Under the headline "An engineering school without a music dept is about to stage [avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's 1958 work] Gruppen", Norman Lebrecht of Slipped Disc posts a two-sentence, two-word comment:
In response to which we say, Why impossible? But of course we believe. It sounds perfectly logical and spot-on apposite to us.
We've heard Riccardo Muti called the greatest Verdi conductor on the planet today and from the little experience we've had of his Verdi we're perfectly willing to accept the assessment even though we're far from being a Muti (or Verdi) fan. The Requiem, however, is one of our favorite dramatic works, never mind its occasional crudities and Italianate over-the-top-nesses, so we were really pumped for this live performance. It was, of course, a fine performance generally as given the musical forces involved, most especially the CSO and the CSO Chorus, it could hardly help but be, but somehow the performance never quite left the ground but remained entirely earthbound, almost even sedate, from beginning to end the only exception being the little thing handling the bass drum. We swear the girl looked as if she were big enough to handle only a triangle or tambourine successfully but her handling of the bass drum's critically important, deathly resonant "dead beats" in the "Dies Irae" was absolutely perfect. It was, for us, the only thing in the performance of this work tonight that truly distinguished itself.
Strange, we know, but true nevertheless.
(A video of the performance can be viewed on the CSO's YouTube channel here.)
The year-long lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra continues. The dispute between the Minnesota Orchestral Association (i.e., the orchestra's management and board) and the Minnesota Orchestra (i.e., the musicians) continues. Meanwhile, the orchestra has lost its brilliant Music Director Osmo Vänskä who has resigned his position, the only option left him at this point. Finally, a voice of sanity midst the lunacy.
The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are forgetting several important things: 1) They make the music. 2) They create the experience. 3) What matters to the people is, simply put, the musical experience. This dispute has hit the culture-rich community of the Twin Cities hard because the art form itself has been lost in the blame game. The musicians must rise above this and remember that the power to make history is in their hands, literally and figuratively.
Here’s how the musicians make history:
Follow Maestro Vänskä’s lead and resign from the Minnesota Orchestral Association. Immediately announce the creation of the Minnesota Symphony, a self-governing orchestra modeled on the Vienna Philharmonic. Find a charitable organization to give temporary use of its tax status (while you establish a new nonprofit) so you can receive donations from foundations and corporations and from your audience. Govern yourselves, and assign responsibilities to yourselves. Make history by setting an example for other orchestras to follow, and end the labor-management paradigm that leads to these kinds of disputes.
Do we detect an echo in this? Why, yes; yes we do. Indeed we do.
A few days ago we received an eMail from an S&F reader that, in sentiment, echoed a number of eMails we've received over the years which eMail we reproduce below with the writer's permission but which writer prefers to remain anonymous and so the writer's name has been redacted. We reproduce this eMail because, as we indicated, it's representative of a number of others and we think it deserves public answer.
I've been reading Sounds and [sic] Fury for several years now, mostly because I like the way you write, but I think that's going to stop now as I still don't understand your blog's purpose. It's short on information but long, very long, on criticism, especially against the work of print classical music critics, yet you never post reviews of your own. In fact you've admitted to not attending live performances of concerts or operas for decades now, and even seem to brandish that as some kind of mark of distinction. Even when you write about televised opera performances or DVD or YouTube recordings of performances you still don't do actual reviews but comment in a general way about some aspect or other of the productions, mostly about the stagings which you almost always hate. It's getting to be more than a little annoying and I don't need to come here to be annoyed. I commend you for your writing skill, but other than that, reading Sounds and [sic] Fury is getting to be a waste of my time.
Honest, straightforward, and right to the point, and we mean to answer in kind.
First off, and perhaps most important of all, S&F is NOT written to be informative or for the delectation of others. It is written for ourself alone to provide us "a more satisfying alternative to arguing with and raging at insensate objects such as books, newspapers, magazines, CDs, [DVDs,] computer displays, and TV sets in respect of their wrongheaded, in-error, or otherwise imbecile content," as we once (but apparently not often enough) put the matter some years ago. It's always gratifying to learn that others find S&F worthwhile reading but that's nothing more than a mere side benefit for us. If we wrote S&F to be informative and for the delectation of others we would, of course, insist on being paid meaningful amounts of hard cash for our efforts as writing the blog gratis in that case would make us little better than Dr. Johnson's blockhead. And in that, you have as well your answer as to why we don't do actual reviews on S&F (although we've made rare exceptions to that rule in the past). Doing a proper review is bloody hard work and unrewarding in itself (not to even mention the trouble and expense of attending a live event when required) and none but a slave works for no pay justly commensurate with the time, talent, and expense involved.
