better. We are headed directly for The Easy Cliche'.

"I think that we (see) the television, the radio, the newspaper. . . everywhere, there is war and hate," Bocelli said. "So, at least in my songs, I try to sing love. I prefer it."

Which is strange, because 9 out of ten people polled prefer hate and war to love. But not the Italians!

Bocelli spoke briefly at a press conference at the Grand Hyatt yesterday in advance of his sold-out appearance as Turiddu in a semi-staged production of "Cavalleria Rusticana" tonight and Wednesday at Municipal Auditorium.

Sounds Italian! I bet it's Italian. Also: please don't bother mentioning the composer's name.

In "Cavalleria Rusticana"

Is that Italian? What's it mean? Golly!

("Rustic Chivalry"),

Thanks for that.

a tragedy, the character Turiddu seduces and leaves one girl and then dallies with another man's wife before being challenged to a duel to the death.

Huh. Wow, that is about love! Sort of. Well, sex, anyway. And hatred and death! But we don't like to sing about that, do we? We do? We understand this behavior?

It may surprise the legions of fans that have swooned over the sweet-voiced tenor on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," but Bocelli says he gets the character.

Ah. He "gets" it. Truly excellent journalism.

"Like Turiddu, I'm Italian.

I wish this had come up earlier. It explains everything.

"I've loved women for all my life.

Um. And seduced them, and engaged in adultery? Or, no?

"I've lived all my life with my big passions, so I can understand very well Turiddu. And I honestly ... I excuse him. So, for me, it's very easy to sing the character."

Mmm, love. Spicy, Italian love.

Musically, though, the part is a challenge, Bocelli says, calling his role a "very tough part."

[snip]

And the Italian-speaking tenor,

Seriously? The Italian tenor...speaks Italian? Whoa. You just blew my mind.

who said he was battling a slight case of bronchitis, did promise his San Antonio audiences one thing: "I will do all my best tomorrow," he said. "I can't know the result, but I am sure that at least the pronunciation will be perfect."

Hilarious. Because, see, he speaks...

The San Antonio Opera production will be directed by Maestro Eugene Kohn, who is best known for his work with another great tenor: Placido Domingo, whom he directed in concert here last year.

Who is also Italian.

I'm bored. What's for lunch? Gin? That's not Italian! You know what's Italian? Love!

Edit: Placido Domingo is, of course, Spanish. I am an idiot.

11/23/08

Really? Q. for T.S.

As you’ve more than likely guessed, we’re not too up to date with our dance. And! (exclamation point)...this is why today’s post might yield some funny results.

Spectacle has been a big part of ballet from the beginning. Ballet, opera and pageant blended at the French royal court, from the horse ballets of Catherine de Medici’s day to outdoor re-enactments of sea battles in lakes built just for shows under Louis XIV.

Neat. In fact, I like to understand a little about what’s at hand. Historicism is often lost in the 700-800 word review. Thank you, Tom.

Even in more modest, indoor shows, the costumes of some grotesque or allegorical characters resembled parade floats.

This, I cannot attest for, but rest assured, I’m not surprised, but intrigued.

Virtuoso dance values became more important in the 19th century, but spectacle remained a staple of the art. Even the great innovator and choreographer Marius Petipa celebrated spectacle during his long, influential reign at the Imperial Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. "The Sleeping Beauty," from 1890, is among his most notable spectacle ballets and an icon of the art. It typically features dozens of elaborate, bejeweled costumes, enormous sets, lots of stage machinery and a huge cast.

How does a company such as the Milwaukee Ballet, with 25 full-time dancers and a lean budget, take on such a monster? MBC will stage its "Sleeping Beauty" from Thursday through next Sunday.

Michael Pink, the company's artistic director had the answers in an interview.

What? Yeah. I know. I’m copying and pasting the entire review. So what? Wanna fight about it?

"We bought the costumes from Ballet International, a company in Indianapolis that is now defunct," he said. "They were really rather well made. International got them from the Maryinsky."

On the cheap and cheap; nothing wrong with that, especially today.













Fig. 1 Dust Bowl

The Ballet International set, Pink said, comprised three tired-looking painted drops. He thought about renting the Houston Ballet's production, but it is so big that it wouldn't fit the Uihlein Hall stage at the Marcus Center. It also would have cost $80,000. So Pink had to get creative.

This is the economy, I guess. Whatever—fine.

"I thought that if I could put 'Sleeping Beauty' in a neutral setting, I could eliminate set changes and move the story along," he said. "I thought that would be better than some threadbare, poor-relation production we could have afforded to rent."


Bottom-line is important to a degree. Sounds average, but I’m still all ears.

