Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why we blog

David Patrick Stearns reviews Sunday's Crossing concert in today's Philadelphia Inquirer. His impressions are diametrically opposed to mine. He liked what I didn't like and didn't like what I did. Without this blog page to lend my own opinions a veneer of legitimacy, I'd be stuck fuming in impotent rage, smacking the page of the paper, or pointing to the computer screen and grumbling, "Did you see this? Did you see this? Where does he get off?"

Actually, I generally like David's reviews, and my feelings about Sunday's music aren't so strong that I'd get upset one way or another. But the potential is there: someday this little safety valve might just prevent me from egging some poor critic's car.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Crossing

Attended the first of three scheduled concerts in the Crossing's Month of Moderns series yesterday. The Crossing is a 20-odd person contemporary music chorus, founded and conducted by Donald Nally. Programs usually take place at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, whose air conditioned sanctuary was a great draw for me yesterday. usually, the choir sings a capella or with the church organ. Yesterday, however, they were accompanied by a 12-piece string orchestra.

Program as follows:

Arvo Part: Wahlfahrtslied, 1984/2001
Benjamin CS Boyle, Cantata: To One in Paradise, 2005
Bo Holton: Tallis Variations, 1976
David Lang, Statement to the Court, 2010 (World premiere, Crossing commission)
John Tavener, The Bridegroom, 1999

Won't give a detailed review (see June 25 post about my deficiencies in that area), but I will say that I have never heard the chorus sound richer or more full. I counted 23 singers, but I thought was more than I have seen before, though I was assured afterward it was about the usual number.

Still, the concert was something a letdown. Despite my best efforts, my mind wanders during anything by Tavener or Part, which deletes two-fifths of the program from my memory right off the bat. The minimalist vocal writing in Statement to the Court line sounded like a rehash of Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Little Match Girl, which the Crossing performed last year (and which I liked), but with an insistent, regular, one-thump beat of a bass drum that raised it nearly to the level of torture. I was afraid I would be hearing that drum in my sleep. Fortunately, I haven’t. (At the post-concert reception, one of the performers suggested that perhaps the Crossing should forego singing any more of Lang’s music until he works through his current obsessions.)

Boyle's cantata, on one of Poe's lesser poems, and the Holton were more successful. I particularly liked the contrast in the Tallis Variations between the Renaissance-inspired vocalizing and the angular, modernist-sounding business in the strings. It might sound like pastiche, but the parts came together well. The string writing reminded me at different times of Ives's Tone Roads No. 1, or the climax of Carter's Variations, or William Schuman’s Third Symphony. I'd welcome hearing the piece again.

Next performances are July 9 and 17, and I plan to attend both. The programs sound more promising. There will be premieres of settings of the poetry of Philip Levine by Lansing McLoskey and Paul Fowler, and a reprise of Kile Smith’s Where Flames a Word, on poems of Paul Celan.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Recent blog post at Monotonous Forest by my good buddy Bruce Hodges:

Last night at Miller Theatre, the Orchestra of the League of Composers gave the long-delayed New York premiere of Milton Babbitt's Transfigured Notes (1986), originally commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The piece received widespread press when it emerged, after a parade of conductors studied the score and later begged off. Erich Leinsdorf was to conduct the premiere, an honor then passed to Dennis Russell Davies, who left after a single rehearsal. The final attempt was made by Hans Vonk (with the support of Richard Wernick and Bernard Rands), who eventually threw in the towel as well.

My take, after the single hearing last night (and I have not heard the single recording), is that the difficulty lies in the need for absolute, razor-sharp precision in the playing to bring Babbitt's spare tapestry to life. Buzzing with movement, the score uses a thicket of motifs to create a wash of sound, with the ensemble (especially the violins) often playing high above the stave. In his notes, the composer encourages listeners to immerse themselves in the whole, without focusing too much on the details. Last night's musicians were some of the best in the city, yet the performance, led by the intrepid Louis Karchin, seemed hesitant and under-rehearsed. In the best of all possible worlds, they'd work on it another week or two, and bring it back.

