Thursday, December 31, 2009


Seated Ovation will be on break for the rest of the week, as I celebrate the new year and travel back to Chicago. Tune in next week for thoughts on Louis Armstrong, Richard Strauss, and maybe even the beginning of our multi-part series on what's wrong with the Chicago Symphony.

In the meantime, some food for thought:

Richard Brody, one of the New Yorker film critics, writes a passionate review of Peter Serkin's performance of the Brahms First Piano Concerto. I wish more music critics injected this enthusiasm into their writing. See Allan Kozinn's relatively tame Times review in comparison.

Jeremy Eichler takes a strong stand against Levine's artistic failings in the last year. Paul Wells defends the BSO. I completely agree with Eichler--it's not the issue of strength of playing, which Boston has in spades, but of programming and artistic vision, which implies more than just Levine's mixed bag of classics with a not-so-friendly modern work thrown in. Yes, Levine was absent this year because of illness, but there was nothing exciting particularly about the programming to begin with (a Beethoven cycle is not inventive). I would love to see Levine bring in one of his buddies--Gunther Schuller, or even the dreaded Charles Wuorinen--as an artistic/creative advisor to program festivals, just as Dudamel has done with John Adams in L.A and Gilbert with Lindberg in New York. The gist of Eichler's argument (and mine), which he doesn't spell out completely, is that in New York and L.A., they have realized that the role of the orchestra is not just to play a bunch of high-quality concerts in their hall and expect people to attend. Orchestras now have to seek out audiences, which means good marketing, a visionary and daring artistic agenda, living composers, local outreach programs, and even celebrity cameos (Alec Baldwin!). And as Alex said in his Dudamel article, most of this was already established in L.A. by Esa-Pekka, and Dudamel is just continuing his great work. Gilbert, though, has to make up for Maazel's failings.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


I have very mixed feelings about WQXR, New York's only 24/7 classical music radio station. It's virtually the only radio I listen to simply because I only listen to radio in the car, and I only have a car in New York. Occasionally I'll tune into their live feed or Q2 just to see what's playing. I was hopeful that the change in ownership and station would strengthen their programming, but that doesn't appear to be the case (Q2, though, is awesome).

The strength of WQXR is that it delivers the classical canon. The weakness of WQXR, is, of course, that it delivers the classical canon. If you don't know what the classical canon is, then you can tune into WQXR and learn. When I was in high school, it was very helpful to me. My uncle and I used to play a game--he would flip on the radio, and I would have to guess what period the music came from. As I gradually learned the repertoire, it became easier to guess the period, then the composer, eventually the piece and performer. It's great the WQXR can introduce the layman to the classics. It's not so great when, after four years of hearing the same pieces played every time I turn on the radio, I would simply rather drive in silence than listen to selections from Swan Lake.

If I were to fault WQXR for two things, they would be:

1) Programming - Look at this playlist. Pretty good stuff from 7pm to when I'm writing this (11:00pm). You get standards (Rhapsody in Blue, Siegfried), easier new music (Eros Piano, David del Tredici) and a couple not-too-familiar pieces (Sibelius's En Saga, Ives Third). I'm not sure if there's any kind of programmatic continuity, but that's maybe too much to ask. But this afternoon there were seven hours of some horrid annoucer named Naomi Levin, who brought possibly the worst of the worst in terms of classical programming. 1812 Overture, Strauss waltzes, Pachelbel Canon, Sorcerer's Apprentice, one movement from the Four Seasons. It makes my brain hurt. Music like this isn't even the classical canon; any self-respecting orchestra barely performs these pieces. This is a seven hour Pops concert.

2) Recordings - A scan of the same playlist shows pretty good orchestras (although, an entire day with almost all orchestral music? I know WQXR for some reason hates vocal music, but at least a little more chamber and solo stuff) conducted by good conductors. But I have never turned on WQXR to hear them play a new, interesting recording. All of the repertory standards they play have been recently recorded by either some crazy period ensemble, or an awesome conductor. Why not have some Simon Rattle Brahms or some Christian Thielemann Wagner instead of random recordings from twenty years ago? Or at least play some historically interesting recordings from WW2 or earlier. Almost all the recordings they play seem to come from this nebulous, unidiomatic period from 1970-1990.

Right now, WQXR functions as a comfort food for elderly people, who might be shocked if they tuned into a performance of an entire Beethoven symphony during their mid-day trip to the pharmicist. The station is in the same kind of washed-up position that the New York Philharmonic or Met were five years ago. When Anthony Tommassini began critizing Maazel and New York institutions for conservatism, he should have been hitting WQXR as well (although the New York Times company did own the station). I always thought it was funny that WQXR would read the front page of the Times and bring in New York Times business experts, yet I never once heard a Times music critic on their programs. New York classical music is cleaning up its act; it's time for WQXR to follow.

