Saturday, February 27, 2010

muti's "vision": one for the twentieth century?

"In America they use the word ‘vision' a lot. What is vision? I do not see myself as St. Francis, offering Chicago my beatific visions. Rather, in my first season, I see myself giving, together with this great orchestra, a panoramic view of the history of music. As we go along, we will try to find new ways to bring more people together, through music." - Riccardo Muti, at the CSO Press Conference

Riccardo Muti is a Maestro, with a big ol' capital M. I'm not saying that because he's Italian, or because he's a great conductor. This idea is ingrained in his personality, and it is perfect for a guest conductor. He could come into Chicago four or five times a season, like Haitink and Boulez do now, lead a series of terrific performances, rile up all the members of the orchestra, and leave everyone in the city salivating for more. We would get our great masterworks, whether full concert operas, Bruckner symphonies, or weird Liszt/Verdi/Boccherini program concoctions.

But Maestro Muti is not stepping into the position of a principal conductor, conductor emeritus, or conductor-in-residence. He is becoming a music director. And in this century, the title music director comes with more responsibilities that simply leading a series of excellent performances. Every single season of every single orchestra in America gives a "panoramic view of the history of music." That's like saying, "What is vision? My vision is to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in their hall this year."

As I have already written about, central to the role of music director is bringing living composers and new works to the ears of the audiences. Other things are important as well; the two that come to mind most immediately are community outreach (more on this later) and inventive, intelligent programming. I'm afraid that Muti continues to lack strong ability for the latter, and has yet to demonstrate concrete plans for the former. But for the moment, let's return to the idea of "vision."

We need vision in the minds and hearts of our music directors of our big orchestras. Vision is what distinguishes an orchestra from giving a series of great performances, the standard practice of most American orchestras from 1920 through, say, 1970 (and lingering on until 2000), and becoming a vibrant and essential part of its cities. The difference between the 20th century idea of vision (which is what Muti subscribes to) and the 21st century view, is one of expectations. In the 1950s, a conductor could lead a great performances with his (and yes, it was always his) orchestra and expect audiences, naturally, to flock to them. Although Muti claims he is not St. Francis (and in doing so, mocks the entire idea of artistic vision), he subscribes to this notion of the concert hall as temple, where if you play it they will come. But the concert hall in this century can no longer be a temple--and I hesitate to even use that analogy, since religion has changed drastically with the times while the rituals of classical music often have not. The concert hall should be an experiment, a museum curated by creative and diverse and interesting people. And beyond that, we need to market the shit out of it to simply get people in the seats.

Muti made the mistake in the press conference of assuming that the season brochure would speak for itself. If it does, it does not express any sort of vision. Browsing the brochures of the L.A. and New York Philharmonics, it is easy to grasp each orchestra's vision: smart programming blending together classics and new music, festivals which feature masterworks paired with commissions. The CSO season doesn't look significantly different from the last; the programs that stand out the most are actually Boulez's. Muti spoke extensively about his pairing of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and Lelio as part of his vision--Lelio being a kind of "sequel" to the Symphonie. Muti pointed out numerous times that he is the only person who does this, perhaps a subtle dig at Gilbert's opening night this season of the Symphonie with Messiaen and Lindberg (a program I find much more appealing). The CSO brochure advertises "special lighting, supertitles and theatrical effects as conceived by the composer." This is great! This is all well and fine, if it was representative of the rest of Muti's season. But it's not.

We get a concert of all Mozart and Haydn symphonies---Muti wants to "explore" the relationship between the Sturm und Drang Haydn 39 and Mozart 25, but I question putting together two similar, contemporary works on the same program. Then we get a Rands premiere, Hindemith's Concert Music, and Cherubini's Requiem. I talked about Muti's penchant for bizarre programming here, and this strikes me as another one of those grab bags--three pieces I want to hear, but don't particularly resonate with each other in any kind of special (or, dare I say, "visionary") way. The other program of the Season Kickoff, with Wagner, Chavez, and Beethoven, is another grab bag--it commemorates"Mexico 2010" by sandwiching a Mexican composer between the two German giants. That doesn't particularly strike me as a celebration of Mexican culture.

Some more of Muti's programs: Schumann and Shostakovich (for the umpteenth time since I've been in Chicago, the 5th Symphony); Anna Clyne's rewind with Tchaikovsky and Brahms (another nonsensical juxtaposition); Stravinsky's Fairy's Kiss, Varese's Arcana, and Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 (can you say grab bag?); Verdi's Otello (more on this in a bit); Mussorgsky, Strauss, and Prokofiev (this just feels like a "great masterworks" album); and Mason Bates' The B-Sides with Schumann and Strauss (again, really just slapping a new piece onto your average subscription program). When speaking about his choice of Mason Bates, who works with electronics, as composer-in-residence, Muti said "[sic] The young generation is naturally open to everything that is electronic, this is a new way to bring young people to this new path." Just putting a piece that features electronics in the beginning of your program, without coupling it with other works that might somehow attract young, hip people--or advertising it in a specifically "young" way--isn't going to really draw anyone's attention.

