A (Modest) Swordfish Proposal

Oftentimes, while watching, say, some playoff baseball broadcast featuring the sadly non-self-parody that is Tim McCarver, or listening to Troy Aikman's often insightful but linguistically nightmarish analysis of a football game, it occurs to me (incredulously) that:

These people get paid to talk for a living.

Figure 1: McCarver (R) with Broadcast Partner and Serial Enabler Joe Buck. "Pitching is such a vital part of the game, as far as winning is concerned." --Tim McCarver, 2006

Now, I'm a reasonable guy. I don't expect every ex-jock that goes into color commentary to have the rhetorical skills of Churchill, or even William F. Buckley, Jr.

Figure 2: Not William F. Buckley, Jr.

But is it too much to ask that people who (again) are paid to talk for a living have some modicum of facility stringing together words that form comprehensible sentences?


On an unrelated note, I was reading a concert review the other day.

Felix Mendelssohn didn't leave the world a lot to discover this 200th birthday year, at least in terms of hard notes.

He what what what?

I don't know what that sentence means.

Felix Mendelssohn didn't leave the world a lot to discover this 200th birthday year, at least in terms of hard notes.

"...hard notes?" His music is...easy? Too easy? Man.

"...a lot to discover..." He didn't write much music? Yeah, I guess. I mean, only about 300 works survive today. Fuck you, Webern!

"...in terms of hard notes."

I have no clue what's being suggested here.

Fastidious in his composing habits, refined in the extreme, he created a series of masterworks or close to it whose single-dimension emotionalism assures that new meaning probably won't be uncovered - particularly when the music is confined to a concert's first half and not expected to leave audiences sated.

What the hell? How many sentences died to make that "paragraph"?

Fastidious in his composing habits, refined in the extreme, he..

Just a little background, I guess? Okay...

...he created a series of masterworks or close to it...

I don't know what that means. I don't know if that means anything.

For what is the pronoun "it" standing in? "Masterworks"? No, "it" would have to be plural. "A series of masterworks..."? I...I guess so? I mean, that doesn't really make much sense.

I've been thinking.

It seems like there should be a position filled by an ancillary person who oversees and re-reads articles for content. You know, it's easy to get too close to your prose to see what you wrote sometimes; perhaps a person whose job is to "edit" (if you will) your work so that it's clean and fit for publication.

I'm going to name this imaginary person--the one who does the "editing" (to coin a word)--the "swordfish."

...he created a series of masterworks or close to it whose single-dimension emotionalism...

Um. Aren't nouns usually modified by adjectives? Maybe we should ask a swordfish. Even if the implication is that Mendelssohn--even in his "close to it" masterworks [sic]--is emotionally flat, wouldn't it be better to use "single-dimensional"?

Yes. Yes, it would. But hey: I'm not the swordfish, here.

...masterworks or close to it whose single-dimension emotionalism assures that new meaning probably won't be uncovered...

The research of musicologists into the cultural context of music is stupid; once it's determined that music is "single-dimension emotional...", new meaning is assured to probably not be uncovered.

It's wonderful, too, how the determinism of "assured" is totally hedged and qualified by "probably." This inconsistency both a) sets up the reader for the big payoff [sic] coming up, and b) should have probably been corrected by a swordfish.

"...new meaning probably won't be uncovered - particularly when the music is confined to a concert's first half and not expected to leave audiences sated."

Because nobody ever found anything new about a work programmed in the first half of a concert. I mean, how fucking gauche would that be?

Figure 3: Le main gauche

Yet in an unusual role reversal, the Emerson String Quartet ended its Kimmel Center concert Monday with Mendelssohn's String Quartet Op. 80, written when some scholars say the composer was in creative decline.

How is that a "role reversal"? Is it statistically evident that Mendelssohn is so seldom programmed at the end of a concert that it constitutes an anomaly?

In a performance that bested the Emerson's 2005 recording of the piece, such received wisdom was defied so handily as to leave a burning question about what was different.

The performance was so good...that it might have some meaning?!

Often, 21st century Americans seem cramped by Mendelssohn's tidy, Biedermeier world.

Figure 4: A Tidy Biedermeier World (or: The Fictional, Nostalgic, Lost America That Never Existed but Is Somehow Being Thwarted by Barack Obama)

Figure 5: The Cramps (somewhat circuitously Biedermeier-induced)

This quartet, however, was written following the death of the composer's sister, Fanny. Thus, even the most typical Mendelssohnisms can be credibly charged with greater-than-usual meaning.

Ah. I think I understand now.


Mendelssohn's music, although "single-dimensional emotional" [sic] and despite being "masterworks or close to it" [wtf] actually can have some (heretofore undiscovered) meaning if we do the tiniest, most obvious bit of musicological research?

Projecting that can often be a matter of surface inflection, though on Monday the Emersons created a sound better blended than usual - unusually warm under the surface but pulsating with something hotter underneath.

Warm, hotter. Surface...surface. Ususal--unusually?

Okay, I give up. Talk to the swordfish.

Figure 6: Modern Copy Editor (presumed extinct)


Generalizations are...Wait! Hey! Stop!

You there! Hey! Can you help me out with something? Judging by your looks, I bet you know what makes carrots orange, right?

Figure 1. Despite making his living on carrot-themed jocularity, this guy might not know the answer.

The point being, a generalization about an attribute of identity can be very dangerous, backfiring when you least expect it.

I just wish that Jane Norris, from the Charlottesville Daily Progress, had learned this lesson before writing her puff piece.


