NY Phil Music Director: The Symphony Is Boring

I’m a little confused and more than a bit perturbed by Alan Gilbert, the new music director of the New York Philharmonic.

New York’s Date with the End of Time
(Matthew Gurewitsch, New York Times, 5/18/2010)

When an opera company performs an opera in concert, it is cutting to the bone.

I guess. It’s also kind of like they’re doing their jobs and performing the function for which the company was designed. “When a butcher chops up a dead cow, it is cutting to the bone.”

When a symphony orchestra does the same thing, it is reaching for the stars.

Ah, I see. So:

Opera Music > Orchestral Repertoire

…which is a pretty stupid thing to say. Not to mention indefensible.

The players can spread their wings in glamorous regions they rarely get to explore.

Unlike pedantic old symphonic composers, opera composers infuse their music with unicorns, rainbows, and fairy droppings. What the fuck?

Audiences share the thrill of fresh discovery, whether the repertory is standard or the rarest of the rare.


Any old opera rep, even standard fare > Any fucking piece of symphonic music ever

…including wonderful new works, or even the best piece ever written (Bruckner 6, obviously).

Does it matter if the singers are barricaded behind music stands?

Um…yes? Probably?

Or should the concert hall simulate the production values of an actual opera house?

Yeah, y’know…we already have opera houses, and they’re not playing symphonies and tone poems and stuff. Because, you see, those don’t need any staging. Unlike operas, which require…

I mean: come on.

What are we even talking about?

Over the years many symphonic institutions have tried, with inconclusive results.

That is some Grade-A research right there.

In his first season as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert is pursuing a more experimental, potentially more exciting, agenda.

I am for experimental and potentially exciting agendas [agendums?]. But why would (arguably) the best orchestra in the country want to pretend to be an opera orchestra?

For the New York premiere of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Grand Macabre,” opening a three-night run on Thursday at Avery Fisher Hall, he has opted for a portable multimedia staging by the diminutive production company Giants Are Small, based in Sunset Park, a blue-collar neighborhood in Brooklyn.

I mean: okay. Barriers are breaking down between genres, and innovation is cool. But did Gilbert really, really want the Met job, and settle for the NY Phil gig just because it was there?

“I want to bring the visual element into the concert hall in an appropriate way,” Mr. Gilbert said recently in his studio at Avery Fisher Hall.

So…not pictures of planets while playing Holst? (Or Strauss, for that matter?)

“Opera staged in concert makes you think differently about the spaces in which you hear symphonic music.”

Fair enough, I suppose, and even interesting, but I don’t think I like where this is going.

“It develops the orchestra’s narrative facility.”

It…okay. And that’s good? I mean, narrativity is one of the things music engages, evokes, and/or implies. But it’s not the sine qua non or anything.

“Orchestras should be telling stories all the time.”

Oh, hell no.

That’s the dumbest, most pandering, thinnest, most one-sided facile view of music I’ve ever heard.

This guy is seriously the new director of the NY Phil?

Because: You know who “should be telling stories all the time”?


Figure 1: Tantamount to the Symphony.

It seems to me that orchestras should be playing music all the time, or we wouldn’t have a different word for “storytellers.”

Look, it sounds like an interesting production, and the Ligeti in question’s never been performed in New York, so I’m all for it. All in all, I couldn’t be more supportive of this effort.

But let’s drop the all-music-tells-a-story bit, shall we? That’s for third graders.


Friday Quickie: Critic Attempts Humor

At first I thought Timothy Mangan, of the Orange County Register, was about to savage some poor orchestra, but he seems to play it a little safer and turns in a somewhat amusing meta-review.

Check it out here:

Music critic injured during Rachmaninoff performance

A music critic for the Orange County Register in California felt the life being sucked out of him during a concert last week but was able to continue working to the end of the event.

Gustav is a fan of the third person. But, seriously, Gustav's totally been there. And for some reason, this idea of the life-sucking concert reminds him of this quote from Stravinsky:

"Why is it that whenever I hear a piece of music I don't like, it's always by Villa-Lobos?"


Timothy Mangan, the newspaper’s music critic since the latter part of the 20th century, sensed that he was “losing his will to live” during a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances by the local orchestra on Thursday.

Rachmaninoff will do that to you.

figure sergei: Rachmaninoff will sure haunt Gustav's dreams tonight, and, quite possibly, suck his will to live.


Rachmaninoff has long been a weak part of Mangan’s game. In 2006 he was accused of falling asleep during a performance of the composer’s Second Symphony.

Gustav's pretty sure falling asleep is the desired effect.

In 2001, he sent a freelance writer to review a concert that included Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. He walked out of the movie “Shine.”

Shine did suck, didn't it?

But, frankly, these are impressive credentials you're tossing around. That kind of antipathy for such a beloved composer is just a rare trait for a critic nowadays.

But he has usually been able to write around the weakness using sparkling verbiage and sarcasm.

Of course, you are a music critic.

Some worried that the Symphonic Dances incident, coming so late in the season, would put him out for the rest of the schedule.