There's really nothing visionary here, in the sense of vision implying one looking forward rather than backward. Yes, I am grateful that he is conducting Chicago premieres of new works and Haydn symphonies; but why not program them so that they resonate with other music of the past or present? If Muti isn't particularly capable of this, why not share the love, like we have in L.A. and New York? Bring Bates and Clyne in to supervise the programming of their big orchestra works (it is possible that Clyne asked to be paired with Tchiak and Brahms, but highly unlikely). Let's get a composer-in-residence, an artist-in-residence (Mutter in New York), a famous-person-in-residence (Alec Baldwin in New York) and let the creative juices flow.

This is just the beginning of a number of posts continuing my ideas on Muti and the other new seasons. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 26, 2010

new music, old orchestras

So in the past week or so three of the major orchestras in the U.S. have revealed their seasons. All with relatively new music directors, these three (L.A., New York, Chicago) are certainly the most high profile right now in the U.S. Of the Big 5 (Chicago, New York, Philly, Cleveland, Boston), Philly and Cleveland have become for the most part irrelevant--Philly only making the news because they're in crisis, Cleveland only when they're fucking with the newspapers.

I want to look comparatively at a bunch of different aspects of the L.A., New York, and Chicago seasons, mostly to draw to light what I find underwhelming about Muti's first year in Chicago. So today, we will start with a glance at new music performances in what I'm going to start calling the Big 3. To simplify things, I categorize new music as music by living composers. This admittedly makes things somewhat problematic, since New York, for example, is doing an intriguing Hungarian festival with Salonen featuring a lot of Ligeti's music--certainly new music, but by a dead guy. But this makes categorization easier (I don't want to consider, say, Schoenberg as new music), and should also make a good point about who's playing music by living composers, which is one of the criteria that I believe is central to any orchestra wishing to be relevant in this century.

So, criterion number 1: Music by living composers, GO!

Works by living composers, performed by CSO in 2010-2011
This is a little tricky, because the full programs of the MusicNOW concerts have not been announced. So there will probably be a few more pieces to add to this; but I think that subscription programming of new music is just as important as the extra series (MusicNOW, Contact, Green Umbrella).
John Luther Adams, Dark Waves
Mason Bates, The B-Sides (CSO with electronics), Digital Loom and Commission (both MusicNOW)
Anna Clyne, rewind (CSO) Roulette and Commission (MusicNOW)
Dutilleux Symphony No. 2 (CSO)
Golijov, New Work (CSO, Co-Commission)
Penderecki, Concerto grosso for 3 Cellos (CSO)
Rands, Danza Petrificada (CSO commission, world premiere)
Salonen, Violin Concerto (CSO Co-commission)
Turange, Texan Tenebrae (CSO Co-Commission)
Total: 13 (9 subscription, 4 MusicNOW, plus a couple other between 8 and 10 unannounced MusicNOW pieces)

Works by living composers, performed by the L.A. Phil in 2010-2011

This was also a bit difficult, since I originally used the works list, which didn't specify between subscription performances, Green Umbrella, and guest artists. I tried to clean it up a little bit, but numbers might not be exact. Either way, it's impressive. Unless otherwise noted, these are subscription performances.
Adams, Slonimsky's Earbox
Ades, 6 pieces (1 Green Umbrella, 1 chamber, 4 subscription)
Richard Ayers TBD (Green Umbrella)
Gerald Barry TBD (Green Umbrella), The Importance of Being Earnest
Unsuk Chin Cantatrix Sopranica, Allegro ma non troppo (both Green Umbrella)
Connesson, Une lueur dans
Crumb, American Songbook, Ancient Voices of Children (both Green Umbrella)
Glass, Mad Rush
Golijov, Violin Concerto (world premiere, LA Commission)
Gordon, Weather 1 (Green Umbrella)
Symphony No. 4 (LA Commission)
Gubaidalina, Glorious Percussion
Anders Hillborg, New Work for Chamber Orch (Green Umbrella)
Gunnar Idenstram, Work
Joseph Jongen, Two pieces
Gabriel Kahane, New Commission from LA (Green Umbrella)
Lang, Heroin and Pierced (Green Umbrella)
Lieberson, Percussion concerto (LA Commission)
Lindberg, Graffiti
Mackey, Beautiful Passing and Four Iconoclast Episodes
Marand, Piece
Marsalis, New Work
Missy Mazzoli, New Work for Solo Violin L.A. Commission
Andrew Norman, L.A. Commission (Green Umbrella)
Salonen, New Work L.A. Co-Commission
Shahov, TBD
Tharp, Disney's Trumpets
Turnage, Hammered Out, LA Commission
Wolfe, 2 works (Green Umbrella)
Total: At least 41 (25 Subscription, 16 Green Umbrella, and a few chamber works)

Works by living composers, performed by the New York Phil in 2010-2011
Wynton Marsalis, New Work
Lindberg, Kraft, New Work (Contact)
Grisey, Quatre chants (Contact) (Edit: To my dismay, I have been informed that Grisey is, in fact, dead)
Rihm, Lichtes Spiel (World Premiere), New Work (Chamber)
Kernis, a Voice, a Messenger (NY Commission)
Rouse, Oboe Concerto
Ades, In Seven Days (NY Commission)
Widmann, Con brio
Tuur, Aditus (World Premiere)
Gubaidulina, In Tempus Praesens, Two Paths
Penderecki, New Work (Chamber)
Sebastian Currier, Time Machines (World Premiere)
Julian Anderson, Comedy of Change (Contact)
James Matheson, New Work (Contact)
Jay Allen Yim, New Work (Contact)