Amit Peled started his year with a little bit of soul and plans to wind it up with a celebration.

As opening lines go, this one kinda works--you'll see. But that’s hardly why we’re here.

The Israeli cellist, who’ll team up with pianist Eli Kalman for the next Tuesday Evening Concert Series event in Cabell Hall Auditorium, has released “The Jewish Soul,” a CD that dives into complex works by Ernest Bloch, Joachim Stutschewsky, Max Bruch and other composers.

Fine. Good. And all that.

Ready? Here it is:

Having grown up in Israel, surrounded by the culture and the music, he can bring an authentic tone to his interpretations of the pieces [...].

Ah! So he understands the Jewish soul; he was born into it; he lives it; he breathes it. And you can hear that soul manifest itself in the music.

Now, I’m not going to pretend I know the makeup of the Israeli soul. Heck, I don’t even have a pituitary gland! [Yes, that was a Descartes joke] So I'll just take the author's word for it.

One question, though. What happens when...?

On Tuesday, Peled and Kalman will perform an “Homage to Russia” program that includes Sergei Prokofiev’s “Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 119,” Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 40” and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Sonata for Cello and Piano” [...].

Let's see. If we try to use our logic bones, it would follow that our cellist is good at playing music by Jewish composers, because he has an Israeli soul. However, since he’s not Russian he must be bad at playing Russian music, right? ‘Cause he doesn’t have a Russian soul. That’s why he’s good at playing Jewish music. ‘Cause he has an Israeli soul. He's not a Russian. He's Israeli. So he's good at playing Israeli (read: Jewish) music. And bad at Russian (read: not Israeli [read: not Jewish]) music, because he's not Russian, which means he doesn't have a Russian soul. Right? Right?!

Hmm. Is our author suggesting that one must be, say, Catholic to conduct Beethoven with authenticity? [And yes, that's a Wagner/Mahler joke]

Figure 2. Obviously not colored by a cat


Canonics are the Sudoku puzzles of performance

I just love when critics are kind enough to explain the mechanics of how music is written. Just such an example can be found here, in an review by Harriet Howard Heithaus (love the alliterative quality of this name) of the Naples Daily News.

The concert Sunday was to introduce the reconfigured and redesigned Daniels Pavilion at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts. But music and the musicians kept stealing the show.

I hate when they do that.

First it was Glenn Basham, Naples Philharmonic Orchestra concertmaster, and Eric Berg, its associate principal second violinist, playing a Telemann canonic sonata movement from each side of the hall’s midpoint.

Good information. A canonic movement, with the musicians opportunely placed at opposite sides of the hall.

Wait. Is that what you wrote? Playing a Telemann canonic sonata movement from each side of the hall's midpoint.

Do midpoints have sides?

figure escher: Which way again to the midpoint?

Then Principal Flute Suzanne Kirton musically somersaulted in, answering Basham measure for measure in a second Telemann canonic sonata.

Musical somersault?

Also, what are these canonic sonatas?

Canonics are the Sudoku puzzles of performance.

Well, I'm pretty sure that totally clears things up.  

But perhaps you should elaborate, you know, just for clarity's sake.

These tightly assembled pieces require a second musician to start one to two measures after the first, but playing the exact same score. Each performer must be extremely confident in his or her music because the two never meet until the last notes. Their timing also has to be in perfect sync to keep that carefully constructed musical chase from turning discordant. Kirton, Basham and Berg were great ambassadors for the device, forging tight sequences without ever sacrificing the melodies they were playing.

What piece of Baroque music doesn't need to "be in perfect sync to keep...from turning discordant"?

And, "ambassadors for the device"? Are canonics suffering from bad press?

figure bad decisions: Canonics should probably just lay off the sauce...at least until they score that next big symphony.

She sure does make this sound like brain surgery. And my favorite part of this lengthy explanation is that at no point does Ms. Heithaus ever use the root form of the word -- you know, 'canon'.


Seriously, Someone Got Paid for This

We’ve seen some doozey lead-ins in our time, ranging from outlandish to outlandisher. In general, they’re uninformative, putrid, zing-slinging shit bombs, like, “Oh my gosh! This concert was the most bestest, transcendentest, awesomest musical ejaculation ever heard, ever! The audience almost died it was so much more gooder than the goodest performance in the history of the universe.” But this one is a little different. It’s a little more subtle.

It was something of a family affair at Friday night’s concert by the Kansas City Symphony at the Lyric Theatre.

Alright. A family affair. Seems reasonable, if a little lackluster. A family affair. That's the thread to be expounded upon. Great. There's one question left to ask, then: How will the opening line play out this time?

Well, my friends, as the Chinese proverb says, the journey is the reward...er...or something. So, sit back and take it all in, in fill-in-the-blank form.

Concertmistress _______ took center stage as soloist in an exciting performance of _______.

_______ employed a sumptuous tone in the work’s famous opening theme. As the movement progressed, _______ also displayed impressive musicality and driving energy.

Music Director _______ conducted a well balanced [sic] performance, keeping the orchestra’s dynamic levels soft enough to let the solo lines dominate. In addition, _______ stretched the phrases beautifully in the movement’s slower central section.

In the second movement, _______ utilized a marvelous blend of lyrical line and rich tonal color. The exciting finale brought the audience to its feet.


So far, this vapid assessment—which, by the way, is precisely for what the author received payment—makes one wonder whether or not he actually attended this performance. It has all the characteristics of a prefabricated review:

1. All the descriptors could equally apply to nearly any performer or performance (“exciting performance”, “sumptuous tone”, “impressive musicality”, “well-balanced performance”, etc., etc.).

