Friday, April 30, 2010

Knee deep in Marathon

The Marathon is in full swing: check it out now. I did say I would live blog but I'm afraid I will not have the time--and why would you read when you can watch, anyway? Check back at midnight CST for a little In C.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Music Marathon: The Final Countdown

26-Hour Music Marathon from Northwestern News on Vimeo.

The time has come. Music Marathon kicks off tomorrow evening at 8pm, in Regenstein Recital Hall (60 Arts Circle Drive on the Northwestern campus). You can watch the entire event live-streamed at I strongly encourage everyone to donate, even if it's just a couple dollars--every cent goes straight to The People's Music School and helps provide underprivileged kids with free music lessons.

On the news media front, Greg Sandow's blog post was picked up by the Chicago Tribune, and weirdly enough they decided to quote me without contacting me at all. Either way, it's a nice little article.

So the hot question is: if you don't have time to watch all 26 hours, what should you tune in to? Our full schedule is here (all Central Standard Time). I personally wouldn't want to miss Billy Robin's Hep Cats playing In C at midnight. But less self-indulgently, I'm also excited for Ryan Muncy & Co. playing Louis Andriessen's Hout at 11pm; clarinetist Sam Rothstein playing Nico Muhly's It Goes Without Saying at 6:45AM; the brilliant ethnomusicologist Stephen Hill's Hillions String Band (he makes banjos! and helped me net my DAAD Grant!) at 2:15pm; and David Cohen's performance of Takemitsu's trumpet work Paths at 6:30pm.

And you would be remiss to not catch a contingent from YOURS, The People's Music School orchestra. YOURS is modeled after El Sistema, and it's a remarkable program--an elementary/middle school youth orchestra whose members rehearse 10 hours a week (that's almost twice as much as university orchestras), and love every minute of it. It's heart-warming to witness these talented kids, and that's what this event is all about. Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

totally kind of called it

You heard it here first, maybe: Fabio Luisi will be the new principal guest conductor of the Met Opera (kudos OperaChic)

You may have remembered me speculating only weeks ago that Luisi would be a fine contender for Levine's job.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

More marathon-ing

Above is a recording of my appearance yesterday on WNUR, plugging Music Marathon as well as speaking about musical marathons of the past. I discuss a few different historically long musical events--Beethoven's massive concert in 1808 with premieres of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies; John Cage's first "complete" performance of Satie's Vexations; Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 2; and the Bang on a Can marathon. The Beethoven one is most fascinating to me, since there are so many elements to it not present in modern symphonic culture: piano improvisations by the composer himself, the composer as conductor and pianist (still happens occasionally), excerpted movements from a larger work, the premiere of two major symphonies in which the newer one is played before the older one. How crazy is that that an audience heard Beethoven's Sixth before Beethoven's Fifth? And can you imagine how terrible the orchestra must have sounded, given the minimum amount of rehearsal time and huge amount of music? It wouldn't be a problem for any decent orchestra to sightread Beethoven today, but at the time it was probably the most difficult music being written. Imagine a modern orchestra sightreading, say, Boulez or Ferneyhough, with the conductor at the podium.

I strongly recommend Yefim Bronfman's recording of the Choral Fantasy with the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich under David Zinman, which I played on the show. That piece has a special little place in my heart, with its anticipation of the Ninth Symphony and awesome piano intro (the closest example we have to Beethoven's own improvisations). I also played Jean-Yves Thibaudet's recording of Vexations, which is good but not particularly recommended--it just happened to be the one I had in iTunes. The FLUX Quartet's Feldman SQ2 is great, as is Bang on a Can's In C, which closed out the show.

I will be performing In C with my Hep Cats at Music Marathon this Friday evening at midnight. Hope you can make it!

P.S. Read an interview with me on Life's a Pitch, the funnest marketing blog ever.

P.P.S. My interviewer, Alex Lewis, will also be playing his screamin' elektrik guitar on In C. Check out his blog wisdom here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

radio commentary saturday

Seated Ovation will be making a second appearance on WNUR, Northwestern University's radio station, on Saturday afternoon at 3:30pm CST (that's 4:30 on the east coast!). You can tune in at 89.3FM in Chicago or on their website. I will be speaking about Music Marathon as well as the history of musical marathons, from the epic Beethoven-fest of 1808 to Cage's performance of Vexations to Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 2 to Bang on a Can.

