Recent work for The New Yorker.
The New Yorker website has posted this reporter's obligatory end-of-year list. Emily Nussbaum, our television critic, is probably right in decrying such lists as an intellectual mistake, especially as they pile up in unreadable heaps. Still, it's always a pleasure to review the year and savor a few memorable moments. Also on the website: an interview with Esa-Pekka Salonen about Patrice Chéreau, the year's most painful loss. Already posted below is a list of notable music books.
I am pleased to announce that the Rest Is Noise Person of the Year is Joyce DiDonato. She is a model artist of our age, an enlightened politician of beautiful sound. She's also great fun to drive across Kansas with, although this was not necessarily a deciding factor. The Medal of Musical Valor goes to the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians, who turned down what many considered an acceptable offer in the name of preserving their dignity. In an unprecedented repeat performance, the Turkey of the Year Award goes once again to the Minnesota Orchestral Association, which, it seems to me, has no business running a lemonade stand, much less a symphony orchestra.
As in past years, I'll add some items outside my area of nominal competence. In another Wagnerism-saturated year — if you saw some fool reading Huysmans on the subway, it was probably me — I did find time for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's marvelous Americanah. My favorite film of the year was Terrence Malick's To the Wonder. Richard Brody, one of very few critics who understood Malick's vision, wrote beautifully about the movie here and there. (The fact that the soundtrack made profound use of the Parsifal Prelude may have affected my response.) As for TV, household favorites were Veep, Breaking Bad, and — forgive me, Emily — The Walking Dead. Happy holidays!
December 18, 2013 | Permalink
Marco Blaauw, the high-flying hero of Ensemble musikFabrik's Michaels Reise at the Lincoln Center Festival last summer, has a riveting new CD called Angels, containing "sound images of winged creatures" by Liza Lim, Richard Ayres, Rebecca Saunders, GF Haas, Carl Ruggles (supplying the title), Agata Zubel, Martin Smolka, Martijn Padding, the jazzman Jimmy Rowles, and Blaauw himself. There's a preview on SoundCloud.
December 17, 2013 | Permalink
The winter-solstice festival returns on Saturday. Highlights of the schedule are a reprise of Chris Herbert's Winterize (a chilly pleasure last year); a bicycle-bell piece by Merche Blasco; a new version of James Holt's Bach-on-the-G concept; a percussion procession led by TIGUE (the core of the amazing Wall Street Vexations); and, of course, a boombox opus by Phil Kline.
The Canadian Opera Company recently announced that it had commissioned a new opera, entitled Hadrian, from the singer-songwriter-turned-opera-composer Rufus Wainwright. Reactions in the Canadian new-music community have not been entirely positive, as Robert Everett-Green indicates in a Globe and Mail article. In the past fifty years, the COC has managed to mount only five Canadian works on its main stage — a record that outdoes the Met's in spottiness. Was Wainwright the most deserving candidate for such a rare commission? Everett-Green contemplates that question, and he also examines the very different case of Opera Philadelphia, which, under the direction of a Canadian impresario, David Devan, has thrown itself into contemporary opera — including Ana Sokolović's Svadba, first seen at Toronto's Queen of Puddings Music Theatre. “We decided that, if we want to remain viable, we need to move from being Turner Classic Movies to being HBO,” Devan told Everett-Green. A metaphor for others to ponder.
Not surprisingly, many self-described leftists have rejected John Halle's thesis that the vast majority of pop music serves as a tool (wittingly or not) of élite capitalist forces and that classical music has a role to play in resisting them. He is accused of defending "old white people's tastes nobody gives a shit about." Take that, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. On the Minnesota matter, Halle is sadly right in observing that many on the nominal left have accepted "the right's rhetoric, viewing classical musicians as a 'coddled' workforce receiving an unjustified exemption from market discipline." The collectivist model of the orchestra, the chamber group, or the chorus is unfashionable; instead, our heroes are mega-rich superstars who peddle populist fantasies while residing on a plane far removed from ordinary life.