Just be glad it wasn't the Bruch Violin Concerto, some Strauss waltzes, or even worse, a Bruckner symphony. If all three of those ever end up on the same concert, Gustav can't even begin to imagine the carnage.

“No, I’m all right, I’m getting treatment. My doctors gave me a box set of Stravinsky. 22 CDs. I’m supposed to listen to a disc a day. So far, it’s working.”

Stravinsky does cure what ails you...at least where music and quotes about Villa-Lobos are concerned.


I must say, it's nice when critics, like Timothy Mangan has done, try something new with their writing.

However, I'm not really sure what to make of this article. It is funny...yeah, in parts. But to what extent does it even make any kind of argument...at all? Anyway, give it a read and let us know what you think. Funny? Pointless? A little of each?


A few more entries in our continuing GREAT REVIEW TITLES series

You know, as the title says.

Titles are hard...we get that. But every so often a critic (or editor, as it may be) makes a truly special effort to succinctly capture the magic of the live concert-going experience.

First up, from the Times-Herald Record, the direct approach:

Review: Greater Newburgh Symphony Orchestra in Newburgh

Exactly. I feel like I was there.

...in Newburgh.

Also in Newburgh...

figure culture: Thank you American Idol.

Next, from the Houston Chronicle, we have the ridiculous pun:

Symphony Review: Rite a riot of orchestral color

Har har har. You see, because there was a riot at the original premiere a hundred years ago. Priceless.


My sentiments exactly.

No riots broke out at Jones Hall on Friday night as maestro Hans Graf led the Houston Symphony in Stravinsky’s explosive The Rite of Spring — in contrast to the legendary ruckus unleashed at the work’s 1913 premiere in Paris.

Maybe it was more of a quiet riot?

figure cum on feel the noize: Mama weer all crazee now.


Later dramatic bursts proved quite formidable,...

To what? Napping?

...between the slashing strings, pounding percussion, blaring brass and woodwinds that wailed and keened.

Just once I would like my string blaring, woodwinds pounding, brass slashing and percussion that keened.

Even with no dance element, this rendition of the score made it clear something wild, violent and vital was happening.

Send the women and children to safety!

Well, pagan fertility rites are not for hidebound suburbanites.

This is so true.

And lastly, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution demonstrates how you really explain a metaphor.

ASO plays new music, familiar Beethoven on fire

On fire? The musicians were on fire while playing new music and familiar Beethoven?

For long stretches, the orchestra was playing on fire.

Okay. They were on fire.

Was it something like this?

figure on fire: If only Beethoven had lived to see this.

So, clearly "on fire" is a metaphor. But what exactly was on fire -- they were playing great? Everything was coming together beautifully?

It wasn't a radically different interpretation, in terms of tempos, phrasing and balances, such as the prominence given to inner voices.

Hmmm. Interesting, but I'm still not totally clear. How about an analogy to help explain the metaphor?

But like a racing yacht that accumulates an advantage in a regatta by sailing a hair closer to the wind, Knussen delivered a remarkably intense reading by trimming the orchestral sails just taut enough to drive momentum forward, just loose enough that there was never a hint of anxiety or strain or excessive loudness.

And then the orchestra caught fire...just like most racing yachts.

He had us believing that the slow second movement was about the most unexpectedly interesting work Beethoven even composed -- intelligent, loving and always deeply musical.

But, of course, we knew better.


Friday Quickie: I. Did. Not. Know. That.

Allan Kozinn has a thoughtful little piece musing about the names of classical ensembles.

Would They Sound as Sweet by Other Names?
(Allan Kozinn, New York Times, 5/11/2010)

Julliard, you see, has a new period instrument group called Julliard415. Kozinn explains:

...recognized 415 as an allusion to Baroque pitch. (The note A is believed to have been tuned, on average, to something closer to 415 cycles per second than to today’s standard, 440 cycles; the letter A is highlighted in the Juilliard415 logo as a clue.)

Ah, yes. The old typographical/stylistic-design element ploy. So it's really


eh? Or something like that. A little forced, but not bad.

Indeed, Kozinn likes it (as a name) far better than that of another Julliard ensemble:

Ensemble ACJW, on the other hand, is a terrible name. When the riddle of its initials is solved, it is about the corporate sponsorship of an educational program: a worthy cause, but something concertgoers find mildly interesting at best. I am all for arts education, and the support of it, but even having heard and written about several ACJW programs, I cannot remember those initials or what they stand for without looking them up.

Yeah, I'd have to agree with that, too; this is a pretty good assessment.

The article then goes into a mildly lengthy exploration of other music entities' names, including this helpful tidbit:

Pop musicians have always had a healthy regard for names. They understand that a name is an opportunity to create an image and that it makes sense for that image to convey something about their intentions.

Fair enough, I suppose, although Beethoven did a pretty good job at establishing himself as a brand.

Figure 1: In America, shirt with picture of Beethoven made for dog to wear buys you!

The Beatles went through several relatively bland names before settling on that of an insect (inspired by Buddy Holly’s Crickets),

Figure 2: "All the News That's Fit to Print"

Gosh! But that's not how you spell "beetles"!

with a spelling tweak to make a pun on beat.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

The New York Times.


