Monday, October 31, 2011

if it ain't baroque

Reviews! Yes, reviews. Those things that aren't quite the news. I saw two concerts last week, one pretty awesome and the other quite not so. Let's dive right in.

Apollo's Fire, a Cleveland-based Baroque band, kicked off an international tour with countertenor Philippe Jaroussky in an impressively mammoth concert on Wednesday at Duke. The ensemble, conducted compellingly by Jeannette Sorrell at the harpischord, played a mix of instrumental works and opera excerpts by Handel and Vivaldi. The instrumental pieces -- a couple concertos, a couple chaconnes -- sounded highly polished, with particularly searing performances of Vivaldi's flamboyant "La Folia" trio sonata (arranged by Sorrell for the full group) and his brusque, occasionally nutso double cello concerto.

And what of Jaroussky? It took him a little while to warm up -- his first aria had fireworks but not much power -- but by the later excerpts he sounded in full form, with a lovely, radiant tone. In Orpheus's song of loss, from Handel's Parnasso in festa, he summoned tremendous vocal forces to grieve, an aching meshing well with the ensemble's blooming accompaniment. His voice doesn't quite match the fullness of Andreas Scholl, my go-to countertenor, but Jaroussky has a certain appealing charisma and displayed a deft command of the striking ornamentation. His final two arias of the evening, from Vivaldi's Giustino and Tito Manlio (which were followed by several excellent encores) made a dramatic pair: the sagging lamento bass of "Vedro con mio diletto" with gleaming vocals, followed by the blazing coloratura of "Fra le procelle."


On Friday, we got a different kind of Baroque, with Gil Shaham's set of Bach solo works on the UNC campus. Initially, I was impressed: Shaham displayed enormous technical faculties from the outset in the Partita No. 3, with stunning pianissimos, and a continuous sense of line through each movement. But the sound was a little bland, with nothing to distinguish it besides its sheer perfection. More promising was the Sonata No. 3, in which Shaham turned inward, dwelling eerily on the obsessive minor see-saw of the opening, and nailing the uncannily dense fugue.

The program ended, after intermission, with the D-minor Partita, which culminates in one of those sums-of-all-Western-man-achievements, Bach's Chaconne. It was, to put it mildly, a musical disaster. The technique was all there, yes. But from the get-go, it felt rushed, lacking the absolutely necessary weight of such a lofty piece of music (yes, there are many ways to interpret a piece of music; no, you cannot make the Chaconne breezy). Shaham never probed into the music, never glanced at the form, and made no attempt to craft a narrative. No moments were felt; it was an exercise in empty virtuosity, with the only indicators of musical change being his somewhat strangely-placed dynamics (soft is not always profound!). That glorious major section--a kind of heavenly weeping--and its stately descent back down to gloomy earth completely lacked pathos. I didn't time it, but I imagine it must have been one of the quickest performances of the Chaconne on record. I actually wrote in my notes, "I HATE THIS."


Upon reflecting, I realized that the lack of musicality, the absence of insight, was probably present from the very beginning of the concert. I know and treasure the Chaconne, so I recognized when a musical crime was being committed. But, overall, Shaham's Bach lacked the basic musical necessities beyond superb technique.

So what happened?

This was the beginning of a four-city tour, which, by the looks of it, does not really hit any major landmarks for the classical music world. It looks like Shaham has done this program at Wigmore Hall and played the D-minor in San Diego already, but, as his website puts it, this is a "sneak preview." Is it right for top-tier musicians to use a paid event as a way to "try out" new repertoire? (A "sneak preview" is usually something that plays before the movie you pay to see.)

It's a tough one to crack, because I was probably one of a few members of the very, very enthusiastic audience (multiple standing ovations) to be disappointed. What is the role of the critic in this situation? To be the guy who says, "Well, no, that's not the Bach Chaconne. Sorry folks, you shouldn't be enjoying yourselves"? The violinist wants to play Bach; the violinist has clearly spent a ton of time rehearsing Bach (the performances were mostly flawless); the violinist wants to practice performing Bach in public; the audience loves his performance; the lone critic says nay. We are not talking about Lang Lang here, a performer whose status is constantly questioned; Gil Shaham is, as far as I know, universally praised by critics (the Lang Lang comparison is particularly apt here, since he is someone who constantly feels the need, despite his superstar status, to claim himself as a student; thus his "new Schubert phase" inaugurated last weekend).

But the thing is, there was something very wrong on Friday. I can only think of a couple times I have been so remarkably disappointed -- Kent Nagano's bizarro Metamorphosen and the heartbreaking failure of Superman Returns come to mind. It was the kind of shock/anger that made me want to rush to the Interwebs to express it. There should be a higher standard than this -- or, at least, a different standard.

