Tuesday, February 10, 2015

For Andrew Patner and the city of Chicago


Andrew Patner was The Man.

When I first started blogging in late 2009, he seemed to represent exactly what I stood against: a music critic cozy with the establishment, extolling the Chicago Symphony week after week in the Sun-Times, seemingly oblivious to its doldrum programming and lack of vision. Or—as a self-styled firebrand hoping to stir something up in the classical blogosphere—I so naively believed.

And thus my first outreach to Chicago's greatest cultural critic was a volley, aimed squarely at his review of a Civic Orchestra performance we both attended. I reviewed the review. Please don't read what I wrote; it is embarrassing. But do read Andrew's comments, which are at once cutting and gracious. "I'm afraid that I have to respond to a number of your points": the perfect sentiment. It was my first introduction to the Andrew that so many have mourned over the past week, someone who knew how to cultivate and correct, always guiding youthful passions in the right directions.

And despite the fact that I opened our dialogue with a clear sign of disrespect, from there Andrew shepherded me into a world that I had only hoped I would one day make my way into.

Over the past week, I have pored over dozens (hundreds?) of Facebook group messages exchanged between Andrew, Alex Ross, Marc Geelhoed, Bryant Manning, and myself in 2010 alone. Andrew graciously launched this group-message initiative not long after I had publicly excoriated him on my blog, and it immediately made me feel part of a critical community that I had no idea actually existed. I remember my palpable excitement, checking Facebook every half-hour or so to see a new message from three of my music-critic idols (and yes, Andrew quickly became an idol). Marc and Bryant were models as bloggers (and Andrew nurtured both of them), Alex was of course on a pedestal, but Andrew was the senior figure by age and, seemingly, endless worldly knowledge. It felt amazing to join in-depth conversations about orchestral performances of the Second Viennese School and drink in Andrew's preposterously well-informed insider knowledge. I typed ridiculously lengthy responses, and was giddy to see them validated in that companyThere was a cool-kids'-club appeal, but it also felt deeply communal; Andrew's wise generosity with us, even if he was catty about others, steered the conversation. He immediately granted me a voice and sense of authority despite my having demonstrated ignorance from the outset of our relationship.

And he took me to events—most memorably, an all-day, experimental reading of Wagner's Ring librettos, where we ate sandwiches together on-stage during intermission—and introduced me to members of the Chicago cultural elite. He never failed to point people to my blog and always asked my opinion during conversations with those who were far, far more qualified than me to offer one.  It was an extroverted kind of generosity that I have never seen matched. He took me to the CSO's press conference announcing Muti's first season, and was bemused by my silly attempt to live-blog the entire thing. He continued to comment on my blog, his responses always kind, always thoughtful, always nudging me in the direction of truth. 

That was what Andrew first meant to me; but I left the Chicago area only six months after that introduction. Thank god that Andrew was among the most prolific corresponders the Internet has seen. My inbox lists 184 email threads with his AOL address since 2010, and I'm sure I deleted many more (an obvious mistake). And I was by no means a close friend; others have thousands of his emails lining their inboxes.

Much of what I learned from Andrew, in fact, came from observing how he wrote about the world on Facebook. I cannot think of another music critic, of any genre, so singularly concerned with the health and future of his city. Reading his relentless stream of Facebook updates made me constantly energized by the idea of Chicago. My relationship to the city since I left has been entirely mediated by what I learned of it through Andrew's Facebook posts on politics, architecture, dining, music, art—everything imaginable that was interesting to discuss—and which probably accounted for at least 5% of my Internet reading as a whole. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how I would look at the city of Chicago if not through Andrew's eyes. The endless debates that erupted on his Facebook were like town hall meetings, gracefully shepherded by Andrew in the role of both moderator and firebrand.

Andrew made me powerfully conscious of the critic's role to act as a local advocate, as a pillar of the city as central as the fire department or burger joint. He seemed to almost physically embody the idea that classical music was a central part of Chicago's identity. In that foolish blog critique, I had misunderstood as cozy what was in fact essential: Andrew's dedication to keeping the flames of Chicago's important cultural institutions burning. He certainly knew exactly how dull the CSO's programming was, but he also knew that snark is not the critic's primary duty. In remaining a part of the community, in reporting on its activities thoughtfully and fairly, he could push the institutions in a better direction in a manner that was natural and effective. (Yes, I'm sure that the New York Philharmonic pays close attention to what Times critics say about them; but I get the feeling that the Chicago Symphony would act directly on what Andrew Patner recommended.) I think of his deeply sympathetic response to Dale Clevenger's fading horn playing as an emblematic example of a critic who could criticize while supporting the ecosystem that created his job–to push the exact right amount.

