Monday, December 30, 2013

new musings

Hello, dear readers. It's been a while, I know. It occurred to me recently that those who don't regularly check my all-too-frequently-updated Twitter might be missing out on some of my recent writing. I'm going to try to periodically update this space, in the manner of the great Steve Smith, with links to recent articles in other publications. Perhaps this will spur me to blog again, though that's pretty unlikely. 

By the way, I'm in Year Three of my PhD program, and am about to starting writing my dissertation proposal. It will focus on the rise of new, collaboration-based institutions in contemporary music, mostly geared around New York -- things like Bang on a Can, Bedroom Community, and yMusic. It's going to be fun, I hope.

Without further ado, here's some of what happened this fall:

(A review of David Menestres's excellent improv collective Polyorchard)

(Micro-previews of upcoming local performances in the Indy)

"Chicago's Quirky Modernism," Bandcamp blog 17 Dec 2013
(Examining the excellent new Chicago-based label Parlour Tapes+, which two sharp releases: the Spektral Quartet's CHAMBERS and the collaborative *AND)
Note: if you know of intriguing new music being issued through Bandcamp, give me a holler.

(A brief preview of yMusic, an ensemble I've written about in the past.)

"Nico Muhly's Team Spirit," The New Yorker, 20 Oct 2013

Eva-Maria Houben: Piano Music, liner notes for R. Andrew Lee and Irritable Hedgehog, Oct 2013
(IH and Andy have been receiving accolades from just about everyone; this album certainly deserves them. Keep an eye out for another Wandelweiser-y release with liner notes from me shortly.)

"Classical Saxophone, an Outlier, Is Anointed," New York Times, 18 Sept 2013.
(You may recall that the ending provoked some amount of controversy; the rest is much more important, though. Classical saxophone deserves a place, as Ryan Muncy's new album can attest.)

"From the Shed to the Stars: Reflections on BUTI," NewMusicBox, 17 October 2013.
(A pleasure to write about my own formative experiences as well as those of others.)

Keep an eye out for this January release on Telarc - cellist Zuill Bailey and the North Carolina Symphony play Britten, and I've written liner notes.

Questions or comments? Contact me at william l (that's an L, not a One)

Friday, August 9, 2013

critic's notebook

...and we're back. Not for long, alas: I spent a great weekend recently taking in a few performances in the Berkshires, and thus have decided to give the old fashioned review thing another go-around. Seated O will probably go dormant again afterwards; I would strongly advise checking my Twitter feed for updates regarding my writing in other places. When the NC concert season starts up in September I'll mostly be attending without reviewing; there's a lot of excellent stuff coming to town, but now I've got a dissertation to write, so it won't be much of a blogging year. And now, without ado:

Thursday, August 1 - Seiji Ozawa Hall
Mark Morris Dance Group and TMC Opera
Britten, Curlew River
Purcell, Dido and Aeneas

There is a weird energy to  music and nature at Tanglewood; they always seem to eerily complement each other. Thus, within a warm and generally pleasant weekend, we had a bleak and wholly appropriate drizzle to introduce the world of Britten and Purcell. Curlew River, a work with which I was previously unfamiliar, is the composer's attempt at merging 1960s music theater with Noh practices. It belongs, I think, to a larger group of postwar/tonal European operas that demonstrate deliberate connections to other cultures and nations -- I'm thinking of Henze's El Cimarròn in particular -- which are better about handling exoticism than previous attempts, but still kind of bad. Mark Morris, properly, drained Britten's drama of its Orientalist symbolism, bleaching exoticism and leaving behind a clever and haunting pageant. The uniformly excellent singers of the Tanglewood Music Center performed Morris's light, simple choreography. Britten's music is acutely eerie -- repeated, corkscrew horn passages, shakuhachi-like flute gestures, and flickering vocal lines that peak upwards, vaguely in the style of Noh singing -- and Morris's staging meshed well. Paper origami and a simple umbrella were transformed into powerful props, as the singer-dancers created the rocking motion of the sea, blew out a sail, and placed paper cranes at the grave of a madwoman's dead son. The TMC instrumentalists played with shocking brilliance.

