Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Barron's paradox

In response to Anthony Tommasini's list of the ten greatest composers of all time, Michael Zwiebach of San Francisco Classical Voice has posted a list of the ten most underrated composers of all time. I think it's an excellent idea, and I applaud the willingness to present an alternative history, but I sense a paradox at work here: it seems to me that to be excluded from such a list gives anyone greater claim to inclusion. By definition, an unjustly neglected composer who isn't mentioned would be more unjustly neglected than a composer who is.

A corollary to the paradox states that a definitive list of the most obscure x can never be compiled.

That said, my nomination for most underrated composer of the last century would have to be Carl Nielsen, who didn't make Zwiebach's list (and hence is therefore even more deserving). CN is the equal of Sibelius, imho, but he doesn't get played nearly as often, and when he is, the critics are generally no more than respectful, and often not even that. They seem to feel that one Nordic composer should be enough for anyone. Pity: his symphonies are truly extraordinary.

I was happy to see that Lisa Hirsch agrees he should have been included.

Mea Maxima Culpa

A reader wrote to one of the editors at Montgomery Newspapers pointing out that in my Ticket article on the Old York Road Symphony, I misspelled the Leonore Overture as Leonora. I looked back at my original Word document, and yes, indeed, the name is misspelled. I regret the error. I repudiate the error. I abhor the error. And I cannot account for it. If you walked up to me on the street and asked me to spell Leonore, the odds are six in eight I would get it right. Of course, I'll never make the mistake again.

Another editor also pointed out that there appears to be someone else out there as stuffy on these matters as I am.

In any event, the concert, previewed in the article, was enjoyable, even if the orchestra did sound rather distant in the cavernous auditorium at Abington Senior High School. The three young soloists were outstanding, particularly Philip Carter, who got to set fire to his fingerboard in the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Gabriel Gordon called his Albuquerque Youth Symphony one of the best youth orchestras in the country, and the kids lived up to his opinion of them. Their precision was almost military. It was intimidating. The group was also bigger than the Old York Road Symphony. With 84 musicians, it took up more of the stage and put out a bigger, brighter sound. But I really could live without hearing the Barber Adagio again. A great piece, surely, but overplayed, and it isn't sturdy enough to bear up under all the weight that's been placed on it as our unofficial, national music of mourning.

Sunday I was back in Abington, helping out at a cabaret concert and luncheon buffet she organized at Abington Presbyterian Church. I helped carry things in from the car (my back and legs still hurt) and stood behind the food tables directing traffic. Katie Eagleson was the vocalist, and the backup band included the great Al Harrison on trumpet. Katie sang from the great American songbook, as well as a novelty song about ducks and La Vie en Rose, which was a treat. Crowd was mostly older: a gentleman who purchased one of Katie's CDs walked with a cane and told me the songs reminded him of his youth. That made me rather sad: no great music should be limited to single generation.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Elliott Carter's new double concerto

To follow up on a previous post: It appears my lament for the end of Elliott Carter's career was premature. His latest piece, a 10-minute double concerto for piano and percussion titled Conversations, is now listed at the Boosey and Hawkes website. Completion date is given as 2010, and the first performance is scheduled for June 26 of this year. Soloist will be Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Colin Currie. Oliver Knussen will conduct the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

So that's good news: A new piece, from a 102-year-old man. Or maybe he was 101 when he finished it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

He'll put someone's eye out with that stick

I don't care what anyone says. This is what music is for:

More Carter in the pipeline

Decca Records announced yesterday it has signed the young cellist Alisa Weilerstein to a recording contract. Her first release will consist of a warhorse (Elgar's Cello Concerto) designed to mover product, coupled with a contemporary work (Elliott Carter's concerto) designed to show off her range. Not a bad way to debut, from a marketing standpoint. The orchestra will be conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

Personally, I'm looking forward to it. Anyone who knows me knows I operate in a manner opposite from that of most listeners. The producers expect us to buy Weilerstein's CD for the Elgar, then explore the Carter when we're feeling adventurous. But I don't think I've ever heard the Elgar, and a new Carter CD will furnish me with the perfect excuse to acquaint myself with it.