Andrew's generosity spilled far beyond his criticism and enthusiastic correspondence; he had an inexhaustible appetite for helping a friend, no matter how trivial the need. He was connected to everyone in the world. I planned to spend a weekend in Dresden: Andrew knew a curator who gave me an incredible one-on-one tour of a state museum. My girlfriend and I needed a place to crash in London: Andrew set us up with a wonderful family whose patriarch spent the weekend on the phone solving the Euro crisis. These far-flung VIPs, one imagined, would certainly help out any acquaintance of Andrew, because Andrew likely did the same for them.


Last May, I saw Andrew for the first time since 2010. I was giving a paper at a new-music conference at Northwestern and, for a number of reasons, it was a fairly crappy return to my alma mater. Seeing Andrew was the highlight. In a conference primarily devoted to severe modernist music, I was the odd duck in presenting a paper on what might be called pop-classical collaborations. Anticipating antagonistic responses, I had prepared a slew of potential defenses of the music and my scholarship. Andrew snuck into the back of the room during my talk, and of course the only pointed critiques came from him. He raised his hand and questioned the broader premise of this music, expressed sharp skepticism about the role of gender in the repertoire I discussed, and referenced vocalist Jan DeGaetani as a precedent I should further investigate. Andrew's inquiries provided an opportunity to demonstrate my knowledge—in response, I unleashed my salvo of defenses for the music—and an opportunity to learn. I'm sure that's why he did it: to provoke a conversation, to target and unleash a passionate rejoinder, to teach. Afterwards, a couple of musicians grumbled about that one random guy who asked such curmudgeonly questions, but I smiled and told them that it was my friend Andrew, and that I was happy that he came, and that it was fun sparring with him. 


As I write this tribute, I imagine the numerous Alan Gilbert-related emails from Andrew that would have arrived in my inbox by now, and probably the inboxes of a dozen others. It is wrenching to think how fun it would be to spar with him today.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hello!

I have pretty much stopped updating Seated Ovation! And that is a shame.

So if you're visiting this from Twitter or somewhere else on the Internet,

1) my name is Will Robin;

2) I'm a musicology PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill, researching a dissertation that focuses on sociality and economics in American new-music institutions since the 1980s (you can read my dissertation abstract here);

3) I live in Carrboro, NC;

4) I tweet way too frequently as @seatedovation;

5) I write somewhat frequently for the New York Times, The New Yorker (online), IndyWeek, and Bandcamp, on all kinds of topics, but mostly contemporary classical music;

6) I am currently serving as the Scholar-in-Residence for the North Carolina Symphony;

7) I am a classical saxophonist though I don't play all that much these days;

8) You can read a bio and almost up-to-date list of publications over at my UNC page;

9) You can reach me at william l robin @gmail.com (that's an L, not a 1);

10) Have a great day!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Top Ten Music School Rankings

10. The school where you did your undergrad.

9. The school where you got your Master's, and to which you are indebted for the gigs it helped you get to pay off the student loans for the school where you did your undergrad.

8. The place where you wrote your DMA dissertation on your teacher's teacher's teacher's pedagogical methods (or lack thereof).

7. Juellerd. Julleard? Julliard. Jewelyard? Whatever.

6. Harvard.

5. The place you wanted to go for undergrad, but you fracked one single note in one single excerpt and then you panicked and broke down and called the trumpet professor "Dad" and then Dave got in even though he couldn't play Petrushka in time and he's always been kind of a dick about it and now he's subbing like every weekend in the fucking BSO.

4. Royal Something of Great British Academy I think? I hear they never let Americans in. Or maybe that's the other one?

3. The school that everybody knows isn't as good as the school where you did your undergrad, but is "up-and coming." Featuring a lauded entrepreneurship initiative that trains barista skills at one of the three coffee shops housed in its new state-of-the-art building, named for an alumnus of the university's business school currently facing indictment for fraud.

