Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why Everybody Hates Modern Classical Music

If there was a golden age for classical music, it certainly wasn't any time during the past fifty years.

In many ways, classical music has lost its way in our current cultural landscape. We've seen the Columbus Symphony close down and the San Antonio Symphony declare bankruptcy (admittedly both have re-emerged, but with truncated seasons and musicians working for lower pay). Thanks to our current economic straits, it's highly plausible that in the next few years we will see a number of other symphony orchestras either close down or significantly reduce their size and scope.

The key to the long-term sustainability of any art form is the quality, dynamism and impact of its new works. Unfortunately, that's where classical music is struggling most of all. Quick, name three classical music composers who published something in the last ten years. Uh, okay, name two? One?

Symphony orchestras all around the world have been subsisting on the crowd favorites like Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Brahms because that's what audiences want to hear. But what happens when an orchestra tries to tackle truly modern works? For a particularly savage article on this very subject, read Joe Queenan's exceptionally well-written article in the Guardian. It hurts to read it, but you have to admit he has a point:

Last winter, I attended a performance of Luciano Berio's seminal 1968 composition Sinfonia. Two days later, the New York Times reported that the New York Philharmonic gave an "electrifying and sumptuously colourful" reading of this "all-embracing and ingenious" masterpiece. Maybe they did. But the day I heard it, I gazed down from the balcony at a sea of old men snoring, a bunch of irate, middle-aged women fanning themselves with their programmes, and scores of high-school students poised to garrote their teachers in reprisal for 35 minutes of non-stop torture.

I can only add, as a person who's been to his share of New York Philharmonic concerts, it is disturbing to see a fair percentage of grown adults sleeping during performances that they paid to attend.

But don't let Queenan's harsh condescension stop you from hearing his fundamental thesis, which has significant merit:

The debate about what is wrong with the world of classical music has been going on for at least a half a century. (Meanwhile, jazz, lacking the immense state funding to which classical music has access, is literally dying.) Specious arguments dominate the conversation. Why has the public accepted abstract art but not abstract music? (Discordant visual art does not cause visceral pain, discordant music does.) Why does the public accept atonal music in films, but not in the concert hall? (Jaws wouldn't work if the shark's attacks were synchronised with Carmen. We expect sound effects in the movies, but we're not going to pay to hear them in the concert hall.)

When your audience reaction ranges from polite applause to visceral pain, you have a problem.

Readers, what do you think is the solution? Should our orchestras just stick to the traditional concert repertory and give the people what they want? Should our orchestras really subject their audiences to pain?

Related Links:
Wall Street Journal arts critic Terry Teachout's rebuttal of Queenan's article
Joe Queenan's letter to the WSJ in response (whatever his views, you have to admit this guy can really turn a phrase. Anyone who writes "No one defending modernism would ever use Vaughan Williams as an example. It's like using Jane Austen to defend pornography" deserves to be read, if only for the sheer fun of it).

Monday, March 16, 2009

Grieg: Lyric Pieces

What is so-called originality, so-called novelty? It isn't the most important thing. The most important thing is truth of feeling.
--Edvard Grieg

Grieg wrote a total of 66 lyric pieces for piano, and our pianist, Emil Gilels, chose the twenty works featured on this disc himself. It's refreshing to hear these beautiful works for solo piano played so lovingly, beautifully and with such perfection. This is the kind of classical music CD you'll listen to joyfully for decades.
Emil Gilels, piano
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Grieg: Lyric Pieces (Lyrische Stücke), performed by Emil Gilels
Deutsche Grammophon/Polydor, 1974
It's a pleasure to hear a CD of passionate music performed by a pianist who actually cares about the recording he was making, and it's a particularly stark contrast from our last CD of piano music grudgingly performed by Glenn Gould.

Before we get to the listener notes, I'd like to make a brief point about two inspiring moments in Grieg's life. The first occurred when Grieg was 15, when the famous Norwegian violinist Ole Bull visited Grieg's family and encouraged Edvard, both in his music and in his love of his native Norway. The meeting had an enormous effect on the young boy. Writing about the meeting years later, Grieg wrote: "I felt something like an electric current pass through me when his hand touched mine."