This will make the third commercial recording of Carter's Cello Concerto, an unusually high number for an atonalist orchestral work that is only about 10 years old. (It was completed in 2000.) The usual pattern for contemporary music a premiere recording followed by dead silence. Chamber works and solo pieces have a better chance, of course, since they rely on only few dedicated performers. The record for recordings of a modernist piece must be held by Carter's own Night Fantasies for solo piano, which has been recorded commerically by:

Ursula Opppens (twice)
Paul Jacobs
Charles Rosen
Winston Choi
Stephen Drury
Aleck Karis
Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Florence Millet
Louise Bessette

On the subject of Elliott Carter: I am afraid the run of masterpieces may be coming to an end at last. Mr. Carter is 102, and he seems to have stopped composing. Boosey and Hawkes, Mr. Carter's publisher, lists no pieces completed in 2010 on its website, although a Boosey press release from last October said he was working on a double concerto for piano and percussion. I have not heard that the piece has been completed. I think A Sunbeam's Architecture, on poetry of E.E. Cummings, may have been completed last year as well, although performance has been delayed pending the resolution of copyright problems. This may truly be it: no matter how old Mr. Carter gets, the end of his long creative life may be in sight. It is a sad prospect.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why it's always a violinist

I spoke the other day with Yoon Jae Lee, the music director of the Old York Road Symphony, about the winners of the orchestra's annual youth soloist contest. (Link to the article is at left.) I made the point that winners usually seem to be either violinists or pianists, and to my surprise, he had an explanation ready. The competition is open to any instrumentalist, he said, but wind and brass players take longer to become real virtuosi, because young children lack the physical strength to produce a grownup sound from a trombone or a bassoon. They just don't have the lung power. Even smaller woodwinds like flute and clarinet require more breath and lip control than most children can muster.

This is not something I ever considered, so I can honestly say I learned something last week.

BTW, Old York Road is in Abington, Montgomery County, Pa. Look it up on Google maps.

Friday, March 4, 2011

For the Record

In this morning's New York Times, critic Anthony Tommasini — he of the top ten greatest composers of all time — expatiates on the departure of James Levine from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On the topic of Maestro Levine's championship of modern music, Mr. Tommasini has this to say:

He was criticized in many quarters for his intense devotion to complex modernist composers like Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt. Not that these giants were not deserving of advocacy. But there were so many other composers and styles of contemporary music that Boston audiences were not hearing. Still, patrons and critics were willing to indulge Mr. Levine in his intellectual passions, as long as he would be there to make his case for this music and carry out his plans.

But he was not. In 2008, as part of the orchestra’s celebration of Mr. Carter’s 100th birthday, the Tanglewood Music Center’s annual festival of contemporary music was devoted entirely to Mr. Carter, an extreme programming concept. Mr. Levine was determined to immerse the young fellowship musicians at the center and Tanglewood audiences in Mr. Carter’s compositions. But illness forced him to withdraw from the entire festival and to miss most of the Tanglewood program that summer.

The second paragraph here presents an incomplete picture of what went on at Tanglewood that summer, and I was there. First, I question whether devoting a single week to our greatest living composer on the occasion of his hundredth birthday is in any way "extreme." More to the point, Mr. Tommasini neglects to mention that Oliver Knussen and other skilled and dedicated conductors stepped in for Mr. Levine and brought the festival off without a hitch. The young performers got their immersion without his presence. Mr. Carter was delighted with the performances, and the reviews of Mr. Tommasini's colleague Allan Kozinn were quite positive. Mr. Levine was surely missed, but in some ways, he wasn't. He set the machine in motion, and it ran of itself. The BSO gave only one performance, on the final night of the festival, an all-Carter program conducted by Oliver Knussen and Shi-Yeong Sung — "to superb effect," in Mr. Kozinn's phrase.

And I'd still rather hear Carter and Babbitt than all those other kinds of contemporary music that Mr. Tommasini says Mr. Levine overlooked. A lot of them are godawful.

It's astounding to me that a critic would be so harsh and unfeeling toward a man with such serious health problems. Since when do we blame people for kidney failure? Mr. Levine should be thanked, and we should wish him well. He tried his best given his condition, and if he stayed in denial a little too long, it was the kind of failure that comes only with great ambition and accomplishment. The world hasn't come to an end.