2. All the music’s formal markers are generic (“soloist”, “famous opening theme”, “movement”, “phrases”, “finale”). Can you describe another piece using these terms? I can.

3. The lead-in thread is entirely absent, suggesting that it was added on later, as an afterthought.

Of course, I’m not suggesting this indeed is what happened. But, for fuck’s sake, a quadriplegic monkey could pound out better assessments.


The _______ Symphony Chorus, directed by _______, joined the orchestra and four vocal soloists for _______’s thrilling and dramatic ______.

From the outset the chorus sounded strong and impressive, and balance with the orchestra was quite good, with the exception of the organ, which stuck out like a sore thumb.

The vocal quartet was better on the inner parts, mezzo-soprano and tenor rather than soprano and baritone. From the opening _______, soprano _______ sounded harsh, especially at the top of her range. Baritone _______ sang with beauty and resonance in his upper and middle range, but didn’t have the chops for the ungodly lowest notes in the _______.

Mezzo-soprano _______ was magnificent in the _______ and tenor _______ sang with lyrical beauty throughout the work.

While the performance was quite good overall, the violins never seemed to be together on the ornamental phrases at the beginning of the _______. The chorus suffered a few cases of a single tenor entering early and a few fuzzy-toned soprano entrances.


Slightly better, but still, the observations could’ve been made by a dead parrot or a shrubbery.

But enough of that, let's return to the lead-in. Remember that the concert was “something of a family affair”? What could that have meant? How did it play out?

Even the opening work, Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3,”conveyed a familial air:

Even? I didn’t smell a whiff of familial air in the above text. Did you?

...Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3,”conveyed [sic] a familial air: [Michael] Stern conducted an intimate group of 10 strings and harpsichord.

Small, intimate group = family lead-in

Wow. That’s fucking weak. In fact, this whole review is fucking weak. First, we get a promising lead-in; second, we get nondescript, prefabricated statements about several pieces and performers (really, who cares what or who they were?); then, the lead-in returns to reveal a wafer-thin connection. In all, poor form, poor prose, poor critique, poor observations, poor everything. Calling this mediocre would be an overstatement.

Instead, I’ll offer this: embarrassingly lazy.

Figure 1. Sketch artist’s rendering of this review

A final hackneyed description:

Although the opening movement suffered from a handful of intonation slips in the violins, the performance was nicely shaped and musically satisfying.



No, boys. There's two "O"s in Goose.

Now, I am as forgiving of typos as the next guy -- I guess it's just my liberal leanings. Plus, spelling words correctly (or even spelling them out at all) is apparently quite last century. With all the problems newspapers are currently facing, who has time to get bothered over a their/there incident.


Fear No Music opens season provocatively


Nancy Ives, great-granddaughter of a cousin of the composer,...

...also his father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate...

...then performed Elliot Carter's...

Um, Mr. McQuillen -- I believe that Mr. Carter spells his first name with two "t"s. It's okay...a common mistake I'm sure. Really, that extra "t" is silent anyways. Let's not let that ruin a perfectly good review.

Just don't let it happen again. Okay?

...short homage to Charles for solo cello, "Figment No. 2: Remembering Mr. Ives." The famously abstruse Carter generally makes Ives sound as experimental as Stephen Foster by comparison, and the "Figment" was no exception, with bits of "Hallowe'en" and Ives' "Concord Sonata" deconstructed, their fragments heading in uncertain directions. But as the title suggests, Carter's piece was imaginative, as sparkling in its cerebral way as the Ives.

"The famously abstruse Carter generally makes Ives sound as experimental as Stephen Foster by comparison."

Ugh. See, my problem is that the only thing this person judges as "experimental" is a piece's relative atonality, and that's just stupid. Carter does indeed write atonal, very complex music, BUT, that doesn't make his music experimental.

And while Ives wrote plenty of music that was quite tonal, borrowing from popular music and commonplace classical forms of the 19th century, his music was rarely not experimental. It has everything to do with knowing what the words atonal, experimental and avant-garde actually mean with regards to the classical music tradition.

Moving on...

Things turned toward the wild side in the final works. Voglar and Griffin ripped through Stephen Hartke's "Oh Them Rats is Mean in My Kitchen,"...

Now, time for Detrital editorial advocacy, because this is just an awesome piece. Absolutely kick-ass.

You can listen to it here. I insist.

...a crackling, note-bending tribute to early blues inspired by Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Maltese Cat Blues," and the quartet closed with Michael Dougherty's "Paul Robeson Told Me," in which the quartet accompanies...

Wait, a minute. Back that up for second. Michael Who-erty? Mr. McQuillen, I mean, come on.

Misspelling two composer's names is really pretty unacceptable. Seriously.


...Because "Baroque" Sounds Like "Broke," Get It? GET IT?

I swear to Cthulhu there must be a way to write catchy or clever titles for articles without using the stupidest, most obvious jokes possible. Somewhere there is a nascent academic field waiting to be born.

You see, up in Battle Creek, Michigan, a local man (or, at least, grandson of a local woman) was on a space shuttle mission to help repair the Hubble Telescope. Great! I am in favor of such endeavors. I'm not even opposed to programming a symphony concert around [loosely!] space-themed music to celebrate the occasion--on the condition that it's not full of stupid.