Pink conceived and sketched out a "Sleeping Beauty" of his own.

Tom?! Hello?! Not gonna rail this? (Like I said, dance is a bit foreign to me, so set us straight, if you got the time.)

A white, open set trimmed with hundreds of white silk roses is a lighting designer's dream, as it can take on any hue when bathed in theatrical light. Pink worked closely on the design with lighting wizard David Grill. He also worked with music director and conductor Andrews Sill.

How’d that work out? (Wow. I’m constantly amazed at my ability to sarcastically bait the next statement. Fun, nonetheless.)

They trimmed Tchaikovsky's score from 3½ hours to two hours. [It. mine]

(Not surprised) Mmmm-hmmm.

We’re idealists, to a point. But. WTF?!!!? They just cut ‘Sleeping Beauty’ by one and a half hours? Because of money?

Shame.

Shame.

"There are yards and yards of repeats," Pink said.

Fuck repeats! In fact. FUCK repeat performances!!! They cost too much money!

"We have omitted many of them. I doubt that anyone will complain about that."

I haven’t given them my Visa number yet, so...

He’s got me there.

He's also eliminated yards and yards of processions, the point of which was to allow parading of yards and yards of expensive fabric formed into lavish costumes. That sort of thing doesn't play well these days, and it slows down the storytelling.

Like I said, I don’t know about that. So...

Really?!? Pink is gonna cut 40% of the music? Maybe this is a music-centric conceit, but isn’t ‘Sleeping Beauty’ largely a product of the music? There’s an orchestral suite, right? Might that be a reason for its success?

To Pink, the story counts.

Oh. (Again, amazed at my ability for sarcasm.)

To move the story along and to intensify and clarify motivation, he has tinkered with Charles Perrault's fairy tale and the Petipa/Tchaikovsky scenario.

..and Hamlet doesn’t die in the end.

Princess Aurora no longer falls into a yearlong slumber because she pricks her finger when encountering an old woman at a spinning wheel. Rather, she pricks it on the thorn of a red, red rose, the only item of color in her white world.

“A red, red rose?”

"It's full of dancing," Pink said of his "Sleeping Beauty."

As ballets ought to be, with music and its rhythmic-movement coincidences. “A symbiosis, my young padawan.”

"It's not just a cut-down version of a classic. It has its own integrity."

Tchaikovsky. Cut by one and a half hours; the time it takes to drive from Islamabad to Peshawar.

Watered-down booze if you ask me.

Tom?!!!?? Was it good? Does it irk you? Maybe I just don't get dance.
-

11/22/08

The Easy Way Out

Here's a quick tip: The most obvious joke, perhaps the first one you think of, is likely neither the funniest nor the most poignant. This, I think, is true at dinner parties as well as in professionally written columns (see Dowd, Maureen).

To demonstrate, please welcome Mark Swed of the LA Times. He wrote a glowing review of the recent performance of Kurtag's Kafka Fragments. He obviously loved it, and this much-anticipated concert apparently delivered the goods. But how to introduce the review?

...

May we please stop obsessing over the hypoallergenic first puppy and change the subject to something deep, spiritual, life-changing?

Er, I don't know anyone--at all--who is obsessing over the "first puppy". Not sure where you got that. Also not too spiritual. But I'm all for deep and/or life-changing. Where are we going with this? (And: did you run out of "and"s?)

Like detergent.

Ah! A non sequitur, perhaps? Intriguing!

Sunday night, President-elect Barack Obama, appearing with his wife, Michelle, on “60 Minutes,” spoke of household chores.

Is this a collage? Or a game of telephone? Puppies! Detergent! 60 Minutes! Purple monkey dishwasher!

He doesn't, he admitted, volunteer to wash dishes, but he washes them.

[I am absolutely not insinuating that Obama is a purple monkey dishwasher; it was a Simpsons reference-Ed.]

Also, er, if he doesn't volunteer to wash them...she...forces him to? Conscripts him? Odd.

And when he does, he said, he tries to use that as therapeutic practice, to find something soothing in the discipline.

Also, odd. That is an odd sentence. What is the predicate of "that"? "Wash dishes"? But I'm straying from my main point.

Almost as if on cue, Tuesday night Dawn Upshaw

Um. I'm pretty certain that this concert was planned well before the 60 Minutes episode that aired two days prior. But if you're going somewhere with this...

Almost as if on cue, Tuesday night Dawn Upshaw got out the Dawn.

Dawn Upshaw? Dawn dish detergent! Ha?

Oh, come on. Seriously? That's not even a good pun.


This is the equivalent of lame, lazy, pointless anthropomorphizing in marketing and mascots.