Thanks to Alex Ross for his mention of the Marathon, as well as Greg Sandow's blog post. It's not too late to blog about it, donate, or attend! April 30th to May 1st, get on it.

I will also attempt to liveblog the entire Marathon, aided by my crew, so tune in here in a week (the whole thing will also be live streamed on our website).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

at the ballet

I saw the American Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake at the Civic Opera House last Friday, and was left a bit cold. I am far from an expert on dance, which is one of the reasons I chose to attend the ballet instead of the Saariaho-fest on campus. Dance, like classical music, is one of those funny things where you have a little tug-of-war between rep and innovation in terms of accessibility. Is it better for someone without much familiarity with dance to see a fairly run-of-the-mill, traditionalist fairy tale ballet, or is it better for him to begin with something more daring, more avant-garde but also perhaps more accessible to the layperson? Do you start out a non-classical music fan with Bach or Beethoven, or do you start him with Reich and Bang on a Can?

I should also say that I'm not a Tchaikovsky fan by any means, though there are a number of wonderful musical moments in Swan Lake. Unfortunately, the orchestra was perfunctory at best and out-of-tune and rhythmically imprecise at worst, with some dreadful woodwind intonation and horrid little solos. Though it was conducted by the most fantastically-named conductor ever, Ormsby Wilkins.

I won't comment much on the technical performances of the dancers, since I'm not particularly equipped to do so. But as far as I could tell, they performed elegantly and eloquently, with each small gesture well-placed and fairly tight ensemble work. Nearly all of the soloists were excellent, and quite a few moments were simply breathtaking.

However, the production as a whole was almost completely without drama, overladen with conventions that not only don't connect with a contemporary audience, but also alienate the modern viewer. The elaborate staging almost always distracted from the dance, in a hyper-Romanticized 19th century style which told the story in the most literal way possible, without any room for the choreography to fill in our imaginations. This was most egregious in The Great Hall (Act III), where the series of tired dances became a foreground to an overcrowded stage. Nearly all of the "national style" dances (degrading imitations of various "ethnic" cultures) were painful to watch, with pompous, stupid costumes--the entire act felt bloated. Even if it's written into the score, like the embarrassingly simple castanets for the Spanish dancers, doesn't mean it's any good.

But as I said, there were a few beautiful sequences. In Act II, the interaction between the duo of the Prince and Odette and the set of other swan dancers, their framing device, was magical. In the duet between the lovers, there was a moment where time stopped, with each dancer frozen in a stunning pose. Unfortunately, the poignancy of simple gestures like these was disrupted by the overall narrative. I almost burst out laughing when the lovers literally bellyflopped to their deaths at the end of the ballet--who in their right mind could have choreographed this? Kevin McKenzie, after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, apparently.

The real question at hand, which is one that pertains to unstaged classical music as well, is this: do we really need these conventions? When they become stilted, and the gestures that the dancers make do not resonate with an intelligent audience, then why not abandon them? The villain von Rothbart's costume looked like it came out of a B-movie--is this supposed to be scary, or dramatically appealing, when we have Avatar coming to DVD in two weeks? I'm not saying that the thrills of the ballet should come from high-budget costumes (quite the opposite), but they shouldn't look cheap. If you cannot costume a villain to be in any way menacing, then go the opposite way: abstraction. I am a huge proponent of the abandonment of realism in something like Swan Lake, because it liberates the audience's vision of what is actually conveyed in the music. If we get rid of the white tutus and tacky rocky grotto (why, oh why, do those rocky grottoes always look exactly the same?), even if they were what Tchaikovsky originally wanted, we can feel the music better, and better appreciate the dance as well. Don't clutter the stage! Free it so that we can admire the dancer's bodies, rather than their cliched roles as sea-monster villains or homosocial hunters.

Monday, April 19, 2010

thingz 2 reed

David Simon waxes poetic about Treme (already the best show on television, after one episode) and its status as fiction, anticipating any criticism of it as factually inaccurate:
"If we are true to ourselves as dramatists, we will lie and cheat and pile one fraud upon the next, given that with every scene, we make fictional characters say and do things that were never said and done." What a badass.