2. University of Phoenix.

1. The school that has paid to have this list promoted on Facebook.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Beethoven Again, again

"Beethoven Again." The New Yorker online, 17 January 2014.

As promised, I'm going to try to update this somewhat-regularly with posts of my recent writing. This week's was a big one---a large piece on Beethoven, the completion-ist fetishism in classical music, and the sharp mind of Jonathan Biss. Click and check out his "Waldstein," which is great; he's got three albums of Beethoven sonatas out now, which are certainly worth a listen.

This article was my ideal kind to thing to write -- dig into a weird strand of history on JSTOR, Google Books, and the music library, find some interesting loot, and then present it with a caveat of strong-words-towards-the-classical-music-industry. It also deals with a favorite theme of Seated Ovation, the politics of programming (see here here here here, and especially here).

For those interested in where I got my information, I'll run down important sources: On A.B. Marx, the early Leipzig cycles, and Beethoven-motivated shifts in programming: Sanna Peterson's article "A.B. Marx, Concert Life, and German National Identity"; and Scott Burnham's "Criticism, Faith, and the Idee; A.B. Marx's Early Reception of Beethoven." On Bülow, see Alan Walker's biography; on Schnabel, see his autobiography My Life and Music, his Chicago lectures compiled in Music and the Line of Most Resistance; and Arved Ashby's Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction. For the war stuff, Joseph Horowitz's excellent study of Toscanini and the classical music industry, and of course Annegret Fauser's Sounds of War. For those interested in this topic in general, I'd also strongly recommend Mark Evan Bonds's three excellent monographs: Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven; After Beethoven: The Imperatives of Originality in the Symphony; and Wordless Music.

Undergirding this approach to Beethoven are two major studies, Tia DeNora's Beethoven and the Construction of Genius and Scott Burnham's Beethoven Hero, which consider Beethoven as a sociological phenomenon as much as a musical one. The fact is that most of the language we use to talk about Beethoven is very, very old, and it's not necessarily inherent to our listening experiences. We learn from a pedagogue or a book or a Charles Rosen that Beethoven is considered the greatest composer, and we tailor our expectations accordingly. I'm not saying that he isn't the greatest composer -- he's my favorite composer, and certainly has earned that status -- but we need to consider very carefully how his place in the canon was constructed (and, of course, how the canon itself came to be a thing). It's a story that's as much about the innate quality of the music as it is about the politics of his listeners in Europe from 1790 to 1840, and a construction of values around the type of music he wrote.

I often find that mainstream music criticism tells the most boring stories of classical music, which are those of the composers themselves -- heroic struggles of inspiration, torrid love affairs, pat tales of working out ideas -- and then stuff that happened in the past fifty years. Beethoven ends up being a hodge-podge of deafness, universal brotherhood, maybe something about the Nazis, and the Berlin Wall. Most are based on myth, and most essentially re-write Wikipedia entries or stale program notes.

For me, the most compelling stories are the ones told in the scholarly world today, but rarely make their way onto newspapers, websites, etc: how the music was granted its status as "great," and by whom: a history of how classical music was received and disseminated. It's old hat by now in musicology, but the rest of the music world seems stuck in a pre-1980 mode of thought. I'm not saying that we shouldn't still keep writing about Beethoven the man, but chances are if you're doing so, you're writing about something that's already been done better somewhere else. Why should we read an article about Beethoven's Fifth when we can easily Google a hundred others? Shifting attention towards the Beethoven Quartet Society, or the fascinating politics of Mengelberg's 1920 Mahler cycle in the wake of Versailles, or whatever other story that took place between 1827 and 2013, is probably going to be of more interest (to me, at least).

Anyway, I'm going to go back to writing my dissertation proposal.

Monday, December 30, 2013

new musings

Hello, dear readers. It's been a while, I know. It occurred to me recently that those who don't regularly check my all-too-frequently-updated Twitter might be missing out on some of my recent writing. I'm going to try to periodically update this space, in the manner of the great Steve Smith, with links to recent articles in other publications. Perhaps this will spur me to blog again, though that's pretty unlikely. 

By the way, I'm in Year Three of my PhD program, and am about to starting writing my dissertation proposal. It will focus on the rise of new, collaboration-based institutions in contemporary music, mostly geared around New York -- things like Bang on a Can, Bedroom Community, and yMusic. It's going to be fun, I hope.