Marketing Dude: Hey, thanks for seeing me. I hear you guys do great work. We need a good image for our upcoming ad blitz.

Ad Agency Dude: Thanks for coming. What is it you sell again?

MD: Ice cream cones!

AAD: Oh. Hm. Well, we could just slap a face on it! No one's ever done that before!


Marketing Dude: Hey, thanks for seeing me. I hear you guys do great work. We need a good image for our upcoming ad blitz.

Ad Agency Dude: Thanks for coming. What is it you sell again?

MD: Raisins!

AAD: Oh. Hm. Well, we could just slap a face on 'em! No one's ever done that before!

Marketing Dude: Hey, thanks for seeing me. I hear you guys do great work. We need a good image for our upcoming ad blitz.

Ad Agency Dude: Thanks for coming. What is it you sell again?

MD: Tires!

AAD: Oh. Hm. Well, we could just slap a face on 'em! No one's ever done that before!

The balance of the article gives a nice account of the performance, which by all reports was excellent. But the lead-in completely baffled me. Why?

[lifts arms to sky, grimaces]

WHY?!?!

11/21/08

Good Grief

Like we’ve said all along, music is terribly difficult to write about. If we copied and pasted Elvis Costello’s fun quip—“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”—every time a review had communicative difficulties, we’d find ourselves in that perpetually skeptical no-man’s land, shielding ourselves from the possibility that we can effectively describe the music we love. This is why we tend to nitpick over grammar and descriptors; often, we’ve nothing to overtly criticize. Moreover, I’d like to think that we are optimists, happily acknowledging the best of music criticism. It may not seem like it, granted. But our hearty thanks is omission—that’s the reward for writing well.

It saddens us that we’re constantly confronted with reviews that miss the mark (nay, miss the side of the barn), which is why poking some fun in the authors’ direction can add to the discussion about how we can effectively talk about, let alone criticize, music. Thus, every so often, “dancing about architecture” is the perfect quote to describe the awful mess in front of us.

Standing out as a haunting reminder of the historical importance of the early 20th century, the performance of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok's String Quartet No. 2 is unquestionably the highlight of the concert.

Though it might be sign of canonic progress--that Bartok is the highlight of the concert whilst performed alongside Haydn and Schumann--a retranslation is in order: "Bartok’s String Quartet was the highlight, because it stood out as a reminder that the early 20th century was important."

I’m no historian, per se, but isn’t it the case that all historical periods were important? Like I said, I’m no historian and I could be wrong.

A further distillation of the sentiment might read like this: "The Bartok String Quartet reminded me of the early 20th century; that’s why I liked it." Coupled with the knowledge that it was written in 1917, this statement says nothing. Nothing at all.

Bartok's String Quartet No. 2 was written in 1917, not long before he emigrated to America, and is clearly the composer's musical reaction to the First World War.

This is why I would like to require our critics to cite their sources (I know it’s not going to happen, space-wise, but still.). I simply don’t know where this tidbit comes from. It might be perfectly true--that the String Quartet is a reaction to the war--but after scanning several journal articles, the only connection that I could find is one of chronological coincidence. So, “clearly” is clearly dubious.

By the way, I once had a class on presidential campaigns with an encyclopedic professor who hated, absolutely hated certain adverbs. He would not hesitate to fail us for using “clearly,” “obviously,” or “surely.” I see why.

The work explores the depth of Bartok's mourning over the death and destruction of the war.

Surely (con sarcasmo), but how so?

Uncomfortable and lengthy dissonances...

Are you fucking kidding me?

Uncomfortable and lengthy dissonances thread through the melodies even as the scalar passages drive the work ever-forward like an unrelenting march toward the inevitable end.

Another retranslation: "Marching toward the end, with dissonant, scalar passages, exemplifies Bartok’s deep exploration of mourning over death and destruction."

...I’ll let that one soak in.

...

Mmmm, wanting.

The last movement is unmistakable in its grief; the unapologetic dissonances and scant melodies are certain to resonate with modern audiences reflecting on the current state of war around the world.

Summa: dissonance + scant melody = unmistakable grief.













Fig. 1 Aaarrghh!

Often compared to Beethoven's famous string quartets and considered equally as important to the canon, Bartok's six quartets invoke many folk melodies.

New books about the Beethoven Quartets this year? 10,028. New books about the Bartok Quartets? 3. (My source is clearly accurate.)

His works often infuse the Hungarian folk songs he studied in great depth as an ethnomusicologist...

If by “studied in great depth” you mean “collected and appropriated,” then...sure.

...with the movement toward atonality common to the time.