Total: 18 17 (11 Subscription, 5 4 CONTACT!, 2 chamber)

Disclaimer: Some of my counting may be wrong, and the Chicago and NY numbers may be closer together than I'm speculating, especially factoring the Contact! and MusicNOW concerts whose programs have not entirely been filled out. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

: L.A. has set a very, very high bar for new music programming, both in their subscription stuff and in Green Umbrella. I don't get the sense that Muti has a significant interest in bringing contemporary fare into the subscription series, beyond the single Anna Clyne and Mason Bates pieces he's conducting. MusicNOW will hopefully continue to go strong, although I'm pretty sure there are fewer of them in 2011-2012 compared to previous years (4 total performances). CONTACT! in New York is still weak, continuing with only two concerts and beginning to incorporate new music "classics" in the manner of MusicNOW (Grisey's Quatre chants). And although Gilbert's season doesn't have that much more living-composer-music than Muti's, it is better integrated into regular programming and doesn't feel pasted on. Compare, say, Muti's program of Bates' The B-Sides, Schumann Cello Concerto and Strauss's Aus Italien, with Gilbert's Sibelius Violin Concerto, Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Lindberg's Kraft. Sibelius and Lindberg go together naturally; Bates, and Strauss, maybe? It doesn't seem like Muti put too much thought into it.

I can't really indict Muti, since he is not a new music expert, it is his first season, and he is bringing to the CSO the rep that he has been conducting for the past few years as a guest conductor. But if this season is indicative of the coming years with the orchestra, which I have a feeling it will be, then I am definitely disappointed.

Next up: discussing Muti's "vision," intelligent programming, outreach. Also refer to my two CSO Qualms posts for earlier issues with the CSO's future, which are still valid. Part 1 and Part 2

Note: A few small edits made to account for mistakes pointed out kindly by Andrew Patner and Zach Pfau in the comments.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

CSO Press Conference

And we're done.

2:50 - One more question. Any particular series of recordings that Muti is most proud of? "My CDs? I don't like any of them." Likes live performances---this should go nicely with CSO Resound. Most proud of his La Scala Falstaff, also Scriabin, Beethoven, and Schumann symphonies, Nino Rota. Hopes to conduct Rota's music in one of the movie concerts. Or Eisenstein's film with Prokofiev's music.

2:40 - Final question: Will Muti take an assistant conductor on? Georg Solti competition may yield young conductors to work with Muti and the orchestra (international competition). Rutter asks about role of opera performance for an orchestra, why he's performing Otello. Muti: Great conductors of the past came from opera. Musicians can learn to play singing, imitate voices--opportunity for orchestra to grow. Hearing Otello in a concert form, without Regie ("which sometimes helps, most of the time destroys, the work of the conductor")...the concept that Toscanini and Mahler did. Muti begins explaining how dominant chords resolve to tonic chords, using the microphone stand to demonstrate. I think it's time to wrap things up. Wants to bring his experience of opera style to Chicago, but in the "most healthy and musical way," not strange ideas of singers. Hopefully this means he will continue to work with Philip Gossett, whom I believe resigned from the CSO Board when they refused to use his critical edition of the Verdi Requiem.

2:35 - How do you feel new program/director can get new people in the seats due to recession? Rutter: We ended last season strongly (financially), single tickets are up though subscriptions are down. 6% ahead for single ticket sales.

2:30 - Question about touring: trip to Carnegie, no European or overseas tours? Rutter "We will dedicate all of our time and energy to Chicago." International and national touring in 2011-12--possibly Moscow, St. Petersburg, Prague. Question about Civic Orchestra - how much time dedicated to younger musicians? Muti can't quantify how much time, but considers Civic important to Chicago musical life.

2:25 - Rutter opens up the floor for questions. Question raised about personnel issues, deterioration of major players aka Dale Clevenger, principal horn (alluded to but not mentioned by name)!! This is going to be awkward. Okay, this is awkward. Muti: "Give me a little bit of time. In life, love, music, things that are done abruptly are not done well."

2:20 - Muti talks about visiting a prison in Milan, in which the warden is making the prisons better through culture. "We have to do it here, too." Still speaking very vaguely about doing something for the world. We will have to wait and see? Finishes speaking to rousing applause.

2:15 - Waxes poetic about the Berlioz program. "This will be, for sure, a very moving night." "Makes an old piece sound new, with the original concept of the composer." Opening public to new experiences--Anna Clyne and Mason Bates are writing pieces which Muti will perform for orchestra with electronics. "Young generation is naturally open to everything that is electronic, this is a new way to bring young people to this new path." Really? Begins to talk a bit vaguely about humanitarian efforts/outreach. "In a world full of anger, violence, with many young children and young men and young girls commit crimes, that it's not their fault, but it's the society's fault, music can educate their souls. Music can make them better."

2:10 - Talks about pairing of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with the Lelio, which itself is a continuation of the Symphonie. To play the Symphonie on the second half a program, without the Lelio, is a mistake. Is this a dig at Gilbert's opening program, with the Symphonie in the second half (with Messiaen and Lindberg)? Muti continues punning, talking about Lelio. If this is his vision, it's nice, but very small-scale.