In his mid-twenties another inspiring meeting impacted Grieg's life. Franz Liszt, who at that time was one of the world's most acclaimed pianists, had discovered Grieg's compositions and encouraged the young composer to visit him in Rome, even helping the young man secure a grant to pay for the trip. The meetings between the two men and the encouragement Liszt gave him propelled Grieg forward.

"Keep steadily on, I tell you, you have the talent and the capacity, but don't let them intimidate you."
--Franz Liszt, to Edvard Grieg

Interestingly, Liszt had a similarly inspiring experience as a boy when he met Beethoven and received similar encouragement in his musical efforts.

What's the message here? It's this: spread encouragement, especially if you are a leader in your field. Your thoughts, words and moral support can carry immense weight with talented young people who may very well be tomorrow's great leaders. You never know who you might influence or how far your influence might propel that person.

If it weren't for these two chance encounters in Grieg's life, we may never have had this amazing music.

The artist is an optimist. Otherwise he would be no artist. He believes and hopes in the triumph of the good and the beautiful. He trusts in his lucky star till his last breath.
--Edvard Grieg

Listener notes for Grieg's Lyric Pieces:
For today's listener notes, I'll simply share a few thoughts on four of my favorite pieces on this CD.

#7 Norwegian Dance (Norwegischer Tanz): Perhaps my favorite work on the entire disc--in a minute and a half, it really shocks the ears with a really fun part for the left hand, and a touch of atonality at just the right times. When you hear this piece, you feel like you've been transported onto a sailing ship in the North Sea.

#8 Notturno: This is a particularly beautiful piece with a wash of colors and moods.

#12 Homeward (Heimwarts): I love the fun, the sense of nostalgia and the energy of this work.

#17 Once upon a Time (Es war einmal): This work paints a picture in the impressionistic style of Chopin or Schumann, and it includes some interesting key changes that keep you just a bit off-balance. Also, there's a bit of a political backdrop to this piece, as it supposedly refers to a one-time political union between Sweden and Norway, combining folk music from both countries.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier: Glenn Gould

Today we listen to possibly the most mediocre CD in my entire classical music collection, Glenn Gould's recording of Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.
Glenn Gould, piano
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
The Glenn Gould Edition - Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
The Glenn Gould Edition - Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II
Sony Classical, 1971/1993
It would take a nearly a century for his ideas to catch on, but aspects of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier would eventually come to revolutionize Western music. With this work, Bach promoted a new way of tuning keyboard instruments, using a twelve-tone chromatic system rather than the "meantone" system that predominated at the time.

Furthermore, this enormous collection of preludes and fugues heavily influenced composers--including giants like Beethoven and Mozart--for hundreds of years to come, as it established some of the key ground rules for harmony and counterpoint.

And the music is hypnotic. Well, at least it should be hypnotic. Only this two-part, four-CD collection has a problem. And the problem is the performer. Glenn Gould may be one of the 20th century's most highly regarded pianists, but he plays this music with open derision. The performance may be mostly mistake-free, but it is prickly, uninspired and ham-handedly phrased.

But by far the worst and most distracting feature of this recording is Gould mumbling, moaning and singing the parts along with himself while he plays. It is so distracting that I couldn't help but laugh out loud during the recording (and believe me, it wasn't a funny, ha-ha kind of laugh). This kind of error should result in the recording engineer's summary expulsion from the industry.

This isn't Mauricio Polini muh-muh-muh-ing along with a Beethoven piano sonata. That, at least, is real music played with honest passion.

But these Bach preludes and fugues need to be played with at least some passion and creativity, or they begin to sound like computer generated music. This is complex music that might be interesting on a compositional or harmonic level, but it sounds emotionally bankrupt if it's played by a performer who's sounds like he just doesn't want to be there.

Played by a performer who sounds like he just doesn't want to be there. Hmm. Kind of like Glenn Gould sounds on this very disc.

One more point about Gould's open derision to this music. In the liner notes to this CD author Michael Stegemann illustrates--with great success, by the way--the "undisguised lack of enthusiasm" Gould had towards doing a recording project of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier. Gould calls the preludes "prosaically prefatory" and he even compares the Well-Tempered Clavier to Muzak!

Here's a quote from the liner notes that you can interpret as you wish. I read it to be profoundly condescending:

"There is a real Muzak-like significance to the nature of the fugue itself... I would like to think that one could dip in and dip out of and experience of music just as easily as you get into an elevator (with a bit of Mantovani for 35 seconds) to get to the 19th floor."
--Glenn Gould

Ouch. This explains why Gould was so reluctant to make these recordings in the first place.