On Great Performances! No, Just Kidding. Not Really.

Ah, the many mysteries of classical music. What is a great performance?

Classical Review: Portland Baroque Orchestra soars through Bach’s four Orchestral Suites
(James McQuillen, The Oregonian, 5/15/2010)

A great performance offers music as you've never heard it before.

Okay. I’m not sure I agree completely, but that’s potentially interesting. So: newness is good?

Unless you've listened to Ensemble Sonnerie's recent Grammy-nominated recording of J.S. Bach's four Orchestral Suites, Portland Baroque Orchestra's concert Friday night at First Baptist Church did exactly that.

Wait. Unless I’ve listened to the recording…the concert did what? Ah, it offered a great performance, because it would’ve been new. To me, that is. In mixed tenses, apparently.

So if I’d heard the recording, it wouldn’t have been new, and therefore…not great?

I think I have that right. Let me read it again…yup, that seems like the deal.

So great performances are new performances.

Figure 1: "Any good music must be an innovation.” --Les Baxter

That’s actually a pretty damn radical thing to say. I may agree more than I thought; however, I suspect that you don’t mean it.

Obviously, since it occupies the marked position of the introductory paragraph, this argument will be borne out (or at least be investigated) in the rest of the review, so I hope to find out whether this is really what’s intended. Yes?

Featuring violinist Monica Huggett, who directs both ensembles, and PBO principal oboist Gonzalo Ruiz, both recording and concert presented the pieces in lean, probably original versions.

What the fuck?

“Probably original versions”? What in Cyprus are you talking about?

The second suite, in Ruiz' own reconstruction, substituted oboe for the usual flute, creating a radically different sound especially for listeners familiar with the piece performed on modern instruments.

His own construction is…probably the original version?

Jesus shit! That, sir, is taking the Cult of Newness to the radical extreme! Holy FSM, man. That takes some cahones.
Figure 2: Huge ones.

While a flute pierces and soars above the string texture, the baroque oboe is comfortably integrated with the rest of the ensemble.

Okay...sure. Radical...newness?

The third and fourth suites are known today for their grand sound thanks to the use of trumpets, but scholars have shown that trumpets were added later – by Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel in the third suite, and by Johann Sebastian himself in the fourth, when he adapted the music for use in a cantata.

New is the new old! Old newness? Older fucking newness, that’s what’s new! I’m pickin’ up what you’re layin’ down. Ceci n’est pas une critique de musique and all that. I am so down. Let's fucking go there.

Figure 3: "There is nothing with which it is so dangerous to take liberties as liberty itself. " --Andre Breton

The playing Friday was first-rate.

But, obviously, that’s not important, unless it was new.

The ensemble was intimate – the two violin sections numbered just four players apiece – and tightly focused behind Huggett, who demonstrated once again that she wields one of the most vividly expressive bows in the early-music business.

Also unimportant, with the same caveat. Is this for contrast to the radicalism proffered above? Or an interrogation thereof?

Nuanced bowing and articulation brought out a wealth of details.

But…radical newness? Bowing details? Found objects? Christmas hat?

Figure 4: Mr. Rabbit needs to think about changing the water in his elaborate smoking apparatus.

In one of the Bourrées in the fourth suite, for example, the violins played a three-note figure several times before passing it off to the oboes.

I don’t…usually, the violins fail to pass the figure to the oboes? I don’t understand.

What are we talking about? Details? Newness?

The continuo group – harpsichordist Susan Jensen, bassist Curtis Daily and cellists Joanna Blendulf and Lori Presthus – was similarly imaginative, giving buoyant underpinning throughout.

Was it a buoyant, radical underpinning, at least?

Ruiz lit up the evening with brilliant solos, especially in the quicksilver finale to the second suite (earning a wildly enthusiastic standing ovation.) His fellow oboists Debra Nagy and Priscilla Smith matched him in verve; along with bassoonist Dennis Godburn.

They were really good? That’s…nice. But what happened to our radical stance on “great performances”?

Tempos were generally pulse-quickening, sometimes just this side of too fast, and the entire program, including all four suites, intermission and an encore by Telemann, breezed by in slightly under two hours.

It was breezy? Awesome.

But Huggett knew when to let up, too, as she did in the famous lilting Air from the third suite. Taken together, the four suites were as compelling and rewarding as any experience of new music, which, in a sense, they were.

Oh. My. God.

Is this some sort of fucking terrible middlebrow cop out?

It was just as rewarding and compelling as if it were new…because it was breezy and well-played and the fucking tempi were adequate.

Crap. I thought someone was taking a stand--an aesthetic stand, any aesthetic stand--and I got excited for a second there.

But never mind. Nothing to see here. Go hear your local orchestra, they’re like totally good and stuff.


Beethoven saves yet another concert season...

It's that time of year again when orchestras pull out the big guns for their finale concerts. The Omaha Symphony went pretty safe and programmed an all Beethoven concert -- always a crowd-pleasing event. John Pitcher, of the Omaha World-Herald, has the review.

Review: Beethoven finale marks triumphant end for season

Is there anything Beethoven can't do?