Without further ado, here's some of what happened this fall:

(A review of David Menestres's excellent improv collective Polyorchard)

(Micro-previews of upcoming local performances in the Indy)

"Chicago's Quirky Modernism," Bandcamp blog 17 Dec 2013
(Examining the excellent new Chicago-based label Parlour Tapes+, which two sharp releases: the Spektral Quartet's CHAMBERS and the collaborative *AND)
Note: if you know of intriguing new music being issued through Bandcamp, give me a holler.

(A brief preview of yMusic, an ensemble I've written about in the past.)

"Nico Muhly's Team Spirit," The New Yorker, 20 Oct 2013

Eva-Maria Houben: Piano Music, liner notes for R. Andrew Lee and Irritable Hedgehog, Oct 2013
(IH and Andy have been receiving accolades from just about everyone; this album certainly deserves them. Keep an eye out for another Wandelweiser-y release with liner notes from me shortly.)

"Classical Saxophone, an Outlier, Is Anointed," New York Times, 18 Sept 2013.
(You may recall that the ending provoked some amount of controversy; the rest is much more important, though. Classical saxophone deserves a place, as Ryan Muncy's new album can attest.)


"From the Shed to the Stars: Reflections on BUTI," NewMusicBox, 17 October 2013.
(A pleasure to write about my own formative experiences as well as those of others.)

Keep an eye out for this January release on Telarc - cellist Zuill Bailey and the North Carolina Symphony play Britten, and I've written liner notes.

Questions or comments? Contact me at william l robin@gmail.com (that's an L, not a One)

Friday, August 9, 2013

critic's notebook

...and we're back. Not for long, alas: I spent a great weekend recently taking in a few performances in the Berkshires, and thus have decided to give the old fashioned review thing another go-around. Seated O will probably go dormant again afterwards; I would strongly advise checking my Twitter feed for updates regarding my writing in other places. When the NC concert season starts up in September I'll mostly be attending without reviewing; there's a lot of excellent stuff coming to town, but now I've got a dissertation to write, so it won't be much of a blogging year. And now, without ado:

Thursday, August 1 - Seiji Ozawa Hall
Mark Morris Dance Group and TMC Opera
Britten, Curlew River
Purcell, Dido and Aeneas

There is a weird energy to  music and nature at Tanglewood; they always seem to eerily complement each other. Thus, within a warm and generally pleasant weekend, we had a bleak and wholly appropriate drizzle to introduce the world of Britten and Purcell. Curlew River, a work with which I was previously unfamiliar, is the composer's attempt at merging 1960s music theater with Noh practices. It belongs, I think, to a larger group of postwar/tonal European operas that demonstrate deliberate connections to other cultures and nations -- I'm thinking of Henze's El Cimarròn in particular -- which are better about handling exoticism than previous attempts, but still kind of bad. Mark Morris, properly, drained Britten's drama of its Orientalist symbolism, bleaching exoticism and leaving behind a clever and haunting pageant. The uniformly excellent singers of the Tanglewood Music Center performed Morris's light, simple choreography. Britten's music is acutely eerie -- repeated, corkscrew horn passages, shakuhachi-like flute gestures, and flickering vocal lines that peak upwards, vaguely in the style of Noh singing -- and Morris's staging meshed well. Paper origami and a simple umbrella were transformed into powerful props, as the singer-dancers created the rocking motion of the sea, blew out a sail, and placed paper cranes at the grave of a madwoman's dead son. The TMC instrumentalists played with shocking brilliance.

