I can't resist linking to this astounding obituary for harpist Sidonie Goosens, dead at the age of one hundred five. Elgar, she recalled, was "an absolute darling." Courtesy of Leo Carey.
I believe I've linked more often to AC Douglas' site than to any other, Teachout possibly excepted. He has the rare gift of being vastly fun to read even when he is completely wrong. We have disagreed before on the question of classical music's place in the firmament. With a carrot in the form of generous praise offered before the stick, he proposes to disagree again. I respectfully decline; I am not interested in writing about music as a horse race with Beethoven or Charlie Parker out in front. I ask this, though: if the ideal critic writes about classical music and nothing but, where would you put G. B. Shaw? E. T. A. Hoffmann? Wagner? The writer who can encompass more than one realm is the one whose words will resonate longest. The best piece of music criticism I've read in a decade was Alan Hollinghurst's TLS review of the Bayreuth Ring in 2000. Why? Because he didn't write like a parochial expert; he wrote like the major novelist he is. In an ideal world, poets, presidents, painters, and priests would talk about music, and there would be no critics. We're just filling the void.
December 03, 2004 | Permalink
No one seems to have had a go at my little quiz question below. I was quoting from Karl Kraus' 1905 lecture about the plays of Frank Wedekind: “The great retaliation has begun, the revenge of a man’s world which has the audacity to punish its own guilt.” Alban Berg was in the audience for Kraus' lecture and for the ensuing performance of Pandora's Box, in which the playwright himself played Jack the Ripper. The seed of Lulu, possibly the greatest and certainly the darkest opera of the twentieth century, was planted. There was a heart-tugging romantic side to the evening: Wedekind ended up marrying the actress Tilly Newes, whose character he had slaughtered onstage.
Above is the seating chart for the 1905 performance, with Berg's place circled. (Courtesy of George Perle's Lulu book.) He was next to his brother Hermann, who, I recently discovered in a great Google moment, co-invented the Teddy Bear. In 1903 Hermann bought 3000 unsold Steiff bears in Leipzig and put them on sale at Wanamaker's in New York, where they became a sensation. At one point Alban was going to go to America to join his brother's firm. It's difficult to imagine what might have ensued. Perhaps Gershwin would have had a rival.
Karl Kraus was of course the inventor of blogging.
December 02, 2004 | Permalink
I received an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award yesterday for my article "Ghost Sonata," and I was honored to be in the company of many writers I admire: jazz critic Gary Giddins, whose imposing new collection of reviews I'll talk about in a separate post; Dean Robert Christgau; Kyle Gann, who won an award for his internet radio station PostClassic; Michael Beckerman, whose New Worlds of Dvorak may be the best book yet about the composer; Denise Von Glahn, whose book The Sounds of Place: Music and the American Cultural Landscape studies neglected links between geography and music; Joseph Dalton, formerly the pathbreaking head of CRI Records, now a critic in Albany; and Henry Fogel, head of the American Symphony Orchestra League. It was great to see Michael Tilson Thomas' Keeping Score project recognized. The highlight of the evening, though, came when one of the presenters read aloud from James Pegolotti's highly entertaining biography of the critic, composer, and radio personality Deems Taylor, who gave his name to the awards. In 1923 Taylor found himself in the awkward position of reviewing a concert at which one of his own works was played, and his solution reveals why he won a place among the wits of the Algonquin Round Table:
The novelty of the evening was another of the American works that Henry Hadley is introducing this month, a symphonic poem, "The Siren Song," by Deems Taylor. The work was written in 1912. As George Bernard Shaw points out in the preface to "The Irrational Knot," human beings are entirely renewed every seven years, so that an author may properly treat a twenty-year-old novel of his own as the work of a stranger. Such being the case, perhaps a reviewer may be similarly distant toward his own eleven-year-old symphonic poem. So far as we are concerned, "The Siren Song" is virtually a posthumous work, written by a young man. We thought it a promising work with a certain freshness of feeling and a disarming simplicity of utterance that partly atoned for its lack of well-defined individuality. On the whole, "Siren Song" interested us. We should like to hear more works by the same composer.