I am, however, opposed to tongue-scrapingly idiotic titles. For instance:

Symphony season blasts off with cosmic concert

[Lori Holcomb, Battle Creek Enquirer, October 22, 2009]


(Hey, did you hear the one about why Bach didn't have any money?)

Also, although clearly classical audiences are changing and need to get bigger, is "theme night at the symphony" really the cleverest idea available? That's like "casual Friday" or "dress-like-a-hobo day" in it's conceptual and innovative brilliance.

Figure 1: Jeans...and buttons! At work!? Hilarious. Paradigms...breaking down...

So often, oh, so often I've bemoaned that symphony concerts aren't frequently enough organized with as much conceptual aplomb as a frat party.

In celebration of the space industry and the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, the Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra will feature photos taken by the Hubble Telescope and cosmos-inspired music at its season opener Saturday.

See? That seems fair enough. Surely they're not going with Holst, though. That'd be way too obvious. I mean...

Titled "Planet Thunder," the concert will feature popular works such as Holst's "The Planets,"

Well, I mean...I guess you kind of have to. Sigh, fair enough. What else?

Strauss' theme from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey"...

What. There are so many things wrong with that. It's hard to know where to begin.

Figure 2: Battle Creek Cultural Ambassador and Assistant Director for Clever Programming for the Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra

Later in the article, previewing [portending?] things to come:

For lovers of classical music, "Fallen Heroes" on March 27 will pay tribute to those who have died in battle.

For everyone else, it'll just be a bunch of notes and shit.

To wit:

From extraterrestrial images to fiery Celtic concertos, [music director Anne] Harrigan said the 2009-2010 season is designed to attract new audience members while hopefully pleasing loyal attendees.

Yeah. A careful reading of that sentence reveals that the goal is "to attract new audience members" while "hopefully" keeping the old ones, yes?

Figure 3: Fail Salad


Merdle and Haggard Do Science

Merdle: Hey honey! I heard the Cleveland Orchestra won't be wearing tuxedos, but solid-colored shirts instead. No ties!

Haggard: Ooh! That makes them more appealing. Maybe we should go.


Then, there’s this:

It’s hard to pinpoint what about the Cleveland Orchestra’s concert Friday caused it to sell out, given that almost everything about it was different.

I suppose I should have italicized “almost everything,” but why italicize when you can give a picture in its place?

Figure 1. Product placement (free of charge)

For one experiment, there were a lot of variables.

Which means: there was another experiment without any variables. In other words, there was a control, i.e., a solid base of knowledge with which to compare and contrast the effect of the variables. Though, you’d want to limit them to, oh I don’t know, one variable, in order to isolate the results. But, hey, that’s good science and we don’t want that in our music, do we?

Anyway, let’s follow this hypothetical experiment.


Variable 1:

Was it the earlier start?

Nope. You disproved that one, remember?

Many [...] lingered, purchasing drinks and mingling at club-like tables and lounges around the dimly-lit foyer.

Sounds like they had plenty of time on their hands. That couldn’t be it.


Variable 2:

The informal dress of the players?

Hmmm. See above Merdle and Haggard sarcasm.


Variable 3:

[Was] it the prospect of a post-concert reception and appearance by world percussion ensemble Beat the Donkey?

Figure 2. Hard to imagine a better reason to go to the symphony than Beat the Donkey

But, as our author later showed, this was indeed a legitimate possibility.

At first, the post-concert party looked ready to backfire. Most of Severance Hall came flooding into the Grand Foyer, forcing patrons to jockey for limited space.

I’ll definitely keep that one in mind when trying to decipher our experimental data. I should have italicized “experimental.”

Figure 3. Suggesting where this is all going

Variable 4:

The short [...] program?

People clamoring for the donkey beaters, drinking themselves into stupors, uncomfortably standing in a dimly-lit foyer...

Yeah. A short program could attract patrons. Though, their priorities don’t seem to be in line with the act of attending an orchestra concert—listening to music. How ‘bout that, then? What about the music?


The control group:

The [...] all-Beethoven program?

So, to ask the question again: what packed the house that evening? Oh yeah, the one thing that symphonies resort to when they need to pack a house.


Haggard: I also heard they were going to play nothing but Beethoven.

Merdle: I heard that too. Last week, in fact. And the week before that. And the week before that.

Haggard: These things sound like a broken Glass record.


Where have all the editors gone?

"That's like asking the square root of a million. No one will ever know."*

But more to the point...Elaine Schmidt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel needs a thesaurus.

MSO plus Beethoven equals grandeur

"How many pounds in a gallon?"

Two of the three "Bs" of classical music, Beethoven and Brahms, dominated Friday evening's Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra program.

Felix Blumenfeld being the third "B", of course.

figure felix: Facial hair of the week?

Music director Edo de Waart and the players of the MSO used Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 to fill the program's second half with grandeur and gravitas.

...and glory, grandiosity, gravity and greatness...

First performed in 1813, the piece was hailed as "joyous" and "celebratory" by some writers of the day and said to depict a revolution or the plot of a Goethe novel.

I would have said it was resplendent, or perhaps, effervescent. Maybe even a bit mirthful?

Nearly two centuries later, the piece remains a pillar of the orchestral repertoire, deriving its compelling forward motion in great part from Beethoven's brilliant use of rhythm.

It is nice, that forward motion stuff.

De Waart and the MSO gave the piece a vivid reading that used the piece's insistent rhythms to long, gradual crescendos to musical heights and to give poignant depth to its solemn second movement. [italics mine]

Vivid reading. Check. Sounds exciting.

Preparing to fast forward...

