Sunday, January 31, 2010

listen to that


Alex has announced that Listen to This, his new book, is dropping in late September. I can assure you that it will be quite excellent, and I personally guarantee that all the facts have been suitably checked. If not, I am in some trouble. The book chronicles music in all its forms, from Cavalli through Brahms to Radiohead and Bob Dylan. Unfortunately, no Lady GaGa. Spoiler alert: in a brilliant M. Night Shyamalan twist, in the end Alex reveals that classical music was dead the entire time.

I'm no John Corigliano fan, but I am a bitter Howard Shore enemy. Apparently Corigliano wrote the soundtrack for the new Mel Gibson movie but his score was rejected and replaced by Shore's. It looks like Corigliano tried to write some intelligent, sensitive music, but:
"[Warner Bros.] had a very different idea of what the film should be. With Mel Gibson starring, they wanted it to be more of an action film. So they filmed more violent scenes, and wanted a score to match the macho image they wanted to create for their star. If I had been asked to score a Mel Gibson action film, I would have refused it – not because it isn’t a perfectly valid idea, but because it is wrong for me. On the other hand, this happens all the time. Howard Shore – whose music replaced mine -had exactly the same thing happen to his score for King Kong, which he’d composed, recorded, and had replaced by James Newton Howard’s music. It just hadn’t happened to me before."
This is a bit hard to stomach, and gives me another great reason not to see Edge of Darkness. Read the rest of the interview here (h/t Matthew Guerrieri)

Classical music may not be dead, but it looks like record sales are. According to Anne Midgette, Hilary Hahn's latest album debuted at #1 on the Billboard classical charts--but even after a lot of buzz and a Conan appearance during the Late Night Wars it still only sold about 1,000 copies. I think that at this point the Billboard charts are essentially irrelevant. I spent a lot of time last summer looking at old issues of Billboard and their articles on classical sales (they're all available on Google Books) and it was consistently depressing. Most of the articles written after 1960 or so were anecdotal about classical record stores shutting down or overall declines of sales. They basically proclaimed the death of classical recording once a month for forty years. Recording limps on, but I'm not sure if Billboard needs to have a part in it.

And, finally, the New York Times has noticed classical saxophone. I only wish it hadn't been Vivien Schweitzer, my least favorite Times music critic. A couple small criticisms: Schweitzer mentions Strauss as a "master orchestrator," which is usually the case, except his saxophone writing is pretty terrible (she should have mentioned Berg). And it would have been wise to write that Timothy McCallister, one of the greatest saxophonists performing today, was brought in specially by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the awesome sax part in John Adams' new City Noir. Those of us hoping for more mainstream recognition of classical saxophone will continue to wait for an all-encompassing piece.

Friday, January 29, 2010

speaking of wagner

Apparently a theater company in Chicago is mounting a Ring without Wagner's music. Crazy, right? It's going to be six hours, which I'm not sure will be bearable ohne Musik. It's kind of impressive, though, to have a $54,000 Ring, compared to L.A.'s $32 million one. It's like they were listening to Ethan Iverson! If I end up seeing it I will of course give the full report. My first, and only, Ring was at Bayreuth in 2008. This will surely be an interesting change.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Will the CSO, after fifty-plus years as a Wagner orchestra, switch their allegiance? One of the four programs announced by the orchestra for next season is a concert version of Verdi's Otello, conducted by Muti. The CSO has played barely any Wagner since Barenboim left, with just the odd overture or prelude, and no actual opera excerpts. Muti is not particularly known for conducting Wagner, and I doubt we will see any concert performances of Die Walküre in his tenure (though there's usually one Wagner opera per year across town at Lyric--Lohengrin next season). I'm not sure if Verdi will satisfy the CSO low brass players' needs, although they manage to figure out how to play loudly for pretty much any composer. Wagner and deep dish pizza kind of go together in my head when I think of Chicago, but we've actually had a lot more performances of Shostakovich and Stravinsky in the past few years. I suppose I can get my Götterdämmerung somewhere else; Giordano's, though, is another story.

According to ArkivMusik, Otello is the only full Verdi opera the CSO has recorded, in 1991 with Solti. Twenty years later, will CSO Resound decide it's time for another go?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Today is Mozart's birthday! In honor of this momentous day, a festive occasion hardly ever celebrated by any classical music institutions, here is one of my favorite Mozart works:

Monday, January 25, 2010

iron mozart

About half-way through the film Iron Man (2008), there is a scene in which the main villain Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), plays piano for Tony Stark aka Robert Downey Jr. aka Iron Man. It takes place when Stark is beginning to construct his Iron Man suit, and before it becomes apparent that Stane will be his antagonist. When I saw the movie in theaters, I wasn't sure what piece Bridges played. It's only a few seconds of music, rather stiffly performed (I'm not sure if Bridges was the actual pianist), sounding Classical-period and vaguely Mozartean.