2:07 - Muti doesn't believe in themes (it's "extremely boring")--Mozart theme or Bruckner theme. I disagree, as long as the themes themselves aren't boring, the season isn't boring. What L.A. and NY are doing is thematic, but broadly intellectual rather than "Mozart birthday."
Muti wants to give "panoramic view" of history--Baroque thru classical, Romantic, modern. Is that any different from what the CSO has done in the past? Choice of Haydn/Mozart symphonies is important--G minor Haydn symphony is model for Mozart's G minor--they are being programmed together (this is smart).

2:00 - Muti sits down so TV can see him. Relationship with CSO grew during their tour, impressed by artistry and humanity of musicians. Press kit is now online to read materials for next season. Webcast here. Still discussing how he wanted to go into retirement, I'm afraid he's going to start quoting Lethal Weapon. "I'm basically a homesick man." ("I'm too old for this shit?"). Very long tangent to discuss artistic vision.

1:55 - Muti, the tenth music director of the CSO, takes the podium. Wearing a pretty baller sweater (sweater vest?) , blazer, red tie. Doesn't like to talk from the podium, it "looks like a priest." Compares watching Rutter speak to watching his own funeral, Tom Sawyer style. "You can have a beautiful evening in front of you reading all the details [in our brochure]." Raises the question of how you put season/vision together, cracks more jokes. Muti felt he was a 'free citizen' after La Scala, didn't have to do administrative stuff, when Rutter asked him to come conduct CSO. "I can assure you that--this is going to be the newspapers' headlines--I am like the best Italian wine, with age becomes better." He is cracking jokes right and left. "This is one of the most expensive is complete."

1:50 - Inaugural first month of September/October with Muti's residency. She speaks about guest artist series--Thomas Quasthoff bringing Liebeslieder project to Chicago; jazz and piano series. Mexico 2010, city-wide celebration commemorating Mexican anniversaries, celebrated at beginning of the season. Muti leading performances of Chavez and a premiere by Bernard Rands, Danza Petrificada

1:45 - Ma expresses excitement, love of Muti, not much specific. Browsed through the season calendar---compared to L.A. and New York, not particularly new music-y. I'll wait before making further judgments. Rutter describes what it's like to work with Muti. "His passion, his dedication, his fervent desire and belief of performing music at the very highest level. You couldn't ask for a better partner for the CSO." Apparently the first season to have an all-in-one brochure. "New chapter in the life/history of the CSO."

1:40 - Bank of America guy talking...more importantly, Boulez leading the Glagolitic Mass in December. Deborah Rutter takes stage to outline CSO programming. "As of today, the Muti era officially begins." Anna Clyne is in the house, one of the two new composers in residence, along with Mason Bates. The awesome Bernard Rands is here as well. Yo-Yo Ma, though, not present--sends a video greeting, Academy Awards-style.

1:35pm - In 2010, Bank of America will become the first global sponsor of the CSO. Looking at the press packet, the first concert is a free performance at Millennium Park September 19, with Verdi, Liszt, and Respighi. Continuing to look thru press packet, premiere of John Luther Adams' amazing Dark Waves in lat October (with Mahler and Shostakovich)!

1:30pm - Maestro Muti has entered the building, Bill Osborn (Chair of the Board) gives introductions (Muti just made his Met debut with Attila Met two nights ago). Apparently this is being live-streamed over the internet.

1:25pm - Connected to CSO network, with press conference about to begin in the Grainger Ballroom!

watch this space!

I will, hopefully, be live-blogging the CSO press conference this afternoon. If not, I will blog all I can remember right afterwards. Either way, it starts at 1:30pm Central Time.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

schlingen and blangen

May I direct your attention over to this fantastic review at Sequenza 21 of the best concerts I saw last year: Charlemagne Palestine's massive organ piece Schlingen-Blangen, at the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music at UMKC.

An addendum to Pwyll's excellent description: Following the concluding Firebird melody, Palestine came down from the organ loft to greet his audience. He immediately made eye contact with me and, without breaking eye contact, walked slowly towards me repeating "Do you know who I am? Do you know what that was? I am the Firebird. I am the Firebird." It was, needless to say, a surreal experience. Just about anyone who had a conversation with Palestine over the course of the weekend was completely befuddled. He slept through most Kyle Gann's and Cahill's performance of Dennis Johnson's five-hour November for solo piano, which would have been fine except for the impressively loud snoring.

Monday, February 22, 2010

der kleine ring

In the early twentieth century, there was modernist impulse to make little out of big. This desire brought us chamber orchestrations of Mahler's gigantic works, Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, Webern's Symphony. And now, a hundred years later, that same sentiment has brought us something inconceivable to the nineteenth century: a pocket-sized Ring cycle. Right now, The Building Stage is putting on a fairly literal adaptation of Wagner's epic, as four short plays (in one afternoon/evening) rather than a sequence of evening-length operas. Das Rheingold begins at 3pm, and the destruction of Valhalla is complete by 9 o'clock (each play is a little over an hour, with two short breaks and one extended intermission for dinner).

