I wrote recently that NJPAC, the New Jersey Symphony's home, is the second-loveliest concert hall in the New York area. I forgot to mention, as I remembered tonight, that the walk from Newark Penn Station to NJPAC takes you along the second-ugliest stretch of road in the New York area, next to whatever Godforsaken route appears in the Sopranos credits. You can, in fact, ride little buses to and fro, in order to avoid the feeling that you're about to be hauled into a van and taken for a long drive in the woods. But the hellish walk somehow adds to the pleasure of the place itself. The program, under the direction of the striking young Estonian conductor Anu Tali, consisted of Niels Gade's Hamlet Overture, Grieg's Piano Concerto, and Sibelius' Fifth. I'll save the Sibelius for an upcoming New Yorker column and comment briefly on the Grieg. Yuja Wang was the soloist; I knew her from Leon Fleisher's Carnegie Hall workshops, which I wrote about last year. Then, I was gripped by her playing, though I felt she hadn't fully grasped Schubert's language. She has certainly mastered Grieg's. She gets a huge sound out of the piano, which isn't surprising from a well-traveled young prodigy. What's more impressive is that she plays in big paragraphs, shows a powerful grasp of structure, brings delicate fantasy to lyric passages. She is only seventeen years old, which amazes me most of all; I assumed she was in her twenties when I heard her last year. She is a remarkable talent with miles of room to grow. She plays NJPAC again on Saturday.
January 14, 2005 | Permalink
Correspondents have likened the picture of my manuscript below both to the “Whiteness of the Whale” chapter of Moby-Dick and to the “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” scene in The Shining. Jack Torrance's book at least had the virtue of a clear, consistent point of view.
The Fredösphere has become coterminous with the planet Alias. The fate of mankind now hangs in the balance.
The island on TV's Lost suspiciously resembles the island of The Tempest. Is there a Prospero practicing rough magic behind the scenes? John Locke sounded a lot like Caliban when he talked about the "magic island" a while back. (Prompted by fellow JJ Abrams addict Adam Baer.)
I just can’t believe it about Brad and Jen.
January 13, 2005 | Permalink
Re: the post on intra-symphonic applause below, Felix Salmon reminds me that he and Terry Teachout debated this matter back in 2003. Terry, pro-applause, quoted the great conductor Pierre Monteux: "I do have one big complaint about audiences in all countries, and that is their artificial restraint from applause between movements or a concerto or symphony. I don’t know where the habit started, but it certainly does not fit in with the composers’ intentions." Felix worried that the culture of applause could get out of hand, leading to intrusive clapping after every movement and indiscriminate standing ovations such as you find on Broadway. The latter case is a separate issue. I've often been to orchestral concerts where the audience supplies a standing ovation that to my taste isn't warranted. (But: musicians work incredibly hard, and they always deserve applause. There's only one "etiquette" rule that every neophyte should learn: never walk out with your back turned while the musicians are taking their bows, unless you wish to deliver an in-your-face insult. A lot of self-styled "serious" listeners who pride themselves on remaining perfectly quiet throughout a Mahler marathon commit this incredibly rude behavior.) I wouldn't necessarily want applause after every movement, but that's the way audiences did it before 1900, and classical culture was far healthier in that period. See Greg Sandow's blog for a hair-raising description of how audiences acted in eighteenth-century Italy (quoted from the new Taruskin). Is it a paradox that composers of past eras wrote so much astounding music while audiences, by our standards, "misbehaved"? Or was there a direct relationship between the unruliness of the audience and the greatness of the music? The latter, methinks. Our "standards" are corrupt and need to be junked.