...(and never mind the awful construction of the sentence above, which seems to read, "the vivid reading used the rhythm to long crescendos")...all the editors are dead and such...

De Waart and the orchestra took their own turns in the spotlight during the Brahms.

They gave a well-crafted reading of its lush orchestral writing, some of which was intended for the fifth symphony, which Brahms never completed.

A well-crafted reading? O-kay.

and...what else did the orchestra read...?

The evening opened with a precise, colorful reading...


...of "Wu xing (The Five Elements)," a piece by Qigang Chen that is constructed of five brief movements: Shui (Water), Mu (Wood), Huo (Fire), Tu (Earth) and Jin (Metal).

I shouldn't have to point this out, but orchestras don't just read music. They can also play, perform, and present music. They can display, exhibit, and produce...or put on, render, represent, or realize said musical composition. One might also say that the orchestra may offer a piece, or execute the musical score. They mount, engineer, and even direct the show. They emote the music, do justice to the score, or bring about, bring off or carry through a performance. They might stage an event, or pull off a production, or simply take care of business.

And when one plays music, they also conceive, cultivate and propagate. And that performance may engender, effectuate, beget and blossom, not to mention beguile, regale and captivate the audience. And may I suggest that you continue to search for, hunt, scan, discover, track down, and seek out new words until your thesaurus is effete, barren, infertile and right out of synonyms.

* For you aspiring mathemagicians out there, I'd like to point out that there are actually two answers to this question. Both 1000 and -1000 when squared will equal a million.


A friday quickie -- cutting out of work early

Part of the job of every music critic is advocate on behalf of his art. Some are more shameless than others, while some use their column to take swipes at the local music organizations. It's all good. But sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish the review from a press release.

And then there are strange and overly enthusiastic reviews like this one, written by Richard Scheinin of the San Jose Mercury News.

Virtuoso Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez and German soprano Diana Damrau wowed audience at S.F. Opera

I'm not sure that'd quite fit on the marquee.

So many people think opera is, you know,...

I know?

...ultra-challenging, elitist, weirdly out of the mainstream, anything but popular entertainment.

Oh, I do know. This is the setup, that you can then knock down with your stellar pitch.

So what opera being performed is not weirdly out of the mainstream and sure to strike a chord with the hip, popular types?

A new opera by Philip Glass? Or some lamentable opera, rock crossover by the Moody Blues, or Roy Orbison? Is Transformers an opera yet?

These people now have an assignment: March to War Memorial Opera House, where San Francisco Opera's "La Fille du Régiment" ("The Daughter of the Regiment") by Donizetti...

Donizetti?!? Doni-fucking-zetti!

Donizetti is to today's popular entertainment what the surrey is to modern transportation.

..."La Fille du Régiment" ("The Daughter of the Regiment") by Donizetti is unleashing a blast of smart farce that's flat-out fun and resplendent with singing guaranteed to leave folks scratching their heads in tingly amazement.

figure shampoo: Guaranteed to not leave folks scratching their heads in tingly amazement.

Among the thousands who attended Tuesday's opening were many who anticipated one event:

What could it be? Axl Rose sings in the lead role, after bringing democracy to China?

a feat of virtuoso derring-do by 36-year-old Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez.

"a feat of virtuoso derring-do"?! I'm very excited now. Don't keep me in suspense. Does he eat dynamite and drink nitroglycerin?

figure daffy: Greatest showman ever.

In the role of Tonio, the Tyrolean hayseed lover, he has wowed audiences around the world in "La Fille," even generating front-page headlines in the New York Times last year, by singing a famous aria titled "Ah, mes amis," in which he is required to pop nine high C's — something Pavarotti used to do and which most tenors simply can't pull off.

Sing nine high C's? Well, that's cool too. I guess.

But I'm still not convinced I want to march to this concert yet. I don't know much about opera and don't understand your "high C" reference. Can you give an analogy a hip, popular, non-elitist, simpleton like me could relate to?

Flórez pulled it off, this act of macho virtuosity. He didn't do a solo encore, nailing all nine a second time, as he did in New York. Still, it was plenty good — like watching baseball's Prince Fielder, launching one blast after another in the home-run derby contest at the All-Star Game. Oh, come on. He can't really be doing that!

Like hitting homeruns! Why, that's the best part of baseball! I can relate to that.

Wow! Sounds exciting. Maybe I'll go see the Blue Angels afterward.

figure planes: "Air show? Buzz-cut Alabamians spewing colored smoke from their whiz jets to the strains of "Rock You Like A Hurricane?" What kind of countrified rube is still impressed by that?"

Count me in!

Thanks, Richie.


Actually it sounds like it was a great show...other than it's a Donizetti opera. But do read the rest of what is a pretty fun review. I kid Richard Scheinin.


Scherzo...which means joke

Mark Kanny, of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, offered up this short review of the Orion String Quartet.

Orion quartet shines in chamber opener

Vitality sang...

Curious personification...

Vitality sang with many accents...

I'm not sure that's really a compliment, since we typically associate singing with lyricism and not so much with "many accents"...but, whatever...

Vitality sang with many accents Monday night when the Orion String Quartet opened the season of the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland.

Puzzling personification aside, good opening sentence. There's a who, what, where, when, all packed into a short, concise sentence. I hope you'll expound on that vitality comment, though.

In addition to classical and romantic repertoire, the program featured the world premiere of "A Tribute for Two" by Pittsburgh native Eugene Phillips, which proved to be a rewarding composition.