The Omaha Symphony's recent Masterworks programs have seemed a lot like advanced-placement music classes.

You were asked to identify all the non-chord tones, augmented 6th chords, and explain the use of enharmonic reinterpretation as a tool of modulation?

I hate when that happens.

Over the past couple of months, music director Thomas Wilkins has challenged the audience with a daunting 21st-century flute concerto and a thorny 20th-century symphony.

Okay, so it's this sentence that caught my attention in this article. I decided to see what daunting and thorny works the poor patrons of the Omaha Symphony were subjected to.

The flute concerto was a world premiere performance of Trail of Tears for flute and orchestra by Michael Daugherty.

Now, I've never heard this piece, it very well may be quite the ardent modernist piece, but let me remind everyone that this is the same composer who wrote a symphony about Superman, and pieces about Elvis, Barbie, Desi Arnaz, and UFOs.

Daunting might be overstating it just ever so slightly. But I'll let it pass.

But how about this "thorny" 20th century symphony? Well, they played a few 20th century works including the ghastly atonal, melody-less Four Sea Interludes by Benjamin Britten, and the integral serialist Fountains of Rome by Respighi. But neither of those are symphonies. The only 20th century symphony on the Masterworks season calender was...

wait for it...

Copland's Symphony No. 3. And yes, that's the one with "Fanfare for the Common Man".

Yes, that "Fanfare for the Common Man". Copland's symphony, written at the height of his populist period, with one pretty, hum-able tune after another.

Listeners who didn't study their program notes were in trouble.

Well, program notes can be helpful when we hear new and unfamiliar works. But let me help out the uninformed out there. The Daugherty concerto...it's about the Trail of Tears. You know that tragic part of American history in which Native Americans were forced off their lands.

Now, I wasn't even at the concert, and have never heard this piece, but you know what tipped me off? The title. Oh, and a fifth grade education.

And the Copland? Well, it's the one with "Fanfare for the Common Man" in it.

But in any case, what was your point again?

This weekend's program is more like the class a nice professor holds outside on a beautiful spring day.

So not with thorny modernists like Copland?

Wilkins is devoting his final Masterworks program to the most familiar and appealing works of Beethoven. These pieces –– Prometheus Overture, Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony –– received bracing renditions Friday at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

"Bracing renditions"? An unusual adjective choice, but I'll allow it. The renditions could have invigorated you.

Prometheus, of course, was the mythological figure whose liver was eaten every day by a giant eagle.

Of course.

Beethoven's overture to his ballet “The Creatures of Prometheus,” however, is more concerned with Prometheus' wily intelligence than his vital organs.

figure prometheus: The amazing adventures of Prometheus.

The music is witty, charming and full of fast, ethereal passages. Wilkins and the orchestra gave this music a buoyant reading.

Buoyant? We are enjoying our adjectives today. I can't wait to see what else you have in store for us.

Beethoven's “Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61,” is widely and correctly perceived as the greatest work of its kind in the repertoire.

Of course.

Wait? What?

It's widely regarded as the greatest violin concerto? Really?

And what do you mean "of it's kind"? It's the greatest concerto of all? The greatest piece in D major?

The piece is a perfect integration of solo instrument and symphony, with the violin's seamless lines woven beautifully into the fabric of the orchestra.

I can see that you don't suffer from hyperbole in your writing.

Stefan Jackiw (jack-EEV), the soloist in this concerto, delivered a memorable performance.

"Memorable"...I expected better from you Mr. Pitcher. Might I suggest...inexpungible?

But this find the adjectives game is fun...and you know how much I like to play along at home.

Throughout the performance, the 25-year-old Jackiw played with a _____ sound, _____ tone, ______ intonation and ______ technique.


Hmmm....this is hard.

Flawless sound? Flawless tone? Flawless intonation? Flawless technique?

They all just sound so perfect.

Alright pencils down...if you guessed...

...the 25-year-old Jackiw played with a robust sound, lyrical tone, flawless intonation and effortless technique.

Well done! And really, having read it correctly, I realize it couldn't have been any other way.

Moving on.

His interpretation of the opening allegro was remarkable for its soaring lyricism. He played the larghetto as a kind of gentle reverie and the finale as a spirited exaltation.

As opposed to how Beethoven composed it?

Wilkins was the steadiest of partners, eliciting playing from the orchestra that was often majestic and always nuanced –– the delicate playing at the end of the first-movement cadenza was polished to perfection.

I am beginning to think this was the greatest concert in the history of the universe.

The highlight of this weekend's program is Beethoven's “Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67.”

I don't know. There was that thorny symphony earlier in the season called Symphony No. 3, and this is a No. 5?! A number higher than 3! How do I know I'm going to like it?

This remarkable piece, composed in 1808,...

Whew...say no more.

...contains what can be called the most famous four notes in all of music –– the three G's and E-flat that open the first movement.

To be technical, that's actually only two notes. Perhaps it's the rhythm in tandem with the sequence of notes? Perhaps?

The work's titanic struggle between dark C minor and bright C major has become a timeless metaphor for transcendence.