December 02, 2004 | Permalink
From the Birmingham News, via Andrew Sullivan:
An Alabama lawmaker who sought to ban gay marriages now wants to ban novels with gay characters from public libraries, including university libraries. A bill by Rep. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale, would prohibit the use of public funds for "the purchase of textbooks or library materials that recognize or promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle." Allen said he filed the bill to protect children from the "homosexual agenda." "Our culture, how we know it today, is under attack from every angle," Allen said in a press conference Tuesday. Allen said that if his bill passes, novels with gay protagonists and college textbooks that suggest homosexuality is natural would have to be removed from library shelves and destroyed. "I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them," he said.
It should be quite a mass grave: Proust, Thomas Mann, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Isherwood, André Gide, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, Gore Vidal, Mary Renault, Marguerite Yourcenar, and a hundred others, to make a start.
December 01, 2004 | Permalink
1. Handel Arias, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Avie)
2. Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro, René Jacobs conducting (Harmonia Mundi)
3. Schubert, Sonata in B-flat, Leon Fleisher (Vanguard)
4. Popov, First Symphony, Leon Botstein and the London Symphony (Telarc)
5. Vivaldi, Concertos for the Emperor, Andrew Manze and the English Concert (Harmonia Mundi)
6. Phil Kline, Zippo Songs and Rumsfeld Songs (Cantaloupe)*
7. Daniel S. Godfrey, String Quartets, Cassatt Quartet (Koch)
8. Bach, Beethoven & Webern, Piotr Anderszewski (Virgin)
9. Rachel Barton Pine, Solo Baroque (Cedille)
10. Rachmaninov Concertos, Stephen Hough and the Dallas Symphony (Hyperion)
Also: Monteverdi, Orfeo, Emmanuelle Haïm conducting (Virgin); Ysaÿe Solo Sonatas, Thomas Zehetmair (ECM); Ludwig Senfl, Im Maien, Charles Daniels and Fretwork (Harmonia Mundi); Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, Till Fellner (ECM); John Adams, On the Transmigration of Souls (Nonesuch); Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Christian Thielemann conducting (DG); Anna Netrebko, Sempre libera (DG); Alvin Curran, Lost Marbles (Tzadik); Roland Dahinden, Silberen (Mode); Eighth Blackbird, Beginnings (Cedille)
Semi- or non-notational music:
1. Björk, Medúlla (Elektra)
2. Scissor Sisters, Scissor Sisters (Universal)
3. Prince, Musicology (Sony)
4. Kanye West, College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)
5. Melonie Cannon, Melonie Cannon (Skaggs Family)
6. Rokia Traoré, Bowmboï (Nonesuch)
7. Sonic Youth, Sonic Nurse (Geffen)
8. Jill Scott, Beautifully Human, Vol. 2 (Sony)
9. The Walkmen, Bows & Arrows (Record Collection)
10. Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol. 1 (Simon & Schuster)**
Singles: Kanye West, “Jesus Walks”; Björk, “Who Is It”; Prince, “A Million Days”; The Walkmen, “The Rat”; Scissor Sisters, “Laura”; Jill Scott, “Family Reunion”; Melonie Cannon, “Tennessee Roads”; Ghostface Killah, “Tush”; Múm, “Weeping Rock, Rock”; Snoop Dogg, "Drop It Like It's Hot"; Kelis, "Trick Me"; Fiona Apple, "Extraordinary Machine"; Caetano Veloso, "So In Love"; Brad Mehldau, "Someone To Watch Over Me"
**non-musical notation that resonates musically
December 01, 2004 | Permalink
Interesting discussion at AC Douglas, Steve Hicken, and Marcus Maroney of the Juilliard composing prodigy Jay Greenberg, who was interviewed on 60 Minutes this Sunday (I didn't see the show). I wrote briefly about Jay in my student composers column earlier this year. It's difficult to evaluate someone so young, and I deliberately kept my comments to a minimum in order not to overhype an extraordinary young man who has yet to make the hazardous transition to maturity. I hope Jay is able to keep an even keel through the storm of publicity that 60 Minutes will bring. The social and cultural pressures for a modern American classical prodigy are so unlike those faced by Mozart that no comparison is possible. Then, the market demanded such a talent; now, the market is hostile. As I once wrote in the Times, if Mozart were alive today, he'd be dead. How about a TV profile of a grown-up composer — say, Steve Reich on the occasion of his seventieth birthday in 2006, highlighting his mammoth influence on every form of contemporary music?