Although Wagner's cycle is now essentially eponymous with the Ring/Nibelunglied myth (which itself comes from his amalgamation of the Norse Edda legend with numerous other sources), there have been a number of non-operatic attempts to re-create the Ring. The one that comes to mind most immediately is Fritz Lang's 1924 film Siegfrieds Tod, a precursor to Metropolis which adapts Wagner's third (and my least favorite) Ring opera. The Building Stage's Ring is very much in this spirit. I had no idea what to expect when I attended the opening night (thanks you to Andrew Patner for the ticket!); I figured it would be some kind of postmodern deconstruction of Wagner's themes. But it is quite the opposite: it is wholly modernist, embracing all aspects of the work rather than commenting upon or deconstructing it (as in, say, Peter Sellars' puppet Ring).

The Building Stage's production translates Wagner's libretti almost word-for-word, with occasional cuts for practical or dramatic purposes (the most noteworthy, and probably most sensible, was the cutting of the Prelude to Gotterdammerung, which features some of the most spellbinding music of the cycle but recaps plot explained in the other three operas). I'm not sure what translation they used, but it preserved Wagner's alliterative techniques well, for better or worse. Costumes are moderately traditional, seemingly derived from the Chereau/Bayeuth Ring (a lot of trench coats), and the ingenious use of shadows made up for a low special effects budget--the giants and dragon were fairly convincing, more so than in a number of operatic, high-budget productions.

A quartet of musicians (percussion, drums, guitar, and bass) provided incidental music interspersed between and during scenes, composed by Kevin O'Donnell. Much of the music consisted of riffs on Wagner's themes or harmonic material--the opening Rheingold prelude had the feel of an upbeat jam session based around Wagner's epic Eb chord. O'Donnell's music occasionally altered the mood from Wagner's; Rheingold ended on a more melancholy note than Wagner's somewhat heroic finale. Music that now seems trite, like Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, became startlingly fresh in O'Donnell's re-imagining. But there is a large problem lurking under O'Donnell's conception. One of the main goals of Wagner's recurring leitmotiv system is to dramatically unify the work, presenting and re-presenting themes to highlight text or dramatic action. As the themes recur, they gain further significance to the audience. But because O'Donnell's ensemble simply added certain themes into certain sections, there was little sense of the musical motives as drama. O'Donnell, unfortunately, stripped away the notion of music as unifying the drama, leaving it only as an interesting afterthought. I would have rather heard a completely new score, one which abandoned Wagner's thematic material entirely for more immediate and visceral music to better highlight the spoken theater.

It's hard not to miss the original operas' music. When Wotan announces "Evening has come" before the gods enter Valhalla in the Rheingold conclusion, I was begging to hear some Wagner. And the lack of singing and orchestral interludes left a number of scenes, or even entire acts, dramatically lacking. Act I of Die Walkure, which is often performed alone and can function as a kind of chamber opera (only three characters and one setting), lasted fifteen minutes instead of an hour. All of the heightened emotions present in Wagner's score--the incestuous bond of Siegmund and Sieglinde, the jealousy of Hunding--disappear without his music. When Sieglinde suddenly proclaims her love of Siegmund, it is just that: sudden. In acts like this one, Wagner's music plays an essential character, actually telling the love story without words. Dramatic turns often (unintentionally) became comic ones, and the audience occasionally laughed at these seemingly random emotional swings.

But other sections of the work were remarkably compelling, despite Wagner's stilted prose. Loge's soliloquy in the finale of Rheingold is completely effective as spoken theater. If Wagner had written Rheingold as a play, it undoubtedly would have ended there, but opera requires a bit more of an extravagant closer. And as someone who really dislikes the first two acts of Siegfried, I actually enjoyed the version without Wagner's music a lot better; it sped by quickly, and the character of Siegfried somehow seemed less like a bully than in Wagner's version. But like the first act of Die Walkure, the budding of Siegfried's and Brunnhilde's love in Act III fell flat. Interestingly, a spoken production also loses the musical "gap" between Acts II and III of Siegfried inherent in the opera. Wagner took an extended hiatus between writing the music for Act II and the rest of the cycle, and it's very evident in the opera, with Act III of Siegfried being one of the strongest acts in the Ring. But he wrote the entire libretto for the Ring in one go---so Siegfried the play is, in a way, more dramatically unified without music.

Gotterdammerung contained the only potentially postmodern touch of the production, in which the vassals of the Gibichungs called by Hagen are, in fact, the audience. This little, extra dimension added to the sense of this Ring as decidedly small-scale, and brought together the small theater in an important way (this only a couple hours after eating our boxed dinners on the stage). Going to the Ring is always an "experience," and there was a palpable sense of camaraderie among the audience.

The most problematic aspect of the work as a whole was the character of Wotan. Chris Pomeroy, the only actor who played one single character through the whole cycle, did an admirable job of playing a role that is much past his age. Wotan requires an older actor (this happens by default when you seek out his operatic role) who can find the right voice for both the god and the Wanderer. Pomeroy's Wanderer simply lacked the world-weariness by which Wagner's music characterizes him, and the characters of Wotan and the Wanderer were not adequately differentiated (it would have helped to give him a hat instead of a hood, an odd departure from Wagner given the rest of the production's faithfulness).