Well said, Mr. Pitcher. Although a popular point, it's actually quite fundamental to understanding the composition of this oft-performed symphony.

Anyone who has overcome some kind of adversity -- ...

I know. For years now, I just couldn't get stop those stupid weeds from growing in my front lawn...but then I bought a new brand of weed n' feed. Changed everything. Now, I can't listen to this symphony the same way anymore -- not without thinking about my beautiful, weed-free lawn.

... Beethoven had to overcome deafness ...

Pssh. The way I hear it, he died deaf. Sounds like a quitter to me.

... -- can readily identify with this work.

figure overcoming adversity: Yep, my lawn and I totally identify.

Wilkins' interpretation puts the emphasis where it belongs –– at the end of the symphony. He avoids the sonic violence...

Sonic violence?

figure pun: Sonic violence with a sword.

...often heard in the opening allegro con brio, opting instead for a reading that is elegant and intelligently paced.

Elegant and intelligently paced music is for sissies.

Nope, nothing but sonic violence for me.

He called for color and lyricism in the slow movement before beginning a relentless build-up of dark tension in the third-movement scherzo.

Another brilliant decision from the conductor, instead of falling into the trap of Beethoven's intentions like so many other orchestras.

The finale seemingly exploded in a blaze of C major,...

I hate it when that happens.

...bringing the symphony –– and the season –– to triumphal conclusion.

Triumphal? Really? I would have liked to have seen "splendiferous" here...a personal favorite hyperbolic adjective of mine.


Music Critics' Grudge Match: Kosman v. Scheinin

"I thoroughly disapprove of duels. If a man should challenge me, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet place and kill him." -- Mark Twain

Every so often it's interesting to see how two different critics review the same concert, same performance.

Today we have Richard Scheinin, of the San Jose Mercury News, and the urbane Joshua Kosman, of the San Francisco Chronicle, reviewing the visiting Los Angeles Philharmonic and the insatiable bunch of energy that is Gustavo Dudamel.

So guys, tell me about the concert.

Music review: Gustavo Dudamel bewilders (Joshua Kosman)

First of all, I love this title. It's just so emphatic, yet open-ended.

figure dudamel: Not just a great conductor, he's also a snappy dresser.

It's been less than a year since the 29-year-old Venezuelan wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel took the reins as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. How's that working out so far?

Interesting question. I'm going to say...splendidly?

Anyone hoping for a definitive answer to that question from this week's concerts in Davies Symphony Hall - and, yes, that includes me - would have come away perplexed.

Ooh...so close. Sounds like the concert left you with a few question marks after Dudamel's performance.

Dudamel and his band offered up a head-spinning mass of puzzlements.

Oh, Joshua...you and your sprightly word play. But the Los Angeles Philharmonic is an orchestra. Orchestra.

figure puzzlements: The concert starts at 8.

Anything to add Mr. Scheinin?

Review: Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic deliver a dynamic double bill in Davies Hall (Richard Scheinin)

Gustavo Dudamel is the hottest commodity in classical music — in decades. Yet the 29 year-old conductor isn't a physically imposing figure on the podium. He is short. He is chunky.

Unlike Esa-Pekka who looked like he might rip your arms off at any moment.

figure esa-pekka: A fun day at the beach.

Appearing at Davies Symphony Hall on Monday for the first of two concerts that have been sold out for six months, he didn't look as youthful and bright-eyed as he did on his last visit, two years ago.

So, 8 months with the LA Phil have aged him horribly?

But, whatever, just hand that man a baton.

Great. Good introductions. What's on the concert?

Monday's program - combining John Adams' new California tone poem "City Noir" with Mahler's First Symphony - was a replay of Dudamel's opening night at home back in October.

Sounds like a dandy concert...

Dudamel led his orchestra through works by John Adams and Gustav Mahler,...

Yeah, I know, Kosman just said that.

...repeatedly blowing the lid off classical music niceties.

Take that classical music establishment! Dudamel isn't going to take any of your guff!

How exactly did he do that again?

But anyway, in general, how did Dudamel and the orchestra perform?

In his best moments — and there were many — Dudamel literally seemed to be painting in sound or scraping away surface refinements to expose the raw nerves within the scores.

That sounds painful.

Also, literally?

It got giddy, ravishingly ethereal, rock-band frenzied.

Giddy and rock-band frenzied? A rare combo, but yeah! Rock on, Dudamel!

[I know you can't see it, but I'm do air guitar right now.]

It wasn't perfect. The horns weren't spot-on, and the young conductor — just a few years removed from his career's take-off in Venezuela — sometimes pushed the strings so hard that a richness of sound was sacrificed. But I don't think Dudamel is going for perfection,...

Perfection is vastly overrated.

...or certainly not only for perfection. He seems to sense a composer's original or true intention...

Which are in conflict with perfection? God...just like a conductor to sacrifice the music for the sake of the composer.

...and has both intellect and intuition to retrieve it, concentrating energy through his gestures, willing his players toward his vision of the music.

In any case, sounds like an exhilarating performance. How about it, Mr. Kosman? Exhilarating, yet not perfect for perfection's sake?