Also, their signal is weak so the music sounds like shit.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

dream house

I finally got around to visiting La Monte Young's and Marian Zazeela's Dream House today (beware: the web design hasn't been updated since 1998). It's a little sound/light installation tucked away in an apartment in Tribeca, on the floor above Young's and Zazeela's residence. I was really hoping to bump into the crazy minimalist on the stairs, but no such luck. A volunteer let me in (the installation is staffed entirely by MELA Foundation volunteers): two rooms, each bathed in violet light, with pillows on the floor.

I spent most of my time in the larger room, which had a shrine with a number of pictures on it---the light made it difficult to identify the individuals. What is amazing about the Dream House is that the music changes dramatically with the movement of your body. You shift your head slightly to the right, and a high pitch suddenly glissandos downwards. Electronic growls dissapate when you change your position; walking around the room becomes an adventure in different effects. There's a whole acoustic phenomenon to this which I know nothing about; it's present in Phil Niblock's massive soundscapes as well. It makes the listening experience confusing and liberating. It's difficult for me to not seek out narrative in music, something I find present in vast minimalist works like Music for Eighteen Musicians, but the Dream House essentially refutes this. You can create your own listening space within Young's musical space, by sitting in one position and focusing on what you hear and how it changes, or walking around and letting the changes happen to you.

I've never seen Young's music live--the closest thing to the Dream House for me would probably be last summer's Phil Niblock concert at Issue Project Room, or maybe Charlemagne Palestine's epic Schlingen-Blangen, the 2-hour organ meditation played by the composer at the minimalist conference in September. The immensity of sound in the Dream House was a visceral experience, perhaps made more so because I was alone in the room. I haven't read enough about Zazeela's lighting to write intelligently about it, but it set a calming mood against the relentlessly loud (but somehow, amazingly still) music. There was a beautiful moment when I looked out the window onto the cars drifting down rainy Church Street, tinted purple from the lighting, and felt like I was watching a scene from Koyannisqatsi.

La Monte Young is in a funny position for an O.G. minimalist (one of the four, with Reich, Glass, and Riley, named by Keith Potter in his seminal survey Four Musical Minimalists). Because his music is the least frequently performed and recordings are so difficult to obtain, his name is really not known outside a small circle. None of my friends in music school recognize his name or have heard his music; if asked to name four musical minimalists, they would probably say Adams, Reich, Glass, Riley (Riley only because In C is so omnipresent, and Adams is probably the most famous minimalist-who's-not-a-minimalist). Where Young may have exerted the most influence on his contemporaries in the '60s and '70s, he has essentially faded from the scene. The composers most like him played in his ensembles thirty years ago---the most recent postminimalists, like the Bang on a Canners, Nico Muhly, and the New Amsterdam crowd, don't seem to have a tenable relationship to his music. Young is partially to blame for his reduced presence; he is apparently incredibly difficult about allowing others to perform his music, and the few scholars (Kyle Gann included) who have attempted to analyze his works face his severe restrictions and requirements.

It would be unfortunate to see Young's music drift away from the importance it held in the Downtown scene thirty or forty years ago. The Well-Tuned Piano is stunningly beautiful and out of print. If the Dream House website is indicative of Young's internet presence, it's unlikely we'll see MP3s of any of his music in his lifetime. Not one of his works is on iTunes, and his ensemble plays only a handful of concerts each year. So actually, if you live in New York, your best bet for hearing his music is to go to the Dream House--it's worth it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

performance practice

This post on eighth blackbird's blog is fascinating. It details some of the collaborative process between the ensemble and Steve Reich on his Pulizer Prize-winning Double Sextet. It gives a lot of insight into Reich's style of composing and the ensemble's style of rehearsing, but is also interesting to me as a musicologist-in-training.

Performance practice is not something that figures into much new music academia, an issue that was brought up by Neely Bruce at the minimalism conference I attended in September. That Steve Reich & Musicians would have a "house style" is obvious but not often talked about; the Philip Glass Ensemble had the same thing. Here's Glass on his relationship to his ensemble in the '70s:

"By that point the group had been together over ten years, and they had become the best performers of the music. So I had a more important reason for keeping the ensemble together than my initial one. At first, they were the only people who would play it; then they became the best people who could play it…We really came back to the idea that the composer is the performer, and that’s very, very valuable."*

This necessary development of performer as composer during the Downtown scene of the '60s-'80s is no longer always the case, as ensembles like eighth blackbird and Alarm Will Sound take up works of classic minimalism and commission new postminimalist music. Of course they have the recordings of Glass and Reich to determine how to perform aspects of the works, and also can communicate with the composers themselves. Robert Carl's book on In C details the evolving performance practice of the work. For that piece, I consider Bang on a Can's recording to be definitive; but is a very, very different creature from the original 1968 Riley recording.