I've placed my Ira and Luranah Aldridge piece online. This is a personal favorite among articles I've written; deepest thanks to The New Yorker for letting me do it. The third volume of Bernth Lindfors's Ira Aldridge biography is now out. Red Velvet, Lolita Chakrabarti's play about Aldridge, arrives at St. Ann's Warehouse in March, with Adrian Lester in the lead.
Wolf Harden is the soloist, with Heribert Beissel conducting the Slovak Radio Symphony; from a Marco Polo recording. In my library are Walter Gieseking's 1943 account and a cpo release with Volker Banfield at the keyboard and Werner Andreas Albert leading the Munich Philharmonic. The latter disc includes a fascinating liner note by Hans-Christian Schmidt, with liberal quotations from Wolfgang Rihm's essay "Zur Aktualität Pfitzners," which states, among other things, that Pfitzner resides in a "secure position of uncontested complete contestability." One can scarcely argue with that.
Researchers cast yet more doubt on the so-called Mozart Effect, the notion that Mozart makes you smarter: "There is very little evidence supporting the idea that music classes enhance children’s cognitive development.” Good riddance — I'm convinced that such soulless, utilitarian arguments on behalf of music education damage the cause in the long run.... In The Nation, Marina Harss has a finely detailed portrait of the marvelous Mark Morris.... Ethan Iverson celebrates the hundredth birthday of Morton Gould, another anniversary composer overlooked in the Wagner-Verdi-Britten stampede. There are all kinds of odd and interesting things in his varied output. Back in 1992, I interviewed the kindly Mr. Gould about, among other things, his piece The Jogger and the Dinosaur, a "theatrical concerto for rapper and orchestra".... Bob Shingleton assesses Jonathan Reekie's stewardship of the Aldeburgh Festival.... There's an international petition to stop the "fusion" of the SWR orchestras in Germany.... Will Robin forwards this remarkable account of the "sex magic" scandal that brought down Eugene Goossens.... Anne Midgette and Charles Downey meditate on Deborah Rutter's move to the Kennedy Center. Charles also has a lovely remembrance of the late Marion Lignana Rosenberg, whom I first encountered, from an awed distance, as the operatic arbiter of WHRB. David Elliott, WHRB's éminence grise, recorded a tribute here; other memorials can be found at New York Classical Review.
December 13, 2013 | Permalink
The Minnesota Orchestral Association gives a dumbfounding report of its financial situation. This increasingly Borgesian entity managed to spend $13 million in its performance-free year, including $885,000 on "negotiations and negotations related" — one assumes that this sum went to the firm of Felhaber, Larson, Fenlon and Vogt, experts in union lockouts — and $616,000 on "advertising and promotion." Jon Campbell, the board chair, reaches a brain-teasing conclusion: "The fact that the organization’s deficit is substantially smaller in a year without any performances indicates the degree to which this business model is out of alignment." Meanwhile, ten state legislators have called for the resignations of Campbell, his fellow board member Richard Davis, and Michael Henson, the CEO. Save Our Symphony's report on the orchestra's collapse reaches this ironclad conclusion: "MOA leadership has no remaining credibility." The Minnesota Orchestra Musicians, running on a budget comparable to the MOA's "advertising and promotion" expenditures, present their next concert on Saturday. Their spring season will include appearances by Osmo Vänskä, Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, and Hugh Wolff — a lineup that suggests the isolation of the MOA from the remainder of the musical world.
More: Robert Levine is also amazed at some of the figures and statements in the MOA's report. He writes: "The story of how the board of the Minnesota Orchestral Association allowed three men to drive one of the great American orchestral institutions into a deep, deep ditch will be studied—with fascination and horror—for as long as there is an American nonprofit sector."
December 11, 2013 | Permalink
Little fanfare greeted the bicentennial of Charles-Valentin Alkan, on Nov. 30, but next Sunday the British pianist Jack Gibbons — seen playing Le Festin d'Ésope above — will honor the great Romantic outlier by performing the complete set of Twelve Studies in All the Minor Keys, Op. 39, at Merkin Hall. Back in 1996, in the same space, Marc-André Hamelin played the Concerto for Solo Piano, from the Op. 39 set. Gibbons may not match Hamelin's extreme virtuosity, but he seems to have technique commensurate to the task.
December 11, 2013 | Permalink