It's an interesting question, how this silent routine got started. In my article "Listen To This," I alluded to the strange behavior of audiences at the premiere performances in Parsifal in 1882. I think it began there and then spread to orchestral culture. From Cosima Wagner's diary: "When, after the second act, there is much noise and calling, R. comes to the balustrade, says that though the applause is very welcome to his artists and to himself, they had agreed, in order not to impinge on the impression, not to take a bow, so that there would be no 'curtain calls'. ... At the end R. is vexed by the silent audience, which has misunderstood him; he once again addresses it from the gallery, and when the applause then breaks out and there are continual calls R. appears in front of the curtain and says that he tried to assemble his artists, but they were by now half undressed. The journey home, taken up with this subject, is a vexed one." Two days later: "After the first act there is a reverent silence, which has a pleasant effect. But when, after the second, the applauders again are hissed, it becomes embarrassing." Two weeks later: "R. had a restless night. He feels so languid that he does not attend the performance, just appears during the intermissions, and the only thing he hears all through is the flower scene, since the excellence of the performance always refreshes him. From our box he calls out, "Bravo!," whereupon he is hissed. ... R.'s mood is changeable, but on the whole biased against Bayreuth — indeed, he even talks of handing over Parsifal and the festival theater to Herr Neumann!" I can't think of a better example of nincompoop pseudo-seriousness than the idea of a Bayreuth audience inadvertently hissing Richard Wagner himself.
On a related matter, see my short piece "Concert Rage." People who "shush" are just as annoying as people who chatter and crinkle cough-drop-wrappers; no, more annoying. Often I hear a "shush" wafting down from the upper gallery without hearing whatever minor disturbance caused it. Shushing is like honking in a traffic jam: it just adds to the problem.
When I first stuck my foot in blogging quicksand back in May, I knew of just a handful of "notational" blogs (silly name, yes, but no worse than the C word). Now I find new ones every week. Check out Composers Forum, with regular contributions from Beth Anderson, Larry Bell, Cary Boyce, Lawrence Dillon (separate blog here), Steven R. Gerber, Sean Hickey, Benjamin Lees, and Daniel Schnyder; Anne-Carolyn Bird, blogging the life of a young American soprano; and Philip Copeland, doing the same to the life of a university choral conductor (with sub-links to many members of the University of Alabama at Birmingham chorus). All contribute to the great work of Demystification. Blogging can show composers, singers, and critics as living, thinking beings, alert to the flow of twenty-first-century culture, not as the anachronistic antisocial freaks we actually are.
Meanwhile, peering over to the cool kids' lunch table, I'm glad as heck that JD Considine is blogging; that Carl Wilson continues to exist (his rundown of 2004 music jargon is a must); that officemate Sasha listens to all this stuff so I don't have to (are Scissor Sisters being misunderestimated?); and, most of all, that the slumbering beast called The Minor Fall The Major Lift, aka Evil Alex, has roared back to life.
On Saturday night I went to see the New Jersey Symphony in Trenton. (A PATH train misadventure prevented me from seeing Friday night's show in Newark as planned. Hello, Hoboken!) Something delightfully odd happened during Stenhammar's Piano Concerto No. 1, with Neeme Järvi conducting and Per Tengstrand, an intense young Swedish virtuoso, at the piano. After the first movement, there was the usual smattering of applause mixed with assorted "hushes." Tengstrand looked toward the audience encouragingly, as if pleading for applause. Then he reached for a microphone and began to talk. He explained that he'd intended to say something about this unusual work — unheard in America for more than a hundred years — but as he walked out onstage he forgot. So he decided to speak up in the middle of the concerto. Highly irregular, yet it did not harm the piece. It was refreshing to have a brief respite and change of mental gears before the Scherzo. I'm not recommending the inter-movement lecture as a regular feature, but it exemplifies the kind of (mildly) free-spirited behavior that classical concerts need more of. The historical record suggests that composers of the pre-1900 period would be horrified by modern concert etiquette. Accustomed to applause between and even during movements of a large-scale work, they'd assume that audiences hated their music or had no comprehension of it. Are we more serious, more cultured, than Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms? All those who consider themselves more serious than Brahms have every right to shush their neighbors after the first movement of the D-minor Concerto.
The New Jersey's Northern Lights festival continues.