The Venice Baroque Orchestra's presentation of Andromeda liberata, by Vivaldi and others, was the first early-music event I'd heard at Zankel Hall, and, as others have hinted, Baroque bands take to the space like cats to leftover Thanksgiving turkey. You don't have that feeling of listening through the wrong end of the telescope: the music is full, present, vibrant. For many reasons, this was a very good night. Only the time-stopping aria "Sovvente il sole" sounds like top-drawer Vivaldi, but it's a beautifully crafted score that actually builds romantic suspense as Andromeda and Perseus work through their relationship issues. Andrea Marcon's orchestra was, as expected, a potent mix of precision and swing. Simone Kermes, who sang Andromeda, is an unusual and powerful talent — a lyric soprano with an edgy, forceful way of shaping a phrase and an obvious urge to make the scenery nervous, if not to chew it outright. Ruth Rosique stepped in at the last moment as Cassiope and showed a gleaming, pure voice. Marijana Mijanovic, Enrico Onofri, and Max Cencic were also strong. It was great to hear the audience getting involved in the show as it went on. Early on, some righteous ignoramus actually shushed his neighbors after an aria, but by the end people were cheering after every number. Overall, the evening passed what my friend Jason Royal calls the Zankel Subway Rumble test: I only noticed the N / R train once. There's an excellent DG recording to match.
I recently reported that James Levine, newly ensconced at the Boston Symphony, seemed to be the object of widespread adulation in Beantown, despite (or even because) his heavy investment in new-music programming. Alas, there are now scattered signs of unease, although so far the contemporary programming doesn’t seem to be the cause of the trouble. Instead, oddly enough, Levine is drawing criticism from audiences because of his rehearsal style. From the beginning of its history, the BSO has regularly opened rehearsals to the public. As Richard Dyer recently wrote in the Boston Globe, conductors have traditionally made these open rehearsals little more than run-throughs — essentially, extra performances for a reduced fee. Levine, bless his stubborn soul, is actually rehearsing during the Open Rehearsal. Writes Jean Natick to the editor of the Globe: “The Boston Symphony Orchestra open rehearsal on Nov. 11 conducted by James Levine was a disaster. My friends and I understand that Levine is a perfectionist, but I do not understand why there had to be such an extraordinarily large number of interruptions… If this type of rehearsing is to be the norm, we suggest that there be no admission charge or no audience. It would have been appropriate for Levine to acknowledge the audience at least once.”
This attitude is perplexing. Does Ms. Natick want a great orchestra, or merely a mediocre one? Great orchestras are made in rehearsal. Perhaps the gripping intensity of the Eroica that night was owed to the extra burst of rehearsal in the afternoon. Plus, isn’t it interesting to hear how a one-in-a-million musician like Levine rehearses? In defense of Ms. Natick, the conductor’s comments on the podium are apparently all but inaudible, so that to the audience it does sound like nothing more than stopping and starting. Dyer suggests that Levine be given a small microphone so his comments can be heard. And, yes, a little hello or goodbye to the onlookers wouldn’t hurt.
Present somewhere in this throng are Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Picasso, Diaghilev, Cocteau, Stravinsky, Satie, Milhaud, Man Ray, Miró, Duchamp, Ford Madox Ford, Aaron Copland, the Prince of Monaco, and the Princesse de Polignac.