Finally, of course, the immolation. You really can't do justice to the fall of the gods, and the rebirth of man, without Wagner's music. Adorno claimed that Wagner's immolation music was inadequate to depict the twilight of the gods, but I think it is more than adequate: Wagner, from the beginning of the Ring, sets up the conditions that he will destroy in the end, and the immolation and its music are the natural result of this. And I was never sure exactly what more Adorno could have wanted from the close of Gotterdammerung, pretty much the definition of a cathartic musical apotheosis. Without the music, Brunnhilde's monologue loses a lot of dramatic impact, but the staging made up for it: Brunnhilde embracing the (living, walking) Siegfried after leaving the mortal plane; the Rhine maidens swimming in the front of the stage; Wotan and Fricka watching over the mortals even as Valhalla burns. O'Donnell's music, though not quite an adequate replacement for Wagner's, brought the cycle to a close succinctly.

I urge anyone in the Chicago area to go see this. If I seem overly critical, it's only because certain aspects of this production required more commentary than others. In truth, I had no idea that a Ring ohne Musik could be as dramatically compelling or emotionally powerful as this. I am very interested in reading other reviews of this, especially from theater people who don't know the operas and will judge it on its own aesthetic and artistic merits. But even from somehow who knows and cherishes Wagner's operas, this Ring stands out on its own.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

brilliant marketing

If you do decide to have a marketing campaign called Unexpect Yourself, you should at least have something like this:

H/T Mind the Gap

Monday, February 15, 2010


Seated Ovation will be on hiatus for the next week or so, as we prepare for the most anticipated classical event this winter:

With music by William Albright, Mark Engebretson, Luciano Berio, and Francesco Cavalli for saxophone, piano, electronics and various combinations of the three. It will be held in the Regenstein Recital Hall on the Northwestern University campus (60 Arts Circle Drive in Evanston, IL).

Thursday, February 11, 2010


A nice little video from the New York Phil featuring Nico talking about his new CONTACT! commission. He comes off as just a little crazy, but in a good way. One of the more fun things about interviewing Nico for my thesis is that once he gets started talking about something he likes, he will go off onto very useful and interesting tangents. This is great for the musicologist, since it not only allows one to get a good sense of his personality (and creative thinking process), but also leads to nice little nuggets of information about a piece that wouldn't come up in a more standard interview.

Here's Nico, from one of my interviews, on percussionists (one of my favorite quotes which didn't make it into my paper, for obvious reasons):

Percussionists want to make composers happy because they only have 20th century rep, but percussionists also want composers to write really practical stuff, and if you’re going to ask for some crazy thing, all you need to do is know how to talk about that...and they’ll do whatever you want, they’ll put their head underwater and rub the ball mallet over their scrotum or long as you write it out in a way that makes total sense to them, then they’ll do it.


And not to become the resident editor for lazy orchestras, but at 3:56 in the video, "Pillaging Music" should have two L's.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Since Kookaburra is all up in the classical news lately, how awesome is this:

expect the worst

So, apparently the Philadelphia Orchestra is kind of fucked. Low ticket sales, ineffective administration, no music director, and little sense of guidance within the orchestra. So what do they do? Possibly the worst marketing campaign ever:

Unexpect Yourself
. Beyond the stupid, stupid grammar of the title, the website itself combines the enthusiasm of a tampon commercial with the immaturity of Dora the Explorer (it's time to get rid of the curly P for Philadelphia). What, exactly, is unexpected about this? The streaming recordings are the most popular moments in three warhorse symphonies: the opening of Beethoven 5, the "Hymn of Freedom" (I know, I know) of Brahms 1, and---get this---what is called Tchaikovsky's Fourth but is actually a recording of Mahler 6. You know they probably spent, like, a million dollars on this too. If you're going to go with such a terrible marketing campaign, at least check to make sure you uploaded the right recordings.

And if you are going to advertise "unexpectedness," try not to feature the most expected parts of a symphony orchestra.


With ticket prices ranging from $10 to $130 and performances 3 or 4 nights a week, you have every reason to try something not only new, but extraordinary. So set aside an evening for anything but the same-old-same-old.

For some reason, advertising your highest price for tickets doesn't seem like the best way to attract customers. But maybe that's the trick: bad marketing is unexpected!

Monday, February 8, 2010

go native

Should orchestras make an effort to feature new music from their home cities? Nico seems to think so, in a review of the New York Phil on tour:

But in the back of my head something is screaming: more new music, more American music, more music by New Yorkers. Get that Haydn off of the stage and do a new American piece for chamber orchestra (Note: nothing’s wrong with Haydn. It’s just dopey to play on a tour and, like, yes, the trio from the minuet is hot shit and shows off the horns’ high notes, but it’s still just dopey). Do the Reich Duet for Two Violins! Commission something! Don’t do Egmont; do Short Ride in a Fast Machine. You already have one of the synthesizers for the Wound-Dresser! And all the percussion from the Berg! I know that I’m always going to back-seat program for the Phil, but I’ve said it before and I will continue saying it until I die: I want my hometown orchestra to be my home team. I want to see the season and scream, “I love my life and I love living in New York.” I don’t want to open up the LA season brochure and start looking into rental properties in Rancho Cucamonga just so I can hear Tehillim.

