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.)


Joshua Kosman said...

Well thank you Gustav. Very touching indeed.