Nice little aside -- because, at first, I was quite worried about being taxed when you first mentioned a world premiere.

Graph 1: We just don't tax vices like we use to.

The premiere had a sweet charm because the violinists of the quartet, Daniel and Todd Phillips, are the sons of the 90-year-old composer.

That is sweet. I'm kind of surprised we didn't get some hackneyed "family affair" cliché crammed into the headline for this review. Oh well...

An exquisite performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's String Quartet in G major, K. 387, opened the concert with great allure.

Good thing the performance was alluring...I was just about to get up and leave, but I was allured--enticed even--to stay.

Plus, isn't adding "great allure" a bit redundant? The exquisite performance was alluring? Seems rather obvious, no? Yes, exquisite and allure mean different things, but why compliment the performance twice...once at the start of the sentence and once again at the end. I just don't like that construction. Don't worry about it, though, I'm sure it's just me.

But...we had started so well. Short and concise. Good information, and now this unfortunate wordiness...

The quartet, led by Todd Phillips, gave a performance of Mozartean refinement and songfulness.

Wait...the Mozart was Mozartean?

figure insekt: The nightmarish narrative in the Metamorphosis sure is Kafkaesque.

Also...songfulness? I know that dictionary.com says it's a word, but admit it...that sounds made up.

Soft passages were genuinely soft, and while there was ample dynamic range, the music never shouted.

Ah...there you go. Back to your concise, unadorned critique. Well said.

Phillips' "A Tribute for Two," written eight decades after his first composition, was a three-movement response to the passing of two friends. The first movement was shrewdly drawn, full of muscularity in an uneasy context.

Now, I haven't heard the piece, but what is "an uneasy context"? Did you have to listen to the piece while discussing the "birds and the bees" with a curious 6 year old, or did you perhaps accidentally run over the composer's cat? Or perhaps it was like eating at Taco Bell?

The heart of the piece is the slow movement, which didn't dawdle at the "Andante con moto" tempo.

"Didn't dawdle"? I actually think that's what the "con moto" means.

Nor did it wallow in grief.

Once again, I direct you to the meaning of "con moto"...and actually, I think you misunderstand "andante" as well.

It was a beautiful evocation of two personalities, with inspired music for transitions.

Whoa...I do love a good tempo analysis, but this seems like the meat and potatoes of the piece. What does it mean "two personalities"? How were they evoked? What were the emotions of each? Did they seem representative of the deceased?

And "inspired music for transitions"? Transitions between the two personalities?

...such a short sentence and so many questions.

The finale, called Scherzo, which means joke, was lively, witty and brief.

Okay, it shouldn't bother me, but..."called Scherzo". It just seems so 5th grade book report. Might I suggest: entitled, or titled, named, designated...hell, even christened, dubbed, or consecrated would have been more interesting.

Also, more to the point, while scherzo does originate from an Italian word meaning "joke", you should know that in this context the word scherzo has more connotations as a formal movement than as an evocative title. It's a lively movement (traditionally speaking) that was used to replace the obligatory, and often boring minuet movement. It's more of a perfunctory title....m'kay?

Phillips' new piece was so interesting, I wished it were longer.

Bassist Timothy Cobb, who was a fully integrated member of the ensemble in the Phillips,...

And here I was, like an idiot, thinking the Phillips was a string quartet.

Thanks for leaving me hanging, Mr. Kanny.

....[Cobb] also joined the quartet after intermission for Antonin Dvorak's String Quintet in G, Op. 77. It was performed in five movements, with the "Intermezzo: Notturno" that is often omitted and also is played separately sometimes.

lol! (as the kiddies would say). Nice sentence construction. /sarcasm

Daniel Phillips took the first chair for the Dvorak. He is a player of exceptional depth...

I guess unlike his brother...?

...who led a performance fully in touch with Dvorak's emotional world. The "Notturno" was so beautiful, one wondered how it could ever be omitted, while the "Poco Andante" fourth movement was heavenly.

hmmm...interesting idea juxtaposing the beauty of the omitted movement with one performed...

Nor did the performance slight the physical exuberance of Dvorak's personality.

The end.

figure 3: Kind of short on examples today, but I found this photo while searching Kafka. It is very fun to look at.


Randomly Placed Qualifiers (Monday Quickie)

Hyperbole is, I guess, to be expected. After all, it is a classical rhetorical device, and pretty easy to pull off without fucking anything up.

Qualifying hyperbole weakens the effect of exaggeration, which is pretty much all it has going for it anyway.

Doing so at random is just confusing.

(Susan Pena, Reading Eagle, Concert Review: Philip Glass &c)

Philip Glass, the world's best known...living composer of classical music...

Really? I mean: possibly, sure, I guess. Maybe. But, hey. Hyperbole, am I right, folks?

Philip Glass, the world's best known and possibly most prolific living composer of classical music...

"Possibly" the most prolific, but the unqualified best-known [sic, or anti-sic(?)] composer?


Also, and not for nothing: it seems like "most prolific" is actually, you know, researchable and verifiable. Unlike "best known" [sic].

Doo dee doo dee do.

Figure 1: Philip Glass Cutty Sark advertisment, Newsweek, 1982


Composer of the Day!

Today's Composer of the Day! is the enigmatic Giacinto Scelsi! (1905-1988)

Scelsi (pronounced SHELLsi) is a self-taught composer and significant figure in Italian music of the 20th century.

His music is sadly almost never programmed in the United States, apart from Michael Tilson Thomas who has performed many of his orchestral works with San Francisco Symphony.

