Riccardo Muti, whose aesthetic preferences are sometimes surprising, chose to inaugurate [the orchestra's] vaunted Manhattan visit with the meretricious claptrap of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. So much for intellectual and/or emotional challenge.On reading this we simultaneously smiled and winced (a neat trick, that), for while we could not help but agree with Mr. Bernheimer's bitingly laconic assessment of the work, we nevertheless harbor "an ongoing, undiminished, and fairly mindless fascination with it," as we've previously remarked here on S&F. As we went on to say:
Its unrelenting ostinati; its primitive, propulsive rhythmic drive; its unsubtle tonic-dominant harmony sans any trace of chromatic coloring — in short, its very "dumbness" — is what seems to attract. It's a sort of invigorating mind-rester: primally engaging, and no thought required. And it's weird. Very weird. The text, I mean, its weirdness sharpened by being written and of course sung mostly in Latin.But as Mr. Bernheimer neatly put it concerning other music on the CSO's program for the following night's concert, "one didn’t have to love the music on this occasion to admire the music-making," so it is with a particularly brilliant reading of Carmina recorded and released on vinyl LP in 1958 by Capitol Records featuring (of all groups!) the Houston Choral, Houston Youth Symphony Boys' Choir, and Houston Symphony Orchestra with the great and inimitable Leopold Stokowski on the podium which recording was subsequently remastered and transferred to CD by EMI. (It's paired on this recording with a reading of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite about which reading the less said the better.) As we wrote about this recorded performance of Carmina:
Lord knows I'm no Stoki fan generally which in my day was enough to get one run out of Philadelphia on a rail were one reckless enough to admit to it in public. But of all the recorded readings of this work of my experience Stoki is the only one to get everything right sans any minuses. He draws from the at that time less than world-class Houston forces performances that the best of the era would have been proud to have produced, and draws from the soloists — Virginia Babikian, Clyde Hager, and Guy Gardner — performances to match. A truly sterling reading. [Our full and more detailed commentary on Carmina and this recorded performance can be read here.]This EMI remastering is a tough-to-impossible CD to find new, but one well worth the search.
By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these [professional] critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically — which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period. [...] And so the fact is that (to invoke the popular saying) everyone is not a critic. This, in the end, may be the crux of the problem, and may help explain the unusual degree of violence in the reaction to the stridently negative reviews that appeared in the Times Book Review earlier this summer, triggering the heated debate about critics. In an essay about phony memoirs that I wrote a few years ago, I argued that great anger expressed against authors and publishers when traditionally published memoirs turn out to be phony was a kind of cultural displacement: what has made us all anxious about truth and accuracy in personal narrative is not so much the published memoirs that turn out to be false or exaggerated, which has often been the case, historically, but rather the unprecedented explosion of personal writing (and inaccuracy and falsehood) online, in Web sites and blogs and anonymous commentary—forums where there are no editors and fact-checkers and publishers to point an accusing finger at. Similarly, I wonder whether the recent storm of discussion about criticism, the flurry of anxiety and debate about the proper place of positive and negative reviewing in the literary world, isn’t a by-product of the fact that criticism, in a way unimaginable even twenty years ago, has been taken out of the hands of the people who should be practicing it: true critics, people who, on the whole, know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger, and to what uses it is properly put. When, after hearing about them, I first read the reviews of Peck’s and Ohlin’s works, I had to laugh. Even the worst of the disparagements wielded by the reviewers in question paled in comparison to the groundless vituperation and ad hominem abuse you regularly encounter in Amazon.com reviews or the “comments” sections of literary publications. Yes, we’re all a bit sensitive to negative reviewing these days; but if you’re going to sit in judgment on anyone, it shouldn’t be the critics.RTWT here.
I can distinguish music that is well-made and music that isn't. Yet, what distinguishes well-made music and a masterpiece, that I cannot tell. I won't say that [an objective criterion to distinguish the two] doesn't exist, but I don't know what it is. It all comes down to faith. As I accept God, I accept beauty, I accept emotion. I also accept masterpieces. There are conditions without which masterpieces cannot be achieved, but what defines a masterpiece cannot be pinned down.Just so. (The above quote was transcribed from a lovely film on Mademoiselle Boulanger by Bruno Monsaingeon which can be viewed here.)