The image comes from the richly stocked American Mavericks website, allied to the public-radio series of the same title. I've looked at this site many times, but I only just discovered that it has some spellbinding film clips relating to the avant-garde showman George Antheil, who began his career as one of the chief Futurist noisemakers of twenties Paris and ended it as a Hollywood film scorer, love-advice columnist, and amateur torpedo inventor. The page linked here contains an interview with Paul Lehrman, who's restored the film that Fernand Léger made to accompany Antheil's Ballet mécanique, scored for sixteen player pianos, masses of percussion, and airplane propellers. The real find, something I'd been hoping to see for years, is an excerpt from Marcel L'Herbier's 1924 film L'Inhumaine, which tells of a Faustian scientist who starts raising people from the dead in an effort to win the favor of a famous opera singer. Having not seen the entire film, I can't elucidate the plot further, but what's apparently happening in this scene is that a crowd is demonstrating for and against the imperious diva (Georgette Leblanc). Where does Antheil come in? Some of the crowd shots were actually filmed during his Paris debut, on Oct. 4, 1923, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
As Lehrman tells it — repeating the story given in Antheil's wildly entertaining and sometimes wildly inaccurate autobiography Bad Boy of Music — L'Herbier showed up with his cameras at the concert, anticipating that a photogenic riot would occur. In fact, the researches of ballet historian Lynn Garafola suggest that the whole thing was a setup. An advance piece in Figaro announced that the concert would be filmed and that a riot was not only expected but desired. Still, it's fun to see a high-class Parisian audience looking and acting like the crowd that went nuts during the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring ten years before — yes, in the same space. I've tried and failed to glimpse the mesdames and messieurs named above; perhaps readers with high-tech equipment will have better luck.
On the same theme, see my old post about Edgard Varèse's appearance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
November 29, 2004 | Permalink
A good week for the music in NYC:
Nov. 29: Andromeda liberata, a concert-length serenata that may or may not be the work of Vivaldi, arrives at Zankel on the heels of a "wildly controversial" DG recording. Whoever wrote it (OK, I did), the Venice Baroque Orchestra under Andrea Marcon are destined to make a glorious noise.
Nov. 30: The composers of Bang on a Can, whose work seems to deepen with the passing years, collaborate with electronic artist DJ Spooky and director François Girard on the theater piece Lost Objects. It has its gala premiere tonight at BAM, with performances to follow Dec. 2-4. Iron your black stretch T.
Dec. 1: Till Fellner, the deft young Austrian pianist whose Well-Tempered Clavier on ECM was almost too pretty, rolls into Zankel with Liszt, Beethoven, Haydn, and the Bach.
Dec. 2: Rodelinda at the Met. La Fleming, La Daniels, Mehta, Blythe, Relyea, the works. Stephen Wadsworth, who directed Xerxes at City Opera with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson a few years back, will try to repeat the Handel magic. Also tonight: David Robertson conducts the NY Philharmonic in Bartok's Second Violin Concerto (with Christian Tetzlaff), Steve Reich's Triple Quartet, and some crazy thing by Beethoven.
Dec. 3: The haughty hotties at Trrill are recommending the regal young Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman (pictured above), who sings tonight at Weill Hall a deliriously tasteful program of Ravel's Cinq mélodies populaires grecques, Britten's Auden cycle On This Island, Montsalvatge's Canciones negras, songs of Copland and Bolcom, and, not to snub the Germans, Lieder of Joseph Marx. Essential: www.measha.com.
Dec. 4: The Arditti Quartet lights up Zankel with a program of Nancarrow's Third Quartet, Carter's Fifth, Ligeti's Second, and Helmut Lachenmann's Third ("Grido"). Same group plays diffferent program at LACMA in LA on Nov. 29 — part of the grand old Monday Evening Concerts series. (I found this out by Googling, not by looking at the Arditti's site or Colbert Artists' Arditti page. Similarly, there is a lack of good tour info on Till Fellner's page at ECM or the Venice Baroque Orchestra's page at DG.)
Dec. 5: I'm going on a wild new-music bender this afternoon, trying to see part or all of the following events: the premiere of Joshua Penman's Songs the Plants Taught Us at the New York Youth Symphony; an Arvo Pärt concert by the venerable Continuum ensemble, which played the composer back when he was a Soviet footnote; and Birtwistle's Pulse Shadows at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
November 27, 2004 | Permalink
Several years ago I looked on in horror as MTV pundit Gideon Yago sweated through an interview all five ferociously smart members of Radiohead. The memory of that encounter made me more than a little nervous in advance of my New Yorker College Tour interview with Sonic Youth, which took place last Saturday. In addition, I had a certain personal investment: the band's Daydream Nation was the second rock record I ever bought, during my belated discovery of non-classical music in college, and it permanently rearranged my view of the musical universe.