And my response:

Transfigured Notes has some significance for me, since I live in Philadelphia, where the ruckus occurred. The orchestra's rep suffered among contemporary music fans when it dropped the piece, though in fairness, I should say it probably was unplayable, given the limits on rehearsal time. (And, under Davies, the players did a creditable job with Carter's Symphony of 3 Orchs. a couple years earlier.) Not long after, Orchestra 2001, Philly's contemporary music band, took up the score and gave a masterful performance, under the direction of James Freeman, with the composer in attendance. As with most of Babbitt's music, there's not a lot of drama or differentiation in color, tempo, or dynamics. Ex-wife said it best: If it were a color, it would be taupe.

I like Babbitt. I really do. His music is elegant, and he's a terrific speaker. But the elegance comes at a price. He sets the musical parameters up at the beginning of each piece, and from then on it's largely a question of watching (or hearing) the various possible permutations play themselves out. There are few surprises, as there are in Carter. I also notice a lack of what could be called (and is called) "directionality." You can start at any point in any piece and work your way around again, and the experience is essentially the same. Beginning, middle and end have no meaning, as they do, again, in Carter. This is not a criticism, merely an observation, since I am told this aspect of Mr. Babbitt's music is intentional, as it is in Boulez.

I do have the recording of Transfigured Notes and will have to get back to it soon.

Maurice Wright's Movement in Time

One of the reasons I want the Philadelphia Orchestra to go on living is that it keeps about a hundred stellar musicians in town. Several times a year, a few of the players break off from the herd and present chamber concerts at the Perelman Theater. Last Sunday (June 20, the last day of spring), I was treated to one of these programs when a friend e-mailed me about a spare ticket. The bill included Glazunov's String Quintet Op. 39 (scored for two cellos, according to the program notes, but with one of the parts given to a bass player this time out for some reason), and Brahms’s Second Piano Quartet, both very well played. The Brahms was particularly memorable.

The afternoon began with Movement in Time, for two percussionists and tape, by Maurice Wright, a professor at Temple University. Kind of an uninspired title (all music is movement in time), but it was a lively, almost spritely piece that gave Don Liuzzi and Anthony Orlando an excuse to run around the stage and wallop a large number of very loud instruments. I don't ordinarily think of music for multiple percussion instruments as "light" — the one piece that comes to mind immediately, Varese's Ionisation, is a violent, dark-cloud case in point — but that is what Movement in Time was. It was playful music, with an occasional burst of wit, as when, for example, the performers are required to beat a single snare drum simultaneously, and they suddenly cut the music short by raising their sticks and crossing them with a click. Cute, and it got a laugh.

Wright isn't one of those heart-on-his-sleeve, look-at-how-brave-I-am-for-writing-commercial-pap composers I despise, at least not in this piece, but he seems to be after the fun kind of modernism that Alexander Calder achieved in sculpture. Unfortunately, the music was so slight that most of it, except for that click, evaporated in the memory almost at once.

The tape accompaniment was a distraction, too. The sounds generated weren't so much electronic music as recordings or synthesized imitations of a chorus and orchestra. A friend of mine who attended with me wondered why, if Wright was going to take that route, he didn't just put a few more musicians on the stage.

A perfectly pleasant, digestible piece, but it hardly opens up new vistas the way Ionisation did.

Why I can't be a music critic

Excellent review by Matthew Guerrieri of the Charles Ives Trio, an underappreciated work, IMHO. Not fully mature Ives, but a great transitional piece, full of promise for the music to come. I don't think I could ever do what Matt does, or Steve Smith of the Times, or the great Andrew Porter, or any of the other big-time music critics. I can't generally tell a good performance from a bad one unless there are glaring mistakes. Everything goes by much too fast for me. My ear isn't sensitive enough to pick apart a live performance while it's happening, and I could never describe what I'm hearing with a phrase like "steering the debate toward sonorous verities." Sonorous verities? How do they come up with this stuff?