A few months ago, John Adams visited campus. I sat in on one of his composition master classes, and listened to two pieces by student composers. The first, Old Virginny by Shawn Jaeger, was a rustic, dense, and beautiful setting of Appalachian ballads for double-bass and soprano (you can listen on his website). The second, I think, was exactly what Adams describes in a brilliant piece on the ills of this kind of master class. Adams' comments about conservatory sound systems appear to come directly from the class I attended, and everything else rings true. I will say that Adams was very impressed by Jaeger's piece, noting it was one of the best and most original student works he had heard in quite some time.

Finally, if you somehow missed it, here's Richard Taruskin's Times article about Stravinsky's reception history and issues of nationality. Taruskin has this amazing ability to always turn any article about a composer into one about himself. But he does so in generally smarmy, eloquent writing which raises a ton of good points about said composer. I almost wish the Times hired him as a regular music critic (not that he would want to be one), since his writing is better than that of most of their arts crew, and he'd at least stir things up a bit more. His article doesn't reveal much new about Stravinsky, but does present a few recent issues in musicology in a way that appeals to your average newspaper reader (a.k.a. white man in his 70's).

Sunday, April 18, 2010

the rest is noise: chicago tour

I take a moment out of my lazy Sunday to remind all of you to attend Alex Ross's lecture this Thursday, 6pm, at the Art Institute. It's called "Wind From Another Planet," so I imagine he'll be speaking mostly about the volcanic ash cloud covering Europe, and how it foreshadows the dawning of the Third Viennese School and heralds the creation of "mega pan atonality."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

this weekend: special Northwestern edition

Northwestern University is where it's at for classical music this weekend, if you're in the Chicago area. Kaija Saariaho is in the midst of her residency as recipient of the $100k Nemmers Prize in Composition. On Thursday evening you can catch a performance of all of Saariaho's cello music, featuring the talents of the NU cello studio as well as famed new-music cellist Anssi Karttunen. Or, if you're in the mood for something a bit older, go to the other side of campus and check out the world premiere of an unpublished Ravel string quartet written in his student years (as well as the first movement of the famous quartet).

And Friday night, may I recommend NU's Contemporary Music Ensemble, performing works of Saariaho including the badass Graal Theatre with violinist Austin Wulliman and Amers, featuring my main man Russell Rolen (chair of the Music Marathon committee!) on cello.

Speaking of Northwestern University, you should all be plugging Music Marathon in the blogosphere and donating. More on that here.

I'll leave you with a video from last year's Marathon, of Corey Bertelsen, Michelle Kim, and Ben Melsky performing Nico Muhly's Clear Music

Edit: I'm an idiot and just realized that's actually not from Music Marathon. However, they did play it in Music Marathon, and it's an excellent performance, so I will let it stand.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

greenstein supplement

Above is the recording from my debut as a bi-weekly correspondent on WNUR's show Being There, courtesy of Alex Lewis. I spoke briefly about Judd Greenstein's music, and played the first half of his delicate, sensual Folk Music. I'll be back on the program a week from Saturday, April 24, to discuss Music Marathon. In preparation for this piece, I delved into Greenstein's recorded output, much of which can be downloaded from his website.

I think that Greenstein will become a major American voice in the next ten years or so. He embodies a lot of the same compositional goals and ideals as his friend Nico Muhly, though he hasn't been quite as high-profile as Nico. But he captures what I really love about the new, young generation of American composers: a complete lack of stylistic dogma or any kind of musical angst. Greenstein is not afraid to make his music beautiful, unabashedly so, and this no-holds-barred attitude makes for a thrilling listening experience.

The two most striking pieces available on his website are At the End of a Really Good Day and What They Don't Like (for Chuck D). It's not easy for "classical" musicians to experiment with rap in any way: the better attempts sound like ethnic tourism, and worse ones like straight-up racism. But Greenstein pulls it off in What They Don't Like, building a growling, groovy clarinet and rock band around samples of Public Enemy's Chuck D and James Brown. His program notes for it are awesome as well, examining hip hop as a cultural and market phenomenon (he's writing a dissertation on hip hop at Princeton)--they pose the exact questions that a white classical composer experimenting with hip hop should ask before attempting a work like this.