And if by “atonality” you mean “other triadic hierarchies,” then...fine.

Although, like any good composer, Bartok repeats his melodies throughout the works...

Does this need a retranslation? (pauses for fifteen seconds) If retranslations lead to absurdity, then absolutely! “The hallmark of a good composer is whether or not he/she repeats melodies.” That was fun, eh?

...he mimics the tradition of folk music passed from one musician to the next, by presenting the themes or melodies in slightly altered ways each time they return.

Jesus. This is indubitably becoming a retranslation party. Check this out: “Although Bartok repeats his melodies, Bartok repeats his melodies but not literally.”

This means that everyone ever, in the history of melody and melodious historicism, which includes those dissonant fuckers, mimics the traditions of folk music. Brilliant.

And, in case you were wondering, “those slightly altered ways” is just a fancy musicological phrase meaning “ornamented.” Ugh.

But go on, dear author, what does melodic variation do?

This gives Bartok's music a sense of evolution; each presentation of the thematic material represents an individual life within the enormous scope of time.


















Fig. 2 Gratuitous Calvin and Hobbes
-

11/19/08

Ursa Major, Minor, and Augmented

We haven’t heard from Anne Midgette in while, so I thought, “What’s she been up to?”

-

I. In a Violinist’s Hands, The Masters Come Alive

Think Russian violinist, think high-profile recital debut at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, and you might think words like soaring, singing, flashy, fireworks.

At least she didn’t say, “bear.” If I had a nickel for every time a critic called a Russian performer a bear...

















...I’d have ten billion-million-thousand-plex dirt-blackened nickels. Ugh. Anyway, thank you Anne for abstaining from the offensive “bear” connotation.

So far, so good.

You probably wouldn't think smoky, subtle, nuanced and understated.

It is said of us islanders, that we take our time to make friends, but when we do it’s for life...

Well, if you love Laphroaig you’ll understand.

But that was how the star violinist Vadim Repin began his overdue Washington recital debut, in the Debussy Violin Sonata, on Saturday afternoon.

To clarify: he began his overdue recital like a scotch whiskey.

Okay. I’m down. This could go places. And, to boot, I like scotch.

Repin slipped into the piece as if the music were a mantle, not a vehicle, something that shaped his appearance, rather than showcasing it.

This makes sense; I like it. But, I must reiterate: The Detritus Review is a no cape zone, period. We will not tolerate the advocacy of capes in any shape or form. Not even as metaphors. They are vulgar, pompous and a waste of the sheep, spiders and baby seals killed to make them.

Still, I want to hear more scotch and/or alcohol metaphors.

The music of the first movement was as soft and raspy and prickling as cigarette smoke: quintessentially Gallic, emphasized by little Satie-like punctuations [by the pianist].

I guess we left the scotch thing behind. (sigh)

-

II. From Russia, With Languor

What else ya doin’, Anne?

Valery Gergiev's right hand inhabits a world of its own. Most conductors' hands work independently of each other, but the very fingers of Gergiev's right hand appear to be on separate tracks, pursuing thoughts and ideas within the music that are not necessarily even audible. The hand supplies its own subtext.

That’s very observant, even if it has little to do with the music.

It dances, mesmerizing and odd, like a peculiarly agile crab.

...moving on...

In [Prokofiev’s] "Romeo and Juliet," the playing seesawed between mastery and routine. The winds' entrance with the love theme at one point sounded like a yawn, and the concertmaster, far from embodying the romantic ideals about Russian violinists,

...of Russian violinists?

...played peremptorily in a couple of his solos. Offering a whole act of this piece, rather than the more familiar concert excerpts, is a mixed blessing; you get the dramatic integrity of the work but also fewer highlights and slower pacing.


Now, I’m not sure that this is more Anne or me, but this seems to be a symptom of some kind. Of what? I’m not sure.

Point: Why is it that the journey is no longer the reward? That is, if a work is long and has few climaxes (highlights, memorable tunes; call ’em what you will), why is it often less rewarding than a short piece with lots of memorable doohickeys? Seems to me that many would say that the reward in Beethoven’s music is the journey; the journey rewarded with the coda. In the case of an extended concert version of “Romeo and Juliet,” aren’t you, as an audience member, being given extra context, with which you can appreciate the increasingly sparse highlights a little more?

Even Gergiev's right hand was subdued, by the end, into something approaching conservatism.

...a conservatively agile crab.

-

III. ‘The System’s’ Star

If Mozart had been in the hands of a publicist, he might have talked like Gustavo Dudamel.

In English, with a Spanish accent?

The thrillingly gifted 27-year-old conductor is the hottest property in classical music at the moment.

