Sunday, April 28, 2013

Look at all the pretty colors

The 100-year anniversary of the premiere of Rite of Spring arrives next month, and Stephen Malinowski has just sent me a link to the "animated score" he has created and posted on Youtube. It's rather like a kaleidoscopic "follow the bouncing ball." It gives you something to look at while all that great music is going on, and it beats the hell out of Fantasia:

Here is an excerpt from the press release that arrived in my email:

The ballet The Rite of Spring with music by Stravinsky was first performed in Paris on May 29, 1913.

In celebration of the centenary of its premiere, music synthesist Jay Bacal and music animator Stephen Malinowski have collaborated to create an animated, graphical score for viewers.

The animation, which you can watch and listen to on YouTube, is a musical score that nonmusicians can understand. It's a welcoming way to appreciate the structure of the work, and heightens your listening by enlisting the visual channel, which allows one to easily follow the different lines of the orchestration.

"The animation lets your eyes lead your ears," Malinowski says. Malinowski, based in the Bay Area, has created music animations for more than 200 pieces of music. He has provided animation for Björk and provided live animation synchronized to performances by symphony orchestra, chamber music groups and soloists.

An urban legend is born

In his hatchet job at the Huffington Post, David Asia says that, during rehearsals for the first performance of the Concerto for Orchestra, Elliott Carter did not notice that a clarinetist played the wrong transposition for uch of the piece, and that Bernstein, the conductor, was unimpressed with him (Carter). Asia thinks it’s a big deal, because Carter, as we know, was all about intervals. One of my correspondents, something of a Carter expert, emailed me yesterday, in part:

I wonder where he heard the Bernstein story from since he (Asia) would not have been at the rehearsal.

He cc'd another of my correspondents (also a Carter aficion), who replied thus:

I wondered about that too. I'm beginning to think that “can't hear the wrong clarinet transposition” story is an urban legend. I heard Richard Wilson tell it about Schoenberg yesterday on a panel. (Another good one is the "learn the piece on the train and play it for the first time at the concert" story, which I've now heard about three different pianists.)

In my initial post, I had planned to say that I saw no gross misrepresentations in Asia's essay, but I am revising that estimate.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Carter Lives

Daniel Asia spits on Elliott Carter's grave this week over at the Huffington Post. In a piece titled "Carter is Dead" (evoking Boulez' famous pronouncement on the music of Schoenberg), he says, essentially, that the late Mr. Carter had no real talent and never did anything right in his whole life.

The essay is not interesting, but its timing is. Not only did Asia wait until Carter was safely out of the way. He waited until Charles Rosen was, too. At that point, he must have known the coast was clear, and he could safely to poke his nose out of his burrow. His little presumptions are exactly the sort of thing that Rosen, the Huxley to Carter’s Darwin, was so adept at skewering. He would have chewed it up before breakfast, then tossed off three thousand words on Mozart’s use of tonality.

I suspect that Mr. Asia produced his essay in a spirit of malicious glee, fully expecting a firestorm of protest and ready to declare that the anger and defensiveness of Carter’s admirers is proof that he had somehow touched a nerve. But there really isn’t much here to get upset about, and even less to argue with. The criticisms, such as they are, consist of simple assertions. One either agrees with them or one does not. I do not. Here are some counter-assertions, for the record: Carter’s piano music does not “pale” beside Copland’s; the Eight Etudes for wind quartet hold up quite nicely, thank you; and the finale of the Cello Sonata is hardly “cute.”

I have never changed anyone's mind about music through argument, and no one has ever changed mine. Sometimes, through repeated listening, I have learned to like something I initially found daunting or dull, but I've never stopped liking a piece of music simply because somebody told me to. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, of course, even Mr. Asia, but my listening habits remain unchanged. It's not a matter of "I'm right and he's wrong." It's more a matter of "I'm cool, and he's a doofus."

What I find heartening in Asia's piece, however, is that he really isn’t saying anything Donal Henahan and Harold C. Schoenberg weren’t saying forty years ago. To a man, the sages from our paper of record didn’t think Carter’s music had a future, either, and yet, here we are, forty years later, having the same discussion. If the future is anything like the past, the controversy will continue, and so will the music.

Now, to clear the air, I offer the Adagio of the 1948 Cello Sonata, one of my favorite movements in all of music:

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Talk with Jerome Rosen

Last week I interviewed violinist and conductor Jerome Rosen and violinist and violist Xiao-Fu Zhou for this article on the Independence Sinfonia's May 5 concert. It was my first talk with Mr. Zhou and my second with Mr. Rosen, and I enjoyed both interviews.

