Friday Quickie: That's not something you see everyday

It's a slow news cycle here in the detritus world of music criticism. And as such...

Symphony in A minor a minor disappointment

Oh. Dear. God.

This week's Minnesota Orchestra concerts, heard Thursday at Orchestra Hall, mark the climax of its season-long Rachmaninoff symphony cycle.

I think the story here is that the Minnesota Orchestra has completely given up on programming good music.

Har har har...see what I did there?

Sorry, I'm sure some of you out there just love Rachmaninoff...but just admit it, you're totally wrong. Right?

Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 3 in A minor is the composer's final symphony and one of the last of his orchestral works.

In fact that the only other orchestral work he composed (Symphonic Dances) was the only other piece he wrote at all until his death seven years after this symphony. Just saying.

As such, it is a nice pairing with the contrastingly youthful "Firebird."

Sure, what the hell.

The first movement opens in deep melancholy, perhaps expressing Rachmaninoff's sense of loss and of time passing.

Perhaps. But if you're basing this on the fact that you heard the Dies Irae, you should note that every piece Rachmaninoff ever wrote has the Dies Irae in it...or something like that.

So, how was this symphony "a minor" disappointment?

Wigglesworth missed the depth of emotion, stressing orchestral precision over passion, the result feeling somewhat cerebral and cold.

Well, that's not something you read everyday. Rachmaninoff -- "cerebral"? Surely you jest.

figure don't see that everyday: It is just as true today as it was in his day. Amen.


Actually, Rachmaninoff's music isn't not cerebral. It's just so much more common for his music to be inundated with superlatives extolling the emotional genius of his music. I mean, it's not like he's Bruckner or something.


Friday Quickie: Comparison wasn't not apt

Making an analogy, or even a direct comparison, can be an illuminating device when talking about abstract concepts. Of course, some people use them in place of an actual point, but Richard Nilsen has a point...just not a good comparison.

Symphony review: Singer Addis punks out on Mahler songs
Richard Nilsen, Arizona Republic, Apr. 22, 2011

“Punks out”?

Okay, how did Addis punk out on Mahler?

Phillip Addis wasn't no Sinatra.

Wait. Phillip Addis was not no Sinatra?

So… Phillip Addis is Sinatra?

The baritone sang Gustav Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer" with the Phoenix Symphony this week…

Wait…the singer who's not no Sinatra sang Mahler?

How’d he do?

…and the performance was a major letdown.

Well, Sinatra wasn’t known for his Mahler performances.

Sometimes you wait a whole season for a particular concert, because the music scheduled isn't merely beautiful or entertaining, but promises emotional transport.

I wish I had something clever to say here, but really, this is something unique that a symphony orchestra has the power to do but so rarely does. And this seems especially true since they rely so consistently upon the same pieces that have already emotionally transported me many times before.

After all, that is why we who love classical music persist in a love for a dying art form: It can take us out of ourselves and leave us feeling the radiance of the universe.

The art form isn’t dying, it’s just that people always insist on performing pieces that people already know they love.

The classical music universe is definitely not expanding the way most orchestras program.

It is almost a drug and we crave it.

Exactly. But we digress.

So, I’m assuming you love the Mahler “Songs of a Wayfarer” and you wished Sinatra were singing them? …

And when something like the Mahler sits there on the calendar all year, beckoning us to wait for its April date, we hope once again for that emotional and spiritual fix.

Oh, come on, Mahler’s on the calendar every year. But, I guess I know what you mean.

Well, perhaps you can expect too much.

If you expected Sinatra to sing your Mahler, perhaps you did expect too much.

It wasn't that Addis sang badly.

Oh. Was his diction good?

Certainly his diction was good.

Good. Music is all about diction.

As if music were about diction.

Wait? Music’s not about diction?

But the Sinatra comparison is dead on:…

Are you sure, because I can’t even begin to imagine why you’d compare this singer to Sinatra.

…When you heard Frank Sinatra sing, you knew - or felt you knew - that he had lived every word of the song he sang.

And there’s never been a classical singer who you felt this about before? Perhaps even someone who has sang the Mahler before?

The emotional intelligence he brought to lyrics meant that even as his voice declined, his ability to put across a song never wavered.

Exactly. Like when he sang:
Come fly with me, let's float down to Peru
In llama land there's a one-man band
And he'll toot his flute for you

I totally feel like he’s been to Peru, in a way no other artist could.

And the emotional content in lyrics like:
She'll have no crap games with sharpies and frauds
And she won't go to Harlem in Lincolns or Fords
And she won't dish the dirt with the rest of the broads
That's why the lady is a tramp

When he sang that, I could feel that this woman really eschewed the cultured, high-society conventions of her day...like not driving domestic automobiles.

It was what was missing from Addis' performance: He never convinced us - never even tried to convince us - that the words actually mean anything.

This seems fair. But did you really need Sinatra to make this point?

The styles of singing (and the songs themselves) really don't have a lot in common.

He sang as if he had memorized the words, not internalized them. It is at such times that you realize that mere musicality isn't enough: Great art isn't about pretty.

Couldn’t agree with this more… Wait, are you saying Sinatra wasn’t a good singer?


But you're making what I would a consider a valid and important observation about the performance...are you sure there isn't a more apt comparison you could provide to help us understand your argument?

If you have ever heard Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing these songs, you know how far we have fallen.

Thank you.

See, I don’t know that recording, but this seems like a much better comparison. You've now created a workable reference point for people who know the Mahler songs. Plus, I’m actually likely to seek out this recording to understand better your frame of reference.

Maybe it's just me, but I find this far more illustrative.