Once a disciple of Schoenberg (being one of the first Italian dodecaphonists) he is probably most famous for his slow-moving soundscapes and music based around a single pitch, such as his work Quattro Pezzi su una nota sola (Four Pieces on a single note). [Listen to this work here.]

The details of Scelsi's life are not fully known, although in recent years many of the gaps have begun to be filled in (see a photo of a young Scelsi here). He was forced out of Italy in the late 1930s by Mussolini for his performances of Jewish music, from which he would not be able to return until sometime after World War II. It is also around this time that it is thought that Scelsi suffered an extended nervous breakdown, of which he said, "I forgot everything I ever knew about music."

Scelsi has always been a bit of a mystery because of the unique sound worlds his music evokes. I think one can hear the influence of the early orchestral pieces of Ligeti and the work of Parisian composers like Tristan Murail and Claude Vivier whose music seem to occupy similar spaces. However, Scelsi's music still sounds quite original, and he composed many wonderful and beautiful works which are more than worth your time.

Read a few interesting anecdotes about Scelsi in an interview with Alvin Curran. Also read this thoughtful article by Alex Ross, originally printed in The New Yorker.


Wednesday Wink-Winkery (read: another gushy post about how cool Kosman is)

I’ll bet Joshua Kosman is just tickled by Michael Tilson Thomas’ deliciously alliterative name, because every time the opportunity arises his prose becomes chock full of wily word play.

Leave it to Michael Tilson Thomas to inject a few welcome shadows into the bubbly breathlessness of the San Francisco Symphony's opening gala.


...subversive stealth...


...ribbons and bonbons...

And, heck, why not pour it on, since Lang Lang is in the house?

...giddy triviality...

And this one, which may or may not have been intentional...

... fondness for garish display largely under control, producing an athletic yet sensitive account of the concerto...


Data Table 1. Well done, sir. Well done.

Sheesh! Have we at the Detritus changed our tune of late?

Of course not. But we like to give props, now and then. So don't worry, in short order we will be back to unapologetically subjecting you to the usual tripe of everyday music critiquery!


Thank Aequitas for Joshua Kosman...

So, it's been a bit of dry spell for truly awful concert reviews. So in place of the traditional offending critiques, let me say, "Thank god for critics like Joshua Kosman," and offer up a gem of a review.

Read below as Kosman does (in a relatively short review, mind you) what so few before him seem able to accomplish. He's able to both review the performance he's just heard and, most importantly, add to our understanding by offering an intellectual and helpful analysis of the music on the concert.

Now here's the kicker -- there are two works on the concert: one a venerable classic of the literature full of famous solos and memorable melodies, the other, written by one of those Europeans that no one has ever heard of outside of the crusty old halls of academia. Your average reviewer would just write up a blow-job of a critique of said venerable classic (and probably to MTT while he's at it), only mentioning in passing the strange foreign work which really should have been a Mozart piano concerto anyway.

S.F. Symphony's placid Mahler

The arcane and alluring music of Giacinto Scelsi...

I'm guessing the title isn't yours...

The arcane and alluring music of Giacinto Scelsi is always a welcome presence in Davies Symphony Hall, and "Hymnos," a piece of splendidly orchestrated monomania that had its first San Francisco Symphony performance Wednesday night, is no exception.

a psychosis characterized by thoughts confined to one idea or group of ideas.

Cool. Scelsi's crazy -- I knew it. (AnthonyS, you owe me ten bucks.)

figure Giacinto: I'd say this guy looks a little monomaniacal. I'm actually worried he might eat my baby.

The perennial mystery is how Scelsi's work, with its obsessive exploration of a single pitch, relates - if at all - to the musical world around it.

I like your suggestion that he's probably a bit crazy.

But the best part of this introduction is that it introduces you to Scelsi's music. Not his biography, or some inane personal anecdote used to establish some analogy and contrivance that will explain the entire evening's programming, but his music -- you know that stuff that comes from the direction of the stage.

On this occasion, Michael Tilson Thomas paired "Hymnos" with Mahler's Fifth Symphony, serving it up as an appetizer during the third and final week of the Symphony's Mahler Festival. The piece came off as something of an oddity - although I doubt there are any circumstances under which it wouldn't.

Like many works by this elusive Italian visionary, who died in 1988, "Hymnos" fixates on a single pitch and works as many variations on it as possible over a 13-minute span. To listen attentively to one note, proclaimed in different registers and in a dazzling array of instrumental guises, is the key to Scelsi's vision, a gloss on William Blake's "world in a grain of sand."

Look at him go. Intelligent and informative, not to mention a pertinent elaboration of your observation that the piece is an "obsessive exploration of a single pitch".

But wait, there's more!

But there's more than that going on in "Hymnos," which uses two orchestras and a central organ (Jonathan Dimmock was the soloist) to create various spatial effects. The sheer range of moods Scelsi creates - now craggy and grandiose, now faint and filigreed - helps guide a listener through this journey.

"Helps guide a listener," sounds suspiciously like an argument. 'How so?,' he asked not expecting an answer.

And by establishing a home note so forcefully, Scelsi makes possible a kind of elemental musical drama, in which the listener hears any move away from the pitch as a wrenching dislocation, and a return as welcome relief.

This is a music review isn't it? All this thoughtful, enlightening analysis, and you are talking about new music, right?

Surely, you'll make some sort of judgmental wisecrack about the complexity or harsh sounds of modern music. Maybe make the analogy about the cold, indifferent technologically advanced culture and contemporary music.