At one point during Curlew River, a descending, tutti scale is repeated again and again, forming an endlessly unspooling lament, over which the life and death of a young boy is discussed. It foreshadowed, of course, the teary ending of Dido and Aeneas, which complemented the Britten historically and musically. Mark Morris's staging has been better discussed elsewhere, and I am not a dance scholar by any means; but I've long loved his realization of Dido on DVD, and was excited to see it in person. After a year of obsession with The Rite, I was at least somewhat prepared to think about dance. Morris's two-dimensional vision seems to connect backwards to the frieze of Nijinsky's Faun, which accrues further significance in both works' hyper-attention to sexuality. Morris's Dido exudes sex, from the drag gestures of the stomping sailor's chorus, to the loin-directed motions of Dido when she speaks of her pain, to the bawdy humor of the jealous sorceress (Morris's use of the same dancer for Dido and sorceress transforms Dido into a split-personality, a queen who seems to deliberately stymie her own attempts at love). And most importantly, as in the Britten, Morris's staging is incredibly musical -- the gestures of the dancers not only perfectly match the rhythms of the music, but seem to actually analyze it in real time, bringing out moments that one might not hear in the score. Morris acts here like an acute conductor, able to bring out new sounds in an old staple (normally, he actually conducts, though this time around it was handled with aplomb by Stefan Asbury). The TMC players, in the loft behind the stage, played with polished buoyancy; overall the singing was great, though less impressive than in the Britten. Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music, featuring the TMC, is this weekend, and I wish I could be there to see it -- if they can do Britten and Purcell this well, I really want to hear Lachenmann and Benjamin.

Saturday, August 3
Koussevitsky Music Shed
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Charles Dutoit, conductor

Morning rehearsal:
-Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps
-Stravinsky, Fireworks
-Dvorak, Cello Concerto featuring Yo-Yo Ma

Evening performance:
-Ravel, Pavane for a Dead Princess
-Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 1 featuring Lang Lang
-Ravel, Daphnis et Chloe (complete score)

Ordinarily it would not be kosher to review a rehearsal, but two things drove me to basically have to talk about Saturday's morning dress for Sunday's concert (which I couldn't attend): my year-long Rite of Spring odyssey, and the enormously impressive performance that the BSO gave of the ballet. The overall clarity of the playing was astonishing, especially given the outdoor performance and the rehearsal setting. Dutoit crafted a laid-back interpretation, less pounding than motoric. The chug recalled Eliot's comparison of the ballet to "the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels"; the snorting bassoons of the Augurs evoked a factory blowing out puffs of steam. Woodwind solos were eminently lyrical; the fluttering of the Spring Rounds was the sonic equivalent of dancers on pointe.

Philosophically, this is not the kind of Rite I prefer. I sympathize more with the Taruskin idea of attempting to get back to the primitivist, dangerous, Nicholas Roerich-esque Rite; the one that Gergiev and the Mariinsky deliver on a good day. But I can't deny how good this kind of Rite sounds. The fact is that the shimmering landscape that orchestras like the BSO deliver at their best is the Rite of today, the result of a culture of excerpt perfection (if you graduate from any conservatory, you have probably mastered the hardest parts of The Rite).

So why not make the most of it? Why not create the controlled frenzy that an orchestra composed of perfectionists can deliver? The downside is that this Rite does not accrue the same violence over its thirty-minute span that it can in a different approach; the upside is that you can hear everything, and it all sounds amazing. The former can at times be revelatory, at others dull; the latter, in this case, was thrilling.

Fireworks acquired a strange energy following The Rite; it's often dismissed as post-Rimsky orchestral fluff, but its opening polyrhythms somehow sounded more uncanny than those of The Rite (it is, after all, much less of a classic). Yo-Yo Ma gave an impassioned, technically brilliant performance of the Dvorak, but the perfection that he has accomplished in his career often lacks illumination; I wanted to hear something new, or weird, but I didn't. And hearing The Rite as an opener, alas, cast a long shadow over the rest of the morning.