At one point during Curlew River, a descending, tutti scale is repeated again and again, forming an endlessly unspooling lament, over which the life and death of a young boy is discussed. It foreshadowed, of course, the teary ending of Dido and Aeneas, which complemented the Britten historically and musically. Mark Morris's staging has been better discussed elsewhere, and I am not a dance scholar by any means; but I've long loved his realization of Dido on DVD, and was excited to see it in person. After a year of obsession with The Rite, I was at least somewhat prepared to think about dance. Morris's two-dimensional vision seems to connect backwards to the frieze of Nijinsky's Faun, which accrues further significance in both works' hyper-attention to sexuality. Morris's Dido exudes sex, from the drag gestures of the stomping sailor's chorus, to the loin-directed motions of Dido when she speaks of her pain, to the bawdy humor of the jealous sorceress (Morris's use of the same dancer for Dido and sorceress transforms Dido into a split-personality, a queen who seems to deliberately stymie her own attempts at love). And most importantly, as in the Britten, Morris's staging is incredibly musical -- the gestures of the dancers not only perfectly match the rhythms of the music, but seem to actually analyze it in real time, bringing out moments that one might not hear in the score. Morris acts here like an acute conductor, able to bring out new sounds in an old staple (normally, he actually conducts, though this time around it was handled with aplomb by Stefan Asbury). The TMC players, in the loft behind the stage, played with polished buoyancy; overall the singing was great, though less impressive than in the Britten. Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music, featuring the TMC, is this weekend, and I wish I could be there to see it -- if they can do Britten and Purcell this well, I really want to hear Lachenmann and Benjamin.

Saturday, August 3
Koussevitsky Music Shed
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Charles Dutoit, conductor

Morning rehearsal:
-Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps
-Stravinsky, Fireworks
-Dvorak, Cello Concerto featuring Yo-Yo Ma

Evening performance:
-Ravel, Pavane for a Dead Princess
-Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 1 featuring Lang Lang
-Ravel, Daphnis et Chloe (complete score)

Ordinarily it would not be kosher to review a rehearsal, but two things drove me to basically have to talk about Saturday's morning dress for Sunday's concert (which I couldn't attend): my year-long Rite of Spring odyssey, and the enormously impressive performance that the BSO gave of the ballet. The overall clarity of the playing was astonishing, especially given the outdoor performance and the rehearsal setting. Dutoit crafted a laid-back interpretation, less pounding than motoric. The chug recalled Eliot's comparison of the ballet to "the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels"; the snorting bassoons of the Augurs evoked a factory blowing out puffs of steam. Woodwind solos were eminently lyrical; the fluttering of the Spring Rounds was the sonic equivalent of dancers on pointe.

Philosophically, this is not the kind of Rite I prefer. I sympathize more with the Taruskin idea of attempting to get back to the primitivist, dangerous, Nicholas Roerich-esque Rite; the one that Gergiev and the Mariinsky deliver on a good day. But I can't deny how good this kind of Rite sounds. The fact is that the shimmering landscape that orchestras like the BSO deliver at their best is the Rite of today, the result of a culture of excerpt perfection (if you graduate from any conservatory, you have probably mastered the hardest parts of The Rite).

So why not make the most of it? Why not create the controlled frenzy that an orchestra composed of perfectionists can deliver? The downside is that this Rite does not accrue the same violence over its thirty-minute span that it can in a different approach; the upside is that you can hear everything, and it all sounds amazing. The former can at times be revelatory, at others dull; the latter, in this case, was thrilling.

Fireworks acquired a strange energy following The Rite; it's often dismissed as post-Rimsky orchestral fluff, but its opening polyrhythms somehow sounded more uncanny than those of The Rite (it is, after all, much less of a classic). Yo-Yo Ma gave an impassioned, technically brilliant performance of the Dvorak, but the perfection that he has accomplished in his career often lacks illumination; I wanted to hear something new, or weird, but I didn't. And hearing The Rite as an opener, alas, cast a long shadow over the rest of the morning.

The Rite actually cast a shadow over the evening, as well; after encountering the lucidity with which the BSO could play it, I was particularly looking forward to their Daphnis. It delivered. Dutoit's approach, again crisp and relaxed, gave the sensual music the effect of a series of waves that never quite crested. The approach felt entirely natural, as if the orchestra were simply poring forth sound. But all the musicians -- from the ecstatic singing of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to the muscular basses of the Danse guerrière to the languorous flute solos throughout -- were supernaturally attuned to the feel of Ravel's music.

The BSO's Pavane was equal to its Daphnis. The problem of the evening was the Beethoven -- or, rather, Lang Lang's performance. I'm not a big fan of hating on Lang Lang, though I've done it before/ Too much anti-LL criticism is couched in a smug, nationalist superiority that tilts towards racism. Lang Lang's technique is great, and I often love the bright, expansive sound that he gets out of the instrument.