There were readings marked by phenomenal power and inventiveness,...

This sounds exhilarating.

...and others dragged down into a morass of ostentatious mannerism.

And this not so much.

"Morass of ostentatious mannerism." Frankly, that sounds like one of Dante's circles of hell.

At times Dudamel and the orchestra seemed utterly in sync, only to turn the page and come to grief on a simple question of ensemble or instrumental balance.

Yeah, Mr. Scheinin sort of hinted at this...but, you know, Dudamel chose instead to focus on the "composer's" intent. Pssh.

The orchestra itself struggled in parts (the brass was particularly unpredictable)...

Ding, ding, ding! I think we have a match.

...while excelling elsewhere (especially the strings).

Apparently you like your strings without a rich sound. It's okay...me, too.

So, it seems like you're both approaching this concert with different expectations. Scheinin wants his socks knocked off, and Kosman wants to know if the LA Phil and Dudamel can thrive after the new car smell wears off.

Both perfectly valid approaches. So, let's talk about the music. Of course we'll skip the Adams "City Noir" since no one cares about new music anyway.

How about the Mahler?

Dudamel seemed so intent on blazing his own individual path that he often left logic and rhetorical directness behind.

Again, I can only blame his desire to follow the composer's intention.

In particular, his tendency to push and pull at the tempo, and his fondness for long silences, often interrupted the musical flow.

Those quirks were most apparent in the Mahler, a performance for which "unorthodox" would be a severe understatement.

Well, that's just how we roll here in the States. Sounds like he's been reading up on becoming a "real" 'Merican.

figure unorthodox: To best serve the LA Phil, Dudamel decides to step down as their conductor.

So, his Mahler was pretty fucked up, huh? Cool.

Let's talk first movment.

In the long first movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D major, nicknamed "Titan," Dudamel took his time, stretching slow tempos and gauzy textures to the breaking point, almost losing the thread.

Interesting. It sounds like you and Mr. Kosman were picking up on some of the same things in this movement. So, the first movement, was a bit of a mess?

He was that confident — taking risks, poking around, waiting for his point of entry to show itself and then going for it with his players: Boom!

Or not...I guess you like your Mahler fucked up. Me too!

How 'bout Debbie Downer over here?

I was intrigued, if not wholly convinced, by his maverick approach to the main theme of the first movement, replacing the usual hiking tread with a lighter-than-air fairy ballet.

So, it's not all bad. Tempos were crazy, but they seemed to have added some interesting twists to a very famous opening movement.

figure maverick: Come on, Gus, do some of that conducting shit!

And the second movement?

Mahler's Scherzo...

[Quick and pointless aside: I've always thought calling this movement a scherzo is a misnomer. It seems to me to be much more related to earlier symphonic minuet movements than to the scherzo (although, that can be a fine line), especially seeing that the main theme of the movement is an actual 3/4 dance. Just saying.]

...began with wildly ripping and playfully galumphing cellos. One of the front-line players kept trying to tamp down a delighted grin as Dudamel — recovering from a pulled neck muscle, sustained while conducting at Disney last week — stepped back and nudged things along with a little shoulder dance.

Playful, delightful and worthy of a "little shoulder dance". Sound like the second movement I grew up with.

In the second movement, Dudamel replaced the music's jaunty, somewhat rustic, rhythms with fierce stompings out of a monster movie....

"Little shoulder dance" and "fierce stompings out of a monster movie." That's basically the same thing.

What else?

...[I]n the third movement, he thumbed his nose at Mahler's tempo marking ("without dragging").

Short and sweet. But I'm beginning to sense that you're not a fan of this interpretation. It's subtle...but I think it's there.

The third movement, built around a minor-keyed "Frere Jacques," cast an enchanted haze of doom, but also captured the garish boom-chick of a rural klezmer band.

I do think it was Mahler's marking of "without dragging" that always kept this piece from having that dreaded "haze of doom". So, I think you guys are still basically in agreement.

The finale to the concert — part of the San Francisco Symphony's Great Performers Series — began with crashing outbursts, beautifully corrosive, with tempos dramatically slowing and the volume drawing down to whispers. Dudamel gathered them back up into a swarm, more than once, and the performance grew frenetic, even savage, exposing the raging nobility of Mahler's score in a way that's not often heard. Gustavo really gets Gustav.

So despite some earlier reservations and quirky interpretations from the maestro, it seems we had a great show! Who would have doubted?

Sum it up for us, Mr. Kosman.

[T]he finale was a mess: loud, shapeless and overbearing.



Both are very nice articles, and should be read in their entirety for the exact context of their comments. But I do find it interesting to see how differently two well-informed critics can review the same concert. Of course, they have their unique styles. Kosman with his "head-spinning mass of puzzlements", and Scheinin and his unbridled enthusiasm: Boom!


It means that Marcia's being a pain in the neck.

Definitely been some slim pickins for the Detritus recently. I suppose that's a good thing. However, it's always nice to see orchestras present the music of lesser known, if not fictional, composers.