One of my tenets as a critic is that technical perfection is a ridiculous and unfortunate expectation, one created by a century of increasingly polished (and manipulated) recorded music. To an extent, I do expect "perfect" performances out of the Chicago Symphony, Berlin Phil, or New York Phil -- I've heard them do it before, and I'm confident they can do it again. But from soloists or chamber groups, I want to hear something new, something interesting, something daring, rather than something technically flawless. If I wanted to hear the "perfect performance," I would go home and pop on a CD (okay, I don't own any CDs anymore).

So that's why Friday was so infuriating: technique seemed to come at the price of everything else. Those gorgeous softs seemed to be his only real way to express any emotion, or convey the complexities of Bach's forms, and they came somewhat arbitrarily. But (and this is a big but): can you do anything else with solo string Bach? I talked this out with my cellist-in-residence, who agreed that the performance was a remarkable feat technically but lacking musically. Shaham memorized a full concert of fiendishly difficult music, and he was out on a somewhat-oversized stage all alone in front of hundreds of people. If you're playing an accompanied sonata or concerto, there is a certain amount of lee-way in terms of technique -- drop a note here, have a memory slip there, and your partner can pick up for you and keep you righted. With solo rep, and with Bach especially, there is no safety net: a missed note, or, even worse, a memory failure, can completely derail the music. I'm not really sure, in this repertoire, if there is a way to put the musicality in front of the technique; you have to have the technique easily ready, and learn the musicality alongside it, or add it on later (I recommend the former).

We can imagine this kind of scenario: Shaham practiced the repertoire alone (remember, solo rep means there's not necessarily anyone in the room to tell you to play it better, especially if you're a professional), and wanted try it out on a "regional" audience before heading to the big leagues in New York or L.A or the recording studio. Is that right? We can't demand that every performance a person gives is the best one of his life, but is it right to make a place like Chapel Hill your proving ground? On the other hand, the audience was pleased; it was the New Yorker and the professional cellist who were disappointed. It's an unfortunate reality that critics don't discuss very often -- that the New York Performance, for most musicians, is the pinnacle of achievement, that those NYT reviews can really make or break a career. Even if the Carnegie audience might also have loved Shaham's Bach, any discerning critic would have cried foul play.

At the end of the day, all we can say is: it should have been better. And, hopefully, it will get better. Bach deserves it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


"[Stockhausen] sighed: 'One can't write like that any more today.'...I wondered whether this remarked portended some new doctrine. Were we again to be given guidelines? What did 'today' mean in questions of art? Who was meant by 'one'? And what did these hostilities portend? I would find out soon enough. It seemed to me strange, not to say absurd, that composers, as messengers of a higher spirituality, should want to make life difficult for one another in a way that now became quite common, taking away each other's livelihood, fighting each other like business managers and forming cliques and lobby groups. I found it repulsive, unethical and inartistic -- another reason for preferring to remain alone and refusing to conform. The new arbiters of German music, who were really no more than jumped-up officials and civil servants...were all people I found profoundly unsympathetic."
-Hans Werner Henze

That quote is from Henze's Bohemian Fifths, his insightful memoir (in the full quote, Henze is paraphrasing what Herbert Hubner told him about Stockhausen). I think it is important to remember, as a new generation of composers contextualizes themselves within and against the past, that the postwar period was not all abstract, scientific, or hypermodern. The Zero Hour did not sweep all of Europe -- not even all of Germany -- and the lyricism and subjectivity of today's contemporaries have plenty of antecedents.

Anyway, that was just a springboard to talk about how much awesome stuff is going on in places I'm not, and how much of that is, fortunately, streaming online. I've been using Spotify (the free kind) a ton recently to listen to Haydn (I hope FJH doesn't get mad about royalties). But NPR/WNYC/WQXR/Q2 are doing an awesome job of keeping up with what's going on in the post-Esterházy world. I've been listening quite a bit to the new My Brightest Diamond album -- streaming on NPR -- featuring the-best-thing-ever, aka yMusic. I wasn't familiar with her music before (besides Sarah Kirkland Snider's Penelope, written for her voice), but the songs have a spooky snappiness to them, enhanced by the delicate instrumental accompaniments. It's good stuff. For comparison, WNYC also has a New Sounds concert streaming from earlier this year, so you can see how it all sounds live. And if you're a Naxos Music Library member, you can stream yMusic's own album there, they've got the whole New Amsterdam catalog.