...like a dancing bear, perhaps?
-

11/18/08

A Completely Compelling Double Dose, Briefly Bestowed

Two quick hits from Mr Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News, two days apart.

First, a word about expectations.

What's the very last piece you'd expect to hear on a Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert?

Hmm. The very last? That's a thinker, right there. Let's see...

Ionisation?


Music for 18 Musicians?

Synaphai?

Cobra?

A pretty good guess would be Sir Edward Elgar's The Music Makers, a 40-minute piece for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra set to poetry by Arthur O'Shaughnessy.

(The Music Makers)

(For no reason, here is a picture of Elgar that is fun to look at.)


Aw, man. Curses, foiled again! You got me. But I would have guessed Zorn, Xenakis, Reich, or Varese before anything by Elgar. Silly me! Not that it's not an obscure work of overblown English neo-Romanticism, but...the very last piece?

Two days later, a review of Stephen Hough's concert memorializing David Grice:

We would all like to be so warmly remembered as to merit the memorial recital Stephen Hough played Sunday afternoon. Honoring the late David Grice, a beloved Plano piano teacher, Mr. Hough reminded us just how transcendent an experience music can be.

I was just sitting here thinking, "Damn! I wish I could remember how transcendent music can be!". Wait, what? Oh...hyperbole. Right. It is, after all...Chopin...

The slow movement of Chopin's B minor Sonata seemed to inhabit a parallel universe, where time stood still amid aching beauties.

Time stood still...in a parallel universe...surrounded by gorgeous women in pain. Is this...is this H.P. Lovecraft? (click to enlarge)

The cascading accompaniments almost turned to vapor.

Yes, yes, Chopin is ethereal. And cascading.

The whole Chopin sonata was wonderfully personalized, at times feeling – quite appropriately – made up on the spot. The composer's B major Nocturne (Op. 62, No. 1) seemed a dream caught as it drifted by.

And dreamy! Everyone loves Chopin. But wait! There's more!

A very different piece, Aaron Copland's Piano Variations, got a no less compelling performance.

Usually modernist music is not compelling. And, arguably, this is Copland's most modernist piece, as he experiments with (*gasp*) serialism!*

(Copland Piano Variations)

This is craggy but compelling music

Dude, you just typed "compelling" like six words ago. Just sayin'.

This is craggy but compelling music, proving that even tough modernism can have a beating human heart.

Um.

Inherent anti-modernism aside (it's craggy and tough, not usually compelling, and inhuman), I think you missed the point of modernism.

The "beating human heart" of "tough modernism" is its casting off traditional modes of expression with the desire to express one's inner...

Ah, crap, I stopped being funny.

And I would've got away with it if it hadn't been for you meddling kids!

*Blogger does not think "serialism" is a word.

11/13/08

Simile of the Day!

Today's Simile of the Day! is brought to you by Jeff Dunn of the San Francisco Classical Voice.

Mr. Dunn reviews a concert of Brahms and Nielsen:

Then came Mr. Nielsen, bursting into the auditorium with an Allegro like a battalion on Saturday-night leave hitting a string of dance clubs, each in a different key.

First: Wow.

Second: I'm a bit confused. Was each dance club...in a different key? Is Nielsen like the battalion, or is the Allegro like the battalion? Huh. Great imagery, though.

But wait! Bonus simile from the same review!

The evening began with Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto, as common a visitor to the concert hall as a baked potato in a steakhouse

Hilarious. Colorful and strange, if...apt. Do baked potatoes really visit steakhouses? And, soon:

Conductor Laureate Hebert Blomstedt and soloist Nikolaj Znaider delivered the Brahms potato in exemplary fashion when I attended Friday.

Hm. A bit overextended, perhaps. Maybe he should have dropped the hot potato after the first time.

That said, the article contrasts the pieces nicely. Go read it.

11/12/08

Composer of the Day!


Today's Composer of the Day! is Johann Nepomuk Hummel! (1778-1837)

Hummel studied with Mozart, Clementi, and Albrechtsberger. He was a noted pianist, pedagogue, and composer in his time. He is unjustly neglected today.

He was Austrian, Slovakian, or Hungarian, depending on the date of the map you check. (We mostly call him Austrian.)

While he studied with Mozart, he actually lived with Wolfgang himself for several years! That must have been both influential and a great time. Or so one supposes.

He wrote an influential three-volume tome called A Complete Theoretical and Practical Course on the Art of Pianoforte Playing. Unsurprisingly, it is about playing the piano.

His middle name was Nepomuk, which is kind of awesome. Here is some Hummel for you:

Link to Trumpet Concerto (sorry, embedding was disabled).