At the end of a really great day, like Folk Music, is one of those pieces that falls under Kyle Gann's description of Greenstein as a composer of "happy music," (read that here). It's just so fantastically enjoyable to listen to, exactly what you want in your earbuds as you walk to campus on a warm spring day. We get short minimalist patterns set up in flute and strings but quickly broken by an intrusion of a clarinet, which then soars over the backbeat. The groove occasionally sputters to a stop, with gorgeous interjections from cello and violin, but it's always a very uplifting sound. Although written in memory of a friend who passed away, it celebrates her life, acknowledging that she died "at the end of a really great day." This positive spirit inhabits the whole work; even brief moments of melancholy cannot bring it down.

I also liked the Four on the Floor, a muscular, driving string quartet; Elastic Iridescence for electric guitar, which takes Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint as a model but then creates a wonderful soundscape of colors; and the twitchy A Moment of Clarity, which reminded me of Muhly's music, in a good way.

Everyone should already own violist Nadia Sirota's debut album First Things First, which includes two of Greenstein's best works (as well as Muhly's bouncy little viola etudes and a couple solid pieces by Marcos Baltar). Sirota crafts an emotional arc out of the incessant, nerve-wracking solo Escape, fifteen minutes of raw minimalist viola. Each gesture builds on the last one, so that an unrelenting two-note phrase transforms into long-breathed, twisting melodies.

And then we have The Night Gatherers, one of the best pieces written in the past decade. This stunningly beautiful work for viola quintet drips with sentimentality, a postminimalist Verklarte Nacht. Greenstein has mastered the art of writing for strings, evident in the atmospheric opening which recalls early Schoenberg as well as the string quartets of Ravel and Debussy. Melodies cascade through a haze of strings before finally coalescing into a single strand, a winding viola vocalise worthy of Bellini. Greenstein wrote the work as a memorial for a friend's grandmother, using her paintings as a starting point for inspiration. It's powerfully evocative, programmatic as well as the most absolute of music, and filled to the brim with contemporary techniques which speak to contemporary life. Schubert composed his Death and the Maiden as a 26-year-old; Schoenberg finished Verklarte Nacht at age 25; and Greenstein wrote The Night Gatherers at 24. The comparison is apt.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

on the air

On Saturday, I will be speaking briefly about the music of Judd Greenstein on WNUR, Northwestern University's premiere radio station. Tune in at around 3:4opm CST (that's 4:40 on the east coast!) at 89.3FM if you're in the Chicago area, or listen online at WNUR's website. Hopefully in my first radio appearance ever I won't make a fool of myself.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

jimmy cracks corn and i don't care

With James Levine pulling out of the rest of the Met season, and prospects of him appearing at Tanglewood this summer becoming dire, it doesn't seem unreasonable to say that he needs to give up one of his two major jobs. He has shaped both the Met Orchestra and Boston Symphony into incredible forces, but it is time to let at least one, if not both, go.

So the question here is: Who to replace him? I'm thinking Fabio Luisi for the Met (provided his Tosca and Lulu work out), but BSO is a bit harder to figure out. Ideally we'd get a young face, readily marketable and versatile in contemporary music as well as the standard Boston fare. Robin Ticciati? Yannick Nézet-Séguin has the French repertoire chops to do some quality work with the orchestra, but I've only seen him once live (a thrilling Mendelssohn Italian symphony at Mostly Mozart) and he's gotten some mixed reviews. Has David Robertson conducted in Boston recently? He was my dream pick for the New York Phil, but seems very committed to St. Louis. Ideally, the BSO would use the opportunity of Levine's departure to unveil a new vision for the orchestra, more in line with Gilbert in New York and Dudamel (post-Salonen) in L.A.

Who would you suggest, for Met or BSO?

Monday, April 5, 2010

food for thought

So what do French culinary trends and classical music have in common? A few things. I should warn you, if there is an opposite of a foodie, that's probably me. But reading Adam Gopnik's article in last week's New Yorker on Le Fooding, a new French eating sensation, reminded me of a lot of issues inherent in today's classical world. Read the article here, and then come back.