But director Jon Favreau did something pretty smart, albeit not that smart. I noticed in the credits that the piano music was by Antonio Salieri, apparently the Larghetto from his Piano Concerto in C. Salieri is, of course, famous for something he didn't do: kill Mozart. But they were rivals. And here's where the Iron Man conundrum comes in. Favreau casts Bridges as the second-in-command of Downey Jr.'s company, the hard-working man who runs Stark Industries while Iron Man comes up with all the ideas. So by having Bridges play a kind of Salieri, Favreau establishes the Salieri-Mozart/workman-genius dynamic made famous in Amadeus. The parallels with Amadeus abound: just like the movie's depiction of Mozart, Stark is a party animal and a bit of a womanizer, in stark contrast with his mechanical brilliance. And Favreau has Stane go crazy and try to kill Stark, just as in Amadeus. Granted, Salieri didn't dress up in a giant robot suit.

This quick allusion, though clever, is based on false pretenses. Salieri is known in pop culture as the insane murderer of Mozart, and Favreau is co-opting the truth-bending of Amadeus to add an extra layer to Iron Man. It's a weird relationship that classical music often has to deal with. Last summer I was listening to Die Walkure in my car, and the Ride happened to come on when a non-musical young friend of mine was riding shotgun. He asked me why we were listening to army music.

It's obvious that classical music, just like anything old, takes on multiple meanings over time and is refracted in different ways through culture. The Ride is now more famous as the song from Apocalypse Now than as the prelude to Act III of Wagner's opera. But it becomes a little weird when actual people become fictionalized, and their historical identities are dwarfed by these adaptations. This is something that might be unique to classical music. No one takes Shakespeare's Julius Caesar to be the real Caesar, or for a more contemporary example--no one thinks Shakespeare in Love is a true story. But Mozart has become the foul genius of Amadeus, and Salieri the murderer.

Is it bad, though, that people know Salieri for something he's not? If he weren't the "murderer", we probably wouldn't have as much interest in him. Certainly the small amount of music that we hear by him would diminish. And there would be no reason for his Piano Concerto to be in Iron Man. His name is probably better known to the public than one of classical music's real murderers.

I discovered recently that the Salieri myth is not just something perpetuated by Amadeus--it was a real rumor in 19th-century Europe. An interesting conversation between Rossini and Wagner took place in Paris in 1860, as documented by Edmond Michotte in La Visite de R. Wagner a Rossini. Salieri's name comes up briefly (p. 40):

Rossini: "Incidentally, Salieri had enjoyed equally good relations with Mozart [in comparison to his relations with Beethoven]. After the latter's death, it was suggested-and even seriously charged--that out of professional jealousy he had killed him by means of a slow poison..."
Wagner: "That rumor was still current in Vienna in my time."

The idea that Salieri poisoned Mozart was dramatized in 1830 by Pushkin in his drama Mozart and Salieri, which was turned into an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1897.

So you could argue, actually, that Iron Man is simply perpetuating a hundred-and-eighty-year-old tradition; an invented tradition, but a tradition nonetheless.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

boulezapalooza pt. 2

Tuesday, January 19
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson, conductor
Kyoko Takezawa, violin

Messiaen, Les offrandes oubliées
Berg, Violin Concerto
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring

When I go a few months without seeing the CSO, it's easy to forget how amazing they are. The last performance I saw was Muti's Bruckner 2, an inspiring rendition of a thoroughly uninspiring piece. Tuesday night's concert was one of those few events where programming, repertoire, conductor, and orchestra really cohere into a great night.

The grouping of these pieces, which I am guessing like the Civic concert was chosen by Boulez in correspondence with Robertson (something Andrew Patner corrected me on in boulezapalooza pt. 1), was wise. Two pre-war modernist warhorses, and a rare work by a major composer still finding his voice. I can't say the Messiaen was a huge success, but it was certainly worth hearing. Written when he was twenty-eight, the music betrays influences that I never even thought Messiaen had. The opening and closing sections foreshadow the Messiaen of the Louanges from the Quartet for the End of Time: gorgeous, slowly unfolding melodies in strings and winds, marked by stratospheric leaps and moments of celestial harmony. The sudden transition into a fast and dramatic middle section, which sounded almost like a 19th-century Lisztian tone poem, bears no resemblance to the mature Messiaen. The mere idea of a jolt or surprise, a quick change from slow to fast, is foreign to the ecstasy of Messiaen's major works, in which each movement creates an unchanging, paradisaical vision of the beyond. I can't say I liked it; I think it would have been a better piece with the middle section simply cut out. And the Messiaen of 1930 hadn't quite mastered the slow, ecstatic adagio which we see two years later in L'Ascension. But it was still nice to hear an unknown piece by one of my favorite composers, and the orchestra played with a wonderful delicacy throughout.