He was Kappelmeister in three cities. He was extremely prolific, writing keyboard, chamber, opera, and sacred music. Student of Mozart and contemporary of Beethoven, he is sort of lost in the annals of music history.

You should listen to his music.

11/11/08

Lesser Composer Killed in Train Wreck

But before I tell you who it was, try to guess.

...this second [concerto] he wrote for piano sounds like a cross between Mendelssohn and Chopin, combining lyrical charm with brilliance.

That sounds really cool. I like Mendelssohn. I also like Chopin. A lot. And a combination of the two doesn’t sound all that bad. (By the way, which one lacks “lyrical charm” and which one lacks “brilliance?”)

[Lesser composer A] was a far less inspired composer...

Hearsay, your honor! And...yikes. Don't forget the last nail in the coffin.

Whether [conductor X]—or anyone else, for that matter—can succeed in rescuing the music of [lesser composer A] from obscurity is highly debatable.












Since you continually throw him in front of the bus (read: train), I suppose his music will follow. But he sounds like Chopin and Mendelssohn, right? So how could he be so deserving of such critical scorn? I mean, he was programmed on a concert, which you had the privilege to review, in the 21st century. He must have done something right, in order to stick around for two-hundred years.

Ugh. I have a sneaking suspicion it’s because his name doesn’t rhyme with Beethoven.
-

11/9/08

E-Flat Clarinets Are...What?

This odd bit comes from Anna Picard of the British Sunday Independent, reviewing this year's Proms. Can anyone enlighten the DR about the veracity of this bizarre claim?


I've never bought the notion put about by Alma Mahler



that the three "hammer blows of fate" in the finale of the Sixth foretold the death of four-year-old Maria Mahler, the anti-semitic putsch at the Vienna Staatsoper and the diagnosis of the heart condition that would kill Mahler at the age of 51.

Me, neither. I guess I bought into the conventional wisdom that they signified the death blows of the nebulous "hero" of the symphony. But I could be wrong; meaning in music is, indeed, nebulous.

(The shriek of anti-Semitism is in any case a near-constant in his symphonies, present in each mocking call of the E flat clarinet.)

What? That...is truly...Jews hate E-flat clarinets? Or: anti-Semites hate them? What is the symbolism, or metaphor at work here? Is this some well-known musicological meme of which I'm just not aware? Anyone?

But the struggle depicted in the music must have a neurotic dimension if it is to be more than a panoramic slide-show of the Austrian Alps, with cow bells.

I don't know what that means, either. But it's not as off-putting as the equating-instrument-with-anti-Semitism thing.

A little help?

(h/t again to anzu)

11/8/08

Back to the Future, Anhang

A while ago, I thought a compliment was in order for Richard Scheinin of the San Jose Mercury. To frame my compliment, I played a little game called Guess! That! Piece! (Please read it, that is if you haven’t already or if you don’t remember it. If you don’t read it, one, you won’t get the rest of this post and, two, the spacetime continuum will explode.) Anyway, it was a hoot. That was back in August.

Imagine my surprise when I hopped over to the Merc today to find this:

Nicknamed the "Gran Partita" — a grand suite, in seven movements — it's regal and reflective, but not overly so. You can imagine it being played as backdrop to libations in a Viennese beer garden.

Thursday's performance was pretty rough-hewn, especially early on. But Cleve gradually brought his players around, coaxing a cozy performance, warm and affable: comfort food. Best was the sixth movement, in which the ensemble set up a slow, droning flutter-coo, with Griffiths, a sensational player, soaring overhead with butterfly wings.


At first, I thought Mr. Scheinin had merely registered the trademark “droning flutter-coo.” (By the way, don’t mix droning with fluttering unless you consult your doctor first—the side effects are numerous, painful and will lead to erectile dysfunction.) However, since I have the memory of an elephant, I quickly realized that this was directly quoted from his earlier review. So, naturally, I went to find that article in the archives to see if it matched up verbatim. No luck; I’d have to pay three whole dollars to read it again. Screw that.

I suspect it’s just a RE-UP of the old article, though. Either way, this leads to a few questions:

1. Why would the San Jose Mercury re-post an article written in August in November? It’s not apparent that there are any corrections, additions or omissions. What gives?

2. If I can reread the review for free, why would I purchase the archived version?

3. This is not so much a question as it is a retroactive gibe. (Thanks quirky RE-UP!)

The first movement, the allegro, opened with the massed, dramatic sound of the orchestra, followed by [pianist] Demidenko's pearly lines, nested inside the ensemble's silk pillow.

