Here, belatedly, are a few more thoughts on the organ-and-orchestra repertory, in the wake of last month's column on the subject. Michael Barone, prefacing his master list, points out how many orchestral works require an organ part, and how much is lost when some feeble electronic replica is substituted. In the column, I named three obvious cases: Mahler's Second and Eighth Symphonies and Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra. Barone also highlights, among others, Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony, Ives's Fourth Symphony, Elgar's Enigma, several big Respighi pieces, and Janáček's Glagolitic Mass. (In October, the last-named received an exceptional performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Alan Gilbert conducting.) Barone writes: "Remove the organ from Tchaikovsky’s Manfred, Bartók’s Bluebeard, or Mahler’s Resurrection and you’ve got a flat soufflé." It really is fairly crippling that New York's two big concert halls both lack a proper organ.
There are some neglected gems to be found on Barone's list, and orchestras with access to a concert organ should program them more often. A personal favorite is Jón Leifs's Organ Concerto, an astonishingly bold piece completed in 1930. Medieval-sounding chants in parallel fifths, inspired by the old Icelandic practice of tvísöngur (twin-song), collide with pinwheeling triads and brazen dissonances. The core of the concerto is an immense, grittily orchestrated passacaglia of thirty variations. The opening is also very memorable:
From a recording on the BIS label, with En Shao conducting the Iceland Symphony and Björn Steinar Sólbergsson at the organ.
A plea also for Frank Martin's Erasmi monumentum, a 1969 work honoring the quincentennial of Erasmus. Here the organ tends to brood behind and within the orchestra, representing the great Dutch humanist's quizzical relationship with the world around him. There are three movements: "Homo pro se" ("A man unto himself"); "Stultitiae laus" ("In Praise of Folly"); and "Querela pacis" ("The Complaint of Peace"). The middle movement is a freewheeling scherzo in an irregularly dancing triple metre, with the organ cast in vernacular, irreverent guise. Martin was apparently unhappy with the result of his labors, but Erasmi monumentum is not only among his strongest late-period works but one of the most finely controlled, fully realized organ-and-orchestra pieces in the repertory. The YouTube video at the top of this post has Matthias Bamert conducting the London Philharmonic, with Leslie Pearson at the organ; the recording is from Chandos's invaluable Martin cycle.
A fascinating subculture of the contemporary organ world involves the meeting of this oldest and grandest of instruments with avant-garde discourse — a confluence that goes back to pioneering postwar works of Messiaen, Ligeti, Hambraeus, and Kagel. Over in the UK, the composer-organist Lauren Redhead has given particular attention to music for organ and electronics; you can watch one of her recent programs on Vimeo here. See also her release entoptic landscape; version 1 of the title piece is scored for a sonorous blend of trombone, four tubas, and organ. In these parts, David Broome has been cultivating works for organ and electronics, notably in a Qubit Music concert last fall. You can here watch a video of David Bird's Commercial Vignette, whose musical material is generated by barcodes for various products: Clorox bleach, a Red Bull, the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc. I'm sorry to have missed the Qubit event, which also included Lisa Streich's Seraph, for cello and organ.
January 01, 2015 | Permalink
My column in this week's New Yorker makes brief reference to the Irish-born composer-vocalist Jennifer Walshe. Above is an excerpt from Walshe's video-and-live-performance piece The Total Mountain, which was presented at the most recent Donaueschingen Festival, at the invitation of the late and widely lamented Armin Köhler. It's hazardous to generalize about what is going on, but we here see a variety of composer-generated personae vocalizing happenstance tweets: one is fixated on the young males who constitute the pop band One Direction; another is very much concerned with secret incursions of the Illuminati into pop culture; and a third recites lines from the work of Harold Pinter. You can sample more of Walshe's work on the We Are Grúpat YouTube channel — Grúpat being an one-woman art collective in which Walshe assumes nine different alter egos.
I also mention Corey Dargel, whose new album, It's OK It's Not OK, will appear in late January on the New Amsterdam label. The I Care If You Listen blog has a preview of one of the tracks. Dargel's 2009 NewMusicBox essay on "artsongwriters" is an important document of the hard-to-define tendency I discuss in the column. This is the place for a fond reminiscence of the now apparently dormant Professor Heebie McJeebie.
UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance will present Gabriel Kahane's The Ambassador in February.
December 31, 2014 | Permalink
Like many of my colleagues, I am unhappy to hear that Allan Kozinn, a hugely knowledgeable observer and chronicler of the New York music scene, has been laid off from the New York Times. He had been writing for the paper since the 1970s and became a staff critic in 1991. Will Robin has a compilation of classic Kozinn stories. In the past couple of years, Allan was inexplicably relegated to covering the felonious escapades of pop stars; let's hope that at other publications he will return to the classical beat he knows so well. I can do no better than to quote Jeremy Eichler: "Superb critic, treasured colleague, extraordinary mensch."
December 20, 2014 | Permalink
Jane Freilicher, "Yellow." Courtesy of Tibor de Nagy.
Over at WQXR, Anne Midgette, David Patrick Stearns, and Zachary Woolfe have an excellent wrap-up of the year's highs and lows. Also worth noting is a capacious CD list by George Grella. He's absolutely right about the Harbison disc — the String Trio is a piece in which every note seems to count. A few other notable discs that I overlooked in my year-end list: Panufnik's Ninth Symphony and Bassoon Concerto (Heritage), the Seattle Symphony's Dutilleux disc, Philip Thomas's Christian Wolff collection on Sub Rosa, and Olga Bell's Край (Krai), the last of which can be filed with Gabriel Kahane's masterly The Ambassador under Genre TBA.
Notable music books: Tim Page's Virgil Thomson: Music Chronicles, Thomas Forrest Kelly's Capturing Music, James Klosty's John Cage Was, Eric Weisbard's Top 40 Democracy, Mark Berry's After Wagner, Nicholas Mathew's Political Beethoven, Susan Tomes's Sleeping in Temples, Ellen Harris’s George Frideric Handel, Mark Evan Bonds's Absolute Music, Chris Walton's Lies and Epiphanies, Mina Yang's Planet Beethoven, David Grubbs's Records Ruin the Landscape.
The Rest Is Noise Person of the Year is Iván Fischer, a singular force of political and artistic courage. The Turkey of the Year is, of course, the Klinghoffer protest, which succeeded in making a box-office hit of the work it aimed to suppress.
As in past years, I will strain the patience of even the most indulgent readers by picking a few highlights outside my zone of nominal competence. Amid the endless Wagnerism reading — L'Ésotérisme et le symbolisme belge, anyone? — I took in Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch, Mark Harris's Five Came Back, and the new Walter Benjamin trove Radio Benjamin, which arrived too late for mention in my Frankfurt School piece. D'Angelo's Black Messiah is as sonically and thematically rich as pop colleagues claim. My favorite film of the year was Steve James's Life Itself, an affecting documentary about Roger Ebert. I also enjoyed Nightcrawler, a jolt of black comedy in the Billy Wilder tradition, and Grand Budapest Hotel. On the TV, the great event was the return of The Comeback; I also admit to relishing Penny Dreadful, not least for its Tristan scene.
December 18, 2014 | Permalink
This week, the New Republic, which last month marked its hundredth anniversary, fell into disarray. Franklin Foer, its editor, was replaced, and much of the staff resigned in protest. I'm not going to waste time inveighing against the Silicon Valley tycoon who bought the New Republic in 2012 and seems bent on destroying it. Rather, I'd like to offer a note of thanks to Leon Wieseltier, the New Republic's literary editor, who also resigned this week.
My first major piece of journalism appeared in the New Republic, in 1992. The magazine had a reputation for taking chances on unknown young writers, and I was a beneficiary of that policy; one day, the galleys for my article on Alfred Schnittke were sent over to the Dupont Circle video store where I was working as a clerk. But my debt to Leon goes deeper than that. When I wrote my first pieces for the magazine, I was preparing to go to graduate school, and had no plans to pursue journalism. Leon decided that this obscurantist devotee of the Frankfurt School should become a music critic. He had much to do with the job offer that came my way from the New York Times (via Ed Rothstein, who, it happens, took a buyout from the Times this week), and he then convinced me that I should take the plunge. Without Leon, I would, for better or worse, be doing something else.
