3/14/09

Attack of the Emphatic Modifiers

Musical criticism, as we've said countless times, is difficult. One of the issues facing the writer is praising and/or lauding the performers, performance, or music without coming across as over-effusive.

Emphatic modifiers--words or clauses that amplify (or, less often, clarify) other terms used--can be very effective (see what I did there?). When overused, the emphasis can be somewhat diluted (see?). Over-overuse can rob the emphatics of all of their...emphasis.

Here, Jeffrey Rossman of the Classical Voice of North Carolina gives a super-glowing account of the Guarneri String Quartet.

We may not all look like it, but chamber music enthusiasts are a hardy and tenacious species.

We are? Oh, good. I'd hate to think we were only hardy or tenacious, but not both.

Despite torrential rains, temperatures hovering at the freezing mark, and dire predictions of every conceivable form of precipitation,

While I am sure the rains were torrential and the predictions dire, that sounds like spring in Iowa to me. Anyway, so despite the preceding...

hundreds of fans trekked to Raleigh's Fletcher Opera Theater for a truly special event.

Truly? Oh, good. I hate ordinary special events. Or worse, falsely special events.

The Raleigh Chamber Music Guild landed one of the coveted stops on the final season tour of the highly esteemed Guarneri String Quartet.

Is the Guarneri Quartet "highly" esteemed? I'd have to say yes: but that's one more modifier, please and thank you! Also, I have no doubt that the Guild landed a "coveted" stop on their farewell tour, but in fairness, the tour does include 37 other concerts.

Figure 1: The Guarneri String Quartet

The Quartet announced that after a phenomenal run of 45 years

Phenomenal! Modified! Again: fair. Again: modified. Again.

The Quartet announced that after a phenomenal run of 45 years – with only one personnel change – the 2008-09 season would be their last together as a string quartet.

The Quartet announced that this was their last season...as a quartet? Okay...

Like most string players of such a high caliber, you'd have to pry their bows from their cold dead hands, so thankfully this does not mean total retirement from other musical endeavors for each individual player.

What? Again, please.

Like most string players of such a high caliber, you'd have to pry their bows from their cold dead hands,

Implied: in order to...make them stop playing entirely? Bury them in standard-sized coffins? Submit to Cubo-Soviet communist rule?

Fig 2: Wolverines!

so thankfully this does not mean total retirement from other musical endeavors for each individual player.

Oh. In re: Total retirement: The Quartet is retiring as a quartet per se, but that doesn't mean they can't play their instruments anymore. (At least not if Patrick Swayze has anything to say about it.)

The line-up of this most venerated string quartet

Venerated? Certainly. Most venerated? Emphatic effect...fading...

is a veritable who's who of musicians:

Ah, the use of veritable emphasizes the aptness of the metaphor!

violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, Michael Tree, viola, and Peter Wiley, cello, who in 2000 replaced the original cellist and his teacher and mentor, David Soyer.

He replaced the original cellist and his teacher David Soyer in the same year?! Wow!

In addition to their recording and performing of nearly the entire standard string quartet repertoire as well as contemporary works,

It's nice that they gave the standard rep enough attention to perform it as well as they performed contemporary works? Wait, what? Oh. Ambiguity commas something something. I get it. Carry on.

the Guarneri has been featured on television shows and DVD documentaries and has also been both subject and author of several books on string quartet playing.

Technical question: can the quartet be an "author"? "Authors" seems awkward as well. Anyone?

Let's hope that, as is often the case with retirement victory laps, this one is premature and reconsidered.

Let's do!

The afternoon began where the string quartet itself originated – from the fertile mind of Franz Joseph Haydn.

The afternoon began...from the fertile mind of Haydn? I'm not sure the dash is working properly; can you try another?

They chose the nicknamed "Rider" quartet, the last of his Opus 74 collectively called the "Apponyi Quartets" – popularly named because of the galloping rhythmic effect in the outer movements.

The Apponyi quartets were "...popularly named because of the galloping rhythmic effect in the outer movements."? That seems odd. Maybe your dash is still broken; try setting off the aside with a set of dashes, the first replacing the comma between "quartet" and "the". Thusly:

"They chose the nicknamed "Rider" quartet – the last of his Opus 74 collectively called the "Apponyi Quartets" – popularly named because of the galloping rhythmic effect in the outer movements."

Also, the Op. 71 works are also known as "Apponyi" quartets. That's just an FYI. Ugh, now I'm off-topic. Moving on:

As the Guarneri Quartet played this work, and the others in the program, one thought back to 1964, the year they formed as a group.

One did? We? You? Was it you? I bet it was. (Also: was there a different year in which they formed, but not "as a group"?)

Of course it is impossible to compare live performances from the time LBJ was president to this frightening time,

Why would one compare performances from 1964 to the ("frightening") age we live in? That seems like comparing apples and riding mowers.

Oh, comparing performances from 1964 to performances in our "frightening time" is...impossible. Well, I'm not sure that's true...we do have recordings, after all, from the 60s. But the use of "of course" and "impossible" rhetorically confer an authority to your assertion that is, perhaps, unfounded. Was 1964 really not a "frightening" time?

Fig 3: Frightening

Fig 4: (Apparently) Not Frightening

but one thing is for certain:

Well, as long as it's for certain...

this is not a group that is just going through the motions and resting on their considerable reputation.

It's hard to rest upon your reputation unless it is considerable, I reckon.