The Rite actually cast a shadow over the evening, as well; after encountering the lucidity with which the BSO could play it, I was particularly looking forward to their Daphnis. It delivered. Dutoit's approach, again crisp and relaxed, gave the sensual music the effect of a series of waves that never quite crested. The approach felt entirely natural, as if the orchestra were simply poring forth sound. But all the musicians -- from the ecstatic singing of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to the muscular basses of the Danse guerrière to the languorous flute solos throughout -- were supernaturally attuned to the feel of Ravel's music.

The BSO's Pavane was equal to its Daphnis. The problem of the evening was the Beethoven -- or, rather, Lang Lang's performance. I'm not a big fan of hating on Lang Lang, though I've done it before/ Too much anti-LL criticism is couched in a smug, nationalist superiority that tilts towards racism. Lang Lang's technique is great, and I often love the bright, expansive sound that he gets out of the instrument.

The problem for me is the uniformity of that tone; I want to hear more kinds of sounds from his playing. I kept wishing for him to puncture his uniformly rich timbre with dryness, brittleness -- something to disrupt the flow, to draw attention to particular musical ideas and make me think about Beethoven anew. After around twenty minutes -- the First Piano Concerto is a very long piece for what it is, and seems much longer when given this kind of One Size Fits All performance -- Lang Lang's tone became monotonous. Many who criticize the pianist's Beethoven and Mozart tend to harp on the idea that his playing is better suited to Chopin or Liszt, setting up this false dichotomy between the solemnity and intellectual rigor required for the former and the virtuosity for the latter. The issue for me is not that Lang Lang's Beethoven lacks some kind of German solemnity or Teutonic searching -- I really don't think that's something required for every Austrian piano concerto out there -- but that it lacks interesting ideas overall.

And honestly, it is deeply upsetting when a terribly enthusiastic audience just goes nuts after a mediocre performance. Thus the name of this blog.

The weekend of TMC and BSO was a reminder of the enormous faculties of orchestral musicians. These are the folks that should really be profiled by major newspapers. Their lives are interesting, and the playing remarkable.

Footnote: Bang on a Can Marathon!
Alas, I could only sample the BOAC summer marathon at Mass MOCA, sandwiched briefly between morning and evening BSO on Saturday. I heard a great performance of Julia Wolfe's Fuel for strings, which fuses the twitchiness of Shaker Loops with the acerbic sonic clouds of Xenakis; it is an entrancing work, alternating between trembling Romantic gestures and fierce extended string techniques. Bill Ryan's brassy Drive was also well-played, with engaging rhythmic sputters and a killer backbeat, though it lagged somewhat towards its end.

Onyx, a work by the late Eleanor Hovda -- a composer with which, I admit, I was completely unfamiliar -- was startling in comparison to what came before, a respite from the relentless drive. Strings tremeloed softly, with quizzical little effects popping up in the winds. In Lachenmann, the accrual of extended techniques is deliberately alienating; here, weird slap-tongues and breathing sounds drew the listener in. A furious climax, in which the bodies of the string instruments were wildly shaking, dissolved into a spectral mist that lingered for the rest of the weekend.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Late night thoughts on reading the New York Times

Yes, I've decided to take to Seated Ovation tonight, and it's in the very old fashioned way that I used to use the blog -- circa 2010, senior year at Northwestern, when I was an anonymous outlaw shaking up the classical music institutions of Chicago.  Tonight, yes, is a screed night.  But it's for a good cause.

The only "reporting" being done on James R. Oestreich's recent announcement of his retirement is on a blog that I won't link to, because it is designed as linkbait, and does not need any more.  Needless to say, its writer clearly has a thing out for Jim, and he has expanded that grudge out into a general critique of the entire New York Times as an institution.  I'm guessing it has to do with this book review here.

I wanted there to be something on the Internet, not just in Twitter form, that fleshes out a bit the importance that Jim Oestreich's 24 years at The Times has meant to classical music.  Now, I know Jim personally, and he has edited my work for The Times, and for that I am ever grateful.  But I would not consider myself one of the "chummy" types who goes online to defend his friends, so maybe we can discount that idea up front.  I also am not part of any old boys' club of any kind, that I know of.

So let's talk about what 24 years at The Times means:

It means helping shape the careers of Anthony Tommasini, Vivien Schweitzer, Steve Smith, Zachary Woolfe, Will Crutchfield, Alex Ross, Jeremy Eichler, Anne Midgette, Dan Wakin, and many others I'm forgetting.  That's most of the best writers on classical music in the field.