Would you sleep on that? I wouldn’t. It probably needs to be washed.

Then he went ice skating with his right hand...

Uh...

...dropping staccato attacks into his left...

I’ll take “Things Not To Do” for $1200, Alex.

RE-UPing these can be said to provide fodder for The Detritus Review.

What are nonsensical images?

Sorry, the answer is, “Manure. I hate manure.”
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11/6/08

Music, Words, Meaning, Titles, Critics, and Other Fascinating Things,

Allan Kozinn has a really interesting piece up about titles of pieces by composers. I don't have, really, any problems with it; however, I do have some comments. Also, some pictures that are fun to look at. As usual.

During an interview segment of a Making Music concert at Zankel Hall last week the composer George Crumb was asked whether the titles of the first and last movements of his “Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)” — “Vocalise (... for the Beginning of Time)” and “Sea-Nocturne (... for the End of Time)” — were meant to be as ominous as they sounded.

Are whale sounds really ominous? I think the larger question would be the connection of the pieces as a cycle, or something. Although the End of Time I suppose is somewhat off-putting.

“They’re just poetic titles,” Mr. Crumb

said, brushing off the question. “Sometimes people take composers’ titles too seriously."

The titles don't mean anything? Words...don't mean anything? Does the music mean anything? Oh, dear. Paging Mr Derrida...

And whose fault is that?

Um, the composer's?

When listeners encounter these titles in their program books or on CD covers, it’s only natural that they conclude that the title is meant to tell them something about the nature of the work. But logical as that assumption is, it is often confounded these days.

Let's see where this goes. There are many things at work, here. (Is there a metaphor in music criticism?)

A few weeks before the Crumb program, inapt titles were thick on the ground

On the ground?

at a Da Capo Chamber Players concert. A shimmering but increasingly vehement work by Chen Yi seemed far too forceful to be called “Happy Rain on a Spring Night.”

Too vehement to be happy, I guess.

And “Cloud Forest” seemed far too misty a title for Conor Brown’s zesty, off-kilter work, with its strands of American and Turkish folk music.

More zesty than misty, therefore: inapt title (on the ground).

At a recent concert by the Cassatt Quartet, Joan Tower offered some insight into how little a title can tell us about what a work actually means to a composer. She said that her first quartet was a struggle, and that she originally thought of calling it “Nightmare.” But thinking the title was too negative, she changed it to “Night Fields” and wrote a program note describing “a cold windy night in a wheat field lit up by a bright full moon, with waves of fast moving colors rolling over the fields” to explain the fanciful new title. But the harmonically prickly writing at the work’s heart suggested that she had been right the first time.

See, this is where I agree with Mr Kozinn. The "meaning" of the music, or even the images or emotions it is intended to evoke, is affected by the title. This Tower

quote makes the whole notion of her title seem disingenuous. And therefore ultimately irrelevant to the "meaning" of the music (sorry for the scare quotes).

Perhaps the notion of giving a work a title makes composers feel awkward. Through much of classical music’s history, the titles of secular instrumental works were usually just formal descriptions (symphony, quartet, concerto), and when titles were affixed (“Moonlight,” for example) they were usually a publisher’s idea. Publishers understood that titles, and the imagery they evoked, could help move copies; composers were in it for the art.

This is true. Many popular classical/romantic works that are well-known by their nicknames were not nicknamed (is that a word?) by the composer.

Even so, Baroque composers sometimes used titles to tell listeners what their works were about, and in the case of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” four descriptive sonnets were translated into music phrase by phrase.

True again; however it should be noted that in the Baroque (especially in Germany and Italy) musical composition was closely tied in with theories of classical (Roman, not Beethoven) rhetoric, and the connection between words and music was regarded very differently than today, or even the Romantic period. (Crap. I should be more consistent with my capitalization. Oh, well.)

Early in the 19th century composers with wild imaginations, like Robert Schumann, weren’t shy about using titles that informed listeners about outlandish subtexts — battles between art-hating Philistines and artistic Davids for example — which the music’s impulses fully supported. By the late 19th century titles were plentiful. The vast majority of Liszt’s piano works have descriptive names (the B minor Sonata is an obvious exception), and few would dispute that the music of each section of Mussorgsky’s

“Pictures at an Exhibition” lives up to its title, in some cases more vividly than the Victor Hartmann sketch that inspired it.

Yeah, programmaticism (is that a word?) became very pervasive in the 19th century; it is an interesting exercise to play pieces with programs for people twice: Once before and once after they know the title, and observe their reactions to the "meaning" of the work.