The problem for me is the uniformity of that tone; I want to hear more kinds of sounds from his playing. I kept wishing for him to puncture his uniformly rich timbre with dryness, brittleness -- something to disrupt the flow, to draw attention to particular musical ideas and make me think about Beethoven anew. After around twenty minutes -- the First Piano Concerto is a very long piece for what it is, and seems much longer when given this kind of One Size Fits All performance -- Lang Lang's tone became monotonous. Many who criticize the pianist's Beethoven and Mozart tend to harp on the idea that his playing is better suited to Chopin or Liszt, setting up this false dichotomy between the solemnity and intellectual rigor required for the former and the virtuosity for the latter. The issue for me is not that Lang Lang's Beethoven lacks some kind of German solemnity or Teutonic searching -- I really don't think that's something required for every Austrian piano concerto out there -- but that it lacks interesting ideas overall.

And honestly, it is deeply upsetting when a terribly enthusiastic audience just goes nuts after a mediocre performance. Thus the name of this blog.

The weekend of TMC and BSO was a reminder of the enormous faculties of orchestral musicians. These are the folks that should really be profiled by major newspapers. Their lives are interesting, and the playing remarkable.


Footnote: Bang on a Can Marathon!
Alas, I could only sample the BOAC summer marathon at Mass MOCA, sandwiched briefly between morning and evening BSO on Saturday. I heard a great performance of Julia Wolfe's Fuel for strings, which fuses the twitchiness of Shaker Loops with the acerbic sonic clouds of Xenakis; it is an entrancing work, alternating between trembling Romantic gestures and fierce extended string techniques. Bill Ryan's brassy Drive was also well-played, with engaging rhythmic sputters and a killer backbeat, though it lagged somewhat towards its end.

Onyx, a work by the late Eleanor Hovda -- a composer with which, I admit, I was completely unfamiliar -- was startling in comparison to what came before, a respite from the relentless drive. Strings tremeloed softly, with quizzical little effects popping up in the winds. In Lachenmann, the accrual of extended techniques is deliberately alienating; here, weird slap-tongues and breathing sounds drew the listener in. A furious climax, in which the bodies of the string instruments were wildly shaking, dissolved into a spectral mist that lingered for the rest of the weekend.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Late night thoughts on reading the New York Times

Yes, I've decided to take to Seated Ovation tonight, and it's in the very old fashioned way that I used to use the blog -- circa 2010, senior year at Northwestern, when I was an anonymous outlaw shaking up the classical music institutions of Chicago.  Tonight, yes, is a screed night.  But it's for a good cause.

The only "reporting" being done on James R. Oestreich's recent announcement of his retirement is on a blog that I won't link to, because it is designed as linkbait, and does not need any more.  Needless to say, its writer clearly has a thing out for Jim, and he has expanded that grudge out into a general critique of the entire New York Times as an institution.  I'm guessing it has to do with this book review here.

I wanted there to be something on the Internet, not just in Twitter form, that fleshes out a bit the importance that Jim Oestreich's 24 years at The Times has meant to classical music.  Now, I know Jim personally, and he has edited my work for The Times, and for that I am ever grateful.  But I would not consider myself one of the "chummy" types who goes online to defend his friends, so maybe we can discount that idea up front.  I also am not part of any old boys' club of any kind, that I know of.

So let's talk about what 24 years at The Times means:

It means helping shape the careers of Anthony Tommasini, Vivien Schweitzer, Steve Smith, Zachary Woolfe, Will Crutchfield, Alex Ross, Jeremy Eichler, Anne Midgette, Dan Wakin, and many others I'm forgetting.  That's most of the best writers on classical music in the field.

It means writing about early music -- often controversially -- in a way that had not been previously pursued in a major newspaper, and rigorously staying on top of the New York early music scene.  And analyzing it in a manner that can only be called scholarly -- see this.

It means recognizing that shifts are occurring in the classical music sphere, and that they need to be recognized.  The fact is that the Times covers more new music now than it ever did, and is completely on board with the youngest generation of composers and following what they're doing.  That did not used to be the case: you would seek out Andrew Porter in the New Yorker, or Kyle Gann or Tom Johnson in the Voice, to find out what was going on in the non-symphonic world.  Jim, in cultivating writers like Alex Ross, Steve Smith, and now Zachary Woolfe, has cast a keen eye on the contemporary scene and helped nurture it.  New operas, major events at Le Poisson Rouge or Issue Project Room, weird avant-gardy things are all in the mix these days -- if there's ideology, it's mostly to be found in critiques of institutions like the NY Phil for not playing enough new music.  I'm not saying every writer says brilliant things about new music, but the coverage is there, and it's not dogmatic, pedagogical, or close-minded in ways it was several decades ago.