The Berg Violin Concerto is my favorite work for violin and orchestra, and not just because it has a great saxophone part. This is one of the most difficult works for violinists, and Kyoko Takezawa gave a technically assured performance with a gorgeous tone. But her playing lacked the almost-Schubertian, Viennese lilt which is essential to the music; it was also often a bit too overtly pretty, and could have been brasher at times. Under Robertson's commanding presence, the CSO delivered a muscular but beautiful performance---this is one of those few great concertos where the orchestra is arguably more important than the soloist.

It's been a while since I've seen the Rite live, and that made this performance all the better. Robertson did something I've never heard with the work: he made it lyrical. The opening section, with its swirling kaleidoscope of primordial colors, was excellently paced. When Robertson arrived at the rhythmic ostinatos of the first section, they were restrained rather than explosive, lush rather than fervent. Each section shimmered like Daphnis et Chloe, reminding me that in 1911 it was possible to see Stravinsky as part of the same school as Debussy and Ravel. It never quite exploded, but intensity was always present in the chugging rhythmic drive. Because of Robertson's pacing, the cacophonies seemed like an inevitable clashing of the initial solo voices.

Rarely does a performance make me completely re-think a work, but this one did. I wonder: is this the goal with the Rite? To make it sound not modern, but like the Debussy and Ravel we can listen (and fall asleep) to on our clock radios? That's not to say it wasn't a passionate, inspired performance; it was easily the best rendition I've heard of the work. We have to remember that fifty years ago, it was difficult to hear this music as the score portrays it. With the exception of Stravinsky's, most mid-century recordings of the Rite lack the orchestral balance (making up for it in loudness) to give a proper idea of how the music "should" sound (and I put should in quotes to acknowledge that there's no actual way the music should sound). Pierre Boulez was instrumental in his performances and recordings of Stravinsky and his contemporaries, stripping away the kind of haze that floated around most recordings of Debussy and offering clarity and purpose in its stead. I think Robertson takes this one step further: he restores a lyricism to the Rite, not necessarily present on Boulez's recordings of Stravinsky, while retaining the balance and clarity of Boulez's conducting. Robertson has an unambivalent love of Stravinsky; Boulez's conducting of this music is tempered by the difficult relationship he has had to it (and to Stravinsky himself) in the past. Alex made a note of this last year in regards to the two conductors' performances of Pulcinella. It would be too easy to categorize all of Boulez's interpretations as icy or cerebral. But when you hear his Rite (most famously recorded with the Cleveland Orchestra) against Robertson's, there is definitely something missing: unbridled passion.

constructive criticism

In case you missed Andrew Patner's comments on my post below, they are certainly worth a read. I'm honored that people in the classical criticism establishment are reading and responding to Seated Ovation. One of the reasons I started this blog is to open up more of a critical dialogue about classical music in Chicago, something that I think is a bit stronger in New York. Between the newspapers, magazines, and numerous classical blogs in NYC, I think it's easier for critics to have an interesting back-and-forth (unfortunately, on the internet this often comes down to Parterre readers sniping at the Times). Chicago doesn't have quite as many sources for this, so even with important concerts there may only be one or two opinions to read out there. It's nice to know that mine is being heard.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

boulezapalooza pt. 1

I saw two great concerts this week, both under the guise of Pierre Boulez's 85th birthday, but neither featuring any actual musical participation from the man himself. That's understandable--he is a busy guy. He deserves a couple days off, whether or not he decided to take them.

I won't fully review the Civic Orchestra of Chicago performance, since I have too many friends in the orchestra. Needless to say, it was really excellent playing under the direction of David Robertson. Remember what I was saying, only five weeks ago, about programming Webern? Robertson really nailed this one (Edit: According to Andrew Patner, in the comments, Boulez programmed the concert in discussion with Robertson) . He situated the two "difficult" Webern works (5 Pieces op. 10, and 6 Pieces op. 6) between earlier music emphasizing the Second Viennese School's breakdown of tonality. By opening with the Passacaglia, Robertson introduced the listener to the Brahmsian, late-Romantic Webern. Most conductors, with Webern, do either-or. They program just early stuff, like the Passacaglia or Im Sommerwind, or only the atonal works (as in San Francisco). Instead, Robertson created a natural progression, even evolution, from Webern to Webern to Mahler (the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony). Placed after the three Webern works, the Mahler resonated as both a modernist and sentimental work, echoing (or foreshadowing) the lyricism of the Passacaglia and the strangeness of the Stücke.

