In matters pertaining to the visual arts I defer absolutely to the sharp eye and fluid pen of my colleague Peter Schjeldahl, but I can't help taking brief note of an important, startling, and subtly trangressive art installation that is currently on view in the middle of Times Square. It is called What the Hell Are Those Lawn Chairs Doing in the Middle of Times Square, and the artist is a promising neophyte named Mike Bloomberg, aka "His Honor." Bloomberg has already drawn notice for works such as Three Bankrupt Banks on Every Block and Eurotrash Condo Towers Everywhere. If public acclaim continues to mount, he might be able to give up his day job.
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Dec. 14, 2009
The classical-music world has a fraught relationship with fame. On the one hand, people are always pining for the days when Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, and Leontyne Price dominated the airwaves and appeared on the covers of magazines. On the other hand, whenever a contemporary classical musician brushes up against celebrity—this usually entails a segment on 60 Minutes, a Rolex ad, a photograph in People, and possibly the final slot on the Tonight Show—skeptics start to worry that the supposed avalanche of hype will wipe out any trace of artistic integrity. Such anxiety is not entirely misplaced: Luciano Pavarotti went from being the finest lyric tenor of the modern era to serving as the punch line for fat jokes. Then again, notions of the irreconcilability of commerce and art smack of college-dorm Marxism, and run counter to the spirit of Beethoven, Verdi, and Mahler, who addressed themselves passionately to the general public. Surely it is possible for a classical composer or performer to attain celebrity without surrendering to celebrity culture. Such a canny virtuoso might even persuade a terminally distracted Balloon Boy nation to pay attention to a forty-five-minute symphony.
Right now, all eyes are trained on the twenty-eight-year-old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who took over as the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in October. In just five years on the international circuit, Dudamel has become one of the most famous classical musicians alive, his ascent heralded by TV profiles, front-page newspaper stories, and YouTube videos. When he inaugurated his Philharmonic tenure, at the Hollywood Bowl, a crowd of eighteen thousand people greeted him with a hollering, stamping, pop-star ovation. Just as impressive was the hush that fell over the Bowl during the ensuing performance—an intelligently plotted, flowingly musical account of Beethoven’s Ninth. Some ways into the Adagio, with Dudamel coaxing intricately expressive, aria-like playing from the violins against softly glowing choirs of winds, the hoopla receded and Beethoven took charge. Such feats of immersion explain why this young man has caused unaccustomed tremors of optimism in the classical world.
There are three main elements behind Dudamel’s appeal. The first is his astonishing natural command of the art of conducting. Advance notice of his talent spread not through P.R. departments but in awestruck reports from such illustrious colleagues as Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle, who encountered him on visits to Venezuela. Second, Dudamel has an infectious emotional energy that tends to win over jaded souls in audiences and orchestras alike. Not for him the stone-faced mask of seriousness; his bright eyes and wriggling features suggest that he revels in what he does. Finally, his Latino background puts a new face on an art that is widely viewed as an all-white affair. He is a product of El Sistema, Venezuela’s legendary network of youth orchestras, which draws talent from the poorest sections of the country, and his perspective is bracingly different from that of the staid conservatory graduate.
Dudamel may yet burn out from all the attention, but the signs suggest otherwise. In person, you see a steeliness behind his ebullience. He is musically obsessed, intensely ambitious, and more than a bit radical. At the Bowl in October, before the main event of Beethoven’s Ninth, he led the EXPO Center Youth Orchestra, a Philharmonic initiative, in a fuzzy but buoyant rendition of the Ode to Joy. Members of the audience remarked on the fact that the coveted stage-side seats at the Bowl, which are usually reserved for donors, had been given over to the families of the young musicians, most of whom came from South Central. It was a pointed, almost political gesture—like something that Bernstein would have done in his confrontational prime.
Dudamel long ago proved himself to be a master of roof-raising occasions. The real test of his abilities will come more gradually, as he goes about the daily business of running an American orchestra: conducting subscription concerts, planning future seasons, hiring musicians, soliciting donations, and—if he is truly a miracle worker—changing the complexion of the audience. Just before Thanksgiving, I returned to Los Angeles to hear how Dudamel and the Philharmonic worked together under more ordinary circumstances, in the regular subscription series at Disney Hall. I attended two consecutive performances of a high-minded, echt-Viennese program: Mozart’s “Prague” and “Jupiter” Symphonies and Berg’s Violin Concerto, with Gil Shaham as soloist. The works fell outside the late-Romantic and conservative-modern zones in which Dudamel has made his mark—his home turf of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Bartók, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich.