Anyway, I wish I had been there. I saw the America's Dream chamber group perform the work at Montgomery County (Pa.) Community College last April, with similarly impressive results, though we didn't have the ocean and the sky and the blue-gray wash.

Ives often gets ripped for his use of quotation, as though it somehow calls his originality into question. (The composer of Hanover Square North takes a backseat to no one in terms of originality.) I remember years ago a reviewer whose name I forget snarkily described the Trio as the "name-that-tune Trio." It was an ignorant thing to say, since the quotation in this work is concentrated almost entirely in the second movement, which may be thought of as a quodlibet — a form so respectable it has a name - and is mighty funny. The first movement uses no quotation at all, and there is none in the third until Toplady (aka Rock of Ages) shows up in the last minute or so.

Matthew has also posted an classic exchange with Elliott Carter on his blog, Soho the Dog. The bit about Reagan is priceless.

Speaking of ignorance, I also remember back in the '80s a reviewer for the Washington Post writing that Carter's Cello Sonata still sounds, after 40 years or so, like a sterile exercise in serialism, which struck me as weird, since the piece is not at all serial, and the second movement is the last thing he ever wrote with a key signature. It hardly sounds sterile to my ear, either, but that's a matter of taste.

Then there was the reviewer in the Philadelphia Inquirer who wrote about the time Robert Mann got lost during a performance Elliott Carter's Fourth String Quartet. He said something to the effect that restarting such a complex piece the middle raised questions fundamental to the continuity and perception of the music. Fair enough, I suppose, though it would have been helpful if he had articulated just what those questions were. More to the point, he seemed wholly unaware that the players had started the quartet over from the beginning.

Maybe I could be a reviewer, after all. I couldn't do worse than some people.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Kim, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven

The link to my interview with David Kim appears at left. One of the quotations I edited out of the article (it was slightly off topic), concerned his opinion of the Beethoven Violin Concerto Op. 61, which for him occupies, by itself, the top tier of great violin concertos, with maybe some room left over for the Brahms op. 77. He ranks the Tchaikovsky at a lower level, even though, as he said, it is the concerto he loves best, and the one that most suits his personality and performance style.

Kim had this to say about the Beethoven: “For us [i.e., violinists in his league] it’s the greatest thing ever written - so pure and so full of wisdom and integrity. It’s so hard. I play it very infrequently. Working it up is such a huge thing for me."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

I keep missing birthdays

Thursday, June 17, was the birthday - 128th, I believe - of Igor Stravinsky, another of my favorites. Unfortunately, I have not had time to listen to any of his music, though WPRB Princeton, my classical station of choice, played his second suite for small orchestra that morning, which is what reminded me. Over the next couple of years, we'll celebrate the centenaries of the three big ballets, so there will be plenty of time for listening.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, my hometown band, announced this week it has selected Yannick Nézet-Séguin as its new music director. This makes only eight, I believe,in the past 110 years. But the tenures are getting shorter. The days are gone when a Stowkowski would stay for twenty years or an Ormandy for forty. Jet aircraft simply make it too easy to fly off to other gigs, and anyway, who really wants to live in Philadelphia if he doesn't have to? I suppose this kid will be a bright young presence, but don't expect him to stick around very long. He doesn't even start full-time until 2012.

Gone, too, are the days when the orchestra was a source of civic pride supported by private fortunes. Industry in this city has declined, educated listeners have fled to the suburbs, and subscribers are dying off. The orchestra's very days may be numbered.

In any event, I must confess I'm one of those indifferent listeners who have given up their subscriptions. Some have stopped coming because they say there's too much modern music. I stopped because there's too little. After 40 years of waiting for them to toss me a bone and program some Ives or Elliott Carter, I have gone elsewhere for my fixes.