Q2 has been my soundtrack this week (cheating hint: since I lack a smartphone and like to listen to music detached from my computer, I use a stream ripper to download their shows after-the-fact). We've got two new Corey Dargel things -- an electric guitar quartet plus him piece from MATA and then a piece on last night's Brooklyn Phil concert, which I'm listening to now and is, as usual, great. I'll let you know how the Mos Def stuff sounds when I get to it (Sacred Harp! yay!).

Some more streaming things that should be awesome -- tonight, a preview event for Nico Muhly's upcoming Dark Sisters at LPR with the composer at the piano and plenty of really incredible stuff (when was the last time you heard Sibelius songs? Side note: the Dark Sisters website is how everyone should unveil a new piece of music; lots and lots of podcasts). And then on Sunday, the lethal combination of Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, and Cavalli's remarkable Didone on Medici TV. This Saturday, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil unveil Jonathan Harvey's Weltethos on the Digital Concert Hall; Pablo Heras-Casado makes his Phil debut the week after; and in early November, Rattle pairs Mahler's Ninth with Lachenmann's Tableau -- it's all here.

When someone (possibly me) writes the history of our chapter in music, it should be as much about the institutions that have granted these fertile, crossgenre (or no-genre) musical possibilities. People like John Schaefer, Jane Moss at Lincoln Center, Deborah Borda in L.A., Le Poisson Rouge, and Q2 are shaping 21st century music as much as any of our very talented musicians. Old histories of music placed the major shifts of the past fully within the powers of the god-like composers. It was Beethoven who paved the road for Romanticism, for the composer as autonomous, freelance agent, servant to no one. In reality the picture is a bit muddier -- the breakdown of the court system and the rise of individual patronage helped ignite the embers of the autonomous musical work as much as any individual composer did. We then move away from wishy-washy ideas of Zeitgeist and begin to talk about how music and musical styles were disseminated as much by institutions -- the churches, the courts, the aristocracy -- as by individual geniuses. We assume that every good young composer is doing this indie-rock alt-classical fusion thing, that this is becoming the dominant style of how music is composed today. Of course it's not. But the institutions programming music, performing music, and spreading music are (rightfully so) supporting this new movement and shaping today's narrative. Their role should not be ignored.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

oh no!

Say it with me: I will not abandon the blog for Twitter I will not abandon the blog for Twitter I will not abandon the blog for Twitter I will not abandon the blog for Twitter

If it looks like I abandoned the blog for Twitter, think again, because here I am writing a blog post. I always intended for Twitter to be a fun side thing, a way to market my blog, publicize my thoughts, and get the people who I wanted to read me reading me. (Did it work?) But then I went from school-taking-up-a-lot-of-time to school-taking-up-a-LOT-of-time so if I'm not spending my free time reading Haydn quartets or being a non-music person then I'm not spending my free time too wisely.

So what was the point of this post again? Oh, that's right -- catching up on what's been going on. Last week, I started a meme! Okay it's not LOLCats but it did take off pretty well. On Wendesday I tweeted ""Haydn the Temptress: Sex, Drugs, and the Op. 76 Quartets" ". Various people jumped in the game (major props to Robinson Meyer for being #2) and once alexrossmusic picked it up ("Teenage Wasteland: The Arpeggiation of Adolescent Boredom in Mozart's Later Salzburg Period" ) it went pretty viral pretty quickly, with musicologists, critics, composers, and randos joining in the game. I wish I had the time to go back and read them all -- you can still see everything if you search on Twitter (be sure to click "All" to view everything), and everybody's favorite musicology blogger MMMusing has cataloged much of it here; NewMusicBox picked up the story and SoundNotion (everyone's favorite new music TV show) discussed it on air and read one of my less-clever ones (is "Ovation Inflation" supposed to refer to me?).

Anyway, of what I read, some of the earliest were the best. I love:
@kylelion "Du cristal: The Influence of Hip-Hop Culture on Kaija Saariaho"
@stravinskyite "Haydn Sikh: Legitimate Indian Classical Tradition or Children's Game?"
@ionarts "The (F)art of Fugue: Hidden Evocations of Gastric Distress in the Chromatic Inflections of Bach's Late Contrapuntal Works"

I am particularly proud of one of mine, "Central Park in the Dark: Ives and Cruising in Gay Subculture."

This will probably be the most fame I reach ever, so I will continue to wallow in it -- the tweets have mostly trickled out, though the real AMS is still talking about it.