I don't mention this in the article, but it turns out that Mr. Rosen and I go way back, after a fashion. He played with the Cleveland Orchestra back in the 1960s, under George Szell, and his violin enhances the textures in some of my favorite recordings, including the Bruckner Third (my favorite single Bruckner recording), the two Brahms Piano Concertos, and highlights from the Ring. I also used to own Szell's recording of the Beethoven symphonies, but I gave it to my mother-in-law years ago when I switched over to CDs.

Rosen also told me he is the pianist in the Boston Symphony's recording of the Ives Fourth Symphony. The part is fiendishly difficult, he said, and it took him four weeks to learn. I listened to my cassette transfer of the LP today on the way to work. The Ozawa-BSO recording has been overshadowed by others in my estimation, and I hadn't listened to it for years, but I was surprised by just how exciting it is.

Inevitably, the question arose: How does a musician with such a rich career behind him end up conducting an amateur orchestra in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania? The answer, of course, is love. Mr. Rosen's first serious girlfriend plays with the Sinfonia. He lost touch over the years, he told me, and, like many couples who lost touch in the years prior to the 21st century, they reconnected via the Internet. (Hi, Lynn.) They have not reunited in a romantic sense — her "guy," as he put it, is the Sinfonia's first clarinetist — but the orchestra needed a conductor, and when she asked, he couldn't refuse.

"The rest is history," he said.

I have to work May 5, unfortunately, but I’ve been invited to the May 3 dress rehearsal.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Tortured lede department

Look, I get it. I edit a daily newspaper and I churn out a lot of music previews, and I know what a challenge the first paragraph of a story can be. You want to be vivid, you want to be creative, and you want to use the active voice (or, depending on your journalism professor, you have to use the active voice. Even so, I can't quite forgive comparing Charles Ives to Harry Potter, as Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim does in her review of the New York Philharmonic's performance of the Fourth Symphony:

There were moments during Wednesday evening’s New York Philharmonic performance of Charles Ives’s “Symphony No. 4” at Avery Fisher Hall when I felt like a spectator at a Quidditch match. It’s true that neither the Philharmonic players nor their conductor, Alan Gilbert, were riding on broomsticks. But with 14 airborne players, four balls, six goals, and a winged target, Quidditch, the sport central to the Harry Potter novels, is a lot like Ives’s music. Things come hurtling at you from unexpected places. Players are chasing a zigzagging target. The laws of physics don’t seem to apply.

Uh, OK. When critics resort to this kind of extended conceit, it's a signal to me they don't really know what they're talking about, and they bury their ignorance in verbiage. My impression was confirmed by the rest of the review, which offers only sketchy descriptions of one or two outstanding moments and doesn't even attempt to assess either the music or the performance. OK, so Mr. Gilbert seemed relaxed under daunting circumstances. I'm relieved for him.

Vivien Schweitzer does a somewhat better job in her preview of the performance, though at times she sounds as though she's regurgitating program notes.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Elliott Carter tribute

Just received from the indispensable John Link:


Who else is going?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Old York Road Symphony premieres overtures by Peter Hilliard

I spoke with conductor Yoon Jae Lee and composer Peter Hilliard for this article, which discusses an upcoming performance by the Old York Road Symphony. In addition to Hilliard's "Old York Road Overture," the program will include music by Paganini and Saint-Saëns, with Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Jason DePue as soloist, and Beethoven's freaking Fifth Symphony, which I have not heard live in years. Once again, I have to work that night (the 27th) and will miss the concert.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

More from Jonathan

Genius is an overused term. Still ...

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Tenth Muse

When I was a little boy, I wanted more than anything in the world to be funny. It took years to realize I'm not, but before I finally accepted the truth (after the usual five stages of grief), my heroes were the great comedians. Groucho was one. The other was Jonathan Winters, who died Thursday at age 87.

I watched Jonathan's CBS television show religiously, as well as his syndicated show, neither of which lasted very long. He also enlivened the last, dreary season of Mork and Mindy. His compilation album from Verve, Movies Are Better Than Ever, spun endlessly on the turntable in the family dining when I was in my early teens, and it may is still in my vinyl collection. Any guest appearance on any TV show was, for me, an event akin to a presidential election.

Winters had an extraterrestrial sensibility that came across best in small, sudden bursts. He never seemed at home in series television, and he was wasted in the movies. He appeared in no great pictures, and he never gave a memorable screen performance. Pauline Kael once said of him that he "never found his forms." That may be true, and in retrospect, I have come to believe that even the greatest comedians are funny only about half the time. With Jonathan, one had to wait for inspiration to strike, but when it did, he seemed to tap into a metaphysical realm normally reserved for bodhisattvas.

I offer this clip as a sample of the weirdness:

Monday, April 8, 2013

Belated Bartok Birthday

I missed Bartok's birthday on March 25. (Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for her post.) So here, in compensation, is the second movement of his First Piano Concerto, which contains one of my favorite moments in the composer's entire output.

Name change?