Lastly, we don't at all mean to "brandish ... as some kind of mark of distinction" our nonattendance in the last couple decades or so of live concert and opera performances. It's merely a fact of life for us due to constraints financial and logistical. The only exception to that is the case of performances of known Eurotrash stagings of canonical operas which performances we would never attend were we a multimillionaire and the opera house immediately next door our abode both as a matter of principle and because one's attendance at such performances serves only to fatten the wallets of and encourage the perpetrators.
We trust you will find the above response to your correspondence as honest, straightforward and to the point as that which occasioned it, and we thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.
In a brilliant essay titled "Against Aesthetics", the poet, literary critic, and essayist William Logan (whose writings and even whose name were previously unknown to us) writes what ought to be a fundamental instruction manual for critics of all the arts. He writes primarily as a critic of poetry but, mutatis mutandis, everything he says is equally valid for critics of classical music and opera as well. Writes Mr. Logan:
A stranger asks me to write an Aesthetic Statement. He demands my notion of the ideal poem, so he’ll know the secret of my love of some poems and my distaste for others. I feel his pain. Perhaps he wants to prosecute me should I praise a poet who deviates from my Platonic ideal. An aesthetic statement is of little use to a critic unless he’s a lover of manifestos, a maker of quarrels, or a host who treats his guests like Procrustes. Aesthetics is a rational profession for the philosopher, but for the working critic it’s a mug’s game. To write about your aesthetics is no better than revealing your secrets if you’re a magician, or returning a mark’s stolen wallet if you’re a pickpocket.
This is must-read stuff — for MSM professionals as well as for us mere blogger amateurs.
A member of a venerable opera forum put forward what he considers to be a conundrum posed by the equally venerable MSM classical music critic Martin Bernheimer. To make our response to what this member wrote part of the S&F record, we post below without further comment what this member wrote and our response to same.
A few years ago [MSM music critic] Martin [Bernheimer] noted ... that it has been 30(?) years since an opera figure had appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. Why has opera lost its status as news? [...] My first thought was that American managers had not taken the course of their European colleagues and adopted a more adventurous course for staging along with expanding the repertory. By being boring, the charitable contributions, critical to America's artistic lifeblood, were shrinking. A financial slump was clearly happening with symphony orchestras and major opera companies cutting back.
But, in a larger sense, it doesn't seem entirely to be related to donors. With the loss of so many local music critics around the US and so little media covering classical music is America's interest in "cultural" in the larger sense in a gradual decline? [...] Is there a solution for the Bernheimer Conundrum?
To which we responded:
America's interest in matters "cultural" (meaning, of course, "high cultural" as opposed to "pop cultural") in "gradual decline"(!)? Precipitous decline, you mean: the snowballing toxic fallout from the equally toxic and imbecile equalitarian ideology of the Sixties. The postmodern answer to that circumstance has been an ever increasing surrender by the MSM "smart set" to those imbecile equalitarian notions and the resulting championing of the even more imbecile notion that high culture ought to embrace popular culture and erase the distinctions between it and high culture by making pop culture an integral part of high culture thereby making high culture (and you should forgive the contemptible locution) "more relevant".
Is there a "solution" to this noxious trend? Only one I can think of that has any realistic chance of actually being effective: simply wait until the current postmodern lunacy dies of its own imbecility. The wait may be a relatively long one but, thanks to our present digital age, not nearly as long as such waits used to be.
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 3:44 PM Eastern on 5 Sep. See below.]
[NOTE: This entry has been edited as of 7:18 AM Eastern on 5 Sep to restore an unintentionally omitted historical detail.]
The almost 50-year-old so-called "Historically Informed Performance" (HIP) movement which began about the mid-1970s or so (it was previously — mid-1960s or so — first called the "Early Music" movement which title was then changed by its acolytes to the shamelessly self-serving "Authentic Performance" movement, a title so ruthlessly — and justifiably — savaged that, as a self-defensive tactic, the title was again changed in the mid-1970s to "Historically Informed Performance") has no doubt taught us much that is valuable and its influence has been widely and deeply felt across the world of classical music from solo instrument performance right up to and including the performance of full-scale staged opera. As with all such movements, however, there's always the danger of the doctrinaire and one must constantly be on guard against it, both as a performer and listener.