It means coverage.  This is a big deal.  I don't know if having a Classical Editor is the only way to guarantee coverage of classical music, but Jim has (from what I've heard from many smart people) battled his entire career for serious discussions of classical music in the mainstream media -- from High Fidelity to Opus to the Times.  There are no other resources that cover so much music in any kind of depth in comparison to the NYT; whether or not you like individual writers or pieces, the effort is there.  This is essential not only for the current classical scene -- which needs more critical scrutiny, not less -- but also for historians.  For a lot of these events, the Times Review can be the only historical record of its existence.  If those vanish, the memory vanishes.

Which brings me to the final "it means," and the most important one for the career I'm headed down.  Musicology has had a place at the Times since Jim's arrival 24 years ago.  A major place.  That has been spearheaded by Jim's relationship to Richard Taruskin, who is not only a great musicologist but a great writer for the public, who has proven controversial in many of the best ways that controversy can be used.  If you want to read the most scathing approach to academic serialism, read this.  If you want to read a brilliant analytical takedown of Carmina Burana, read this.  And let us not forget the Great Klinghoffer Controversy.  These can be harsh and I don't always agree with them, especially in the case of Klinghoffer: but by bringing an academic into this world, Jim has allowed for discussions of important issues that remain almost entirely below the surface in the world of classical music, exposing the political realities of how great (or not so great) music is made.  Taruskin's epochal Text & Act, perhaps the most important thing ever written on performance practice, was partially birthed from his work with Jim, and Jim gave Taruskin space to write:
[Opus Magazine] offered writers space and scope such as I have never enjoyed anywhere else, and an editor more devoted to airing serious, qualified opinion than any other with whom I have had the pleasure of working.  It still seems a miracle that Jim Oestreich took my big Beethoven review without asking for a single cut.  That piece would have been turned down by any schoalrly journal as too topical, by any Early Music forum as too impious, and by any record magazine as too detialed (not to mention long), but for Opus, or for Jim, it was just right.  I believe it to be perhaps the most valuable piece in the present book beause of how it immediately applies theoretical premises to the exercises of 'practical criticism.'  I would like to think it exemplary in its way, but there is no magazine in the world today that would print it. (Text & Act, 6-7)

Even with less space the Times, as Taruskin continues, the impetus to create vivid works of scholarship for a broad public remained.

Introducing controversial music scholarship to the Times readership allowed for introducing all kinds of scholarship to the Times readership: thus excellent recent work by W. Anthony Sheppard and Micaela Barnello, among others.  And, of course, I am ever grateful to Jim for covering UNC's recent Rite conference (that's some chumminess, I suppose).

This is the reality, sometimes unspoken, of a quarter-century of difficult work as a defender of the arts -- because that is, ultimately, what a great critic and editorial voice is.  In treating music with the rigor and thought that it deserves, Jim has contributed, and helped sustain, the vibrant cultural community that is New York City, and has showed it to the world.

Please contribute any thoughts in the comments, and, as always, you are welcome to disagree.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Where have I been?

Well, first, here.
And then here.
And then, and still, here.

So it's been almost two months since I've updated; to keep track of what's going on, I would recommend taking a look at the twitter feed on the right.  For the near future, my blogging will be almost entirely devoted to Reflections on the Rite, the blog I'm running in conjunction with UNC and Carolina Performing Arts' The Rite of Spring at 100, a project celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the premiere of The Rite of Spring.  So apologies for all those seeking trenchant Seated Ovation words of wisdom.  I'm not sure what form this blog will take over the next year but I'll try to write here occasionally.  I'm in Year Two of the Ph.D. program now, which is the craziest.  To be brief: seminars on music and technology, Mozart opera, and literary modernism; a gigantic Rite of Spring conference; qualifying exams; a paper to present at SAM; a master's thesis on Pleyel's influence on American hymnody in the early 19th century; and some other stuff I'm forgetting about.

And if  you'd like to write a guest post about The Rite of Spring, email me! william l robin at gmail.