Thinking of changing the name of this blog to Topless Jihad — you know, out of solidarity. But then what would happen to the music content? The irony of this protest, as others more perceptive than I have pointed out, is that Facebook has censored the photo.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Carl Nielsen's "My Childhood"

Carl Nielsen about age 14
I recently finished rereading Carl Nielsen’s brief memoirr, My Childhood, which, as the title states, deals entirely with the composer’s formative years. It ends with the author, at age 19, departing for Copenhagen and his studies with Niels Gade. It’s a pocket-sized paperback, only 152 pages, but it cost me almost twenty dollars back in the eighties. It was printed in Denmark, and I suspect it is available only at Nielsen tourist-site gift shops. How it turned up at the Border’s bookstore in White Flint Mall is anyone’s guess.

The book is available at Amazon for about the same price I paid for it, and if you have any interest at all in music, or memoirs, or life in a time and place different from your own (one of the major reasns I read at all), I urge you to order yourself a copy. I read it for the first time when I first bought it, and I had forgotten how full of eccentric characters it is. Some of them would be not be out of place in a story by Chekhov. There is Outzen, a pianist who lives on the charity of a innkeeper and who introduces Carl to the Well-Tempered Clavier. Then there is Jens Søby, a member of the army regiment that Nielsen joined as a bugler at age fourteen. Søby is a man of dubious reputation, destined, he says, to lead a dissolute life, and Nielsen’s mother warns her son not to fall under his influence. But he knows what he is, and he takes pains to shield Carl from the life he has chosen. He also believes in Carl’s talent and Carl’s future. Ultimately, Nielsen writes, he dies in America — “in great misery.”

I can’t do do justice to the wealth of incident or personalities in this modest little volume. Music is central to the story, of course, but it always seems to be in the background, discovered almost incidentally. One day, little Carl is trying to pick out tunes on a violin. Another, he is playing at wedding feasts in his father’s band. Then is he is submitting a string quartet to Gade, hoping to be accepted as a student, and in the next-to-last paragraph, he is “off!”, as he says, setting out on the career some of us love him for.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Carter Volume 9 - not an April Fools' joke

Was poking around Amazon a moment ago and came across the announcement that Vol. 9 of Bridge Records' Elliott Carter Edition will be issued May 1. I have pre-ordered my copy. Here is the description from the Amazon website:

This retrospective disc presents music composed by the late Elliott Carter over a period of more than 70 years. Unquestionably, the major work presented here is the late Charles Rosen's performance of Carter's Piano Concerto. Rosen, a great advocate of Carter's music, had recorded most of Carter's solo piano music over the course of his long career, though he never made a studio recording of Carter's brilliant concerto. The release of this radio recording, featuring the superb Basel Sinfonietta, conducted by Joel Smirnoff, was one of Rosen's last wishes. Volume 9 of Bridge's ongoing Carter series opens with vocal works of Carter's from the 30s and 40s, and proceeds to Steven Beck's electrifying accounts of late solo piano music, and the Slowind Quintet's performance of Carter's quintet, Nine by Five, completed during the composer's 101st year.

For me, the real excitement her involvesthe Piano Concerto (this will be the fifth commercial recording of the piece, but you can never have too many) and the first recording of Nine by Five. I attended the premiere of the piece in February 2010. and I remember it as a refreshing return to the kick-butt Carter of the 1970s.

Here is the complete playlist from Bridge:

Tell Me Where is Fancy Bred (1938) Rosalind Rees, soprano; David Starobin, guitar
Voyage (1943, orch. 1979) & Warble for Lilac Time (1943, orch. 1979) Tony Arnold, soprano; Colorado College Festival Orchestra, Scott Yoo, conductor
Piano Concerto (1964-65), Charles Rosen, piano; Basel Sinfonietta Joel Smirnoff, conductor
Two Thoughts about the Piano (2007) & Tri-Tribute (2007-8), Steven Beck, piano
Nine by Five (2009), Slowind Wind Quintet I can't wait. Thanks to David and Becky Starobin, as always, for their tireless efforts. This will be every bit as much fun as a concert by the Phillyorch would have been.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Philadelphia Orchestra announces an all-Carter program

The Philadelphia Orchestra announced today it has scheduled a special, non-subscription concert devoted entirely to the music of Elliott Carter. The concert will take place Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 5, the first anniversary of Mr. Carter's death. The program is not final, but advance word is that it will include A Symphony of Three Orchestras, which the orchestra last performed in 1984, and the Flute Concerto, with principal flutist Jeffrey Khaner as soloist.

"We are very excited the board has approved this project," Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the orchestra's music director, said in a press release. "This will be a unique tribute to one of America's great creative minds. Philadelphia has been a mecca for new music since the days of Maestro Stokowski, and it has always taken Mr. Carter to its heart.

"We are expecting a sell-out crowd, and we are confident at least half a dozen people will stay for the whole thing."