The program heard Friday night at Heinz Hall featured two composers who share a proclivity for brooding music -- Jan Sibelius and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Jean Sibelius' gawkish younger sister is finally able to make name for herself despite freckles, glasses, and a popular older sibling. Unable to attend the performance was longtime boyfriend, George Glass.

figure bitter-over-success-of-older-sibling: "Well, all day long at school I hear how great Jean is at this or how wonderful Jean did that! Jean, Jean, Jean!"

embeddence musical prodigies: Destined for greatness, Jan flexes that golden voice singing for a local variety show with her brothers and sisters.


Friday (Not-So) Quickie: Speaking truth to power...

I recently became aware of a rather amusing exchange between an author/journalist of history, science and nature, and the cult-ish world of secondary education band programs.

figure band: Nerds.

Band music is, for the most part, absolutely awful. I think that's clear to most right thinking people. And while the academy and good composers have known this decades (which is why so few will ever write for band), it seems to be a little acknowledged reality.

Well, not to Stephen Budiansky. In January of 2005, he published an article in the Washington Post entitled "The Kids Play Great. But That Music...".

You should read the whole article, but let me highlight the basic gist of his article:

That Piece [the generic name he gives to bad band music] is nearly always written by someone who (a) is alive and collecting royalties, and (b) has a master's degree in music education. It is always preceded by a very wordy description, read out to the audience by way of preparation, explaining that the piece (a) was inspired by a medley of Lithuanian folk songs and Gregorian chants that the composer heard while researching his master's degree; or (b) depicts the journeys of Lewis and Clark and, if you listen carefully, you will hear the American Indian motif that represents the faithfulness and courage of their young Native American guide Sacagawea and then in the saxophones the sound of the rapids as the raft approaches and then the warning cry from one of the men on the bank and then the raft plunging down the rapids and then the return to calmer waters and then another set of rapids approaching and then. . . , or (c) evokes the soaring ideals we can all aspire to. (Pieces in this last category usually have "eagle" in their titles.) If I've heard That Piece once, I've heard it a hundred times. Different composers, different titles, same bombastic banality.

For example:

embeddence bombastic banality: Some piece of crap called "The Great Locomotive Chase"

Mr. Budiansky wonders why these bands don't play music he, or anybody else, has ever heard before? Or will ever hear again?

The closest thing I've heard to a real Sousa was a creation called "Sousa! Sousa! Sousa!" that (according to the publisher's description) "includes famous themes from 'Manhattan Beach' and 'El Capitan' along with just a hint of 'Semper Fidelis' and other Sousa favorites."

Although, he does concede...

I do understand the pedagogic purpose behind this stuff. Beethoven didn't have to come up with music scored for middle school bands made up of 57 alto saxophones, 40 trumpets, 15 percussionists and one oboe. Fair enough.

Fair enough.

Although, it seems that Mr. Budiansky's and I have slightly different tastes in music -- I wouldn't consider it a crime if Sousa's music was wiped from the face of this planet (save for the "Liberty Bell March", which is, of course, awesome) -- that doesn't detract from his larger point which is a good one.

How in the hell are we going to create a new generation of classical music lovers if they're forced to appreciate music solely through the examples of James Swearingen and W. Francis McBeth?

embeddence sousa: I will allow this.

As an interesting diversion his article is funny and contains plenty of good observations, but you'd hardly think it'd go any further than that.

Nope, Mr. Budiansky's comments received an outpouring of support from readers and members of the educational world. He then collaborated on a research article for the Journal of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE), with the director of the United States Marine Band to, as he puts it, "document the extent of the problem and how it has destroyed the musical education of a whole generation of children." Awesome.

figure gymnasium concert: The Sousa was sublime!

There's actually some nice research of "educational" music and it's failures, plus some interesting data of what is actually being performed by our middle and high school bands.

As result, Mr. Budiansky was asked to speak at the WASBE conference to elaborate and clarify his comments some. Drawing particular ire from Mr. Budiansky was the idea that all this crappy music was written for the benefit of the student.

I recently was sent a demo CD of Robert W. Smith’s “Symphony No. Three” and the description that accompanied it had literally nothing to do with music or art, and everything to do with marketing. It was all about how the solos are liberally cross-cued and how the final movement will “bring the audience to their feet.”

I should mention that Mr. Budiansky seems to particularly dislike the music of Robert W. Smith. It's really a running theme throughout all of his writing on the subject. I can't say that I blame him.

embeddence Robert W. Smith: It's about Don Quixote so, you know, it sounds Spanish-y.

And it was interesting to contrast this with Gunther Schuller’s description of his own recent composition for high school band. His description was all about his artistic goals and the challenge of maintaining his artistic objectives within the constraints of writing for middle-level players. He also stressed how he wanted to challenge students by making them responsible for their own parts—so no doubling and safety nets—and how he was breaking the supposed rules of school band music in doing so.

And we get to the heart of the issue in...