Reading vol. 3 of Stravinsky's Selected Correspondence, I was surprised, very nearly stunned, to come across a positive mention of Benjamin Britten's grand Elizabethan opera Gloriana. In a 1953 letter to the good people at Boosey & Hawkes, Stravinsky calls the score "very interesting." This is rather like an ordinary person calling it "unbelievably awesome." For the most part, Stravinsky had only vicious things to say about Britten, although his oft-quoted putdown of the War Requiem — "Nothing fails like success" — may have been nothing more than a spasm of professional jealousy in the wake of that work's runaway success. In any case, Gloriana is a glittering and haunting piece. I'm hoping to see it at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in June.
The letters with Poulenc end on a heartbreaking note. "If I no longer send you my music," Poulenc writes in 1962, "this is because I simply do not think it would interest you." He died a few months later.
January 07, 2005 | Permalink
I recently wrote in the New Yorker about the Chicago Lyric Opera's premiere production of William Bolcom's A Wedding. At the head of the piece I praised the company for its long-standing commitment to American opera, while also noting that the forced departure of artistic director Matthew Epstein — reports of which broke on the day my column closed — signaled a possible downturn. Now this article by Wynne Delacoma brings the sad news that the Lyric's 2005-6 season will, for the first time in 15 years, include no American opera. Despite its general financial health, the company apparently feels a dire need to coddle its core donors and subscribers, who want traditional productions of familiar repertory. The usual depressing story of retrenchment, similar to what happened with Pamela Rosenberg in San Francisco. Note one thing, though. Delacoma's article names as the primary issue among Chicago conservatives a sexed-up Rigoletto by Christopher "You have to throw cold water on an audience" Alden. I think that premieres and twentieth-century repertory are signs of a progressive spirit; I don't think the same of director-driven opera. I still hope these retrenching companies can find a way to recommit themselves to new opera, because composers are doing something far more brave and far more important. Opera directors are cheap substitutes for opera composers. Invest in the real thing.
Addendum: Charles Downey at ionarts picks up this post, amplifies it with reference to a modish Robert Carsen Traviata, and supplies the perfect kicker: "Couldn't we just have a new opera that was actually about a drug-addicted jet-set prostitute in Las Vegas, rather than trying to shoehorn a 150-year-old opera into such a story?"
January 07, 2005 | Permalink
Two putative highlights of the NYC midwinter season begin this weekend: the New Jersey Symphony's Northern Lights Festival and the Takacs Quartet's six-concert Beethoven series. The latter event, explosively titled ULTIMATE BEETHOVEN: A JOURNEY THROUGH GENIUS, is self-recommending; the Takacs' recorded Beethoven cycle, just finished with a volume of the Lates, is the best of the last decade. The NJ event marks the entrance into New York life of the indefatigable Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi, who probably has a larger discography than any conductor alive (357 CDs to date), and has also done outstanding work in the field of procreation, fathering two international conductors and a flutist (don't miss the cowboy hat picture). After a stint at the Detroit Symphony, Järvi now leads the New Jersey Symphony, and the Northern Lights festival brings a not at all surprising but very welcome focus on the conductor's beloved Scandinavians. Tonight's program (continuing through Sunday) unloads Sibelius, Stenhammar, Tobias, and Svendsen. Notice the Interplay on Jan. 21, which will feature authentic Finnish recitation of the Kalevala legends. If you're not familiar with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), it is, despite the ugly name, the second-loveliest orchestra hall in the New York region, just after Carnegie.
January 06, 2005 | Permalink
The Norman Lebrecht Award for Overzealous Classical Doomsaying goes this week to the New York Times, for today's article "Twilight of the CD Gods? A Studio 'Tristan' May Be the Last Ever." Lebrecht is, of course, the excitable and unreliable English writer who declared at the beginning of last year that 2004 would spell the end of classical recording. Oops. Now writes the otherwise discerning Michael White: "This probably represents the end of the line for large-scale studio recordings of familiar operas." Why, if matters are at such a dire pass, do CDs of operas both famous (René Jacobs' award-winning Figaro) and unknown (forthcoming on Virgin Classics, Vivaldi's Il Bajazet) continue to pour in? These recordings evidently don't count because they are on Harmonia Mundi, Astrée, and Virgin Classics, not on the so-called "major labels." Yes, most of them are live, not studio, but that's no sign of decline. Advances in digital technology have made million-dollar studio boondoggles unnecessary: you can patch together a splendid tape from live performances, and, in the bargain, you will probably get more spontaneous playing. (See DG's great live Tristan this year with Voigt and Thielemann.) So where's the twilight? Where's the doom? What this Placido Domingo Tristan may spell the end of is the era of egregiously expensive, artistically superfluous recording projects that exist to satisfy an overpaid star's vanity rather than the demands of the marketplace. High-level opera singers, like high-level orchestras, have priced themselves out of the market, and other, more resourceful artists have taken their place. But I doubt we've really seen the end of the dinosaurs. My guess is that "final opera recording ever" is simply EMI's marketing plan for this particular release.