In fairness, I should say that Ingo Metzmacher conducted the orchestra in a terrific performance of Ives' Second Orchestral Set a few years ago, before Verizon Hall opened. I mentioned to him then that the Philadelphians have never pplayed Ives' Fourth Symphony, and he could be the first to conduct it here. Nothing has come of the suggestion.

Friday, June 11, 2010

And I never sent him a card

Wednesday, June 9, was the 145th birthday of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), who has been a favorite of mine ever since heard his Fourth Symphony on radio as a teenager. Nielsen is something of a cult figure - and by that I mean he has deeply devoted fans who constantly complain that he isn't more widely appreciated. As far as we're concerned, his six symphonies are the equal to those of his friend (and exact contemporary) Sibelius,* but they don't command the same amount of airtime on the dwindling number of classical radio stations in this country, and they don't appear as frequently on orchestral programs, at least outside of Scandinavia.

No big deal, I suppose. We still have our recordings, and to hell with everyone else. But music is like religion: We can't just be happy in our beliefs. We feel compelled to convert the world.

Nielsen is one of the few composers whose birthdays I actually observe by going back and listening to their music again. His most famous and frequently performed symphonies are the Third, Fourth and Fifth, but I've devoted the past couple of days to the other three, particularly the Sixth, which I've listened to twice. It's less organic, if that's the proper word, than the big middle symphonies, but it is altogether extraordinary. The second movement, the Humoresque - scored only for piccolo, two clarinets, two bassoons and percussion - comments on the modernist trends of the 1920s. I have read that it anticipates the grotesqueries of Shostakovich, though to me it has always sounded like a parody of Varese. But the passage I keep returning to is the end of the third movement, the Proposta seria, with its repeated, two-note falling exhalation in the winds and horns.

Then there’s also the chamber music to go back to, the two operas, and the songs, with their evocations of Danish folk melodies, which, I understand, are what made him a household presence in his native country.

*Driving to work the other morning, I heard Sibelius' Pohjola's Daughter on the radio, and the difference between these two hyperborean composers suddenly became clear: Nielsen is Brahms. Sibelius is Wagner. - Not in any derivative way, but rather in their handling of the orchestra and their musical materials.

Monday, June 7, 2010

An interview with David Kim

I just got off the phone with David Kim, concert master of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who will be the soloist in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with the Kennett Symphony, Mary Woodmansee conducting. The article isn’t due until June 18, but I've started early because I have another one due at the same time.

Mr. Kim is one of the friendliest, most personable musicians I have interviewed. He said the Tchaikovsky Concerto is his favorite to play, in part because of the many good memories he has of it. One of those memories was his sixth-place finish in the 1986 Tchaikovsky Competition. The concerto is required all the contestants, of course, but each of the finalists has to perform another concerto of his or her own choice, their own choice. Kim’s optional concerto was Stravinsky’s. I said it was a brave choice, since it is so different from the Tchaikovsky, but Kim put it down to sheer stupidity on his part. He put the Stravinsky on his application almost as a joke, he said, because he never expected to make the finals. It’s a hard piece on the orchestra and conductor, and the orchestra at the Tchaikovsky competition gets only one rehearsal with each soloist. It is so tough, in fact, that when Kim defied his own expectations and advanced to the finals, the conductor arranged a second, surreptitious rehearsal in a warehouse outside Moscow to give him — and the orchestra — a fighting chance.

I wasn’t sure if the extra constituted cheating, but since his job in Philadelphia is secure, he wasn't afraid to let the ghost out of the closet. It’s doubtful anyone in the Russian intelligence service will see his confession and overturn his victory.
On the topic of Mary Woodmansee: she also conducts the Hilton Head Orchestra in South Carolina. A couple of years ago she led that group in a performance of Charles Ives’ Three Place in New England — another brave programing decision, as far as I'm concerned. Mary told me later that she actually received hate mail because of it. Hate mail. Because of Charles Ives.