In the end, it went pretty well, despite several dumb questions from the interviewer. Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and Lee Ranaldo have been playing together since 1981 (drummer Steve Shelley joined in 1984), and they muse on their long career with the ease and wit of people who have nothing left to prove. The most interesting part for me was when they talked about their creative process, which mixes conventional song-oriented work — filling in the outlines of an acoustic sketch — with a procedure much more like that of a jazz group or solitary composer. A lot of the time, they said, they simply set a process in motion — patterns and textures in collision — and see what emerges from the mix. They never talk about chords in the studio, they said; no one ever says, "OK, let's go to F." Yet the result is not nearly as dissonant as you might expect (ferociously dissonant as this band can be), because they nourish clear forms when they rise up. There's an obvious kinship with the working methods of the minimalists. Sonic Youth's new album, the semi-eponymous Sonic Nurse, has some of their sweetest melodies to date, alongside the usual hallucinatory soundscapes.
On the train back, I was happy to read in Arrive, the official magazine of Amtrak’s Acela Express, of the circumstances surrounding the creation of the Quiet Car, which I rhapsodized in a previous post. (The irony of a Sonic Youth fan sitting in the Quiet Car is duly noted.) Quiet Car turns out to have been brainchild of Alma Goodwyn, pictured above. She is the deacon of a Philadelphia church and an activist on behalf of the homeless. After she worked with sympathetic passengers and conductors to create a Quiet Car on her regular commute, Amtrak made the institution official. “I just like to make things better if I can,” Goodwyn said. Alma Goodwyn is an American hero.
A few months back I noted how scientists are in the habit of touting musical "discoveries" which have long been commonplace among composers and musicologists. A new example arrives from The Guardian (link via Byzantium's Shores): "Why is Elgar's music for 'Land of Hope and Glory' so quintessentially English, while Debussy sounds so French? It is all because the music mimics the composer's native language, say scientists. The researchers studied the question because while many classical scores have a distinctly national feel, no one had put forward a good explanation for why that should be." No one? People have been obsessing over this question for centuries: writings on the subject would fill many volumes. Rousseau wrote in his Essay on the Origins of Languages: "At first there was no music at all other than melody, nor any other melody than the varied sound of speech, the accents formed the song, the quantities formed the meter, and one spoke as much by sounds and rhythm as by articulations and voices." Johann Gottfried Herder wrote prolifically on similar topics, noting how each country's language formed a body of folk song. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Bartók and Janáček were measuring with extraordinary precision how folk songs mirrored the rhythms of everyday speech and the qualities of particular languages. Unless there is some genuine methodological breakthrough that the writer has concealed, this is a non-event.
O uncanny apparition! O terrible figure! We are trembling, etc. etc. Mme. Grisi Pasta, Leyla Devereux, and Hilli Heihmenn, three alleged old-school sopranos of Seattle, New York, and Atlanta, have unveiled Trrill: Florid Passages from Queer Opera Zealots. The co-authors of the site have declared themselves unhappy with the state of modern opera singing and have "decided to take a torch to every major opera house in America. We figured someone would get the message. It's gonna be like the Jedi Purge of the Old Republic! They'll all either die or go into hiding!" An early target is Anna Netrebko. Enjoy, at your own risk. The bløgösphère will never be so placid again. (The title of this post does have operatic relevance. Any guesses?)
Note also that New York critic and Italophile Marion Rosenberg has a new blog titled Vilaine fille. In which Anna Netrebko is also attacked. Poor girl. For now, I like her fine.
November 22, 2004 | Permalink
Le Teachout posts this fascinating musicological digression by our incoming Secretary of State: "I love Brahms because Brahms is actually structured. And he's passionate without being sentimental. I don't like sentimental music, so I tend not to like Liszt, and I don't actually much care for the Russian romantics Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, where it's all on the sleeve. With Brahms it's restrained, and there's a sense of tension that never resolves." Don't we all love the tension that never resolves! When was the last time an expert apostle of Absolute Music rose to such an exalted position of power? (No, not him; he hated Brahms.) I'd like to have it noted for the record that Brahms was a patriotic liberal who detested the religiously motivated bigotry of late nineteenth-century Vienna. In honor of Ms. Rice, I am now listening to the last of Brahms' Four Serious Songs: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal ... And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity."
November 19, 2004 | Permalink