Communicating with living composers, whether as a performer or academic, can be tricky business. A musicologist will usually take the written letters of a dead composer at his or her word; as primary sources, they (theoretically) represent concrete knowledge and opinion. Obviously we don't always have access to a wealth of written information for someone who is alive. There are upsides and downsides to this. If Brahms writes in his letters that Gypsy performance influenced his chamber music, that's more or less fact. When interviewing a living composer about how he views his music, everything can be infinitely clarified. As a musicologist it's easy to try to seek out hidden truths in the music and then get them happily confirmed by the composer--I see a repeated bass pattern in Nico's Keep in Touch and hope he will tell me that he was referencing Dido and Aeneas. But, in the case of my interviews with Nico regarding his music, I had to be careful that I wasn't steering him towards my own conclusions, asking a longwinded question and getting him to say yes. Often I would just ask short questions and hope that his expansions yielded the information I wanted to hear without guiding him towards it.

I'm not sure if there's a "right way" for performers and academics to work with living composers--maybe someone should write an etiquette book? In the case of eighth blackbird, it certainly helps to be incredibly talented and hard-working.

*from William Duckworth's Talking Music, p. 337


I just realized that my comments settings were a bit selective. Comments are now open to anyone, not just those with a blog or Google ID.

Monday, December 21, 2009

criticism year in review

I don't have anything to add to the multitude of best-of lists made by any number of excellent critics. But while all those print critics have compiled lists of the best recordings, musical events, performance venues, etc. it is it up to the members of the classical blogosphere to note the best examples of music criticism from 2009. I was going to do a top 10 list but would rather just point out a few (mostly classical) articles that stood out on the past year:

Alex Ross
's two outstanding feature articles, on the Marlboro Festival and fictional composers (I should note that I work for Alex and did some brief editing/formatting of the Marlboro article). I also enjoyed his Mahler piece. Truly great criticism allows one to re-evaluate his beliefs about a piece of music and come to a new understanding about a work. My first reading of The Rest is Noise had any number of those epiphanies, and one particular description in the Mahler article stands out to me: a moment in the first movement of the Ninth Symphony, "where a flute and a horn meander along fitfully intersecting paths, enacting the musical equivalent of a Beckett dialogue." This brief duet in the Ninth has always perplexed me, and this description essentially taught me how to listen to it.

I love all of Justin Davidson's articles in New York Magazine. Three pieces really stood out for me: a loving tribute to principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, Stanley Drucker; a brilliant journey through In C; and one of the only recent non-academic articles I've read on the Ring which deals with it in a mature and thoughtful way, summing up a number of critical arguments, dispelling with myths, and engaging with the work in a personal but critical manner ("I adore the 'Ring,' but immersing myself in it involves a battle between reason and impulse, and I’m never sure which side I’m rooting for.")

Sidebar: I'm a bit annoyed that in their end-of-the-year summaries, not one Times critic--actually, no print critic I've read so far--mentioned Stanley Drucker's retirement. I'm all for getting final digs into Maazel, as Allan Kozinn did, but it's always nice to honor a living legend as well.

Third in my holy trinity of classical critics is Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe. He is the only critic whose weekly reviews of a local orchestra are consistently written with grace and wit (Alex and Justin are more "big picture" guys who don't review each New York Philharmonic concert). His criticism of the BSO Beethoven cycle minus Levine is commendable, and recently he wrote a wistful article on saying farewell to his CD collection. I highly recommend his chronicle of Schoenberg's stay in Boston and a beautiful remembrance of the late composer Leon Kirchner.

Favorite moments in online classical music:
-In which Richard Nixon calls Leonard Bernstein a "son of a bitch"
-Anne Midgette (honorary fourth member of my trinity) starting a blog
-Nico's and Amanda Ameer's battle with the new Alice Tully
-Pretty much anything Opera Chic and La Cieca write

Saturday, December 19, 2009

making contact

Members of the New York Philharmonic
Magnus Lindberg, conductor
Arlene Sierra, Game of Attrition
Lei Lang, Verge
Marc-Andre Dalbavie, Melodia
Arthur Kampela, MACUNAIMA

I saw the New York Phil's first Contact! series performance on Thursday night, and was supposed to attend again this evening but for the impending snowpocalypse.