I applaud Alan Gilbert for programming that integrates new music with the classics, and taking on tour an eclectic-but-smart program of Haydn, Schubert, Adams, and Berg (and ending with Berg!). The brunt of his new music programming this season has revolved around Magnus Lindberg, a distinctly European composer, and integrating his music with related European masterpieces---pairing Lindberg's Clarinet Concerto with Sibelius's Second, for example. But Gilbert has programmed Adams, and he is premiering a new Christopher Rouse piece this weekend. So what's the problem?

The integration of new music into regular gramming is difficult business. Gilbert, for one, is conducting the Scandinavian music he is familiar with from his work with the Royal Stockholm Orchestra. He definitely knows Adams, and conducted Doctor Atomic when it came to the Met last year. Should there be a bigger American, and American new-music presence at the New York Phil? Or even more specific---a New York new music presence? This actually raises a larger question, with both practical and artistic implications: Does nationality matter in contemporary (classical) music?

Let's take Levine's tenure at the BSO, for example. The new music he has championed has been mostly American, but of the distinctly post-European formalist kind (I hesitate to use the word Uptown): Carter, Harbison, Gunther Schuller, Babbitt, Wuorinen. Although these composers all work in very different idioms, it is possible to lump them together in one kind of stylistic, if not aesthetic, group. And it is very easy to think of Levine, principally, as a conductor of European music: these are composers who, even when working in distinctly American idioms (like Schuller's and Harbison's integration of jazz) give off a kind of European smell.

When we ask for music from a specific place, are we implying a specific style? Nico asks for New York music, and for more minimalist and post-minimalist music. He wants his home team to play the music he likes, and the stuff that should be heard more often in New York, especially since Levine's fare is frequently programmed by the Met Orchestra in their Carnegie appearances. New York can imply both Reich and Carter, and you can't really argue that one is more American than the other (Sarah Palin, I imagine, would consider neither to be true Americans). But when programming specifically European music, like Lindberg, there is an issue: this is music that can already be heard quite frequently across the Atlantic.

Should the orchestra be a home team? Since nationality no longer implies a specific compositional style, as it did even only fifty years ago, it wouldn't be a bad thing to root for the Americans. If Gilbert decided to program exclusively New York new music, we could get a fair balance of thorny (and I use that word with tongue firmly in cheek) serialism and not-so-thorny minimalism, among hundreds of other musical styles. I would love to see a New York version of the L.A. Phil's "West Coast, Left Coast" festival. So yes, I will root for the home team.

Chicago addendum: I just realized that this necessarily apply to Chicago, which has a much smaller circle of composers. But I would love to see Muti conducting some music by Chicago-based composers, besides Mason Bates who is apparently moving here.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

(the death of) classical music

So, unless you have been living in a cave, you probably have already read Alex's article (subscribers only, but why wouldn't you be one?) and his two subsequent blog posts regarding issues of audience participation in classical music. I agree with him on his analysis of the League report (which I have, admittedly, only skimmed), and that something needs to be done by every single major (and minor) classical institution.

I would like to respond, though, to a response: Jay Gabler's blog post, which can be read here. Gabler argues that classical music is its own savior, that "great art takes care of itself," and that "the audience...will be there." This is not necessarily the problem. It's not the issue of classical music always having an audience, but it is the size of the audience and the size of their wallets. He makes the comparison to museums, which have always been popular by displaying the "classics," but music functions a bit differently: every performance, theoretically, should fill a significant part of the hall. Orchestras and opera companies lose money on pretty much every event they put on, and the more the audience shrinks the larger this problem grows.

But I think the real issue here, one which comes up a lot in the comments of Anne Midgette's blog, is that classical music is somehow "too sacred" to embrace new media (or, as Gabler calls it, "media-whoring"). There was a bit of uproar when the Los Angeles Philharmonic unveiled their marketing campaign for Gustavo Dudamel; people argued that he was over-exposed in the same way, that, say, Obama was over-exposed for going on Leno. This is not "media-whoring." Having a presence on Twitter, or an appearance on television, is not whoring. Embracing new technology is something that these institutions should have been doing for years, and I'm pretty sure a few TV spots and creative advertisements doesn't turn Dudamel into some kind of sell-out succubus. Hiring Alec Baldwin to be the NY Phil announcer isn't whoring, it's smart marketing. The Met, to an extent, understands this. When Satyagraha tickets were returned by their regular subscribers, they courted the hippie, downtown SoHo audience who knew Philip Glass and liked yoga---and it worked. Each institution needs to carefully target themselves to specific demographics for specific events, as well as generally market towards youngish audiences. Having people in charge who are smart at business doesn't mean you have to sacrifice any artistic integrity. I don't think Dudamel's supposed "over exposure" was in any way at the expense of his music making: the criticisms you may have of his conducting have nothing to do with whether or not he had an iPhone app.

And "not doing a damn thing" is what got us in this place to begin with. For the past twenty-odd years, the big institutions have assumed that subscribers and listeners are a given right. They held up classical music like some kind of field of dreams---if you build it, they will come. But the reality is, we cannot depend on arts education to shape listeners who are interested in seeing the Chicago Symphony or Metropolitan Opera. The big institutions need to seek out new audiences however possible. The Met and Carnegie Hall have been better about this in recent years, and I think the New York Phil is changing their ways now as well. The L.A. Phil, under Deborah Borda, is probably the model for how to attract new listeners, hype up the orchestra, and get everyone in Los Angeles excited that they have a symphony (the extraordinary Disney Hall certainly doesn't hurt, either)--as well as maintain a high standard of artistic excellence and creative, intelligent programming.