They were elegant, thoughtful readings, proof of Dudamel’s range. They were not, however, anything to put in the time capsule. Although Dudamel has the image of an impulsive conductor, a wild man of lunging arms and dancing feet, his musical choices tend to be controlled, sometimes a little predictable. He favored a lush, heavy sound in Mozart, as on old Karajan records. Strings outnumbered winds five to one—problematic in terms of balance, although the increasingly stellar Philharmonic woodwinds compensated with a series of vibrant solos. Tempos were on the slow side, bordering on the somnolent in the Andante of the “Prague” and the Minuet of the “Jupiter.” Dudamel was at his best in the “Jupiter”’s slow movement, where he achieved the same exquisite layering of sustained and filigreed lines that made the Adagio of his Beethoven Ninth so memorable. For the most part, though, this Mozart needed punchier rhythms, cleaner dynamic contrasts, sharper details of articulation and phrasing.
The Berg Concerto, too, was curiously subdued. You might have expected Dudamel to wallow more in the veiled Mahlerian drama of Berg’s orchestral writing. Yet the conductor was working to the advantage of his soloist. Shaham approaches this piece with uncommon sweetness, attaining at times a vividly vocal quality. Dudamel hovered in the background, presenting a muted color field on which Shaham could make his pastel strokes. In all, the program was rich in subtlety but short on electricity. It was good to see Dudamel challenging himself and the orchestra with such meaty fare so early in his tenure; the easier choice would have been to load the season with Romantic warhorses to keep the crowds happy. All the same, a noisy ovation greeted Dudamel after the last notes of the “Jupiter” sounded. Both orchestra and audience appear smitten.
Some breathless reports have anointed Dudamel the savior of classical music, but in L.A. no messiah is required; this orchestra has already been saved. Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose name went unmentioned in a 60 Minutes profile of Dudamel, brought about a revolution during his seventeen years at the Philharmonic—a reorientation of the programming toward modern music, a tireless campaign to convince audiences of the power of the new, and an all-around aesthetic of adventure.
Fortunately, Salonen’s vision now seems firmly implanted in the orchestra’s identity. John Adams has assumed the post of creative chair, and while I was in town an Adams-curated festival—“West Coast, Left Coast,” a celebration of California music—got under way at Disney Hall. The opening event was a bit chaotic, but it took surprising twists and turns: the Kronos Quartet played a wistful post-minimalist work by the film composer Thomas Newman; the duo Matmos presented two hypnotically dense electronic pieces; an ad-hoc ensemble tried out a meandering avant-gardish creation by the guitarist Michael Einziger, of Incubus; and, around midnight, Terry Riley, the founding father of minimalism, ascended to the organ loft to unleash a brilliantly bluesy improvisation.
Free-roaming concerts of this kind would be startling at most orchestras; at the Philharmonic, they are almost routine. How Dudamel adapts to the orchestra’s fine-tuned experimentalism remains to be seen, but he seems eager to carry on Salonen’s legacy, taking on a slew of new pieces and adding his awareness of Latin-American composers. Under Salonen, the Philharmonic became the most interesting orchestra in America; under Dudamel, it shows no signs of relinquishing the title.
May 19, 2009 | Permalink
Unsung. The New Yorker, May 25, 2009.
At 2:45 in this video, Marie-Nicole Lemieux sings a portion of the great Didone lament discussed in the column. Also featured is the young Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu (see his celestial Vivaldi below). Recommended recordings: Emmanuelle Haïm's superb Lamenti disc, with Lemieux, Lehtipuu, et al; the DVD of Herbert Wernicke's enchanting production of Calisto, with René Jacobs conducting; Jacobs's lively Giasone, presently available only via MP3 download; and a spare, stylish Ormindo with Les Paladins on the Pan Classics label. I can't endorse Thomas Hengelbrock's Didone on account of its excessive cuts. Recommended books: Ellen Rosand's Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice, Wendy Heller's Emblems of Eloquence.
Because of an impending trip to Australia, your błøgger will miss a slew of interesting events in NYC in the coming week. Next weekend sees the debut of 13 Near-Death Experiences, the latest conceptual work by the composer and singer Corey Dargel. Performances are on May 22 and 23 at PS 122, with the men and women of ICE. In 2007 I reported on Dargel's beautifully bizarre theater piece Removable Parts. On May 20 and 21, Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays the three Bartók piano concertos with Jonathan Nott and the Bamberg Symphony. And on May 23 at Tenri Cultural Institute, the Either/Or Ensemble presents three world premieres (by Andrew Byrne, Richard Carrick, and David Franzson) together with specimens of Klaus Lang, Helmut Lachenmann, Hans Thomalla, and John Luther Adams.... Two notable events outside NYC: on May 22, in Boston, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project gives the premiere of a big new piece by Lisa Bielawa — a concerto for orchestra entitled In media res. BMOP has put out several valuable recordings in recent months, notably a disc of Derek Bermel. And the Chicago Opera Theater, one of America's most consistently inventive small companies, is staging Britten's Owen Wingrave through May 26.... New blogs: pianist and author Susan Tomes, critic and feuilletonist Philip Kennicott.