Basically, Le Fooding is a recent stylistic movement in French cuisine which turns away from the apparently stuffy, traditional French food scene as epitomized by the Michelin guide and its star ratings. This rejection of the strict and bourgeois conventions of gourmet food embraces chefs not trained in France, restaurants serving unconventional dishes, and a re-evaluation of meal habits in order to re-inject an enthusiasm and liveliness into French food:

"Food and feeling--that's the heart of eat and drink with feeling. We wanted cooks who cooked with the whole of their selves and souls, not technicians of the table. French cuisine was caught in a museum culture: the dictatorship of a fossilized idea of gastronomy...We wanted to be outside that, sur la pont, on the bridge, in front, defining everything that is new. We wanted to escape--foie gras, volaille de besse, all the cliches." - founder Alexander Cammas

Sound familiar? The ossification of classical music into a "museum culture," (and, if it were actually like real, interesting museums, that would be great) has been pretty much the number one complaint for quite some time now. Cammas and his group believe that food must always be new: "We want food to be a series of provocations, not mechanical pleasures. Food must belong to its time." This sentiment echoes through hundreds of years of art, from Wagner's "Kinder macht neues!" to Ezra Pound's "Make it new." Many, many visionaries of art (and cuisine) believe that their creations must not only exist in their time, but also epitomize and even anticipate their own Zeitgeist.

So, where does that leave our big ol' fossilized orchestras? Is it enough for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to do some kickass Mahler, or the Vienna Philharmonic, that bastion of conservatism, to hire a female concertmaster (mistress?) for some Strauss waltzes? Is leading an incredibly thrilling performance of music a hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred years old, in an aesthetic style at least sixty years old, using cultural practices solidified in the 1930s, creating music that's relevant to today? In other words, does great music of the past, presented in a backwards-looking model, belong to our time?

I'm not talking about HIP performance, which I think confronts musical dilemmas of the past and thus creates music relevant to the present (especially the most recent trend of improvising in period style). I'm thinking more about your average giant orchestra playing old music, conducted in a style created in the late 19th century and codified by the mid-twentieth.

Now back to the article. Gopnik: "American critics had been complaining for a while that French cooking, which had led the world in the idea that food might be art, had become stereotyped, unreal, and remote from life, and the complaint had at moments echoed in France." In classical music, this idea is traced mostly back to German Romanticism. A slight misreading of the gravity of Wagner led to pretty much all classical music being treated as seriously as Wagner, and by the 1950s Rossini was put on a pedestal. All classical music became die heilige deutsche Kunst, even if the composers never intended it that way (even the term classical does injustice to the lighter works of the last few hundred years). Which led to our rituals about applause, the organization of the symphony concert (when was the last time you heard excerpted movements from a symphony, typical in the 19th century?), and the treatment of opera as a form of essentially 100% absolute music.

But let's go ahead and defend some of that, because Gopnik does, at least in terms of food. Le Fooding doesn't seem all that revolutionary: "The real absence in France was not of good food but of what might be called think food...where food is devoted to an idea, whether of molecular transformations or of whole-beast eating...I realized the absence of think food was no an absence that truly, in my heart, I regretted. There are enough ideas in life without having them all on your plate."

Not all orchestras have to re-evaluate every way they play their music, or present their music, in order to succeed artistically. Music is a vehicle for ideas, but it is also a vehicle for emotions. I don't mean to imply that passive listening--treating classical music as a kind of comfort food for the ears--is in any way an acceptable method (though it is a popular one). But sometimes, a thrilling performance can be enough. This is an issue especially with the Chicago Symphony, whose upcoming season is filled with what look to be thrilling performances, but is also utterly bereft of ideas. I wish the orchestra could find a happy middle ground, filled with Muti's strange little chestnuts by Cherubini but also with a grand scheme for how to build an intelligent season.

And some of the rituals of the classical concert experience exist for a reason. Not clapping between most movements of most Mahler symphonies is probably a good idea. Not smoking during an opera performance, or eating a meal, definitely good ideas (although I do have a dream of one day eating pizza while seeing the Ring).

I realize I have conflated a number of different issues with the current classical scene. But the great thing about having a blog is, who cares? It's fun to write about.

Anyway, we have come mostly full circle. Not all music has to march squarely into the future. We can look behind. Revolutionary or not, music making (and food eating) should always be exciting.