It means writing about early music -- often controversially -- in a way that had not been previously pursued in a major newspaper, and rigorously staying on top of the New York early music scene.  And analyzing it in a manner that can only be called scholarly -- see this.

It means recognizing that shifts are occurring in the classical music sphere, and that they need to be recognized.  The fact is that the Times covers more new music now than it ever did, and is completely on board with the youngest generation of composers and following what they're doing.  That did not used to be the case: you would seek out Andrew Porter in the New Yorker, or Kyle Gann or Tom Johnson in the Voice, to find out what was going on in the non-symphonic world.  Jim, in cultivating writers like Alex Ross, Steve Smith, and now Zachary Woolfe, has cast a keen eye on the contemporary scene and helped nurture it.  New operas, major events at Le Poisson Rouge or Issue Project Room, weird avant-gardy things are all in the mix these days -- if there's ideology, it's mostly to be found in critiques of institutions like the NY Phil for not playing enough new music.  I'm not saying every writer says brilliant things about new music, but the coverage is there, and it's not dogmatic, pedagogical, or close-minded in ways it was several decades ago.

It means coverage.  This is a big deal.  I don't know if having a Classical Editor is the only way to guarantee coverage of classical music, but Jim has (from what I've heard from many smart people) battled his entire career for serious discussions of classical music in the mainstream media -- from High Fidelity to Opus to the Times.  There are no other resources that cover so much music in any kind of depth in comparison to the NYT; whether or not you like individual writers or pieces, the effort is there.  This is essential not only for the current classical scene -- which needs more critical scrutiny, not less -- but also for historians.  For a lot of these events, the Times Review can be the only historical record of its existence.  If those vanish, the memory vanishes.

Which brings me to the final "it means," and the most important one for the career I'm headed down.  Musicology has had a place at the Times since Jim's arrival 24 years ago.  A major place.  That has been spearheaded by Jim's relationship to Richard Taruskin, who is not only a great musicologist but a great writer for the public, who has proven controversial in many of the best ways that controversy can be used.  If you want to read the most scathing approach to academic serialism, read this.  If you want to read a brilliant analytical takedown of Carmina Burana, read this.  And let us not forget the Great Klinghoffer Controversy.  These can be harsh and I don't always agree with them, especially in the case of Klinghoffer: but by bringing an academic into this world, Jim has allowed for discussions of important issues that remain almost entirely below the surface in the world of classical music, exposing the political realities of how great (or not so great) music is made.  Taruskin's epochal Text & Act, perhaps the most important thing ever written on performance practice, was partially birthed from his work with Jim, and Jim gave Taruskin space to write:
[Opus Magazine] offered writers space and scope such as I have never enjoyed anywhere else, and an editor more devoted to airing serious, qualified opinion than any other with whom I have had the pleasure of working.  It still seems a miracle that Jim Oestreich took my big Beethoven review without asking for a single cut.  That piece would have been turned down by any schoalrly journal as too topical, by any Early Music forum as too impious, and by any record magazine as too detialed (not to mention long), but for Opus, or for Jim, it was just right.  I believe it to be perhaps the most valuable piece in the present book beause of how it immediately applies theoretical premises to the exercises of 'practical criticism.'  I would like to think it exemplary in its way, but there is no magazine in the world today that would print it. (Text & Act, 6-7)

Even with less space the Times, as Taruskin continues, the impetus to create vivid works of scholarship for a broad public remained.

Introducing controversial music scholarship to the Times readership allowed for introducing all kinds of scholarship to the Times readership: thus excellent recent work by W. Anthony Sheppard and Micaela Barnello, among others.  And, of course, I am ever grateful to Jim for covering UNC's recent Rite conference (that's some chumminess, I suppose).

This is the reality, sometimes unspoken, of a quarter-century of difficult work as a defender of the arts -- because that is, ultimately, what a great critic and editorial voice is.  In treating music with the rigor and thought that it deserves, Jim has contributed, and helped sustain, the vibrant cultural community that is New York City, and has showed it to the world.

Please contribute any thoughts in the comments, and, as always, you are welcome to disagree.