If you're in the area, things to see that I unfortunately won't be:
-Tune-Yards is at Cat's Cradle tonight -- I need to get to know her music a lot better, because apparently she's one of those things that new music people love.
-The Cloud Dance Theater is performing on the UNC campus; I have no idea if they're any good, but they're dancing to Toshio Hosokawa (alas, recorded Hosokawa), so they get some streets cred with me.
-That's it for the next couple weeks. Note to all musical things that I love (that means you, everything on New Amsterdam or Bedroom Community or people repped by Amanda Ameer): come tour to the Triangle area. There will be at least 2 happy people and 2 terrified cats in the audience.


Let's talk a bit about Haydn, here. The elephant in the room*. I've been reading David Wyn Jones' concise biography to get a brief overview of the life and timeline of the man, and there is some pretty hilarious stuff. I had no idea that Haydn was a ladies' man, for starters (I guess in perspective, he really only had a wife, a mistress, and another lady lover, but still). There's this choice quote, from a 1790 letter, about his displeasure about having to return to Ersterhaza after a stay in Vienna:

"Here in Esterhaza nobody asks me 'Would you like chocolate, with or without milk, do you take coffee, black or with cream? What can I offer you dear Haydn? Would you like a vanilla or strawberry ice?' If only I had a good piece of Parmesan cheese, especially in Lent, so that I could swallow those black dumplings more easily."

"If only I had a good piece of Parmesan cheese" would be a great title for a killer Bang on a Can remix of Haydn themes.

A few years earlier, when Britain was Lady Gaga at the idea of Haydn coming to visit (he was rumored to be concertizing in London for many years before he actually arrived), the Gazetteer & New Daily Advertiser expressed their dismay at his absence:

"There is something very distressing to a liberal mind in the history of Haydn. This wonderful man, who is the Shakespeare of music, and the triumph of the age in which we live, is doomed to reside in the court of a miserable German Prince, who is at once incapable of rewinding him, and unworthy the honor. Haydn, the simplest as well as the greatest of men, is resigned to this condition, and in devoting his life to the rites and ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church, which he carries even to superstition, is content to live immured in a place little better than a dungeon, subject to the domineering spirit of a petty Lord, and the clamorous temper of a scolding wife. Would it not be an achievement equal to a pilgrimage, for some aspiring youths to rescue him from his fortune and transplant him to Great Britain, the country for which his music seems to be made?"

Apparently Haydn was not great fan of his wife, but discussing her that way in a public forum is just, well, Lebrechtian. I can also imagine a really awesome Guy Ritchie heist movie where a rag-tag group of Brits infiltrate a castle to whisk away the Shakespeare of music.


Listen to this:

It might sound a bit prosaic; most Haydn, at first, does. But it goes, as most Haydn does, in interesting directions. The fake-out fugue, the insistent unisons, that scholarly counterpoint towards the middle of the first movement; the gorgeous adagio; the weird plucking in the minuet; the bizarre harmony shifts in the finale, with its stormy introduction, which culminate in an uncanny return to the original key of the piece. (I wish there were a better full recording on YouTube than the Budapests; they sound great, but it is very much a "classical" performance and misses some of the brutality of the music. They also skip the repeats, making it a bit less monumental.)

I've spent a lot of time listening to and looking at the op. 76 quartets, and I am thoroughly convinced that they are some of the best quartets out there. As someone who thought of himself as not particularly in love with that genre and not particularly in love with Haydn (I was in definite like with Haydn), this came as a bit of a surprise. But there they are: tours de force of what could be called the classical style at its finest, emotionally wrenching, beautifully wrought.

We've probably moved past the idea of Haydn as the benevolent "Papa," but we absolutely have not moved to the point where we can embrace him in the same way as we do Mozart and Beethoven. It is difficult to wrap our heads around the idea that someone can write 104 symphonies that actually don't all sound the same (they don't! I promise you. Bruckner's 9 sound a helluva lot more the same than Haydn's 104). It's one of the many silly ideas that we clung to from when Romanticism trickled into modernism; can you believe that so many people are still hung up on the idea that you should stop at Nine? Just because Beethoven did it doesn't mean you all have to.

The later Haydn, who so enraptured London as Handel did before him, is a keen and commanding musician. Professor Bonds pointed out recently in class that it is ridiculous that people somehow think that early Beethoven -- the first piano sonatas and op. 18 quartets -- can somehow be on the same level as the mature Haydn, a master at the height of his powers. But we cling to the notion that Haydn somehow transferred his power to Beethoven, that the Classical Style evolved into the Romantic Period, so that Beethoven picks up where Haydn left off, and scrubs off the jokes in the process. Let's leave that behind. I am starting to think of Haydn like Gandalf: formidable, wizardly, and partial to the occasional pipe weed.

*I have no idea what that means.