One of the complaints I heard regarding Contact! leading up to the performance was that the New York Phil is ghetto-izing new music. This doesn't really hold up. Yes, there are occasional concerts of conservative, Maazel-era programming--in that case, I imagine, because of the cancelled Cuba tour debacle (Sidebar: how hilarious is the quote "“Perhaps the New York Philharmonic should have checked with the government before announcing the trip."?). But Gilbert and Lindberg have done an admirable job of sprinking in new composers and premires throughout the season, even if they skew towards the Scandinavian fare which Gilbert prefers, rather than American or New York-based composers.

And does anyone really want to hear new music, or for that matter, any music, in Avery Fisher Hall? That space would have been terrible for any of the small-ensemble pieces performed, and the Kampela in particular would have been a complete disaster. Contact! is similar to the CSO's MusicNOW--find a cool space (in the CSO's case, Harris Theater), give out free food/beverages (CSO provides pizza and beer; New York gave us a surprisingly strong cocktail), and try to attract an audience beyond your graying subscribers. But the CSO has a more developed series: once a month on Mondays (so it doesn't conflict with other CSO events; all four Contact! performances are scheduled during orchestra concerts), with a wide variety of music including premieres and contemporary classics.

One of my main issues with Thursday's concert was that Contact!'s audience seemed, for better or worse, self-congratulatory and a little bit too "insider". I mentioned to Alex that it seemed like everyone at the performance knew each other---it was packed with young composers, new-music PR types, critics, etc. There were a few faces that looked like your average NY Phil donor, and a couple people bewildered enough to not be part of the New York new music scene. But I wonder how much new audience that the performance attracted---as in people not somehow professionally or personally connected to the composers, performers, or administration.

I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing, because a lot of those new-music types wouldn't necessarily show their faces at a Maazel-era Phil concert. And since this was the first event in their series (four concerts, with only two programs, by the way, is not really a series) time will tell.

Now let's discuss programming: the four pieces performed were of a generally eclectic nature, so one cannot accuse Gilbert/Lindberg of having a true stylistic agenda. But they definitly skewed towards the European modernist vein; besides Nico's piece, the second program seems to do the same. I would love for next season's (hopefully expanded) series to have one entire program devoted to New York-based composers, maybe even the New Amsterdam mafia. And why not host it at Le Poisson Rouge, so the New York Times will at least call it hip.

Another question I have is regarding the actual make-up of the ensemble. There didn't seem to be a consistency regarding the string players performing, with different musicians in each piece. And considering that the Messiah was being done at the same time at Avery Fisher, clearly the entire orchestra was not involved in rehearsing this music (the April concerts are during a Muti orchestra performance). Will Contact! itself be a specific, crack-team small ensemble devoted to new music, within the orchestra? Or will it be a different group for each concert, or even for each individual piece? There are advantages to both: a small, consistent group would allow for a development of performance practice and possibly more rehearsal time, but a rotation would give more musicians exposure to new music and give the entire orchestra more experience with modern techniques. I'm not sure which is the better option, but I would like to hear from the orchestra which is being done.

Some thoughts on the music (with help from the pre-performance composer interviews, which I wish had been done by Alec Baldwin instead of Lindberg): Arlene Sienna's piece was apparently about Darwinism, which may have helped her construct the work but wasn't particularly evident in the music itself. It had a definite Stravinsky vibe, with a few cool alternations between the small ensembles-within-the-ensemble, but overall just sounded too new music-y and went on too long; it also felt a bit underrehearsed. Lei Liang's Verge, for string ensemble, was definitely the highlight of the performance and the biggest hit with the audience. When he said he used his newborn son's name (Albert) to derive the pitches for the work, I was expecting some kind of twelve-tone pitch-class mumbo jumbo. But the work was intense and emotionally powerful, beginning with some cool Xenakis-esque (Xenakisy? Edit: I think the appropriate term is actually Xenakesque) effects and interesting spatial combinations. It was divided into two sections, each of which started slow and built into enormous, frantic, and beautiful climaxes before suddenly dying away into silence. Throughout the work, a Mongolian chant melody weaved in and out of the ensemble, adding a folksy aspect to the bracing atmosphere.

The second half of the program was problematic. Dalbavie's work, apparently based on a 9th century Offertorium melody, only occasionally rose above the post-spectralist techniques he described in his interview with Lindberg. It began a ravishing section of quick arpeggios and rhythmic delicacy reminiscent of Debussy before suddenly veering towards boring spectralism, but recovered towards the end with some excellent string quartet writing and a wistful conclusion featuring the medieval tune. The work, though, felt unfocused and lacked the emotional rigor and drive of better post-spectralist music by composers like Saariaho.