My wonderful former teacher, Geoffrey Hartman, said that most reading was vague and lazy, like girl watching. Feminists gave him the bastinado for that, but he was right. Something similar is true about listening to music. Usually it's about getting your emotions packaged for you, quieting the static inside, fabricating an exciting identity ... to counteract one's commitment to a life of secure banality. Most music listening, like most reading, is passive. It's about girl watching rather than woman wooing, which is a tougher game. Schopenhauer says that most reading is letting other people think your thoughts for you. I'd add that most music listening is about letting other people feel your feelings for you.While I take Dr. Edmundson's point, I think he's rather missed the mark. Music listening can go far deeper than that. A personal experience: I've been on serious dope for a period of time but once in my life: during a one-year recovery from a particularly nasty and should-have-been-fatal motorcycle accident in the early '70s. That experience with dope was an eye-opening and consciousness-raising one which to this day remains unforgettable. The dope was administered intravenously by medical personnel for the first month or so and self-administered orally thereafter for a period of another few months. That first warm rush and the immediately ensuing feeling of transcendent wellbeing after each dose simply has no equal in ordinary life — at least not in my ordinary life. Needless to say, I became hooked on that feeling and slipped into the habit of checking my watch repeatedly to see whether it was permissible to administer another dose without exceeding the safe limit. One day I caught myself actually doing that and it scared me straight. On the spot and cold turkey I ceased taking the stuff and depended thereafter on aspirin alone for whatever pain relief it could offer. While it's not quite the same thing, I today, in the closing years of my life (I've passed the biblically allotted three-score-and-ten and so figure I'm now living on borrowed time), experience much that same feeling of transcendent wellbeing and when the music's over the need for "another dose" every time I listen to a Glenn Gould performance of a Bach keyboard work; the Partitas, the Goldberg, and Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier most especially. Once the CD gets going in the player with the repeat set to ALL, it requires a substantial effort of will on my part to stop it going so that I can get on with other things no matter how long it's been going which at times could be an entire day without break. I've of course attempted many times to analyze and explain this phenomenon to myself, a phenomenon I experience with no other music and performer, and of course always come up with an answer. But in the end, that answer, no matter how well-thought-out and detailed, always turns out to be woefully inadequate and no explanation at all. I know the phenomenon has something to do with Gould's unique and uncanny ability to delineate each voice in the music's dense polyphonic texture with perfect clarity as if he had a separate hand devoted to each yet maintain at all times a perfect horizontal (melodic) and vertical (harmonic) contrapuntal coherence in the gestalt and in so doing seems to be inhabiting and giving voice to the very mind of Bach himself which, in turn, seems, in this one respect, the very mind of God. No other so-called "absolute" music and no other keyboardist of my experience comes even close to being able to accomplish that in my case. But, by itself, that's no real explanation either. Am I merely "getting [my] emotions packaged for [me], quieting the static inside [me], fabricating an exciting identity [for myself] ... to counteract [my] commitment to a life of secure banality" by "letting other people feel [my] feelings for [me]" as Dr. Edmundson suggests? I seriously doubt it. But, then, there's always the possibility, no matter how disquieting, that I might be doing just that. If so, I'm content to let it be so — that is, as long as I can always get another dose.
All the [singers's] performances were hampered, indeed sabotaged, by the conducting. Placido Domingo, appearing for the first time since stepping down as general director, is a wonderful singer. But rather than supporting the singers, his conducting either drowned them out or tripped them up. He got warm applause, but I’m not sure his presence sells enough tickets to make up for spoiling the evening. Surely there are other ways to include him in WNO’s future.Yikes! "Sabotaged"(!)? We doubt it and doubt as well that Ms. Midgette meant to even so much as imply that Mr. Domingo actually sabotaged anything, but rather meant to say that his substandard conducting undercut (as in diminished or weakened) the singers's performances.* For his part, Mr. Domingo shot back in a Letter To The Editor:
Midgette’s statement that my conducting actually “sabotaged” WNO’s recent performances of Puccini’s Tosca is offensive and defamatory.... An act of sabotage is a destructive act done on purpose. Her remark suggests not only that I "spoiled" the performances but that I did so intentionally. This is unconscionable.To which Ms. Midgette, missing the point entirely, replied:
I am surprised that Mr. Domingo takes such exception to this review, since, as he himself has told me, an artist knows when he has done well or badly. I can’t believe he feels in his heart that this Tosca represented his finest hour. And I’m sorry that an artist of his stature, faced with evidence that I admire him as a singer but not as a conductor, chooses to dismiss criticism as a personal attack, rather than the response of someone who believes him capable of representing the very best.As we said, oh dear. As to the other items of interest, we have this from artist representative Amanda Ameer of Life's A Pitch on the appearance last night of the great violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter on the Late Show with David Letterman:
Last night, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter performed on David Letterman to celebrate the release of her box set, which Dave called, "the ideal hamster habitat." [...] Why musicians feel the need to play songs-they-think-people-want-to-hear on national television rather than Real Classical Music, I will never understand, but Mutter chose to perform, "It Ain’t Necessarily So" from (THE GERSHWIN’S, h/t Sondheim) Porgy and Bess. It just seems like a wasted opportunity, and the unwashed masses are drawn to virtuosity in any field more than we think.We agree thoroughly with Ms. Ameer as this was our thought precisely, and would add that the performance was positively embarrassing as not only were there problems of intonation(!) here and there but it was also clear that Ms. Mutter has little idiomatic feel for this music and would have done better — lots better — to have chosen even a wow-'em warhorse from the classical music rep with which rep she's so intimately familiar and in which rep she performs so superbly. On a happier note, we just watched our DVR copy of last night's PBS's Great Performances presentation of "Hugh Laurie: Let Them Talk" (yes, THAT Hugh Laurie), a performance by the actor singing and doing admirable service on piano and guitar (while singing and otherwise) backed by some of the city's best jazz musicians in a set of New Orleans blues numbers recorded in New Orleans's historic Latrobe’s building in the French Quarter. How was the performance? In a word, splendiferous, all things considered. If you want to hear the performance for yourself it's available in an album of the same name ("Let Them Talk") an MP3 of which can be downloaded here for a mere $7.99. That is all. As you were.
I had always assumed that Quint had taken him, but it is clear that Quint says he has failed. So why does Miles die? The Governess says something to the effect of "what have we done between the two of us?" Has the conflict been too much for the boy?To which we responded:
I don't blame you for being confused on this point in Britten's opera. As I've previously noted [in this S&F entry], Britten and his librettist stripped the opera of all the ambiguity of the original tale and made the spirits of both Quint and Miss Jessel very solid, real things for the children and the governess and — and this is key — the audience. There's no ambiguity in the opera as there is in the original tale that those spirits might have been delusions on the part of the children, or that the children may even have been innocent of any such presence, or of the governess who might in fact be a pathological neurotic case. The power of Miles's final cry ("Peter Quint — you devil!") and, in fact, the power of the entire tale depends on that ambiguity (who is Miles calling a devil; Quint or the governess?). In the opera, Miles's death seems almost off-the-wall and pointless.