Leon also cultivated such writers and editors as James Wood, Alex Star, and Ruth Franklin. He gave the New Republic major pieces of his own, notably the towering Holocaust meditation "After Memory." And—most significant in my world—he published a string of colossally brilliant, and brilliantly colossal, articles by Richard Taruskin, who, in another era-ending turn of events, is about to retire from the University of California, Berkeley. I remember reading those essays in the early nineteen-nineties and thinking, "My God—you can do that in a magazine?" And, in fact, you can't, unless you are Richard Taruskin and Leon Wieseltier is your editor. L'chaim!
Beginning tomorrow, the Library of Congress will celebrate the centennial of Irving Fine with a panoply of concerts and discussions. For background, read Will Robin and Ethan Iverson.... The ever-formidable Wolfgang Rihm has won the Grawemeyer for IN-SCHRIFT 2, a Berlin Philharmonic commission. An amusing detail in the Louisville Courier-Journal report: "Reached by phone in Germany Sunday, Rihm said he was happy his work has received the award but that he only gives interviews by fax. At the time, Rihm did not have access to a fax machine as he was in Berlin." ... On Dec. 13, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony introduce a new experimental space called SoundBox: there will be music of Josquin, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Ravel, Varèse, and Monteverdi.... On Dec. 2, Ensemble Pamplemousse gives the world première of George Lewis's A Recital for Terry Adkins, a multimedia creation that draws on the work of Adkins and Romare Bearden.... Master-Pieces, a new opera by Petr Kotik, will have its American première at the Paula Cooper Gallery on Dec. 17.... Via The Wagnerian, a fascinating discussion of that bedeviling Castorf Ring at Bayreuth.... The period from Dec. 3 to Dec. 10 will be particularly dizzying in NYC: events include Meredith Monk's On Behalf of Nature at BAM (see Zachary Woolfe's fine Monk profile); Steven Stucky and Jeremy Denk's The Classical Style at Carnegie; Philip Glass's Etudes at BAM; Xavier Montsalvatge's El gato con botas at Gotham Chamber Opera; Keeril Makan at Miller Theatre; an Anna Clyne première with Orpheus; the Teatro Regio di Torino's concert performance of William Tell at Carnegie; Annie Gosfield with the JACK Quartet at Roulette; William Christie conducting Handel's La Resurrezione at Juilliard; Matmos performing Robert Ashley's Perfect Lives at ISSUE Project Room; Gabriel Kahane's The Ambassador at BAM; and a fabulously grim American Symphony program of Vaughan Williams's Sixth Symphony, Ligeti's Requiem, and Schnittke's Nagasaki.
December 01, 2014 | Permalink
"Yellow," 2009. Courtesy of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
The great American painter Jane Freilicher turns ninety today. Happy birthday, Jane! There will be a celebration at the Poetry Project on December 12th, with readings and tributes by John Ashbery, Anselm Berrigan, Adam Fitzgerald, Maxine Groffsky, Tom Healy, Alex Katz, Vincent Katz, Amy Klein, Jenni Quilter, Karen Roffman, Charles Simic, Emily Skillings, Richard Thomas, and Anne Waldman.
November 29, 2014 | Permalink
For whatever it's worth, I've added several new selections to my page of recommended CDs. The first twenty or so are in the running for my best-of-the-year list. My colleagues at the New York Times have supplied gift-buying suggestions; I'd endorse a number of these, especially Tony Tommasini's choice of the Virgil Thomson Library of America edition. Some other recent music books of note: Mark Berry's After Wagner, Nicholas Mathew's Political Beethoven, Susan Tomes's Sleeping in Temples, Mark Evan Bonds's Absolute Music, Chris Walton's Lies and Epiphanies, and Mina Yang's Planet Beethoven. I have yet to see James Klosty's John Cage Was, but reliable sources report that it's delightful.
November 28, 2014 | Permalink