Arthur Kampela's MACUNAIMA was, for lack of a better phrase, a hot mess. In his spoken introduction, which Tommasini called a hit with the audience but was actually a bit terrifying (if you watch this video you will have an idea), he mentioned the influence od this crazy Brazilian modernist novel. This was the only piece in which the limitations of the Contact! ensemble were truly felt. Kampela's writing, which at one point instructs the musicians to "fart" into their instruments, demands the dedication and understanding of post-modern music which is only found in smaller full-time new music ensembles. If he had writen for the JACK Quartet or the Ensemble Modern, they might have made a compelling account of his madness. I heard through the grapevine that the NY Phil musicians were not particularly sympathetic to his mode of composition and extra-instrumental demands (a few of the players onstage did not seem particularly pleased to be there).

I think what Kampela asks for is a deconstruction of the relationship between musician and musical instrument, which is something that comes from both the European avant-garde (especially Helmut Lachenmann) and also jazz multi-instrumentalists ike Anthony Braxton. The gist of the idea is that gifted musicians use their musicality towards instruments with which they are not familiar, or aspects of their own instruments which are not typically considered musical. Thus we saw the strings and brass playing percussion, making unusual noises into their instruments, laughing, whispering. If the musicians are receptive to this, it can be very effective: I don't think the New York Phil musicians, as incredible as they are, are the right ensemble for this type of performing style, and they may have felt the same way.

Beyond that, the piece was not very good. It was too cluttered with stage action, and would have been more effective with a smaller group of players. The offstage elements, which included a few players going behind a screen, playing a folkish South American dance, and laughing, didn't come off well in performance.

Was Contact! a success? As an event and a statement about the NY Phil's dedication to new music, yes. But as a set of four newly commissioned works, no. I doubt any other work besides Liang's piece will have a place in the repertoire. Actually, the idea of repertoire is another important issue: what happens to these pieces? Will other groups take them on, or will future Contact! performances in later seasons repeat them? It would be great to hear a firm commitment from Gilbert about the future of all these commissions, and not just the ensemble itself---what if they took the initiative to post some of the scores online, or even do a Keeping Score type thing? Most of the pieces premiered by New York and Chicago in the past couple years have simply vanished (a few for good reason). It doesn't look like the NY Phil iTunes pass will include this concert, although it may include the April one; the concert will be broadcast on Q2 next Tuesday and the following Sunday. I think my overall concern with the series has to do with the lack of a firm commitment to the actual artistic goals of Contact!, beyond commissioning works and putting on concerts.

Friday, December 18, 2009

boob aid

I'm a huge fan of Nico Muhly and happen to be cool enough to be friends with him on Facebook. This video appeared on my live feed yesterday*: a short new piece, Five Palindromic Phrases on B-O-O-B, performed by the amazing violist Nadia Sirota (buy her CD!) and a pianist (haven't figured out who yet--let me know). The work is a set of palindromes on the words BOOB, and was performed on Wednesday night as part of the event BOOB-AID, which apparently raised money for plastic surgery for singer-songwriter Our Lady J. BOOB-AID is auctioning off the manuscript and dedication of the piece, starting price $400, on ebay.

I interviewed both Nico and Nadia in the fall regarding their collaborative history and how they view each others' musical voices. Nico mentioned that what he valued the most about Nadia's playing is her "sense of phrase...she's one of those players who can make a phrase out of 1+1." Nico's writing for her, especially since Keep in Touch, is often just 1+1: his viola licks are tiny little fragments of phrases, which she plays gorgeously. Looking at the score for the Five Palindromic Phrases, or especially the first two Etudes (which are on Nadia's CD), doesn't reveal much in terms of expressive indicactions. There aren't very many phrasing or dynamic markings. But Nadia knows Nico's style well enough to essentially fill in the rest of the piece and create incredibly beautiful music from these tiny fragments. The bouncy rhythms of the Etudes and their 3-note fragments become lush melodies.

This relationship strikes me as one of the most important of Nico's, because it allows him to embrace this simplicity of writing. Even after the massive triptych of works on Mothertongue, which are often purposefully cluttered with instrumental and electronic effects, he can still work in a very basic, viola and piano medium, and get emotional powerful results. I'm very curious to see how his opera turns out--he's in Cambodia orchestrating it now.