And I thought how remarkably ironic, that a real composer with a reputation outside of the school music racket is writing a piece not only with more artistic merit but more educational value than the stuff produced by the writers who specialize in the education market. And of course what that really underscores is that the writers for the ed market don’t really care about education. They care about marketability, and that’s come down to getting “superior” ratings at contests with pieces that sound harder than they are; it comes down to pieces that are quote "safely cross cued” to cover up mistakes; it comes down to not challenging students with something that might expose their flubs; it comes down to appealing to the lowest common denominators of ignorance and surface flash to produce pieces with built in applause lines at the end and lots of percussion activity in the middle.

I couldn't agree with this more. Dead on assessment in my experience.

Which is why it went over about as well as lead balloon. This email from the President of WASBE worries that criticism of this music will offend publishers and cause WASBE to lose it's funding for its super important conference. Gasp!


The whole incident is, of course, amusing. Because it's always funny to mock crappy composers like Robert W. Smith. But really, I bring this discussion to Detritus because I believe, that like me, most of the readers here care desperately about maintaining and growing appreciation of music in future generations. What a complete wasteland our school music programs have become. School bands are populated by the very people in who engendering a love of music should be easy, but instead we force them to play shitty music and make stupid designs on football fields. As Mr. Budiansky points out, competitions have become the most important part of any school music program. And just how standardized tests have replaced an emphasis on critical thinking in general education curriculum, various "all-region" competitions have replaced any attempt to teach children about music in our music programs.

I once stood in front of class of 22 music majors at a large public university and played the opening of Beethoven's 5th Symphony (yes, the very very opening part) and asked the students to name the piece. Only two knew the answer. Holy fuck, before that I actually would have thought that impossible. It was actually a pretty depressing moment. Not that they should know that particular composition above any other (although, they really should), but that they really didn't know any music. At all. There are lots of people to blame, and school music programs are right at the top of the list. Seriously, it's their job to teach music, and Elliot Del Borgo doesn't even come close to making the short list -- or the long one.

embeddence worst band piece ever: Just because this is the worst band piece ever.


You can also find all the relevant links on Stephen Budiansky's personal webpage in a section he has humorously titled "The wonderful people who killed school music".


The Art of the False Dichotomy


Viola? I hardly know her!

Review: Montgomery Symphony Orchestra
James Conley, Montgomery Advertiser, 4/27/2010

Although it contains plenty of attractive alliteration, something about this review sang out to me.

My suspicion is that Alabama, in an effort to stem the influx of arugula-chomping, sniffish elitists, has begun profiling anyone who could be reasonably construed to be a copy editor.

More jokes are made about the viola than any other orchestral instrument,...

This is possibly true.

...but there was no joking about the viola on Monday night at the Davis Theatre.

I seriously doubt that (see above).

Matthew Lipman was there as the viola soloist with the Montgomery Symphony for the orchestra’s final subscription concert of the season with Music Director Thomas Hinds conducting.

That certainly explains the introductory paragraph. But I'll play along:

Viola soloist, eh? Gosh! What's the deal with that?

A Chicago area high school senior, Lipman has already appeared in nationally prominent concert and broadcast venues,...

A prodigy of sorts, perhaps?

...and at age 18, he is this year’s winner of the Montgomery Symphony’s Blount-Slawson concerto competition.

That sounds more like a particle accelerator, but whatever.

Figure 1: Proposed Blount-Slawson CAD Accelerator (artist's conception)

He presented himself in Monday’s concert as a serious and seasoned soloist for Karl Stamitz’ “Concerto for Viola and Orchestra.”

So serious he played...Stamitz?

Figure 2: Daaaamn, player! (1745-1801)

(I'm not knocking the kid, now; who knows if he even selected the work? I'm just sayin' is all; Stamitz is about as serious as a stubbed toe.)

Part of the pleasure of his performance was hearing the viola as a featured instrument.

Yeah, a concerto. I got that part. Could you say something about this...this vee-oh-la?

Similar to – but larger than –violin, the viola has a deeper, warmer sound which Lipman masterfully capitalized on.

Larger than –violin, eh? That's pretty fucking large! I mean, everyone knows that the –violin is the largest violin of all!

Figure 3: This clever and courageous attempt at camouflage on the part of the copy editor above was, eventually, found out. Apparently.

The Stamitz concerto is one of a very few major works for viola solo.

Well, yeah! I mean besides the Hindemith (Kammermusik No. 5, op. 48), the Walton, the Bruch Romance, the Piston, the Milhaud...oh, the Bartok of course, two by Hoffmeister, and Telemann, obviously, about a thousand by Alessandro Rolla (1757-1841), and that nonsense by Berlioz. But other than that...

Also, I think Stamitz (Carl, that is) wrote three viola concerti. Usually the D major is the one you hear...was that the one they played here?


Rather than flashy pyrotechnics often association with other concertos,...

Figure 4: Another would-be disguised copy editor found out. See ya, fucko!

...the Stamitz piece has classical balance and form akin to music of his contemporaries Mozart and Haydn. Such music could result in being simply academic – but not under Lipman’s fingers.

That sounds almost like an apologia. But we're getting to the good part!

His playing was intelligent but very musical, especially in the soulful middle movement...

Really? Intelligent...but musical? Especially in the soulful part?

Well, I guess. Music is, after all, often association with emotion.

Figure 5: Obvious, but still pretty cool.