And if you study the dates of the recordings themselves, you'll see how this pianist, who is photographed in various recumbent and/or contemplative poses in this CD collection, took his time and dragged his feet plenty during these recording sessions. Most of the tracks have multiple recording dates, dates that are years apart in some cases. And the entire recording of Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier, about 103 minutes of music, was done over more than four years.

That is some serious finger-dragging, and it also helps explains Gould's limp and uninspired performance.

I'm sorry that I'm running posts on two disappointing classical music CDs in a row! But when you are systematically working through CD collection, you're bound to catch a few losers here and there. After all, it's impossible for all of your discs to be above average.

But if there is one thing you should take away from reading this post, it is this: don't buy this disc. Look for a performance by somebody who actually gives a damn about the music.

Perhaps consider instead Wanda Landowska's extremely well-regarded recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier on harpsichord, available in two volumes.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Respighi: Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals

With today's CD we make a move into the modern era to listen to some of Ottorino Respighi's best known works: Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals.

These three works, the so-called "Roman Trilogy," were all written in the 20th century, but they are all throwback works that sound like they came from the mid-1900s. And this may sound harsh, but all three of them are largely forgettable.
Guisepe Sinopoli and the New York Philharmonic
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
Fontane Di Roma, Pini Di Roma, Feste Romane
Deutsche Grammophon, 1993
One of the common factoids you'll see when reading about Respighi is that he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov during a visit to Russia in 1900-1901, and learned many secrets of orchestration from him. You can also feel the influence of other symphonic "imagists" like Ravel and Debussy in Respighi's music.

You'll never find Respighi sitting among the true gods of classical music, but these particular works (well, at least Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome) are thought of as admirable and among his better compositions.

Listener Notes for Fountains of Rome:
1) Each movement of this work represents one of Rome's fountains, viewed at a different time of day.

2) In the third movement ("La fontana di Trevi al meriggio") you'll hear some serious low brass parts. I've heard the New York Phil perform plenty of times over the years, but I've never heard the tuba and trombones rip it like they do in this movement. What a pleasure.

3) I'm not sure this work sounds particularly original. It feels like Debussy did this kind of music already, years earlier, and more skillfully too. Finally, does this work sound to you like a film score? I mean that pejoratively.

Listener Notes for Pines of Rome:
1) Notice the bright and cheery trumpet parts at the beginning of the first movement. Parts like this make Pines of Rome a popular staple for high school and college concert bands everywhere.

2) The second movement is as melancholy as the first movement is cheery and treacly. And we get to hear yet another good trumpet part, a solo, which is beautifully played by our New York Philharmonic principal trumpet.

3) Listen for the repeated theme at roughly the 3:40 mark in the second movement. Doesn't this theme sound like it should be the musical backdrop for a band of native Americans in a John Ford movie? Like when the Comanche come over the horizon in The Searchers? I'm probably just being unfairly condescending about music that--let's be honest--sounds suspiciously like a film score.

4) Credit where credit is due in the fourth movement: this recording features a professional clarinetist who plays beautifully--and on key--for an entire solo. Philly Orchestra, please take note.

5) Notice the recording of a bird call used in this performance (begins at 6:20 in the third movement "I pini del Gianicolo"). So I guess white guys invented sampling after all.

Listener Notes for Roman Festivals:
1) I don't mean to be overly harsh, but can't you just tell that this piece is going to be melodramatic with a capital "M" right from the very beginning? Even the liner notes accompanying this CD call Roman Festivals "an unashamedly gaudy showpiece."

2) Can you hear Christian martyrs being attacked by lions in the Roman circus in the first movement? If you can't, go back and listen again.

3) Did you notice the mandolin playing in the third movement (L'Ottobrata)? It happens at the 6:57 mark, just after the violin solo ends. I had to cringe just a little bit, simply because this is all the evidence that you need that Respighi is trying too hard with this composition.

4) Speaking of melodramatic, how about the entire fourth movement of Roman Festivals, and worse still, the nearly two minute-long finale? I considered this work to be the least noteworthy recording on a completely forgettable classical music CD. This is not one of my prized discs.