If the people in charge of symphony orchestras and operas do nothing, classical music will not die. But in thirty or forty years, it's difficult to imagine having, say, more than one opera company in New York. It's even hard to imagine that more than a handful of professional orchestras in America will exist. Orchestras and opera companies are too huge and cumbersome to survive without a large, wealthy, dedicated audience. What will take their place is smaller venues, chamber ensembles, and touring groups. (Le) Poisson Rouge, and other clubs that feature classical musicians, may end up being the future if the New York Philharmonic folds. In which case, conservatories should not hold learning orchestral excerpts as the paradigm for becoming a great classical musician. All of our institutions are gridlocked on training musicians to play in big orchestras; if they collapse, then the conservatory system itself becomes useless (it is already outdated enough as is).

So: there will be no classical music apocalypse, but the people in charge need to act soon, at the very least, to draw in a new generation of listeners.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

i await the resurrection of the dead, this friday

It's easy to forget how crazy Messiaen's titles are when we leave them in French (Edit: Or Latin). Et exspecto resurrectionem morturorum sounds pretty tame until you translate it into "I await the resurrection of the dead." Or Eclairs sur l'au-dela, which sounds like a delicious dessert but is in fact "Illuminations of the Beyond" (in case you haven't realized, I don't speak French or Latin). Et expecto, one of the great Messiaen orchestral works (albeit an orchestra of winds and percussion), is being performed this Friday evening by the Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble, in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall at 7:30pm. Tickets can be purchased here. I'm not sure when this was performed in Chicago last, but apparently Boulez conducted it with the CSO in 1969. It is a tremendously awesome work, one of the few Messiaen pieces that (unfortunately) doesn't end in a massive, supersonic major-key apotheosis.

The Symphonic Wind Ensemble is also performing the Stucky/Purcell Funeral Music, a Vaughn Williams scherzo, and the Chicago premiere of William Bolcom's over-orchestrated, vapid First Symphony for Band. Hope to see you there.

Edit: Thanks to commenter Jorge for noticing that Et exspecto is obviously Latin and not French. This is why you shouldn't blog while watching TV. Actually, though, this leads to an interesting issue which I may blog about in the future: how texts, whether titles or lyrics, in classical music influence us when they're in a foreign language. It's a weird phenomenon almost exclusive to classical music, omnipresent in opera and also in plenty of non-staged works.

Monday, February 1, 2010


January 31, 2010
Symphony Center Presents
Radu Lupu, piano
Janacek, In the Mists
Beethoven, Piano Sonata in F-minor "Appasionata"
Schubert, Piano Sonata in B-flat D960

The word "mystic" gets thrown around a lot with Radu Lupu, so much so that you expect him to perform in a robe while burning incense. But his stage presence is perfectly ordinary, though he does sit in a chair instead of on a piano bench. Mystic is also used to refer to his playing; I would prefer the words Romantic, personal, and maybe idiosyncratic. Lupu's recital on Sunday was one of the most remarkable events I have attended in Chicago this season, rivaling last week's Rite with the CSO and the Berlin Philharmonic's Brahms Second in November. His Janacek and Beethoven, though beautiful and certainly unique, were nothing to write home about. The Schubert, though, really struck me. I have a deep love for the B-flat Sonata, having discovered two years ago in preparation for Alfred Brendel's performance (also at Symphony Center) in his farewell tour. After listening to renditions by Richter and Rudolf Serkin, Brendel's performance was a bit of a let down: elegantly phrased, poised, and delicate, but lacking the warmth and capital-R Romanticism of those earlier recordings. Just as "mystic" sticks to Lupu, "Apollonian" seems to be one of those traits that is always glued to Brendel; in this instance, it made sense.

Lupu's performance of the sonata, though, drew me into the piece in ways I had never heard it before. His performance, if anything, was anti Classical, anti Apollonian. In many ways, he defies, or even breaks down, the idea of structure. The recapitulation in the first movement returned at a faster speed than he originally played it. In the pulsing heartbeats of the adagio, structure dissolved into color; Lupu seemed to care more about the chiming sound of the pulses than their role in the harmony, changing their placement almost haphazardly with rubato. This is not a bad thing. I don't think every performer has to treat structure as the greatest paradigm, elucidating the clarity of the exposition-development-recap. Sometimes emphasis of structure can come at the expense of a great performance (as was the case with Brendel's Schubert), like revealing the scaffolding of a building. With big, twenty minute movements like in the Schubert structural clarity is often a helpful guide, but is not necessary. Lupu transcended structure, creating music which sounded very much in the moment, music moving through time rather than through space. His rhapsodic account of the sonata drove a wedge through Schubert's Classical form, Romanticizing it without losing any sense of intellectual rigor. This didn't always work, of course. The Sturm und Drang section of the finale lacked intensity because Lupu played with the rhythms too drastically. But overall, the effect was magical, matching the divine beauty of his legendary recording of Brahms' piano works.

Lupu returns to Symphony Center at the end of February to play Beethoven's Third Concerto with the CSO, under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda. The program also features Saariaho's Orion, and Rachmaninoff's dreadful First Symphony after intermission. Is there any way to just buy a ticket for the first half?