What do we mean by that last? Well, let us not bandy words about but get right down to it.
Here are two performances of the great Chaconne from Bach's Violin Partita No. 2 in D-minor (BWV 1004); perhaps the most profound single movement of music ever written for solo violin. The two performances are each by first-rate fiddlers technically but — Oh my! — what a huge difference between the two! One performance is in large measure doctrinaire HIP; the other, true only to the music itself.
Do NOT WATCH the following videos. LISTEN to the audio only and you decide which is which.
Update (3:44 PM Eastern on 5 Sep): Um...we're not too embarrassed. It seems we posted the wrong video (the first of the two) when this entry first went public. It was a video intended for a future entry. That's now been corrected above. Our apologies.
Amust-read article for the magazine New Republic by Washington Post culture critic Philip Kennicott on America's orchestras in crisis and how they got to be that way. Eye-opening commentary and for us a wakeup call that we really need to get out more. We had no clue, for instance, that the imbecile ideas at the root of and perpetuating the problem had actually been put into practice.
A week or so ago, a friend of ours, an instrumentalist and longtime performer as a member of several high-profile symphony and opera orchestras, asked us via eMail: "So any thoughts about the insanity of the Minnesota Orchestra over this pa[s]t year of moral turpitude from the Board there?", to which we responded:
None, for the simple reason that I know next to nothing about the way professional orchestras are run on the management side. For starters, I've never understood why a symphony orchestra needs a management and board not hired and controlled entirely by the musicians themselves, not the other way round. The musicians ARE the orchestra and they should be in total control of its destiny.
Are we being hopelessly naïve and idealistic here? No doubt. But that doesn't make us wrong, does it.
Since the 2004 inception of Sounds & Fury we've argued vigorously against the perniciously perverse notion — a notion preached unrelentingly by its High Priest Greg Sandow — that in order to gain new audiences for classical music, classical music concerts must alter both their content and their presentation to be more in line and more consonant with our present-day culture our argument against expressed most fully in one of S&F's 2004 inaugural entries titled "An Audience For Classical Music" and a follow-up 2008 S&F entry titled "New Audience For Classical Music Redux".
In terms of influence, there was (and remains) a problem with our two entries: they were written by a mere blogger; moreover, a mere blogger with no professional credentials and one who, by choice, has been off The Street, so to speak, for the past several decades and so is open to the charge of being woefully out of touch with present-day culture.
Not so Bill Eddins, Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, who took it upon himself to rebut a recent blog entry by the above named High Priest, Maestro Eddins's rebuttal amusingly titled "I Don’t Know Nuthin’ ‘Bout Listenin’ To Mozart, Ms. Scarlett!" which rebuttal echoes, in part, the sense of what we had to say in our two above linked S&F entries.
We think Maestro Eddins's article well worth your time reading.
"With the last chords of the Twilight of the Gods, I had a feeling of liberation from captivity. It may be that The Nibelungs' Ring [sic] is a very great work, but there never has been anything more tedious and more dragged-out than this rigmarole. The agglomeration of the most intricate and contrived harmonies, colorlessness of all that is sung on the stage, interminably long dialogues — all this fatigues the nerves to the utmost degree. So, what is the aim of Wagner's reform? In the past, music was supposed to delight people, and now we are tormented and exhausted by it."
—From a letter of Tchaikovsky's from Vienna, to his brother, Modest, 20 August 1876
"I do not believe that a single composition of Wagner will survive him."
—From a letter by noted German music theorist, teacher and composer Moritz Hauptmann, 3 February 1849
Alex Ross, classical music critic of The New Yorker and author of the best-selling book The Rest is Noise, has written a fascinating piece for The New Yorker's Culture Desk that, as "a thought-experiment", "follow[s] ghost tracks of Wagner in New York, a city that he never saw and probably would have hated."