Although they are somewhat austere and solemn in their demeanor, their playing continues to be engaged and alive. The Haydn quartet served as a perfect catalyst to break down the doldrums of the weather and the somewhat dangerous trip to this wonderfully intimate and acoustically balanced venue.

Ah, nicely done. All of the negative or scary clauses ("austere and solemn" and "dangerous") are mediated by "somewhat" to lessen the effect of the criticism, while the choice of programming and venue ("perfect catalyst" and "wonderfully intimate") are further emphasized.

Although far from contemporary, Zoltan Kodály's second string quartet, completed in 1918...

Who said anything about contemporary? What are we talking about?

Although far from contemporary, Zoltan Kodály's second string quartet, completed in 1918, is a still seldom performed work that perhaps adds to his reputation as Bartók lite.

Yeah, you know what else contributes to Kodály's reputation as "Bartók lite"? People who insist on repeating this (at best) back-handed compliment whenever they fucking write about him. Let's be sure and not consider Kodály on his own terms; we might have to memorize another name!

Fig 5: Kodály: All the Hungarian-ness, now with half the tritones!

Also, the sentence above makes no sense unless you hyphenate "seldom-performed".

This two-movement quartet, infused with Hungarian folk idioms. [sic] gave cellist Wiley the spotlight for much of the work. He is masterful in his ability to alternate between a bright, piercing sound to a rich, rounded baritone that vibrates your chair.

Whose chair? One's chair?

It is a sure bet...

Oh, boy.

It is a sure bet that you will put more paying behinds in the seats when you program one of the most celebrated string quartets ever written: Maurice Ravel's only work in that medium.

Do we have some data on that? No? Crap. How about a guide to awkward, circuitous sentence construction? Working on it? Get back to me on that one.

Dedicated to Gabriel Fauré and premiered in 1904, it is hard to believe that this was written while Ravel was still a student at the Paris Conservatoire.

Actually, the facts that (1) the piece was premiered in 1904 and (2) dedicated to Fauré put Ravel squarely still at the Conservatoire (he left in 1905). If the intent was to express surprise at, oh, something like the advanced harmonic language or sophisticated string writing, the opening clause of that sentence isn't helping.

The opening movement, with its beautiful rising cello line, is arguably the most sensuous music ever written.

Quick! Name the most sensuous music ever written! Do it! I'll wait...

...I know, right?

The hedging ("arguably") counterpoints the hyperbole ("most") nicely in order to say: basically nothing.

The Guarneri quartet imbued the music with the right balance of heart, mind, and muscle – especially in the deceptively difficult pizzicato movement. The Ravel quartet, even more than others, will lay like a dead fish if you play it without an emotional involvement,

Whoa. The Ravel Quartet is like...I can't even do it. I can't go there. Pass.

and these musicians invested it with the same passion as they may have done as beginners in 1964.

Aaaaand the paragraph wraps up nicely with an bit of unfounded speculation.

A well-deserved standing ovation brought the group back for an obviously pre-arranged encore – which brings me to my sole negative comment.

*Gasp!* I hope its effect is mediated somehow!

A beautiful Bach-like fugal opening section led to a classical style middle section that had everyone stumped and asking, "Do you know what that encore was?" I have heard many performers, even in very broken and painful English, announce their encores, so it seemed a bit haughty to not say one word during the entire concert.

Ah, yes. "A bit" haughty. Good, good. The circle is complete.

However, my unnamed source did discover that this little gem was the slow movement from Mozart's Quartet in F, K.168.

Oh unnamed source, what would we have done without you?

4 comments:

Empiricus said...

Re: "dire predictions of every conceivable form of precipitation"

Really? They predicted watermelon sized hail?

Nice catch, SA.

Strini said...

Oh my.
The Internet invites writers to go on as long as they please.
Not good.
--Strini

AnthonyS said...

Although far from contemporary, Zoltan Kodály's second string quartet, completed in 1918, is a still seldom performed work that perhaps adds to his reputation as Bartók lite.

I like the implication that the Kodály is seldom performed even though it is not contemporary, implying that were it more contemporary, its contemporary-ness would be adequate reason to not play it.

Also, nice work on the "Bartók-lite" comment. Kodály is quite awesome in his own right; the sonata for solo cello is a masterpiece, just like Bartók's solo violin sonata.

If you shall indulge me a quote from Schoenberg's Style and Idea:

Unfortunately, methods in music teaching, instead of making students thoroughly acquainted with the music itself, furnih a conglomerate of more less true historical facts, sugar-coated with a great number of more or less false anecdotes about the composer... plus a strong dose of popularized aesthetics. Thus I once read in an examination paper of a sophomore, who had studied only a little harmony and much music appreciation..., that 'Schumann's orchestration is gloomy and unclear.' Some experts might agree upon the condemnation of Schumann as an orchestrator, perhaps even without an argument. However, there might be other experts who would agree that not all of Schumann's orchestration is poor-- that there are gloomy spots as well as brilliant or at least good ones... Thus, there is not the same degree of unanimity among experts of orchestration as there is between the sophomore girl and her textbook. But irreparable damage has been done; this girl, and probably all her classmates, will never listen to the orchestra of Schumann naively, sensitively, and open-mindedly.
In this manner there are educated a great number of pseudo-historians who believe themselves to be experts and, as such, entitled not only to criticize music and musicians, but even to usurp the role of leaders...

thesis writing said...

Actually in the motion picture Close Encounters of the Third Kind a visual learning aid distributed to members of a conference of UFOlogist was named "Zoltan Kodaly" and referenced musical notes as hand signals.