I read Andrew Patner's review of the concert in the Sun Times, and would like to respectfully disagree with a couple of his points. He gives the Chicago audience (and, indirectly, the Chicago Symphony) a bit too much credit. Yes, the classical audience in New York is probably the most conservative in any American metropolitan area. But are Chicago Civic listeners actually "hungry for new experiences and without prejudices"? (Edit: I conflated the Chicago and Civic audiences here, a misinterpretation of Patner's article) If anything, they're just hungry: it was a free concert, something Patner does not mention.

One of the reasons subscribers storm out when Webern or Schoenberg appears on a program is because they have paid a lot of money to hear the concert---why would they then be subjected to music they didn't want to hear? But if what you came to see, the Mahler Adagio, was the last piece on in free performance, it's probably worth stomaching 20-odd minutes of Webern. And let's not forget that much of the Civic Orchestra audience consists of friends and family of the performers.

Mr. Patner also writes that Alan Gilbert introduced his Webern performance in New York with a spoken introduction, but doesn't mention that Boulez and Robertson spoke on stage for 15-20 minutes about the music to be performed (a fascinating and fun little conversation). And the audience wasn't exactly in "rapt silence," at least up in the gallery; I could barely hear the opening pizzicati of the Passacaglia because of people whispering all around me.

I am not saying that the Chicago audience is any better or worse than the one in New York. But to point to one concert as an excuse to vindicate the Chicago Symphony's programming over the past eighty years is a bit much. Chicago has been home to plenty of adventurous and not-so-adventurous programming. I don't think Haitink has conducted one piece by the Second Viennese School since he's been principal conductor, besides Webern's early, tonal Im Sommerwind (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong). Boulez's programs here, though excellently curated, have skewed towards the conservative side: early Stravinsky, Bartok, Debussy.

Alan Gilbert is making an enormous effort to refocus the ears of thousands of listeners in New York who were left behind by the Philharmonic for twenty years. Let's give him the credit he deserves, rather than chastising the orchestra as they make the first step into the twenty-first century. And I don't think a review of a training orchestra is the right place to focus on another city's faults. I would love for Mr. Patner, as well as John van von Rhein at the Tribune, to take a hard and critical look at the Chicago Symphony, and the Chicago classical music scene, and see what it lacks that New York has. They might find quite a bit.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

If there were a musical equivalent of twitter

wouldn't the first movement of Webern's Five Pieces Op. 10 be the exact character limit?

Friday, January 15, 2010

first listenings

I'm always a little embarrassed when I realize that I don't know some major piece of classical music. I like to think that I know the repertoire pretty well, with the exception of Italian opera (I just don't like it, but that's a post for another day). At some point around Christmastime, it occurred to me that I had never actually heard the entire Handel Messiah. I still haven't rectified that one. But when I was at Amoeba Records in December I stumbled across a $5 recording of the Berlioz Requiem with the BSO/Ozawa, a piece I've never actually heard but read plenty about.

I am never really sure how I feel about Berlioz. I acknowledge that he's a hugely influential and important composer, perhaps underrated for his pre-Wagnerian innovations. I hear them when I listen to his music, which I appreciate for its originality, but he never grabs me in the same way that Wagner does. For whatever reason, I have never enjoyed the Symphonie fantastique, and Harold in Italy does nothing for me. I will admit that I've never heard any of the operas. I like some parts of Damnation of Faust, but over-exposure to trombonists playing the Hungarian March excerpt has pretty much ruined it for me (the same way, after 4 years of music school, I can never enjoy Ride of the Valkyries again). The only piece I like unequivocally is Romeo and Juliette, but any time I listen to it, it just makes me want to listen to Tristan. While Berlioz has an acute sense of how to use the orchestra to produce vivid effects, Wagner takes similar effects and transforms them into a kind of musical narcotic, which grabs the listener more immediately than Berlioz does. Berlioz never feels as fluid or oceanic as Wagner, but also never as intricate or carefully-constructed as Brahms.

So: the Requiem. I decided to give it a fair listening and follow along with the score. There were a few interesting moments in its eighty or so minutes. The opening of the Dies Irae, in the transition from tutti low strings to chorus, is one of the eerier things I've heard recently. But the movement, and the whole work over all, just felt too meandering. I can't help but compare it to the height of 19th-century Requiems, the Brahms, and it falls very short. In Denn alles Fleisch, the Dies Irae equivalent in the Brahms, there is a palpable (and powerfully emotional) sense that you are always headed towards or away from something. The epic recap with trombones feels inevitable. The Berlioz rambles, with a number of interesting musical moments that don't seem to cohere. I will say, though, that the opening brass fanfares of the Tuba mirum come out of nowhere in a very cool way. The opening of the Sanctus is absolutely gorgeous, sounding a bit like the spiritual Wagner of Parsifal and Lohengrin. Some of the orchestral and vocal effects are remarkably weird for music written only ten years after the death of Beethoven--Berlioz, with his flair for orchestration, creates an impressive imitation of three-dimensional space within the orchestra and chorus.