*Hopefully this video is visible without logging into facebook--I don't know who Matthew Brown is, but he posted it and it doesn't seem to be anywhere else on the internet.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

john's blog of alleged dances

I'm sure you've all seen John Adams's blog at this point. It came out of nowhere a couple months ago and is now one of my favorite reads. Adams posts nearly every day, a remarkable feat considering the amount of performing and composing he is doing (well, at least I assume he's composing). But more remarkable is that the almost-most-famous living composer (I think Glass and Reich may edge him out slightly) has a blog which is very clearly a series of personal and musical thoughts, rather than press releases or criticism-lite. The title, Hell Mouth, is apt. He has moved his sparring match with Richard Taruskin onto the internet and taken a few friendly potshots at critics in New York and L.A. along wtih writing a virtuosic parody of cliches in music criticism. To balance it out, he's also written a number of kind tributes to friends and musical collaborators.

What strikes me most about Hell Mouth is Adams's creation of a mock alter-ego, Marcel Proost. Judging by the comment section, some of the readers don't "get" that this bizarre character is very clearly fictional, a self-proclaimed hick music critic and Adams's "neighbor." Adams's dialogue with Proost (he has been reading a lot of Proust lately, and gave an engaging lecture at the Art Institute in Chicago last month on Proust and musical memory) is reminiscient of the German Romantics' invention of fictional alter-egos: Brahms's Young Kreisler, Schumann's Florestan and Eusebius, even Hoffmann's Kreisler. This blog will certainly be an important primary source for 22nd-century musicologists, who will surely write their dissertations on Marcel Proost's role in Adams's music and what veiled allusions to Anthony Tommasini and Allan Kozinn represent.

Adams's entire online persona evokes a composer with which he has had much dialogue: Arnold Schoenberg. In a number of pieces--most overtly, Harmonielehre and the Chamber Symphony--Adams uses Schoenberg (and perhaps more importantly, Schoenberg's polemical writings) as a means of commenting on early 20th-century musical modernism.

Here's Adams on Schoenberg (in his Harmonielehre notes):
"But Schoenberg also represented to me something twisted and contorted. He was the first composer to assume the role of high-priest, a creative mind whose entire life ran unfailingly against the grain of society, almost as if he had chosen the role of irritant. Despite my respect for and even intimidation by the persona of Schoenberg, I felt it only honest to acknowledge that I profoundly disliked the sound of twelve-tone music. His aesthetic was to me an overripening of 19th century Individualism, one in which the composer was a god of sorts, to which the listener would come as if to a sacramental altar. It was with Schoenberg that the 'agony of modern music' had been born, and it was no secret that the audience classical music during the twentieth century was rapidly shrinking, in no small part because of the aural ugliness of so much of the new work being written."

Schoenberg was a prolific writer who used his essays, often ripe with paranoia, to justify his musical decisions. Reading Schoenberg's Harmonielehre and Style and Idea, it becomes apparent that Schoenberg felt himself to be a Viennese Rodney Dangerfield ("I don't get no respect"). Adams is a kind of twenty-first century inversion of Schoenberg. Just like Schoenberg, he attacks his critics in writing. But the bizarre paranoia (Schoenberg accused Krenek of parodying him in the opera Der Sprung uber den Schatten, and freaked out about Thomas Mann's appropriation of twelve-tone technique in Doktor Faustus) is replaced by Adams's ease with his public personality and critics. Marcel Proost is a way for Adams to poke fun at musical establishments without the preachy and mystical attitude of Schoenberg. Both composers are very aware of their place within society. But while Schoenberg was horrified by the idea that he was not a household name or cultural celebrity like his musical ancestors, Adams has accepted and even enjoyed the somewhat-modest role of the composer in the 21st-century.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Stifter and things

Lincoln Center Presents
Stifters Dinge (Stifter's Things)
Presented in association with Park Avenue Armory
Heiner Goebbels, composer/director

Tonight's performance of Heiner Goebbels' Stifters Dinge was a strange thing. There was virtually no advance press for the event and I actually forgot it was taking place until a few days ago. When Lincoln Center put on Zimmermann's Die Soldaten at the Armory two years ago, it seemed like there was an endless parade of previews and reviews and the entire run sold out. I'm not sure if Lincoln Center or the press just had less interest this time around (with Die Soldaten, at least, we knew it was a major work; there is no recording of Stifters Dinge, and I'm not sure a recording would do it justice).