I would like to express deep gratitude for two honors that recently came my way: the Royal Philharmonic Society of England gave its Creative Communication Award to The Rest Is Noise (book and blog), and the Manhattan School of Music pronounced me Doctor of Musical Arts, honoris causa.
The actor Alec Baldwin explains to David Letterman how he came to be the radio voice of the New York Philharmonic: "All of the people who are prominent in classical music come from one of two locations — Vienna or Massapequa, Long Island." Baldwin seems a genuine fan; he has shown up for several installments of Carnegie Hall's current Mahler cycle.
May 14, 2009 | Permalink
Esa-Pekka Salonen will not appear at tonight's New York Public Library event because he is suffering from a back problem and is unable to travel. So it will be an evening centered on Frank Gehry, although we'll certainly talk about Salonen's achievement and how it relates to Disney Hall. David Zinman will be stepping in for Salonen this week at the New York Philharmonic.
May 11, 2009 | Permalink
"I have four razors and a dictaphone."
— Andrey Tarkovsky, Diaries, 1979
This blog began five years ago, with the odd little quotation above. I didn't expect it to become a daily routine — the title came from my book in progress, and I simply wanted to reserve the address — but it took on a life of its own, thanks to a lively, buoyant readership. In 2004, I knew of only a few classical blogs; now there are hundreds. To mark this unhistoric occasion, I've collected some favorite posts: Das Lied von der Brad, 12-Tony, Tiny Valhalla, Bayreuth Pilgrimage, David Raksin, Speech found the ear..., Ask Mr. Noise, The Gould, Applause: A Rest Is Noise Special Report, My latest works, John Langstaff, "You vill enjoy it!", Full fathom nine, Lorraine, Send, Schoenberg-Thalberg, On becoming a book. Go Adam!
May 09, 2009 | Permalink
Next Monday, May 11, Frank Gehry and Esa-Pekka Salonen will make back-to-back appearances at the New York Public Library. Gehry goes first, fielding questions from Barbara Isenberg, author of the new book Conversations with Frank Gehry. I will chime in with a few queries about Disney Hall. Then I will interview Salonen, who conducts a Polish-Finnish program at the New York Philharmonic next week. Paul Holdengräber, director of the Live from the NYPL series, will moderate. The event begins at 7PM in the Celeste Bartos Forum.
May 08, 2009 | Permalink
Last year I wrote an online piece about the use of music as a psychological weapon, with reference to Suzanne Cusick's disturbing study of the aesthetic dimension of American torture. Lara Pellegrinelli, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, delves at length into the issues raised by Cusick and other authors. New from Indiana University Press is Jonathan Pieslak's book Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War, which examines how soldiers have employed music both as an instrument of war and as a kind of defense mechanism. Pieslak discovers that some took to blasting "The Ride of Valkyries" on "thunder runs" through Baghdad, in imitation of the Wagner scene in Apocalypse Now. In a contrasting section, Pieslak interviews the composer-guitarist Jason Sagebiel, who wrote a gently sorrowing piece entitled Salvation while serving in Iraq and who also used his time there to study Arabic music. You can listen to Salvation here. It is, Sagebiel says, in passacaglia form; the recurring theme represents the fact that "violence and war have been the history of the world."
May 07, 2009 | Permalink
The Mahler symphonies are descending on New York en masse, courtesy of the Staatskapelle Berlin. The New Philharmonia Orchestra of Newton, MA supplies helpful translations of Mahler's tricky score markings. (Via Evan Eisenberg.)
Update: The perpetrator is David Pesetsky, professor of linguistics at MIT and principal second violinist in the New Philharmonia Orchestra.
May 05, 2009 | Permalink
NewMusicBox, the online magazine of the American Music Center, celebrates today its tenth birthday. Heartiest congratulations to Frank Oteri and his team for having the wit to launch the site at a time when "classical" music seemed alien to the Internet, and for maintaining it in consistently imaginative fashion. To mark the anniversary, NewMusicBox has put up a rich trove of new material — personal reflections from Oteri, a video by Molly Sheridan, and short essays by various new-music personalities. John Luther Adams, in his contribution, gives an enticing preview of his new piece Inuksuit, a work for nine to ninety percussionists performing in the open air, the score modeled on stone sentinels built by the Inuit in Arctic spaces. The premiere will take place this June in Banff, on the summer solstice. Onward and outward....
May 01, 2009 | Permalink