I don't think the Requiem changed how I feel about Berlioz; if anything, it confirmed what I already thought. I should stress that this is all based on first impressions with a recording and score. Obviously I know this is a "masterpiece," but what better place to criticize a canonical work than a blog? All of my criticisms can easily be shot down; in fact, I hope I shoot them down myself when I spend more time with the music. I would like to see it in live performance, which is probably the best way to hear a piece of this scale. Chicago Lyric Opera is doing Damnation of Faust in the spring, which I hope to attend.

What's next on the docket for music I haven't really heard? I haven't spent much time with any Mozart operas besides Don Giovanni, so that's a possibility. And there's always the Messiah, I guess.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

einstein on the report

How awesome was Philip Glass's and Stephen Colbert's bit on Tuesday night's Colbert Report?
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
We Are at War - Philip Glass
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorEconomy

Although the "theater" aspect definitely parodies Einstein, the music is very much newer Glass. Sometimes this style is effective, and sometimes it can sound watered-down. It's difficult to tell if Glass is purposefully parodying his own style here or if he is just playing what he normally does. I think I like it; it reminds me a little bit of John Luther Adams. Either way, it's good to know that Glass has a sense of humor. It's easy to forget that Stephen Colbert is actually a really smart and culturally literate person--his description of Glass as "repetitive and groundbreaking" is spot-on.

It reminds me of two of my favorite old-school, 2006 Colbert clips:
HipHopKetBall: A Jazzebration and HipHopKetBall 2: The ReJazzebration Remix '06

Colbert has a keen knowledge of how to intersect music and funny which is 100% absent from pretty much every classical music event I have ever been to.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

musical badassery

There's something I like a lot about Shostakovich's popular works (Fifth Symphony, Eighth String Quartet, Tenth Symphony) that isn't really discussed in criticism or scholarship, which usually focuses on his music as political, biting, sarcastic, etc: the sheer badass factor. There is a reason that high-school students at music festivals swoon at the finale of the Fifth or a hair-raising performance of the Tenth. The music is, quite simply, badass. Listening to the second movement of the Eighth Quartet, you hear the notes zoom by. In a recording, one can still feel the physical exertions of the performers.

Even if it's music written for the victims of fascism, or the victims of Communism, or whatever the current vogue about Shostakovich's political feelings is, it's music you can pump your fist to. It is visceral in the truest sense of the word. We watch the amazing videos of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra executing the Tenth Symphony vigorously not because the piece is beautiful or profound (which it is), but because it is awesome to see these incredible kids sawing away on their instruments.

Conventional scholarship and criticism of the Tenth would talk about the kind of forced victory and sarcastic, mechanistic aspects of the piece. But the most immediate thing, the first thing you hear in the second movement is how fast and badass it is. That's clearly what is on the minds of the performers as well as Dudamel. He is successful at conducting a piece like this, less because he identifies with Shostakovich's political horrors, and more because he knows how to go balls to the wall when necessary.

Badass is also a factor in Mahler, which leads to plenty of aesthetic debates (I use that term very loosely) with friends. There is a school of thought which ascribes the greatest moments in Mahler to be loud and bombastic--and by a school of thought, I mean brass players. When my scholarly wisdom argues that the heart of Mahler's Seventh is in the creepy modernity of the two Nachtmusiks, they counter that you can't beat the dramatic baritone solo in the first movement or the trumpet opening of the fifth. I'm not sure if I actually like the middle movements more than the outer ones. It's hard not to succumb to that kickass trumpet solo. Sometimes I just feel like I'm toeing the party line for Schoenberg and the modernists, who saw those Nachtmusiks as precursors to atonality.

This argument dissolves in a work like the Ninth, which, rather than being dominated by brassy climaxes, is haunted by the ghosts of them. What appears to be a trumpet climax in the first movement is quickly dissolved by lush strings. The Ninth may be my favorite Mahler symphony because of this. Mahler strives for climax, culmination, even apotheosis, but will suddenly suppress himself. The result is powerfully emotional and a different zone of feeling from the almost-arrogant, youthful climaxes of the Second (my other favorite Mahler symphony). It would be a cliche to say that death was knocking at his door when he composed the Ninth--when was Mahler ever not thinking about death?. Perhaps modernity was knocking. He attempts to retreat into the brass-laden climaxes of his younger days, but fails. The trumpet, rather than soaring up like in the opening of Seventh's finale, crackles away. Musical badassery fades from the German stage (Schoenberg and Webern fragment it in their aphoristic piece for orchestra), only to re-emerge a few decades later in Russia.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Happy Birthday Alex Ross and Morton Feldman!