The result is a sort of caveman version...

or you could call it a caveman...

The result is a sort of caveman version of the processes of tonal music, bearing the same relation to Mahler that the barter system does to credit derivatives.

How topical. Just the analogy I was looking for.

Or in pictures, you could make the analogy that as caveman, we have:

figure 1: Caveman Scelsi (with beautiful cartoon chick), and...

figure 2: Unfrozen Caveman Mahler -- "I'm just a caveman. I fell on some ice and was later thawed by some of your scientists. Your world frightens and confuses me! But there is one thing I do know -- It is improper, to expressly pursue the Urlinie in performance and to single out its tones...for the purpose of communicating the Urlinie to the listener."

[Of course, I kid Mr. Kosman. His point about the relative complexity of form and overarching function of these pieces is a legitimate and well-taken point. Really, an important one to make given the substance of his argument.]

Also, hear the work in question below (and look at strange pictures of rocks while you're at it). It's a beautiful and intense piece of music, and only elucidate the thoughtfulness of Mr. Kosman's comments.

By the way, Mr. Kosman, do you realize that you just spent your first six paragraphs on Scelsi?! Surely it's time to masturbate over the supreme awesomeness that is Mahler 5...

Improbably enough, "Hymnos" turned out to be more dramatic than the Mahler, which received an uncharacteristically languid and unfocused performance from Thomas and the orchestra.

This is improbable. How many hours of rehearsal did the Mahler get? and how many do you think the Scelsi received?

The first two movements in particular - once past Mark Inouye's dynamic opening trumpet blast, which promised great things - sounded wan and reserved, marked by slow tempos and a deliberative approach to phrasing. At times this paid off, especially in clarifying some of the counterpoint in the first movement, but mostly the effect was dramatically lax.

This is indeed a difficult balance to strike between clarity and emotional vitality. However, personally, I think this is more the fault of the music -- just my own blasphemous opinion of course.

Things improved in the scherzo, ably led by the horn section, and the famous Adagietto, which Thomas paced nimbly enough to keep the melody from sagging, cast its gorgeous spell. But by the time the finale rolled around, blurriness and uncertainty were again the order of the day.

Wonderful review, Mr. Kosman! But only two paragraphs for the Mahler? Surely you will burn in hell.

And let me quickly quote from the one person who commented online about Kosman's piece:

Regarding the Scelsi-while you might call it "interesting, it is not beautiful or even pleasant to listen to...really, what is the point of this piece? Nearly a whole page in this review devoted to it and only a couple of sentences devoted to Mahler?? Makes no sense to me. Wrong priority in my opinion.

Yeah, Mr. Kosman, what is the point of this piece? Clearly, it had no point, so why discuss it. I mean there was Mahler on the concert for fuck's sake!

Also, would you mind closing those quotation marks? And what the hell are you quoting? Kosman didn't use either the word interesting or beautiful "or even pleasant". He loves his vocabulary much too much (filigreed indeed).

Densj, your opinion is stupid and wrong.

(I think that should fulfill my snark quotient for the week.)


Remember: Support Your Thesis with Evidence

At least that’s what my sixth-grade English teacher told me.

Piano music written by Frederick Chopin and Claude Debussy is more alike than some people may think, and Stephen Manes’ program Tuesday night did a lot to prove that.

And since I am taking several minutes out of my busy, music-hating life to write about this, you already know—being smart Detritusites—that our author will merely prove that there was a concert and it featured Chopin and Debussy, and that, by the end, we will be miles from where we started.

But it began so well. I had such high hopes.

The works heard seemed tailor-made to highlight the similarities between the two composers.

The obvious question (and logical continuation), then, is how?

Manes constructed seamless little suites from the first four of Chopin’s opus 28 Preludes, two excerpts from Debussy’s First Book of Preludes (“La Cathedral engloutie” and “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest”) and, in the second half of the concert, Debussy’s three “Estampes.”

Oh, right. The similarities highlighted the tailor-made suite-like constructions that the composers...

Wait. What?

The blending of both composers’ preludes was especially interesting in how they meshed together, perfectly logical in hindsight if not foresight.

This is an example of what counterpoint students refer to as oblique motion.

It would appear, however, that Manes has more of a kinship with the constantly shifting soundscape provided by Debussy.

In other news: the lead in was merely an object to be inverted, played backwards, then fragmented, never to return in its original form.

But still, it would be nice to have some specifics to back up what you say, even if it has nothing to do with the original thread.

While his Chopin interpretations in the first half were more than acceptable, they seemed to be harder-edged, an approach that lessened the vulnerabilities of the Preludes although the playing in Chopin’s “Berceuse” and “Barcarolle” later in the set were fine enough.

Well, folks, that explains it—a harder-edged approach proves that the pianist has more of a kinship with Debussy’s shifting soundscapes.

And without any sarcasm, that’s as specific as it gets. It even degenerates to this:

Manes’ take on “Clair de Lune” was magical [...]

Any evidence to support your claim?

Yeah. No.

But then again, magic is magical. So...

I'm lost.

As the final notes of “L’isle joyeuse” rolled out into the hall, the audience erupted into a well deserved standing ovation.

Oh no! Now a poor little hyphen seems to have been lost. Has anyone seen it?


And finally, a joke:

Manes then took two encores...

I'll bite. Where did he take them?

...playing a pair of Chopin scores, an F minor mazurka and the “Revolutionary Etude” (op. 10, no. 12).

That was a lousy punchline.

But at least there was an opus number. Hooray! The author took a fact.