Is Stifters Dinge a major work? Probably not. This bizarre theater piece featured no live performers but was not entirely electronic---it was essentially a grouping of contraptions on the stage which created both music and visuals. The music, featuring five player pianos and a number of percussive gadgets, was reminiscent of Nancarrow in rhythmic complexity and propulsion. But it is difficult to judge the music on its own terms---there were large stretches of silence, often punctuated by recorded readings of texts by Adalbert Stifter (a German Romantic whose writings on natural history formed the basis for the work) and William S. Burroughs and an interview with Claude Levi-Strauss. And there was a theatrical element to the music: the actual movement of the keys and strings (the upright pianos were stripped of their outer facades) became a kind of choreography to the more rhythmically intense passages.

The work was somewhat effective theatrically, but lacked a cohesive narrative and mostly felt like a series of abstract vignettes. A couple of Goebbels' images, though, struck me as particularly profound. The most intense moment of the piece stemmed from a powerful quotation of Bach's Andante from the Italian Concerto BWV 971, performed by one of the player pianos. While this unsentimental interpretation played, the lighting emphasized the five pianos' placement within a mock-forest, about fifty feet from the audience. Goebbels and his stage crew pumped fog into the Armory, and rain dripped into pools of water, which were placed between the pianos and the audience.

With this imagery (and, in some ways, the entire work), Goebbels makes a powerful and compelling statement about German musical tradition. The piano and Bach themselves become entirely divorced from humanity, without a human performer. But this separation from humanity, rather than a mechanization, emphasizes this music as part of the natural world. All five pianos, surrounded by trees, appear as if rising out of some undiscovered civilization.

This resonates with the Levi-Strauss interview, played through speakers during this sequence, in which the anthropologist speaks about his belief that there is no longer any place on earth that has not been discovered by man. In a clear act of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, Goebbels confronts the historical lineage of German music by separating it from mankind. If Hitler's co-opting of Beethoven and Wagner for propaganda purposes, and the cultural reboot of Zero Hour, exploded any notions of continuity in German music, Goebbels agrees. He sets the Bach outside history, as a kind of uncharted territory oozing out of an unknown forest. In the sampled interview, Levi-Strauss speaks about his lack of faith in humanity---like Goebbels and Stifter, he finds faith in objects and in nature. Goebbels thus reinvents a sense of faith in Bach after it was destroyed by the Nazis (what Alex Ross calls a "loss of moral authority"), by recreating the music as an object of nature rather than a humanized (and thus, fallible) entity.

And then, like any good European postmodernist, Goebbels turns the entire notion on its head. The fog dies away and the wall of pianos, on movable tracks, lurches towards the audience to reveal the forest and trees as artifice. Bach is replaced by intensely virtuosic (can something be called virtuosic if it lacks a human performer?), mechanical passagework a la Nancarrow. It seems the Romantic, perhaps 19th-century (in countless lieder, the piano represents nature) notion of these objects as natural is destroyed. Goebbels pulls away the curtain and audience is left with what is clearly a machine.

Update: Tony Tommasini has a very favorable review providing invaluable description, photos, and a video trailer to give a better idea of the performance. He sees some political resonances in the work which didn't occur to me. Tommasini remarks that Goebbels "has a keen feeling for how to structure and layer an 80-minute piece of music drama." Although Goebbels probably has an idea of how to create a cohesive theater work (I'm not familiar enough with his other pieces to judge), I feel that Stifters Dinge lacks the kind of structure and pacing that befits music drama.

Next up on Seated Ovation: John Adams blogging and Contact!


A quick note: my blogroll is obviously not comprehensive (see Alex for that). I simply chose a few blogs that I read regularly and recommend highly.

Programming in San Francisco

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Emanuel Ax, piano

Schubert (arr. Webern), Six German Dances

Webern, Symphony

Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4

Beethoven, Symphony No. 5

I had an enjoyable, if slightly unbalanced, evening at the San Francisco Symphony last weekend. It was my first experience seeing the orchestra live and in their own hall. Although I often hear mixed things about MTT’s work with other orchestras (I have seen him conduct great Ives in Chicago and Shostakovich at Tanglewood, but apparently the CSO and NY Phil are not huge fans), he is clearly at home in SF. The issues that Chicago and New York musicians seem to have with him—fussiness over details during rehearsal—are probably responsible for the highly-polished performance I heard last night. What started as a fairly standard, muscular reading of Beethoven’s Fifth turned into a excellent performance because of an exquisitely balanced slow movement, with fantastic blend between winds (although through the entire piece, trumpets were a bit too loud) and gorgeous string tapers at the ends of phrases. Ax played an elegant rendition of the Fourth Piano Concerto, unfortunately the last work on an extremely long first half (over an hour of music, with the Fifth after intermission).