In honor of the two, here is the first part of Rothko Chapel

And my favorite Feldman story, as recounted by Alex here:

My teacher Stefan Wolpe was a Marxist and he felt my music was too esoteric at the time. And he had his studio on a proletarian street, on Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue. . . . He was on the second floor and we were looking out the window, and he said, “What about the man on the street?” At that moment . . . Jackson Pollock was crossing the street. The crazy artist of my generation was crossing the street at that moment.

I love the end
of that article:

Only this one time, in the last minutes of “Rothko Chapel,” did Feldman allow himself the consolation of an ordinary melody. Otherwise, he held the outside world at bay. Yet he always showed an awareness of other possibilities, a sympathy for all that he chose to reject. Listening to his music is like being in a room with the curtains drawn. You sense that with one quick gesture sunlight could fill the room, that life in all its richness could come flooding in. But the curtains stay closed. A shadow moves across the wall. And Feldman sits in his comfortable chair.

Monday, January 11, 2010

chicago qualms part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of my series on the future of the CSO. Part 1 is here; I'm not sure if there's going to be a part 3. There are a couple other things I want to touch upon, but I may wait until the season announcement for those.

I'm going to say something controversial: Riccardo Muti is a bad programmer.

Look at what he's doing this season with the NY Phil. Each program seems like a good idea--a masterwork by a big composer (Brahms, Mozart, Schubert) and a lesser-performed composer (Hindemith, Franck, Boccherini). But what, exactly, does the Brahms First Piano Concerto have to do with a Hindemith Symphony? The Beethoven Violin Concerto and the Franck Symphony? We already had the bizarre coupling of Honegger's Second Symphony with the Eroica.

It gets worse when you look at older Muti programs in New York. So far in Chicago he has stuck to doing large one-off pieces--the Brahms and Verdi Requiems, Bruckner symphonies, etc. In New York, though, he cobbles together these odd programs of big and little pieces which really don't say anything about each other. Here we have two big pieces, the Ravel Piano Concerto and Schubert's Ninth. And a bizarre mix of Elgar, Liszt, and Prokofiev. Sometimes the programs make sense, like Haydn and the first Brahms Serenade. But then there are the truly bizarre mixes: Scriabin symphony and Beethoven concerto, or Scriabin, Brahms, and Liszt.

The most egregious, I think, was a concerto I attended in 2007: a Cherubini overture, Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto with Lang Lang, and Hindemith's Expressionist opera Sancta Susanna. I imagine the pairing of Lang Lang and Muti was an administrator's decision and not Muti's; as the Times noticed, they are not exactly compatible musical personalities. But is a light overture and one of the most warhorsey of the warhorses, the best way to prep patrons for an opera where a nun strips in front of a crucifix? Judging by how quickly the audience streamed out when the final chord sounded, no.

It is difficult to tell whether some of strange programs are actually Muti's fault. As a guest conductor, he probably had to relinquish some control regarding what concerto is on what program. I can't judge his programming from when he was with Philly since I was two years old when he quit. But old Times reviews show the same thing---Salieri, Bach, Prokofiev?

What I worry, actually, is not that we end up with these mix-and-match programs. I worry that Muti will only be conducting big pieces like he has done recently in Chicago, with one piece on a program. Anyone can come to Chicago and conduct a great Brahms Requiem or Bruckner/Mahler symphony (I'm curious to see what his Mahler is like)--it's in the orchestra's blood. I want to see Muti taking risks, mixing music by living composers with the classics in an intelligent way. He is supposedly championing Mason Bates and Anna Clyne, but that seems more out of the fact that the CSO needs composers-in-residence than a specific interest in contemporary music. As far as I know, he has never worked with living composers before. It's great to see rare music by Salieri or Hindemith in a subscription concert, but only if it mixes organically with the rest of the program.

Again, I am raising these issues before the season announcement because I have been thinking about them for a while. I am not concerned about the CSO's music-making under Muti, which will continue (and maybe even improve!) its excellent standard. But I worry about artistic vision, something that may not have been present in most orchestras ten years ago, but is vitally important now. Ideally, the symphony orchestra season should function as a unified artistic statement in the manner of a great museum exhibition. Not only would the works within each program reflect on each other, but the programs themselves would shed new light on the orchestra's creativity and the smarts of the music director and administration. That, I think, is what makes the difference between a conductor (what we have now in Chicago) and a music director (what I hope we have next year in Chicago).

P.S. Thanks to Mr. Geelhoed for the shoutout! Here's hoping we get more great posts like this one.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

chicago qualms part one

For a theoretically Chicago-based blog, I haven't actually blogged about Chicago. So this is my first in a series of a few posts regarding the future of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The changes to take place with the CSO begin next season; this is my last year in Chicago, so I can only speculate on the orchestra's successes or failures. I'm also writing purposefully before the actual announcement of next season, because these are issues I've been thinking about for a while. I would love for the season announcement to prove me wrong about some of them.

