Concert ruined by programming Schumann

The following article really isn't a bad article. I really should say that it is indeed a good review. This is the Anne Midgette I enjoy reading. She is a fine writer with an attention to argument and word choice that appeals to my particular tastes. But despite my favorable opinion of this review, it left me with a couple of observations I thought needed making.

Music review: ‘Juggler in Paradise’ at NSO
Anne Midgette, Washington Post, June 10, 2011

Even in an article primarily dedicated to the work of a living composer, it appears that the relative dissonance is still the defining criteria of whether a piece is good or not.

Augusta Read Thomas writes music that is dense and smart but also listenable.

Oh, the false dichotomy...could there be a Detritus Review without you.

So...only dumb music is listenable? And therefore, all smart music is unlistenable?

Thick with complex rhythms, bright with textures, dappled with particular shades of dissonance alternating with snatches of melody, it doesn’t blatantly try to seduce the hearer, but it doesn’t want to be off-putting, either.

This is an interesting comment. In the hands of a lesser writer, I'm not sure this could be read in any other way than to say, "this piece is dissonant, but not too dissonant".

However, more intelligently written, I still think Midgette's point is simply to alleviate the dismissals of those who would, well, dismiss the music of living composers.

There are melodies, but not pretty ones. Got it.

Hers is emphatic music, making its points with a care that approaches the finicky, but it’s always looking over its shoulder to make sure that you’re following.

Sure, why not. Although, I'm not sure I'd ever call finicky music emphatic.

Its blend of intellect and accessibility makes her music very popular with orchestra programmers and conductors.

Okay, so here's that sentiment again, of her music's smartness/intellect. Doesn't this immediately beg the question, what makes her music "smart"?

Rather than immediately starting in with an assessment of her music's dissonance levels, why not explain the very opening sentence -- "
Augusta Read Thomas writes music that is dense and smart but also listenable." You have three adjectives here...why must listenable be our only focus?

And in this case, listenable seems to ultimately equal levels of dissonance and consonance.

Of course, smart and dense in music are not as easily defined as I think is assumed here. I know I'm nitpicking Midgette here somewhat, but it seems especially frustrating when she has so many good things to say in her review.

Also, I don't want to disregard this matter of a piece being "listenable". However, I do find that very word to an uninviting place to start. Are there really unlistenable pieces out there?

It's an absurd sort of phrasing -- pieces of music whose sounds cannot be perceived by human ears, or cause so much pain to be safe for aural consumption?

Fine, I'm being too literal. Like I said, I don't wish to ignore listenability. All music must grapple with it's accessibility and it's popular appeal, even if it wishes to disregard them.

And this leads me back to Ms. Midgette's review of Thomas' concerto...


The music, though, might not be so popular with audiences.

Interesting. Her smart but listenable music isn't popular with audiences? Any thoughts?

Eight pieces in two decades by one orchestra is an excellent track record for a composer in her 40s, yet it’s hardly enough to breed familiarity among the public.

So, this isn't her fault? Is it that by new music standards, popular still equals rarely performed?

Despite Eschenbach’s presence and the work’s presentation between two slices of Schumann (the “Braut von Messina” overture on one side, the second symphony on the other), Thursday’s audience was sparse.

See, I would blame Schumann for that.

And the crowd seemed oddly untouched by the piece,...

Really? How did you come to this conclusion?

As our lawyer friends might point, are you really testifying as to how some 1000 other people felt on the night of June 9th?

But, I guess I get it, the piece must not be listenable enough.

...a 20-minute arc in which the violin trails through the orchestra and accumulates sounds, like a strand of string picking up sugar crystals to form rock candy.

Ugh. Say no more. I hate rock candy. As I assume everyone in attendance did as well.

Thomas makes emphatic gestures built of sometimes unperceived subtleties, repeating them, with a kind of stuttering effect, to make sure you’ve got it.

Unperceived subtleties repeated until I get them?

If not prefaced with this idea that the audience was untouched, or didn't like the piece, I'm mostly happy with these interesting, if not poetic observations. Perfectly in line with your standard review, however...what does this have to do with your line of argument regarding listenability?

“Juggler in Paradise” — its epithet perhaps one of the less successful of Thomas’s signature poetic titles — is a Harlequin-like piece spangled with bells and wood blocks, in which the violin solos are often joined by bongo drums, or lead into passages of big-band jazziness. At one point, the orchestra held its breath for a solo bongo cadenza, then pounced with a quick powerful chord, like a cat leaping on a mouse.

Sounds like a cool piece. So what in the hell is the problem?

In short, it’s a piece shot through with antic humor, and yet it’s a little too self-conscious to be truly funny.

Oh. You thought the piece was supposed to be funny?