January 05, 2005 | Permalink
The excellent composer Marcus Maroney, whose own music reminds me of Frank Martin's insofar as it doesn't quite remind me of anyone else's, has gently amplified my Martin post below, noting that the genial Swiss wasn't quite a twelve-tone composer (in the doctrinaire sense) as I had originally made out. The wording has been tweaked. Also, I've dredged up an old New Yorker column pairing Martin with the equally fascinating and elusive Ferruccio Busoni; you can read it here.
January 05, 2005 | Permalink
Justin Davidson of Newsday has written a humdinger of a piece about the "space-annihilating" properties of recorded music: “I am floating, suspended in a clear fluid of Strauss. I am in iPodspace.” The article is not exactly a panegyric. Justin believes that the way we listen now detaches music from an intimate experience in a specific space. The nowhere syndrome applies not only to recorded sound but to live performance as well, whether it’s early music played in a large hall — “Instead of authentically drafty rooms gritty with the smoke from oil lamps and packed with a few dozen people, today's baroque musicians play in cavernous concert halls in which the music becomes wispy as it reaches toward the back and up into the galleries” — or a croon amplified to fill a stadium: “Norah Jones … murmurs into the mike and instantly summons a cozy little nook in which she and her millions of fans can get a little privacy. Her next tour includes a stop at the Workers' Stadium in Beijing."
This is great criticism on a huge canvas. But I’m not sure I agree with the eventual pessimistic drift. Does canned music, as John Philip Sousa called it, always make us forget where we are? Doesn’t it sometimes dramatize space in unexpected ways, so that certain locations are permanently marked with our soundtracks for them? (Third Avenue above 43rd Street will for the indefinite future remind me of Radiohead's "Sit Down Stand Up": I'd rented a car and was returning it late at night to the Avis on 43rd when my brand-new copy of Hail To The Thief transfixed me so completely that I couldn't stop driving. Went through fifty green lights.) Doesn’t hearing a fragment of recorded music suddenly give us a hunger for the “real thing” — make it seem imperative on a given day to buy a ticket for Radu Lupu or Rokia Traoré three months hence? These are questions I’m pondering in my own long piece on music and technology, coming soon to a newsstand near you.
January 04, 2005 | Permalink
The increasingly indispensable ffolks at trrill drew my attention to this riveting Dutch page about the extreme highs and lows of the human voice. Viktor Wichniakov singing a double low G is one of the hair-raisingest things I've ever heard. The noises that Mariah Carey makes don't strike me as being actual notes, but Jonathan emphatically disagrees.
I meant to link promptly to Ben Ratliff's Times interview with jazz composer Wayne Shorter just before Christmas, but I tarried, and the story now seems to have disappeared into the abyss of the paper's pay-per-view archive. If you missed it, take my word that it was fascinating; Ratliff asked Shorter to listen and comment on a favorite CD, which, semi-surprisingly, turned out to be the complete Vaughan Williams symphonies. Puts me in mind of the fact that the ghostly jazz-like sections of Vaughan Williams' Sixth Symphony — his greatest, one of the great works of the century — was inspired by the death of an entire jazz band at the Café de Paris during the London Blitz.
Like Marion Rosenberg, I enjoy a good orgy. From 5 PM Wednesday to 7 PM Friday, you can listen, via the miracle of internet radio, to the complete works of Bartok, with an Ol' Dirty Bastard retrospective in the middle.
January 03, 2005 | Permalink