Praise for the CSO's appointments--Riccardo Muti as music director and, more recently, Yo-Yo Ma as "creative consultant,"--has been almost unanimous. So I don't think it will hurt anyone to play devil's advocate for a bit.

To start: everyone should be reading Bass Blog to understand how an orchestra actually works. Often we forget that the orchestra is not this unified structure that we hear about from press releases and newspaper reviews. It is a massive organization loaded with people with disparate personalities who often conflict with the main line. The impression you get of the New York Phil or the CSO from reading newspapers is a bit different from being in a conservatory and knowing the musicians. Friends from Juilliard often tell me about NY Phil players bitching about conductors, administration, etc.

Let's begin with this post, which brings up a number of issues I would like to deal with; a musician in the orchestra describes the outreach attempts of previous music directors, concluding that
"So now we are going to redeem the underclass in {redacted}. And to accomplish this modest feat, we are hiring perhaps the most overbooked instrumentalist in classical music today, Yo Yo Ma. Forgive my skepticism, but I think I’ve seen this movie before. And I know how it ends."

No one can doubt that Yo-Yo Ma is a brilliant musician; he also does an incredible amount of outreach-type work, commissions new pieces, and goes beyond his celebrity status to be a truly consummate artist. But wouldn't it have been great to get a Chicago-based musician, who is not playing in a different city every weekend, to run a program which will hopefully reach into the inner city? Chicago has a number of excellent non-profit music organizations--The People's Music School (which runs a modified version of El Sistema) and Merit, among others--who I'm sure would love to work with Muti and the orchestra. The programs that Muti and Ma speak about are entirely new, and choosing an overbooked cellist to lead them could potentially have them fizzling out within a few years. I would rather see the orchestra administration building on existing Chicago institutions rather than creating ones which will be solely associated with the CSO. Ma simply walking into The People's Music School would be a major success for the students and faculty.

The idea of the "creative chair"/"person in residence" seems to be floating around a few orchestras now. This recent article in the Times poorly summarizes it. L.A. has John Adams; New York has Magnus Lindberg, Thomas Hampson, and Gergiev; and now Chicago has Ma, Mason Bates, and Anna Clyne (whom, for some reason, the Times article doesn't mention). Of course, the article also notes that Ma is now also a resident artist with the SF Symphony. Shouldn't there be a cap at one residency?

I think the best way to handle this kind of "creative chair" or "resident" post is to treat it like a curator of an art museum. The artist can program festivals, like Adams recently did in L.A. with West Coast/Left Coast, or Gergiev with the upcoming Stravinsky festival in New York. What I worry, though, is that the CSO guests will end up dividing up the "curation." I don't want to see Bates' and Clyne's role restricted to the MusicNOW series, which is mostly the case with Golijov and Turnage, their current in-residence composers. CSO occasionally plays their pieces in regular programs, but it always feels like a "special event" (like Turnage's Scorched last season) rather than a careful and artistic integration. Of course, none of those four is based in Chicago.

Lindberg and Gilbert should be commended for their artful integration of Lindberg's music into New York's subscription programs. I hope that Muti/Ma/Bates/Clyne follow their model: program the Bates and Clyne music into the regular orchestral performances, and, like Contact! in New York, save MusicNOW for commissions or premieres.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"sharp-eared younger observer" - The New Yorker

Thanks to Alex for Seated Ovation's first mainstream street cred--we are now featured in The New Yorker Magazine (website).

And, courtesy of Alex, apparently the band Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix has discovered the beauty of Bayreuth. I don't know anything about them, but I know plenty about the quaint little town where Wagner lived and wrote, and where I spend seven weeks in the summer of 2008.

Here's a quick breakdown of some of the scenery:
0:11 - You can see the entrance to the box office, outside of which I sat for six hours to get Ring tickets.
0:26 - a straight-on shot of the Festspielhaus
0:59-1:00 - shots of the Franz Liszt museum
1:04 - inside the Festspielhaus
1:16 - quick shot of the small concert space in Wagner's home, Wahnfried
What follows are various shots from Wahnfried and the Liszt Museum
And around 1:50, a number of shots of the beautiful park and gardens behind Wagner's house

At least in some of the shots, the band is performing on the stage of the Festspielhaus. I'm not sure if the depiction of the writhing audience is edited in, or if they are actually moshing in or on the legendary covered Bayreuth pit. I think the stage is large enough so that the band could perform on it with a full audience in front of them. This video is probably the best PR for the Festspiel since George Bernard Shaw and Nietzsche attended. One can hope that among the video's 1,841,924 viewers, one of them is inspired to join the five to ten year wait for tickets.

