Music Espresso, How May I Help You?

There is something to be said for the consistency of analytical method in a review. There are exceptions (mostly poetic), of course, but if inconsistent, the review can easily expose its author’s biases, unfamiliarity with the work or even the low levels of caffeine in her or his system. None of which, I think we’ll all agree, makes for good, fair criticism.

In Sarah Bryan Miller’s case, one can see, via the progression of her stylistic consistency, how the St. Louis Symphony’s morning concert series may not be the best idea. That is, from a PR standpoint, if you want a good review, make sure there is plenty of espresso to wake up the critic; they often have late, late, finger-crampy nights.

Perhaps it was appropriate to open a Friday morning coffee concert with a piece by Igor Stravinsky jn [sp.] jittery, nervous mode; the Concerto in D sounds distinctly overcaffeinated in places.

Perhaps it was the sheer rudeness of being disturbed before Stage N3 was complete, but isn’t it Sarah’s job to be wide awake and alert?

Apparently, the coffee hadn’t worked its magic, yet.

The Concerto demands great technical ability, but doesn’t offer listeners much to cherish. From its skittish opening, it drifts into a limping dance and a melody that loses its way -- and back into anxiety.

I can just see the eye crusties and the unwillingness to listen. Maybe a few yawns and a cowlick or two.

However, by saying that the piece “doesn’t offer listeners much to cherish” is downright lazy. (Personally, I wasn't familiar with the Concerto in D, so I took a few minutes to become acquainted, at which time I found this lovely little YouTube video of the middle movement, and an article written by Greg Sandow who said this about it:

One of my great musical pleasures — in many ways a guilty one — is the slow movement of Stravinsky's Concerto in D, written in 1946 for string orchestra. Stravinsky, of course, was a Very Serious Composer, but in the 1930's and 40's he wrote some fluff, and this slow movement sounds, I swear, a bit like Mantovani, the man who once reigned as the king of easy listening.

Not exactly “limping” by my account, anyway.) It’s lazy because it doesn’t make its case very well. Why does “skittish” to “limping” to “anxiety” make for a bad piece of music? I don’t think there’s anything inherently non-cherishable about this description or progression of descriptors.

No doubt, the coffee hadn’t settled in.

The compactness of the first half was accentuated by having the conductor double as soloist in the morning’s second work. Leonidas Kavakos, an estimable violinist who made his Symphony conducting debut on Friday morning, led a small chamber ensemble in J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052.

As a violinist, Kavakos offered his usual spot-on accuracy, with great beauty in the lyric passages and technique to spare. As conductor, he had great interaction with the players in the front stands; some of the lower strings, however, didn’t stay with him as well.

And that’s all there was to say about the Bach. No “good piece.” No “bad Bach.” It just was.

I liken this to that moment of repose after waking up, having had the first sip of Sanka, sort of neither fully conscious nor asleep, but still kind of functional, spewing out inconsistent gibberish and clich├ęs like “technique to spare.”

But don’t worry. Sarah was fully awake for the second half. I’m guessing another cup of Joe and a cigarette during intermission.

The second half was a reasonably solid, if not overwhelming, performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, op. 56, "Scottish."


The Mendelssohn, a full-blown Romantic work, offers an abundance of melody and evocative tonal painting to gladden the heart and ears of the most traditional of concertgoers.

A Note to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Program Director: Let’s make it the “Friday Lunch Time Tea & Cookie Concert Series.” Please.


AnthonyS said...

Good find. This one seems really lazy indeed.

I'm pretty hostile to this review in no small part because I love the "Concerto en Re".

I like how the Mendelssohn and Bach are assumed great works, but she feels the need to make value judgements about the Stravinsky. It would be so refreshing if she had talked about how boring and oppressively pedantic the Bach was or something...

I mean, it's Stravinsky for fuck's sake. If you are going to align your reviews to the canon, at least include those that ought to be in it...

Miss Mussel said...

Just a small point but often times there just isn't space to elaborate on each piece in a the way that you want to.

I am on occasion grateful for this but most of the time, I'm always having to cut to make the word count.

400 words is 400 words and no amount of insightful comment is going to change the editor's mind.

Empiricus said...

miss mussel:

Though small, it's a good point--space restrictions are sometimes a limitation (or, depending, the pleasurable wipe of a sweaty forehead). And sometimes, we at the Detritus, forget about the technical rigmarole. It's always a pleasure to get the perspective of a pro.

But, anthonys hit the nail on the head: the issue I find hard to digest is the automatic canonization of certain composers and pieces, which, here, seems randomly applied. The Concerto en Re is 62 years-old. How long must it wait before it receives automatic praise?

That said, my intent was to find an humorous excuse (a lack of coffee) for the rather unsavory, imbalanced and, arguably, lazy descriptors.

Either way, thanks for joining the discussion! Cheers!

Gustav said...

Indeed, AnthonyS, right on the head. Couldn't have said better myself. Definitely a good find, Empiricus. Great comments.

I can't think of anything particularly witty to add to the conversation so I'll just post a little extra historical reading:

From a review of the Concerto en Re in 1931.

"The Violin Concerto impresses me as possibly the most willful, insincere and meretricious score that the creator of Petrushka and Le Sacre has promulgated in years...I do not object so much to the gargoyle features of its wanton ugliness as to the patent calculation and the obvious futility of this ugliness. It may be that closer acquaintance with this music may modify the feeling of ignoble artifice, vacuity and cynical sophistication which it diffuses...For one hearer, at any rate, the Concerto stands in the vanguard of Stravinsky's most regrettable aberations."
--Herbert F. Peyser, New York Times, Nov. 15, 1931

Empiricus said...

Dear Gustav,

Violin Concerto in D? That was written in 1931. Unfortunately for your efforts, the Concerto en Re was written in 1946.

Either way, what a piece of shit review! "Obvious futilism" sounds like a good title for the next big intellectual trend, i.e, if you don't subscribe to "postclassic."

Good work and thanks for the detritus.

Gustav said...

Sorry, my bad. Not sure why I confused those. It's been a long week.

Whatever, I do what I want.

Murderface said...

Who the fuck drinks Sanka?

Empiricus said...

Who doesn't?

You know you want to