The French Impressionists, though harmonic revolutionaries, retained the notion that a title should tell listeners something about what’s going on in the piece. You can’t hear “Le Gibet” (“The Gallows”), the central movement of Ravel’s

“Gaspard de la Nuit,” without conjuring the bleak image of a hanged man, slowly swinging as the sun sets and a bell tolls, and Debussy

was a master of evocative work names.

Would we understand that "La Mer" was about the sea without the aid of the title? That is, I think, the essence of the problem.

To an extent composers began thinking differently about titles in the mid-20th century, when some modernist composers swept them away as remnants of the emotional and painterly excesses of Romanticism.

Yes.

For a time names became either mathematical or self-consciously blank: “Octagon,”

Octandre?

“Synchronism,” “Groups”

Gruppen?

or “Polymorphia".

Translations unnecessary, but point taken.

But every now and then composers cottoned on to what 19th-century publishers knew: that titles sell. In 1960 the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki wrote an intense, thoroughly abstract work for 52 strings, which he unsentimentally called “8’37.” ” It wasn’t until he had heard the work performed that he came up with the title by which it is known today, “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.”

Ah, again, herein lies the rub. Clearly a timing and an ode give the listener different ideas about what the piece they're about to hear...means.

When Mr. Penderecki

told me this, over lunch about a decade ago, I was stunned. I had always heard the work, with its searing, dissonant string clusters, as a cry of anguish, a composer’s contemplation of the devastation unleashed by the atomic bomb. But when I asked Mr. Penderecki how the title came to him, he first said, “I don’t know,” and then looked down at his paella.

Good anecdote. Paging Mr Derrida, again.

“I was surrounded by propaganda against the American bomb,” he said after a moment’s silence. “Living at that time, you know. I did it. And because of the dedication to Hiroshima, certainly, people found this interesting. Because I have other pieces for strings that are not so well known.”

Did the music "mean" something before he wrote it than after he changes its name?

That the title was an opportunistic afterthought, not an indication of Mr. Penderecki’s feelings while writing the work, apparently doesn’t matter.

It doesn't?

Two summers ago, when John Harbison’s “Abu Ghraib” had its premiere at Tanglewood, Mr. Harbison presided over a panel discussion about political works and cited the Penderecki as a predecessor. When I caught up with him during the intermission and told him about my conversation with Mr. Penderecki, Mr. Harbison said he had heard that too. Yet he still regarded “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” as Exhibit A in a discussion of politically inspired works.

That is illogical, Mr Harbison.

Younger composers are often more whimsical with their titles. Michael Torke seemingly mined a Crayola box for the titles of his most famous works and forestalled critical argument: Who is to say that “Ecstatic Orange” doesn’t sound like that?

Me. I do.

Caleb Burhans keeps a list of lines from films, television shows and advertisements, as well as random overheard phrases that catch his ear, pinned to the wall over his composing desk and has drawn titles like “Iceman Stole the Sun” and “You Could Hear It Touch the Viking” from it.

I actually like the Dada/Postmodern aspect of pointless piece names; it fingers the very issue of musical meaning being hashed out here.

Then there’s my favorite: David Lang’s “Eating Living Monkeys,” a title that the music, thankfully, does not live up to.

How could it?

But as amusing or provocative as titles can be, they inevitably create expectations. And those expectations enlist the listener as a participant in the performance. It’s hard not to do some mental gymnastics to square the titles with the music.

In theory a title ups the stakes by proposing an image that the composer must match with fresh, surprising music that avoids any clich├ęs the title may suggest. So applying a title frivolously is cheating. If composers are going to bother with titles at all, they might as well be as serious about them as Schumann and Ravel were.

Interesting issue. Good piece, and food for thought.

11/4/08

F That

Sometimes dilettantes scare me...

Messiaen cared little for form...

F that, Stabler.

Although he was born 100 years ago next month, he's really a Romantic: Content is everything. And what he pursued with an obsessive's heart was the ecstatic, the cataclysmic, the terrifying, the unreal. He had a pictorial concept of religion, and he dramatized it with an organist's ear for color and registration.

What!? Content is nothing (or less than everything) to post romantic era composers? Please, then, define content. Stabler.

And oh, ever hear of synaesthesia, you know, the organists' province?

A chromatic descent into delirium turned into jazz -- I swear I heard Gershwin fighting to get out -- while a swing band swirled by. It was the only place in the music that made me smile.

F. That!

F.

That.

...it made you smile...Gershwin coming out.

If we are to get anything from his music, we have to give up our expectations that something will happen.

Like John Cage said...

No. Like I said...

F that like prop 8!
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11/3/08

Blog Stall

Sorry about the light posting lately. Midterms, and all that.



Back soon.