I'd like to think the shot at 2:55 of a solitary man and his dog is a reference to Wagner's Hund, Russ, whose grave (along with Wagner's) is behind Wahnfried. On any given day, there were dozens of bouquets of flowers on top of Wagner's grave, and usually a couple next to Russ's.

Wagner, as we all know, inspired a lot of crazies. This tradition continued in his backyard, where a man sang Wotan's Erwach from the opening of Act III of Siegfried (I believe the part of Erda was played by a boombox).

Here is the front of the Festspielhaus, as can be seen in 0:26 in the video, but with the brass section of Festspiel Orchestra, which plays fanfares before each intermission concludes (the music, of course, drawn from the act to come).

Monday, January 4, 2010

a depressing thought

A little over two years ago, I was ecstatic at the notion of being in New York in December 2009 for New York City Opera's production of Messiaen's St Francis of Assisi. Apparently City Opera is doing some pretty decent stuff right now, but remember the pipe dream of Einstein, Nixon in China, Death in Venice, and St. Francis all in one season? I actually thought I would take a year off of school and hang around New York just to catch all of the productions. But alas, Mortier departed in the midst of economic collapse. It's hard to imagine a St. Francis in New York now. In a recession I think an esoteric, five-hour opera requiring a 110-man orchestra and a chorus of 150 might be a little indulgent.

If you treasure Saint Francis as much as I do, buy the Netherlands Opera's excellent new DVD and bask in Godfrey Reggio's spot-on depiction on the saint, Ingo Metzmacher's keen insights into the score, and Pierre Audi's complete understanding of Messiaen's sacred vision.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

louis and richard

Photo courtesy of the amazing blog
If Charlie Parker Was A Gunslinger, There'd Be A Whole Lot of Dead Copycats
with a few small edits

I just finished reading Terry Teachout's Pops, an excellent new biography of Louis Armstrong. I highly recommend it as both a thrilling description of Armstrong's life as well as a book which gives a great sense of the cultural climate surrounding jazz in the first half of the century. I wish there were more classical (non-academic) biographies like this--telling the tale of the composer and his time in under four hundred pages.

Teachout is the first biographer who reconciles Armstrong's populism and entertaining side with his role as a formidable proponent of a new, modern style in music. It's easy to forget that behind Louis's smiling face lay an incredible mind that produced works that were just as revolutionary in the early twentieth century as The Rite of Spring or the Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. His music doesn't display the modernist angst of Schoenberg or Joyce, but just because it's toe-tapping doesn't mean it isn't profound. By explaining that Armstrong-as-entertainer doesn't necessarily conflict with Armstrong-as-revolutionary, Teachout fires back against the elitist view that Armstrong was a great musician watering down his talent for the masses. This is the same attitude which Alex took to Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Britten, and Copland in The Rest is Noise: justifying their use of tonality not as a conservative crutch or populist pandering, but as a genuine expression of their place in modern culture.

I see a lot of parallels between Louis and Richard, actually. Armstrong and Strauss both seemed to backslide in their middle-age following periods as young provocateurs. After Armstrong cut his influential small-combo records in the 1920s, he began big band work which was criticized by aficionados. And Strauss ceded ground after his breakthroughs in the hyper-modern Elektra and Salome, with the refined, classicist Rosenkavalier and Ariadne. The work which Strauss and Armstrong did in their youth paved the path for later, groundbreaking modernists (Schoenberg once said "I was never revolutionary...The only revolutionary in our time was Strauss!") who went on to criticize their predecessors. Perhaps they outlived their times. But just because both musicians seemed to retreat into conservatism, Ross and Teachout argue, doesn't mean that these works are any less great or important. Teachout points out that though Armstrong's big bands were often sloppy, his solo work and improvisations were just as artful. And gorgeous music like Strauss's Metamorphosen justifies itself, conservative or not.

Strauss is unfairly painted as a money-grubber and Hitler stodge; Armstrong as an Uncle Tom. The reality is of course more complicated, as both fought against oppression in their home countries: Armstrong spoke out against President Eisenhower when he didn't step in to desegregate Arkansas schools after Brown v. Board of Ed, and Strauss worked (albeit, somewhat covertly) against what Ross calls the "de-jewification of musical life,"* in Germany. But both composers' reputations were tarnished by their appearance of compliance with their governments. Armstrong's work as a jazz ambassador brought him scorn by younger, more politically active musicians; Strauss is still seen today as the court composer of Nazi Germany. Books like The Rest is Noise and Pops (for more on Strauss and politics, see Michael Kater's seminal studies The Twisted Muse and Composers of the Nazi Era) allow a glimpse into the realities of the cultures in which these musicians created so that we can dispell the myths which accumulate following any great artist's death.

I'd like to think that the two would get along if they ever met--I can imagine Louis getting a kick out of calling Richard "Herr Doktor Pops."

*The Rest is Noise, p. 324