But I want to focus on the programming of this concert. On paper, it looks very good: Schubert through the eyes of Webern, Webern’s aphoristic Symphony, and two masterworks by Beethoven. Critics and scholars might praise MTT’s “smart” programming--that he juxtaposes a “difficult” modern work with music of the same Austro-German lineage of which Webern felt himself a part. The Berlin Philharmonic has been doing a similar thing recently on their tour, juxtaposing works of Brahms and Schoenberg, a seemingly natural pair due to Brahms’ influence on the latter composer (Schoenberg’s famous essay “Brahms the Progressive” is essentially a justification of his own techniques by showing modernist aspects in Brahms) and Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor. I heard Berlin (under Simon Rattle) perform Brahms’ Second Symphony, the Meistersinger overture, and the full-orchestra version of the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony in Chicago last month. It was a fantastic concert, although I strongly prefer the Chamber Symphony in its original chamber orchestration.

But back to the issue of programming: Schoenberg and Webern certainly would have loved their music being juxtaposed with works by the great masters---Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert. They saw themselves as carrying the torch of the First Viennese School, merely continuing the stylistic evolution of Austro-German music. But I question what the lay listener, someone who is not familiar with the (theoretically) teleological progression of Bach-Mozart-Beethoven-Brahms-Mahler-Schoenberg, thinks of these juxtapositions. MTT gave a brief introduction to the Webern Symphony, making a compelling comparison of its geometric logic to the paintings of Piet Mondrian. This context seems more apt than sandwiching it between Schubert (even if the Schubert is an exercise in Webern’s orchestration skills) and Beethoven. Although pairing Schoenberg with Brahms, or Webern with Beethoven, may seem like a great idea, and is typically rewarded with positive reviews which praise the conductor’s or musician’s keen insight, it does not always work. Critics may say that hearing Webern’s Symphony before Beethoven’s Symphony gives some kind of modernist insight into Beethoven (“We can hear the modernist strains in Beethoven which gave way to the later development of twelve-tone technique”), but I doubt that even an educated audience member would hear that. Joshua Kosman seems to agree.

Jimmy has done admirable work of pairing Schoenberg and Beethoven, even opening up Tanglewood in 2006 with the Chamber Symphony and Beethoven’s Ninth. But this juxtaposition really doesn’t work. Just because they are both great composers and Schoenberg saw himself as a successor to Beethoven, does not mean that the works reflect well upon each other (especially with an intermission in-between). Levine has done a number of strange programs recently. I think the best way to give a non-specialist audience member insight into the forbidden Second Viennese School is to program their music with works by either later composers, or immediately earlier composers. If one were to pair the Chamber Symphony with Mahler’s Fourth (even better if it’s the chamber orchestration), I think the audience would get more out of the Schoenberg. Webern’s Symphony with Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony or Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde could work as well. A recent university orchestra concert I attended programmed Webern’s Passacaglia with the Berg Violin Concerto and a Zemlinsky symphony. One could really understand the sound-world of Berg’s twelve-tone Romanticism in the context of the earlier, Mahlerian Passacaglia (the Zemlinsky was a bit of a dud).

Back to MTT and the performance last night. I appreciate that he programmed the rarely-performed Webern symphony and that he treated it in the same category as a warhorse like Beethoven’s Fifth. The audience seemed to enjoy it, I’m sure because of his introduction, but I really doubt that its placement between Schubert and Beethoven gave it the best hearing. A performance this work would be great between, say, Webern’s Im Sommerwind and a Mahler symphony. The music resonates more when it reflects upon its immediate past than on a musical history a hundred years old. Or program forward, in the manner of Esa-Pekka---set the Webern as the “warhorse” and add later music—if you want to stick with the German romantic-historical angle, perhaps Bernd Alois Zimmermann or Wolfgang Rihm.

Sometimes the massive-historical-lineage programming does work. A Berlin Phil concert I watched online (their Digital Concert Hall is amazing) last year had Peter Eötvös conducting Bach choral preludes (arr. Schoenberg), Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, and Zimmermann’s Requiem für einen jungen Dichter after intermission. Because the Zimmermann actually reflects on the German lineage of music and quotes Wagner (among others), the sense of teleology/history is palpable to the listener and not just the critic. And the Zimmermann was clearly the meat-and-potatoes part of the program.

I will have more thoughts in the future about inventive programming. The New York Phil under Gilbert is doing a similar pairing of First and Second Viennese Schools in a couple weeks, with Mozart, Webern (Im Sommerwind and the Symphony), and Schumann--I hope to attend. I’m looking forward to the next few weeks in New York, which include Heiner Goebbels’ Stifters Dirge at the Park Avenue Armory and the first performances of the NY Phil’s new Contact series.