During his tempestuous life, Wagner lived in many cities across the Continent, leaving an indelible imprint on all of them. In Leipzig, Dresden, Paris, Zurich, Lucerne, Vienna, Munich, and Venice, among other places, you can go on Wagner walking tours, seeing the houses where he lived, the halls where he conducted, and the meeting-places where he held forth. In recent weeks, as a kind of thought-experiment, I have been following ghost tracks of Wagner in New York, a city that he never saw and probably would have hated. A case of authorial obsession is to blame for this peculiar undertaking: I am working on a book called Wagnerism: Art in the Shadow of Music, an account of Wagner’s cultural impact. To be candid, the itinerary is often pretty dull, but it picks up interest toward the end, as traces emerge of hidden links between the Rockefellers and the Holy Grail.
In this week's issue of The New Yorker, in a piece titled "Shock Tactics", New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross writes:
[T]he injection of a mild strain of Regietheater [in opera stagings in American opera houses] ... is a healthy development because it forces American audiences to see opera as something other than a nostalgia trip. [...] [I]t's because we endlessly repeat the same old pieces that we feel the need to reinvent them in ever more drastic fashion.
Yes, well, certainly an interesting view of the matter. Consider, however, that by that same sort of reasoning it might be "a healthy development" if American symphony orchestras did away with repeating year after year performances of, say, those same old Beethoven symphonies the way Beethoven wrote them and instead reinvent them just a bit by injecting some orchestration or other that never occurred to Herr Beethoven such as, say, kazoos in place of bassoons; or, say, slide whistles in place of flutes; or, say, musical saws in place of violas. After all, if that were done, American audiences would surely be forced to see those symphonies as something other than nostalgia trips.
Yes indeed. They most assuredly would.
Picture this: A packed-house recital hall and on its stage nothing but a 9 ft. concert grand with lid completely closed as is the piano's keyboard lid, a piano bench set in front of the keyboard. On walks the pianist dressed in full white-tie concert-dress tux, tails and all. He bows to the audience who applaud him warmly. He then turns, folds back the front portion of the piano lid, lifts the music stand into upright position, then raises the full piano lid into concert position. He then opens the piano bench and extracts a volume of sheet music which he places with great care on the upright music stand. He then closes the piano bench, seats himself in front of the keyboard and slowly opens the keyboard lid exposing the full keyboard. He then leans forward, opens the sheet music volume and turns to the first page after which he sits back for the next half-minute or so with hands in lap and plays not so much as a single note. He then again leans forward and turns to the next page in the sheet music volume after which he again sits back for the next half-minute or so with hands in lap and plays not so much as a single note. He repeats this same procedure, say, about six more times for a total time of, say, about 4 1/2 minutes or so. He then once again leans forward, closes the sheet music volume completely, lifts it off the music stand, places it back in the piano bench, stands facing the audience and bows, then turns and walks off the stage into the wings.
Really neat April Fools' Day joke, would it not be?
What's that? It's been done? It's in fact old hat, even famous? And it's not in the least meant as an April Fools' Day joke but is done in dead earnest?
The next time I hear a pop singer sing some pop crap rendition of our national anthem at a national event, I'm taking the ol' Uzi out of storage, much-needed new gun control law enforcement notwithstanding, and loading it with just enough ammo to "correct" her (or him).
Oh to hear some measure of nobility and dignity restored to the performance of that time-honored song of praise no matter how achieved.
(This entry provoked by certain of today's Inauguration ceremonies.)
[Schoenberg's] String Quartet No. 2, written in 1908 in the middle of an extreme marital and psychological crisis, starts with a richly harmonised minor key melody which would not have frightened Brahms. But by the end of the piece, a soprano has — highly unconventionally — joined the quartet and she sings "I feel the air of other planets", to music which is fractured, atomised, ethereal and floating utterly free from the gravitational pull of 600 years of harmonic tradition.
For the past five years, the New York Times Magazine has offered an end-of-year feature called "The Music They Made" — an audio collage of musicians who died that year. [...] [W]ith the exception of David Mason, the trumpeter who played on "Penny Lane," no Western classical musician has appeared in these compilations. The omission is particularly maddening this year, since we lost two gigantic figures: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elliott Carter. Almost every other genre has been represented at one time or another....
We might point out to Mr. Ross that Western classical musicians have no place in such a compilation and would, in fact, be made to appear ridiculous by their inclusion. They require a completely separate compilation of their own and it's shameful, especially considering the publication, that no such compilation exists there. However, Mr. Ross's complaint that an annual compilation by the same publication called "The Lives They Lived" is also absent any Western classical musicians is a thoroughly justified one and the New York Times Magazine should feel doubly shamed by the omission.